Interview: How Our Economy is Killing the Earth


Times Books

When Bill McKibben first sounded the alarm about global warming 20 years ago, he was something of a voice crying in the wilderness. Now McKibben, author of The End of Nature and Deep Economy, is issuing an even more dire warning. His new book, with the science fiction-y title Eaarth, paints a picture of a depleted, overheated planet no longer suited to its inhabitants. That planet is our own, the time is now, and the book is non-fiction.

Laying the blame for climate change squarely at the feet of the growth economy, McKibben proposes a new, robust, "mature" economic model centered on localized energy, food production, and capital. McKibben, founder of the climate change action group, spoke to The Atlantic about the way our energy sources dictate our economy—and how we might yet live "lightly, carefully and gracefully" in a hotter and leaner world.

You must meet with considerable opposition from policymakers, academics, and press who are invested in economic growth.

Sure. It's very hard for any of us to take on the notion that the thing that's been central though the course of our whole lives, the political idea that whatever kind of ideology we've tended to embrace may no longer be serving us. It's especially hard to take on because it's an idea that, at some point, did serve us well. So yes, there's lots of resistance—an inability, almost, to hear or to understand the basic idea.

It's not really all that new, you know. When Limits to Growth was published in 1972 it got a really powerful hearing; millions of people bought the book and thought about the idea, and millions of them were convinced. But in the end I think the crucial moment was the election of Ronald Reagan; that was really a kind of debate about whether we were going to entertain the idea of limits. We decided not to, and we've never looked back.

Now we're reaching the point, I'm afraid, where it's no longer going to be an optional exercise. When the Arctic melts, that's a bad sign.

I can see the transition to a sustainable energy infrastructure based on solar panels on rooftops, mini-wind turbines in every yard, local food plots. It's harder for me to see the transition to a non-growth-based economy.

In a sense, they go hand in hand. The single most important part of that growth economy has been access to really cheap, plentiful fossil fuel. And if for a combination of the fact that we're running out of it and environmentally we can't afford to burn it anymore we switch off of that, then the fuels that replace them will come with more inherent limits and that they'll help reshape the world just in and of themselves. I don't think it's possible to have the kind of agro-industrial complex that we have at the moment without endless amounts of cheap energy.

If I were an economist or finance minister reading your book, I might wonder how the economic infrastructure might make this shift. We have so much invested in the old economy.

I think there are things that we're not going to need anymore. And huge Wall Street banks are fairly high on the list.

So whither Wall Street?

Hopefully over time, Wall Street will indeed wither. And that will be useful because we'll be moving capital back to much more localized sources. It's putting money to use in the same way that we're doing with energy and with food—much closer to home. And in a much less overheated way, too, where people aren't demanding 17 percent returns to make things happen. Where people are investing in their communities and doing fine by it.

Can you give me some examples of support you've received from Wall St.?

Many of the examples you use in your book are in Vermont, where you live. Is the model of self-sufficiency of Vermont farmers, businessmen, and energy producers applicable to other parts of the country that are quite different? New York City or Los Angeles, for instance?

Concentration actually makes many things easier. I describe a guy doing a compost route through rural Vermont and he can make it work and make it pay, but the distance between stops adds up the cost, you know? It's a whole different deal on the Upper West Side.

Think about New York 100, even 75 years ago. Its population was roughly the same as it is now, but it supported itself largely on the agriculture of the surrounding area. That's why we call New Jersey the Garden State. Much of that land is still there and ready to go in upstate New York, for instance. And it's beginning to happen—it's a very good piece of news that for the first time in 150 years the number of farms in America is increasing rather than decreasing. And most of that increase is coming around metro areas as people begin the process of building these markets, aggregating demand for good, local food.

Cities and rural areas each offer huge opportunities. The hardest place to make things happen is in the suburbs.

What do you see as the future of suburbs in the next 20 years? Do you think they'll simply go away?

The outer ring of suburbs is already in huge trouble. I think that many of the inner suburbs will do well because they are places that have held their value and are on rail lines and commuter lines. My guess is that we'll see a lot of experimentation with people growing something other than grass on their lawns.

I was in Ann Arbor the other day, and people were completely excited about putting up front-yard, raised-bed gardens throughout one neighborhood after another. Suburbia also has a lot of rooftops. And that's one of the places where we're going to find our power.

With you have done a lot of lobbying and advocacy in Washington. Do you feel there's a growing understanding of these issues in Congress?

No, I don't. I feel that we are losing on the most important issues in Congress, and I think the reason is that we haven't built a big enough, powerful enough movement to demand change. We're seeing next to no coherent action on climate change. If any kind of bill emerges, it's going to be a very watered-down and tepid one.

At a certain level you can blame all the senators and representatives for it, but I think it's also fair to blame those of us who care about this issue—because we haven't built the kind of political power that we should. We assumed that because scientists had said the world was coming to an end that that would be enough to motivate our political system to act.

As it turns out, that's not how politics works. You need to meet power with power. We're never going to compete in terms of money; the fossil fuel industry is the most profitable enterprise humans have ever undertaken. So we're going to have to compete with bodies and with spirit and with creativity.

I'd be remiss not to ask your response to the ongoing disaster in the Gulf.

For us, it's a real contradiction to be talking about taking on the climate challenge at the same time as you're talking about searching out ever more hydrocarbons in ever more difficult places. We didn't anticipate the Deepwater Horizon spill, of course, but it certainly proves the point. There are two things to take away from it.

Number one, how desperate we are for energy right now, drilling for oil a mile beneath the surface of the earth. It shows we have run out of the last drops of easy oil on this planet.

Number two, we can directly see the damage the oil is doing to the environment now because the water is turning black. But the Gulf, and every other ocean on earth, is also already 30 percent more acidic from absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. Even if that oil had made it to shore and into the gas tanks of our cars, it still would have done huge environmental damage.

In Hot, Flat and Crowded, Tom Friedman calls for a "green revolution" not just to help the environment, but the economy—with new industries, new technologies, and many new green collar jobs. What's your take on that?

Some of it is real—as I say in the book I'm all for pursuing it. But it's folly to just pull the internal combustion engine out of the machine, toss in a wind turbine, and keep rolling on as before. I think there are more systemic and profound changes coming.

I think it's going to be a tough stretch—for many reasons, including the fact that global warming just keeps happening faster and faster. In the last six weeks we've set new, all-time high-temperature records for seven different nations around the world. We were talking with our organizers in Pakistan on a day when the mercury hit 129ºF, an all-time Asia record. This is happening very, very quickly, and we don't have generations in which to transform the world. We need to get to work in every way that we can think of right now.

Maybe I've seen too many movies set in a post-apocalyptic future where civilization has had to return to its agrarian, muscle-powered past. But isn't Eaarth's vision of where we're headed in some ways dystopian?

I think it's quite possible that we could be headed for a serious collapse if we don't get to work right away. I don't think there's any reason to think that civilizations can cope with a temperature increase of 4º or 5º or 6º—the 1º we've done so far is straining us in huge ways. But I do my best to outline what kind of world might work, within limits. I think it is more agrarian than the one we have now; I don't think we're going to have 1 percent of our population producing our food—that number will go up.

I also think that that world can be considerably sweeter than the one we live in. At the moment if we're both lucky and alive, as we move towards a world that values community, that values relationship ahead of consumption, we'll find some benefits to counteract the very real losses we'll encounter along the way.