Last Friday, Bill McKibben began his address at Lady Margaret Hall with a description of his father, when he found out he was dying from a brain tumour.
Upon hearing the news, Bill rang to talk to him, but was told his father could not come to the phone because he was shaving. Bill likened this combination of the continuation of apparent normality (encapsulated here in the act of having a shave) with the sense of ‘nothing will ever be the same again’ to our current lives on this planet.
That was the last time Bill’s father shaved, and he died a short while later. From this point on in Bill’s talk, I felt pretty unwell. His words pack a punch. Bill’s talk, however, was not one of complete doom and gloom. It was a call to action. A call to each and every one of us to find our point of maximum leverage. Wondering what that means? Read on.
I have been a fan of Bill McKibben for many years, ever since I read ‘The End of Nature’, which he published in 1989. A prolific writer, activist and academic, Bill is now promoting his newest book, Falter, and a roomfull of eager Oxford locals were lucky enough to catch him last Friday as he delivered this year’s Deneke Lecture at Lady Margaret Hall.
The taxonomy of denial
After a lengthy introduction from LMH Principal, former editor in chief at the Guardian, Alan Rushbridger, Bill began with a walk through what he calls the ‘taxonomy of response’ to climate change. Denial comes in two forms: hard and soft. The first can be forced, like Exxon’s cover up of highly accurate climate forecasts in the 1980s, “the most consequential lie in human history”. Note that Exxon Mobil built its oil rigs with climate-induced sea level rise in mind. Hard denial can have its roots in ideology – the current libertarian laisse-faire ideology so popular with the Western world, Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” etc.
Soft denial, however, the type of denial we all experience, the “it’s someone else’s job to sort this out”, is far more dangerous than the hard stuff.
Our response to the scientists’ warning: “anaemic at worst”
When scientists figured climate change out in the late 20th century, one community rose to the challenge: the engineering community. They got to work on solar technology. Bill described solar as “Hogwarts-scale magic” to a rumble from the eager audience. Engineers’ work means that if we wanted to, we could transform our energy system entirely, and such a huge transformation of our system is within the realm of possbility thanks only to the continued falling cost of solar panel production. The climate scientists and engineers have responded to the challenge of climate change – the rest of us have failed.
The taxonomy of engagement
Following his dip into the taxonomy of denial, Bill moved on to consider the taxonomy of engagement. He summarised two forms of engagement: those who work tirelessly to perfect their own lives, and those who work to engage a wider movement.
The former’s actions he described as“important and nobel”, however personal carbon saving actions taken ALONE (e.g. eating lower down the food chain) are NOT SUFFICIENT to combat the problem IN THE TIME THAT WE HAVE. Such actions are great, as long as an individual’s engagement does not stop there, and personal actions are not a substitute for the second form of engagement.
“This is a timed test”
Bill repeatedly returned to the fact that we are under huge time pressure to take action to reduce the impact of this impending disaster. He was clear that it cannot be completely averted, with some serious change already in motion; however, he does still believe that action can at least reduce the level of impacts we and others have to live with. When he said this, I felt hope – it is so important to have movement leaders who still believe! (perhaps quite a burden on them…).
He argues that wider and deeper engagement is so important as we don’t have time to wait the 30-40 years for generational behaviour change; we don’t have the time to wait for more people to become vegan – even with massive growth in the US from a current 0.5% of the population, we’d probably only be looking at 5% in a few years. Not enough.
“We are in a moment we must seize” – we need to become more confrontational
Bill highlighted the power of brand damage, using the example of the Seattle protests against Shell’s plans to drill for oil in the arctic in 2015 (read about it here). He spoke of his own experiences of non-violent direct action, about the Keystone XL Pipeline (blocked by Obama, back on the table with Trump) and how he has spent a lot more time in handcuffs in recent years than he ever expected.
He called for us all to seize this moment, and to look for opportunities to “do the work of citizens and do it aggressively”.
“Look for traction – find your highest leverage point and don’t act alone”
Bill suggested we all look for what has the most traction, and identify our own highest leverage points of influence, working together to put pressure where it is most likely to yield big results in a short amount of time.
In addition to action which inflicts brand damage, he highlighted the power of the divestment movement, and how we need to be hitting where it matters – politics looks backwards, but the financial industry is all about the future, and there we have tremendous scope for influence. With divestment, we can really damage the fossil fuel industry, and force them to change their ways, as money makes their world go round. And the University of Oxford should be leading the way, like Oxford City Council, which voted to divest its £2bn Local Government Pension Scheme from fracking, in 2018.
“Go outside your comfort zone, as the planet is outside its comfort zone”
“Also take time to be a human. And do it in good conscience.”
As well as calling for greater risk taking and direct action, Bill took time to emphasise the need for rest, the need for pleasure, the playing of music, the witnessing of the beauties of the world. And he said, “do it in good conscience”. An essential message, spoken beautifully by a leader with a real understanding of the importance of rest and recovery in a time which calls for urgent action.
His only worry? We don’t do enough in time.
Bill finished his talk by reiterating the that this is a time-sensitive challenge, a “timed test” if you will. He said we will take action, but his worry, and his only worry is that we’ll do it too late. Our aim should be to do the most good each of us can in the shortest amount of time.
At the end of the talk, Bill shook my hand as I gave him my newly-purchased book to sign. He asked my what I do and I spoke about Low Carbon West Oxford, a community group which has been working hard for over 10 years. I told him I would bring his wisdoms back to the group. Our work on facilitating personal action is important; we also need to think how with each project we enable people and West Oxford and far and wide beyond to identify and access their point of maximum leverage, as time is short and the stakes are high. Divestment, XR, Greta’s strikes: these are all great starting points.
So, go forth and find traction. Join the campaigns you think will have real influence. Build power. And do the small stuff too.