Growing the local economy 

Author Bill McKibben plants the seeds of sustainability

Bill McKibben wants to know: Is Indiana ready to build a local economy that gives expression to the pent-up creativity of its citizenry, protects natural resources and leads to a prosperous, sustainable future?

One of the country’s foremost environmental authors, McKibben’s The End of Nature (1989) is cited as the first book on human-generated climate change written for a general audience.

He’ll be in Indianapolis to speak about his most recent works, Deep Economy and The Bill McKibben Reader, and to take part in a panel discussion from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, March 15, in the Basile Auditorium at Herron School of Art & Design, 735 W. New York St. He spoke with NUVO from Middlebury College in Vermont, where he is scholar in residence.

In Deep Economy McKibben writes, “You can’t get richer at least for long by impoverishing the world around you.” He acknowledges that the message doesn’t seem to have made it to decision makers. “There’s a difference between a very short-term vision and slightly long-term one,” he says. “Politicians and corporate economists prefer their incredibly short-term view. That’s one of the reasons that we’re working very hard to get Congress to put a cap on the amount of carbon we can emit and then to ratchet that cap steadily down.”

In 2007, he and a group of college students founded Step It Up to demand that Congress set limits on carbon emissions in order to cut global warming pollution 80 percent by 2050. “The effect of that will be to make sure that anyone who sits down to draw up plans for power plants, assembly lines or anything else will take into account the fact that it’s a poor idea to plan on emitting more carbon.”

Last year, Step It Up stimulated some 2,000 demonstrations around the country to try to persuade Congress to put a cap on carbon. McKibben sees this strategy as a way of generating data that corporate economists can plug into a spreadsheet and use in calculating profitability. “We’re very willing to work with markets but we have to give markets a sense of what’s going on in the climate,” he says.

“I think environmentalists in this case are the believers in markets and it’s coal company executives and corn farmers and Archer Daniels Midland who care about government subsidies and market portion,” he adds.

As an example of “what not to do in agriculture,” he cites Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations. ”Big pig operations and corn-based ethanol are clear examples of how to do agriculture so that it wrecks the environment, helps very few people in any real way and benefits a very small number of extremely wealthy, powerful players,” he says.

McKibben views the recent growth of large-scale animal operations as the final chapter in the consolidation of agriculture that’s been going on in America for the last 50 to 100 years. “It’s the chapter that comes before, I hope, what comes next, which we’re beginning to see in all kinds of places around the country — the reemergence of strong local and regional food economies,” he says.

“I’m much happier watching Vermont move in the direction of sustainability than I would be sitting in Indiana watching you move in the direction of 400,000 pigs on a farm,” he adds.

Another aspect of McKibben’s economic view issues a challenge to the assertion that endless growth is good. “I think the data is pretty clear that making more money makes you happier to a certain point, and past that point that correlation largely breaks down,” he says, adding, “We’re past that point.”

McKibben says the only way to get policy makers to embrace the ideas of ecological economics and sustainability is to become more political. “You want to do something? Have a big noisy movement,” he says.

Pointing to the success of Step It Up, he says, “We’re having real luck getting people to pay attention to carbon dioxide because we mounted a big noisy movement.”

McKibben says industry needs to be prodded by public pressure. “We’re never going to have as much money as they have, so our only possible response is to be more organized, more vocal, more out front politically. And if we are, then it will work.”

While oil companies have lots of money, they don’t have an endless number of votes. “Politicians will pay attention if we organize,” he says. “That’s why I do what I do.”

Asked if an economic system based on exploitation, abuse and oppression can be reformed in time to save the planet, he replies, “Scientists tell us we have four to five years to seriously change our energy policy or else the load of carbon in the atmosphere is such that it’s going to be extremely difficult to do anything to slow down the biggest crisis we’ve faced.

“My guess is that in the next four to five years we’re not going to see a complete change in our economic system. We’re not going to see a complete victory of some new spirituality in our society. I think we’re stuck for better or for worse, working with most of the institutions we have and trying to make them work as well as we can.

“I don’t know whether it’s going to succeed or not,” he says. ”I wrote a book about all this called The End of Nature, and I was not an incredible optimist back then. But I’m willing to work and we’ve made real progress in the last year on carbon, and we keep going, trying to do what we can.”

McKibben’s visit is part of the Bigger Ideas series hosted by Smaller Indiana, a social networking group founded by Pat Coyle, director of database marketing and E commerce for the Indianapolis Colts, and supported by the Central Indiana Community Foundation and WTTS 93.1 FM. Seating is limited. For details, visit or e-mail Pat Coyle, 

WHO: Author Bill McKibben

WHEN: Saturday, March 15 2-5 p.m.

WHERE: Basile Auditorium Herron School of Art IUPUI campus

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