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Interview: Bill McKibben climate-change campaigner

25 October 2013

'The fossil-fuel industry is the very definition of the powers and principalities of
our time'

Nancie Battaglia

I'm a writer, and now, I guess, an activist, too, having helped found 350.org, which has become the largest grass-roots climate campaign ever. My latest book is Oil and Honey.

I like bees a good deal: they're a reminder that, working together, without a lot of leadership but with a lot of connection, we can get much done.

I wrote the first book on global warming (which we then called "the greenhouse effect") back in 1989; so I've gotten to follow this story a long time. That means I finally figured out that reason alone wouldn't carry the day, and that we needed to assemble some power - not money power, like the oil industry, but in the currencies of movement: passion, spirit, creativity. Sometimes we'd need to spend our bodies.

I was reading the early science in the late 1980s, and it seemed utterly overwhelming in its implications. The end of nature was largely a philosophical reaction: what does it mean to live in a world utterly dominated by humans?

I'm coming here [to the UK] to help get people interested in divesting from fossil-fuel companies. If it's wrong to wreck the climate, then it's wrong to profit from the wreckage, and this is a powerful way to help weaken the companies that undermine the solutions we need.

Change is hard, because the fossil-fuel industry is the very definition of the "powers and principalities" of our time - the richest industry that the earth has ever seen.

The Church has been reluctant to change its own practices because change is controversial, and because the Church is often slow to act. But when it starts, then that action flows out for many decades to come.

People are listening, from American Evangelicals to the wonderful Patriarch of the Eastern Church. We've had a harder time making inroads in the Roman Catholic Church, but the advent of Francis offers real hope.

Around the world, Muslim communities have been particularly strong participants in our efforts - they're in many places that are extremely vulnerable. And the American and Israeli Jewish communities have been engaged as well.

My worst fear is that human beings won't put up a real fight against the power of climate change.

But I hope that we'll fight, and that we'll catch a break or two from physics, and that, while there will be real damage from global warming, it won't be at a scale our civilisations can't survive. But that's a dwindling hope, I have to say.

What I think will happen "realistically" in the next 20 years depends entirely on how many people get involved in pushing, and how hard they work.

The single most important change we need is to put a serious price on carbon that reflects the damage it does in the world. There's no reason the fossil-fuel guys, alone among industries, should be allowed to pollute for free.

We also need stronger communities, with less of the hyper-individualism that marks our late consumer society.

We've found local food and farmers' markets in this country to be a strong way in for many people. You have to become more connected than you are at the supermarket.

The most important choice I made was fighting this battle, and my biggest regret was not starting earlier.

If I'm remembered in 100 years' time, I'd like to be remembered as one small part of this battle, long since surpassed by many others.

I love to take my holidays in the woods. My favourite was probably walking for three weeks from my home in Vermont. (I even wrote a book about it.)

The best sound for me is the droning hum and chirp of insect life in the meadow in the summer. Life on automatic.

Wendell Berry has been a key writer for me.

I've been lucky to have a series of inspired preachers in my life, two of whom were famous: Peter Gomes at Harvard, and William Sloane Coffin at Riverside Church in New York.

The book of Job is my favourite part of the Hebrew Bible - the first great nature writing in the Western tradition. (I wrote a book about that, too.)

I'm happiest outdoors, especially cross-country skiing.

I pray not to be a jerk - which, in my case, means praying for the humility I lack.

I'd like to get locked in a church with my wife. She's who I most like to do everything with.

Bill McKibben was talking to Terence Handley MacMath. His Fossil Free UK tour starts in Edinburgh (30 October), then moves to Birmingham, (31 October) and London (1 November). Details at peopleandplanet.org/fossil-free/UK-tour.

Oil and Honey: The education of an unlikely activist is published by Times Books.

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