We Might Get Arrested

Author: Bill McKibben

To the crucial question “What am I doing here?” let me add the journalist’s constant concern: “now.” I may not have a philosopher’s deep answer to this dilemma. I do have a personal one. It begins, in some sense, with pursuing a scoop.

As part of their work, reporters, and that’s what I am, or was, need to sense what comes next, to be very much in the now. When I was in my mid-20s—this would be the mid-1980s—I began reading the occasional reference to global warming in one obscure source after another. Scientific journals, mostly, but also the reports from little-attended Congressional hearings. The world, these studies hinted, might not end in the much-feared nuclear bang but in the explosion of a billion pistons every minute. Our greatest crisis might come not from our violent natures but from the cult of consumption that had become the dominant feature of Western life.

So I started to report—to track down the scientists working in the field, to peruse the few government reports that had been issued. When summer 1988—one of the hottest in American history—came, it seemed to me more confirmation than revelation. I sat down at my desk and in about three months wrote The End of Nature, the first book for a general audience about the subject. It was part straight journalism—an account of how and why carbon dioxide was changing everything—and part lament, an elegy for the idea that there were places apart from man, that the earth yet held some wildness.

The book was successful; it was even translated into 20-some languages. You could say I was out on a limb, however. For one thing, though I thought the hypothesis that we were warming the earth was correct, it would take science another five years to prove it conclusively. (Years in which I hoped I was wrong and simultaneously felt a kind of prideful vindication as the data piled up.) I was out on a limb in another way, too. The book marked the end of my career as a straight reporter. I was no longer “objective” in the strange and sometimes noble way that reporters are noble. I knew what I thought: Global warming was real; it was terrible; and somehow it was up to those of us who knew about it to do something.

Exactly what was less clear. I was trained as a writer, and so I set to work on a series of books that attempted to figure out why we weren’t doing more and how we could. I wrote about television and the way it deadened our reactions (The Age of Missing Information_) and about places around the world that demonstrated we could make different choices (_Hope, Human and Wild) and on and on, book after book. I also found myself drawn into the periphery of the actual fight. I wasn’t lobbying congressmen (nor, really, was anyone else) but I gave more and more speeches, wrote more and more op-eds.

The monster in our midst
For most of the 1990s and the first term of the current Bush administration, people weren’t paying much attention to the issue. There was always something more pressing on a daily basis (the rise of the Internet, the rise of the stock market, the rise of the terrorists). The very few of us working to focus attention on what seemed to us the greatest challenge humans had yet faced found ourselves stuck in a kind of frustrating, slow-motion nightmare, unable to warn those around us of the monster looming over their shoulder. I lectured constantly, and there were a few others out doing the same thing—but the issue largely disappeared from public view. Politicians felt not the slightest need to engage it. The nadir probably came in 2001 when, shortly after taking office, George W. Bush stopped paying even lip service to the idea that we had a problem and officially withdrew us from the international process to ratify the Kyoto treaty, which eventually was approved in the rest of the developed world and commits those countries to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases.

Yet things were happening. One was the slow rise of the religious environmental movement. For a long time, even progressive people of faith tended to view ecological questions as luxuries, to be tackled once war and poverty had been ticked off the list. Then the slow, careful organizing efforts of groups such as the National Religious Partnership for the Environment began to pay dividends, as did more visible and aggressive efforts. I launched one in 2000 while spending a year as a fellow at Harvard Divinity School. I contacted clergy and others from around the Boston area, and together we planned a rally outside the car dealerships that stretched through suburban Lynn. We wanted to urge people not to buy SUVs, and so we had a picket line and the new hybrid cars for people to test-drive.

When the day arrived it poured rain in Biblical quantities, but it didn’t matter. Our crew turned out, and we hoisted several banners. One of which, playing off a popular Christian slogan of the moment, asked the question “What Would Jesus Drive?” A photographer snapped a picture for The Boston Globe, and someone took video footage that showed up on the cable networks. Within a few days that message spread around the country. Plenty of people rolled their eyes or laughed (best response: citing a Biblical passage that Jesus and the disciples were of one accord, a pastor said the right answer must be a Honda). Soon the Evangelical Environmental Network picked up the campaign and started running TV ads around the country. People still bought Ford Explorers and GMC Suburbans, though in somewhat smaller numbers, but many felt a little defensive, a little guilty. Not as defensive or guilty as they should have, but it was a start.

It also started me to thinking that political activism might be as important as more writing in the years ahead. That wasn’t a thought I specially relished. I’m a writer in part because I’d rather write about someone else acting. But nobody else was, not even in the last few years, as public consciousness of the problem began to rise dramatically. After Hurricane Katrina blew open the doors in the autumn 2005, Al Gore stepped through the opening with his magnificent film, An Inconvenient Truth. Millions of people finally understood just how big and how serious the problem was. It still didn’t matter as much as it should have, because there was no real pressure on the White House or Congress to do much of anything.

The news grows darker
The science was growing steadily darker. In early 2006, James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who is America’s pre-eminent global warming researcher, said new data showed we had 10 years to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere before we crossed irrevocable thresholds that would usher in a “totally new planet"—but the relevant Congressional committees were still controlled by men who said global warming was a hoax. Exxon Mobil was making more money than any corporation in the history of corporations, and they were using some of it to spread disinformation. When the Senate held a hearing, it called as the main witness novelist Michael Crichton, whose new book posited that climate change was merely a fund-raising scheme by greedy environmentalists.

Sometime last summer I’d simply had enough. I’d been reporting a story in India and spent a day wading five streams to get to a desolate village. There I met a woman, trained for a week as a village health worker, who’d come back to her poor place and with a little mosquito netting and a lot persuasion managed to cut the childhood death rate in half. She had malaria herself, caught out in the rice fields where she worked every day, and she looked desperately tired. But she posed for a picture under the portrait of Gandhi tacked to her wall. It was one of the few I’d seen—the place of honor usually went to some Bollywood star—and even this woman said she knew little about him except that “he spent his life helping people."

When I got home to Vermont, I wasn’t thinking consciously of that scene, but I must have had Gandhi on the brain. Also, new studies were showing that malaria-bearing mosquitoes were spreading ever farther in a warmer, wetter world and that the odds of some villager getting the shakes were rising with every new appliance Americans installed. In despair more than anything, I called a friend or two and said, “Let’s walk to Burlington (our state’s not very large largest city) and sit in on the front steps of the federal building. Maybe we’ll get arrested, maybe it will make some kind of splash, but at least we’ll have done something.” Something more than what we’d already done, like put in new lightbulbs and buy hybrid cars and all the rest of the things that, done one at a time, simply won’t add up to enough of an answer in the years we have left. My friends are good souls, and they said sure—but one actually called Burlington and discovered that, Vermont being Vermont, there was no way we were going to get arrested. Not unless we set the federal building on fire—and think of the carbon emissions from that!

So we decided to have a gentler march. In the course of three weeks, working with a few volunteers, we set up a five-day, 50-mile pilgrimage over Labor Day weekend. When we stepped off from Robert Frost’s writing cabin in the Green Mountains (after reading that essential “what are we doing here?” poem “The Road Not Taken") we were 300 strong. By the time we reached Burlington there were a thousand of us pounding the pavement. Vermont’s a small state, and that was the largest political event in a long time. It was big enough to convert all our federal candidates, even the conservative Republicans, into strong advocates of tough measures on climate change. Still, as the newspapers pointed out, that thousand people represented something less impressive, too: We’d just staged the largest global warming demonstration in U.S. history. Only a thousand people. It’s no wonder Congress hasn’t felt much pressure.

Time to step it up
We decided to see if we could keep the momentum going. In January of this year, working with six newly minted college grads who were earning a hundred dollars a week, we launched a website: Stepitup07.org. Stepitup07.org. Our goal was to organize simultaneous rallies around the country on the same day, April 14. Many, we hoped, would be on church steps or in city parks. Others would be in iconic places—on top of melting glaciers, underwater off endangered coral reefs. All would be linked together electronically with new tools like YouTube.

Here’s what happened. Within 10 days, simply through the viral word-of-mouth that the web allows, we had more than 200 people and groups who’d pledged to hold rallies in 40 states, and the number was growing by leaps and bounds. We were already organizing by far the largest such rally ever, and the momentum was only building. By Valentine’s Day we were above the 650-rally mark and struggling to keep up.

Why? Because it turns out there are an enormous number of people like me. Who wanted something to do, but didn’t know quite what. Who given half a chance wanted to make a whole lot of difference. We’d sensed this when organizing our Vermont walk—everyone we asked said yes, and often they said it gratefully, thanking us for giving them the chance to spend five days on the breakdown lane in the August heat. Even the cars going by (even the SUVs) were full of honking, waving people. But we didn’t know if it was just a Vermont thing. It turned out it was a Kansas thing and a Florida thing and a Wyoming thing. Soon we had our teams of reef divers wanting to hoist an underwater banner, and a crew of skiers wanting to descend the fastest-dwindling glacier in the Tetons. We had dozens of PR people and musicians and so forth writing in to offer help. Big environmental groups were generously offering mailing lists and organizing actions of their own, and so were people who’d never organized a thing before. Some were a little timid about it but took strength from the sheer number and variety of others who were stepping up.

In this area, and in many others, it’s been hard for people to know how to make a difference in recent years. We’ve grown hopelessly cynical about politics, and with good reason. Irony can undercut commitment. That’s changing. It’s changing on college campuses—the six students I’m working with are part of a fast-growing campus network of climate activists, for instance. It’s growing in churches—groups such as Interfaith Power and Light have become powerful organizing forces, and we’re getting strong participation from evangelical churches in our new campaign.

Will it be enough? I don’t know. I want to return to that question I began with—"What are we doing here now?"

Climate change is a timed test. It’s not like other problems, which if you do nothing about them for a time you can return to in the future. If we don’t solve our health-care problems, plenty of people will suffer—but that suffering will not make it harder to fix the problem in five years. (It may, tragically, make it easier, as pressure builds.) Climate change, on the other hand, is like the SATs—at a certain point you have to put down your pencil. If we don’t do what we must in the next few years, the planet may well pass certain thresholds beyond which irrevocable and awesome change is unavoidable. At that point we won’t be talking about prevention—we’ll merely be talking about how we cope.

Some scientists think we may have waited too long already. The British researcher James Lovelock, who invented the instrument that alerted us to the hole in the ozone layer, published a book last year predicting that we’d already turned up the heat too much—that before long a much-smaller human civilization would be clustered around the poles. For the moment, the scientific consensus predicts we have a narrow and closing window in which to act.

Some part of me is grateful for that. Without it, I might never have gotten around to becoming an activist—to throwing myself heart and soul into this business of trying to win change. I’d still be a little on the sidelines, a writer doing my best to influence the debate. At the moment, though, the place that feels right is deep inside the fray. Desperation has at least the virtue of clarity.

Bill McKibben is the author of 10 books, most recently Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College. His global warming work is centered at stepitup2007.org. stepitup2007.org.