On September 8, at Climate One, two of the most influential environmentalists of the past 30 years shared the same stage for just the second time in their long careers in public life. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org and author of Eaarth, and Paul Hawken, entrepreneur and author of Blessed Unrest, came to Climate One to talk about the ailing economy, the economy we must build to succeed it, and the forces that stand in the way.
Climate One’s Greg Dalton opened by asking Hawken and McKibben how the United States ended up mired in recession. “We got into this predicament by artificially stimulating consumption for the past 40 years,” replied Hawken. The bursting of the credit bubble should tell us, he said, that consumerism, our longtime economic crutch, won’t get us out of this mess.
“The old levers won’t work. What we’ve grown has actually put us into this position,” he said.
McKibben agreed. Since the end of World War II, he said, “the basic animating force of that economy was the task of building bigger houses farther apart from each other. It’s a project that ended up being environmentally ruinous, and socially ruinous, too.”
And yet those ruins give us something to build upon. “The fact that we’re in a period of economic trauma probably is a good sign that we need to start thinking much more systemically about what we’re going to do differently,” said McKibben.
“The economy we’re moving towards looks less to growth than to durability and resilience and security. The trajectory will be more in the direction of local, instead of the ever-expanding outward globalism that’s relied on an endless supply of cheap fossil energy to make it possible.”
“My only real worry,” he said, “is that climate change is happening so fast that it may knock the props out from under the whole thing before we can get to where we need to go.”
The way forward is studded with challenges, Hawken said. First among them, the fear that individual actions won’t, by themselves, be enough. Hence his aphorism: “Incrementalism will kill us, and there’s no way to get there but increments.” Small acts are rational and helpful, he said, but in the doing you don’t step back and ask: What do we really need to change?
“What we need to change,” he answered, “is the system. And the system cannot change until there is a manifest crisis that is shared.”
The problem, McKibben explained, is that the fossil fuel industry is actively working to block systemic change. “Most people understand that climate change is an incredibly serious problem about which we need to do something. I’m not worried about average people being willing to step up,” he said.
“Our problem is far and away caused by the fact that the fossil fuel industry, which is the most profitable industry on Earth, has all of the financial means at their disposal to keep us from taking action.”
“There’s nothing polite about the political fights we’re now in,” he went on. “If we cannot break the power of the fossil fuel industry to delay change and action, then we can’t do anything. It’s people versus very concentrated pockets of money.”
Footage of the recent Keystone XL pipeline White House protest, including the arrest of 1,200 protestors, must not obscure the real radicals in this fight, McKibben said. “The people who work at Chevron and Shell and Exxon are radicals. They are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere in order to get money. That’s as radical an act as any person who ever lived has undertaken. Those of us who are trying to preserve the world in something like the form we once knew it are, in this sense, deeply conservative.”
– Justin Gerdes
Photo: Ed Ritger Climate One, The Commonwealth Club HQ, San Francisco (September 8, 2011)