photo of Bill McKibben and Aaron Mair

How Bill McKibben continues his environmental crusade after all these years.

BEING AN ENVIRONMENTALIST is not the easiest gig. A dedicated activist will constantly fight against oil companies worth more money than you can imagine, listen to apathetic citizens who won’t even bother to recycle and try to talk to politicians who don’t seem to listen. Bill McKibben has been a leader in environmental activism longer than many of his flock of millennials working with (which he co-founded) have been alive.

The title of his first book, The End of Nature, does not exactly suggest a positive approach to his activism. The book, which came out in 1989, is arguably the first climate change book for a general audience. In 2012, Rolling Stone published “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” penned by McKibben, which sparked a new generation of environmentalists (myself included). 

So how does he do it? How does Bill McKibben wake up each morning knowing that that the level of C02 in the atmosphere has surpassed 400 parts-per-million? 350 ppm is the “safe” level, hence McKibben’s NGO name. How does he wake up each morning knowing that the Paris Agreement would not have been reached if it included human rights in its binding portion? How does he keep faith that the work he is doing will have an impact, and our planet will not collapse into the tar sands?

“Look, I’ve never been super-optimistic,” he said over email. “I know we can’t keep it from getting bad – I just think that if we work really hard we might keep it from getting even worse.”

At COP21, I saw McKibben and other activists like Naomi Klein inspire young people about the future while facing pushback from politicians at the negotiating table. It was a sight that could easily make one disaffected with the movement. Which is why faith in environmentalism is crucial. 

“Alone we’re essentially powerless; together we have a better shot. The most important thing an individual can do is not be an individual,” McKibben said. 350 has had a powerful network of people all over the world spreading their goals of keeping carbon in the ground and pressuring governments towards climate change mitigation. 

As a first-timer at COP, I moved through the motions of excited to overwhelmed to angry to skeptical to disappointed – and ended at hopeful. McKibben, like many of the people at the conference, was a bit of a veteran. He saw the collapse in Copenhagen and the COPs leading up to Paris that proved how crucial 21 would be. He knew it was a do-or-die situation. 

“Well, we’re doing better than we were a few years ago. And we’ll do better still if more people join in,” McKibben says. He followed that by saying it’s not about hope but our inherent duty as being a human at this point in history. To me, that’s still hope. 

People, young people especially, need purpose in life. Many people have jobs that carry little meaning, but if you want to truly harness someone’s ability they need to care about and believe in the work they are doing. Journalists, for example, need to believe that despite declining circulation and newsroom cuts, the words they write and stories they break are important. That is hope, and it is no different in environmentalism. 

When he needs a little perspective, McKibben likes to take walks in the woods, a standard for environmentalists looking to clear their heads. But he also peruses the 350 website for images and accounts of demonstrations around the world. “If people in those places, who’ve done little to cause the problem, can keep fighting, so can I. 

Megan is A\J's editorial manager, a lover of journalism, and graduate of the University of Waterloo's Faculty of Environment. 


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