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Author Promotes Lifestyle Changes in Global Warming Fight

April 13, 2007 at 6:40 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Nearly two decades ago, writer and activist Bill McKibben was among first nonscientists to sound the alarm about global warming and the need to take action.

His newest book, “Deep Economy,” is a manifesto for attacking the problem locally. In it, he argues for creating a sustainable future by changing the way we eat, the way we use energy, and how we organize our communities. Bill McKibben joins me from New York.

And, Bill, the earlier guests in our series of conversations have talked about big institutional and industrial responses to global climate change. You’re talking to people about where they live and how they live.

BILL MCKIBBEN, Writer and Activist: I think probably what I’m talking about are the longer-term ways that we’re going to deal with this. You know, the economy that we have, the lifestyle that we have is built on the cheap fossil fuel that we’ve been using for 200 years. If we’re going to get serious about getting off that fossil fuel for the global warming problems that it’s causing, then the world that we inhabit is going to look a little different when we’re done.

RAY SUAREZ: So does this mean redefining how we think about comfort and prosperity?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, I think it actually will mean asking deeper questions about how we think about those things. We for a very long time believed very fervently that more is better. In the last little while, we’ve begun to suspect that more may be causing deep environmental problems.

And one of the things I talk about in my book is the new work that economists and sociologists and others have done to sort of show us that more isn’t actually making us all that happier, all that much happier anyway.

The point of “Deep Economy” is to suggest that there may be an answer to both these problems, the ecological and the social, in trying to scale down somewhat the size of our economies, to think more locally than we think at the moment, to spend the next 100 years slowly reeling back in some of the endless lines of supply that we’ve spent the last century flinging out across the globe.

Eating food closer to home

RAY SUAREZ: So what would that mean on a practical, daily life measure?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Let's take food, the most basic commodity we have. The fastest growing part of our food economy right now is farmers' markets. The sales are growing 10 percent, 12 percent a year.

That's really good news environmentally, because you use a lot less energy. I mean, where I live on the East Coast, if I want to eat a head of lettuce today, to bring one calorie of that lettuce back east from California takes about 36 calories of fossil energy to grow it and to transport it. I can eat close to home for a lot less energy and, in fact, in the book, describe the winter that my family and I spent eating out of the valley where we live in northern Vermont.

RAY SUAREZ: So do you want people to pay a different amount of money for biting into that Chilean plum in February or have them do without it altogether?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, I think that, in a sense, the answer is sort of the same: All the work that you've been talking about all week with people figuring out how we're going to deal with global warming has something to do with changing the price of energy.

We need very much to make the cost of coal and gas and oil reflect the incredible damage it's now doing ecologically. And if we do that, then things will start to change, in some ways of their own accord.

We won't be flying in, you know, fresh fruits and vegetables from around the globe. We won't be ordering takeout from 2,000 miles away every night. Instead, we'll be rediscovering how much we can do closer to home, and food is just one example.

A more durable energy form

RAY SUAREZ: What are some of the others?

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, you can make the same argument with almost anything, almost any commodity you can think of. I mean, think about energy itself.

We're used, like food, to thinking of it as a very centralized thing. You know, Exxon-Mobil and Peabody Coal provide our BTUs and our electrons. But it doesn't need to work that way.

The roof on my house in Vermont has solar panels on it. They're tied into the grid. When the sun comes out, I'm a utility. I'm sending electrons down the line for other people to use. My neighbor's fridge runs off the sunlight falling on my shingles. When the cloud goes over, I suck electricity up the grid myself.

In the end, not only is that a lot better ecologically, it allows a much more durable form of energy than the one we have at the moment.

RAY SUAREZ: But I'm wondering if you aren't asking for something that's just too big for people to do, since we've spent so long building this other life. There are people watching you right now, sitting in a chair that was made in Asia, drinking a glass of orange juice from an orange that was grown in Brazil, watching you on a TV that was made in Singapore, and you're asking that person to now think locally.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Well, I should say, first, that I'm not, you know, the absolute biggest optimist that there ever was. I mean, I wrote a book called "The End of Nature," the first book that there was about this crisis long ago. I'm not certain it's going to come out right.

I know, however, that the physical forces we're confronting are so large that we're going to have to start changing some things if we have any hope of dealing with them.

The role of India and China

RAY SUAREZ: So there's one set of arguments that goes to Americans, the most intense users of fossil fuels on the globe. What do you say to aspirational Indians and Chinese who are seeing in this globalized economy the possibility of climbing into the world middle class and living a lot better than their parents and grandparents did?

BILL MCKIBBEN: A lot of the book takes place in China, where I've done a lot of reporting in recent years. And, you know, it's the perfect question. They aren't to blame yet for the global warming crisis that we confront. We've been doing this for 100 years and getting rich in the process.

We're going to need to help them figure out some other path toward development. It can't look exactly like ours, because there simply isn't enough atmosphere to make that possible. But unless we give them some real options and unless we re-engage in the international discussion that we have dropped out of for the last six years, then there's very little chance of getting this right in the end.

RAY SUAREZ: In the reporting in your book, you point out that simply stopping the increase in the amount of emissions put into the air not only isn't enough, it's not even close to enough. How do we not just stop the increase, but turn it around and start decreasing, in order to have any effect on the wider environment?

BILL MCKIBBEN: And the problem's even harder than you imagine, because we have to do it -- we don't just have to do it, we have to do it darn fast, something like the next 10 years, according to the best science.

Look, the only way that it's going to happen is if we have a strong political movement in this country demanding that kind of change. So far, Congress has been embarked on a 20-year bipartisan effort to accomplish nothing, and it's been highly successful.

That's why Saturday we're having 1,350 demonstrations in every state in the union around the country, the biggest demonstrations about climate change that there yet have been. People are joining together to ask that Congress commit to cutting carbon 80 percent by 2050, with the hope that we can send a really strong signal, a really strong signal to anyone anticipating any kind of investment in the next 40 years, any kind of economic planning, that they better not count on carbon being the free good that it's been for the last 100.

The name of these demonstrations that we're doing, a place for people to find out about them, is

RAY SUAREZ: Bill McKibben, thanks for joining us.

BILL MCKIBBEN: Ray, thank you so much.