350 is arguably the most important number in the world
My interview with Bill McKibben takes place on a bench, in a hidden little park, away from the hustle and bustle of a nearby central London train station during morning rush hour. As good a place as any to meet the acclaimed writer whose 1989 book, The End of Nature, is one of the earliest, and most powerful, documentations of how humans' lopsided relationship with nature, predicated on human domination, may well cost us, or at least drastically change, our future.
He has since written lyrically and eloquently about genetic engineering in Enough, the economic growth fetish in Deep Economy and the numbing power of TV in The Age of Missing Information, among other books. As a writer, McKibben has always taken sides. One of his greatest strengths is that his messages are delivered without hectoring, rather through thoughtful observations and compelling arguments.
What is less well known about Bill McKibben is that he has been so moved by the issue of climate change as to shift his attention, and energy, to campaigning. The organisation he helped set up, 350.org, will, he hopes, lend a hand in creating a global movement of individuals that will build enough momentum to ‘reboot' the world's current conversation on climate change.
He's had early successes in campaigning – first with a small march in 2006 in his home state Vermont, and then with a national march called Step it Up, when he and six university students, with no money or organisational resources, managed in just three months to organise 1,400 rallies across the US on the same day. He says that these campaigns have pioneered a new organising model for, ‘very dispersed action that nonetheless could be made more than the sum of its parts.'
So-called ‘open source' campaigning, he says, means ‘we didn't need a march on Washington anymore, if we could have 1,400 marches wherever and, at the end of the day, bring all the images of them together in one place. Also, it's odd to tell people to drive across America to protest climate change.'
Moving from a national campaign to try to ‘organise the world' is quixotic at best, yet, according to McKibben, it appears to be working. 350.org's first big act is a global day of witness on 24th October, the goal of which is ‘merely to drive this number into the information bloodstream of the planet.'
The number 350 itself is radical. Although the global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide are already beyond that – at 390ppmv – scientists and climate experts, particularly following the Arctic's heavy loss of sea ice two summers ago, have begun to revise the highest safe levels of carbon dioxide to 350ppmv. The date was chosen as a global day of action as the start of the six-week run up to the Copenhagen negotiations, where a global climate change agreement to succeed the Kyoto Protocol will be finalised.
350 is arguably the most important number in the world
350 paellas anyone?
On 24th October, Bill McKibben and his team are trying to get as many people as they can muster to put aside what they are doing locally, or incorporate it, into a joint global witness. ‘It's a pot-luck supper. We are saying, "Here is the date, here is the theme, and you have to do the cooking, to self-organise". And people do. It's a good thing. It allows people, wherever they are, to make this make sense. In every place it will look different. That is part of the vision of what the world should be.'
An ‘action' can be anything from a walk, march or rally to a teach-in, a bike ride, a sing-a-thon, a carbon-free dinner with friends or volunteering to help retrofit a house for the day. After registering your action on 350.org, the only request is that you plan a time to take an action photo that visibly displays the number 350.
There are already more than 1,100 signed up around the world – including 350 trees planted in Bangladesh, 350 scuba divers diving at the Great Barrier Reef, 350 paellas being solar-cooked in a Barcelona square, 350 pumpkins being piled up in a farmers' market. It's about making a statement. 350.org is allied with 200 organisations around the world and has enlisted ‘350 messengers' – the likes of writer Barbara Kingsolver, Bianca Jagger, scientist Jim Hansen, Vandana Shiva and Will Steger – to spread the 350 movement.
McKibben's UK visit included meetings with church leaders in Britain, which resulted in a commitment from thousands of churches to ring their bells 350 times during the day. ‘It doesn't involve big expenditure, it is easy. On the other hand it is guaranteed to draw lots of press and it is symbolically important. In Britain, churches were told not to ring their bells at all during World War II because it was the signal for invasion. Something is on fire, we are under assault, albeit from ourselves.'
The current plan is to have a huge screen outside – or inside, he jokes – United Nations headquarters in New York, to showcase the images uploaded from around the world on the day. By the next day, McKibben says, photographic prints will be delivered to all the Copenhagen negotiators from each country – with a note along the lines of ‘Here is what's happening in your country. Act now.'
The reality principle
‘Do I think that Copenhagen will produce an agreement that gets us back to 350 anytime soon?' McKibben asks. 'No. It's too radical a target for the political world at the moment. But getting it out there will move that process further in the direction of science. We are well behind the curve now and catching up is going to be extremely difficult. With 350 at least we know where the curve is. It's arguably the most important number in the world. It sets a boundary condition for our civilisation to work.'
350 is a reality principle, and 24th October is a day of symbolic action to get across a larger message, out of the thousands of local and national initiatives on climate change around the world.
‘It's dawning on a lot of people now that we are not going to solve this thing one light bulb at a time. Those things that seem quite practical are at this stage symbolic. They are necessary to do: I drove the first hybrid car in Vermont, when it was built I had the most energy efficient house in Vermont, and on and on. But there is no way to make the math work. The only thing that will, maybe, make a difference, is change at the top that resets the price of carbon in a real way. The only way to get that is through political action. That means that if practical gestures are in a sense symbolic, in an odd way symbolic gestures are now quite practical – to the degree that they can build that kind of political momentum.'
This new model of campaigning ‘without an organisation' couldn't happen without the internet, and McKibben acknowledges the power of the web to make big campaigns possible – quickly and cheaply. ‘We spent a huge amount of money for us, $70,000, to make our site operate in a dozen different languages, but in the scheme of things it is not a lot. Exxon Mobil, which made more money last year than any company in the history of money, can spend a billion dollars on its website, but in fact it would be significantly worse than the one we built. There is a kind of equalising effect in this technology that I like.'
Has campaigning taught him a lot? ‘We've learned how hard it is to work across linguistic boundaries. One of the reasons ‘350' is so useful to us is that numerals are one of the things that do translate. We've learned that there is a great network of young people all over the world engaged in this issue, be it the Australian Youth Climate Camp, Britain's youth climate movement – they are completely fired-up. They understand what we are talking about. I'm 48 and I am twice as old as all the people I work with. My crew are aged 25 and under.'
For the love of nature
After leaving The New Yorker magazine in 1987, McKibben moved to New York's Adirondack mountains, fell completely in love with them and spent all his time outdoors, which is ‘one reason I was so receptive to the early science about climate change. The wilderness of this place was turned upside down by the knowledge that even though it was remote, it wasn't remote.'
McKibben partly credits his initial environmental awareness and love of nature to the discovery, in his 20s, of a ‘series of writers who really changed my understanding of the world: Wendell Berry chief among them, Ed Abbey, Terry Tempest Williams.'
Today, he is returning the favour as those active in the climate youth movements coming across Bill McKibben now may know him better as an activist than as a writer. He has gone beyond simply telling people what is going on in the world; he can no longer bear witness without getting involved.
‘I recently marched past a coal-fired power plant arm and arm with Jim Hansen [the first scientist to warn about climate change 20 years ago]. The scientists are finding out they need to get involved. Lots and lots of sober economists are getting involved. I've watched this change. If you think about it long enough, you almost have no choice. It's the biggest thing human beings have ever done, and it's very much in the next few years that the outcome of this story will be set, past our ability to change it. It matters. A lot.'
Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor