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The Progressive

Bill McKibben: Go After the “Outlaw” Fossil Fuel Companies

When I read in The New York Times on Thursday that a record low amount of ice — only 24 percent — covered the Arctic Ocean, I thought immediately of a speech I heard Bill McKibben give at Fighting Bob Fest in Madison, Wisconsin, last Saturday.

“Reality intrudes,” he said. Amid all the focus on the political campaigns, he continued, “the most important thing that happened this year was that half the Arctic ice cap melted. One of the biggest physical features of our planet got broken.”

He talked about the “summer like no other” that we’ve just lived through, noting that it started in March when it was 94 degrees in South Dakota. While it may have felt welcome, he said, it was “weird and scary and not how the world is supposed to work.”

He noted the forest fires in New Mexico and Colorado, and then the drought that’s been covering 68 percent of the country and the record heat we’ve had in Wisconsin.

"Some people here may have predicted that if you elected Scott Walker governor, Wisconsin would go to hell in a handbasket, but I doubt you meant that so literally,” he joked.

Then he got serious.

“Unless we act really quickly,” he said, “it’s going to get much, much, much, much, much, much worse.”

If we keep on our current path, he warned, “the world will break.”

He was not without hope, though.

"We have to fight, and the good news is, we’ve started to fight,” he said. He mentioned the battles against mountaintop removal, against fracking, and against the Tar Sands pipeline.

“It is possible to stand up to the fossil fuel industry,” he said. “But it will take compassion, spirit, and creativity. We’ve run out of fingers to put in the dike. Now we need to make a fist.”

He called the oil, gas, and coal companies “a rogue industry.” He noted that they have, already in reserves, five times the amount of carbon that scientists say can safely be released into the atmosphere. And these companies are ready to burn it up.

“These guys are outlaws,” he says. “They are outlaws against the laws of physics and chemistry. And it’s up to us to bring them to justice.”

McKibben is not naive. “We can’t do it politically,” he says, “because the system is owned by people with unlimited money, including the fossil fuel industry. That’s why we’ve had a perfect bipartisan two-decade record of accomplishing nothing.”

What he has in mind, instead, is a campaign of divestment, similar to the one that was launched in the 1970s and 1980s against companies doing business with the apartheid government in South Africa.

“The only language they understand is money,” he said. “We need to tell them, ‘If you want to take away the future of our planet, we’ll take away your money.’”

He’s planning a road show in the next few months going to campuses around the country with the likes of Naomi Klein and Van Jones.

“We’re going to light a bunch of brush fires for divestment,” he said.

And he’s encouraging nonviolent civil disobedience. He recalled the 72 hours he spent in jail in Washington, D.C., last year protesting the Tar Sands pipeline.

“It was not the end of the world,” he said. “The world ending is the end of the world.”

He’s aware of the uphill battle we all face. “They’ve got an awfully lot of money,” he said of the fossil fuel companies. “And time is awfully short. But there are people all over the world ready to fight with us. There is no guarantee of victory. But there is a guarantee of a fight.”

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild

Matthew Rothschild is senior editor of The Progressive magazine.

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