Bill McKibben Gears Up for his "Third Act"
An interview with the noted journalist, author and activist, who's launching a climate action organization for seniors. If you think climate action is solely for young people, think again.
For decades, journalist, author and activist Bill McKibben has been one of the most prominent voices urging for action against climate change. After starting 350.org with young people, he’s now launching Third Act, an action organization for old people.
I spoke with McKibben by phone, as he was driving to participate in a demonstration in his home state of Vermont. (This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.) - Sari Botton
How old are you?
I'm 60. I’ll be 61 in December.
What’s it like being your age?
You know, I've spent much of my career working with young people. I started 350.org when I was in my 40s, with seven college students, and they were some of the closest colleagues I’ve ever had. So I’ve swung back and forth between old and young all my life and never paid a huge amount of attention to it.
Earlier this month you did a soft launch of your new climate action organization, Third Act, for people 60 and over. Can you explain exactly what Third Act is, and why it’s for people 60 and over?
I've obviously been doing a lot of volunteer organizing for many years. With young colleagues I started 350.org, which grew into the first global climate campaign, and we've organized in every country on the planet except North Korea. We’ve probably organized, 20,000 rallies and worked hard on things like the Keystone Pipeline, and run this huge divestment campaign. And I've been very happy to watch, in the climate movement and the civil rights movement and elsewhere, the incredible leadership from young people who really have been at the forefront of things—Greta Thunberg, the Sunrise Movement, Black Lives Matter, and others. The kids now are doing a tremendous job.
But I'd begun to worry that that older people in America, and in other parts of the world too, were beginning to amount to a kind of obstacle, or block to change. These generations, what we in this country call the Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, are obviously enormous. And all of us vote all the time. And most of the money ended up in our pockets, which means that our political and financial power is likely to be determinative in a lot of these important fights.
It seems possible that as people emerge now into their third act, and final act, they come with lots of skills, lots of resources, and in many cases lots of kids or grandkids, and hence, some powerful desire not to leave the world worse than they found it.
I've been told all my life and indeed, there's a little bit of evidence for the proposition, that people become more conservative as they age, maybe because they have more to protect. But my theory is that in fact, these generations may, if they stopped to think about it for a while, decide otherwise.
The Boomers and the Silent Generation, in their first act, either witnessed or participated in some very profound cultural and political transformations. This was the era of the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the women's movement. One of my earliest political memories is watching anti-war demonstrations on Lexington Green in Massachusetts, in the town that I grew up in. And the first act was fascinating and generous. Maybe our second acts, if you took them is a whole, were somewhat more focused on being consumers rather than citizens. But it seems to me possible that as people emerge now into their third act, and final act, they come with lots of skills, lots of resources, and in many cases lots of kids or grandkids, and hence, some powerful desire not to leave the world worse than they found it—which we are on the verge of being the first generation to do. So, the hope is that there's room for organizing here, getting people to reimagine their own possibilities, and come together in interesting ways.
Are you also hoping that some of those who get involved will maybe have an impact on peers who might have become more conservative in their latter years?
Yes, indeed. And I think that our political stances are often heavily influenced by those around us, or by what we're told is expected of us at any moment. I'm trying to show older Americans that there are a lot of people in their demographic who don't fit the stereotypes.
Are younger people allowed to join Third Act, or is it strictly limited to people 60 and over?
I mean, I don't even know what joining it means exactly. (Laughs) We’re just starting out, but as it builds, it will be deeply in collaboration with younger people. For instance, one of the first things that we're undertaking as a test run, the youth of what’s called The Future Coalition— who are the wonderful groups that began to align after Greta Thunberg’s school strikes spread around the planet—they're taking on the banks this fall, and planning a series of actions aimed at the big banks, Chase and Citibank in particular, which are the two biggest lenders to the fossil fuel industry. These guys behave irresponsibly. They've lent, in Chase’s case, almost a third of a trillion dollars, since the Paris climate Accords were signed, to the industry that’s undermining the climate.
Right now we’ve got the first serious climate legislation that Congress has ever considered, thanks to people like 80-year-old Bernie Sanders and 78-year-old President Biden.
They'll be doing actions and things, culminating on October 29th in a series of demonstrations at bank branches around the country. Clearly, if you're a bank manager, you don't want a bunch of 19-year-olds demonstrating outside your office, but you also probably don't watch a bunch of 69-year-olds demonstrating outside your office either—especially since they're likely to be the ones with significant amounts sitting in your vaults. So hopefully it will be a very fruitful collaboration.
One of the people who's been helping with this work from the beginning, Reverend Lennox Yearwood of The Hip Hop Caucus, he and I were arrested in the lobby of the Chase Bank in DC right before the my last trip out before the lockdown started. Jane Fonda was on the other side of the glass at the bank cheering us on. She's been a big help in the lunch of Third Act. Everybody we’ve asked has helped so far—Jane, Norman Lear, Reverend Yearwood, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and Greta Thunberg—all kinds of interesting people.
The thing that’s been nicest is that so far our publicity has basically consisted of one tweet, but the response has been so enormous that we’ve backed off a little bit so we can get enough structure in place to absorb lots of people. But we had, within a day or two, thousands of people sign up. And there's a lot of people who have written to say, “Yes, I really wanted this. I've been wondering how I can make my voice heard now, and I don’t want to be left on the sidelines of these fights.” And, “How do I stand up for my grandkids?” I think maybe there’ll be some appetite for people to organize, and in culturally specific ways. We are, at some level, our own tribe, older people. It’ll be different than when young people organize, in some ways. And the same, in other ways.
I guess in a way older people have a lot of power, in part because they tend to have more money.
They also vote, like crazy. We worry all the time about youth turn-out during elections, but nobody ever worries about the senior vote, because it’s always there, year in and year out—midterms and everything.
I've seen some random estimates regarding the human race’s time left on earth, like that by 2050 we’re done. It’s hard to grasp that as a possibility. What do you think about reports like that. Are they alarmist?
I mean, I don't think human beings are going to go extinct. We’re a resourceful bunch. But I think it's going to be a very difficult century, and much more difficult if we don't get our act together very quickly. Climate change is a timed test and we really have waited much too long to get going, mostly because of the intense disinformation campaigns from the fossil fuel industry, that have kept us locked in our way of doing things. But right now we’ve got the first serious climate legislation that Congress has ever considered, thanks to people like 80-year-old Bernie Sanders and 78-year-old President Biden. So there's some room for at least a tiny bit optimism at the moment.
Will Bernie be involved in Third Act?
I have no doubt. We’ve worked hard on all sorts of things for years, and he’s given his blessing, and he recorded a tremendous video for us. He said, “Some of you may have noticed that I'm of a certain age myself…” We need everybody pulling together.
When there are major climate events that seem to be caused by humans, I've seen a lot of people joke on social media to the effect of, “How can this be happening when I've brought my reusable totes to the supermarket?” What they're saying is, what does it matter what each of us do individually, when elected officials don’t hold the fossil fuel industry accountable, or make important policy changes. And I wonder, other than organizing and demonstrating, what can we do? Can individual choices have a significant impact on climate change?
Sadly, we've waited so long to get started. This is the point where I have to be careful about not saying, “If only you’d listened to me when…” Because I wrote the first book about climate change, back in 1989, when I was 28. If we'd started back then, there were lots of paths to the promised land. But we've waited so long that we're really past the point where you can make the climate math work one Tesla at a time, one vegetarian dinner at a time. It's good to take action in your own life. There's no reason not to. But the most important thing an individual can do is be a little less of an individual and join together with others in movements large enough to make real change. So hence, Third Act and many other things like it.
It's not just the climate that we're going to work on. The other issue we're starting with is voter suppression and voting rights. There's a whole series of issues that seem to me very much like unfinished business for our generations. I think you could argue that the greatest accomplishment in America, in our generation’s time on the planet, was the extension of the franchise to everyone, the Voting Rights Act, the work that Dr. King, and so many others did to make everyone a part of democracy. And what a horrible, horrible moment it is to see that rolling back, and to see the franchise being restricted again with the suppression of voting.
Clearly, if you're a bank manager, you don't want a bunch of 19-year-olds demonstrating outside your office, but you also probably don't watch a bunch of 69-year-olds demonstrating outside your office either—especially since they're likely to be the ones with significant amounts sitting in your vaults.
I was circulating a wonderful op-ed that Norman Lear, who's 99, wrote for the Washington Post about—he’d been flying bombing missions in World War Two, and he said the Tuskegee Airmen, the African-American division, had our backs the whole time and we made it home safely. And now to watch, at this late date, voting rights being restricted, seems the antithesis of everything that I thought America was about. And that's how it feels to me as well. And so we're going to work hard on issues like that as well. And it's possible that people of these generations have arguments that may work, that are maybe less effective with younger people, but appeal to older people’s patriotism in that way.
So, you’re taking a really holistic approach with this, realizing that without voting rights for everyone, it’s harder to have an impact.
Absolutely. We want the fairer, more decent and sustainable America that people were envisioning when they were young. When they were passing the Voting Rights Act and marching in the first Earth Day in 1970. We want that world to actually come to fruition.
You’re on your way to a demonstration right now, as we speak. I told my mother about Third Act—she's 81 and looking for ways to get involved. I know you've been arrested a number of times for civil disobedience while demonstrating as an environmental activist. Are you at all worried about groups of elderly people who join Third Act getting arrested for demonstrating? Basically, I'm just trying to picture my 81-year-old mother in jail.
I mean, most people, of course, won't ever be arrested. And civil disobedience is just one tool in the activist's tool kit. You don’t want to over-use it, because it gets dull. For most people, that’s not what they’ll be doing. They can do the work of writing letters and of organizing demonstrations in meeting with congressmen, and on and on. That said, I hear from a surprising number of older people that it's on their bucket list to get arrested for a good cause before they go.
One of the things that got me thinking about this happened ten years ago this summer. We were organizing the first big national demonstrations about the Keystone pipeline, which became probably the biggest environmental fight of the last decade. I wanted people to come to Washington to do civil disobedience to get it launched, and I wrote the letter asking people to come. And one of the things I said in the letter was, I don't think young people should have to be the cannon fodder here, because, if you're 19, it's possible that an arrest record is not the best thing for your resume. One of the few unmixed blessings of growing older is that at a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you? It was with pleasure that we watched a lot of people with hairlines like mine arriving in Washington. Now, we did not ask people as they were getting arrested, “How old are you?” That would be kind of rude. But we did say, cleverly, I think, “Who was president, when you were born?” And the two biggest cohorts were from the FDR and the Truman administrations.
On the last day, there was a guy arrested with a sign around his neck that said, “World War Two Veteran—Handle With Care.” He was old enough that he'd been born in the Warren Harding Administration, which was, you know, so long ago that I'd forgotten there was a Warren Harding Administration. And it was really wonderful for the young people who were there to see their elders acting the way that we really need elders to act in a working civilization.
I've always hated those bumper stickers that you see people stick on their RVs that say, “I'm spending my kids’ inheritance.” As if it was the kind of proper end of one's life. I think most people don't really want to be that person either. I think they want to be figure out how to enrich their kids’ inheritance, not financially, but in the world that they will take from us. We’ll see—this could all be a fool’s errand. And if so, nothing ventured, nothing lost. But I really do think it's possible that there's an appetite now for change in these ways.
You’re reminding me of a different bumper sticker I’ve seen, which says something like, “We don't leave the earth to our children, we borrow it from them.”
That’s a much nicer one.
So, who was president when you were born?
Dwight Eisenhower was still president, but John Kennedy had been elected. So I was born in the kind of interregnum between what in some ways was the old world and the new. I’ve often felt I was born on the cusp between different moments in history.
What else are you working on now, other than the newsletter you recently launched, The Crucial Years?
I have a book coming out in the spring. It actually bears in certain ways on all of this. The title is, The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders what the Hell Happened. It’s going to kind of grapple with some of these questions.
Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change, and has appeared in 24 languages; he’s gone on to write a dozen more books. He is a founder of 350.org, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.
The Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College and a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, he was the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize, and holds honorary degrees from 18 colleges and universities. Foreign Policy named him to their inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers, and the Boston Globe said he was “probably America’s most important environmentalist.”
A former staff writer for the New Yorker, he writes frequently for a wide variety of publications around the world, including the New York Review of Books, National Geographic, and Rolling Stone. He lives in the mountains above Lake Champlain with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, where he spends as much time as possible outdoors. In 2014, biologists honored him by naming a new species of woodland gnat— Megophthalmidia mckibbeni–in his honor.