November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 2, 2006
Bill McKibben’s credentials are incontrovertible. He is the author of numerous books, including the best-seller, The End of Nature (1989), the first book on global warming written for a popular audience. His articles have appeared in such diverse publications as Christian Century, The New Yorker, National Geographic, Sojourners, Atlantic Monthly, and National Review. A graduate from Harvard University, he has been awarded a number of fellowships for his work in environmentalism, and he holds honorary doctorates from several institutions.
I first stumbled upon Bill McKibben’s work in his Harper’s article on faith and American life entitled “The Christian Paradox: How a Faithful Nation Gets Jesus Wrong.”
His account of Christian authenticity and responsibility adroitly illuminated the U.S.’s collective dissonance of being a religious nation—indeed a mostly Christian nation—plagued with the kind of self-obsession that has led to our consumption of 25% of the earth’s resources while only comprising 4% of the global population. Bill reminded me that we have usurped Christ’s charge to care for those who cannot care for themselves by our preoccupation with having more.
Bill McKibben’s conclusion to his article on faith and culture gave an acute diagnosis of our times and is a fitting prolegomena to The Other Journal’s interview with this esteemed author and activist:
“Since the days of Constantine, emperors and rich men have sought to co-opt the teachings of Jesus. As in so many areas of our increasingly market-tested lives, the co-opters—the TV men, the politicians, the Christian “interest groups”—have found a way to make each of us complicit in that travesty, too. They have invited us to subvert the church of Jesus even as we celebrate it. With their help we have made golden calves of ourselves—become a nation of terrified, self-obsessed idols. It works, and it may well keep working for a long time to come. When Americans hunger for selfless love and are fed only love of self, they will remain hungry, and too often hungry people just come back for more of the same.”
TOJ: Could you talk briefly about where we are now, ecologically, compared to where we were in 1989 when your book The End of Nature was published—how has the climate changed in those years in terms of average global temperatures, carbon emissions, etc . . . . and what are we seeing that is alarmingly new in the earth’s history?
Bill McKibben: Unfortunately, The End of Nature turns out to be correct, although I wish it were not so. The only places that I was incorrect was, as with environmental science at the time, the estimation of the speed at which we see the effects of global warming.
So far the earth has warmed about a degree Fahrenheit globally averaged. That doesn’t seem like an enormous amount but it’s unlike what we would have expected twenty years ago. And one degree turns out to be enough to really unhinge all sorts of earth’s ecosystems. Even within the last year, we just see a sort of cascading amount of data of the damage that is being done by those increased temperatures.
The most blatant examples are increased power and frequency in hurricanes and the increased depth and frequency of heat waves. There is new data even in the last week to indicate how many people were killed in the European heat wave of 2003; it now appears that it took about 52,000 lives. We have had our own shorter but brutal blast of heat across the U.S. this summer which I believe so far is the warmest year on record in the U.S.
And probably more than anything else, the place that we really see the effects of the power of even the relatively mild temperature increases so far is in the melting of everything frozen on the planet. Certainly, packets of sea ice, in say the Arctic, which have failed to fully reform in the last couple of years. Permafrost in the soil [is melting], in the boreal and arctic areas in the world, and, probably even more alarming in the last six or eight months, the data on what is happening to the ice shelves in Greenland and the west Antarctic has begun to cause people to radically reassess the earlier conviction that those ice shelves were stable on a kind of century-long time scale.
It now appears that the fracturing of that ice is happening much more quickly than people previously thought, apparently at a slow melt. On the top of these mile thick slabs of ice the water is percolating quickly to the base and greasing the skids, as it were, for the slide of that ice into the ocean. And that’s particularly damaging news because it is ice in the West Antarctic and over Greenland, i.e., ice that’s over a rock at the moment, that will raise the level of the sea as it slides into the ocean, putting at risk everyone and everything that lives on the coasts, and that includes an enormous percentage of the world’s people.
TOJ: So with all these things happening, why are people still debating about whether global warming is really a threat? I know this is a complicated issue, but could you comment on the scientific community’s stance and also comment on Bjorn Lomborg’s work?
Bill McKibben: In the scientific community, the debate is over, for all intents and purposes, about whether or not the planet is heating and who is causing it. In fact, it’s more or less been over since 1995. That’s when the vast consensus of the world’s climatologists, brought together by the UN and The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, really announced that this was going on, and since then the accumulation of data and wickedly hot years has served to only congeal that consensus much more firmly.
There is no real scientific debate over what is happening; of course there is debate over exactly how it is going to play out in the decades ahead, because this is a large experiment that we haven’t done before, and no one knows precisely how one can ever precisely predict what effects this heat will have. But all the science in the last few years, or almost all of it, really serves to show that the effects are larger and more rapid than we had thought even a decade ago.
The only parts of Lombard’s book that I am qualified to talk about—the sections on global warming—were erroneous in any number of ways, as people quickly pointed out who were doing the science. There is basically no one not on the payroll of Exxon Mobil or coal companies who any longer contend that this is not something to worry about.
TOJ: With the increasing numbers of hurricanes in the Caribbean, we have seen an escalation in devastation to human life and to the U.S. economy. With Katrina, we saw a potent example of how environmental issues are clearly issues of social justice; in fact, you have called Katrina a sort of environmental 9/11, a national wake-up call to environmental issues. Could you talk about how you understand the connection of environmental issues to social justice?
Bill McKibben: You know, those of us in the west have figured out a lot of ways to damage the lives of poor people in this country and around the world over the years. You know, colonialism of one kind or another, imperialism of one kind or another, and slavery, and on and on and on.
But probably nothing that we have ever managed to do quite equals the basic undermining of the physical stability of the planet on which most of the world’s poor people depend. It is unbelievably sad and ironic that the first victims of global warming are almost all going to come from places that are producing virtually none of the problem, i.e., people in low-lying countries like Bangladesh, you know, with almost 140 million people who are managing to feed themselves, whose carbon emissions can’t really be calculated (they are a rounding error in the UN’s attempts to do national comparisons), and yet, most of whose people are at risk from increased flooding due to rising sea levels.
The latest computer modeling I’ve seen indicates that at mid-century, there might be 150 million people classified as “environmental refugees.” If you consider that there are a million people forced out of their homes by Katrina, multiply that by 150, and then stick those people in countries who, as inconceivable as it seems, are less prepared than we were to deal with the whole thing.
I think that it is impossible to think of a threat to social justice greater than what we are doing to the earth’s atmosphere at the moment. There is nothing that will discombobulate and degrade [more] the lives of people near the margin on this planet. You don’t have to look much past New Orleans to see that. Who took the hit? Some of the poorest people in the U.S.
TOJ: America has what some consider the dubious distinction of opting out of the Kyoto agreement, and opting for implementing our own standards for regulating carbon emissions and developing alternative sources of energy. Why was this a mistake?
Bill McKibben: It was huge mistake to avoid working with the rest of the world because (a) we’re the largest source of the problem: 4% of us who are in the U.S. produce 25% of the world’s carbon dioxide. (b) It’s our own throat that we are cutting in the end along with everyone else’s. We need to be exercising precisely the kind of leadership that might allow us to nudge China and India, say, onto different energy trajectories, in order to improve our own chances of surviving this century. (c) It’s the single thing that lowered our standing in the eyes of the world, I think, more than anything else. If you look at the polling data, long before anyone had thought about Iraq, it was the Bush Administration’s decision in the first few weeks in its tenure in office to abnegate the Kyoto treaties that set our international perception into a nose-dive. People around the world looked on in amazement as the biggest part of the problem decided it wasn’t going to make any effort to help with the solution. It’s much to the credit of the rest of the world that they have gone ahead and tried to do the Kyoto accords on their own. It makes it unbelievably difficult to do that, for a variety of economic and regulatory reasons, without the participation of the biggest energy user in the world.
TOJ: You’ve written that the silver lining in the Kyoto collapse was that it’s moving the environmental issue into a more mainstream moral issue. Could you flesh that out for us?
Bill McKibben: I think the events of the last year have served to really move this nearer to the center of American thinking. Katrina opened a good door and Al Gore went through it with his movie. The polling data shows not an unbelievable level of concern but a general awareness of this problem. And now I think it’s up to all sorts of people who really care about these things to continue on this new ground to try and make this the central political issue it needs to be.
I think one of the ways is to present it as the deeply moral theological issue that it is.
TOJ: I want to talk more about theological approaches to this issue, but quickly, what is Bush doing right with environmental issues, if anything, and how is Stephen Johnson, the new head of the EPA, doing?
Bill McKibben: I think Bush has done nothing right about global warming. Everything that the administration has done has been counterproductive. We’ve abnegated the Kyoto treaty, we’ve instituted a voluntary program that’s obviously not been working, we’ve taken every effort to excise references to global warming from official documents, to try to undermine international conferences that work on environmental issues, and on and on and on. It is a complete embarrassment and literally shameful that the country that first of all invented environmentalism and gave it to the world, and second of all did all the science originally around climate and global warming and presented that to the world, has been the country that has refused to participate in a constructive way to the solution.
I am afraid, you know, the EPA has said that they consider carbon-dioxide not to be a pollutant, and are not interested in regulating it and are in fact interested in trying to keep others, like the state of California, from regulating it. The EPA has, in the face of the most important environmental protection threat that there has ever been, done nothing at all.
TOJ: In transitioning to theological approaches, what does the Christian faith particularly have to offer the environmentalism movement to retrieve our planet from irreparable damage? How has your faith influenced your call to care for global damage?
Bill McKibben: I think communities of faith are extremely important in this question. I think that all faith communities share a common and unusual distinction in our time of being the only institutions left that can posit some goal other than accumulation for human existence. I think that’s enormously important because it is that drive for consumption more than anything else that fuels the environmental devastation around us (also the cultural devastation that we see around us, too).
In my own faith tradition, these questions have been very important. It has always been easiest for me to apprehend God in the natural world. I love to go to church, but when I really want to feel the presence of the divine I’m more likely to head up into the mountains. Hence, I think I have felt most profoundly that in our disruption of the most basic physical processes of creation, we are engaged not only in the act of suicidal self-destructiveness, but also in an act of thorough-going blasphemy. Especially in recent years, the more and more we understand what we are doing, the more we have the science to tell us what we’re doing, the fact that we continue to do it without taking steps to address it strikes me as, among many other things, irreverent in an extreme.
TOJ: As you are aware, not only is our country divided politically, but also denominationally; in other words, how red and blue states may approach the gospel. Given that these issues around climate change are hard truths to grapple with, what have you found is the best kind of approach to have in bringing a prophetic word in these areas without alienating people?
Bill McKibben: I do a certain amount of work in religious communities on these issues. It’s not the central focus of my work but it is certainly an area where I have worked a lot. It has gotten much better over the years, especially over the last couple years. There wasn’t a religious environmental movement 15 years ago, but there is now—in the Catholic community, the Jewish community, the mainline Protestant community, and in the Evangelical community.
In certain ways, I think the work in the Evangelical community has been the most interesting and the most promising. Partly because Evangelical congregations may be harder to convince about issues but, on the other hand, are more likely to do something about it.
The news that three days ago Pat Robertson had decided that global warming was real and we need to do something about it struck me as powerful evidence that the Holy Spirit is hard at work in this question. If the Holy Spirit is capable of the heavy lifting required to get Pat Robertson to change his mind, then that strikes me as a very good sign.
TOJ: Many Christians, such as myself, are beginning to plunge into this issue and want to make a difference. What can I do in my family and in my community to work towards change?
Bill McKibben: The thing about global warming is that you can address it on a great number of levels—in fact you have to. All of us in our homes and personal lives can figure out things to do much more efficiently than we do now—drive smaller cars, drive hybrid cars, drive cars less, take public transportation, walk or bike (which would be good for us anyway), build and live in smaller homes, eat local foods so the food doesn’t have to travel thousands of miles and so you are supporting your neighbors instead of a vast conglomerate, pay a little more for your electrical utility green power options, put solar panels on the roof of your house, and on and on.
By themselves, they are not enough; we also need to engage in political action. Some of that has to happen on the local and state level; we have to convince our cities to join the growing number of more than 200 American cities who have signed on to the mayor’s climate campaign. We have to get our states to adopt what are called “renewable portfolio standards” pledging to use a lot of renewable energy by 2015 or 2020. We have to work with businesses and shops to get them engaged in the same way.
We also have to engage—and I think this is important—in national politics because there is no way to address questions of this scale in the short time that we have to address them without engaging in real political change. The fact that Washington has been a complete logjam for anything for the last six years has got to change because we need to have federal policy that really allows us to move quickly and nimbly. We have to transition to new technologies, making it more expensive to continue with the old and polluting technologies and cheaper to go to the clean ones. Policies that engage us again in the international fight for real climate protection.
So I think that some of it is electoral—helping candidates that are willing to take dramatic actions, not just to say a few words about how climate change might be a problem. Of course, promote legislation that has been, for instance, proposed by our Senator, the independent Senator in Vermont, Jim Jeffords, or the Congressman from California, Henry Waxman in the House.
I also think we need unconventional political action, and I increasingly think that there is a need for people of faith to be able to do the kind of things that people of faith did 40 years ago in the heat of the civil rights revolution. This is a moral issue of every bit as much importance requiring every bit as much sacrifice, courage, and energy as that crisis did.
TOJ: Finally, what are a few texts that you would recommend to people trying to become more familiar with environmental change?
Bill McKibben: See Al Gore’s movie; it’s very good. There have been a couple of good books in the recent years: Betsy Kolbert’s Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Tim Flannery’s book, The Weather Makers. Also, a lot of denominations have policy statements and curriculum on climate issues. There are a lot of resources that we have now.
The Other Journal talked with Bill McKibben on August 7th, 2006 from his home in Vermont.
 Excerpt from Harper’s Magazine article “The Christian Paradox: How a faithful nation gets Jesus wrong.” in their August 2005 serial.
 In a follow-up email question, I asked Bill McKibben: “How much time do we have to reverse the current trends in climate change, and if we do not address issues of global warming with haste, what consequences await us?” To which he responded: “The great climatologist James Hansen, of NASA, said recently we had ten years to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere and if we didn’t, we’d live on ‘a very different planet.’ That about sums it up, I think.”
 Bjorn Lomborg is the author of the highly controversial The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World (2001). This public policy book called into question environmentalism’s logic and factual grounding, and widely discredited the movement’s assessment of global change by statistically critiquing its claims.
Chris Keller is Founding Editor of The Other Journal and a psychotherapist in Seattle, Washington.