BPR Interviews: Bill McKibben

William Ernest “Bill” McKibben is an American environmentalist, author, and journalist. His 1989 book “The End of Nature” is widely considered the first book for the general public about climate change. He is a founder of 350.org, the international environmental organization responsible for organizing twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country except North Korea. He has led the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and helped launch the fossil fuel divestment movement. McKibben is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College. 

Neil Sehgal: Academics disagree on the efficacy of divestment to drive down share prices. Studies of university led divestment from South Africa in the nineteen-eighties suggest that divestment led to no discernible effect on the share price. Indeed, a common argument against divestment is that if I divest, or if a university divests, other unethical investors will swoop in and buy up the shares. For you, is the aim of divestment to signal disapproval of certain industries and practices, or is it to directly affect share prices?

Bill McKibben: Well, Nelson Mandela was clear that divestment was an important part of the liberation fight, and it was his colleague Desmond Tutu who urged us to take it on for climate change, which he called the ‘human rights challenge of this century.’ The most recent academic research in fact shows that divestment has both heightened public attention to the issue, and made it more difficult and expensive to raise capital, especially for coal companies. And on the Street? Shell Oil, in its most recent annual report, called it a material risk to its business, and Jim Cramer, the most widely viewed stock analyst in America, said there was no longer any money to be made in oil and gas stocks because divestment had been so successful.

NS: Brown University students spent three years advocating for divestment from coal and fossil fuels, but the administration dismissed their proposals in 2013, claiming it was ineffective towards making real change. What were your opinions when this happened? 

BM: I thought it was shameless capitulation to the hedge fund guys on Brown’s board at the time, and I think the foolishness of it has gotten steadily clearer over time. In the years since the temperature has gone sharply up, the diplomats who pulled off the Paris climate accords have called for university divestment, and the fossil fuel sector has lagged every other part of the market costing Brown serious money. Those reasons explain why everyone from half the colleges in the UK to the New York City pension fund to the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund (largest pool of investment capital on earth) to Georgetown this month have divested. When the UC system pulled its $80 billion in the fall, its managers, who have a much stronger track record than Brown’s, credited not only student campaigns but the fact that oil and gas investing had become too high-risk.

NS: Brown recently announced that the university has sold 90% of its fossil fuel assets and plans to eventually end the rest. However, the administration made clear it was not done out of any regard for student activism around divestment. Rather, she justified the decision writing, “People know that this sector is dying… and it’s just not a good long-term investment. It carries too much risk for the endowment.” Do you feel good about the decision knowing it was not done out of regard for our planet, but regard for Brown’s pocketbook?

BM: I feel very good about the decision, and I am confident it would never have happened without a massive campaign by students, especially FossilFreeBrown. Administrators never like to admit they’ve been pressured to do the right thing, because they’re always worried someone else might pressure them about something else. But make no mistake. This was a student-led breakthrough into the heart of the Ivies, and a very big deal.

NS: How do you explain why many political and business leaders continue to pursue policies that will worsen climate change? 

BM: The fossil fuel industry is clearly willing to break the planet if it can extend their business model a few decades. I wouldn’t have said that a few years ago—it would have sounded hyperbolic. But great investigative reporting in the last five years has made it abundantly clear that these companies knew everything about climate change in the 1980s and chose to hide the reality behind a blizzard of disinformation. If they’d been Brown students, they’d have been violating the honor code, which is one more reason to kick them off campus.

NS: There’s a history of Western environmental policies stunting economic growth in developing countries and we’re already having a tough time pushing for environmental reform in developed countries. How can we go about bringing less developed countries on board?

BM: I see no evidence that this is true. In fact, there’s abundant evidence that Western countries have routinely decided to use developing countries to dump their waste. The good news—which I detailed in a long piece for the New Yorker a couple of years ago—is that renewable energy is finally bringing power to hundreds of millions of people who would never have gotten it from fossil fuel. The UN estimates that 90% of new power connections between now and 2050 will come from cheap solar power.

NS: How does the strength of individual actions compare with protesting corporations? Is there any real point in not using straws, being vegetarian, biking to work, etc. if there are big corporations responsible for most fossil fuel emissions?

BM: There’s no reason to be irresponsible in your life. But it’s obviously not enough, given the window of time physics is allowing. The most important thing an individual can do is be a bit less of an individual, joining with others to build the kind of movements that can push for real systemic change—say, forcing rich universities to divest their endowments.

NS: Where do you stand on Steven Pinker’s argument that overall, the world is getting better?

BM: The number of hungry people and refugees seem to be on the increase again after a period of decline, because climate change is driving new catastrophe. I work to try and make sure that trend doesn’t continue.

NS: In 2019, we witnessed protests across six continents, ranging from Beirut to Bogota, against liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies alike. Yet, with a few exceptions, protests against Donald Trump’s policies over the past years in the United States have been relatively muted. While Parisians are in the streets, some people say that Americans are living in an age of acquiescence. Why do you think we haven’t witnessed protests at the same scale?

BM: There were millions of Americans in the streets against climate change in September. It seems to be developing into the biggest movement in a long time.

NS: You served as a political surrogate for Bernie Sanders in 2016. Have you ever considered running for public office yourself?

BM: Nope, I’m better on the outside.

NS: What are you reading right now?

BM: Jill LePore, Richard Powers, Kim Stanley Robinson, Naomi Klein’s “On Fire.” Too much Twitter.

NS: What are the most important things that college students can do in the fight for global peace and prosperity?

BM: No kidding, divesting Brown’s endowment is the single biggest lever you’re going to have access to in four years at Providence.

NS: What continues to give you hope in this time of crisis?

BM: The rapidly expanding movement: Fridays for the Future, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, 350.org and on and on. Organized people have a chance at beating organized money—not a guarantee but a chance.

NS: You’re a titan in the fight against climate change. If climate change wasn’t an issue, would there have been another issue you would have devoted your life to fighting?

BM: I’m a writer at heart, not an activist. If the world were the way it should be, I’d happily have spent my career where it started after college, writing Talk of the Town stories for the New Yorker.

NS: What do you think of the careerist culture that has taken place in today’s universities? 

BM: Wander the country and the world. Get to know what people’s lives are actually like. Listen to them, and let yourself care about them. Fall in love with mountains and forests and oceans. If you do, you’ll defend them.

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