Ep. 18. 417.1 parts per million with Bill McKibben

Mill Valley Public Library interviews Bill McKibben

It hasn’t been a conscious effort on my part but I confess a driver of my approach to each interview for the Borrowed Time series has been my personal hope that I might find the answer to all of the problems we face as a result of the changing climate. By asking authors, activists, scientists and park rangers what they believe are the solutions to the problems, I hope to learn the answers. 

In the hour preceding the scheduled time to interview Bill McKibben, feeling both nervous and excited, I reviewed my outline of questions and had a moment of self-criticism and guilt because I felt most of my questions were designed to seek the answers to all of the problems. So many of them seemed to be variants of How and What can be done? Bill McKibben has written dozens of books on the environment, founded 350.org and is rightly regarded as one of the prominent figures of the ‘leaderful’ (to use his word from our interview) environmental movement. Surely he has all the answers, right? Maybe. I certainly hoped to learn some new magical solutions that he would share with me that aren’t already addressed in his books, statements or articles he has written. 

As stated in this interview, when we started this series we intended to ask everyone what gives them hope. My hope was that this is where I would learn the answers. Bathsheba Demuth’s response – expressing frustration at the question itself and adding, ‘The way we talk about hope is that it’s something given to you rather than something that you make and at this point we really need to be making our hope not imagining someone is going to hand it to us’ was inspiring to me in many ways, including that I stopped asking people what gives them hope. But I brought it up again with McKibben because his most recent book, Falter, opens with a comment on hope and I felt there was a lot to unpack in it. 

For starters, I felt McKibben’s words answered a related question that I asked Derrick Jensen about hope. In Endgame on a chapter dedicated to hope, Jensen defines hope as ‘a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency. It means you are essentially powerless.’ I asked Jensen how he does what he does if hope isn’t a fundamental motivator to his actions. Jensen gave a good answer (listen and find out) but McKibben’s words, ‘I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have bothered writing what follows’ helped me understand the nuance, despite that Jensen also states in Endgame, ‘I’ve grown accustomed to carrying the daily weight of despair.’

McKibben’s preface also states, ‘A writer doesn’t owe a reader hope’ and in our interview McKibben shares he is neither optimistic or pessimistic about the future. So if there is an answer, perhaps it is that whether one feels despair or not, optimism or pessimism,  ‘engagement is our only chance’ as McKibben concludes chapter one of Falter. 

I first requested to interview McKibben in November of last year and hoped it might be the first of this series. The request made months ago was to discuss his book Falter, which was published in April of last year but instead this interview focused on current events. Two months before Falter was published, David Wallace-Wells’ Uninhabitable Earth was published and I listened to interviews with each author just days apart from one another on KQED. The same week the IPCC was in session and all of the news on the radio was bleak. It was listening to the interviews with McKibben and Wallace-Wells, along with the climate reports, that were the inspiration to address climate change at our Library. This month, like every month it seems, the news about climate change and mass extinction continues to only get worse and worse. 

Yes, the news is bad and it may only continue to get worse. In the context of looking for the answers, I only feel slightly guilty for hoping McKibben might provide them. I feel we already do know the answers but we continue to seek them elsewhere because we don’t want to give up any convenience. We want fast cars, fast food, instant gratification and our way of life in the USA. Just as the reports of climate change become more bleak, the numbers of cases from the pandemic rise every day. Police helicopters have been flying overhead downtown Oakland non-stop as I’ve been writing this and I don’t want to return to what was normal. If there has been a universal answer to the problem of climate change from authors, activists and scientists in this series, perhaps it is simple as do whatever you can and whatever it takes.