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Issue Date:  November 16, 2007

-- Step It Up 2007

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben

A durable future


NCR's Connections series spotlights writers and thinkers, Catholics and members of other spiritual traditions whose insight can inspire and guide us.

In our runaway economy, “more” no longer means “better,” says Bill McKibben, an American environmentalist who frequently writes about global warming. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he organized the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history.

McKibben grew up in Lexington, Mass. Immediately after college, he joined The New Yorker magazine as a staff writer, and wrote much of the Talk of the Town column from 1982 to early 1987. Eventually he left the magazine and moved to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.

His first book, The End of Nature, was published in 1989 after being serialized in The New Yorker. It is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change and has been printed in more than 20 languages. Several editions have come out in the United States, including an updated version published in 2006.

His most recent book is Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, about the negative consequences of our growth-oriented economy. His organization, Step It Up (, sponsors a yearly national climate day of action. The most recent was on Nov. 3.

NCR interviewed McKibben for a podcast. To listen to the podcast, go to

NCR: You’ve written 10 books in the past 17 years, by my count. In each of them I find a message that humans have gone too far and need to take a new direction, together with a strong reverence for nature.
McKibben: Our powerful presence on the planet now means we must think more clearly about what we are doing, about our wants and needs, and how much we can “get away with” before the carrying capacity of the planet is exceeded.

We’re in dire straits. James Hansen, the nation’s foremost government climatologist who works with NASA, said recently we probably have 10 years in which to begin serious efforts at putting less carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere. That means gearing up now to make the most ambitious changes we’ve ever had to make in our economy, and in our personal habits. It’s going to be difficult; much of the world is using more fossil fuel all the time. It’s a test for human beings, and hopefully not a final exam.

For the first time in human history “more” is no longer synonymous with “better.”

A recent sampling of Forbes magazine’s “richest Americans” showed they have identical happiness scores with Pennsylvania Amish, and are only a whisker above Swedes taken as a whole, not to mention the Masai hunters in Africa.

As we got more affluent, we lost a lot of our social connections and communities. We moved to the suburbs, built big houses and filled them with screens to stare into. It’s no wonder the average American has half as many close friends as 50 years ago.

What’s your prescription for getting out of this mode?
The time has come to move beyond “growth” as the paramount economic ideal and begin pursuing prosperity in a more local direction, with cities, suburbs and regions producing more of their own food, generating more of their own energy, and even creating more of their own culture and entertainment.

This concept is already blossoming around the world with striking results, from the burgeoning economies of India and China to the more mature societies of Europe and New England.

So the road map is both political and personal?
Yes, we’ve got to screw in new light bulbs and then screw in new congresspersons, or upgrade the existing one so he or she understands what needs to happen.

If we get enough moral passion behind this, like we did with the civil rights movement, then we’ve got a shot.

There is both a moralistic tone and a spiritual base to your writing. What kinds of spiritual formation took place in your life?
I’m an old Methodist Sunday school teacher. The Old Testament’s Book of Job has moved me powerfully. When God appears out of a whirlwind and queries Job at the end, that is the first statement in the Judeo-Christian tradition of the idea that humans are not the center of the universe.

The global climate change underway decisively violates the Gospel injunction to love our neighbors as ourselves. In fact, we are busy drowning our neighbors, making it impossible for them to farm croplands that are already marginal.

It’s clear now that oil is going to be harder to get. As we begin to run out, it’s going to be tempting to use more coal. That will be hard for people in the southern Appalachians who watch their mountaintops cut off and flattened, and sad for the world, because burning coal produces even more carbon dioxide.

In the future people will want community and an economy that is less dependent on far-flung lines of supply, on the Pentagon managing Mideast politics, on food that is handled through huge concerns like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. They will probably want more self-sufficient communities rich in human relationship. I don’t know anyone who thinks they have enough community. Many know they have more than enough stuff.

In a country where storage lockers are the biggest growth industry, it’s obviously time to balance those scales.

Thomas C. Fox is NCR ’s former editor and publisher.

What can I do

Becoming politically active is, according to environmentalist Bill McKibben the single most important thing people can do in the effort to preserve the world’s atmosphere. Here’s what he told NCR interviewer Tom Fox:

“We in the United States are five percent of the world’s population, yet we produce 25 percent of the carbon dioxide and other harmful gases added to the planet’s atmosphere. This triggers rises in sea levels that spawn large storms, increase drought in arid areas and deluges in wet areas. All this leads directly to impoverishment and marginalization of people already struggling.

“If ever there was an un-Christian act, this is it.

“In the short term, the most important thing to do is to become politically active. You can go to our Web site,, and find resources. Get involved on the state and local level. There’s a lot that can be done in our towns, states, universities, churches.

“Look around your own home and figure out what you can do. Buy a hybrid car, eat local food, and switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs.”

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2007

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