Transcript, Episode 41 of The War on Cars: Cars, Climate and Cities with Bill McKibben
Doug: This is The War on Cars. I’m Doug Gordon.
So when we’re out there fighting to make our cities safer and more accessible for people who aren’t in cars, a lot of what we’re doing is also making them more sustainable. Especially in an age of climate change, it’s a really important connection that informs all the work that I do and all the work that I’m sure a lot of you do.
With that in mind, I wanted to have a conversation with somebody who could talk about those links, so I reached out to one of the most influential climate activists, organizers, and writers in the world. I’m not talking about Greta Thunberg, as much as we would love to have her on the podcast. I’m talking about Bill McKibben.
Sorry, Bill. I know you’re listening. Bill is just an awesome guy, and I was so lucky to connect with him over Twitter and then over email. I read his 1989 book, The End of Nature, when I was in college, and it was the first that I read and really I think the first that anybody read that laid out the issue of global warming in language that regular people could understand and really grapple with. And it stuck with me ever since.
Bill is also a co-founder of 350.org, the worldwide climate change activism group. You’re probably familiar with a lot of the stuff that they’ve done, including organizing against the Keystone Pipeline. They’re also big leaders of the divestment campaign that is taking hold in so many cities and college campuses around the world. Just this year, Bill launched the Climate Crisis newsletter, which comes from The New Yorker magazine. It’s one of my regular reads. It informed a lot of what I talked about with Bill before we had the interview you’re about to hear and certainly during. And actually, before I interviewed Bill, I just read his most recent book, Falter, which I highly recommend. We’ll put a link to all of this stuff in the show notes.
In the interview you’re about to hear, Bill and I of course talk about the elephant in the room — or really the planet at this point — the coronavirus, and how it relates to the fight against climate change. You know, how the things we have done to respond to this global pandemic can inform how we should be responding to global warming. But we also talk about just the basics: activism; movement-building; how to bring about meaningful change in the face of very powerful interests and, frankly, indifferent politicians. These are things I really hope are going to be helpful to people who are fighting their own war on cars.
OK, it’s my honor to present this interview with Bill McKibben.
Doug: Bill McKibben, thank you for joining me on The War on Cars.
Bill: Doug, it’s a real pleasure to be with you and to be able to say thanks for your work.
Doug: Well, thank you for yours. This is, um, an incredible opportunity for me and we’ve connected online before about the climate movement and cities and bikes and, and safe streets and where those issues overlap. But of course, now, like everybody else, we are pivoting just a little bit. So my first question to you is, how are you doing?
Bill: Oh, I’m doing fine. Um, our family is safe and sound up here in the woods in… in Vermont, where we live. And I’m doing what I can to write about and think about the moment that we’re in. I’ve spent the last 30 years arguing strenuously that the real world, the physical world is to be taken seriously, that physics and chemistry are real and can’t be spun or, you know, negotiated with or talked away. And coronavirus is making the same point dramatically about biology. Despite the best efforts of the president, you can’t just “word salad” your way through an epidemic. You have to deal seriously with what’s at hand. And so there’s nothing good about what’s happening here, except perhaps that it’s a bracing reminder that reality is real.
Doug: So along those lines, you know, we’ve seen the ways in which this crisis has had a very dramatic effect on the environment. Air quality index across most of the U.S. is better than it’s probably been in, you know, maybe since the start of the Industrial Age in the… in America. Obviously, there are very few people driving and flying. L.A. levels of nitrogen dioxide have gone down, which mostly come from car and truck emissions. And a lot of people I see are, are sharing this information sometimes with a bit of a tone-deaf commentary on how good it is, when, like you just said, obviously, this is not good.
Bill: Yeah, this isn’t even good for dealing with the climate crisis, because if it’s… I mean, a temporary three-month blip in carbon emissions won’t change the, you know, the long term trajectory of our civilization. If anything could change it, perhaps it would be the realization that we’re able to make large scale shifts in how we live. And if we come out of this with some recognition of that, then maybe we’ll get somewhere. If we just come out of it with an overwhelming desire — natural though it is — to get back to “normal,” then we’ll just continue on down the path of destruction from climate, even in the post virus age.
Doug: But what are, what are the lessons we can learn from this? What could we take away from this if we were to emerge from this successfully?
Bill: I mean, lesson one, as I’ve said, is: Reality is real. So, that’s an important point that we’ve largely forgotten as a society. You have to respect the limits that the physical world imposes on you. Second lesson is: Look, we’re adaptable, and big changes are possible when we have to make them. We’ve been listening to people say for, you know, five years, “Oh, there’s no money to do a worldwide program around clean, renewable energy.” But clearly, there’s enough money when there has to be, um, because we’ve just spent a couple of trillion dollars to bail out industries. That kind of money is what it’s going to take to deal with the other overwhelming crisis that we face on this planet — the ongoing climate crisis that’s unfolding, not over months, but over decades, but still at a rate that is an incredible threat to everything around us.
Doug: So in your book, Falter, you talk about this concept of “leverage.” It’s something you talk about quite in detail, and I’m wondering if you can explain it for our listeners, because I actually think it applies, obviously, to the context in which you originally meant it, which is about our biological systems, our, our atmospheric systems, but in this sense, I think it also seems to apply to the ways in which we are connected through our health, through the way a virus can spread.
Bill: That’s right. “Leverage” seems to me a really important word. Um, human beings — and a very few human beings — have had way too much leverage over the last little while. We’ve been able, because of our size as a civilization, to make extraordinary changes that previous generations would not have been able to do. I mean, we’ve melted the… more than half the summer sea ice in the Arctic. We’ve changed the pH of the oceans. The list of just extraordinary large-scale things we’ve managed to do is incredible. But that leverage, you know, largely comes from a tiny handful of super rich individuals who have pushed us down that path. You know, the U.S. political system, as you know — and in many ways, the world political system — has evolved to kind of be dominated by a tiny coterie of people in our country. The Koch brothers spent more money on the last election cycle than the Democrats and the Republicans combined. That’s way too much leverage, and it’s all been used to drive us deeper into the crises that we face. So, thinking about leverage has to work both ways. It’s why we work so hard now, for instance, to take on the biggest banks in the world. Banks like Chase — all the New York City banks that are the biggest funders of the fossil fuel industry. If we can figure out how to disrupt them, then we’re acting with probably more leverage than we would simply by getting people to make individual changes in their lifestyles.
Doug: You’re touching on the idea of divestment. I guess we’ll jump around a little bit, because I think for a lot of listeners of The War on Cars, myself included, there are times when we’re a little skeptical of divestment as a tactic. We sometimes think that mayors can kind of wave the divestment flag and say, “We’re going to sue the oil companies and get our pension funds out of fossil fuel stocks.” But then we see that there isn’t a lot of action on the ground when it comes to actually reducing fossil fuel use. But, when I read your book, actually, I was a little more convinced as to the efficacy of, uh, divestment as a strategy. I wonder if you could sort of defend divestment for those skeptical listeners?
Bill: Well, sure. I mean, you’ve got to do all these things. But certainly, divestment’s been a helpful thing, and as it’s grown over the last seven or eight years to the point where now we’ve seen, I think, about 12 trillion dollars’ worth of portfolios and pension funds and endowments divesting from fossil fuel, it’s become enormously important part of this fight. Shell Oil last year in their annual report said it had become a material risk to its business, which is good because Shell Oil’s business is a material risk to the planet. In their letter, demanding a core bailout last week as part of the whole “stimulus” plan, uh, the National Mining Association, which is the big coal lobby in this country, said — I’m pretty much quoting directly here — that environmental groups and their divestment program had made it impossible for them to raise money for their expansion, so they wanted some from the federal government instead. So it’s been one very useful tactic, uh, by itself. Not enough to end climate change, but then, by itself, no tactic is enough to end it. This is the biggest single problem the world’s ever faced, but it is a good example of a place where you can get a lot of leverage.
Doug: I was about to say, it seems like that is that leverage of tipping the scales back in favor of the people and not that small handful of people who are are ruining things for for everybody else.
Bill: That’s right. What’s good about it is, you know, most of us don’t have a coal mine in our backyard or a pipeline that’s running through our neighborhood or something. But everybody’s connected somehow to a pot of money someplace, uh, whether it’s, you know, a university endowment or a church or a city pension fund. It’s been undeniably useful in cities, in universities, in religious denominations. Now, you know, it’s to the point where big, big organizations, you know, the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund, which is the biggest pool of money on earth, the government of Ireland, all public monies in the whole country of Ireland, you know, on and on and on have divested and it’s put great pressure. That’s why we’re now moving on to really targeting not just the oil companies and getting people to divest from them, but also the banks, asset managers, and others that provide the funding for those guys, and most of them or a lot of them come from New York, you know. BlackRock is the single biggest asset manager on Earth. Something like one dollar in eight on the planet resides in someplace in their digital vaults, you know.
Bill: So that kind of leverage is astonishing.
Doug: I think one of the things that brought me around to divestment as a tactic, as well, is (and you talk about this in the book) is that in addition to whatever impact it may have, however big or small, it’s also an example of movement-building.
Doug: That you create all of these people who are gathered together, focused on an issue, and while their target might be the banks and the oil companies, they can then start to spin off and focus on other pieces of the puzzle as well.
Bill: That’s correct and, and, and that’s precisely what’s happened, and it’s, you know, we’ve seen the same thing with all the other kind of movement-building that we work on. So, for instance, eight years ago, nine years ago now, we sort of nationalized this… what had been a very small but good fight from indigenous groups and farmers and ranchers in Nebraska against the Keystone Pipeline. And we managed to take it into a kind of national and then global issue with the biggest civil disobedience actions about anything in this country in many years, and that was good because it, you know, so far we’ve managed to stop this pipeline and keep 800,000 barrels of oil a day in the ground. But what was really good, and this goes straight to your point, was that people saw it from all over the world, saw that it was actually possible to stand up to Big Energy. And now everything gets fought, you know, and tooth and nail. No one builds a frack well, an LNG port, a pipeline, anything, without a big battle. We don’t win every one of those fights, but we win a surprising number of them. It’s amazing how often when you fight, you win. But even when we lose, we delay things and slow them down, and delay is very much useful here. One of the things to remember is it’s not a kind of static battlefield. Every month that goes by, the engineers back in the lab dropped the cost of a solar panel another percent or two. The price of a solar panel’s come down 90 percent in the last decade. And that means that if you delay a project for a year, the spreadsheet looks very different at the end of that year than it did at the beginning. And that’s just the kind of work that people are managing to accomplish all over the world.
Doug: So you touched on another thing, I think, that gets us back to the point of leverage. In your book, you talk about this idea that leverage doesn’t just guarantee a shift in the climate if that leverage is tilted in favor of that small group of people. But you write that it also locks in new forms of inequality that can’t be undone even by revolution. And I went back and was looking through my highlighted copy of your book and reread that passage. And, man, it takes on a whole new meaning when we’re dealing with this.
Doug: Um, you know, the coronavirus crisis and all the ways in which it has exposed that just blatant and, and very deadly inequalities in our system, obviously. So it’s not just about the warming of the planet, but the, just the real social and economic divisions that climate change will exacerbate that have now been thrown into sharp focus because of the coronavirus.
Bill: No. Absolutely. You know, the two things that have spiked on our planet over my lifetime are: one, the carbon in the atmosphere and hence the temperature; and two, the level of inequality on our earth. Those are the two most striking changes and they’re very related. It’s the same people and forces… are driving both in a lot of ways. And they help make it harder to solve the problem you know. The level of inequality has delivered political power to such a tiny group of people that it’s, you know, I mean, look, in a rational world, it should not take an enormous movement of people to get us to take science seriously. It shouldn’t take an insane movement of people to… in order to get people to understand that, you know, bicycling and walking on city streets would be a good idea. But in the world we live in, that’s what it takes. That kind of organizing. And in fact, it’s the only thing, I think, that gives us a chance. History indicates that up against that kind of concentration of money and power, only the ability to build movements offers some way for the small and the many to stand up to the mighty and the few.
Doug: So speaking of the small and the many versus the few, um, I think there’s another really interesting piece of both… of the coronavirus and climate change that seem very, uh, intertwined here. And that’s something you’ve been talking about in the last couple of weeks, which is that, um, you know, we’re all social distancing and practicing isolation, whether forced or voluntary. And there’s this big crisis of loneliness that was existent before our last month or so but is certainly being exacerbated by the fact that we all have to stay so far away from each other. But, you know, obviously, um, loneliness is kind of built into the way we’ve built our communities, which is related to the climate crisis because the way in which we built our communities exacerbates that as well.
Bill: Let me tell you about one of my heroes in the world who is a mayor of a provincial Brazilian city in the ’70s and ’80s, a guy named Jaime Lerner. I think his work really meshes nicely with yours. But I’ll never forget one thing that he said. So he was kind of talking about how he was trying to redesign this city to make it work and he said, “You know, you can’t force people to be gregarious. But most people want to be and if you give them a chance, if you design communities to allow gregariousness to kind of come out, it will.” And I’ve never forgotten that. I, I think that that’s, that’s a deep, deep insight. So Curitiba is… is maybe the most interesting city in the world, for me anyway. It’s, um, it’s in the Brazilian state of Paraná down in the south. Not that far from Iguazú Falls. And, like all Brazilian cities, was under enormous stress because, you know, people were being forced out of farms and ending up in what the Portuguese… they call favelas, slums on the edge of the city. But they had the great luck of having a mayor who’d read Jane Jacobs in college, and he started thinking about what he was gonna do with this city. This was in the early 70s, uh, so a time when urban renewal was going on all over the world, and they were going to do that in Curitiba, too. They were going to run a highway through the middle of the center of the city in order to speed traffic and so on. And he said, “Not only are we not gonna do that,” he said, “Instead we’re gonna build the whole section of the city that’s off-limits to cars entirely.” Now, in the early ’70s, you know, there was no place on earth, I mean, we didn’t have South Street Seaport yet or Faneuil Hall Marketplace or, you know, maybe…
Doug: Right, this is like the anti–Robert Moses approach.
Bill: Yeah, exactly. And there were no examples so it was a pretty brave thing to do. And he knew he was going to meet resistance. So, what he told his public works department, he said, “We’re gonna do this… we’re gonna, we’re gonna do this over the course of the weekend.” And they were like, “That’s crazy. It’s going to take months to build this out.” He said, “No, no, we’re gonna get everybody into… all the school teachers, everybody on the public payroll. They’re coming downtown for the weekend.” And what they did was rip up the streets and put in cobblestones. And when people came back to work on Monday, there were 20 blocks of pedestrian-only center of this city.
Now, in the first morning, the merchants were outraged. Where’s everybody gong to park? But by the end of the afternoon, it was clear that there was so much pedestrian traffic that their business was way up, and delegations were arriving from other streets saying, “Shut us down, too.” That next weekend — and this is really one of the great early moments of the Livable Streets movement — the next weekend, the local automobile club in this Brazilian town announced that they were going to take back this city center for the car. They were going to have a rally and drive up and down these streets, the cobblestones. So, the mayor did not call out the police. He didn’t set up barricades. What he did do was have the public works department unroll about a half-mile of newsprint down the center of this streets. And when the automobile club arrived for their rally, there were hundreds, thousands of kids there drawing. And he put up pots of paint and they were, you know, drawing half-mile-long mural on this paper and the Automobile Club turned around and went home. Every Saturday since, they’ve rolled out this newsprint again down the street, just to kind of reenact this moment.
This is the city that a few years later gave birth to what we now call bus rapid transit, and it was the same guy, Mayor Jaime Lerner. He was an architect by training and he wanted to answer the question of why busses were so slow. So he took a lawn chair and just sat down near the bus stop closest to City Hall and spent a couple of days there watching and then sketching on a sketchpad. And when he was done, what he’d decided was that the real problem — one of them anyway — was that, you know, you had the bus stopped and you had to walk up the steps and put your quarter in the farebox and walk to the back of the bus and that took a long time. So he sketched out this… well, they called them tube stations, where you’d walk up a platform, put your quarter in the turnstile, wait for the bus to come. When the bus came, you know, the doors opened like they do on a subway and you could get 200 people on and off in, you know, 20 seconds. That allowed you to have double- and triple-articulated busses. But of course, the minute they started doing those, you know, they figured out they needed to have dedicated bus lanes. What the mayor said was, “It only works if you’re willing to make a commitment that in our city the bus is more important than the car. We’ve made our city an inconvenient place to drive so that it can be a convenient place to run a bus or to go on the bike (because we’ve built bike paths everywhere and things). But if you’re in a car and a bus comes near, then the light automatically turns red and stops you, so the bus has preference. And by the end of his second term, when he was term-limited out from running again, his approval rating in this city was 93 percent. Delegations would arrive from other Brazilian cities asking him to move there and become the mayor.
And, of course, he’d taken flak when he did it at first, but I’ve never forgotten that it was a kind of good reminder that if you take good policy and really use it to change things, then people will appreciate those changes.
Doug: I mean, I guess my reaction to that first piece of it, though, is that, in some ways, it’s sort of at odds then with a lot of what you do and what I do, which is organize, build movements, get people to support us, spin them off into campaigns. Like, how do you balance the need for…
Bill: Yeah, we only organize and build movements… I mean, there’s no… I don’t want to spend my life organizing and building movements.
Doug: Right. Neither do I.
Bill: I’d much rather just… You know, I mean, my first job in the world was writing “Talk of the Town” stories for The New Yorker. I loved it. If the world was the way it should be, that’s why I would happily have gone on doing that my whole life. If you had good political leaders who took their job seriously and understood their jobs to be building cities that improve people’s quality of life, uh, that would be great. I mean, none of us really want to spend our lives, you know, going to community meetings.
Doug: I mean, I guess that’s just my question, right, like it’s, it’s how do you balance? You know, we can’t all wait around…
Bill: No, so, so…
Doug: …for a leader like that or Janette Sadik-Khan or, uh, you know…
Bill: This guy’s just a… this guy… There’s always the occasional outlier, so what you do is take those stories and tell them and use them to try and get other places to, you know… Because most political leaders spend their time listening to powerful people, you know, and most of the time, the easiest thing for a political leader to do is pretty much just do whatever was already happening, you know, because…
Doug: Right, it’s to do nothing.
Bill: Change is hard, right? So… And it gets people’s noses out of joint. But when you do it, you’re… you’re rewarded.
Doug: It seems like we’re seeing a little bit of that kind of leadership in Paris from Anne Hidalgo, who is both improving the public realm, how people get around, and also making a very explicit connection to all of these things and the climate crisis.
Bill: Yeah, no, I mean, Paris has been fantastic and France is in a, uh, strange, tenuous political moment. But it’s a very interesting one. I had, uh, the pleasure of bringing over to New York last fall Priscillia Ludosky, the woman who helped start the yellow vest movement in France, and far from the kind of caricature of them as anti-environmentalists, her biggest concern was climate change and how to deal with it. But the way that she wanted to deal with it –correctly, I think– was redistribute power so that we’re making life better for people, not worse, in the course of dealing with these crises.
Doug: It’s funny that you bring up the yellow vests, because I think that’s a really good example of that… that balance or, or leverage that you’re talking about, because the news coverage of the yellow vests of, of riots and burning things in the street obviously got a lot of attention, a lot of eyeballs. But what then doesn’t get a lot of attention is that, you know, the majority of Parisians who reelect Anne Hidalgo because they actually like the things that she’s doing.
Doug: Um, and so that, that seems to be…
Doug: …what we’re up against. Right. Madrid, right. They just fought off — last year, I believe — a, a, a movement to reverse a lot of the car-free…
Doug: …improvements that have…
Doug: …helped that city. But those things don’t get the news and the attention. So there… it does seem that the, the other piece of the leverage part of this really is, is the media, that we kind of have to create our own media channels and promote these stories, like you’re saying.
Bill: Well, here we are.
Doug: Yes, exactly. That’s why we created The War on Cars. And you have your newsletter…
Bill: That’s it.
Doug: …and all of your writing.
Bill: So, movement-building is an odd thing. It doesn’t take 50 percent of people to win these fights. If you can get 5 or 6 percent of people engaged in a fight, that’s usually enough to win. Because, just mathematically, apathy cuts both ways, right? Like, it takes a lot of work for you to get people out to, you know, demand to close off Central Park to… to cars or whatever it is. And you’re going to have to deal with the organized… you know, lobby opposition. But it’s unlikely that there’s gonna be a huge mass demonstration, you know, the next day.
Doug: Oh, right. I mean, you know what… what I often say to my fellow activists is that we don’t actually have to win over the majority of the people. We don’t even have to be the majority of the people. We just have to be the majority of the people in the room.
Bill: That’s exactly right. And so that, that’s why these fights are winnable. I mean, that’s sort of been a… That’s been the most liberating insight for me over the years of doing this. It’s amazing to me how often when we fight, we win, and therefore, we should fight more often.
Doug: Yeah, it’s, you know, that, that whole idea of “when we fight, we win,” it seems to me that the left and the climate movement and the livable streets movement, you know, we’ve seen like moderate Democrats, for example, just abandoning large parts of the country and, and congressional races because they can’t win. And now there seems to be a new philosophy emerging from AOC, from other people like her, who are saying, “You may not think you have much of a chance, but you field a candidate, you raise money because even if you don’t win this time, you’re building the movement to win next time or the time after that.”
Doug: So those are the things that give me a little bit of hope.
Bill: And in the course of building it, I mean, electoral politics is important. But one of the reasons it’s important is because it’s a way to change people’s minds about things. That’s how we advance.
Doug: It’s funny that you say that because another piece of advice I often give to elected officials is to say, “We’re doing this together. So, you know, you have elected a political problem, which is that there’s a lot of opposition perhaps to this thing you want to propose. To change a street, to raise taxes for a Green New Deal. And we, the advocates, can give you cover so that when a solution is proposed, it is perhaps not as much as we might want, but it is far more than we would’ve gotten had we done nothing.”
Bill: This is, you know, the great moment in American political history when a bunch of advocates for something — I don’t know what — sat down with FDR and gave him a two-hour briefing on whatever it was they wanted. And at the end, he said, “Uh, OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go make me do it.”
Doug: Right. Exactly, exactly.
Bill: Well,what he meant was, “Go open up the window of political possibility that makes this possible for this to happen.”
Doug: Push that Overton window. Exactly.
Bill: And that’s what campaigning is about. And it takes creativity and courage and, you know, all, all those things to do it really well. And there are… you know, that’s why it’s always exciting to see in New York, for instance, how well people managed to do it on issue after issue. And so many places one gets discouraged because we have to move faster than we’re moving, because the concentrations of wealth and power make it very difficult and because the other side… I mean, if you’re a lobbyist who works for Exxon or, you know, whoever it is, you’re there 24/7, paid to go do it. You know, no one sits around talking about lobbyist burnout. If some guy gets burned out from too many cocktail parties, they just hire another one and toss him in there.
Doug: Yeah. I don’t think I’d get burned out from, you know, a $600,000 salary a year. I’d, I’d be OK with that. Yeah, I’d make it work.
Bill: So, so it’s hard, you know, it’s all hard, but it is doable, and on days when it goes well then it’s the real feeling of satisfaction.
Doug: And on that note, I, I do think that is a perfect place to end. Bill McKibben, thank you for joining us on The War on Cars.
Bill: Thank you for having me. But mostly, thank you for all your good work, and, um, and I will look forward to getting down in New York before too long and going on a bike ride with you.
Doug: That would be fantastic. And thank you for all your inspiration. I have… I’ve torn through your books recently and they’ve given me a whole new perspective on the movement and everything. I really appreciate it.
That’s it for this episode of The War on Cars. Many thanks to Bill McKibben for taking the time to talk with me. If you want to learn more about Bill, you can go to billmckibben.com. Don’t forget to check out the Climate Crisis newsletter via The New Yorker, as well as his latest book, Falter. We’ll put links to everything in the show notes.
If you’re enjoying The War on Cars, please rate and review us by going to Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. It helps people find us. Thank you to everyone who’s pitched in via Patreon to help us produce the podcast. If you haven’t enlisted yet, you can go to thewaroncars.org and click on “Support.” Contribution levels start at just two dollars a month.
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This episode was produced by me and edited by Ali Lemer. Our theme music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs.
I’m Doug Gordon. And on behalf of Aaron Naparstek and Sarah Goodyear, this is The War on Cars.