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Speaking Out of Place: BILL McKIBBEN, Co-Founder of 350.org, Founder Third Act & CAROLINE LEVINE, Author of The Activist Humanist
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In this episode of the Speaking Out of Place podcast, Professor David Palumbo-Liu talks with legendary climate activist Bill McKibben and scholar Caroline Levine. McKibben relates his long struggle to get companies to divest from fossil fuels and for the world in general to act immediately to seriously and substantially address this existential crisis. Levine tells of her efforts to get the giant pension fund, TIAA-CREF, to divest. She also talks about her new book, The Activist Humanist, and its relation to both her teaching and her activism.
Bill McKibben is founder of Third Act, which organizes people over the age of 60 for action on climate and justice. 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 20 books, and his work appears regularly in periodicals from the New Yorker to Rolling Stone. He serves as the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, as a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and he has won the Gandhi Peace Prize as well as honorary degrees from 20 colleges and universities. He was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, sometimes called the alternative Nobel, in the Swedish Parliament. Foreign Policy named him to its inaugural list of the world’s 100 most important global thinkers.
McKibben helped found 350.org, the first global grassroots climate campaign, which has organized protests on every continent, including Antarctica, for climate action. He played a leading role in launching the opposition to big oil pipeline projects like Keystone XL, and the fossil fuel divestment campaign, which has become the biggest anti-corporate campaign in history, with endowments worth more than $40 trillion stepping back from oil, gas and coal. He stepped down as board chair of 350 in 2015, and left the board and stepped down from his volunteer role as senior adviser in 2020, accepting emeritus status. 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 credited his career by naming a new species of woodland gnat—Megophthalmidia mckibbeni–in his honor.
Caroline Levine has spent her career asking how and why the humanities and the arts matter, especially in democratic societies. She argues for an understanding of forms and structures as essential both to understanding links between art and society and to the challenge of taking meaningful political action. She is the author of four books. The most recent, The Activist Humanist: Form and Method in the Climate Crisis (Princeton University Press 2023), grows out of the theoretical work of Forms: Whole, Rhythm, Hierarchy, Network (2015, winner of the James Russell Lowell Prize from the MLA, and named one of Flavorwire’s “10 Must-Read Academic Books of 2015”). Levine has also published The Serious Pleasures of Suspense: Victorian Realism and Narrative Doubt (2003, winner of the Perkins Prize for the best book in narrative studies) and Provoking Democracy: Why We Need the Arts (2007).
"Viewed one way, we live in a very hopeful moment. Thanks to in large part the work of university scientists and engineers, we now live on a planet where the cheapest way to produce power is to point a sheet of glass at the sun. That is to say, we could run our Earth on energy from heaven instead of hell, and we could do it fast. The fast is the hard part here. The only difference between all the examples of the long victories of social justice activism that we're in now is that this one is a time-limited problem. If we don't solve it fast, then no one's got a plan for how you refreeze the Arctic once you've melted it. And so we have to move very quickly. Our systems are not designed to move quickly. It's the easiest thing in the world to slow down and delay change, which is all that the fossil fuel industry at this point is trying to do, and that means that it's time for maximum effort from all of us. The story to tell is that the planet is outside its comfort zone, so we need to be outside ours."