Is Bill McKibben right? – September 2011

Question: Is Bill McKibben right?

Publication Month: September 2011

Bill McKibben is one of the best informed people in the world on global warming. He knows that the global situation is now such that no matter what we do, the planet on which we live will be much less hospitable to human beings in the future than it has been in the past. But he believes that humanity will still be able to continue the human experiment in these less happy circumstances. He spells out his vision in Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. He is a Christian and a churchman, and he will play the key role in a conference in Claremont organized by Progressive Christians Uniting October 28 and 29 discussing what this means for us now.

But now McKibben is even more radically alarmed. A habitable planet, even if less hospitable than ours, requires that we slow and stop our release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. The reduction of petroleum supplies is the best hope we have. But now it seems that the powers that be have another idea. Instead of shifting away from fossil fuels they plan to exploit the vast quantities of oil available in the Athabascan tar sands. McKibben agrees with those scientists who say this will lead to the end of human life on this planet.

Just at present, a crucial decision is being made. The oil companies plan to build a pipeline from Athabasca to the Gulf coast. Because this crosses the national border, it must have the president’s approval. He can personally, without consultation with Congress, deny that approval. During his campaign for office he gave the impression that he cared about the sustainability of human society and even of the larger biosphere. On several issues Obama has disappointed many of those who worked most enthusiastically for his election, but it has been possible to suppose that his failure to act as his supporters hoped was due to congressional opposition. Now he can act on his own decision.

McKibben considers the survival of the human species an issue of paramount importance and is putting his body on the line. Tens of thousands of people have joined him. Of course, blocking the decisive act in the ending of the human species now, does not mean that the species is saved. Only vigilance and perseverance on the part of millions of people can save us. But if we sit by this time, and let the suicidal decision be made, the game is already lost. Are they right to act?

Of course they are right. Even if one supposes that the vast majority of climate scientists exaggerate the problem (and in fact it is just as likely that they understate it), acting in a way that beyond question threatens the wellbeing of the world as a whole calls for opposition. So why are there not millions protesting?

We like to blame such problems on the “know-nothings.”  That so much of our political leadership is in denial is, indeed, truly appalling! For us Christians, and especially us Protestants, that this denial often is connected with professions of great piety only makes matters worse.

But even more disturbing is that the vast majority of people who would not in general want to contradict the consensus of scientific experts consider these matters only marginally. Most know nothing about the plans to exploit Athabascan tar sands. Only a few are aware of the protests in Washington. Even among most of them, the issue of blocking a particular pipeline ranks very far down in the list of priorities.

Probably, among the priorities of the great majority of relatively thoughtful Americans, the problem of peak oil ranks higher than weather change. We know that the life we have enjoyed and are still enjoying is the product of the petroleum age, and we have been warned that society will have to make massive adjustments to deal with the growing gap between demand and supply of oil. We support efforts to use oil more efficiently and to substitute solar power when possible. We are also likely to support efforts to produce usable oil in other ways, from sugar cane and corn, for example. For most of us, extracting oil from tar sands seems a reasonable choice for responding to the problem of peak oil. Surely, we suppose, there are ways of avoiding massive change in weather that do not require major changes in the lifestyle that we have been socialized to prize.

Our priorities are rarely formed by critical thought. They are responses to what we hear on the radio and TV and in the conversation of our peers. Sometimes they are influenced by an essay we have read or a talk we have heard. In all these ways we learn of so many needs that we have to ignore them. We leave them to specialists and special interests. The media that play the primary role in determining what seems more important are controlled by people who have a vested interest in economic growth, and for whom warnings about weather change are in the same category is complaints about the growing inequality of income. In their view, peak oil is an important problem, and its solution must not be inhibited by these other concerns. Accordingly, this is the message that we have received from the media. The resulting attitudes can absorb occasional bursts of concern about other matters.

Of course, all these concerns about public matters fall far below the priorities of personal life. Our jobs impose priorities upon us. So do our families and our friends. Even in relation to these more personal issues, long-term matters typically take second place in relation to immediate ones. Concerns that go beyond these insistent demands, hopes, and fears of daily life, and particularly those that do not impinge strongly on our personal future have to find a place in the midst of all this. What chance has stopping a pipeline to the Athabascan tar sands to move even briefly to the top of a list?

Very little, I suppose. But every now and then what originally appeared as a marginal issue has made its way into the center, galvanized action, and made historic changes. Typically these successes depend on a strong and fairly immediate need of one group of people. Black Americans were deeply impacted by white racism and therefore ready to pay a high personal price to overcome its public expressions. Of course, it took skilled and dedicated leadership as well. College students facing the draft during the Vietnam War gave strong sustained support to the anti-war movement of the sixties.

Does the effort to save humanity from self-annihilation have a chance? Can concern about this inclusive goal connect itself to specific events, such as the construction of this pipeline, in a way that mobilizes effective opposition? The odds against success seem enormous. But what is at stake is even more enormous. McKibben is giving himself to the effort.

He is appealing to fellow Christians in support. I wish that I could optimistic that he would succeed. To be a follower of Jesus is surely to care about human beings, not only those closest to us, but all. To love God is surely to care about the whole world of God’s creatures. To be a Christian in this sense is to place matters of this sort as highest priorities. But we know that most of us are caught up in more limited causes and have made commitments of all sorts that block major attention to the fate of the planet.

This test is severe. Let us hope we do not fail.