07 October 2014

McKibben in Maine

A few of us from Unity College went up to Orono today to hear Bill McKibben talk. As it happened, we were walking into the auditorium at the same time as Mr. McKibben. We stopped and introduced ourselves as affiliated with Unity. To see his eyes light up with mention of UC and hear him say "I'm always glad to check in with Unity" was a moment of pride for my new place of work. I asked if it was okay to snap a picture and he was more than happy to indulge our group selfie.
From left: Gunnar Norback, Bill McKibben,
Martin Maines, JTS.
University of Maine - Orono.

The University of Maine hosted event was part of their honors program, having selected Eaarth as the honors read for 2014. It was a good talk. McKibben prefaced it with the acknowledgement that he was a professional "bummer outer" on the topic of climate change and delivered some very sobering stats about how small the window of opportunity really is for humanity to save itself from itself.

It was engaging, in part (and somewhat ironically), because McKibben is not a natural public speaker. He freely admits he sees himself as a writer and feels more comfortable in that role. He's also a realist. There's no pie-in-the-sky environmentalism here. Though it would have been nice to focus a little more on actionable insights - achievable solutions - it is just not that simple. Individuals will influence climate change very little through individual actions. That's not what many people want to hear (what I do matters!) but it's really only through organized group social and political action can we enact the necessary changes.

One analogy and one positive idea of potential change stick with me. The analogy is this: If I take my garbage to the city dump and have to pay $2 or $3 per bag to dispose of it, that is an expense I would rather not pay. I could just toss my garbage out on the sidewalk for free. But what happens? After a while I have a big stinking pile of garbage affecting my family, neighbors, and the neighborhood. Oil and gas companies could also pay to deal with their garbage (i.e. toxic pollutants in the air and water). But they effectively dump it into the atmosphere like so much garbage on the sidewalk - for free and with relative impunity. If the political will was there, as it is in some places (looking at you with a wink and a nod, British Columbia), governments could enact a system where polluters are held accountable - reversing long-term trend of Big Energy running roughshod over the already deteriorating life-path that future generations hope to tread. Political contributions from oil and gas companies strongly predict politician decision making. The system of big money in politics is a broken one and does not represent the interests of the people.

The idea for potential change caught my ear as analogous to a phenomenon that occurred in mass communications around the recent turn of the century. When cellular phone and internet technology started to infiltrate poorer nations, many regions went from 19th to 21st Century communication virtually overnight. Having skipped over land-line phones and cable television, many places went straight to satellite link-ups and cellular connections. This could happen in developing regions in terms of energy, too. What if regions that still depend on rudimentary energy sources - charcoal, coal, wood from unsustainable sources - were to virtually skip over the pitfalls of fossil fuels and jump right into renewables - solar, wind, sustainable bioenergy?  Not only does it seem possible, it seems very plausible and with high potential. And it provides some hope - something we could all use a little more of.