Today is a date to be circled on this nation’s environmental calendar (if we had such a thing). Today, July 14, 2020, the man who has probably written more words about the existential crisis of climate change and global warming in his lifetime than any other American writes to tell us that as he approaches his 60’th year he is applying the brakes and shifting gears. Or perhaps a more preferable and appropriate metaphor would be to say that Bill is “passing on the baton” in a long distance race that has (too) many miles to go.
It’s not that he is abandoning the race in which he has proven to be an ultra-marathoner. But among his stated reasons for the passing of the baton is the founder of 350.org’s wish to turn the volume dial to the left. Even though he had already taken a step back from 350.org some years back, the organization is still (and rightly so) identified with his name. Times have changed, and he wants to turn down the McKibben volume so that others can have a greater chance of being heard. He’s not stepping off the 350.org bus altogether, but rather relinquishing the driver’s seat and moving way to the rear.
It’s been quite a ride. It was 31 years ago in 1989 that at the age of 28 he began steering what we might now call the big green Climate Crisis Bus with the publishing of The End of Nature. It’s been called the first book on global warming written for the general public. Nearly a quarter of a century earlier Rachel Carson had sounded the alarm in Silent Spring that we were poisoning nature through our chemical warfare against “pests.” Bill McKibben was now picking up the ecological baton by identifying the environmental “Pandora’s Box” that is global warming, the greatest existential threat to life on planet Earth in the history of humanity.
Rachel Carson died soon after Silent Spring was sprung, and, therefore, had to endure the wrath of the chemical industry only a short time. Bill McKibben has been the bulls-eye of Big Oil’s offensive artillery and defensive denial machinery for nearly a third of a century. Outside of the scientific community itself which has been strategically bludgeoned by the fossil fuel industries, none of us on the outside looking in can truly appreciate what Bill McKibben and other tenacious folk of his ink have endured. The onslaught has been continual and brutal, and the prize has always been elusive if not unreachable.
In 2010 The Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist,” and Time magazine has called him “the world’s best green journalist.” He has been awarded Guggenheim Fellowship and won the Lannan Prize for nonfiction writing in 2000. Such accolades barely scratch the surface in offering appreciation for what he has endured and accomplished in the face of staggering odds and unrelenting opposition.
If on the battlefield of environmental justice in these waning days of the domination of Big Oil there was something comparable to the medals of Honor and Valor, and probably even the Purple Heart, today would be the day to place them over the head of the man who has risked sticking out his neck further for the cause of climate justice than any other environmental warrior of the last third of a century. If ever there was a contemporary climate justice hero, it is Bill McKibben.
It was my honor in 2012 to meet him and speak with him briefly. This was at a rally hosted by 350.org at which Bill shared his grand fossil fuel divestment plan. He had first launched his radical and moral broadside against the fossil-fuel industry and its contributions to climate change in Rolling Stone magazine with these incendiary words:
“We need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light. It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
Following the rally I became a supporting member of 350.org and in return received a “350 ppm… or catastrophe” cap. I’ve worn it proudly over the past eight years knowing that 99% of folks that see it have no idea of what it means. In that time one brave soul has questioned me about its message. It made my day. For a brief moment of revelation I was able to be a global warming evangelist.
“I’m so glad you asked,” I zealously blurted out. “PPM stands for ‘parts per million’ of green house gases (primarily carbon dioxide). They are produced by the burning of fossil fuels and are trapped in the atmosphere. They act like a blanket around the Earth holding in heat. We need to stay below 350 ppm or the global warming will be catastrophic. The bad news is that we are already nearing 400 ppm without any end in sight.” [Note: That was then… today we’re at 416.39 ppm] Bill McKibben would have been proud, I knew. As for my questioner, he was visibly less enthused, and mostly confused.
As you, too, seek to spread the Creation Care Gospel according to Bill, take a few moments to read the whole epistle Saint Bill wrote to his cohorts as he passed the baton/torch to a new generation of disciples. On you go…