William Ernest "Bill" McKibben was born on December 8, 1960 in Lexington, Massachusetts. He did his undergraduate work at Harvard University, and went on to join the New Yorker as a staff writer between 1982 to early 1987. He quit the magazine when its longtime editor William Shawn was forced out of his job, and soon moved to the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. He currently resides in Vermont with his wife and writer, Sue Halpern, and their only child, Sophie who was born in 1993 in Glens Falls, New York. He is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College located in the Champlain valley of central Vermont, where he also directs the Middlebury Fellowships in Environmental Journalism. He is also a fellow at the Post Carbon Institute founded in 2003 with its main office in Santa Rosa California.
McKibben has written extensively about global warming and alternative energy and advocates an economic model based on local rather than global production. In 2010, the Boston Globe referred to him as, "probably the nation's leading environmentalist." He is well known for the fact that he led the creation and organization of 350.org that coordinated what Foreign Policy magazine called, "the largest ever global coordinated rally of any kind," with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries. The magazine named him to its inaugural list of the 100 most important global thinkers, and MSN referred to him as one of the dozen most influential men of 2009. McKibben is also active in the Methodist Church, and his spirituality has helped shape and influence his thinking and worldview.
In his books and in his lectures and presentations, McKibben has attempted to focus attention upon the deleterious consequences that human activity has had and continues to exert upon the natural environment. He is not only an eloquent and outspoken critic of the dependence of developed and developing societies upon the burning of fossil fuels for energy, but he also suggests an alternative model for living if humanity is seriously committed to stopping and ultimately reversing the ever-increasing concentration of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the environment.
We will examine in some detail the reasons for his concern and the strategies that he has developed to counter the current trend. To begin, however, it is important to state that the science regarding the chemical nature of the greenhouse gases and the relationship between their accumulation in the earth’s atmosphere and global warming and climate change is clear and unambiguous. The overwhelming burden of scientifically-based evidence leaves little room for reasonable doubt.
According to McKibben, the modern conception of civilization has become wholly dependent upon the belief that maximum production occurs when individuals pursue their own individual interests in the context of a market-driven society. According to this view, individuals make one another richer by enhancing the efficiency of production and by increasing the scale of production. In such a model, more can and should be produced, for more is better. The actual consequence of this thinking, however, is that such accelerated growth increases inequality and economic insecurity. Adding to the detrimental consequences of uncontrolled growth is the current dilemma where growth is colliding with the physical barriers imposed by a planet possessing limited natural resources. Symptoms of such a collision are climate change and peak oil – the point at which energy consumption is greater than one-half of all known reserves.
McKibben poses a fundamental question – does the acquisition of greater wealth make one happier? His answer to that question is decidedly, no; he proposes that there needs to be a shift in priorities in order to rebuild local economies and that, “… these may yield less stuff, but they produce richer relationships, they grow less quickly, if at all, but they make up for it in durability.” This thinking represents a radical shift from the conventional economic paradigm. He maintains that community is the key to physical survival within our current environmental quagmire. His belief in community is quite analogous to Vandana Shiva’s emphasis on the intrinsic value of the commons as we shall soon learn .
From an historic perspective, the first 4000 years of civilization produced little change in the individual standard of living. There was about 100% of economic growth during those first 4000 years. In comparison, in recent times 100% economic growth has been achieved in a few decades. This enormous change in the rate of growth is essentially due to the invention of labor saving devices and the accessibility of cheap energy in the form of fossil fuels to drive these engines. In 1712, Thomas Newcomen developed the first steam engine that was used to drain waste from coal mines. This engine essentially replaced a team of 500 horses walking in a circle. This one development marked a dramatic change regarding the way work was accomplished, our eventual reliance on machines to do our work and our increasing dependence on fossil fuels as the primary energy source.
The post World War II era saw the rise of the United States as a world economic power; it was the only large industrially-based economic power that was essentially unscathed by the war. The per capita Gross National Product (GNP) of the U.S. rose by twenty-four percent from 1947 to 1960 - a phenomenal increase. This kind of economic growth came to be seen as the model upon which economic progress is measured. In the words of Lawrence Summers, Bill Clinton’s secretary of the Treasury, “It is the task of economic policy to grow the economy as rapidly, sustainably and inclusively as possible.” This viewpoint is so engrained in the culture that individual and national progress and prosperity has been irrevocably linked to growth; the kind of growth that is rapidly becoming unsustainable. As a consequence, economic inequality has risen sharply and the divide between the wealthiest individuals and everyone else continues to increase at an alarming rate; this is not auspicious for the general well-being of the nation. This is not simply a domestic issue; more than 80 countries have seen their per capita income fall within the last decade. The thrust of McKibben’s argument is that there needs to be a global reassessment of this paradigm towards the development of sustainable growth.
The perils faced by the continued reliance on fossil fuels as the source of energy to drive economic growth represents an essential aspect of McKibben’s fundamental argument. Oil, coal and natural gas are intimately connected to the ideology of perpetual growth, for economic production is constrained by its access to “affordable” energy. And, of course, fossil fuels represent a limited resource. The world is rapidly approaching peak oil – the point at which consumption is more than one-half of all reserves; there are some experts who claim that we have already reached that juncture.
A far more important impact of the burning of fossil fuels is the production of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. For example, the burning of 6 pounds of gasoline produces 5 pounds of carbon. In 1712, at the advent of steam power, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was 275 parts per million (ppm). The current concentration is approximately 380 ppm. This increase has resulted in a rise in worldwide temperature of one degree Fahrenheit (F) – this represents a significant change. The relationship between economic output and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere can readily be illustrated by the fact that between 1990 and 2003, the carbon dioxide concentration increased by sixteen percent.
The implications of this increase on the planetary environment are many including an increase in the frequency of:
· extreme weather
· mosquito-borne diseases in temperate climates
· severe hurricanes
· temperature and acidity of the oceans
· sea level rise.
According to McKibben, the twin realities of the approach of peak oil and imminent danger to the global environment caused by the burning of fossil fuels should be sufficient motivation to mobilize a substantial change in the way humans do business. As a result of this passionate concern about the impact of human activity on the natural environment, he has created the 350.org international campaign, as mentioned previously, that's, “building a movement to unite the world around solutions to the climate crisis--the solutions that science and justice demand.
“Our mission is to inspire the world to rise to the challenge of the climate crisis—to create a new sense of urgency and of possibility for our planet.
“Our focus is on the number 350--as in parts per million CO2. If we can't get below that, scientists say, the damage we're already seeing from global warming will continue and accelerate. But 350 is more than a number--it's a symbol of where we need to head as a planet.”
On October 10, 2010 there was a 10/10/10 Work Party with events in 188 countries for the purpose of drawing attention to the importance of the climate change issue and to pressure governments to begin to take effective action in order to forestall the worst possible outcome for the future of the natural environment.
McKibben’s essential point in regards to future prospects for humanity is that there needs to be a shift in outlook from perpetual growth to what he refers to as maintenance; the focus, in his thinking, needs to be on preserving the societal infrastructure and significantly curtailing the use of fossil fuels with the emphasis on sustainable production. He refers to this methodology as “backing off.”
McKibben, like Vandana Shiva and Wangari Maathai, sees a distinct relationship between the issues of peace and social justice and the health of this planet that sustains human societies everywhere. He has drawn our attention to the prospect of climate change so profoundly important to the future of human societies on the earth that to ignore it will have a devastating impact on future generations.
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