Last Saturday I found myself sitting across the table from Bill McKibben on the outdoor patio of a San Francisco pub, interviewing him about the modern day Merry Pranksters-style Do The Math bus tour he is currently on, and chatting with him and his local 350.org crew about everything from meteors and space shuttles to blogging and German energy policy.
Lunch talk with Bill McKibben, Jamie Henn, Carson, Anna Goldstein, Joe Lamb, and Sven Eberlein. Photo by Debra Baida
A few days before Saturday, I had no idea I’d be picking Bill’s brain about how we can stop Chevron, Exxon, and Co. from burning the 2,795 gigatons of carbon dioxide they’re currently sitting on, five times the amount of the 565 gigatons that is widely considered the absolute maximum to keep the planet’s atmosphere within a habitable 2°C of warming.
However, life has a way of opening doors if you’re ready to walk through them — with a lot of help from your friends. In this case, it was my blogger community on Daily Kos that made it possible. For more on how it came about, check out my original post about this great opportunity.
At one o’clock on Saturday, my favorite photographer, Debra Baida and I wandered into San Francisco’s Mars Bar, right across from the Concourse Exhibition Center where Bill was scheduled to speak at the Green Festival an hour later. On the outdoor garden patio we were warmly greeted by 350s Co-Founder and Communications Director Jamie Henn. “You guys look like you’re here to see Bill. He should get here soon, have a seat.”
And sure enough, a few minutes later there he was…
photo by Debra Baida
If you shoveled all your garbage out into the street, it would be uncivilized and lead to wrecks. The only people who get to do that are Shell, Exxon, Chevron, and everybody else. And because of that, they’re the richest companies the world has ever seen. Exxon made more last year than any company in the history of money, and it doesn’t take too much of that money in Washington and all the other capitals in the world to make sure nothing ever changes. That’s the problem.
– Bill McKibben, 11/10/2012, SF Green Festival
For anyone not sure why Bill and his 350 team are so adamant about doing the math, his now legendary article Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math in Rolling Stone Magazine earlier this year (Rolling Stone Editor to Bill: “Something odd is going on — your piece has ten times as many ‘likes’ on Facebook as Justin Bieber’s.”) is a must-read. It lays out exactly why we can no longer afford to accept the status quo of an unregulated fossil fuel industry, or solely recycle and garden our way out of this pickle.
I was personally intrigued as well as encouraged by the recent elevation of mathematics as the new star of American public discourse. First, Bill Clinton whacked Republican budget and tax fantasies with the “Arithmetic” hammer. Then Nate Silver became a quasi rock star for simply getting his poll numbers right during election season. Finally, the ultimate triumph of arithmetic on election night with Karl Rove trying to explain the Math You Do As a Republican to Make Yourself Feel Better.
With lunacy and denial clearly on the ropes, what better time in history to finally come to grips with the math that has our planet’s ecosystem on the brink of collapse: that, in just a cosmic second, we are burning fossil fuels that took millions of years to form and in the process are on the fast track to dumping so much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that it’ll literally knock the planet from under our feet if we don’t start getting serious about changing our ways.
As everyone seems to be going all “reality-based” these days, this may indeed prove to be the short window in human history we have to graduate from arguing about whether global warming is happening to figuring out what we’re going to do about it.
These were the thoughts going through my head when Bill McKibben stepped into the patio. Along with 350’s Anna Goldstein and Ashley Malyszka as well as Joe Lamb of the Borneo Project, they joined Deb, myself, and Jamie, who had already been chatting for a bit. Before Bill’s lunch had arrived we were already drilling down into some deep shit. (pun intended)
So here goes…
Interview with Bill McKibben
Mars Bar & Restaurant, San Francisco
November 10, 2012
interview photos by Debra Baida
Sven: So how’s it been so far, Bill? I know you guys got a big divestment from Unity College in Maine and from the City of Seattle, right?
Bill: Yes, the Seattle Mayor said they’re going to be figuring out what they can do, but what’s been amazing so far is the fired-up nature of people. I suppose it could have gone either way. Maybe after the election everyone could have been like four years ago, “okay, we’ve done our work, now Barack will handle things.” Clearly people are on the one hand extremely happy about the election, but on the other it’s like “now is when we go to work.” Thank heaven.
Sven: Is there anyone else you can report that’s on the verge of signing on? Universities? Cities?
Bill: Hampshire College is all but divested. They’re 98% of the way there. Their president for some reason doesn’t quite want to call it divestment.
Sven: What are the sticking points?
Bill: The big sticking point — and this is going to be a years long slog, I mean, this is very hard work — is that this is the most important industry on earth. It’s hard to have a portfolio without a lot of fossil fuel in it. It takes big, conscious effort to do it. It takes realizing that above all it’s a moral question.
Sven: And we’re all intricately interwoven with it, private and public sectors, all our lives…
Sven: I like that one line in your Rolling Stone article where you say, “Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself.” That one strikes me very deeply.
Bill: I think what people are figuring out is that we all are implicated in the consumption of fossil fuel, there’s no way to live on this planet and get around it. But most of us would be just as happy if everything we did was powered some other way, you know? People are very open to the idea that they don’t want to be profiting from this wreckage, even if they have to participate in it on some level. Election season is a good time to be doing this too, because everyone is really conscious… for a little while (laughter at the table). It’s just how much money these guys are spending to perpetuate their system of doing things.
Sven: You know how Bill Clinton said in his speech at the Democratic Convention how there’s that one word, “arithmetic!” I was thinking, “so here’s ‘Do the Math’ and at the same time this Administration is pushing the arithmetic meme.
Jamie: It’s really been interesting, the math meme as it spreads. Toyota, unbeknownst to us, their whole thing to promote the new Prius is, “Do the Math.” They’re literally using the same phrase on their billboards. It’s almost like we’re aligned corporately, although we’re not. But they have big mathematical chalkboards. I think people are hungry after all that rhetoric and bombast of the election to actually have some simple, hard facts.
Sven: Are there some other specific areas that can be tackled as far as the Obama Administration goes?
Bill: It’s not like the election changed everything politically. John Boehner still runs things and we still got tons of people in Washington who are way too plugged into the machine, but there are things that the President can do by himself. The most obvious, easiest dunk shot is Keystone. (Keystone XL pipeline). I mean, the guy delayed it for a year to give time for more study, so in that year Mother Nature filed her public comments: You know, we had the warmest year in history, the Arctic melted away, we had an insanely epic drought, and now we’ve had a storm that looks like something James Cameron designed that flooded large parts of the most important city in the world. So after a year of study it seems improbable — I mean, in Washington it seems completely probable to everybody that they’ll approve it — but in the real world it somehow seems improbable that he would say, “oh, okay, I think it’s a good idea to go pour all this carbon into the atmosphere.”
Sven: And you wrote about that in your Rolling Stone article, too. “Is it going to take a big storm to wipe out Manhattan…”
Bill: It was horrible. I’m glad I didn’t write any more, because I went back and reread it, and the article said, “What if there were a huge drought across the American Midwest or a massive storm that swamped Manhattan?” I’m glad I didn’t say, “What if a giant wildfire raged across San Francisco!?” (laughter at the table)
Sven: I have one more question. I’m from Germany and we’ve been fighting hard against the nuclear industry since the late 1970s. When Fukushima happened last year, all of a sudden Chancellor Merkel decided to shut them all down. What’s relevant to the Do-the-Math tour is that Siemens, one of the biggest German multinational companies, said, “okay, we’re not going to do nuclear anymore.”
Bill: GE said the same thing.
Sven: They did?
Bill: Jeff Immelt (GE CEO) said, “this doesn’t make sense economically.”
Sven: Because my question was what would it take for the oil companies, what kind of a deal would there have to be for them to say, “you know, it’s not worth it for us, the externalities are going to catch up with us.” They know they’re ignoring externalities, right?
Bill: At the moment, unlike the nuclear guys, they’re making a fortune. Exxon makes more money than anyone has ever made, by a lot. So it’s hard to get them to see past that at all. And that’s why one of the points of putting this kind of pressure on them is to make them start to realize that they’re eventually — hopefully sooner than later — going to come up against some regulatory constraint that makes them keep some of their reserves in the ground, that they’re not worth as much as they think they are. Ten years ago they all thought that maybe they were gonna have to turn into energy companies, and they started investing in wind and solar and things. But then they stopped because they were making more money than anything.
Sven: So we have to take the fight straight on? There’s no appeal to reason or that a big event like Hurricane Sandy would affect them?
Bill: It does not seem to slow them down. (Table erupts in mimicry of greedy oil and tobacco executives). The good thing about business people is that they’re ultimately practical. If one path is constraint, they will go down another one. These guys are perfectly capable of making lots of money putting up solar panels. I have no doubt that there’s an immense amount of ability to execute at Exxon. They have good scientists, good managers, and all of that. They can’t make quite as much money because you can’t meter the sun, you know, but other than that they would do fine. They’re just doing SUPERfine right now.
Pretty strong stuff, don’t you think? What I like most about Bill is that in addition to being a fierce fighter and truth teller he has a huge heart. You can just feel his compassion and love for life and all living things oozing through the declarations of war on the fossil industry.
And it’s not a paradox, it actually makes perfect sense and you can feel it. The best way I can explain it is like being witness to an abusive relationship of people you care about. Is the most loving way to respond to idly stand by so as not to interrupt the routine that both victim and abuser have become comfortably numb to? Or do you intervene, at the risk of rocking the boat and offending everyone, because you know that given new circumstances both parties could live up to a much higher potential?
I’m posing this question not only because I think it is relevant to all of us who consider themselves stewards of the earth, but because it resonates deeply within myself. I am at heart a peace-loving, harmony-seeking, and glass-half-full kind of soul who believes in the goodness of humanity and the rightness of the universe, with a live-by-example, be-the-change-you-wish-to-see-in-the-world view of the future. By nature, I shy away from confrontation, not necessarily because I’m fearful of the consequences, but because strategically, most of the time the confrontations are not worth the energy spent — people just get used to your bitching and take you less seriously. Spend your outrage equity wisely, I say.
But then there are things that are worth standing up for, things so big and imbalanced and important and unjust that they must force us out of our comfort zones, wherever that may be. That’s what I think this existential dilemma of watching these fossil giants shoveling heavy loads of coal and oil onto a sinking mothership is asking of us. This unprecedented time in history is asking us to defy ourselves, to be creative, passionate, light, and resilient. To stand up and fight, but come from a place of love, wit, compassion, knowledge, and truth. As Bill said at the Green Festival, “we’re not going to outspend Exxon, so we’ll need other currencies to work in, and those are the currencies of movement: Passion, spirit, creativity, and sometimes we have to spend our bodies.”
We asked people who were coming to the Keystone XL protest if they would please put on a necktie or a dress, because we wanted to make an important visual point that there is nothing radical at all about anything that we’re asking for. We are asking for a world that works a little bit like the one we were born into. That’s not radical, that’s a conservative request. Radicals work at oil companies. If you are willing to amass a huge fortune by altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere, then you are engaged in the most radical acts that any human beings have ever been engaged in. And we have got to absolutely stop them from doing that. We have to do it peacefully and non-violently, and firmly. And we have to do it fast, and we have to do it together. I do not know that we can win this fight, because the science is rough and the other side has all the money. What I do know from going all over the world is that it is gonna be a fight. There are lots of people ready to go.
Bill McKibben, 11/10/2012, SF Green Festival
After the interview, as we were walking across Brannan St. to the Concourse Exhibition Center where Bill was going to give his Do The Math pep talk, I still wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do about it all, other than to just keep writing about ecocities, clean energy, zero waste, environmental justice, simple living, calling out the oil companies for their wreaking of death and destruction, and living my life treading lightly and inspiring mightily.
When Bill took the stage, the atmosphere was sizzling. I think a lot of people in that room were asking themselves the same question – what can I do to help?
photo by Debra Baida
One of the things we learned in the Keystone XL protest was that we can stand up to the fossil fuel industry, but another thing we learned was that it took a lot of work and we’re not going to be able to stop climate change one pipeline, one coal mine, one fracking well at a time. We’ll fight all those things but we have to go not just on defense, we have to go on offense too. The point of the Do The Math tour is to spark the next phase of the environmental movement, which is all about taking on that industry directly.
So how do we do it? The first step is to get institutions — colleges, universities, churches — to divest their holdings in fossil fuel industries. Bill reminded us that 25 years ago it was not okay if you were at a college to profit from investments in businesses that were involved in apartheid in South Africa, and people all over the country rose up. Invoking Nelson Mandela’s first trip out of prison to thank the students and ultimately the University of California who had forced the trustees to divest 3 billion dollars worth of stock, he implored all the students and university associates in the audience to once again step up. (note: Deb will post a b&w photo essay based on this particular subject)
It was the next part, however, that made a light bulb go on in my head…
We’ve marched a lot on Washington over the years, but we have to march on some other places. Are there people here who will join us come shareholder meeting season in the spring who will march on San Ramon where Chevron has its headquarters and Dallas where Exxon has its headquarters? We’re going to need you!
Did he just say San Ramon? That San Ramon in the East Bay, less than 50 miles from where I live? I’d go there to creatively shake some shareholders awake. But I don’t have a car, don’t want to borrow one, and BART doesn’t stop there. So…. I’ll take my bicycle! Hop on BART. Get off in Pleasanton or Walnut Creek. And Bike The Math to Chevron Headquarters!
BIKE THE MATH
to Chevron Headquarters in San Ramon, CA
Next shareholder meeting, Spring 2013, tbd
BART station tbd
Allow me to indulge!
To bring it back to another bus trip that took place almost 40 years ago:
There are going to be times when we can’t wait for somebody. Now, you’re either on the bus or off the bus. If you’re on the bus, and you get left behind, then you’ll find it again. If you’re off the bus in the first place — then it won’t make a damn.
– Ken Kesey, from The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
I’ll leave you with the final 30 minutes of Bill McKibben’s riveting speech at the Green Festival, after I remembered to push the “record” button…
It wasn’t the end of the world to go to jail. The end of the world is the end of the world, and that’s why we’re doing this work that we’re doing.
– Bill McKibben
You can help promote this tour by spreading the word on Twitter and Facebook, encourage people to buy tickets (go to this link to click onto city to sign up and buy tickets), giving donations for the tour, and promoting the tour with posters in your town or announcements at churches, schools or community meetings.