Profile: Bill McKibben

Profile: Bill McKibben

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben – and originator of the successful global campaign –  says it is already too late to prevent global warming. What we have to do now is find a way to cope with a new reality. But he insists that we must put a price on carbon so that we really begin to ween ourselves aggressively from fossil fuel. He’s launched a new book and will be visiting Australia 21 to 25 May.

Author Bill McKibben talks with Kai Ryssdal on Marketplace on US Public Radio about his book, “Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet,” why he chose that title, and what we have to do cope with how we’ve changed our planet.

Environmentalist and author Bill McKibben says it’s already too late to prevent global warming. What we have to do now is find a way to cope with our new reality.

Ryssdal: This book, for those who can’t see it out there, the title is “Eaarth” with the unconventional spelling of e-a-a-r-t-h. Help me out there.

McKibben: The conceit is that we really have built a new planet. Substantially different enough from the one that we were born onto to warrant a new name. This earth that we live on now has 5 percent more moisture in the atmosphere than the one 50 years ago. Its oceans are turning steadily acid. We’re seeing dramatic increases both in drought and in deluge, enough so that we’ve really begun to alter not only the ecological fabric of the planet but the economic fabric as well.

Ryssdal: It kind of feels on a day-to-day basis like the same old place.

McKibben: It does until something happens. I recount the story of our small town, and the fact that summer before last we had the two biggest rainstorms ever recorded there. That kind of storm is now happening in some place around the world every single day. This is a different world. It so far doesn’t feel entirely different. It just feels a little different.

Ryssdal: So how do we recalibrate? Do we just get used to living smaller and less complicated and closer to home?

McKibben: Well, that’s certainly part of it. We need to do two things. One, put a price on carbon so that we really begin to ween ourselves aggressively from fossil fuel. Even when we do that we’d be very wise to re-examine our economic life. Stop thinking constantly about expansion, and start thinking more about security. That implies getting away from too-big-to-fail, not just in banking, but in energy, in agriculture, and in almost everything we do.

Ryssdal: Take me through one of those big fixed investments that you spend some time on in the book: agriculture. How do we deconstruct that so that it becomes sustainable?

McKibben: Right now soil has become a kind of matrix for holding your corn upright while you apply fossil fuel. We need to get back to a very different kind of agriculture. One that’s much more diverse and is much more localized. And that’s beginning to happen, Kai. The fastest growing part of the food economy for the last decade has been local farmers’ markets.

Ryssdal: I don’t want to get all macroeconomic on you here, Bill. But just to go back to basic economics and Adam Smith, the opening lines of “Wealth of Nations,” the book that he wrote, was consumption is the soul and purpose of all production. I mean that’s why you have economies is to grow and get bigger.

McKibben: He didn’t say that it’s to grow forever getting bigger. In fact, he was pretty clear that there was a place at which that no longer made sense. What economists have failed to realize from the beginning, the economy is a subset of something else, and that something else is the natural world. There comes a point in which infinite growth no longer works. This is the moment finally when those limits are at hand.

Ryssdal: You’re probably the last guy I need to tell this to. But there are fundamentally two responses to a book like this. One is to put your fingers in your ears, and say, la, la, la, because it’s really just so depressing that you can’t even comprehend. Or, as you say in the book, you go down into the basement, and you start oiling your guns because the apocalypse is nigh. What are you supposed to do about those responses?

McKibben: You know I’ve spent the last two or three years of my life organizing the largest scale global environmental movement we’ve seen. At the same time, I’ve been doing all kinds of work in the place where I live, in my town in Vermont. We need to work at that local scale and at that global. It’s true that we’ve taken the sweet earth on which we were born and degraded it in pretty powerful ways. There’s already damage. There will be more. So we better figure out how to live on the planet we have left.


An American environmentalist and writer, Bill McKibben is the founder of, an international climate campaign. This October 10, is organizing the second annual 350 International Day of Climate Action, with thousands of events planned at iconic places around the world. Bill frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. McKibben is active in the Methodist Church, and his writing sometimes has a spiritual bent.

Bill grew up in suburban Lexington, Massachusetts. He was president of the Harvard Crimson newspaper in college. 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. He quit the magazine when its long-time editor William Shawn was forced out of his job, and soon moved to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York.


Twenty years ago, with The End of Nature, Bill McKibben offered one of the earliest warnings about global warming. Those warnings went mostly unheeded; now, he insists, we need to acknowledge that we’ve waited too long, and that massive change is not only unavoidable but already under way. Our old familiar globe is suddenly melting, drying, acidifying, flooding, and burning in ways that no human has ever seen. We’ve created, in very short order, a new planet, still recognizable but fundamentally different. We may as well call it Eaarth.

That new planet is filled with new binds and traps. A changing world costs large sums to defend—think of the money that went to repair New Orleans, or the trillions it will take to transform our energy systems. But the endless economic growth that could underwrite such largesse depends on the stable planet we’ve managed to damage and degrade. We can’t rely on old habits any longer.

Our hope depends, McKibben argues, on scaling back—on building the kind of societies and economies that can hunker down, concentrate on essentials, and create the type of community (in the neighborhood, but also on the Internet) that will allow us to weather trouble on an unprecedented scale. Change—fundamental change—is our best hope on a planet suddenly and violently out of balance. 

Bill McKibben visits Australia next month, for talks and book signings in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. He will be in Sydney 21 – 23 May; in Brisbane Monday 24 May; and in Melbourne Tuesday 25 May.

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