Author Bill McKibben speaks to Occupy and UBC students about climate change activism
The question is academic credibility. The worst thing that has ever happened in the world is currently happening. What are academics saving their credibility for? There’s not going to be anything left to do with it.
Academia is the repository of the history and values of civilization. Those values are being subverted by a small number of people and it is time for people to call them on that. It’s a perfectly good role for people whose job it is to think about who we are, where we come from, where we are going and what it all means, even when it means going to jail.
Academics need to magnify news like the International Energy Association’s statement that we have only five years to invest in the infrastructure that will turn around climate change before unstoppable changes lock in. Academics need to put out statements to the press, write op eds, tweet it, anything to make sure people are cognizant of what is going on. We have the slightly boring task of saying the same thing over and over. No corporation ever ran a commercial once. It only works if you do it one hundred times.
Artists need to put aside the deep pleasures of deep individuation within their work and produce art in the context of a larger campaign or project. I’ve certainly constrained myself as a writer to make my point. This isn’t what I’d be doing if I wasn’t committed to making change.
What do you think about Occupy Vancouver and the Occupy Movement generally?
I’m a big fan of Occupy. Obvious common sense and fairness have left our system. Climate is the greatest but not the only example. A small percent of 1 per cent are getting rich on fossil fuels while everyone else is facing enormous difficulties. Last year, Exxon made more money than any other entity has ever made in the history of money. The genie won’t get put back into the bottle: there is a dawning understanding that people are being had.
People don’t seem very willing to make do with less stuff so are there small steps that can be taken within consumer values? Or can society reduce energy consumption in a meaningful way through voluntary action?
In economic terms, everyone knows what the missing link is. CO2 is a commodity that is causing enormous damage that markets can’t address because there is no price attached to it. The fossil fuel industry has focused its political power and financial might on preventing this. To Exxon the atmosphere is an open sewer in which it can pour its garbage out for free.
If we start down the path of pricing carbon we will make more change in a faster time than people can imagine. But we can’t just take the industrial machine and toss out the engine and put in a windmill. We need to ask economists to address the utility of economic growth in more powerful ways. Past a certain point, increased consumption actually reduces connection and community.
UBC students are graduating during a time of diminished job prospects. What areas do you think would be worthwhile to pursue for future employment?
Look for work that actually needs to be done. Engineering financial derivatives doesn’t need to be done. Engineering financial tools to retrofit and weatherize older homes does. For the first time in 150 years, the number of farmers increased in the U.S. last year. People are realizing that farming requires intelligence and creativity and is more satisfying than trading bonds.
On the influence of corporations:
It’s a pernicious legal fiction that corporations are people. I’ll believe corporations are people when Texas executes one. Corporations are relentlessly linear: more, more, more. They can’t be allowed to run everything and rig every contest. They need to be subordinate to the other needs of society.
The climate crisis throws that into relief more than any other issue. Life on the planet is being held subordinate to the profits of a few corporations for a couple of decades.
When 1,200 people came to get arrested at the White House, we asked them to wear a neck tie or a dress to demonstrate that we are not the radicals. The radicals are the corporations that are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and make the ocean 30 per cent more acidic. There is nothing more radical than that, by an order of magnitude. It’s ruinous. The rest of us who want the world in somewhat the same shape as when we were born and have residual ideas of fairness, we are the conservatives. Corporations are egregiously and abnormally out of step with human tradition.