Two days in the D.C. lockup last summer probably won’t go down as one of the best experiences in Bill McKibben’s long career as an environmental activist.
But the August arrests of McKibben and more than 1,200 others who were protesting plans for the Keystone XL pipeline did mark a turning point in recent public discourse about energy and the environment in the United States.
Not long after “the largest civil disobedience actions in 30 years,” as McKibben described the two weeks of protests in an interview, the Occupy movement blossomed in New York and soon spread to cities across the country.
Then in November, an estimated 12,000 Keystone protesters showed up in Washington to form an unprecedented human ring around the White House, in some places five people deep. “We have been wondering if anybody was going to come,” McKibben told the assembled throng through loudspeakers. “It’s been decades since there’s been a crowd like this outside the White House about something to do with the environment. So you have done a great thing today.”
Just a few days after the massive protest, President Obama announced he was putting on hold a permit for the Keystone pipeline, which is proposed to carry oil from Canada’s tar sands to U.S. refineries on the Gulf Coast. The president cited environmental concerns about the project’s planned route through Nebraska.
McKibben, the chief organizer of the protests, became known as “the man who crushed the Keystone XL pipeline,” at least in the headline of a Boston Globe magazine article in January.
Unfortunately, McKibben said last week, the victory was short-lived. Obama came out in support of the southern section of the pipeline in February, and last month he signaled a willingness to give the entire project a careful review.
So McKibben and other activists mobilized again, showing their strength in March by hitting Senate offices with more than 800,000 messages in 24 hours opposing legislation to move Keystone forward.
But blocking the pipeline is not the primary goal, McKibben said. “Even if the Keystone victory holds, it’s not like we’ve stopped global warming,” he said.
“It should be said that when you have a project [that is] really bad for one reason, it’s often bad for a lot of other reasons,” he said. Some oppose the pipeline because of concerns about oil spills or impacts on ecosystems along its 1,700-mile route, he said, but most environmentalists are mainly concerned about the impact on climate change from the energy-intensive process of extracting oil from tar sands.
Climate change has been on the top of McKibben’s agenda for nearly 25 years, since he quit a prestigious job at The New Yorker in 1987 and moved to the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern. Two years later, McKibben’s book The End of Nature was published by Random House; it is widely credited as one of the first books about global warming for a general readership.
McKibben’s concerns about the planet are carried forward in his latest book, Eaarth. “The conceit of the title is we really are on a different planet than the one we were born onto,” said McKibben, 51.
A native of Lexington, Mass., McKibben got his start in journalism at Harvard University, where he ran the Harvard Crimson. Immediately after graduation, he became a staff writer at The New Yorker and did much of the writing for the popular “Talk of the Town” column for five years. McKibben quit in protest when editor William Shawn was forced out of his job, and his move to the mountains ended up being an environmental inspiration.
Now living in Ripton, Vt., with his wife and teenage daughter, McKibben is a scholar in residence at Middlebury College and continues his work with 350.org, a grassroots climate campaign he founded that has organized more than 15,000 rallies in 189 countries over the past three years.
This article appears in the April 18, 2012, edition of National Journal Daily.