An Open Letter to Bill McKibben

categories: Cocktail Hour


Dear Bill,


I have been meaning to write you for a while.  As you may or may not know, I shoveled some criticism your way, along with a heap of praise, in my 2011 book, My Green Manifesto.  The gist of the criticism was that you were reasonable and right, but lacked fighting spirit.  To which I now say: Ha! 


Boy, was I wrong about that one.  Then I was reacting to the reasonable arguments of your book, Deep Economy ,which seemed obviously right but sometimes had a Jimmy Carter cardigan sweater sort of feel.  But you have certainly taken that sweater off.  Ripped it off and burned it even.  In fact, you have demonstrated more fighting spirit left than almost anyone else left on this overheated planet.  So, sorry about that.  My bad. 


Of course you started to bring this whole thing to the country’s attention, long before Uncle Al’s slideshow, with your 1989 book, The End of Nature. I read it right when it came out, and was duly impressed, though I was also left feeling uncomfortable. The end of nature?  I was still in my full-on Thoreau stage at the time and I knew I could experience wildness in nature, even if this nature had empty 7-up cans and cigarette butts in it.  I didn’t like the idea that the world was as human controlled, or influenced, as you suggested.  Jump ahead fourteen years and your book seems much more than prescient.  It is not going too far to say that the facts of that book are now the backdrop for almost everything I write, whether it is about the western fires, Atlantic hurricanes, or oil spills in the Gulf. It deserves to be remembered as what it is: a classic of Silent Spring status.  Okay, enough praise. Now down to business.  Global warming business, of course. 

I just finished re-reading the piece you published in the August 2, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”   I am sitting here, drinking the morning’s second cup of coffee, and my brain has that tightened up feeling that it always gets when I’m wrestling with ideas that are too big for me.  But this time I don’t want to do what I usually do when I feel overwhelmed: run away.  Run away and do something else—watch TV or work or ride my bike– and try not to think about it. This time I want to think about it.  I want to make some personal sense of it.

First the obvious. Last year, when I travelled through the West, was the worst ever for western fires—until this year of course. We are all getting tired of the phrase “the hottest year on record” and ice caps are melting at record rates, and anyone who doesn’t see that is blind. So what? some say.  Maybe we should just accept that this is what is coming.  Get out our shopping carts and sleeping bags and guns and get ready for our Cormac McCarthy future. But that’s not so easy to do, is it?  We humans generally aren’t like that; we are busy little beavers who like to fix things, and some of us, particularly those with children, aren’t that crazy about the idea of a sizzling apocalyptic future.  So the old question (the same question you used to ask as a college newspaper editor if I remember correctly): What is To Be Done?

In your article you first tell us what the answer is not. It is not twisty light bulbs and recycling and hybrid cars. Not that we shouldn’t  do these things—we should—but that as you put it: “People perceive—correctly—that their individual actions will not make a decisive difference in the atmospheric concentration of CO2…”  And: “Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is taking them.  Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself—it’s as if gay-rights movements had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.”

 This is an important point, and worth pausing on.  One of the topics I’ve focused on over the last few years is the psychology of environmentalism, and I’ve used my own ambivalent self as a test case.  And one of the things that has kept me from getting up on the global warming stump is my own hypocrisy.  Last summer, for instance, I drove thousands of miles following the trail of Wallace Stegner and Ed Abbey, trying to write a book about the two men that would, at least in small part, inspire others toward environmental action.  You see the problem there, right?  “We are all hypocrites,” said my friend the river activist Dan Driscoll, “But we need more hypocrites who fight.”  Sure, yes, true.  But I still think the undermining hypocrisy hamstrings a lot of us.  How to wave a fist against the oil companies with one hand and reach for the pump with the other?  How?  

Your article helps me start to answer this basic question. It doesn’t let me off the hook entirely, but it reminds me that we are all on our hooks together.  And it reminds me that while individual action may be a moral imperative, it is not the larger answer to a larger change.  Take the case of Civil Rights, another paradigm-shifting change, as an example. Treating your fellow humans as equals may be a moral imperative, but creating laws, though it springs from the personal, is something else.   (But here my brain is getting knotted up again: isn’t being a wasteful person who battles global warming like being a racist who supports civil rights?  Help me, Bill!)

Anyway, let’s say we accept our own hypocrisy, that we realize that we are just part of a wasteful culture, and that that shouldn’t stop us from trying to change that culture (since, as it happens, that culture is helping destroy the world.)  What’s next?  Well, you tell us: next we fight.

Let’s stop for a second and imagine the world were being attacked by giant spidery aliens.  If that were the case, if it were fight or perish, we would all fight.  I for one wouldn’t diddle around worrying about whether or not I’m a hypocrite or if I was using my car or air conditioner too much; I’d break out my gun.  But who is the enemy?  Who are the spidery aliens?  Who do I shoot at?

 You tell us that, too.  I won’t go into all you math but it boils down to three things:

  1. If the temperature rises 2 degrees Celsius we can kiss goodbye to the environment that we all know and that humankind evolved in.
  2. The maximum we can put into the air is roughly 565 gigatons of carbon dioxide
  3. The fossil-fuel industry has reserves of oil and gas that will lead to the burning of 2,795 gigatons, five times that limit, and is rapaciously seeking more.

It is this same fossil-fuel industry, not governments or individuals, that you propose should be cast as “Public Enemy Number 1.”  The oil and gas companies are the giant spidery aliens.  When other businesses exploit children or dump sewage in lakes we have evolved to the point where we say “Hey, that’s not such a good idea,” and “You can’t do that,” and finally “That’s against the law.”  Shouldn’t we do the same to companies that are destroying the world we know?

“Yes,” is the answer you give, and “yes!” I holler back from the pews.  Is it really possible that we  police people for throwing trash in a river but that we will not police companies that, by plan and with full pre-meditated  knowledge (many of those who work for them are scientists and scientists know the real math of warming, as you point out), are creating a burning uninhabitable world.  You quote Naomi Klein: “With the fossil fuel industry, wrecking the planet is their business model.”   

So then I circle around to the same question: What is to be done?   And you give me an answer here too.   “Moral outrage” is the short answer, but financial leverage is the long one, in the form of carbon tax and a movement of divestment similar to that used against South Africa in the 1980s.  Okay, that second part kind of makes my brain tighten up again.  But moral outrage I understand.  And you have given me my enemy. 

So thanks for that.  I’m ready now.  Not sure exactly what to do now, but I await your call.  Sign me up; put me in the game; tell me what to do, coach.  I’m serious.   Let’s get after the fuckers.  If I can be a tenth of the fighter you are I’ll be proud.


David Gessner

P.S. Follow Bill on Twitter:

 P.P.S. From Bill M: a few thoughts of mine on this evolving movement:




  1. Tommy writes:

    I don’t know where to start with this, other than I agree with Leroi, but not for all the same reasons. “Moral indignation” as a strategy, reminds me of anger which I’ve heard described as “taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” Another great quote by some visionaries who were doing something, some business model that they IMPLEMENTED, “if you say you’re for the environment, but you do nothing, then you’re not for the environment.”

    You’re offering me “moral outrage?” “Moral outrage” is supposed to help me sleep at night?

    It’s been suggested the development of the human cerebral cortex, that allowed us to THINK, was nature’s biggest mistake.

    Can the Earth be saved? Should it?

    Not at the current – sustained – rate of degradation, and not by the people who are (unwittingly) destroying it, nor by the people who are trying to save it .with t-shirts, bake sales, and annual one day (river, park, roadway, you name it) clean-ups. “The world is a human waste dump.” Until that mentality changes, not even Earth First! pyro-techtronics can register more than a blip on the radar screen.

    I agree with Peter,(and Bill M., and Dave) you’ve got to follow the money. As long as “business as usual”.is cheap, why change to more expensive models. And that is one of the crux’s of the model moral outrage can’t get around – being green is still a game for the affluent.

    Raising consciousness, through moral indignation and other tools, is nice, but without ACTION, all you have is outrage. And morals, of course, are based on values. Shifting values.

    Give me a bumper sticker I can put on my car so I can feel better about myself. Enjoy your second cup, bro!

    • Dave writes:

      I don’t know what you’re talking about, Tommy. This guy has taken more ACTION (as you like to call it) than anyone else on planet earth.

      • Tommy writes:

        I’m talking about “moral outrage”. I’m talking about people who put bumper stickers on cars and think they’ve taken a stand. I’m talking about the parasitic infestation of hunans on the Earth – we take and we take and we take with no thought towards depletion, or continuance. Sustainable? The general population, even those who are vaguely aware, have no clue. McKibben? Suzuki? They’re Gods, and we’re right to put them on pedestals.

        • Dave writes:

          Oh, it seemed to me directed at this post, which is all about taking action. Also writers and thinkers nudge the world’s opinions, and those opinions can be nudged. Just look at the last year and gay-lesbian marriage issues as an example.

          • Tommy writes:

            I missed the take action portion of your post. The take- away I took was moral outrage. Sorry. Im happy gay couples can hold hands in public in more neighborhoods than they seed to, and suffer through the same indignities of marriage the rest of us can (recently divorced, can you tell), and I understand the value of raising consciousness, or nudging, as you like to say, but it’s not enough to say we’re made as hell and not gonna take it any more – without realizing how thoroughly, completely, feebly dependent we are on the systems we think we want to change. You say the future’s getting better, I say we’re trying to stop a freight train with a paper clip. You say it’s happened before and can happen again, not with one, but with a million paperclips, and I say – then roll your sleeves up and get to work! All of you.

          • Tommy writes:

            than they used to, not seed to

  2. Paula writes:

    Ok. All this is good. But here’s the dilemma that keeps me awake at night–along with guilty awareness of my personal hypocrisy. If the answer is to legislate (which is surely is, because we hypocrites need to be reined in by something stronger than our feeble consciences) and the political will needs to last beyond a single electoral cycle, how can a democracy do this? It would require a majority of the electorate to first, vote for folks who would tackle the problem even it means we can’t afford to fly to warm places or drive our SUVs cross-country. And second, RE-electing them to get the job done, when we really wanted to fly south last winter and the damn government made it impossible. Moral outrage is good. I’m not sure we have time for it to play out.

    • Dave writes:

      Yes, agreed. Plenty of reason for real and deep pessimism. But remember gay marriage! Who woulda thought a few years ago…..but sea changes do occur.

  3. bill mckibben writes:

    Fun to get an open letter, because then you can write an open reply back. I’m very glad for the tone of this–I think it reflects a growing willingness to fight back against the power of the fossil fuel industry, whose greatest argument is ‘we’re inevitable.’ They’re strong but they’re not omnipotent–and though most of us have no choice but to use at least a little of their product every day, we have plenty of choice about them letting them continue to set the rules of the game.
    Now time for a cocktail–or, here in Vermont, with more breweries per capita than any place on earth, not to mention the brewery named best in the world for 2013 (, I will raise a pint glass in your direction

  4. Matt Hall writes:

    Great post, David! I think identifying the enemy is key but would argue that the real enemies are those holding political power, protecting those in the fossil fuel industry. In many ways, the will and engagement are there. What’s missing is funding, at every level, due to political opposition.

    The best way to take down the fossil fuel industry is by standing up the alternatives. This, to me, is where the emphasis should be placed.

  5. LeRoi writes:

    Your woe-is-me what’s a wishy-washy environmentalist to do rhetoric? Rubbish. Nonsense. Garbage. “Who do I shoot at?” Real nice even if it is an intended metaphor. I don’t know where to begin with this nonsense. Perhaps the only bigger hypocrite than Big Al is Little Bill. McKibben is a tool of the nonsensical ‘green’ industry. And quoting McKibben quoting Naomi Klein? Priceless leftist rubbish. Here, quoth LeRoi: Wrecking society is the the ultra, uber-Left’s business model. I’m sure your pit-pull Roorbach will let the ad hominem insults fly but so be it.

    • Bill writes:

      You are such a lovable ding-dong, Leroi, whoever you are. Please come back when you’ve gotten an education and can distinguish advertising from science. And turn off Fox News. Or are you one of those guys who thinks the Colbert Report is for real? But please do help us understand how clean air and clean water and cleaner energy and safer chemicals destroy society. Conservation, cleanliness, care for others, care for health, these are conservative values. And they are liberal values, too. You’re in neither camp, but off in the woods with the crazies. Woof-woof.

  6. Bill writes:

    You were asking the other Bill, but in fact, yes, racists did fight for civil rights, and they did grow and change, even while perhaps in many cases harboring corners of their former un-enlightenment. Gay rights, too–homophobes can and do see the light even while growing. And here comes the great battle of human history, to be fought largely in America, where the biggest consumers live and legislate, and where the hypocrisy thrives in equal measure. No more jokes about people who live spare! They are in the vanguard.

  7. Peter Peteet writes:

    ‘“Moral outrage” is the short answer, but financial leverage is the long one, in the form of carbon tax and a movement of divestment similar to that used against South Africa in the 1980s.’Amen. Hit,no errors,the ball is in the air.I’m with you and Bill,and grateful for the clarity and strength of the words from both of you.