More Books on Climate Change Won’t Help Us Now

Bill McKibben on his new book, the need for direct action on climate change, and the threats of A.I.

Credit: Pacific Press/Getty Images

InIn 1989, Bill McKibben — then a journalist who had recently quit a five-year stint at the New Yorker — published a landmark environmental text called The End of Nature. One of the first books to attract mainstream attention to the subject of climate change, The End of Nature warned that human materialism and the exploitation of natural resources would be disastrously harmful to the planet.

Thirty years later, McKibben has become one of America’s most renowned climate change activists, and he’s out with a new book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? While The End of Nature focused on the impact of climate change on our physical planet, Falter explores what these changes will mean for the humans who live here. McKibben is interested in the fate of what he calls the “human game” — “the sum total of culture and commerce and politics; of religion and sport and social life; of dance and music; of dinner and art and cancer and sex and Instagram.”

Falter is a sprawling book, but it leans on two distinct lenses through which we can understand our future: climate change and the rise of artificial intelligence. McKibben tells OneZero that we’re “well past the point where we can stop climate change,” but with enough effort, we can slow it down. We’re currently doing a bad job of that: Last year, carbon emissions rose by 3.4%, the largest annual jump since 2010. McKibben explores how we arrived at our current predicament, and his diagnosis echoes an increasingly mainstream conclusion: Since the Reagan years, the wealthy and politically powerful have been fueling global warming at the expense of the rest of us.

McKibben is generally skeptical of “Big Tech” and certain technologies currently in development. He’s concerned that while computers may be able to perform some tasks “better” than we can, it’s important to preserve “the experience of being human — which is precisely the thing that’s disappearing.” But he’s not a tech pessimist, either. He’s hopeful that avoiding the dangers of automation “is at least possible,” and he says that “watching the rapid spread of a technology as world-changing as the solar panel cheers me daily.”

Falter doesn’t reveal much new science. In fact, McKibben argues that the science of climate change has been agreed upon — and ignored — for decades. Now, McKibben insists, it’s time for collective action. The climate activist group he helped found, 350.org, has been doing just that around flash points like the Keystone pipeline protests. Most recently, 350.org has turned its attention to the fossil fuel divestment movement.

OneZero caught up with McKibben to discuss Falter, the dangers of libertarian philosophy, and how to stand up to wealth and power in the fight to slow climate change.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

OneZero: Americans may be aware of all the facts about climate change, yet, as you write, “we’ve gone on more or less as usual. We literally don’t want to hear about it.” How do we combat apathy?

Bill McKibben: So, the problem is not that people don’t understand that we face real danger from climate change. Increasingly, people really get that, and Mother Nature is doing her best to make the case year after year. The polling shows that after the fires in California, we seem to have reached a kind of new movement of climate consensus — that something needs to be done. The problem is that people have a hard time imagining what it is we’re going to do. Or imagining that anything they could do would be large enough to matter. And truthfully, as individuals, that’s kind of true. I mean, I have solar panels all over the roof of my house, and I’m proud of them, but I don’t try to fool myself that they are how we’re going to stop climate change.

What we’ve tried to do is build movements big enough to let people feel there’s a plausible chance of actually getting something done. And these movements are achieving victories. Whether they’re going to work or not, I can’t tell you.

You write that “we need to understand what drives [those in power]. We need to diagnose the intellectual and spiritual hookworm that has entered their bodies and attached itself to their brains.” What is your diagnosis?

Look, I think our society has gotten dangerously out of balance. You can tell by the fact that the temperature is going up and the gap between rich and poor is even wider. I don’t think the people at the top are ever going to do anything about it, not unless those of us who aren’t at the top force them to.

If you look at the Democratic presidential contenders, there are two people talking about the need for real redistribution and rebalancing of power, but it’s not going to come easily, because the people in control, the very rich and powerful, have the resources to stay in control. They’ve figured out how to game our political system in all kinds of ways. There’s no shortcut around people getting together to demand change.

You devote a hefty chunk of the book to the influence of Ayn Rand, saying that she’s arguably the most “important political philosopher of our time,” and “when the United States was occupying the role of superpower, charting the course for a planet, she was occupying the hearts and minds of many of its most powerful people.” How is her free market ideology related to climate change?

So, it’s just the wrong moment in American history and world history [for us to follow the principles of Ayn Rand] — the ideology that markets solve all problems, that we should leave the rich alone. When I say “worst moment,” it’s because over the past 30 years, from the Reagan era on, we could have done something about climate change, but we didn’t. We were locked into the belief that a free market economy was somehow going to do it on its own. It clearly hasn’t.

That idea—that selfishness was all we needed, that greed was good—simply turns out to be incorrect.

You also argue that although “the tech billionaires who inhabit Silicon Valley aren’t at all like the fossil fuel moguls and assorted other magnates who celebrated Trump’s rise to power,” Ayn Rand is the “one human being that bridges the cultural gulf between different species of plutocrat.”

If you start reading the biographies of [tech moguls like Elon Musk, Travis Kalanick, Peter Thiel] — and they’re almost all guys — Ayn Rand is one of the few commonalities. People who have made a whole lot of money and don’t want to be bothered in any way find her enormously appealing. And that’s why there’s an awful lot of yachts on this planet named The Fountainhead or Atlas Shrugged. I mean, these guys are usually social progressives. They just don’t want anyone telling them what to do.

And we’ve now seen how that works out. I mean, people have used Facebook to rig elections, massacre racial minorities. Finally, 10 years too late, Mark Zuckerberg is saying, “Well, maybe we need some regulation here to help us get things under control.” But that’s precisely the opposite of what they were saying for a long time, when the slogan was “move fast and break things.”

It broke a lot of things, including, in many ways, the politics of this country.

One of the absolute side effects of turning people into products is that they become obsolete, which is new for human beings.

You write about how new technology has a way of “washing away meaning from human activities.” What do you mean?

So, let’s differentiate here between “tech” and “tech” a little bit. Because some of the book is clearly enamored of new technology—solar panels above all. And there are things that bring down the price of solar panels and wind turbines to the point where they might be able to power the world, [which is] one of the great accomplishments of our time.

But there’s this other kind of technology that seems to really strike at what it means to be human. We’ve watched, in the past year, as scientists have delivered the first designer babies on this planet in China, with American help. Even scientists are backing away from [that technology], because the implications of making the human being into a product are so enormous.

Just think about what’s going to transpire when you go into a lab and order up some upgrades for your embryo—maybe regulate their dopamine or try to add a few IQ points. Then think about what happens when you go back in five years for kid number two and the tech has gotten better. What is your first child now except Windows 8 or an iPhone 6 or something?

One of the absolute side effects of turning people into products is that they become obsolete, which is new for human beings.

You describe yourself as “naive” when you wrote ‘The End of Nature’ in 1989. How have you changed over the past 30 years?

When I was in my twenties, I did not expect to be spending a fair amount of time in handcuffs and in jails and things. I thought we were engaged in an argument about climate change and that the key was to produce more books and more articles and give more speeches. And eventually, people would understand and come around. It took me 10 or 15 years to realize that we’d won the arguments. Science was very clear about what was going on, but we were losing the fight, because the fight was what fights were always about: not reason and data, but money and power. And if we have any hope of standing up to the wealth, the power of the fossil fuel industry, it would be by organizing.

I don’t have as much time to write books anymore, which is okay. Books are important, but by themselves, they’re not going to move the needle.

Writer (currently) in Budapest, bylines @TheAtlantic, @Undarkmag, @VICE, @voxdotcom & more; follow on Twitter @hope_reese; hopereese.com

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