The spirit of Henry David Thoreau was in the air last week at a gathering at his old stomping grounds at the top of Mount Greylock, the tallest mountain in Massachusetts, hosted by Orion Magazine to celebrate the launch of its new anthology, The Thirty Year Plan.
Keynote speakers at the event were Orion contributing writers Ginger Strand, Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben, all of whom seemed to have a common concern on their minds as they looked into the future: climate change.
Thoreau’s legacy of using writing as a vehicle for civil disobedience is a mantle that all three writers have already assumed, particularly McKibben, who is very much following in Thoreau’s footsteps in going beyond simply writing about activism to actually standing at the forefront of a growing activist movement.
Characteristically, McKibben wasted no time in reminding his listeners that it’s high time for decisive action in the quest to transition our global economy off fossil fuels.
“It’s not enough to go around changing lightbulbs or even buying hybrid vehicles,” he said. “Individual change won’t do it, the math doesn’t add up. We have to change the price of carbon to reflect its true cost to our environment.
“We will never be able to match ExxonMobil and the other fossil fuel corporations in money, but we do have people power, and we have to use it. A lot of you are going to have to come down to Washington DC and get arrested with me!” he said to applause.
McKibben also suggested using the shareholder pressure that was successfully applied against apartheid in South Africa back in the 1980s, but this time putting pressure on the fossil fuel industry to reinvent itself as a renewable energy industry based on wind, solar, hydropower and geothermal.
The Beauty of Renewable Power
From the top of Mount Greylock there is a striking view of eight huge spinning wind turbines on a ridge not far away, over by Jiminy Peak. Wind power has become controversial in New England, with some towns and neighborhoods arguing vociferously against the location of wind turbines in their backyards.
In Massachusetts there has been great opposition to the proposal to build a windfarm out in Nantucket Sound, and here in the Berkshire hills we have also had many people of the NIMBY mindset.
When asked to comment on the prospect of wind turbines being set up on mountaintops in wilderness areas, Bill McKibben was unequivocal.
“I love the wilderness as much as anyone, and I’ve spent a lot of time out in the Adirondacks, as far away from it all as you can get. But I’d have absolutely no problem with a wind turbine being set up overlooking my favorite patch of forest,” he said.
“The real threat to the places we love is fossil fuels, not wind towers,” McKibben said, adding that he has little sympathy for Americans who complain about wind towers being unattractive.
“Our sense of what’s beautiful is going to have to change,” he said. Wind turbines located in Vermont or Massachusetts force people living in these exclusive areas to see the results of our impact on the climate, McKibben said, unlike our usual practice of making people in other parts of the planet—the Maldives, or Bangladesh, or the mountaintops of Virginia, for example—do all the suffering.
Emphasizing that the technology already exists to shift to renewable energy, McKibben pointed to the fact that Germany is already breaking records with its distributed solar energy model.
In May, German solar plants produced a record 22 gigawatts of electricity in two days, equal to the output of 20 nuclear power plants.
According to a recent Reuters article, “Germany has nearly as much installed solar power generation capacity as the rest of the world combined and gets about four percent of its overall annual electricity needs from the sun alone. It aims to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2020.”
The Challenge of Getting People’s Attention
The contributors to the Orion Thirty Year Plan vision agree that the challenges we face in getting off fossil fuels are much more socio-political than they are technical.
One of the questions that remains intractable is how to get the public fully engaged with the issue of climate change, so that more people are willing to try Thoreau-style civil disobedience to force the politicians to do the right thing when it comes to regulating Big Oil—ending the subsidies on fossil fuels and giving incentives for the shift to renewable energy sources.
Elizabeth Kolbert said she was perplexed at the fact that she got a far greater response to a recent New Yorker article on child rearing than she generally gets on her much longer, more meticulously researched pieces on global heating.
“It’s something I think about a lot,” Kolbert said; “how to get people as interested in climate change as they are in raising their kids.”
Kolbert agreed with writers like Mark Hertsgaard, who suggested in his book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth that it’s pathological to do the kind of intensive parenting Americans are known for while at the same time ignoring the biggest danger of all looming over our kids and grandkids: anthropogenic global warming.
As the sun began its spectacular descent towards the west side of the Greylock summit, and the assembled group went in to dinner and animated discussion at Bascom Lodge, it seemed to me that our charge was clear: to join leaders like Kolbert and McKibben in becoming change agents in our own spheres and out in the public eye. We need to build a movement with a broad enough base of committed supporters to seriously challenge the entrenched power of the fossil fuel industry, as well as the massive inertia of the American public, which still has a tendency to imagine that life as we knew it growing up can go on for the next thirty years virtually unchanged.
Life will go on, with or without us humans. But the story of our species does not have to end in disaster. There is still time to write a new ending to our 10,000-year adventure on this planet, if we get up the courage and the dedication to get moving now.