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McKibben Flourishes Outside 'Velvet Prison' McKibben Flourishes Outside 'Velvet Prison'

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McKibben Flourishes Outside 'Velvet Prison'


Bill McKibben(Courtesy Bill McKibben)

As far as carbon regulations are concerned, it's a golden age for obstructionists.

“There’s been a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing in Congress, and it has succeeded dramatically,” said Bill McKibben, a scholar in residence at Vermont's Middlebury College and the founder of, an online hub of a global environmental movement.


In McKibben’s view, the environmental lobby is “clearly losing,” outflanked by the business community and energy producers spooked by the prospect of stringent carbon regulations. “People are finally realizing that we may have spent [two decades] talking to the cashier in the front of the store—the Congress—when we should have been talking to the guy in the backroom counting the money,” he told National Journal.

Consistent with this strategy, McKibben aims to transform climate change—heretofore an “inside Washington game”—into a global cause, a “mass movement” that will compel policymakers the world over to confront the reality of a warming planet. So far, has organized 15,000 rallies in 189 countries, including more than 4,000 in the United States. McKibben is widely seen as one of the most dynamic proponents of clean energy on the scene; Bill Hewitt, a well-known activist and blogger for the Foreign Policy Association, describes him as a “visionary.”

A onetime writer for the New Yorker and the author of more than a dozen books, McKibben does not consider himself an “activist by nature.” He grew up in Lexington, Mass., the son of the late Gordon McKibben, a former business editor, European correspondent and ombudsman for the Boston Globe. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from Harvard University—where he was president of the Harvard Crimson campus newspaper—McKibben was hired by the New Yorker to write the “Talk of the Town” feature (which he did anonymously).


Apart from one or two parameters peculiar to the New Yorker—McKibben was barred from writing about celebrities, a restriction that has since been lifted—the job “was, for me, the perfect job as a young man in New York,” he said. “I got to see the whole city. At one point, I figured out I’d gotten out at every subway stop in the city.”

McKibben’s stories chronicled idiosyncratic New Yorkers, from madcap inventors to home decorators with a penchant for astronomy. One of his favorite pieces concerned an invention “to make your room smell like your mood.” Later in his tenure, McKibben was asked by Editor William Shawn to report on the city’s growing population of homeless by living on the street. “Homelessness was [just] becoming a problem in New York City at the time; we didn’t understand it was going to be a new reality in urban America,” said McKibben. His self-imposed homelessness—during which he passed the night in flophouses and municipal shelters—lasted about a month, “long enough to realize what hard work it is to be homeless.”

Then in 1987, McKibben relinquished his plum job at the New Yorker for upstate's Adirondack Mountains. “I was 27 by then, and I could easily have spent the rest of my life in New York [City] doing what I was doing.” But “I also had some internal understanding that [the New Yorker] had the capacity to become a velvet prison.”

From his perch in the Adirondacks, looking out at “the great wilderness of the American East,” McKibben wrote his first book, The End of Nature, which has been characterized by some in the environmental community as the first book about climate change for a general audience. In the ensuing decades, McKibben published a dozen more books, culminating in The Bill McKibben Reader (2008), a collection of 44 essays.


In 2008, sensing a leadership vacuum, McKibben established with six students at Middlebury. “Nobody else was building [the] mass movement I thought was necessary,” he said. The website “takes its odd name from what the scientists tell us is the most carbon we can safely have in the atmosphere—350 parts per million.” Last weekend, he mobilized thousands of college students for a demonstration in Washington. In a speech at the convention center, he decried the corroding influence of money in public life.

“Many of you are in the District of Columbia for the first time, and it looks clean, and it looks sparkling. No. This city is as polluted as Beijing. But instead of coal smoke it's polluted by money. Money warps our political life,” said McKibben, standing before a giant banner with the words: “The U.S. Chamber of Commerce doesn’t speak for me.”

“We will never have as much money as the oil companies, so we need a different currency to work in: We need bodies, we need creativity, we need spirit.”

McKibben, 50, is married to Sue Halpern, also a scholar in residence at Middlebury and a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books. They have an 18-year-old daughter.

This article appears in the April 21, 2011 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.

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