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McKibben Speaks on "A Special Moment in History" At Davdison Environmental Conference

October 1, 2000
CONTACT: Bill Giduz

(The following are notes from Mr. McKibben's speech, but are not verbatim remarks)

As a nation we have yet to focus on our environmental predicament, and we need to understand exactly where we are so we'll know what we have to do. It appears that I'm positioned on this conference program as the voice of doom and gloom, as the Eeyore, so that everyone else in the next few days will appear to be upbeat. That's OK with me.
Bill McKibben at the podium

Last month nature supplied us with a metaphor of our situation. Icebreakers found the Northwest Passage free of ice, they encountered open water. The title of my talk, "A special moment in history," refers to the fact that we live in a time of physical change far greater than anything humans have experienced. These changes will have more to do with our lives in next century than anything else. What's worried me most in the past decade is climate change. Burning fossil fuel releases five pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere for every seven pounds of fuel burned, and that CO2 traps heat that would otherwise be radiated back into space. By 1995 global warming was no longer a hypothesis. The scientific community investigated it and issued a report saying that the effect of humans on the climate was discernable.

That signaled the fact that we have grown large enough to alter the planet around us. Since 1995 the journals Science and Nature have regularly carried studies outlining our predicament. 1998 was the warmest year ever. Last week a study of the Himalayan ice core showed that the climate is warming. Warm air produces more severe climactic events.

Warm air holds more water vapor so we have both more drought and more flood. We have 20% more occasions of severe weather now than four decades ago. There is a discernable rise in sea level. It's small so far, but will be on the order of 1/2 meter - 1 meter within the century. That might not seem like much, but small changes can produce enormous consequences in a crowded world. In Bangla Desh people can't feed themselves if ocean water rises enough to block the outflow of rivers, as happened two years ago. We can expect it to happen more frequently in the years ahead.

Arctic ice has been measured by US and USSR submarines for past 40 years, and it's 40% thinner now than in 1960. That's a very large change in a very short time, and it may have enormous consequences. It's all fresh water melting, and that sends a lot of fresh water into the ocean, which helps drive ocean currents. There's speculation it may degrade the Gulf Stream that keeps western Europe habitable. Two days ago a study was issued saying that the hole in the Arctic ozone will be larger than ever this year. That shouldn't happen now since we've removed cloroflourocarbons, but now we're faced with an area of total ozone loss three time larger than size of the US.

The world has changed in very profound ways. Remember the picture in 1970 sent back by the Apollo astronauts? That picture is of a dramatically different world than the one we now live on. We live on a warmer planet, with different flora and fauna. The really scary news is that we're just 1/4 into the global warming predicted for this century. The consensus is that we'll see 3-4 degrees higher in this century.

Even things we take as our most powerful metaphors of our physical world, such as the change of seasons, is changing. The freezing date of ponds and rivers in the northern hemisphere is 9 days later than it was, and the average melting day is 9 days earlier than it used to be. It's an enormous shift, it's as if we all came to the next session of this conference and were 7 feet tall.

I think we've crossed the threshold from where we were one species among many, to the point where we now by our habits determine the most basic physical phenomena on the planet. This is only the largest example of our inadvertent crossing of that threshold. We're also doing it on purpose in the rapid increase of genetic engineering technology. We're usurping power we never had. We're doing it without active debate or understanding of where we're headed and what it might entail. We've always altered our environment, but always before those changes were localized. Now it's everywhere and all at once. Its affects are felt in places like the Arctic, thousands of miles from human populations. We've grown so large in our populations, our appetites and our habits that you see the effects worldwide. It's difficult anymore to talk as humans of "acts of God." With the exception of volcanoes and earthquakes, all other natural phenomena are caused at least in part by human activity. It's not an act of God, it's an act of Congress. It's eerie that this happens as we cross into a new Millennium.

These situations aren't things any other humans have ever faced, that we have this much power and are using it to alter the physical world. Why is it we're doing these things? If we can get at the cause, maybe we can get at the solution.

Politicians want to pose these as purely technical problems. And that is a significant part of the problem and of the solution, but it's not the entire story. It's a lot easier for politicians to imagine us changing our technology than it is to imagine changing our habits and appetites. But technical solutions can't alone solve our problems.

Scientists say we need to cut fossil fuel use 60-70% immediately to stabilize our climate where it is now. If we could use fuel cells and windmills we could get about 1% improvement in energy efficiency, and that would be a good thing. But our economy and appetites fuel a galloping increase in consumption that wipes out any efficiency we might be able to achieve through technological improvement. Presidents Bush and Clinton both said we'd be back at 1990 levels of fuel use at the end of the decade. Instead, the burst of consumption we've had in the 90s means that we're producing 15% more CO2 now that we did in 1990.

Much of our consumption is somewhat irrational, and certainly not driven by human needs. None of us are guilt-free. There are an enormous number of large motor vehicles here on this campus. Perhaps we're choosing our vehicles for reasons other than rational needs and its effect on the environment. Houses today are twice as big as they were in 1970, and all that space needs to be heated and cooled.

It's very tough to rein in our fuel use through technical means alone. And we get mad if people try to cut our consumption. The rising cost of gas led to demonstrations in Europe last week. And look at what Gore did last week. When faced with the rising cost of fuel he called for releases from our strategic reserves to keep down prices.

There's no question that we need to change our hearts and minds. And we're not going to be led in these issues by elected officials, we're going to have to lead them.
Bill McKibben -- "We're living under a very very powerful spell..."

Our moment is special because we live under a kind of spell, or enchantment. This one is a very very powerful spell cast by the most powerful consumer society the world has ever known.

I watched a Fairfax, Va., cable TV network for about a year, reviewing one day's broadcast on all its 100 channels. That taught me a lot of things about what the world looks like if TV is your main source of information. If you boiled down everything that came across the TV in those 2400 hours, the basic idea that flows out is that "you are the most important thing is the world." We see that not only on TV, but in the mall and the theme park. That's what it means to live in a deep consumer society. It's very difficult for me to imagine fundamental progress on environmental issues while that's our main view of the world.

I haven't watched TV since that time, but I have read about the program "Survivor." I think it exemplifies exactly what I'm talking about. It's only under the influence of this consumer spell that one's reaction to being cast away on a desert island would be to get rid of everyone else on that island! At other times, people would have understood that they need to band together to survive.

Is it then hopeless for us to change our habits? If the consumer society is all there is to us, then I say "yes, it will be difficult to make a real difference." But what if we consider the possibility that humans respond to other things, other parts of our nature that are nurtured by contact with each other, opportunities for service, contact with nature, things that aren't part of consumer society, things that still exert a vestigial pull on us. I think the most intense parts of our lives don't have anything to do with that consumer society. Very few people on their deathbed say, "Damn I wish I had gone to the mall more." It's amazing that a deeper part of us survives, given the barrage of messages we receive.

Historically there have been things other than "us as individuals" at the center of peoples lives. It might be God or the tribe, and it hasn't always been pretty or produced enormous happiness. But it has allowed people to put limits on their behavior. If you yourself are the most important thing, then you can't limit your behavior. If the natural world were the most important thing to you, or the community of people around you was the most important thing, you might change your behavior.

In the end, the possibility of getting our of our predicament depends in part on technical means, but also in figuring out how to break that spell, to get out of that enchantment. I've been a little more encouraged about things in the past year. I had the privilege of being in Seattle for the demonstrations at the WTO conference. I was there as a reporter, and it wasn't easy being tear gassed. But at one point I saw a banner floating above me citing a phrase from the Harry Potter books. The banner said "Wake up, muggles!" I realized then that the protests had less to do with technical questions of what the WTO should do next. The more important point was that a large number of people showed up some place to say "Something other than money matters." Maybe it's sea turtles, maybe it's human rights in Burma, and maybe it's arctic ice, but they were affirming that there are other bottom lines that matter than the ones we've been focused on recently.

In all the time I've spent studying it, I've come to the conclusion that there's no easy technical way to deal with our problems. Breaking out of that spell is the first job. I urge you to keep your eyes and hearts open, and applaud anything that begins to wear away that enchantment, that allows you to see the real world in all its beauty and wonder.


Q: Doesn't our Christian work ethic promote the same type of get-ahead consumerism?
A: I'm a Methodist Sunday school teacher, and I think churches, synagogues, and mosques may offer us some hope out of this. They're some of the few institutions that offer something other than self and accumulation as a goal. Even our educational institutions are mainly involved with preparing people for materialism. There's the possibility of a different kind of enchantment in churches.

Q: What can educational institutions do to help?

I've also talked with students about doing a campus materials audit. That's one of most interesting things a campus can do, because students begin to really understand things like where their food comes from. An energy audit teaches the same thing, and it can also provide a lot of good information for administrations looking to save money. Concrete assessments like that are the right place to begin.

You can also save a lot of energy on campus by riding bikes rather than driving. Davis, Calif., runs on bicycles. Far more people ride bicycles there than drive cars. The goals are not impossible. But you need an information base and a commitment base, and one way to do that is to make it an integral part of campus studies. The environment offers a wonderful opportunity to connect scholarship to the world around you.

We've lived for a long time in the context of the economy, making decisions based on whether "it's good for the economy." Because of that focus we've been successful in making the economy larger. But the size of the human enterprise means that to increase it any more is folly. We need to find other ways to look at the world. The model we've had in mind for a long time is growth -- growth in the economy, in population, etc. And it has been pretty good for us. Genesis says, "Multiply and fill the earth." That's the one commandment we've been able to fill! Now we can check that off and get on with the rest.

The time has come to concentrate on maturing, on discovering how to live most fully. If it's going to happen, colleges and universities are going to be key for understanding that transition. There's no need for us to keep rushing down this path. There are some other paths to consider.

Q: Is there any chance that a politician will be a strong environmentalist?
A: Anything that threatens our immediate comfort is going to dis-elect politicians. It's very important, therefore, to work on politicians. The strength and weakness of the democratic system is obvious. If you ignore the influence of special interests, you find that the system does respond to peoples' feelings about the world. But that hasn't happened. We used to believe that Europe had become a pretty "green" place, but the recent rebellion against high gas prices is a pretty good indication that Europe isn't as green as we thought. I think we need more changing of hearts and minds before we have any changing of political action. It's extremely unlikely that the Senate will pass the Kyoto Accord. I remember talking to Al Gore after he became vice president, and he said something interesting to me. He said that the minimum that is scientifically required is far below the maximum that is politically feasible. The tragedy of Al Gore's eight years is that he hasn't narrowed that gap, and maybe he feels he can only wait for some natural disaster to make it feasible. I'd like Ralph Nader to get enough votes to get taken seriously, but not enough to prevent Al Gore from getting elected.

Q: Why in your interview did you single out the Southeast as a place of great environmental degradation?
A: The Southeast is threatened particularly because of its forests. Timber companies are turning to the Southeast because it can be planted with trees that can be quickly harvested for chip mills. There's a lot of work to be done here. It's viewed by timber companies as the least environmentally conscious part of the country, so they believe they can keep operating here without trouble. One of the most beautiful things to ever happen was the reintroduction of the red wolf into the Alligator River wildlife area. They were extinct there, and humans figured out how to reintroduce them.Now there are wild red wolves again in N.C., and I would think someone in this state should use them as a symbol of the beauty still in the wilderness.

Q. What about the quote in Genesis pertaining to "mankind's dominion over the all creatures"? How can that be addressed in light of today's ecological crisis?
A. If one believes in that quote, then it places the burden on mankind to be a good steward over this bounty and not squander it.

Q. My roommate wants the A/C on 75 degrees and I want it at 78 degrees. What should I do?
A. Talk to him; try to convince him. Each of us needs to do this on a daily basis.

Q: What about nuclear power plants?
A: The relicensing of nuclear plants is a difficult question. It's no longer viable to build nuclear power plants because they're too expensive and don't make sense. My instinctive desire is to see the nuclear phase of our history pass as quickly as possible. It represents a remarkably insane, dangerous way to boil water. But to the extent that the power would be replaced by coal fired plants means it would be harmful to eliminate them. I think the greatest way is to figure out how to drive down consumption as quickly as possible. People often ask me what we heat our house with in the Adirondacks, and I tell them "We heat with wool." It's difficult to engage people in the abstract on these issues. One way is to figure out how to get them out into the natural world. Every good environmentalist has had some sustained contact with the natural world. I particularly despise ads for SUVs that link appreciation for the natural world with driving through it.

Q: Is government a help or harm in the struggle?
A: In my area, a lot of people who used to say they didn't want the government interfering with their lives began to change when jet skis appeared on our lakes. This year we got a law that allows towns to ban jet skis if they want to. A lot of my conservative neighbors are off to testify as to why we don't need jet skis. We're raising children now who get more environmental education than we did, but we're also raising children who are even more heavily indoctrinated into a commercial viewpoint than we were. It'll be interesting to see which of those two sets of education will be the most powerful in the end. It's especially important to get kids out into the natural world.

The consumer society does have an Achilles Heel -- it doesn't make us as happy as it claims to make us. There's always the latent question, "Isn't there more than this?" That seemed to be happening in the smallest way in Seattle. I'm a good Methodist and know that the Holy Spirit works best with many allies alongside. I think there's a lot of work to be done in the next decade. But it's exciting work because if you look you see a few fissures in the superstructure around us.

The following question was directed to President Vagt, who was also on the platform.
Q: Mr. President, I work at UNCCharlotte where we have a car space for every two people on campus. Instead of substracting cars, we are keeping the same ratio in the future (even our master plan calls for keeping this ratio!), and we are adding parking garages at a tune of $10,000-$15,000 per space. What are you doing as the leader of your college to reduce parking?
A. I cannot say that we have had much success in that area. We even have difficulty getting students not to drive to class. But we have made improvements in other areas of energy conservation, such as recycling and in our heating and cooling plant. I would like to see reductions in the use of cars as well.

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