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Environmental Activist Bill McKibben On How Civility, Humor, and Soul Music Is Essential to Resistance

Talking with PopMatters about his recent environmental-themed novel, Radio Free Vermont, McKibben brings joy to the seriousness and hope to the every day.

Radio Free Vermont
Bill McKibben
Blue Rider
Nov 2017

The January day is unseasonably warm. The frigid temperatures of the prior week are ushered away by temporary, Spring-like warmth. All our good skiing snow has turned to mud; a sentiment shared by the characters in
Bill McKibben‘s recent novel Radio Free Vermont. “Of course,” I think to myself, “how appropriate.” I’m preparing to speak with the environmental activist who has authored a dozen books on the impact of global warming and the intersection of politics, environmental policies, and everyday life. Radio Free Vermont is a fictional depiction of Vermonters leading a resistance movement advocating for the state’s secession. They reiterate several aspects of McKibben’s activism including the real consequences of climate change and the drudgery of corporatization. On the surface the novel is lighthearted, but it contains a poignant message: resistance is essential.

McKibben, founder of environmental organization, speaks, in the tone of the novel, with an authority that reflects humor and kindness. Our conversation, like the book, resonates with layers: our current conversation; the thoughts this conversation will later evoke and; an incentive to do something about climate change. Further, McKibben makes clear that resistance is made stronger with the help of humor.

Ultimately both the interview and novel renew my belief that resistance is
not futile. Even in trying times like these, the steps we take now to enact change will affect the future environment. The message I take away from Radio Free Vermont and this conversation is that resistance, no matter how small, is valuable — while apathy can be as dangerous as draconian policies.

I find Radio Free Vermont to be funny. The conversations between the characters Perry and Vern are sharp-witted yet snarky. Is there room for humor in activism?

Yes, my normal work is rather grim. I wrote the first book about climate change and several subsequent books on the subject, and I’m working on one now that can be a rather long, grim, depressing tome. Sometimes it feels like there’s not a lot of room for humor. As a writer, it was a great pleasure to indulge a funnier side of my writing voice for the first time in a while.

As an activist, we are usually serious in a sense. was started here in Addison County, Vermont a decade ago. It takes its name from the scientific research of Goddard Institute for Space Studies scientist James E. Hansen. He showed that 350 is the amount of carbon you can safely have in the atmosphere measured in parts per million. But we have always believed that there was no need to be grim. Indeed, organizing often works better when it appeals to all sides of the human brain.

Environmentalists, in particular, are good with the parts of the human brain that like bar graphs, data, and pie-charts and less good with the parts that are more visceral. So we always thought art, music, humor, and spectacle played a role in our work too. If you ever come to the marches that we’ve organized, you’d have some sense of that. So the book was fun because I got to imagine what resistance would look like in a setting where you weren’t restrained by politics. It was fun to make these ideas more creative.

One of my favorite moments is when Vern is walking alone behind Sylvia’s home and just observing nature. This part reminded me a lot of Wendell Berry’s poetry specifically the “Peace of Wild Things”. Where did you find inspiration for Radio Free Vermont?

That’s funny you should mention Mr. Berry. He’s one of my great heroes. I received a letter from him last night. He’s definitely one of the inspirations. Another author is Edward Abbey, who weathered the desert southwest and wrote the very important and serious book called
Desert Solitaire. He also wrote the very funny book called The Monkey Wrench Gang to which Radio Free Vermont is in small part an homage.

Combining the funny with the poignant reminds me of a 2008 interview of yours with Library of America. You said. “I think movements need more than earnestness; they need fun, music, creativity, art, sass.” Would you classify Radio Free Vermont as a type of creative resistance?

It’s more of a love letter to Vermont. The book was often written on the road at great distances from the places that I love. But the novel is also a mash note of resistance, as well. It’s been a great pleasure for the last 12 months to watch this resistance grow, burgeon, and blossom. That’s the only good thing you can say about the Trump year so far is that it really has kicked up a big and powerful resistance. So this is an affectionate little gift back to that resistance. I am glad that’s the spirit it’s been received.

Music plays a significant role in Radio Free Vermont. Why di you decide to use soul music, and Perry’s love of the genre, as a subtext?

Yes, I am afraid there are a number of things in this book that reflect my proclivities. You’ll notice there’s a lot of a cross-country skiing, which is my vice, you’ll notice there is a lot of beer, which I am afraid is another vice. Soul music, in particular, the era, is very important to me musically and also very important historically. I think there’s an almost escapable and deep connection to the Civil Rights Movements in the ’60s and ’70s. The music helped propel that movement. I think that’s one of the greatest examples of art and politics working hand in hand. I’ve always thought about and loved that connection.

I just finished reading, it’s a couple of years old, a terrific biography of Mavis Staples called
I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, The Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom’s Highway by Greg Kot. That biography made me think a lot about the connection between music and politics. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and history.

I started thinking about music and politics more systematically six or seven years ago. A very good friend and one of my favorite fellow activists, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, runs the
Hip-Hop Caucus. Amongst the many important things they do, they’re also committed to undertaking environmental work all over the country. We were sitting around one day, and I said, “What do you think is the most important environmental anthem ever written?” I knew what I thought, and I wanted to see what he thought. He thought for a minute and then he got to the same place as me. It’s not some John Denver tune, it’s almost certainly Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. The album, What’s Going On, is definitely in the argument for the greatest album ever.

That song is so powerful because you realize that, in 1971 when it came out, there was nothing anomalous or strange about people in inner-city America worried about fish full of mercury or air you can’t breathe. After that period we have this split where environmentalism becomes something that happens in Vermont but not in inner cities. That split to some extent has healed in the last seven or eight years and I think that’s really great and something I’m deeply committed to. I think music has been one of the ways that we’ve done that. Reverend Yearwood and I are MC’ing a big 350 event on January 31st called Fossil Free Fast: The Climate Resistance, it will be live in Washington D.C., and we will live stream it. We will have music and activists working together to end the use of fossil fuels and transition to renewable energy. There will be a lot of syntheses there.

Speaking of synthesis, but onto a different subject, Radio Free Vermont emphasizes the local, whether it’s neighbor to neighbor, across town, or across the state. But I’ve read and heard you emphasize the importance of understanding issues globally, specifically the future of energy. Can you provide some advice on how to balance a local and global mindset?

That’s a really good question and one that I think about all the time. I’m extremely interested in localism of all kinds, and at the same time, the topic I deal with is global warming. Literally, the most global problem that’s even theoretically possible to imagine. One that comes from everywhere and impacts everyone. The best that I’ve been able to get to is this one way of thinking about it: locally the thing we most need to do in order to deal with climate change is to substitute coal, gas, and oil for the power of the sun and the wind.

Coal, gas, and oil are located in a few specific places, and the people that happen to live on top of those places become extraordinarily rich, for example, the Koch brothers. Sun and wind are everywhere, ubiquitous. If we utilize them and utilize them smartly, then in the process of dealing with climate change one of the things we’ll do is build stronger local economies. Economies where we don’t send 20 percent of our energy costs off to the Koch Brothers every month. Instead, these costs stay at home and strengthen our communities.

It’s truly fun to see that using sun and wind is not just a local occurrence. I had an article in the
New Yorker (“The Race to Solar-Power Africa“, 26 June 2017) showing how in Africa renewables are rolling out now. Solar panels have become so cheap that in very rural parts of Africa you now see hundreds and thousands of people a week lighting up their lives with solar panels. When you see it the first time you realize what a kind of magical thing a solar panel is; you point this piece of glass at the sun and out the back comes communication and light. It’s Hogwarts-scale magic and it’s one of the great gifts of this century.

We need to make it part of our everyday lives and not create policies that set this back.

In any rational world, every public policy would be aimed at dramatically ramping up how fast we do this. This would be our main task.

And making it commonplace. You published another New Yorker article (“Power to the People” 29 June 2015) wherein you showcased a working class family’s ability to include renewable resources as part of their lives. I think that needs to happen more often.

Yes absolutely. You can count on one hand the number of enlightened CEOs that help low-income citizens reduce the amount of money they spend on energy or even dramatically reduce their carbon footprints. Another way of thinking about it is the poorest Vermonters are spending a big share of their income on heating. The same is true for every impoverished part of the country and the world. These are the places where we should put in our efforts first. It’s good to have solar panels on top of your mansions, but more important is to get great insulation, air sources, and heat pumps into the homes that need it the most.

You use President Lincoln and the Civil War as a parable for Vermonters’ contribution to national issues. This is a two-part question: Does using Lincoln and the Civil War — that ultimately prevented secession — contradict Vern’s resistance movement? And, do you see this passage as a call to readers to continue resisting national discourses that threaten racial, social, and political justice?

Verm thinks it is a contradiction too, something he worries about a lot because Lincoln is a great hero of his and mine. The point of putting all that in there was to remind us not to be so damn sure all the time about what it is we think. One of the parts of resistance, that I’m not always quite so fond of, is that people tend to get incredibly zealous, earnest, and unable to see the other side of any question. I have strong opinions of the world and have the arrest record to prove it, but I also value civility and neighborliness. I hope that there are ways to resist that don’t require breaking down everything that’s good about the traditions of our country.

Your call for civility is very obvious by Radio Free Vermont‘s emphasis on direct democracy in the form of town meetings. Can you discuss, based on your standpoint, the merits of direct democracy?

Town meeting is such a wonderful thing because it’s not about these abstract principles. It’s wonderful because you have to actually sit down face-to-face with your neighbors, talk, then work on what is going to happen in your town for the next year. One of the results of this is that you can’t be a complete jerk. Try to think about what would happen if Donald Trump, talking the way that he talks or tweets, wandered into a town meeting and started in like that. You know people would look at him slack-jawed for a minute and then say thank you you’ve had your turn, sit-down, and then no one would pay the slightest attention to him. You can’t get away with that kind of behavior in a town meeting. It’s only when we amp things up by 300 million that people start thinking maybe I’ll vote for this guy because of his entertainment value or to kick up my heels. You can’t do that in your town because you have to live with the consequences.

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