In New Book, Bill McKibben Asks If the Human Game Has Begun to Play Itself Out

Thousands are taking to the streets in London today to demand radical action to combat the climate crisis. Protesters with the group Extinction Rebellion have set up encampments and roadblocks across Central London and say they’ll stay in the streets for at least a week. It’s just the beginning of a series of global actions that will unfold in the coming days, as activists around the world raise the alarm about government inaction in the face of the growing climate catastrophe. The London protests come just days after schoolchildren around the globe left school again on Friday for the weekly “strike for climate” and as the push for the Green New Deal continues to build momentum in the United States. The deal — backed by Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey — seeks to transform the U.S. economy through funding renewable energy while ending U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. We speak with climate activist and journalist Bill McKibben, who has been on the front lines of the fight to save the planet for decades. Thirty years ago, he wrote The End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a general audience. He’s just published a new book titled Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

TRANSCRIPT

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands are taking to the streets in London today to demand radical action to combat the climate crisis. Protesters with the group Extinction Rebellion have set up encampments and roadblocks across Central London and say they’ll stay in the streets for at least a week. It’s just the beginning of a series of global actions that will unfold in the coming days, as activists around the world raise the alarm about government inaction in the face of the growing climate catastrophe. A spokesperson with Extinction Rebellion told The Guardian, “Governments prioritize the short-term interests of the economic elites, so to get their attention, we have to disrupt the economy,” they said.

The London protests come just days after schoolchildren around the globe left school again on Friday for the weekly “strike for climate.” The movement was started last year when, at the time, 15-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg stood alone outside the Swedish parliament to demand her government do more to combat climate change. Now kids around the globe have answered her call with their own weekly strikes. The esteemed journal Science published an open letter from scientists supporting the global youth protests last week. It reads in part, quote, “As scientists and scholars who have recently initiated similar letters of support in our countries, we call for our colleagues across all disciplines and from the entire world to support these young climate protesters. We declare: Their concerns are justified and supported by the best available science. The current measures for protecting the climate and biosphere are deeply inadequate,” Science wrote.

This all comes as the push for the Green New Deal continues to build momentum in the United States. The deal, backed by Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, seeks to transform the U.S. economy through funding renewable energy while ending U.S. carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted last week, “The far-right loves to drum up fear & resistance to immigrants. But have you ever noticed they never talk about what’s causing people to flee their homes in the first place? Perhaps that’s bc they’d be forced to confront 1 major factor fueling global migration: Climate change,” she wrote.

We turn now to a climate activist and journalist who’s been on the front lines of the fight for the planet for decades. Thirty years ago, in 1989, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature, the first book about climate change for a general audience. He has just published a new book; it’s titled Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Bill McKibben joins us here in our New York studio.

Welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us, Bill.

BILL McKIBBEN: Amy, it’s always good to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?

BILL McKIBBEN: You know, 30 years ago, when I started writing about this, it was a distant threat. We were issuing a warning. Scientists knew that as we burned coal and gas and oil, we were putting carbon in the atmosphere. They knew the molecular structure of CO2-trapped heat. We didn’t know how fast and how hard it was going to pinch. The story of the last 30 years — or one of the stories of the last 30 years — is that it pinched a hell of a lot harder and faster than even we had feared. The things we’re seeing now — half the sea ice in the summer Arctic gone, the ocean 30% more acidic, half the coral reefs under siege — these were things we thought would happen 50, 60, 70 years from now. But the planet turned out to be very finely balanced. So that was one of the surprises of those 30 years.

The other surprise was how little reaction there was in our political system, how slowly it’s moved. In essence, we’ve done almost nothing as a world to grapple with the biggest problem that we’ve ever wandered into.

The one piece of — well, the two pieces of really good news are, one, that the engineers have done their job just about as well as the politicians have done theirs badly. The price of a solar panel has dropped 90%. We have the technology, in a way that we didn’t even a decade ago, to know where we could turn if we wanted to. And we’ve seen this rise of remarkable movements over the last decade. You know, there were periods of time when I felt like — have you ever had one of those nightmares where you’re trying to communicate to everybody that something bad is going on, but words won’t come out of your mouth, or they can’t hear you or something? There was a period when I felt like that. I no longer feel lonely like that anymore. There are a lot — millions of people around the world engaged in this fight. We’ll see if that’s enough power to overcome the wealth and influence of the fossil fuel industry in time or not.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about how you’ve divided your book into these four sections —

BILL McKIBBEN: Sure.

AMY GOODMAN: — the size of the board, leverage, the name of the game and an outside chance.

BILL McKIBBEN: The question that haunts me, and has since I wrote The End of Nature, is whether we’ve — the thing that we’re doing now is so large that it fundamentally alters our prospects as a civilization. Climate change is the best example of that. And climate change, by now, has already reached the point where, as I say in the first section, it changes the size of the board on which we’re playing this game. Forever, since humans came out of Africa, we’ve been expanding the board on which we play the game, you know, finding new places, spreading out. Now things are contracting. Now people are beginning to worry very much about the cities that they live that are near the coasts. Now we’re seeing — perhaps you saw the story in yesterday’s Times about how climate change has become the main driver for those immigrants having to leave their homes in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, not because they want to, because there’s such a deep drought that they can’t grow anything there anymore. Those are the opening salvos in what’s going to be a century of shrinkage.

I mean, think about what we saw in California last fall. I mean, literally, in an hour, a city called Paradise turned literally into hell. You know, everybody who watched it could imagine dying in a car trapped in a road as they tried to get out of a forest fire. If California, the place we’ve always identified with a kind of golden ease, you know, is now in a paranoid sense of fear for much of the year as they look over their shoulder for the next fire, well, that’s another sense in which this board has begun to shrink.

The second part of the book is more political. I tried to answer, for my own purposes, the question of why we did so little for so long. And I think it has everything to do with the ascendant political ideology of this period, this sense that laissez-faire capitalism, that markets alone would solve problems, that happened to be the dominant political philosophy in the most important country in the world at precisely the most important moment. It’s no accident that people like the Koch brothers, our biggest political players, are also oil and gas barons. I mean, they understood climate change as a threat both to their business and to their ideological worldview, because, of course, if we’re going to solve it, we’re going to have to take joint action, as societies, to do so.

The third part of the book takes a turn into Silicon Valley and asks the question, if, having ended nature, we’re also on the verge of ending human nature. The same libertarian ideology, the same Ayn Rand fan club, that exists in places like the Koch brothers’ network, exists, too, at the top of the heap in Silicon Valley, where everybody pays homage to the idea that they should be left alone by the government — left alone in this case to do things like genetically engineer children, so that we had, in October, the first two designer babies born on this planet, in China, but, as we learned in yesterday’s newspaper, with help from professors at places like Stanford. That future should frighten us in all kinds of ways, that future of ever larger AI, of ever more —

AMY GOODMAN: Artificial intelligence.

BILL McKIBBEN: Intelligence. Perhaps you saw the story in today’s papers about how the Chinese have weaponized AI, and they can now identify in any crowd, in any place in China, anyone who has the facial features of a Uyghur Muslim, and be able to track them by camera automatically. I mean, we’re talking about tens of millions of people in a country of billions of people. It’s something out of a science fiction story, except it isn’t. The science fiction stories —

AMY GOODMAN: The minority Uyghur —

BILL McKIBBEN: — are coming true.

AMY GOODMAN: The minority Uyghur Muslim population in China.

BILL McKIBBEN: Exactly right.

So, the fourth part of the book asks: Is it too late to do anything about this? If we wanted to, what could we do? And here I allow myself a little more hope. I’ve had the privilege over the last decade, since we started 350.org, of watching this climate movement arise. And it’s been a great joy to see that happen and to see it join with other movements for justice, against inequality, in a kind of progressive coalition.

I think there were two great inventions of the 20th century that might just save us in the 21st. The first was the solar panel. It’s magic on a kind of Hogwarts scale, Amy. I mean, you point a sheet of glass at the sun, and out the back flows light and communications and modernity. To get to see it being installed for the first time in remote parts of Africa, say — I did a long story for The New Yorker a couple years ago on this — was a fantastic joy. I mean, to watch people who had never had a cold drink in their life, suddenly, because of these solar panels, able to do so, reminds us of how much we take for granted.

The other invention of the 20th century that holds out real hope is this invention of nonviolent social movements, from the suffragettes, from Gandhi, from Dr. King, from people learning how to take — well, how to take the power of the many and the small to stand up to the mighty and the few. Climate change is perhaps the most dramatic example of this there’ll ever be. I mean, as you know, we learned a lot in the last few years about the nature of the fossil fuel industry, about the fact that they knew everything there was to know about climate change back in the 1980s, knew everything and believed it. Exxon began building all its drilling rigs to compensate for the rise in sea level they knew was coming. They just didn’t tell the rest of us. Instead, they devoted billions of dollars to building this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that’s kept us locked for 30 years in an utterly sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real, a debate that both sides knew the answer to from the start. It’s just one of them was willing to lie.

And so, now we’re at the point where we have no choice but to hope we can build movements big enough, loud enough, beautiful enough to challenge that power. That’s why, for me, it’s incredibly moving and incredibly exciting to see the young people doing the Green New Deal work, to see Greta Thunberg and her comrades, you know, 12-year-olds, out of school and talking articulately about these questions. I don’t know if we’re going to win, but we definitely are going to have a fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we have a lot to talk about in the next segment. Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, a global movement around climate change, his new book is called Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?