Bill McKibben on Global Grassroots Movements, Divestment

“Were losing badly,” he said. “We’re way behind.”


On Thursday, April 20, famed climate change writer and activist Bill McKibben spoke as part of the Confronting Climate Change initiative.


McKibben at a rally (source: Nation of Change).

McKibben began his talk by establishing the “pace and scale” of the effects of climate change, which he said, “came a hell of a lot faster and pinched a hell of a lot harder than we thought they would.” He described the dying off of coral reefs, the days earlier this spring when temperatures at the North Pole were fifty degrees above normal, and the river in the Yukon that recently changed course as a result of glacier melt. “Is that biblical enough for you?” McKibben asked.


Roughly twenty years after writing the first climate change book for general audiences (The End of Nature), McKibben took “the moral urgency of his own work to heart,” as Fellow-in-Residence Elizabeth Kolbert put it, and “decided he was gonna have to do it himself.” McKibben was a leader of the Keystone XL resistance movement, and was arrested for this cause. In 2008, along with seven Middlebury undergraduates, McKibben founded, an organization that leads grassroots campaigns around the world to “dismantle the influence and infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry.”, named for the highest safe concentration of atmospheric carbon, has helped roughly 570 institutions divest from fossil fuels.


For much of his talk, McKibben shared photos from campaigns around the world. One picture showed herders in Garissa, Kenya, with signs describing the life-threatening drought they were experiencing. Another showed children in Les Cayes, Haiti holding signs that read, “Your actions affect me. Connect the dots.” Many were aerial photos that showed large groups of people standing in formations that spelled out “350.”


McKibben also showed many photos of “kayaktivists” (activists in kayaks) blockading huge oil rigs and tankers. He returned several times to the example of pacific islanders protesting the construction of a coal mine from kayaks off the coast of Newcastle, Australia.


In these iconic images, McKibben sees a powerful symbolism: the many and small against the large and few. He resists the notion that environmentalism is a movement of rich white people.  “There are different kinds of power in the world,” McKibben said.


McKibben also focused his talk locally. He criticized Williams for its continued investment in fossil fuel companies that practice “compulsive amorality” and that spread untruth and suppress civic engagement.


McKibben said that he is “really grateful” to students and faculty members still pushing for divestment. He even mentioned the mock wedding that would occur the next day, saying, “If you’re the kind that cries at weddings, this is just the wedding to cry at.”


Linda Worden ‘19 said that what really hit home for her was McKibben’s discussion of the false dichotomy that institutions like Williams set up between divestment and financial aid. This false conflict “preys on people’s sense of guilt,” said McKibben.


In the fall of 2015, Adam Falk and the Board of Trustees stated, “Just as it is irresponsible for us to leave future generations to deal with the devastating effects of climate change, it would be profoundly irresponsible … to burden future students … with the expectation of such severe financial constraints and consequences.” This sentiment, which McKibben interpreted as ‘climate change is important, but not as important as access to Williams,’ is “pretty much the definition of living in a bubble.”


“The planet is not a subset of Williams,” he said. “Williams is a subset of the planet.”


Student activists also appreciated McKibben’s discussion of radicalism. He attacked the “presumption” that the people asking for institutional change are radicals, while the Board of Trustees are moderates or centrists who are “doing the natural thing.” According to McKibben, climate activists are merely asking for a planet similar to what all humans in history have known. “It doesn’t strike me there’s anything radical about that,” he said. “It’s a deeply conservative demand.”


“Radicals work at oil companies and investments offices that validate them,” he said. Hearing what science says about climate change, seeing its effects beginning to happen, and continuing to burn fossil fuels is what McKibben calls the kind of “dangerous radicalism” that “we’ve got to check.”


However, some students were less satisfied with McKibben’s talk. Some found his emphasis on mitigation with no mention of adaptation outdated, while others wished for more specific policy solutions.


Angel Ortiz ‘17, referencing McKibben’s emphasis on ultimately top-down solutions, said that McKibben failed to address “the fact that every person has the capability to live more mindfully and reduce their carbon footprint.”  Ortiz also criticized McKibben’s emphasis on symbolism. “By reducing people’s struggles to ‘iconic’ photo opportunities for his organization … or saying that the Women’s March was ‘a lot of fun,’” Ortiz said, “McKibben epitomizes the distance of the rich white male that he criticizes.”


Despite this, few could argue with McKibben about the urgency of the problem.


At this point, “winning slowly,” he said, “is exactly the same thing as losing.”


— Sophia Schmidt ’17

A version of this article appeared in the Williams Record.