Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Notes from Bill McKibben's Traverse City Talk

About halfway through McKibben's talk it dawned on me that I had posted, last fall, parts of his essay entitled Climate Crisis in National Geographic magazine. I quoted from it with abandon because I so admired his calm way of talking about a situation that tends to overwhelm people into ignoring or denying it. I also admired his ability to break this big problem down into manageable pieces.

The word "connections" is in the title of this blog because I'm usually quite good at connection ideas from many different sources. But I've been overworked this summer. I knew I wanted to go see Bill McKibben, and so did Liz. I wrote a rather lame announcement of his appearance, forgetting that I could have quoted myself from a year ago.

Back then I described how the people around me were living in two different worlds:
Most folks seem to recognize that the world is getting warmer, and that something needs to be done. I have seen the average size cars in the parking lot shrink. I am seeing people considering relocating to be closer to work, or looking for jobs closer to home. Nobody brags about their new snowmobiles anymore. I also have small, concerned conversations with people who are worried about the future but unable to figure out the best way to prepare for change or to shoulder their responsibility.
Watching the Republican convention last week was truly watching another world. While most of the people I talk with are looking for strategies for using less energy, the people chanting "Drill, Baby, Drill!" on the floor of the Republican convention seemed to think that finding more oil to burn would automagically fix everything.

McKibben's talk was calmer, more thoughtful, and much more grounded in everyday reality. McKibben has a quiet, everyman persona, much like talking to one of my more reticent neighbors. He has a habit of rubbing the back of his head as he formulates his thoughts, much like a farmer swatting flies away with his tractor hat. He used a lot of self-deprecating humor; it was interesting to me that after a while the women were still responding to these jokes but the men were silent.

He spoke of two different worlds. He described the mood in the world of climate scientists as "terrified" and related the new evidence that suggests that climate change is progressing faster than most had believed possible. He described the response in the world of policy making that was basically no response at all, and told the story of a walk across Vermont that eventually included about 1000 people meeting in the capital and asking their elected leader to pledge support for a goal of an 80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

"80% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050" is included in Obama's platform. (McCain's goal is 66% by 2050). Nobody was talking about any goals fro 2050 before McKibben and his friends started walking. This was one of his main points -- that regardless of how cynical the American people have become about the political process, the process can still be made to work.

McKibben's new goal is to publicize the number 350. He wants the world to embrace a target of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the number that we need to attain in order to stop the course of dangerous climate change. Before the industrial revolution, before we started burning large quantities of fossil fuels, the Earth's atmosphere was about 280 parts per million of CO2. This year, in 2008, the number is 387 and gaining every year.

How do we do this? McKibben spoke of how we keep looking for a "silver bullet" that will fix things without too much individual effort. We tried that approach with ethanol, and the results have not been good. He introduced a new metaphor: "silver buckshot" to describe the many smaller changes that are going to add up to the change we need:
Make no mistake--getting back to 350 means transforming our world. It means building solar arrays instead of coal plants, it means planting trees instead of clear-cutting rainforests, it means increasing efficiency and decreasing our waste. Getting to 350 means developing a thousand different solutions--all of which will become much easier if we have a global treaty grounded in the latest science and built around the principles of equity and justice. To get this kind of treaty, we need a movement of people who care enough about our shared global future to get involved and make their voices heard. ( from 350.org)
The video at the top of this post is part of the international effort to publicize the 350 goal worldwide. The is more of an explanation of this effort at www.350.org. McKibben was enthusiastic about the potential of using the internet to organize a worldwide citizens' movement, saying "If there is a reason for the internet, if God decided that humans needed to create the internet at this point in history, it is surely so that we can use it to solve the climate crisis, the most dangerous problem we have ever faced."

I think that we are not facing this problem because we are scared. We have amped up our our economy on cheap energy for so long that we fear that no more cheap energy means, as one audience member put it, "a return to the horse and buggy days." McKibben cited surveys in which Americans have been asked, every year since 1956, how happy they are. Every year since 1956 we report that we are less happy, even though our consumption of material goods has increase threefold since then. McKibben spoke of how our bigger homes, spread out across the landscape and the miles of roads to connect them all have left us all more isolated and lonelier.

Bill McKibben's new book is Deep Economy, The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. His premise is that rebuilding our communities is neccesary for both energy efficiency and to reach the sense of well-being that we have been seeking, but not finding, through our last half century consumption binge. While I'm skeptical of uniform measures of happiness, I find such satisfaction in the nuances of community that I'm interested to read the new book.

Bill's Traverse City talk can be heard online here.

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