Battling climate change, Bill McKibben balances honesty with hope

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Since writing the first book about global warming for a general audience 30 years ago, Vermont author and activist Bill McKibben has traveled the world fighting the growing threat of climate change.

"I have to remind myself it's important to concentrate on places like Texas and China and India," he says of some of the planet's heaviest emitters of problematic carbon dioxide.

So why is McKibben coming to lean and green Brattleboro this month to preach to the proverbial choir?

"I love Vermont dearly," the Ripton resident says, "so when I can, I try to help my neighbors."

Hence McKibben has accepted an invitation to speak at a free public program Jan. 15 about both his latest book, "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?" and New Yorker article, "Money Is the Oxygen on Which the Fire of Global Warming Burns."

"A writer doesn't owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty — but I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair," he begins "Falter," set for paperback release Jan. 21. "If I didn't, I wouldn't have bothered writing what follows."

Google the words "global warming" and you'll reap 140 million results. But when McKibben finished his first book, "The End of Nature," published in 1989 and since printed on six continents in two dozen languages, he could stack all the available reports atop his desk. Proposing climate change then was like telling the Flat Earth Society the world is round.

McKibben, 59, has gone on to pen a dozen more titles, be named "probably America's most important environmentalist" by The Boston Globe and become a scholar in residence at Middlebury College, where he and students founded the international grassroots activist group 350.org.

"When I wrote 'The End of Nature,'" he said, "my theory of change was people will read my book and they will change. I no longer have that theory. I think books are a key part of making an argument, but I no longer confuse the argument with the fight. It would be obnoxious to write a book saying things are dire if you aren't actively engaged in trying to stop them."

And so McKibben is set to speak about his efforts surrounding not only the current state of climate change but also other manmade challenges ranging from social media to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.

"What I want to talk about is the human game," McKibben writes in "Falter," "the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram; of love and loss; of everything that comprises the experience of our species."

That's both a tall order and a tightrope walk for someone aiming to balance honesty and hope.

McKibben starts with the positives, be it worldwide declines in extreme poverty (living on $2 a day or less) and violence (of the 55 million people who died in 2012, war killed just 120,000) or increases in literacy (85 percent of adults now can read) and productivity (currently a collective $60 trillion in goods and services).

Then again, the number of wild animals on the planet is half what it was in 1970, he notes, "an awesome and mostly unnoticed silencing." Trees are falling just as fast from pests, diseases and development, with five of the world's six oldest specimens having died in the last decade.

"And yet nothing slows us down — just the opposite," he writes in "Falter." "By most accounts, we've used more energy and resources during the last 35 years than in all of human history that came before."

McKibben can tell you how burning fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil causes carbon to combine with oxygen to produce carbon dioxide that's playing havoc with the Earth's atmosphere, allowing in sunlight but preventing some of the resulting heat from radiating out.

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This, in turn, is not only warming the planet — annual temperature averages are hitting record levels, melting more than half the ice in the Arctic and raising sea levels — but also warping precipitation and wind patterns, spurring extreme weather events such as hurricanes and heat waves that spark floods and wildfires.

McKibben's latest writings reveal that oil companies have known about the danger for decades. He shares internal documents that show how many built new drilling platforms with higher decks long ago to compensate for sea levels they knew would be rising.

"Which is to say, Donald Trump is a horrible human being who has done all that he can think of to retard progress on climate change," he says, "but it's not his fault the planet is overheating."

Then again, by denying the problem, the president isn't helping.

"Climate change has become such a familiar term that we tend to read past it," the author continues. "It's part of our mental furniture, like urban sprawl or gun violence."

Settling with his wife and daughter in Ripton in 2001, McKibben bought a small plot once owned by poet Robert Frost, built a solar-powered home and began to ponder why society wasn't doing more.

"Yes, climate change is a very hard problem," he says. "But there's something more going on here than the usual inertia."

McKibben points out the growing gaps in social and economic equality that are leading to singular, selective gains — and, in his opinion, collective loss.

"Basic human solidarity has, especially for the most powerful among us, been replaced by a very different idea," he writes in "Falter." "The path we've started down is the not-so-gradual replacement of humans with something not so slightly different: a man with a phone more or less permanently affixed to his palm is partway a robot already."

The answer, McKibben believes, is less FaceTime and more face-to-face time.

"The human game," he says, "is a team sport."

The author is set to elaborate Wednesday, Jan. 15, at 6:30 p.m. at Brattleboro's Centre Congregational Church at 193 Main St. He knows someone may ask how he can drive and fly about as he rails against fossil fuels.

"I tend to point it out myself," he says. "But I can't wait until the tracks in Middlebury get fixed so I can take a train."

in the end, McKibben has hope.

"Let's be, for a while, true optimists, and operate on the assumption that human beings are not grossly defective," he said in the conclusion of his latest book. "Let's assume we're capable of acting together to do remarkable things."

Kevin O'Connor writes for Southern Vermont Landscapes from Brattleboro.


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