For mobilising growing popular support in the USA and around the world for strong action to counter the threat of global climate change.
Bill McKibben is one of the world’s leading environmentalists. He has been an influential author and educator for decades, and his 1989 book The End of Nature was one of the first-ever books written to inform a general audience about climate change.
Over the last 10 years, he initiated and built the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement. With the organisation 350.org at its core, this movement has spread awareness and mobilised political support for urgent action to mitigate the climate crisis that is already unfolding.
Career as an environmental author
Bill McKibben was born on December 8, 1960, and graduated from Harvard University in 1982. McKibben worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1982-87 and then went freelance. In 1989, he published The End of Nature, which has been considered to be the first book on global warming written for a general audience. The book became a bestseller and was published in more than 20 languages.
His next book, The Age of Missing Information, was an account of an experiment in which McKibben collected everything that came across the 100 channels of cable TV for a single day. He spent a year watching the 2,400 hours of videotape and then compared it to a day spent on the mountaintop near his home. This book has been widely used in colleges and high schools.
Subsequent books include Hope, Human and Wild, about Curitiba, Brazil and Kerala, India, which he cites as examples of people living more lightly on the earth; The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, which is about the Book of Job and the environment; Maybe One, about human population; Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, about a year spent training for endurance events at an elite level; Enough, about what he sees as the existential dangers of genetic engineering and nanotechnology; and Wandering Home, about a long solo hiking trip.
His book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future addresses what the author sees as shortcomings of the growth economy and envisions a transition to a more local-scale enterprise. In 2007, he published Fight Global Warming Now, a handbook for activists trying to organise their local communities. In 2008 came The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life, a collection of essays spanning his career. Also in 2008, the Library of America published ‘American Earth’, an anthology of American environmental writing since Henry David Thoreau edited by McKibben. In 2010, he published another national bestseller, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, an account of the rapid onset of climate change.
One of his most popular articles, titled "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe and that make clear who the real enemy is," published by Rolling Stone, received wide acclaim online. It showed that only a tiny fraction of the proven coal, oil and gas reserves that the fossil-fuel companies want to develop over the coming decades could be burnt to avoid global temperatures rising by more than 2°C.
From author to activist
In 2001, McKibben took a job as scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he now has an endowed position as Schumann Distinguished Scholar. The Boston Globe wrote in 2012, “After watching two decades of political inaction, McKibben began to lose patience. ‘I spent a long time thinking that I was doing my part by writing and speaking about this and that, since it wasn’t really my nature to be a political organiser; someone else would build a movement,’ he once told the Utne Reader. But when that didn’t happen, he realized he had to act.”
McKibben started a number of campaigns through the churches, e.g. a “Hundred Dollar Holiday” for a non-materialistic Christmas or “What would Jesus drive?” initiated by him for less polluting cars.
In 2006, with a group of Middlebury College students, he organised a 1,000 person 5-day March across Vermont to get a political commitment from state politicians to an 80 per cent carbon emissions reduction by 2050. “Vermont’s politicians fell all over themselves to sign on. With a few days of sore feet, McKibben had achieved more concrete results than in 18 years of writing.” (Outside Magazine, September 17, 2012).
In 2007, again with the Middlebury College students, McKibben set up Step It Up, which organised rallies in hundreds of American cities and towns to demand that Congress enact curbs on carbon emissions by 80% per cent by 2050.
McKibben noted, “I had a couple of new insights of how you can organise, with the computer in a dispersed way. The thing succeeded beyond anything. There were 1,400 decentralised events on April 14 with hundreds of thousands of people. The coverage we got was unbelievable. It was all over the place in the small papers. It was much more than we could have gotten if all these people had marched on DC. And it was not dull, but creative actions, some activists were diving, and others were marking the coastline in New York that we would get with global warming. It worked: Obama and Hillary Clinton changed their platforms.”
In 2008, McKibben co-founded 350.org. The name reflects the atmospheric CO2 concentration (in parts per million, ppm) thought to be a threshold for unacceptable risk of dangerous climate change (the current concentration is already over 400 ppm).
In March 2009, McKibben co-organised and participated – together with Right Livelihood Laureate Vandana Shiva and other activists – in an act of civil disobedience to block the US Congress’s own coal power plant.
The initial focus of 350.org was strongly on the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. On October 24 ,2009, 350.org coordinated more than 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in what was called “the largest ever coordinated rally of any kind” by Foreign Policy magazine and “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history” by CNN.
Six weeks later, 350.org took 350 young people to the Copenhagen Climate Conference. By the end of the conference, 117 countries had endorsed the 350 ppm target (however, as McKibben acknowledged, these countries were not the big polluters).
In 2010, 350.org organised the Global Work Party, bringing together 7,200 communities in 188 countries to work together on local climate solutions. Other campaigns have included 350 eARTh, the world's first planetary art show large enough to be seen from space, and the Great Power Race, a student clean energy competition for over 1,000 universities in China, India and the United States. In 2011, 350.org merged with 1Sky and held a rally in Washington, DC, with thousands of people protesting against big polluters as part of the 10,000-person Power Shift 2011 conference.
In 2011, 350.org started campaigning against the Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. At a rally in front of the White House, McKibben was arrested together with over 1,000 people. This contributed to the Keystone project being put on hold indefinitely.
The Climate Impacts Day in May 2012 encouraged the media to “connect the dots” between extreme weather and climate change. Also in 2012, 350.org organised a 22-city Do the Math tour, which focused on the factor-five difference in the amount of carbon that could still be emitted within the 2°C limit, and the amount in the proven reserves of the fossil fuel companies.
In June 2013, the Global Power Shift conference brought together 500 young leaders from 135 countries. On September 21, 2014, 350.org and many partner organisations organised a large demonstration in New York and other marches around the world attracting some 400,000 people to underline climate concerns at then-UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s climate summit.
350.org is a US 501(c)3 non-profit organisation with some 70 staff members. McKibben now serves as Senior Advisor and a Board member at 350.org, and the Executive Director is May Boeve.
McKibben has received a number of awards and honorary degrees. In 2010, Utne Reader magazine listed McKibben as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” and Foreign Policy magazine named him to its inaugural list of the 100 most important global thinkers in 2009. In 2013, he won the Gandhi Peace Award. McKibben has honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities, and in 2014, a newly discovered insect – a woodland gnat – was named in his honour: Megophthalmidia mckibbeni.