Fueling Activism: An Interview with Bill McKibben

Author/activist Bill McKibben led this past weekend’s encirclement of the White House urging the the Obama administration to block construction of a 1,700-mile pipeline to transport tar sands oil from Alberta to the Gulf. As McKibben savored a new protest-triggered State Department inquiry into a too-cozy environmental review process related to the pipeline, contributing editor Peter Laarman caught up with him on some religious dimensions of climate-change activism.

RD: How is religion showing up in the worldwide climate-change movement? The spirituality in the movement is obvious, but what about organized religious presence/participation? Do religious leaders quite seem to get the extent to which all ethical questions and all justice issues now hinge on avoiding worst possible climate outcomes?

McKibben: Well, it depends on part on what we mean by religious leaders. Individual pastors, rabbis, and imams are often taking part in things. But it is much harder to get “leaders” involved. In the liberal church, the bulk of the bureaucracy is still focused on hunger and on peace—and not understanding that this is the new face of those issues. There’s absolutely nothing we can do in terms of supporting “development” that makes up for the damage we’re doing with carbon.

And in the conservative church, there’s just an unwillingness to be very outspoken about the things the GOP and Fox News might attack you for. So: all in all, some more visible leaders stepping up would be endlessly helpful—more so than the denominations passing resolutions, etc.

Do you think there’s a special problem posed by crown-of-creation thinking within the Christian tradition—the old Gen. 1:28 problem? Many now say that the “responsible stewardship” or “creation care” model still suffers from excessive anthropocentrism. How might Christians expand their ethical horizons? Should they be forced to read the last chapters of the Book of Job three times each day (my solution)?

Reading Job would help; it certainly changed my thinking. But I don’t worry all that much about the theology. Everyone can easily see a justification for getting involved in this fight, whether it’s stewardship or love of neighbor. And once someone is actually actively engaged in the fight, the theology starts to follow. Praxis, as they say. You break away from being I-dolatrous (which is the basic problem here, I think) when you engage in common action, shoulder to shoulder.

Youve said we have no choice but to press for massive reductions in carbon emissions before our basic institutions are reformed and before the grip of big capital is broken. Say why thats the case and about how we can still get to the structural change we need under these circumstances.

I think most economists and policy people say the biggest step to reducing carbon fast would be to put a hefty price on it that reflects the damage it does in the environment. You could do this in a way that doesn’t beggar people [e.g. fee-and-dividend ed.]. If you did, we’d all be getting a price signal to change our ways, including some of our pillar industries. Industrial agriculture, for instance, would become much more difficult.

The central logic of a post-carbon world is towards more localized economies, simply because the sun and wind are spread out in a way that fossil fuel isn’t. Another way of saying this: our addiction to fossil fuel is so important that it undergirds and explains our institutions and ideologies more than the other way around.

At the theological conference you keynoted in LA recently, someone said that in today’s context a prophet is simply someone who describes the world as it is and refuses to let go of some painful truths that people would rather avoid. Many think of you as this kind of prophet. Where does the juice for your work come from?

Well, I’m no prophet. But I get my fuel by working hard, side by side with people all over the world. We each bring our particular gifts to this fight. We’re not winning yet, but we’re getting a little closer to figuring out the weaknesses in the complex we’re battling.