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On Meeting Bill McKibben

I attended a lecture last evening  by Bill McKibben of  at Rutgers U. in New Brunswick, NJ. The place it was held ( The campus Student Center) was packed to capacity ( 500 people.)  Bill was a bit taller and thinner then I expected and he looked tired. He’s not ( as he admits)  the greatest orator alive  ( I’d agree,) but it didn’t seem to matter much. This soft spoken man is  able to deliver a riveting, emotionally draining  speech and to do this in such a way that the crowd is absolutely mesmerized.

He  doesn’t quibble about the facts, or spare you the  possible outcomes they predict.  Like an old testament prophet, he lays out for you what our sins are and why if they are not rectified soon, they will  be bringing biblical level calamity upon the innocent and the guilty alike.  His call to action is directed at young and old alike  in the audience and that’s exactly who is in attendance. All the other age groups seemed to be missing.   It is being held in the middle of a University campus, so that is understandable and Bill is obviously looking for young College age recruits and says as much.  He tells the crowd, “Look, myself and the older people here will probably  get to exit this world as  the last generation to have lived in the relatively tranquil Holocene era ( where the last 12K yrs. all of human history has taken place .) But all of you young people here, with another 60 or 70 yrs. ahead of you, won’t be so lucky as the planet enters a new Climate state and age. (He didn’t name that age.  On my way home while driving down the Garden State the name  the Hellocene popped into my mind.)  He went on to urge these young people to help themselves by acting now to help him and to somehow stop the ruthless rogue machines ( Corps.) & in particular the Energy Corps., oil Kingdoms, countries etc. from essentially making large portions of the planet uninhabitable sooner then later.

You got the sense he’s not selling anything here and he doesn’t spend much time telling us about the alternative paths we should be taking energy wise, ( it’s assumed we already know them.)  He does spend a lot of time making it very clear( to this mostly young audience of Rutgers students) that they are privileged to be able to be just three hrs. from DC and able to participate directly in lobbying  the most powerful Gov’t on the planet and the one at the moment, being extremely uncooperative as concerns this struggle for survival he’s pitching. He also makes it very clear that the people most likely to take the hit for our extremely selfish behavior are,  for the most part, not causing this disaster to any extent (AKA most of the third world.)

Sitting there listening, I’m starting to feel a bit guilty, thinking about the  Chevy Camaro I once owned long ago and the drafty old 85 yr. old  house I live in  that was built to be heated by coal, then oil and now gas. In fact, as he was speaking, I was calculating my carbon footprint and I realized he was talking about me and everyone out here like me. My membership to started to pinch a bit  at that moment , but Bill rode to my rescue when he dropped in the self chastising  punchline about how he was running all over the planet ( by plane) spewing huge plumes of carbon behind himself and he wasn’t too happy about it, even though it was at this moment in time absolutely necessary. I felt sorry for him as he talked about being away so much these days from his  family and friends and the increasing burden this cause was costing him and his family. I starting thinking , better him then me and the guilt started up again. In fact, the truth was, the more and more the night wore on, I realized the overwhelming emotion that was starting to fill the whole room was just that, guilt.  Guilt and anger. Bill, wanted us to leave angry and charged up and he wanted that anger to take the place of the guilt, because as he said, our society doesn’t really offer us much choice, the whole damn thing is built on a mountain of carbon.

His speech ended, the crowd was on their feet, giving him a tumultuous standing ovation and then the meeting was briefly opened to asking him questions.  He answered most  in stride , but he pointedly avoided the questions that were directed about how we implement the change he’s seeking.  He was totally focused on the fight with the Corp Energy goons et al. and he  seemed to almost dismiss the folks who were offering up various alt. energy schemes and plans. I got the distinct feeling that he was telling us none of that really mattered if we couldn’t somehow stop the burning of all those carbon based energy reserves he’d detailed in the 3 big numbers he wanted us all to leave understanding. The first was of course  our orgs.’  signature 350, for the acceptable upper limit on CO2 ppm in the atmosphere that the scientific community had somehow deduced was going to keep the global mean temp from increasing by 2 degrees C. The second was 565 gigatons of carbon, the amount we could safely it seems, pump into the atmosphere going forward over the next 50 yrs. and stay within the 2C max.   The third and probably most important number he told us, was the 2795 gigatons of carbon based fuels out here in the known reserves of all the Energy Corps et al.  He put a great deal of emphasis on that last number by saying if all this stuff was burned we were toast and he didn’t see any compelling reason those owning it, wouldn’t burn it, unless we figure some way to stop them.

This then was the rather depressing reality he left us with and the fact that he even admitted the odds against us stopping the machine from devouring us were enormous, especially given the extremely uneven playing field involved. The other side he said, having almost all the money and power and us having essentially doodley squat.  Nevertheless, he also made it crystal clear, if we wanted to have any future on this planet as a species, we had no choice but to do just that. You could almost hear the collective thought hovering over the room. ( GOOD LUCK TO US WITH THAT ONE.)

So it was over.  No happy ending, no false hope, just the stark reality of what he considered the truth and nothing but the truth.

I worked my way through the crowd determined to shake this great man’s hand and ask him if he’d come down to South Jersey, to speak at our local State College ( Stockton) and visit with the local chapter, which I had with a few of my good friends,  recently set up.  I hit a home run. I  not only got to meet him and shake his hand, but to also take some pictures of him and got a    name & number of a person to contact and try and set up a visit. Mission Accomplished, as they say!  I  left  a happy camper and then it all started to sink in. Oy.

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