Born in 1960 and raised in Lexington, Massachusetts, Bill McKibben is arguably the most influential environmental activist in America today. Although he does not have a scientific academic background, he has written extensively, and predominantly, on environmentalism. In addition to having authored numerous books predicated on global-warming alarmism, McKibben is also the founder and leader of 350.org, a campaign dedicated to achieving intergovernmental regulation of carbon emissions. Contending that Christian ethical teachings are coextensive with left-wing politics, he has, in particular, embraced radical Biblical interpretations which construe environmentalism as a Christian mandate.
McKibben is a 1982 graduate of Harvard University, where he was president of the student newspaper, the Harvard Crimson. In a 1996 piece titled “Job and Matthew,” McKibben described how his college years were marked by a persistent effort to attain some form of victim status:
“My leftism grew more righteous in college, but still there was something pro forma about it. Being white, male, straight, and of impeccably middle-class background, I could not realistically claim to be a victim of anything. Not for lack of trying—in one short but loony phase, I convinced myself that I was Irish-American and wore black armbands when Bobby Sands and his IRA companions starved themselves to death [in a hunger strike]. Mostly, I supported everyone else—marched in Take Back the Night marches, signed petitions for [the creation of] minority centers and Hispanic studies, conspicuously sat at dinners with gays and lesbians during gay and lesbian week.”
Upon graduation, McKibben became a writer for The New Yorker and remained there until 1987. After leaving that publication, he spent several years in New York’s Adirondack Mountains and later moved to Vermont, where he became a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College.
Before devoting himself fully to environmental activism, McKibben produced a series of books on the subject. In 1989, for example, he published The End of Nature, which had a significant impact on the radical environmentalist movement and is considered the first book for a general audience about climate change—which at that time was commonly referred to as the “greenhouse effect.” Emphasizing the threat of an imminent global-warming catastrophe, the book suggested that the earth was headed for environmental destruction as a result of human industrial activity. The only hope for preventing such a calamity, said the book, would be to implement far-reaching intergovernmental regulations and to dramatically alter the polluting lifestyles of Western cultures.
As author Stanley Kurtz explains, The End of Nature marked the dawn of an era when McKibben “almost singlehandedly turned global warming into a public issue.” And this, says Kurtz, enabled McKibben to satisfy the yearning he had long felt—at least since his days at Harvard—to be able to claim that he was a victim of some oppressive force: “Now everyone could be a victim” (Kurtz’s words)—of global warming.
Among McKibben’s more controversial works was his 1999 book Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families, in which he argued that one-child families were ethically superior to their larger counterparts because the existing rate of human population growth was detrimental to the environment.
Much of McKibben’s writing extols the virtues of “de-development.” In the author’s view, mankind’s ever-increasing technological and industrial progress corrupts both human nature and the natural environment. For instance, in his 2003 book Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, McKibben wrote:
“They’ll lead us … toward the revolutionary idea that we’ve grown about as powerful as it’s wise to grow; that the rush of technological innovation that’s marked the last five hundred years can finally slow … But those decisions will only emerge if people understand the time for what it is: the moment when we stand precariously on the sharp ridge between the human past and the posthuman future[.]”
Stanley Kurtz describes McKibben as a “communitarian leftist” who wants “a government-primed revival of pre-industrial communal life,” and who believes that, in the past, a “world of tight families and interdependent neighbors … was far more satisfying than our hyper-individualist, consumer-driven, tech-saturated present.” (Kurtz’s words)
In 2007 McKibben led the so-called “Step It Up” campaign, an anti-global-warming initiative that was funded, in part, by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Rockefeller Family Fund. Demanding that Congress place restrictions on carbon emissions—with the aim of reducing global warming pollution by 80% by the year 2050—“Step It Up” later went international and adopted the name 350.org.
McKibben’s 2007 book Deep Economy, and his 2010 book Eaarth: A Guide to Living on a Fundamentally Altered Planet, both delivered the author’s characteristically anti-economic growth, anti-technology message advocating the “controlled decline” of modern industry. McKibben wrote in Eaarth that when he had published The End of Nature in 1989, “It was [still] too early to see the practical effects of climate change[.]”
Stanley Kurtz distills McKibben’s core objective down to its essence:
“He is arguing for a return to relatively self-sufficient local communities, especially when it comes to food. Modern agriculture feeds huge numbers of people at a very low price. Yet industrial farming is carbon-intensive, from the fertilizers, to the combines, to the planes and ships that transport all that produce around the globe. McKibben wants to undo this system with a large-scale return to the land. Labor-intensive (rather than carbon-intensive) agriculture would form the nucleus of a new, quasi-peasant society. Relatively self-sufficient local farming communities would be protected not only from global warming, but from capitalism’s cycles of boom and bust…. Americans would consume pretty much only locally grown food…. Food would cost more, choice would be drastically reduced, and putting meals together would take a great deal more effort than it does today.”
Notably, McKibben has praised the agricultural sector of Cuba—a politically isolated country whose agriculture is organic and localized, as heprefers, chiefly because it has had little access to pesticides and external markets.
When Deep Economy and Eaarth were published, McKibben routinely supplemented his warnings about climate change with claims that the world was rapidly “running out of oil.” But soon thereafter, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and other technologies for accessing oil and gas reserves ushered in a new era where it became evident that fossil fuels were present in great abundance in the United States. Quickly assimilating this newfound information, McKibben discontinued his previous warnings about a dwindling supply of oil, even as he held fast to his position that oil was toxic to the environment. “Now that he has realized that there’s actually ‘too much’ fossil fuel in the ground, his efforts to bottle it up are a last-ditch move to salvage his no-growth goal,” writes Stanley Kurtz. McKibben’s “real goal,” adds Kurtz, “is to delegitimize the carbon-fuel industry, thereby creating a mass movement with enough political power to bottle up most of our fossil energy resources, unused.”
According to McKibben, people who doubt that anthropogenic global warming poses a grave and imminent threat to life on earth suffer from “climate change denialism.” He also has claimed that such disparate events as Hurricane Katrina (in 2005) and the severe snowstorms that struck Washinton, DC in 2010 were uniformly the consequences of climate change.
Identifying the United States as the world’s chief polluter, McKibben attributes that vice to a combination of American “materialism” and “hyperindividualism”—i.e., people’s desire to live in large houses situated far from densely populated areas. In McKibben’s view, European-style collectivization is not only more environmentally friendly than capitalism, but is also more conducive to human happiness.
In recent years, McKibben, who enjoys a mass following among young adults, has been a leading figure in a nationwide campus movement to pressure colleges and universities to divest whatever assets they may have invested in oil companies—which he depicts as “reckless like no other force on Earth.” McKibben himself launched the divestment movement with a July 2012 article he wrote for Rolling Stone, titled “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” which quickly went viral on the Internet. In that piece, McKibben stated that the earth’s environment could only be saved if average temperatures worldwide could be limited to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above where they had stood at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. And this goal, said McKibben, would require mankind to leave at least 80% of the planet’s known oil, coal, and gas reserves permanently buried and untapped.
By March 2013, the fossil-fuel divestment campaign had spread to hundreds of college and university campuses nationwide.
A noteworthy ally to McKibben in his environmentalist endeavors has been the author Naomi Klein, who joined the board of 350.org in 2011 and subsequently helped McKibben launch the university divestment campaign. “The Klein-McKibben partnership,” writes Stanley Kurtz, “signals an ambitious new political strategy—a joining together of the environmentalist and the anti-capitalist Left, Occupiers and climate warriors battling as one.”
McKibben is also a strident opponent of the proposed construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would carry some 800,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to refineries in the American Gulf Coast, where it would be refined, exported, and burned.
By McKibben’s reckoning, the best way to ensure that oil, coal, and gas become obsolete would be to require governments to impose steeply escalating carbon taxes designed to make it prohibitively expensive for anyone to deal in fossil fuels. Emphasizing that the implementation of such measures is a matter of great urgency, McKibben warns that “our whole civilization stands on the edge of collapse.”
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