Bill McKibben and the Magic Number 350

Last night I was fortunate enough to hear Bill Mckibben speak at the NYC chapter of Middlebury College Alumni Association. That’s me on the left (in a kick-ass Nau jacket and having a ridiculous hair day) with McKibben flanked by our pal Ben Jervey who introduced his talk.

Ben, unlike myself, is actually an alum of Middlbury which is where he had occasion to meet Bill who is a scholar in residence there. Ben revealed that his decision to move to New York City was directly attributable to Bill’s influence. Upon hearing that Ben was considering moving either to Portland or to New York, Bill leaned back in his chair and with gentle conviction uttered the words “well moving to Portland would be easy…” With no disrespect meant to the good city of Portland, put simply, our fair city just needed more help! And we are fortunate to have someone of Ben’s caliber and conviction in our midst toiling away to make a sustainable future for New York.

Bill began by letting us know that he receives no salary for his position at Middlebury, and that if upon hearing him speak anyone became so moved to make a donation to the college, they were doing so based on unbiased information ; ) Then he declared that the evening’s topic would be global warming, acknowledging that most likely everyone in the room of about sixty people had already heard about it. However, some mind-blowing, new scientific information had come to the fore in December via NASA scientist James Hansen. Deets on this over at TreeHugger. Bottom line, we need to bring the amount of C02 in the atmosphere down to 350 parts per million in order to ensure survival for all species, including us of course. Currently we are at 383 parts per million. McKibben and colleagues are launching the new campaign to bring attention to this new wrinkle in the atmospheric carbon saga facing humanity and the rest of life on earth.

He then talked about the global warming feedback loops effecting farmers which he sees in Vermont: glaciers melt into the oceans, oceans evaporate and rain down on farmers’ fields flooding them to the point of stunting and delaying the production of food. He spoke about the rise of dengue fever and how just this month Brazil had to bring in the army to establish field hospitals to treat a tremendous outbreak. In addition to several factors that dominant health organizations point out, McKibben was honing in on an impact of climate change. Namely, that the Aedes aegypti mosquito likes a tropical climate and as the globe warms, its habitat will expand. And lucky for us *snark* ae. aegypti are diurnal, which means they are around day and night so one would have to deal with mosquito-netting 24/7 in the service of “prevention.” McKibben contracted dengue while in India and said that he didn’t die because he was strong, while many in the third world are not so fortunate. Also surprise, because dengue predominately affects the poor, big pharmaceutical companies don’t put any money into researching a cure. Well, not yet at least, it could be big “green” business in the future.

Speaking about presidential politics of the recent past, he concluded that Clinton had dithered as greenhouse gases in the atmosphere climbed 10% on his watch and of course does not expect the current Bush to sign any meaningful legislation. McKibben is optimistic that the next president will bring laws into effect which take on the state of our fragile band of gases keeping us alive. He noted that the first President Bush actually talked a pretty good game and was the first to introduce what was then referred to as “the greenhouse effect” into campaign discourse. While running against Michael Dukakis, George Herbert Walker Bush pledged to “Use the White House to Fight the Greenhouse Effect,” a pretty good line in Bill’s estimation. However once president Bush; while aboard Airforce One on his way to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil ; summoned reporters to the back of the plane where he informed them that “The American way of life is not negotiable.” At this conference, 153 countries (including the United States) would sign treaties to curb the damage to the environment from human economic activities.

So now, after 10 of the hottest years ever being recorded between the years 1997 – 2007, folks other than scientists may begin to heed the warning of the 350 number. He’s witnessed over the twenty years since he wrote The End of Nature scientists intrigued with the greenhouse effect as a hypothesis, then sobered by new data in the late 1990s, to out and out panic with the Hansen’s recent report. While not certain that humans can get it together quickly enough and reverse the ecological damage in time, McKibben is optimistic. The Step It Up campaigns and now are stepping to make their mark. 350 is a numeral and hence speaks across language barriers even though the website already boasts translations into twelve languages. And Middlebury is uniquely positioned to to spread the 350 word given that the college boasts both premiere environmental studies programs as well as international language programs. Looks like we’re going to be hearing more about the key roles Middlebury grads are playing in the next century as we turn to them on our mission to undo existing while preventing further environmental damage.

Then Bill signed my copy of the new book he edited American Earth, Environmental Writing Since Thoreau which I’ll be reviewing for TreeHugger shortly. His inscription to me?

For George,
Who’s writing the next chapter?

I look forward to all of you joining in that writing. We can do it.

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