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27 October 2021

Bill McKibben Q&A: “Are we doomed? It depends how hard we fight”

The environmentalist on Bernie Sanders, working for the New Yorker, and why he is wishing for deep winters.

By New Statesman

Bill McKibben was born in California in 1960 and is the founder of, an organisation working to end the use of fossil fuels. His book The End of Nature (1989) is regarded as being the first for a general audience about global warming.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting in shorts on a hot metal swing and burning my three-year-old thighs. My climate activism may have been predetermined…

Who are your heroes?

I grew up in a household that revered Martin Luther King. And I’ve come to also revere one of his predecessors in civil disobedience, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, sometimes called the Frontier Gandhi. His story moves me deeply.

What book last changed your thinking?

It’s not technically a book, but “The 1619 Project” and the historical revisionism that came with it. It forced me to rethink what my brand of patriotism meant, and the result is my next book, which was both hard and exhilarating to write. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, the site of one of the first revolts against the British empire, so American history feels personal.

Which political figure do you look up to?

Bernie Sanders. It was one of the great honours of my life to get to introduce him to the crowd the day he announced his run for the presidency in 2015.

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What would be your “Mastermind” specialist subject?

Nordic ski racing.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

Perhaps the North American continent before European settlement – I love this place, but its flora and fauna are a shadow of what they once were.

What TV show could you not live without?

I confess to a general weakness for Ted Lasso, a programme that’s largely about how kindness is a gift.

Who would paint your portrait?

Robert Shetterly already did; I admire his project of capturing activists.

What’s your theme tune?

That one’s easy: “O-o-h Child”, probably the Nina Simone cover, though many mornings start with the Kamasi Washington version. And if I need to get pumped up to fight, Patti Smith and “People Have the Power”.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Stay off Twitter. I don’t follow it very well.

What’s currently bugging you?

You mean, aside from the collapse of the jet stream and the Gulf stream, the melt of Arctic ice, the rise of the oceans, the record rainstorms, and the giant fires? Not much.

What single thing would make your life better?

More deep winters, full of snow. I love winter best of all – up here in the Vermont woods, friction disappears, and even awkward people like me can glide across the landscape with a certain grace.

When were you happiest?

When I met my wife-to-be, 35 years ago. The next few months were lived in a giddy, joyous haze.

In another life, what job might you have chosen?

I loved my very first job out of college, writing the “Talk of the Town” column for the New Yorker. It was slightly different in those days – the one rule was, no famous people. So I got to explore every inch of New York City, talking to people doing funny and wonderful things. If the world was as it should be, I think I might have enjoyed doing that my whole life.

Are we all doomed?

It depends how hard we fight.

“Falter”, Bill McKibben’s latest book, is published by Headline

[see also: Robert Peston Q&A: “If only Gordon Brown had abandoned his obsession with being prime minister“]

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This article appears in the 27 Oct 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Our Fragile Future