Thirty years ago, Bill McKibben wrote the first book on climate change for general readers, The End of Nature; it didn’t save the world, but McKibben hasn’t stopped trying. The Vermont-based author and activist’s new volume, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, explains, in compelling prose and with devastating detail, the magnitude of the risks posed by carbon emissions—and also unregulated genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. He acknowledges the difficulty of making change when vested interests in fossil fuels and big tech have so much leverage. However, McKibben does offer a scintilla of hope, based on the widespread adoption of green technology, the acceptance of regulation, and the power of non-violent protest movements. On the phone from San Diego, where he was fundraising for his grassroots environmental organization, 350.org, McKibben spoke with Maclean’s about how the human species may be able to survive its suicidal impulses.
Q: In April, you were in Toronto, delivering the Robert Hunter Memorial Lecture, and you spoke in Vancouver. What are your impressions of how Canada is prepared—or unprepared—to help stop the human game from playing itself out?
A: Canada’s got some of the very best climate activists, experts and policy people in the world. And it has a government that’s rhetorically, and in certain respects actually, committed to being a leader on climate change and carbon taxes. But Justin Trudeau said in Houston a couple of years ago, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil [in the ground] and just leave them there.” And so, Canada is committed to using up about a third of the remaining carbon budget [we can emit before what] the scientists say is a catastrophe. If Canada’s determined to dig up the oil underneath the oil sands and ship it around the world to people who will burn it, then Canada is inevitably going to be a great source of destruction. We can’t afford to have Canada do that, any more than we can afford to have the U.S. dig up all the coal in the Powder River Basin or have Brazil cut down all the trees in the rainforest.
Q: There’s a dispute about carbon taxing between some Canadian provinces and the federal government. But is taxing carbon even an effective means of tackling climate change now?
A: This is the point where I have to restrain myself from saying, “Oh, if only you’d listened to me when …” Thirty years ago, a modest tax on carbon would have been an effective way to nudge us onto a new trajectory. Since we’ve spent the last 30 years moving further and further out on this precarious limb, there’s now no good argument for not taxing carbon—there’s no reason to allow Exxon to use the atmosphere as an open sewer for free—and there are plenty of examples of it working to an extent, B.C. being a case in point. But the idea that that alone is going to solve the problem is over-helpful by an order of magnitude. We’re also going to need governments to work extremely hard, like, World War II hard, to build out renewable energy as fast as they can, and commit to keeping carbon in the ground. If we can’t do those things, I just don’t think there’s any way to make the math work. Climate change is a moral question, a justice question, an economic question and a sociological question—but at root, it’s a math problem, and at this point, it’s a really hard math problem.
The highest-value target is making sure that Canada does not build a completely useless and anachronistic pipeline to British Columbia so they can produce yet more tar sand oil. It’s a waste of money, a waste of time, and it’s precisely the wrong signal to send to the rest of the world. The people who are fighting it are magnificent.
Q: In your recent Toronto lecture, you mentioned you believe Indigenous peoples have a unique role in combating climate change.
A: Yes, Indigenous people are at the absolute forefront of the fight in North America, and around the world. There are two reasons for that, I think: one is, in many places, we relocated or relegated the people who were here first to places we thought were not valuable, and as it turns out in the 21st century, those places often are atop large deposits of carbon or they’re straddling the routes you’d need to run a pipeline to get it out. So they have real tactical importance—but also extraordinary moral significance. There’s something very powerful about the fact that the oldest and newest wisdom traditions on the planet are now converging on some of the same notions. The supercomputer and the sweat lodge are providing some of the same visions of the world, and they’re visions enormously at odds with the conventional view of the world that we’re just going to keep growing all the time.
Q: Falter isn’t just a book about climate change; it also describes how genetic engineering may create unbridgeable inequality (as some humans are tailored to be “better” than others) and how AI could take control of how our societies work. Should we be most concerned about one of these problems, or are they all converging?
A: Well, they’re converging, but they do come in a priority order, in that climate change is clearly completely upon us now. We have no choice but to rally with everything we’ve got, and everything we’ve got is not inconsiderable. Engineers have done amazing work; the price of a solar panel is 90-per-cent down from what it was a decade ago. Human genetic engineering is a huge threat, and it now appears more imminent than it would have even a year ago. A Chinese doctor produced the first two genetically engineered babies [in November 2018], but we still have some time if we want to keep it from getting out of control. And in fact, in response to those Chinese babies, there have been some attempts from the scientific community to put a little bit of a slowdown on this work; that’s a very good thing. Artificial intelligence is a little further down the chronological progression, so [it’s] harder to figure out precisely the lines to draw—but it’s getting easier. This weekend’s [New York] Times carried a story about how the Chinese can now use AI and facial recognition to recognize a Uighur Muslim anyplace in the country. If that doesn’t send a little shiver down your spine, something’s wrong.
Q: With respect to AI and genetic engineering, do activists have the same role to play as they do in addressing climate change, including staging protests?
A: Maybe, but someone else is going to have to do it [laughs]! I’m afraid that anytime you have as much wealth as is at stake with fossil fuel or big tech, it’s folly to imagine that without the deep engagement of lots of people you’re going to be able to bring things under control.
Q: In Falter, you write about the influence of Ayn Rand’s novels, and the individualist philosophy at their core, on power brokers the world over. How can works of fiction have such a great impact on the way that the world works now?
A: Oh, I think that that may have been precisely why they had such a great impact. No one reads Ayn Rand’s essays, because they’re unreadable. The novels are fairly close to unreadable, too, but clearly have been compelling to lots of people. Barack Obama said once that for a teenage sensibility, and someone anti-authority, they have a certain charm that most people quickly outgrow. But then there are people that don’t outgrow that, like Alan Greenspan or Donald Trump, or all the CEOs or cabinet ministers who have clearly taken her as their bible. It’s the one thing that links the Koch brothers’ plutocrat money with the Silicon Valley tech money—the shared effects of Ayn Rand and the idea that “nobody’s the boss of me.”
Q: Your book isn’t the only one to argue that we need more widespread and meaningful co-operation to address humanity’s problems; other writers, such as Douglas Rushkoff (in Team Human) and Yuval Noah Harari (in 21 Lessons for the 21st Century) have taken this up. To what extent is this idea in the air now?
A: Partly what’s going on is there are a thousand reactions around the world (some of them good, some of them bad) to the manifest failure of governments to deal with the biggest problems that we face. It doesn’t surprise me that lots of citizens are trying to figure out how to make things work in some way. The decisive question is whether we’re going to imagine ourselves primarily as just a collection of individuals or as people who are in this together and who exhibit some real kind of solidarity.
Q: Towards the end of Falter, you advocate a “smaller-scale world,” and in the Robert Hunter lecture, you spoke about the value of decentralization. How can these ideas mesh with the necessity for international co-operation and engagement across borders?
A: They don’t call it “global warming” for nothing! We have to figure out some kind of global solution, but some of that clearly lies in building economies that are less global in their nature, that work more on a local scale. At least with climate change, the technologies that we need to embrace immediately are sun and wind, and those are by their nature more local than the highly concentrated and dispersed deposits of coal and oil and gas that fund our world at the moment. As we move out of necessity towards a world that runs on more localized power, we will also have begun the task of rebalancing some of the political and economic power on our planet. Look, people are going to get rich building solar panels, but nobody’s going to get “Koch brothers rich.” There’s not going to be the equivalent of a Saudi royal family of wind. I’m hopeful that that is one of the steps that’s going to move us in two of the right directions at the same time.
Q: You’ve supported the Green New Deal. In its attempt to tackle inequality, can the Green New Deal potentially cut across party allegiances and divisiveness?
A: No. I don’t think it can. Remember that the reason there are huge party divisions in recent America, and I think in Canada, too, has everything to do with the power of the fossil fuel industry. The Republican Party is basically a wholly owned subsidiary of the fossil fuel industry. The Koch brothers own it, and they are the biggest oil and gas barons on the continent. They’re the biggest leaseholders in the tar sands. And so I think the notion that we’re going to have a polite meeting of minds is something that one would yearn for, but I’m afraid [it’ll be] unrequited. The one place where the partisan divisions get bridged—everyone on the continent, and I think pretty much around the world, loves solar panels. They poll through the roof with Republicans and Democrats and independents, sometimes for different reasons. Conservatives like the idea that they can put solar panels on the roof and cut themselves off from the rest of us and never have to pay attention [laughs], and liberals like the idea that they’re connected to everybody else in this huge grid, and so on and so forth. It is amazing to see that that that transformational technology is a place where everybody who’s not an oil company or a utility is keen.
Q: What hope does your book—or anyone’s—have of reversing humanity’s lurch towards extinction?
A: The mistake I made for many years, having written The End of Nature, was to think we were in an argument and to just keep writing more books, and eventually, the weight of evidence would get our leaders to act. It turns out, whaddaya know, that’s not how it works. And at a certain point, I smartened up enough to realize that we won the argument; we were just losing the fight, and that’s when we started trying to build movements. Those are more effective, but it’s not one or the other. A good metaphor is as useful as a new engine or 10,000 people going to jail [to support a cause]. It’s another form of helping with the essential process. And the essential process is not winning pieces of legislation; it’s changing the zeitgeist—changing what seems normal and natural and obvious to most people. When that happens, we’ll win this fight. And it will happen. The only thing that makes me despair is that it may not happen in time, and these are the first time tests that we’ve faced. Winning slowly is just another way of losing.