Three responses to Bill McKibben’s new article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”

The following three pieces, by Anne Petermann, Dr. Rachel Smolker, and Keith Brunner were written in response to Bill McKibben’s new article in Rolling Stone magazine, titled, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – make clear who the real enemy is.

The System Will Not be Reformed

Response by Anne Petermann

Bill McKibben, in his new Rolling Stone article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” does an effective job at summarizing the hard and theoretical numbers that warn us of the devastating impacts of continuing to burn the Earth’s remaining fossil fuel reserves–yet it somehow falls short of its stated goal to help mobilize a new movement for climate action.

While the article is full of facts and figures and the future they portend, it falls into several traps common to US-based environmentalists, which undermine its movement-building objective.

The first and most obvious trap is relying on math to mobilize a movement. Environmentalists, often worried about attacks on their credibility, or afraid they will be labeled “emotional” by industry, tend to focus on statistics, mathematical analyses and hard science to make their case.  Unfortunately statistics like “565 Gigatons or 2,795 Gigatons” do not inspire passion.

While McKibben is focusing on Gigatons and percentages and degrees Celsuis, however, corporations like Shell are running multi-million dollar ad campaigns with TV commercials that feature families having fun, hospitals saving lives, children getting good educations, because of fossil fuels.  Coal = energy security; natural gas = maintaining the American way of life.  And as Dr. Rachel Smolker of BiofuelWatch points out below, some of these very same companies are moving into the bioenergy realm–wreaking yet more havoc on communities and ecosystems in the name of supposedly “clean, renewable energy.”  They are playing both sides of the field in the effort to ensure Americans do not feel their way of life is in any way threatened–ensuring them that they can have their cake and eat it too.  For while China may have surpassed the US in total annual carbon emissions, the US still leads, by far, the per capita release of CO2 emissions.

The second trap is filling the article with prophesies of doom and gloom, which do not mobilize effective action, but are very effective at disempowering and disengaging.  Just take a look at the recent report on the attitudes of Generation X on climate change–66% claim they aren’t sure it’s happening. While McKibben explains the need to keep the temperatures under 2° centigrade, which would already cause unforeseeable and dire consequences, he also quotes an official with the International Energy Agency on the current trend toward carbon emissions, “when I look at this data, the trend is perfectly in line with a temperature increase of about six degrees.”  McKibben  goes on to explain what this means: “that’s almost 11 degrees Fahrenheit, which would create a planet straight out of science fiction.”

But while expending the first half of the article on these numbers-based horror scenarios, McKibben then disempowers his audience yet further by reminding us that with the Supreme Court’s decision in 2010 that allows corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, the fossil fuel industry is well-positioned to outspend anyone whose motives run counter to their own–enabling them to elect the best politicians money can buy–a strategy which, so far, has ensured a US government that will not challenge corporate dominance.

The next trap he falls into is the trap of hopeful illogic.  After pointing out the power of the fossil fuel industry, and their stranglehold on congress, he goes on to argue that one great solution to our collective problem is to put a tax on carbon.  He admits that “It’s not clear, of course, that the power of the fossil-fuel industry can be broken,” but explains that “moral outrage just might–and that’s the meaning of this new math.  It could, plausibly, give rise to a real movement.” [see trap number one above].

Even if the math-based “real movement” emerged and was successful, and the divestment campaign McKibben promotes could actually “weaken the fossil fuel industry’s political standing,” there is the reality, as pointed out by Keith Brunner of Gears of Change in his response below, that it would merely move investments out of fossil fuels and into devastating land-grabbing “biofuel” or other false solution schemes.

McKibben delivers his final blow to the “real movement” he is trying to mobilize by stating, in the second to the last paragraph of the article, “Even if such a campaign is possible, however, we may have waited too long to start it.” He then closes by reminding us that the disasters already happening will only get worse, ending with “Just like us, our crops are adapted to the Holocene, the 11,000-year period of climatic stability we’re now leaving…in the dust.”


There is a crucial and obvious need for a real movement to tackle the climate chaos juggernaut.  But this movement will not be based on math-based reform.  Reform what?  Can we have friendly Capitalism?  Can the very markets that have led us to the brink of the abyss now provide our parachute? McKibben points out that under this system, those with the money have all the power.  Then why are we trying to reform this system?  Why are we not transforming it?

And this brings me to the final trap that McKibben falls into in his Rolling Stone piece: compartmentalization.  Scientists are trained to compartmentalize–to see things in their individual tiny boxes and not connected to anything else.  Geneticists have dangerously perfected this science.  But everything on this planet is connected to everything else on this planet, and as Dr. Smolker points out, if you focus solely on eliminating fossil fuels without changing the underlying system, then very bad things will take their place because it is the system itself that is unsustainable.  It is a system designed to transform “natural capital” and human labor into gargantuan profits for an elite few: the so-called “1%”. Whether its driven by fossil fuels or biofuels or even massive solar and wind installations, the system will continue to devour ecosystems, displace forest-based communities, Indigenous Peoples and subsistence farmers from their lands, crush labor unions and generally make life hell for the vast majority of the world’s peoples.  That is what it does.

To eliminate fossil fuels, you have to transform the system that empowers the fossil fuels industry.  In diversity is strength, any ecologist knows this, and our movements for change are no exception.  The more we understand that the roots of the issues we are fighting are intertwined, the better we can cooperate to change the system driving them.

System Change, Not Climate Change.

Anne Petermann is the Executive Director of Global Justice Ecology Project.  She has worked for climate justice since 2004, and is a founding member of the Durban Group for Climate Justice, Climate Justice Now! and Climate Justice Action.  She has worked in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples and in defense of forests since 1991.  She has a forthcoming piece in Z Magazine in September analyzing the failed UN Rio+20 Earth Summit, its domination by corporations, and the people’s summit that took place in Rio at the same time.

For Petermann’s latest critique of Bill McKibben’s proposals for climate action, click here


Fighting Fossil Fuels must Include Opposing False Solutions

 Response by Dr. Rachel Smolker

 Thanks Bill for putting the stark reality into terms that we can relate to and understand, even though it is not pleasant news.

I feel compelled to comment on a couple of points.

The article focusses on carbon emissions and in this context exclusively on the role of fossil fuel industries. This is critically important and I do not intend in the following to belittle the importance of all you have pointed to. Climate change is indeed caused by the buildup of GHG in the atmosphere, and fossil fuels are a very significant culprit.

HOWEVER – there is a particular danger to such singular focus.

At the same time we have dumped fossil carbon into the atmosphere, we have also worked hard to degrade ecosystems to the state where they are now releasing billions of tonnes of stored carbon as well – and losing their ability to draw down ‘new’ carbon and otherwise help regulate the climate.  Forests, healthy carbon rich soils, grasslands, peatlands, wetlands, lakes and rivers, all manner of healthy ecosystems play a key role not just as “dumps” for excessive emissions but in regulating water and nitrogen cycles and weather and temperature and protecting against flood and so on and on.  If we want to reduce the discussion to carbon, even then the role of healthy ecosystems, and the importance of protecting and restoring them as “carbon sinks” is understood and appreciated by far too few…. Industrial agriculture and forestry practices, hydro dams, mining, extraction, paving and endless construction etc etc… all the multitude of things that contribute to the demise of lands, ecosystems, soils… are contributing to carbon emissions very significantly while also further diminishing the potential for those to act as “sinks/dumps” to help alleviate the impacts. The purveyors of that destruction must be put on the bench alongside fossil fuel industries.

The reason this is so crucially important?

As the call to end fossil fuels grows louder, it will, if history is any indication, result in yet more and more demand for bioenergy alternatives. The impacts of that are catastrophic already… just look at corn ethanol – near a third of US corn crop turned into ethanol!  And what will that mean now with the drought cutting major slice into crops? And bioelectricity – burning trees for electricity instead of (or in reality mostly in addition to) coal is ever expanding practice as “renewable energy”.  Worldwide, in the name of renewable energy, funding for mega hydrodams is also being accelerated, thus destroying river, forest and other ecosystems as well as leading to huge methane emissions.  These are the main “alternatives” being promoted and awareness of the scale and magnitude of impacts this poor choice is having on lands, hence carbon, hence climate, is rather sparse…

Meanwhile, even as we are making vast new demands for products of the land to act as alternatives to fossil fuels,  the impacts of warming itself are taking escalating toll on lands: Forests are turning from sinks to sources and dying back, soils are drying out and respiring carbon in death gasp, fires and droughts taking toll – etc etc.  Ecosystem destruction, such as intensive logging interacts with and multiplies the impacts of climate change and vice versa.  You know it – but it is key to keep including this in the conversation to raise awareness and begin steering the ship of change in a direction that does not have us simply die from a different disease – burning up every scrap of wood and plowing up every inch of the land to plant sugar cane, palm oil, corn or jatropha and damming every river in an attempt to maintain BAU without fossil fuels.

Also, there are related problems with a carbon tax. Currently we pretend that the carbon emissions from bioenergy are nonexistent, (the “carbon neutral myth”). If fossil carbon is taxed, models indicate that the incentives for expanding “carbon neutral” bioenergy would result in the replacement of virtually all remaining biodiverse ecosystems – forests, savannah, grasslands etc. with energy feedstock monocrops over the next 30 years.  This is detailed in an article published in Science: “Implications of Limiting CO2 Concentrations on Land Use and Energy”:

PS: You mention that under a carbon tax,  Exxon and their ilk could “become true energy companies, this time for real”.   Is that really what we would want?? For one thing, the main investment in and profiting from bioenergy is precisely these fossil fuel companies.(

and (

Real alternatives  require deep and systemic changes to make it possible for all to enjoy “buen vivir“, not consume excessively or destroy things, to recognize our common interests and act like it.  I believe the real enemy is not “them” – but rather sadly our own  inability to act collectively.

Dr. Rachel Smolker is a Wildlife Biologist and works with Biofuelwatch, analyzing the impacts of bioenergy, such as liquid biofuels and biomass-based electricity, as well s climate mitigation schemes like biochar on peoples and ecosystems globally.


The Dangers of Divestment Campaigns

Response by Keith Brunner

Bill offers divestment campaigns, a la South Africa, as a favored strategy to hit the fossil fuel companies financially.  Sounds great, except when you look at the trends over the past few years of big institutional investors- like pension funds and university endowments- to move their money (often through a private equity intermediary) into, amongst other things, “emerging market” natural resources and infrastructure funds, facilitating land and resource grabbing across the South.  It’s what the “progressive” climate-aware fund managers (like the CERES folks) are advocating, and it’s a problem.

And that’s another place where he misses the point: Yes, the fossil fuel corporations are the big bad wolf, but just as problematic is the system of investment and returns which necessitates a growth economy (it’s called capitalism).  That Harvard University endowment fund manager has a “fiduciary responsibility” to get a certain annual return, which means they have to put their money into growing, profitable funds or firms or states (what’s the difference anyhow), which grow through exploiting people and dismantling ecosystems.  We aren’t going to invest our way to a livable planet.

We need to focus on the root causes and false solutions, lift up the community solutions, and push the big green groups to become more holistic in their analysis so they don’t shoot us all in the foot.

Keith Brunner works on climate justice issues with the Red Clover Climate Justice Collective in Burlington, VT.  He has attended and protested the UN Climate Conferences since 2010.


Filed under Actions / Protest, Bioenergy / Agrofuels, Climate Change, Corporate Globalization, Ending the Era of Extreme Energy, Energy, False Solutions to Climate Change, Green Economy, Greenwashing, Land Grabs, Rio+20

29 Responses to Three responses to Bill McKibben’s new article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”

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  7. There are 7 billion of us exothermic creatures that can live very well on a few calories per day. The problem is that the people in this discussion are seeking a big solution and cannot see that we should be looking for 7 billion small solutions. Do we each need to travel to work?. No. Do we need to heat our homes if we recover and recycle properly. No. Do we need to generate and distribute huge amounts of energy. No. Do we need to eat ourselves into obesity. No. Do we need to compete with each other. No. Do we need growth. No.
    We need comfort and fun.

  8. Pingback: Making sustainability awesome |

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  10. There is likely very little time left to stabilize and then begin the radical reduction of carbon emissions to the atmosphere (about 5-10 years), but Letourneau’s claims are not supported by cutting edge climate science, e.g., go to Jim Hansen’s website:

  11. This comment holds out the false hope that the tipping point has not yet been reached. There is no more northern ice cap, climate archaeology clearly shows that another ice age is nigh unavoidable. If increases in warming prove to be enough to avoid another ice age, that would probably be worse. In either case we have to re-imagine a world where we need less precipitation of the kind our food stocks have come to rely upon. Real hope depends on massive desalination.

  12. correct.
    1. reserves are limited, what about our kids and next generations ???
    2. warming/CO2/NOx/fineDust is too much (each of them)
    http fuwtelekollegnaturwissenschaften(dot)wordpress(dot)com#footer
    3. we need more trees and less exhaust and more support for cars we can drive home as a bike, if fuel and battery are empty:
    http elektrorikscha(dot)wordpress(dot)com

  13. Hi Pierre Louis,
    I am encourged by your comments – your perspective is not very well understood by very many people.

    As someone who has lived for the last 25 years as one of the poorest (bottom 3% in terms of assets & income) people in Australia, I have identified the 2 substantial barriers as the Centrelink Activity Test (see & the lack of a “self organisation & co-opertion process” which we could use instead of the hierarchical processes we are familiar with (meetings, chairs, minutes, agendas etc). The usual processes alienate disempowered people & promote leadership rather than co-operation.

    Another barrier to productive engagement by the disempowered, (although this can be avoided by public housing tenants), is the lack of housing security.

    The first barrier, the Centrelink Activity Test, would be relatively easy to dismantle – in fact since the introduction of voluntary work as an approved activity for over 55’s, it is likely to be only a matter of time until the under 55’s get the same opportunity. I became aware that Volunteering Victoria has changed its definition of voluntary work to compliment this in just the last few days.

    The second barrier is the lack of a suitable process. This is something I have been working on for the last few years & an internet prototype is now available and being trialled.

    By beginning with tenants in a small social housing group (see ), I am hopeful that the advantages of removing these obstacles will demonstrate the benefits and encourage expansion into the sector. If the benefits are as both you & I believe them to be, the change will be more & more attractive to more & more people – et voila!

    Chris Baulman

  14. Emily Fano

    Sounds like an adaptation of Soylent Green!

  15. So much good inputs here. Indeed the system is the problem and it does not make sense to imagine a solution that does not change it.

    But to what ? What should be the new criteria, benchmarks for an alternative development ?
    One says “I reckon the poor are the only ones who might show us how to advance along a new path, because the path along which we the rich have trod is simply unattainable for them”

    And indeed “we have erected structural barriers that prevent them from advancing along any path which is not our own & these barriers must be opened up with our help.”

    I very much agree but the major problem is that we cannot see where the barriers are as we do not even see nor understand the world of the poor. They are too slow or immobile while we rush past them which makes that we see nothing.
    Hence I do agree, the poor should show the way and indicate were the barriers are. But who will empower them and give them that mandate ?? How can they be brought back from the margin of power to where people are heard and considered ??

    Otherwise and probably more likely, when will it be too much for them that they will take the power and force changes ?
    At least localisation is one thing we could concentrate on in the mean time and which could not fail. At least this would force us to come back to the reality of local resource for local people through their local work. Besides, this would bring us back to a slower pace, calmer place wherein we could reconnect with poor people who walk and cycle. Finally this would help us stopping wasting time in cyber diarrhoea, see around and figure out practical stuff that would rebuild a sustainable local development. If that spread all around, the present global economic “system” which is the cause of the problem will collapse because we would stop feeding it with our money.

    Regards Pierre Louis

  16. You are absolutely correct. What we have to find is a strategy that works. The other side has figured it out. Divide and conquer.

  17. Pingback: Bill McKibben on why we’re losing the war against climate change | Follow Me Here…

  18. More people talking of “enemies” & “mass movements” & hoping for hierarchical organisation for orchestrated (top down) change. This is the old thinking & it won’t work for a host of easy to recognise reasons – basically, the rich (that’s us) won’t give up the fruits of our status until we must (certainly not yet).

    This forced change approach is depressing – it comes down to the survival of the fittest in a devasted world.

    We are so soaked from our childhood onwards in our “power” & “competiton” ways of thinking that we can hardly even imagine any alternative. We assume that the educated & those in the know, leaders, soldiers & political movements are the answer – or that we ourselves might set an example if only there were enough of us willing to be martyres to the cause then others might see the light – but what an unattractive life martyres illustrate.

    We all but ignore “the poor”, except perhaps to hope they will rise up & “take power” in this world of our limited perspective.

    I reckon the poor are the only ones who might show us how to advance along a new path, because the path along which we the rich have trod is simply unattainable for them. So do we just sit & wait in hope for them to show us the way? Of course not – we have erected structural barriers that prevent them from advancing along any path which is not our own & these barriers must be opened up with our help. In Australia, the Centrelink Activity Test needs a simple change which could serve us all better & empower the unemployed. see
    This would empower change in the options social housing tenants can follow see

    A more sustainble ATTRACTIVE way forward could take the fear out of the changes we need to make.

  19. This kind of rebuttal INFURIATES me! I have been struggling for 5 years to evolve my understanding / lifestyle / activism on climate change and Bill McKibben has been a singular lighthouse in the storm. NO ONE has worked harder or with more indefatigable optimism in the human spirit and faith in the better angels of civic society. I can’t BEGIN to imagine what the burden of a 3-decades-long fight like this must be on him. And after writing the first book on climate change, and then several others, after founding Step It Up and ambitiously evolving into, after rallying dozens of sensationally visible climate actions worldwide, he then goes on to write this incredibly urgent and badly needed article. Maybe more important than how crucial this article is is the fact that he got it published in ROLLING F-in’ STONE, reaching WAY outside the normal echo-chamber of us ‘greenies’. And what does he get in return? A parade of nitpicking tailcoaters who tear down the work, undermining the message we all want conveyed to the general public, because each one thinks he or she has a way to improve it. HEY! IT’S NOT HELPING, DAMMIT! Since McKibben’s piece, I’ve read a dozen articles by people who can’t manage to say “thank you” before diving into a self-indulgent tirade about how they would have done it better. The message Bill has been tirelessly trying to communicate is mind-bogglingly complex: how do you simultaneously rally grass-roots activism AND change the minds of those in power of politics and corporations? The core message is “a fossil-fuel-based way of life is fundamentally unsustainable — we have to stop”. But in a society founded on two centuries of ever-increasing freedoms and luxuries, a growth based capitalism now almost entirely consumed by consumption, who will get on board unless the NUMBERS and SCIENCE are rock solid and stupefyingly obvious, unless the CALL TO ARMS is underscored with a panic-inducing URGENCY? Look, critics, leaders like McKibben need you to be PLAYING FROM THE SAME SHEET MUSIC, not taking pot shots at the acoustics of the concert hall. For better or worse, one of the most effective tools the climate deniers, the conservatives, the Republicans employ against our message of climate reality is that they know how to line up and march against us. Do each of them think the means are perfect? Absolutely not. Does everyone get what they want? Absolutely not. But does it tip the balance of power? ABSOLUTELY!

  20. Jack Roseau

    People need a real analysis..of what is happening in the real world. Yes, problems have been identified–but I haven’t seen a big surge of thought on getting to the root causes of climate chaos which probably have nothing to do with the science of climate itself. There are problems that are deep-rooted in history like classism, racism, imperialism just to name a few. Add hierarchy and misinformation and wow do we have a problem.

    The majority of people in the US that are aware of climate change have been getting their lack of analysis from McKibbon. Especially new young activists; the majority of whom really want to make a difference. Bill has made it easy for people to think they are making a difference, when they probably aren’t and are just doing what those in power want–McKibben doesn’t challenge power, he negotiates with it.

  21. What distresses me is the minor rebel groups that form amongst us who are trying to put up a united fight against the fossil fuel industry. The opposition is organized but we are clearly fragmented on our ideologies and opinions on how to fight this battle. As they say, we win battles in some cases but always lose the war.

    Fear factor is always important and needed, especially when as humanity, we are at the tipping point of our own annihilation. We are here to tell the truth and no matter how hard it is to swallow, we have to bite it and build the movement. If people choose to walk away because they are scared, then I’m afraid we will have to try and win the war with a small group.

    I was scared after reading the article. I am scared about my future and the future of my kids I soon wish to have. But I would definitely not like to be told that things are fine and we will somehow suss things out when they clearly are going beyond repair.

    I am glad Bill wrote this article. We may be beyond the tipping out and things are indeed beyond repair. And maybe the movement needs to be shaken off its current state and forced to up the ante against the real enemy.

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  23. (Some of you may have already seen this response as a comment to McKibben’s article on; thanks to Brian Tokar’s posting I found this very useful website)
    McKibben’s article could not be more timely, highlighting the growing danger of our world plunging into irreversible catastrophic climate change (C3) if rapid and radical reduction of carbon emissions is not implemented. He is right to point to the fossil fuel industry as an enemy, but I find his focus both too narrow and too broad, too narrow because this industry is an integral component of the Military Industrial Complex (MIC), more precisely the Military Industrial Fossil Fuel, Nuclear, State Terror Complex. And too broad because he lumps all fossil fuels together with the main focus on hydrocarbons (petroleum), rather than prioritizing the rapid phase out the consumption of coal and non-conventional petroleum (mainly tar sands and fracked gas).

    Why focus on MIC, more specifically on militarism and the imperial agenda of the US and other major capitalist countries in connection with the threat of C3? McKibben has long ignored this issue, in contrast to other prominent environmentalists such as Lester Brown and Jeffrey Sachs who have called for big cuts in the military budget. I doubt it is because the Pentagon is “going green”, i.e., boosting biofuels and solar power in Afghanistan. As Michael Klare put it the Pentagon is the “oil protection service”, the military arm to make the world safe for transnational capital. Most critically, the imperial agenda blocks the global cooperation and equity required to prevent C3, witness the failure of Durban and Rio 20. The U.S./Israeli war threats to Iran and continuing U.S.-led demonization of Chavez and Correa are all about regime change to widen the control of MIC over global hydrocarbon reserves. And there are wider targets for what should be called the “resource protection service”, including rare earth metals. lithium and coltan used in aerospace and wind technologies.

    Yes, McKibben does recognize that “even if you could force the hand of particular companies, you’d still have to figure out a strategy for dealing with all the sovereign nations that, in effect, act as fossil-fuel companies”. But all sovereign nations are not equal with respect to exerting power in the present world. Is Venezuela really the equivalent of the U.S.?

    And now returning to his too broad focus advocated in this article. To be sure, McKibben’s heroic efforts to block the X-L Keystone Pipeline identified big carbon-footprint tar sands as a “game-changer for the climate” (Jim Hansen’s words). In this article McKibben urges “effective action” that “would require actually keeping most of the carbon the fossil-fuel industry wants to burn safely in the soil, not just changing slightly the speed at which it’s burned”. But only conventional petroleum can supply the energy needed to create a wind/solar power infrastructure to replace the fossil fuel-dominated existing supply of global energy, while simultaneously minimizing future carbon emissions bringing us closer to C3. Coal and unconventional petroleum (tar sands, fracked gas and oil shale) have significantly higher carbon emissions per energy delivered and should be rapidly phased out. And this is exactly what is on the agenda of

    McKibben points out “even if we stopped increasing CO2 now, the temperature would likely still rise another 0.8 degrees, as previously released carbon continues to overheat the atmosphere.” Hence, carbon sequestration with transfer from the atmosphere to the soil and crust is imperative to reduce atmospheric CO2 levels below the safe limit of 350 ppm (hence “”). This is not “clean coal”! In our own study, we show that a full wind/solar transition is achievable in no more than 30 years with the consumption of less than 40% of the proven reserves of conventional petroleum, while supplying sufficient energy to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere using a combination of global agroecologies increasing soil carbon storage and solar-powered-industrial-burial of carbonate in the crust. This approach would maximize the possibility of reaching a safe atmospheric CO2 level before the tipping points to C3 are reached as well as ending energy poverty in the global South, reaching a rough minimum delivery necessary for state of the science life expectancy for everyone on Earth (for details go to

    Finally, McKibben points to a strategy: “If people come to understand the cold, mathematical truth – that the fossil-fuel industry is systematically undermining the planet’s physical systems – it might weaken it enough to matter politically. Exxon and their ilk might drop their opposition to a fee-and-dividend solution; they might even decide to become true energy companies, this time for real.” And while McKibben quotes George Monbiot, here is something more relevant to this issue from this Guardian columnist, writing about Rio 2012:

    “World leaders at Earth summits seem more interested in protecting the interests of plutocratic elites than our environment… ‘To see Obama backtracking on the commitments made by Bush the elder 20 years ago is to see the extent to which a tiny group of plutocrats has asserted its grip on policy.’…The environmental crisis cannot be addressed by the emissaries of billionaires. It is the system that needs to be challenged, not the individual decisions it makes. In this respect the struggle to protect the biosphere is the same as the struggle for redistribution, for the protection of workers’ rights, for an enabling state, for equality before the law…. Without mass movements, without the kind of confrontation required to revitalize democracy, everything of value is deleted from the political text. But we do s not mobilise, perhaps because we are endlessly seduced by hope. Hope is the rope from which we all hang.” (June 18, 2012)

    I submit that McKibben is not being as radical as reality itself. Will Exxon go green because of political pressure? Or are the requirements for a robust Global Green New Deal higher, the actual transfer of power from the 0.1% to the 99.9%, including nationalization of the energy industries. The political requirement for realizing the “other world that is possible” is transnational, multidimensional class struggle. Class struggle in the 21st Century transcends the narrower conceptions of the 19th and 20th centuries centered around the activity of the industrial working class. 21st Century class struggle encompasses the creative activity of the 99%. It is profoundly democratic, aimed at expanding democracy to all spheres, political, economic and social. Maybe McKibben is thinking along these lines already, but he is not yet willing to advocate this path. But it should be ours.

  24. Mike Holland

    This is how it will play out.

    Well meaning folk like the Author will continue to ring the bell, many will hear it, but the deaf have the wheel and they will run us hard aground.

    Once we hit, they will quickly fall away, both peoples, the ones with vision and the blind. What will be left will be the poor and the subsistence farmer and what few pre-agriculturalists we have left.

    If there is a way for Humans to actually survive the final crescendo of climate change, these will be the folks who make it… they’ll just continue their lives and those will be even harder than usual.

    Meanwhile, the only real question is whether we drive our culture ashore so hard that the boat sinks and is forever stuck to the bottom or whether the world recovers in time, once the beast of capitalism goes silent, for enough humans to re-float the boat of civilization in which almost all humanity shares a common fate. That, and the question of just how fast all this will happen.

    Of course, the rich will try to buy their way thru the valley of the shadow of death; well, they certainly have a chance to make it. If they do, it’s an interesting pre-archeaological thought experiment to ponder what type of instant society they will try to build, trading their paper money and shiny yellow metal to the rugged survivalist who remain, to grow their food, build their houses, produce their hover cars and start the whole bloody journey all over again.

  25. Mike Holland

    The indigenous peoples of the world who have gone thru 500 years of rapid colonial expansion, hanging onto their remnant cultures by a thread… Wow, they have really not seen a thing, yet! All that was just a windup.

  26. Bill McKibben is turning a lot of people off. That’s what I hear from people who share his ideals but no longer find him effective in bringing about change. Doom and gloom, no mention of the population control as the single most important issue to bring to light. McKibben seems in some ways to believe that we can build our way out of the problems by building as many new renewables as possible, but we can’t build our way out of this crisis. We need to listen to people like Ozzie Zehner who say we do not have an energy production problem, our goal should be energy reduction. Meanwhile, all kinds of corporate giants are trashing our planet in the name of green energy, which McKibben apparently supports. He can’t keep singing the same song and expect to bring about change. Thank you to those of you who are offering such insightful criticism.

  27. Hi.

    Thanks for your thoughts. The systemic transformation I write about is exactly not from the top down, but can only occur from the bottom up. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. Governments are part of the problem, communities are part of the solution.


  28. McKibben states: “Environmentalists, understandably, have been loath to make the fossil-fuel industry their enemy, respecting its political power and hoping instead to convince these giants that they should turn away from coal, oil and gas and transform themselves more broadly into ‘energy companies’.”
    We guess the “environmentalists” Bill is referring to are the DC-based liberals who labor under the illusion they can reform the corporados. The enviros we work with on the ground (in the real world) are proud to make Big Oil and its enablers our enemy, they’re destroying the planet after all. Granted, most of us in the “developed world” have a hand in this destruction since we presently live in a petro-based wasteful culture, but the ones promoting and profiting from that culture are the true enemies of the Earth. (It’s like the difference between addicted smokers and immoral tobacco executives and their friends on Madison Avenue).
    Remember, it’s the corporados who promote the “choices” we are given, not the people. One of the stand-out lines in McKibben’s piece points to Big Oil pulling the plug on their alternative fuel operations. No more “beyond oil”. It’s full speed ahead, damn the planet for the enemies of the Earth. We say damn the corporados, full speed ahead!

  29. Amazing isn’t it.
    We are all on the same side, but none of us can agree!

    Anne says you have to transform the system that empowers the fossil fuels industry – now there is a top down approach if ever I heard one. Surely the top down approach has proven to be a significant part of the problem & how the hell are we to get the politicians to do anything that will alienate voters who, for the moment, are quite comfortable with the way things are? Keep working on it Anne, but don’t ask us to hold our breath.

    Rachael says we need to recognize our common interests and act like it – that the real enemy is is sadly our own inability to act collectively. While there will always be greenie martyrs, most people won’t act until they are personally effected. To wait for enough people to act in our common interest is, like Anne’s idea going to have to wait for social (political) change which won’t happen until it is too late, which it may already be.

    Keith says we need to focus on the root causes and false solutions, lift up the community solutions. Now that, I believe, has more potential, depending on what Keith might mean by “root causes” & “community solutions”.

    There is one “community” which might see an environmentally sustainable lifestyle as more attractive than the one they are currently forced to endure – the “community of the poor”. While a sustainable lifestyle is one which for most people in the developed world would involve the unattractive prospect of activities that are much more local and less demanding on resources, low income people are already strongly motivated out of economic necessity to make the most of low level access to resources. They could potentially have an improved & sustainable standard of living without access to more resources. Now that is a real bottom up approach from which real innovations could come to the benefit of all, need not greed being the mother of invention.

    For an outline of how this might “trickle up” from the bottom to change society, see