CURLS Summer School 2015: Right Livelihood Public Lecture – Bill McKibben

William “Bill” McKibben (USA)
2014 Right Livelihood Laureate

Bill McKibben was born on 8 December 1960 and graduated from Harvard University in 1982. McKibben worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1982-87 and then went freelance. In 1989, he published The End of Nature, which has been considered to be the first book on global warming written for a general audience. The book became a bestseller and was published in more than 20 languages.

Wikipedia provides an overview of his subsequent writing: “His next book, The Age of Missing Information (…) is an account of an experiment in which McKibben collected everything that came across the 100 channels of cable TV (…) for a single day. He spent a year watching the 2,400 hours of videotape, and then compared it to a day spent on the mountaintop near his home. This book has been widely used in colleges and high schools. (…)

Subsequent books include Hope, Human and Wild, about Curitiba, Brazil and Kerala, India, which he cites as examples of people living more lightly on the earth; The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, which is about the Book of Job and the environment;Maybe One, about human population; Long Distance: A Year of Living Strenuously, about a year spent training for endurance events at an elite level; Enough, about what he sees as the existential dangers of genetic engineering and nanotechnology; and Wandering Home, about a long solo hiking trip. (…)

His book, Deep Economy: the Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future (…) addresses what the author sees as shortcomings of the growth economy and envisions a transition to more local-scale enterprise. In (…) 2007 he published (…) Fight Global Warming Now, a handbook for activists trying to organise their local communities. In 2008 came The Bill McKibben Reader: Pieces from an Active Life, a collection of essays spanning his career. Also in 2008, the Library of America published ‘American Earth’, an anthology of American environmental writing since Thoreau edited by McKibben. In 2010 he published another national bestseller, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, an account of the rapid onset of climate change. (…)

Some of his work has been extremely popular, an article in Rolling Stone in July 2012 received over 125,000 likes on Facebook, 14,000 tweets, and 5,000 comments.” Titled Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe and that make clear who the real enemy is, the article shows that only a tiny fraction of the proven coal and oil and gas reserves that the fossil-fuel companies want to develop over the coming decades could be burnt to avoid global temperatures rising by more than 2°C.

From author to activist

In 2001, McKibben took a job as scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College in Vermont, where he now has an endowed position as Schumann Distinguished Scholar. The Boston Globe writes (22.1.2012): “After watching two decades of political inaction, McKibben began to lose patience. ‘I spent a long time thinking that I was doing my part by writing and speaking about this and that, since it wasn’t really my nature to be a political organiser; someone else would build a movement,’ he once told the Utne Reader. But when that didn’t happen, he realized he had to act.”

McKibben started a number of campaigns through the churches, e.g. a “Hundred Dollar Holiday” for a non-materialistic Christmas or “What would Jesus drive?” initiated by him for less polluting cars.

In 2006, with a group of Middlebury College students, he organised a 1,000 person 5-day March across Vermont to get a political commitment from state politicians to an 80% carbon emissions reduction by 2050. “Vermont’s politicians fell all over themselves to sign on. With a few days of sore feet, McKibben had achieved more concrete results than in 18 years of writing.” (article 17.9.2012, Outside Magazine).

In 2007, again with the Middlebury College students, McKibben set up Step It Up, which organised rallies in hundreds of American cities and towns to demand that Congress enact curbs on carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. McKibben remembers: “I had a couple of new insights of how you can organise, with the computer in a dispersed way. The thing succeeded beyond anything. There were 1,400 decentralised events on April 14 with hundreds of thousands people. The coverage we got was unbelievable. It was all over the place in the small papers. It was much more than we could have gotten if all these people had marched on DC. And it was not dull, but creative actions, some activists were diving, and others were marking the coastline in New York that we would get with global warming. (…) It worked: Obama and Hillary Clinton changed their platforms.”

In 2008, McKibben co-founded The name reflects the atmospheric CO2 concentration (in parts per million, ppm) thought to be a threshold for unacceptable risk of dangerous climate change (the current concentration is already over 400 ppm).

In March 2009, McKibben co-organised, and participated – together with RLA Laureate Vandana Shiva and other activists – in an act of civil disobedience to block the US Congress’s own coal power plant.

The initial focus of was strongly on the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2009. On 24 October 2009, coordinated more than 5,200 demonstrations in 181 countries in what was called “the largest ever coordinated rally of any kind” by Foreign Policy magazine and “the most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history” by CNN.

Six weeks later, took 350 young people to the Copenhagen Climate Conference and by the end of it 117 countries had endorsed the 350 ppm target (however, as McKibben acknowledged, these were not the big polluters).

In 2010, organised the Global Work Party, bringing together 7,200 communities in 188 countries to work together on local climate solutions. Other campaigns have included 350 eARTh, the world’s first planetary art show large enough to be seen from space, and the Great Power Race, a student clean energy competition for over 1,000 universities in China, India, and the United States. In 2011, merged with 1Sky and held a rally in Washington, DC with thousands of people protesting big polluters as part of the 10,000 person Power Shift 2011 conference.

In the fall of 2011, started campaigning against the Keystone XL pipeline that would take oil from Canada’s tar sands in Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico. At a rally in front of the White House, McKibben was arrested together with over 1,000 people. This contributed to the Keystone project being put on hold indefinitely.

The Climate Impacts Day in May 2012 encouraged the media to “connect the dots” between extreme weather and climate change. Also in 2012, organised a 22-city Do the Math tour, which focused on the factor-five difference in the amount of carbon that could still be emitted within the 2°C limit, and the amount in the proven reserves of the fossil fuel companies (see Rolling Stone article mentioned above).

In June 2013, the Global Power Shift conference brought together 500 young leaders from 135 countries. And on 21 September 2014, and many partner organisations organised a large demonstration in New York and other marches around the world attracting some 400,000 people to underline climate concerns at Ban Ki-Moon’s climate summit. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organisation with some 70 staff members. The Executive Director of is May Boeve, and McKibben is its Board President.


McKibben has received a number of awards and honorary degrees. In 2010, Utne Reader magazine listed McKibben as one of the “25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World” and Foreign Policy magazine named him to its inaugural list of the 100 most important global thinkers in 2009. In 2010, the Boston Globe called him “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist” and Time magazine book reviewer Bryan Walsh described him as “the world’s best green journalist”. In 2013, he won the Gandhi Peace Award. McKibben has honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities, and in 2014 a newly discovered insect – a woodland gnat – was named in his honour: Megophthalmidia mckibbeni.

Personal life

Bill McKibben is married to Sue Halpern, a writer. They have a daughter, Sophie McKibben, who is currently a student at Brown University.

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