A little more than two years ago, bestselling author Bill McKibben's life was filled with canoe trips, mountaineering, writing, and teaching. The author of a dozen books and a scholar in residence at Vermont's Middlebury College, McKibben lived at a relatively slow pace with his wife, writer Sue Halpern, and daughter, Sophie.
But the author who made his reputation in 1989 with the first general audience book on global warming, The End of Nature , would soon organize his first protest. That would lead to the creation of one activist organization and then another. His goal? End the global lethargy on climate change.
Today, McKibben works with a handful of recent college graduates in a group called 350.org.
These days, McKibben is in constant motion. The only way we could talk was to connect via cell phone one Sunday as McKibben drove from one speech to another in New Hampshire. He had just returned from a trip to China, Italy, Trinidad, Sweden, and Canada to promote 350.org. "Right now my carbon footprint is much higher than it should be," he says.
Q: You recently wrote that global warming is the biggest problem humans have ever faced. Why do you believe this?
Bill McKibben: Think about it. All the other things that we've done as a species have had a limited scope. We're now talking about melting the ice caps, raising the level of the seas dramatically, changing the distribution of every other species on Earth, perhaps wiping out one-third or half of them. The changes at work now are geologic in scale. The level of change required to deal with it is enormous, too. It will require change in every country. It will require a degree of global cooperation that we haven't seen before.
Q: How did we get into this mess?
McKibben: Fossil fuel is very seductive stuff. [John Maynard] Keynes once said that, as far as he could tell, the average standard of living from the beginning of human history to the middle of the eighteenth century had perhaps doubled. Not much had changed, and then we found coal and gas and oil and everything changed. Now we're reaping the result of that, both ecologically and socially.
In the United States, cheap fossil fuel has eroded communities. We're the first people with no real practical need for each other. Everything comes from a great distance through anonymous and invisible transactions. We've taken that to be a virtue, but it's as much a curse. Americans are not very satisfied with their lives, and the loss of community...