Bill McKibben on Where We Are, How We Got Here, and What to Do!

by | November 18, 2022

Today I’m excited to share a conversation we recently had on the CS podcast with the one and only Bill McKibben!

Lots of wisdom in this one. We crafted our questions so you could hear Bill’s 30,000-foot view of the past, present, and future:

  • How did we get into this mess?
  • Where are we now?
  • And, going forward, what do we need to invest our time and energy in to co-create the best possible future?

I’ll share some of the takeaways below but highly recommend you check out the whole thing on Youtube or wherever you get your podcasts!

Key Takeaways

I’ll start this with some quick context. Bill wrote the first book on climate change for the general public in 1989 and began organizing in earnest in the late 2000s. He has been thinking about, writing about, and working on climate longer than most. So he’s had a lot of time to think about what went wrong and a lot of on-the-ground experience learning what it is we need to do to turn this ship around.

Bill’s big realization

We’re not in an argument. We’re in a fight.

“At first…and it really took me too long to figure this out. At first, I thought my job was simply to keep writing more books and articles…I struggled under the impression that we were trying to win the argument and that once we’d won the argument about climate change that our leaders would then do the right thing and on we would go.

And it took me about 10 years to figure out that we had won the argument…We were just losing the fight because the fight wasn’t about data and reason and evidence. The fight was about what fights are normally about, which is money and power. And the fossil fuel industry had so much money and hence so much political power that they were quite able to lose the argument but go on keeping their business model expanding year after year after year.

So at some point, it became clear to me that we were going to have to try and match their power. We weren’t going to do it obviously with money. You know, Exxon just made $20 billion last quarter. We were going to have to do it with the only other kind of currency that mattered: bodies. Building movements. So that’s what we set out to do.”

How did we get here? What went wrong?

In his latest book, Bill wrote that “The choices we made in those years around 1980 will turn out to be more important than any choices any nation ever made.”

So we asked him to elaborate:

“I do think that the most important election of my lifetime was the election in 1980 when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter…it was the moment at which we switched Visions for America…

We elected Ronald Reagan and with him an insistence that, as he always put it, government (being the word for all of us working together on a project) – government is the problem, not the solution. And that the solution lay in individuals trying to make themselves wealthy and in markets solving the world’s problems.

This hasn’t worked out well.

…We need to get back to the work of having a group project of making the country and planet a workable, livable place. That’s got to be a group project. It can’t be done by each of us working by ourselves.”

What to do – Bill’s theory of change

“There’s two levers big enough to matter at this point. One of them is marked politics…the other lever is marked money – and I think we need to tug harder on it right now.”

Bill says political action at the state and local levels is critical right now, as well as interrupting the flow of capital to the fossil fuel industry, which largely comes from a small handful of big banks (think: Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America) as well as asset managers, insurance companies, and institutional investors.

The critical role of people over 60!

There are over 70 million people over the age of 60 in the US. Bill believes that “this is an under-organized group of people that may play a really significant role” going forward.

And it makes sense. People over 60 tend to have the most:

  • Time
  • Money (Baby boomers & the Silent generation have 70% of the wealth)
  • Skills and experience

They’re also a hugely powerful voting block that now has grandchildren and may be thinking about their legacy (did you know that more than 80% of global fossil fuel emissions occurred in the last 60 years?).

“There’s no way to make the changes that must be made to protect our planet and our society unless we bring the power of this group into play.” – Third Act

So, to mobilize older Americans around action on climate and defending democracy, Bill founded the nonprofit Third Act.

I highly recommend anyone over 60 get involved by signing up for their newsletter and signing the Bank on Our Future pledge to stay in the know about a big day of action this Spring where people will switch their money out of fossil fuels en mass! There are lots of different actions you can take with Third Act.

And anyone under 60 can “tell your grandparents about it” as Bill told us to do.

(Gran, Grammy, Grandpa – do you copy☝️😊)

Bill’s Final Thoughts

“Winning slowly on climate is just a different way of losing. So our job is to act in ways that reflect that physical urgency…The most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual – to join together with others in movements large enough to make change.” – Bill McKibben

As always, thanks for reading and for all that you do to help build a better future.

This post originally featured in the Crowdsourcing Sustainability newsletter. Sign up for the newsletter below!

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