Written by Bill McKibben
Greetings! I write with a small piece of news, which is that as 2020 ends I will transition from active to emeritus status in my work at 350.org, both in my role as ‘senior advisor’ and as a member of the board. This marks a passage for me—it’s a group I helped found, and which I christened, and where I have worked harder, longer, and with more devotion than for any other institution in my life. I am enormously proud of the work that we’ve done together around the world—work I will continue to support however I can.
In some ways this isn’t an enormous change. About five years ago, when I stepped down as chair of the board, I redefined my role as less about leadership and more about support: of 350, and of the broader movement. I’ve spent much of my time trying to amplify and celebrate the work of others: if you read my Twitter feed, I think the most common phrase is probably ‘thank you’ (though admittedly it vies with ‘record-breaking heat wave.’) So in some sense this new move is more formal confirmation than actual change. But I think it’s necessary for a few reasons.
One, in too many cases people still assume I’m in charge—there are still too many news articles referring to “Bill McKibben’s 350.org.” That makes it harder for other voices inside 350 to become as well-known as they should. It’s an organization filled with powerful thinkers and activists, who I love listening to—they deserve a wider audience.
Two, my skills as a strategist are less crucial now. At the beginning, we were making it up as we went along, and I was okay at that: we were right, I think, to build a distributed grassroots global movement when that was unusual; to join the fight against the Keystone pipeline which led to so many other infrastructure battles; and to help launch the divestment movement, and with it the challenge to the finances of the fossil fuel industry. But 350, and the broader climate movement, is far more professional now, with people and processes better equipped to figure out the fights of the future. (At the moment they’re doing particularly profound global work around the idea of a “Just Recovery.”)
Three, the summer of 2020 is one more reminder that different kinds of voices need to be at the forefront. It’s been an enormous pleasure to watch both 350 and the movement diversify in real ways, and that’s been absolutely crucial to its success. Sometimes, though, it’s not just about adding new voices, but also lowering the volume on existing ones so others can be fully heard. This is a way to twist my dial a little to the left. I will continue to write and speak—it’s what I know how to do—but not from an official perch; that authority, and the credibility it can confer, will I hope increasingly devolve to others.
None of this means that I won’t be available for counsel and for help, or that I’m leaving behind the fight in any way, just that my relationship to it is shifting. I turn 60 this autumn; that seems like a natural moment of passage. I’ve been at work in the climate battle since I published The End of Nature in 1989 at the age of 28; my relationship to that battle has shifted several times over those decades, and this is just one more. Please call on me whenever I can be of use. One other thing: since I’ve always been a volunteer my change in status won’t free up more badly needed money to keep great organizers employed. So I will keep doing my best as a fundraiser, which is to say: if you’d like to donate, this is the place.
It is admittedly a tad hypocritical, given what I’ve just said, but perhaps you won’t mind if I mark this small occasion with a few thoughts about where we’ve been together, and where this fight may be headed.
I’ve had a couple of goals. One was simply to make people understand that climate change represented a great existential threat, the largest challenge that our species has come up against. In the early days—the late 1980s and the 1990s—this was sometimes lonesome work, akin to one of those bad dreams where you can see a monster coming but can’t make anyone else pay attention. I think it’s possible I’ve written more words about the greenhouse effect/global warming/the climate crisis than anyone else in the English language, which is why it has been such a relief in recent years to see so many others taking up this work. We now have large numbers of climate journalists and bloggers and authors and twitterers, musicians and artists, novelists and poets, all bringing their own unique talents to telling the story. Combined with the all-too-powerful educational efforts of Mother Nature, it’s working: the polling indicates that the challenge we face has finally emerged as one of the defining issues of our political life, all over the world. Organizing plays a huge part in this kind of educational effort. When we began 350.org, it was the first iteration of a global grassroots movement; I will never forget our first big day of action in 2009, with 5,200 simultaneous rallies in 181 countries, what CNN called the ‘most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.’ That it has since been dwarfed by subsequent efforts—most recently the 8 million people who joined in youth-led climate strikes last September—is truly wonderful. I take no credit at all for that explosion in organizing, but I do take great delight in it. It’s precisely what’s needed.
The second goal was to weaken the power of the fossil fuel industry, because it became clear—even before the #ExxonKnew revelations of recent years–that that was the biggest obstacle to taking the science seriously. That goal, in large measure, informed the logic behind our involvement in the Keystone fight and much of what followed: the individual pipelines, frack wells, and coal terminals were all wrongheaded assaults on particular people and places, but defeating them was also a way to blunt the expansion of an industry that had been growing for three centuries. The divestment campaign flowed from the same logic.
The success of all this work has depended mostly on extraordinary organizing—by frontline communities, by indigenous activists, and by millions and millions of people on campuses, in churches, at pension funds, and so forth. We’ve seen some of the fruit of this work even in the course of this difficult year—the decisions in recent days that ended the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and damaged prospects for DAPL and KXL feel like the payoff for a decade’s worth of incredible work by vast numbers of people. Meanwhile, in January, before the pandemic, America’s most-watched stock analyst, Jim Cramer, told his millions of viewers to sell their oil stocks because the divestment campaign—now above $14 trillion, and the largest thing of its kind in history–had made them bad investments. All of that has combined with the rapid advances in solar and wind to change the economics, and hence the political power, of the fossil fuel industry; it is a shell of itself, and if Donald Trump can be beaten in the fall, one of its last bulwarks will be gone. The same kind of trend is playing out at different speeds around the world. The fossil fuel industry is not beaten—in particular the work to push banks, asset managers, and insurance companies to break their ties with the industry must keep accelerating–but it is also no longer all-powerful. It can’t prevent the future.
That means that we are moving to the next phase of this fight, which is where we should have been able to concentrate all along: the effort to overhaul our energy systems and otherwise transform our impact around the planet. Because the oil industry wasted three decades with their disinformation campaign, we must squeeze into ten years what should have happened over 40. Thank heaven there are experts aplenty capable of making this happen, working on everything from building retrofits to changed agriculture to reducing consumption to rapidly building out renewable energy. None of these things are my specialty; with the influence of the fossil fuel industry finally lessened, the experts in all these fields are poised to make real progress. My main recommendations to those involved are: go faster, because this is all about pace, and root your efforts in justice, because that’s both right and effective. The battle is not just to swap out coal for sun; it’s to swap out a poisoned and unfair world for one that works for everyone, now and in the future.
Of course, no matter what we do now, we’ve waited too long to prevent truly massive trauma. Already we see firestorms without precedent, storms stronger than any on record, Arctic melt that’s occurring decades ahead of schedule. We’re losing whole ecosystems like coral reefs; we have heat waves so horrible that in places they take us to the limits of human survival. Given the momentum of climate change, even if we do everything right from this point on those effects will get much worse in the years ahead, and of course their impacts will be concentrated on those who have done the least to cause them, and are most vulnerable. That means there is another area we need to be working hard: building the kind of world that not only limits the rise in temperature, but also cushions the blow from that which is no longer avoidable. I’d like to have more time to help think through that part of the problem; we’re going to need human solidarity on an unparalleled level, and right now that seems a long ways away.
The main thing I’d like to say is: thanks. These have not always been easy years for me—though it’s nothing compared to the violence experienced by environmentalists elsewhere, at times, the counter-attack by the fossil fuel industry has felt almost unbearably fierce, especially since they also went after my family. I’m truly grateful for the support of my wife and my daughter. And I’m truly grateful for the friends that I have made these past decades in this fight—they are so many in number, and spread so widely across the earth, that I can’t begin to list them. But they know who they are, the companions in this fight who have done so much, against such great odds. I look forward to supporting them, and those who will emerge, in every way possible in the years ahead.
On we go—Bill McKibben