Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben stopped by to speak here last week.  He was excellent.  Environmentalism was never a topic that I had read widely.  But McKibben drew me in with his sensitivity to the connections between climate change and political and economic events, from grain price movements following the fires in Russia to the need for action at the national and international levels if greenhouse gas emissions are going to be seriously challenged.

Environmentalism usually gets the cold shoulder from economists and industrialized countries.  Like McKibben pointed out, the Copenhagen Conference produced more heat than light, even though the bulk of less developed countries supported more stringent limits on greenhouse gases.  The problem is that limits on greenhouse gases favor less industrialized economies and punish more industrialized ones: the economic interests are always conflated with the moral ones.  And because governments in developed countries are influenced by their richest industries, politics adds more inertia to the present state.

Therefore, sustainability often plays out at the level of the individual or the community.  You can recycle, ride a bike, buy local foods, turn down your thermostat, and install solar panels.  But at some point, of course, even people aware of environmental problems swallow their morals.  A typical cup of coffee takes 140 liters of water to produce — in the best of all possible worlds, you would grow the beans at home and simply chew them.  Most environment-conscious people still take planes for travel and use battery-powered devices containing toxic mercury.  Because your tolerance for environmental trade-offs in personal, the moral relationship between environmental “evangelists” and their more wasteful compatriots is tenuous.  Economists like to avoid the sticky ethical analysis and propose that environmental damages be priced into products, while leaving the choices of consumption up to individuals.  But this requires international cooperation.

McKibben, of course, doesn’t take the “moral tenuousness” route, since he holds that environmentally sustainable choices are implied by ethics.  But he puts great importance on institutionalizing sustainability around the world, anddrives the point home with this: we can build the most sustainable community here in Iowa City — the most beautiful town, with locally grown foods and solar powered buildings — and it won’t matter if the river floods every year and washes it all away.

Like so many things, the grand finale of the environmental drama is out of our own two hands.  But because democracies tie national decision-making to (many) individual convictions, the activist efforts of McKibben etc. are fundamentally important to the future of environmental law and agreements.  I know he made me think more about “earth”, both very broadly and very personally.

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