In many ways, Bill McKibben’s career as a globetrotting environmentalist and climate change fighter started in the shadow of Crane Mountain near Johnsburg in the Adirondacks.
His daughter’s middle name is Crane and it was at his home there that he wrote the 1989 book, "The End of Nature," widely considered the first book on global warming written for a general audience.
McKibben has traveled the world as an environmental activist and said Crane Mountain is one of the “most beautiful mountains in the world.” From atop its rocky summit, you can look out across a sea of wild woodlands, with barely a clearing in sight.
But it wasn’t always that way. Less than 100 years ago, McKibben said recounting stories of longtime Johnsburg residents, that same view was almost entirely without trees – before the state’s “forever wild” protections allowed wiped-out forests to grow back. The Adirondack wilderness in most places in not old growth forest or pristine but rather land renewed by nature after humans largely left it alone.
“What’s most salient about the Adirondacks is that deep wilderness that is there is not original wilderness; that land was hard used,” McKibben said during a lecture at Nott Memorial at Union College on Monday.
In that way, the Adirondacks can serve as a model for the planet in the years ahead, McKibben said. The lesson of the Adirondacks is that nature can return and renew itself – if humans get out of the way.
“It’s country that demonstrates that when human beings figure out it's OK to take a step back, to make themselves a little bit smaller, to figure out how to rein themselves in ... the climate retains enough vitality and life to take a step forward and fill in that void.”
When he was living in the Adirondacks – he now lives in Vermont near Middlebury College, where he is an honorary faculty member – he could walk five minutes from his cabin and be somewhere that no one had likely stood in years, if ever. As Henry David Thoreau put it, where “man’s cigar smoke” had not yet penetrated. But as he learned more and more about global warming and climate change, he realized that humanity’s impact on all the globe was so great that it would penetrate into the remote woods of the Adirondacks.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben speaks at Union College on Monday, April 17, 2017, to kick off the school's Earth Day events. (Eric Jenks/For The Daily Gazette)
“It began to dawn on me … that as the temperature of the place increased and the flora and fauna changed that the cigar smoke of man had penetrated into the very heart of this place and into every other wilderness,” he said.
Now McKibben serves as an evangelists of sorts, spreading the dreary outlook of climate change and the good news of the grassroots fight rising up to take on fossil fuel powers and organizing global protests and marches and days of action.
“My biggest job in the world is just to bum people out, and for that I apologize and I will try to get through that part relatively fast,” he said.
He ticked off a long list of this week’s headlines and recent scientific findings that fall under the umbrella of things to be bummed out about: drought in the Middle East has exacerbated civil war and strife; freezing rain where snow once fell in Arctic communities, disrupting the millennia-old pattern of human-reindeer interactions; massive forest fires in Canada and northern Russia; a river in the Yukon Territory this week reversed its course after the glacier at its source had surpassed a threshold.
The grassroots activist organization he started with a group of Middlebury undergraduates in 2008 was named 350.org for the amount of carbon dioxide many scientists call the “safe” zone for atmoshperic carbon levels – 350 parts per million. The planet has topped 400 parts per million and is adding more and more carbon everyday.
And all of it happening faster than climate scientists has expected 30 years ago.
But he also turned his attention and that of the crowd at Union College to the activism rising up to send a message across the world: Battling climate change is urgent and essential to civilization.
He framed the battle – a battle against the fossil fuel industry, whose business plan he said “is the problem,” and recalcitrant politicians – as near apocalyptic. He described the changes created by a warming globe as of “biblical nature.”
His speech was neither optimistic nor pessimistic about the days to come, although he did note that even if countries carried out the Paris Climate Accord promises, Earth’s temperatures would still rise to a level where “we cannot have the civilizations we are used to having.” Above all, he called on the people in attendance to lend their voices and feet to the cause.
“There’s going to be a continuing fight, a big fight,” he said, raising the urgency of a social and environmental movement that is also a race against time. “This one is a timed test, because if we don’t win it soon, we won’t win it at all.”