Guest editorial: Of McKibben’s leadership, and business leaders being a force for public good

A lot of people are responsible for getting more than 400,000 people to New York City for the Peoples Climate March last Sunday, but if you follow the story of the biggest march about climate change back to its origins, there is just one person: Vermonter Bill McKibben.
The Middlebury College professor and writer began the conversation 26 years ago with his book “The End of Nature,” which warned the increasing amounts of carbon dioxide industrialized civilization was spewing into the atmosphere would cause massive climate disruption and species extinction, and change life on the planet forever.
He wrote the book, with its dire predictions, because, well, he was a writer and he had, somewhat by chance and through stubborn hard work and curiosity, found himself at the forefront of what he believed was and is the most important story of our age.
He believed his work would change everything, and although his book sold millions of copies, it didn’t really change a thing, certainly not public policy. Historic as they were, McKibben’s warnings ran up against one of the richest and most powerful industries in history — oil, coal, gas. Change would take more than a book.
With a great reporter’s messianic belief in what he was doing, he barreled ahead, writing and speaking out, even as his predictions — and those of the scientists whose fight he was essentially bugling — came true. The seas are warming and rising and growing more acidic; huge weather events, droughts, storms, floods are more frequent and more devastating, bringing famine and threatening destruction of life on the planet.
“It took me a long time,” McKibben said in a recent interview, “to realize that the scientists had won the argument but were going to lose the fight, because it isn’t about data and science; it’s about power.”
The fight grew. In 2000, Al Gore joined in with his book, “An Inconvenient Truth,” and governments across the globe slowly realized that carbon dioxide was an environmental problem with massive social consequences. Environmental, religious groups and leaders and others joined the influential chorus; in 2007, McKibben helped form 350.org. and the movement has grown exponentially.
The idea for last Sunday’s march emerged from McKibben and his colleagues. The response was huge. New York’s own Hurricane Sandy victims from throughout the metro area led the organizing, but groups from the around the globe joined the rally, including thousands of Vermonters, with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders amid them.
Vermonters should take much pride in the state’s role — thanks to McKibben — in leading this historic conversation and movement.
In its wake, the question is, “What, really, will this accomplish?”
What’s required to halt the advance of climate change — to cap and decrease carbon emissions — is a price on carbon. In other words, a change in the structure of the world’s economy potentially as disruptive as climate change itself. It will come only with huge sacrifices from the wealthiest nations and the wealthiest people. How we live and consume will have to change.
To be sure, those of us living in the most economically advanced and industrialized nations can continue to ignore the alarm bells sounded first by “The End of Nature” and now by the hundreds of thousands who last Sunday gathered not only in Manhattan, but around the world. And many are encouraging us to turn away, saying, with Bill O’Reilly and Glenn Beck in the lead, that it’s a leftist, anti-capitalist plot to rob us of our SUVs, cheap airfares and the bargains at Walmart.
The truth is that the lefties were a big presence at the march, as were signs saying capitalism is the evil behind the carbon that’s killing life on the planet. But also present in great numbers were people of all races, all ethnicities, people from wealthy neighborhoods and from the inner city, mothers, fathers, children, priests, cops… all waving the same banners urging leaders to address climate change because it is killing the planet. This is what democracy looks like. It takes everyone to build a movement to drive change; only then can we keep the conversation and the possible solutions real.
Thanks to the Addison Independent for joining a number of Vermont organizations — including, notably, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility and Stowe Mountain Resort — in sponsoring a small piece of that conversation through the Vermont Town Hall dialog series. The series brought McKibben to the stage at the Spruce Peak Performing Arts Center in Stowe earlier this year. And this Friday, Sept. 26, it will bring two environmentalist business pioneers, Seventh Generation founder Jeffrey Hollender and Tom’s of Maine founder Tom Chappell, to that same stage with the question: “Can business be a force for good?”
Many believe that’s an absurd question whose answer is: Yes, of course. And many also believe that businesses, particularly corporations, are the source of most of the world’s environmental and social woes. In other words, Friday’s discussion poses the right question at precisely the right moment to two important people who must help to push forward this movement. The conversation starts at 7 p.m.
Biddle Duke is the publisher of the Stowe Reporter

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