MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — Some are born earnest, some achieve earnestness, and some have earnestness thrust upon them. Bill McKibben qualifies for inclusion in at least two of these wedges of humanity.
In 1989, at the age of 28, he achieved earnestness of a dour, frowning sort as one of the first laymen to warn of global warming in his book “The End of Nature.” In the ensuing 18 years, he said recently while cross-country skiing in the woods near his home, he felt caught in a bad dream, forever warning heedless people of a monster in their midst.
Bill McKibben, center, and Jon Warnow, right, talking about Step It Up. (NYT Photo/Jerry Swope)
Now, when Mr. McKibben is 46, his role as the philosopher-impresario of the program of climate-change rallies called Step It Up, has thrust new earnestness upon him. This time with a smile.
Mr. McKibben’s title — scholar in residence at Middlebury College — seems far too passive to encompass his current frenetic pace. His online call for locally inspired, locally run demonstrations on April 14 has generated plans for a wave of small protests under the Step It Up banner — 870 and counting, in 49 states (not South Dakota) — to walk, jog, march, ski, swim, talk, sing, pray and party around the idea of cutting national emissions of heat-trapping gases 80 percent by 2050.
Skiers in Wyoming plan to descend a shrinking glacier. New Yorkers plan to form an unbroken human line (dress code: blue shirts) along what might be the new southern shoreline of Manhattan. A group of Dominican sisters and a Wisconsin environmental group are organizing a conference on Sisinawa Mound overlooking the Mississippi River.
“It’s a source of eternal pleasure for me to turn on my computer every morning and see what people have come up with the night before,” Mr. McKibben said. “Like: We’re going to scuba dive with a banner off the endangered coral reefs.” Or “I’m going to take my bar mitzvah and make it into a Step It Up rally.”
But Mr. McKibben also noted in a column on the environmental Web site Grist.org that popular momentum had lagged. “We don’t have a movement,” he wrote. “The largest rally yet held in the U.S. about global warming drew a thousand people. If we’re going to make the kind of change we need in the short time left us, we need something that looks like the civil rights movement, and we need it now. Changing light bulbs just isn’t enough.”
The rallies, organized online by a half-dozen Middlebury graduates (well, one is still finishing his thesis) hunched over laptops in an otherwise bare conference room in Burlington, could filter a kind of passion and fashion reminiscent of the 1960s through a YouTube lens.
All the scattered “actions,” as Mr. McKibben and Company are calling them, are to be photographed, with the results put up on the Web on the evening of April 14.
If one takes the social and political movements of the 20th century as a template, of course, the climate-change movement has been doing things completely out of order. Instead of the old sequence (call to arms, demonstrations, politicians take note, legislation is passed, businesses and communities come around, society internalizes the need for change), the big demonstrations are coming late in the game, long after the call to arms.
There will be other demonstrations. On Tuesday, environmental groups are busing people to Washington to buttonhole legislators on keeping oil and gas drilling out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and on cutting emissions. On Friday, the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue will leave Northampton, Mass. Then, on April 9, Laurie David, a producer of the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” and the singer Sheryl Crow will begin a 12-city college tour.
Why is all this happening now?
“I think it’s been too big for people to get their heads around,” Mr. McKibben said. “Those who wanted to do something did things at home — your car, your light bulb. Washington was blocked off for work for a long time. People worked really hard at local levels.”
He takes it as a given that the Bush administration’s strategy, working with Asian nations, particularly China, on a voluntary basis on alternative cleaner energy alternatives and setting goals for reducing the amount of heat-trapping gases emitted per unit of gross domestic product is not going to work.
Instead, Mr. McKibben said, “only with national and then international commitments are we going to get the scale of things we need done in the small window of time the scientists say we’re given.”
Van Jones, director the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., is one of relatively few black community organizers to find common cause with those calling for drastic cuts in emissions from the country’s tailpipes and smokestacks. Such changes could make poor peoples’ electrical bills go up. But Mr. Jones says climate change will hit the poor first and harder than any increase in their electricity.
“Two thousand seven is the year that global warming will become a marching issue; 2008 is the year it will become a voting issue,” Mr. Jones said. “McKibben is one of the main drivers in moving this thing from the cafes and blogs into the streets.”
Mr. McKibben’s proselytizing over the past two decades has not given him the kind of profile enjoyed by Al Gore, the movement’s American Idol. As a journalist and the son of one (his father worked for The Boston Globe), Mr. McKibben is more comfortable as a watcher than a climate preacher and more at home putting on his boots in his mud room than standing behind a lectern.
Mr. McKibben drives a mud-splattered 2003 Honda Civic hybrid to and from the home he and his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, built in Ripton on land once owned by the poet Robert Frost. They moved there and helped design the house — which won an award from a state conservation group for energy efficiency — because they wanted to send their only child, Sophie, 13, to a better school than the one she was headed for in upstate New York and because of a position at Middlebury College.
Mr. McKibben’s 10 books and frequent articles in places like The New York Review of Books have earned him the admiration of Steven Hayward, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research group. “I don’t think he’s played as large a role as he deserves to have played,” Mr. Hayward said. “Serious and thoughtful people take him seriously.”
Well, maybe not entirely. To his Middlebury acolytes, he is Billy the Kibbs. They admire his knowledge and passion but not his computer skills. They got to know him in the college’s dining halls. It was there last fall that Jon Warnow, 22, suggested the name Step It Up for the Internet-connected rallies. It was there that Will Bates, 23, started figuring out how to be the quartermaster for last summer’s five-day march across Vermont, which begat the idea of a series of nationwide actions.
“It’s fair to say we jumped into this without completely understanding where it would end up,” Mr. McKibben added, looking around the little conference room.
Later, on a ski trail near his home, he mused about the sense of dread and impotence that is no longer grafted onto his psyche. “It’s so different,” he said. In the last year, he said, “everything just changed.”
In a little more than three weeks, he hopes to have 870 pictures to prove it.
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