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Interview: Bill McKibben, Environmental Author and Leader

Posted by Dieter Bouma | Oct 31, 2012

When environmental author and leader Bill McKibben came to the University of Michigan for a public lecture on the 350.org movement co-sponsored by the Center for Faith and Scholarship, he readily agreed to share an interview with us.  Author of a dozen books, a member of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences, and "probably the country's most important environmentalist" according to the Boston Globe, it is evident that McKibben's Christian beliefs and passion for God's earth intertwine in his personal and professional life.  His commentary on the book of Job, called 'The Comforting Whirlwind,' lucidly laments a world where human hubris has led to "decreating" God's world around us (we were grateful to receive a signed copy for the Au Sable library that reads, "For the Au Sable Institute, and all who pass through its doors, with thanks for your witness").  Au Sable Communications Coordinator, Dieter Bouma, spoke with Bill about his personal experiences with the climate change movement and its intersection with his faith. 


Your 'International Day of Climate Action' in 2009 drew participation from 181 countries.  I'm guessing that in all of these countries, there are Christian mission and development organizations.  Have you seen Christian organizations focused on work overseas, whether its missions or social justice focused, mobilize around addressing climate change?  Why or why not?

We have good help from Christians on the ground in many places. Hundreds of churches rang their bells 350 times on our first global day of action; Bartholomew, patriarch of the Orthodox church, told his 400 million followers "global warming is a sin and 350 is an act of redemption." Desmond Tutu was one of our first collaborators and remains among our most steadfast. 

But I haven't seen great support from Christian charitable organizations, or people on mission trips. I don't know why.  Perhaps some remain focused on charity, not justice. Perhaps because it's too hard to come to terms with the fact that we're doing far more damage with our lifestyles than our charity will ever make up for. Perhaps because everyone knows that doing anything about fossil fuels means standing up to fossil fuel companies, who in turn are bulwarks of the GOP, and hence it will be politically uncomfortable. Many Christian groups think of themselves as conservative, which makes the irony even more palpable. What would be less conservative -- more radical -- than changing the chemical composition of the atmosphere? Since the fossil fuel industry is busily running Genesis in reverse, it sure would be nice to see some more outrage, not to mention action.

In addition to our call to be stewards of creation at the outset of Genesis, what theological resources do you draw from for addressing climate change?

Well, I wrote a book once about Job [called A Comforting Whirlwind].  [The Book of Job] strikes me as the first great piece of nature writing in the Western tradition, as yet unmatched, and also as a profound argument against too much anthropocentrism.

And, most powerfully, the gospel injunction to love one's neighbor, an instruction we are now violating on a global scale.

What hopeful sign posts do you see in the fight for a stable climate, and what looming concerns should Christians mobilize around?

The only hopeful sign is the emergence of a movement to fight, one that's actually willing and able to take on the fossil fuel industry.  350.org helped shut down the Keystone pipeline, at least temporarily, because a lot of people were willing to engage in civil disobedience.  Some of them were Christians, but by my lights, not enough.  Looming concerns include an Arctic half melted in the last 40 years and an ocean 30% more acidic.  Given dominion over the planet, we seem to be failing miserably and quickly.

As a journalist, do you feel strange leading this fight to address climate change?  Where does your motivation to step outside of your professional silo and engage in civic action come from?

We're all citizens, right? And those of us who are Christians are called to act in every phase of our lives.

You often times publicly present yourself as a Methodist Sunday school teacher.  Why do you like to identify yourself in that way?

Because witnessing seems important to me. And because it was an important part of my life. My travel schedule is too crazy now to make it practical for me to teach any more, but I miss it a lot.

Lastly, how can [people] get involved with you at 350.org?

To begin with, click. Our name is our website. And watch for the roadshow coming to your neighborhood in November--it's going to be exciting!