Bill McKibben Talks Climate Change

Renowned environmentalist and prolific author Bill McKibben spoke at Bridges Auditorium last night. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College in Vermont and the founder of, an international environmental organization aimed at raising awareness of anthropogenic climate change and cutting emissions of carbon dioxide.

McKibben held a Master Class with Environmental Analysis (EA) students on Thursday before his speech and toured the Pomona College Organic Farm. He will also participate in a local conference on Friday and Saturday organized by the local senior community Pilgrim Place and hosted at the Claremont Presbyterian Church. TSL sat down with McKibben to discuss his 2010 book, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.

TSL: How do you pronounce the title of your 2010 book, Eaarth?

McKibben: Eaarth. Do your best Schwarzenegger impression.

TSL: Are we doomed?

McKibben: It’s very easy to concoct scenarios in which it doesn’t work out, and there are scientists who think we’ve waited too long. The best science indicates that we have a window, not to stop the warming—it’s too late for that—but to keep it from getting completely out of control.

TSL: You urge a transition to local, self-sufficient communities based around local agriculture. What about communities without access to arable land or water?

McKibben: I have no f— idea what’s going to happen to Las Vegas. It’s very hard for me to make it work in my mind. My guess is that much of the migration to say, the Southwest, will be reversed. I don’t think there’s the water to support it, and every climatological study we have indicates that the Southwest is going to get drier and hotter.

TSL: What was it like to get arrested?

McKibben: It sucked. I spent three days at Central Cell Block in D.C., shackled at the ankle. It was exactly as much fun as it sounds like it would be. We never even got fined because when we finally got before a judge, the judge said to the cop, ‘So you charged these people with ‘failure to yield’—which isn’t even a misdemeanor; it’s a traffic offense—and you kept them for three days in Central Cell Block? Why did you do that?’ It was ridiculous, but, happily, it didn’t deter anybody. The attempts to apply force to people who aren’t making rational calculations, to people who think it’s important to go break the law, that usually backfires.

TSL: Are you a vegetarian?

McKibben: No. I’m an omnivore. I eat local.

TSL: Should graduates of the Claremont Colleges know how to farm?

McKibben: I think it would be really cool to have as many people as possible knowing how to farm. At Middlebury, we graduate five or ten kids a year who want to go farm for their profession. It’s perhaps not the greatest deployment of $200,000 and maybe they would have been better off to spend it buying land, and I kind of try to stay away from their parents at commencement. But they make me really proud. We don’t need fifty percent of America farming, like we had 100 years ago, but we probably need more than one percent of America farming.

(From the Master Class) McKibben: The thing that makes college important is that it’s the four years in the average American life when you get to live the way that most human beings lived for most of human history, i.e. in close physical and emotional proximity to a bunch of other people. And sometimes it’s a pain, when someone’s playing music all night or whatever, but mostly it’s pretty great, because there’s always people around to bounce things off of and to do things with. And the irony of higher education is that it kind of implicitly takes as its mission making sure that you earn enough money that you’ll never have to live that way again… I’m staying at this retirement place, Pilgrim Place. I’m always struck when I’m in places like that by the fact that as soon as things start to get a little hard, when you reach a certain age, you realize how badly set up modern consumer society is. If you’re poor, if you’re young, or if you’re old, then there’s not that much great about the highly individualized society we have. And so what do old people now want to do? They want to join, essentially, communes. It’s the closest thing to going to college. The model that we evolved for fifty years with this incredible abundance of cheap fossil fuel not only is an ecological disaster, but I think we’re going to look back on it and realize that it had far less pleasure than we insisted to ourselves that it did.

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