Multiplication Saves the Day

Illustration: Corbis

In my last column for the magazine I wrote about numbers. Now I’d like for us to do some math.

Let’s assume, generously, that 5 percent of Americans are deeply concerned about climate change — concerned enough that they will change all their light bulbs, scrimp and save to put a solar thermal hot water system on the roof (or really scrimp and save to put some photovoltaic electricity up there), unplug all their vampire appliances when not in use, cut the number of car trips that they make in half and use a hybrid for the remaining journeys, buy only local food in season, use a clothesline to dry their clothes whenever the temperature tops fifty degrees (1,016 pounds of carbon saved right there), cut their air travel by two-thirds and learn to enjoy the pleasure of “staycations,” take showers with an egg timer so they don’t stay under too long (350 pounds of carbon), and do all the other things that every website recommends for reducing your carbon footprint. And then let’s assume that they go buy offsets for the rest from a company like NativeEnergy, which will use the money to build windmills on Indian reservations.

Okay, add it up, carry the one, dum de dum, here we go, yes — the impact on the amount of carbon in the atmosphere is, hmm, zero. Okay, not precisely zero. Every bit helps. But if your concern is somehow slowing the onrush of global warming in the short window of time the scientists give us, then the number is close enough to zero that it gives you pause. Even if that 5 percent then hector their in-laws, each of whom somewhat grudgingly does half of what they could, the net effect is still, well, right around zero.

I mean, the head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rajendra Pachauri, said recently, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late.” By “action” he did not mean going down in the basement and adjusting the knob on your water heater to no higher than 120 degrees Fahrenheit. James Hansen, our premier climatologist, recently said that “if humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted, paleoclimate evidence and ongoing climate change suggest that CO2 will need to be reduced from its current 385 ppm to at most 350 ppm.” It is true that if you clean the coils beneath your refrigerator it will run more efficiently, and it is also true that it won’t do anything to “preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted.”

I am exaggerating here to make a point. Of course I believe in energy conservation. I’ve got a plaque that says I built the most energy-efficient house in Vermont, I drove the first hybrid Honda Civic in the state, I subsist mostly on food from my Champlain Valley. I’m typing this article with electrons currently assembling themselves on my roof. All these things are good. I highly support them. Please do them too.

But in a world where we need massive change at lightning speed, the usual equations are turned upside down. We’re used to thinking that being practical is what really counts — that you can only reduce carbon by, in fact, reducing carbon. Hence the light bulb, or the farmers’ market, or the hybrid car. If we think globally, to use the hoariest of green clichés, we should act locally. In the fight against global warming, though, the practical acts are for the most part symbolic, while the symbolic acts might just save the day. Say you have a certain amount of time and money with which to make change — call it x, since that is what we mathematicians call things. The trick is to increase that x by multiplication, not addition. The trick is to take that 5 percent of people who really care and make them count for far more than 5 percent. And the trick to that is democracy.

We naïvely believe that it takes 51 percent of the people to make change in a democracy, but it clearly doesn’t — 5 percent is plenty, if those 5 percent are engaged in symbolic action that can force the kind of legislative change that resets the course for everyone. In the civil rights movement, for instance, the strategy was not to desegregate the country one lunch counter at a time — there were way too many lunch counters. Instead, you use the drama of the fight over one lunch counter to help drive the Civil Rights Act, which puts the full power of the federal government behind the idea that anyone can order a hamburger wherever they want to. And here’s the thing: I bet less than one-quarter of 1 percent of Americans took part in a protest during that great movement, but it was more than enough.

If people who care about climate change mobilize politically, 5 percent will be more than enough too — it will persuade senators, congressmen, and presidents to back strict legislation that will set real caps on emissions and fund real research on the technologies we need. If such laws pass, they would change the behavior of 95 percent of Americans, including reluctant in-laws. This kind of equation isn’t hypothetical. Two years ago, I helped organize a march across Vermont that called on our leaders to work for deep cuts in carbon emissions. A thousand of us walked the sixty-mile route — one Vermonter in six hundred. And yet that was enough to get all of our legislators, including the conservative Republicans, to sign on to our pledge. A year later we organized fourteen hundred demonstrations in all fifty states to call for 80 percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050. They were the most widespread rallies about climate change to date, but even so they hardly reached one-quarter of 1 percent of the population. And yet the next week both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton put our goal at the heart of their platforms.

So here’s the thing. Along with spending a lot of time figuring out how to make your own life practically green (because, it’s true, how are you going to face your kids if you don’t?), spend at least a little time figuring out how to engage in the symbolic political action that might actually add up to something useful. In the United States check out and; since you’re a citizen of the globe as well, you also need to help us at Putting up a clothesline is a fine idea: 1,016 pounds of carbon, remember. But if you join Project Laundry List to fight for the idea of clotheslines, you become, in essence, an Amway salesman for positive change. Yes, your Prius definitively rocks — but even if you can’t afford a Prius, you can accomplish considerably more by joining Al Gore’s campaign to push for the rapid conversion to renewable electricity, which can power the next generation of hybrid cars.

It’s not, I warn you, as immediately satisfying as installing a new tankless water heater or greasing the chain on your bike. You have to keep reminding yourself: multiplication, not addition. You have to keep reminding yourself that atmospheric physics and chemistry don’t give you points for doing the right thing — they only care about how much carbon is in the atmosphere. We have so little time that we can’t waste any of it. Screw in a new light bulb? Sure. Screw in a new global treaty? Now we’re talking.

Bill McKibben is an author and environmentalist who in 2014 was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize, sometimes called the ‘alternative Nobel.’ 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 a dozen more books. He is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized twenty  thousand rallies around the world in every country save North Korea, spearheaded the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline, and launched the fast-growing fossil fuel divestment movement.


  1. I hope the Obama Presidency will bring an ear of effective and responsive government. I think it will. Obama appears to be strong willed and decisive, but wise and open to new ideas. While he spoke a lot about “clean coal,” he also spoke about solar and wind power. The key is to keep the pressure on him thru the media. Letters to the local papers, elected officials at the national, state, and local politicians. A phone call is better than a letter, and the best thing is to run for office.

  2. Project Laundry List, of which Bill has been an advisory board member for a decade, is priming the pump for a movement. The Wall Street Journal called our Right to Dry efforts a green movement. Sign the petition at and get a clothesline on The White House lawn. That is symbolism that will change the world.

  3. Oh, my! How naively charming. Can it be that progressive activists still believe that real change will come if we but pressure and cajole the government (bought and paid for by corporate America, including Obama who took a hard right turn in order to get elected) into doing the right thing?

    I walked with Bill McKibben two years ago and I’ve appreciated his books, but neither personal lifestyle incremental (additive) change nor national or global political (multiplicative) change is going to carry us into a new and sustainable paradigm.

    The problem is not that we’ve got the math wrong, it’s that we’ve propagated exponentially since the agricultural revolution 5,000 years ago and we continue to believe that some permutation of new technology and enlighted leadership is going to bring us to the promised land.

    The change that will restore us (not save us) is an inward spiritual shift of consciousness. There is evidence that such a shift is in the offing, and it’s true that it requires only a small part of a community to “seed” a global change in the whole (the hundredth monkey phenomenon).

    But a restoration of balance in the Earth’s living ecology will occur largely in spite of us, not because of us. It will not be a vast network of clothelines (or the WWW) that will weave a new world order, but rather a webwork of awakened souls participating selflessly in the Great Dance.

  4. In addition to the action ideas mentioned by Bill, people should also consider getting involved in one of the 200+ grassroots around the country that have already succeeded in blocking over 80 coal plants and promoting climate friendly-alternatives. A full list can be found here:

  5. When you spoke at Bioneers this year and had everyone text message Obama, and then asked that everyone send you their contact lists to help build, we all heard a collective groan from the audience. “Not my personal contact list!” That’s so politically incorrect, many people seemed to be saying. And therein lies the rub. Very few folks are willing to do politics with our neighbors, friends, or families. This past eight years has psychologically traumatized whole swaths of the population even more than we were before. Very few are willing to be nonviolent warriors for the planet, much less their own backyards. Obama sure isn’t supporting civil disobedience – which is what it’s going to take to solve not only global warming but all the other challenges we currently face, just like the civil right movement, etc.

  6. Bill doesn’t give us his actual carbon footprint nor mention that Native Energy carbon offsets purchased by Orion don’t go for wind turbunes, but to subsidize a BeefUSA award winning dairy operation’s methane digester, promoting sales of cheaper beef products. Nor does he mention how Big Oil money wends its way into Orion reportage (covered-up by the editors). Is investment-banker founded Orion a front? Open discussion is long overdue.

  7. Given that only 5% of the population taking action is sufficient, what if I don’t want to be part of that 5% believing that there are enough people in the US who will take action to add up to that 5%? Or is this some kind of reverse psychology to get more people to be part of that 5%, thus exceeding that 5% manifold? 🙂

  8. Fantastic read! Thank you for stirring the passion inside. I just completed the 300-page 100% recycled book The Complete Guide to Energy Conservation for Smarties that is intended for all those folks needing direction. There are flocks of lambs that will follow in one cohesive group if led and if they understand the significance. The passionate 5% are the leaders. Speak up. Give explicit instructions. Tell your friends and family exactly what you want them to do. Remind, reiterate, and recap expectations again and again.

    After years of practice as a nurse practitioner, I know most people cannot even formulate a question when puzzled. Those passionate 5% out there must not wait for individuals to ask for help, or for them to ask ‘what they should do’. We must take control, speak with authority and give an absolute plan for them to follow.

    Political involvement is one of the most important strategies for change. Squeaky doors get grease. Every important change in this country from civil rights, womens rights has started from the bottom up including last weeks election. The election alone can’t make change happen. We all must shout together and often. So, give information, telephone numbers, email addresses, rallies directions, discussions groups, arrange car pools, and do whatever it takes to move the people in the right direction.

  9. “We must take control, speak with authority and give an absolute plan for them to follow.”

    Sounds like environmental fascism, the new Brownshirts of social engineering.

    “…and do whatever it takes to move the people in the right direction.”

    Who among us is certain they know precisely the “right direction”? And let us not forget Thomas Merton’s warning that the frenzy of the activist is another form of violence.

  10. I’m among those who find this article inspirational. And I’d like to quote the late, great David Brower in this same context: “Politicians are like weather vanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.” Three cheers for wind power (plus)!

  11. “Politicians are like weather vanes. Our job is to make the wind blow.”

    Exactly. Politicians can turn only on their fixed axis – a little to the right or a little to the left. The axis is fixed by the entrenched power structure of the nation.

    What we need is not more hyperventilating, trying to effect a slight shift in direction, but to build a new weather vane that turns on the authentic needs of the web of life.

  12. Dear Friends,

    Science is indisputably the finest source for gaining an adequate understanding of the way the world we inhabit actually works and for accurately enough grasping the “placement” of the human species within the order of living things on Earth. But, as others have noted with such clarity and coherence, too many world-class scientists have treated the human overpopulation of Earth as a taboo topic and, even worse, perniciously participated in the politicization of the science of climate change. Barack Obama cannot know whatsoever could somehow be true, in large part, because so many scientists have failed to reasonably assume their responsibilities to science as well as to sensibly fulfill their duties as scientists.

    Rather than do what I have been doing over the past 7 years by extolling the virtues of good science, today I am going to try something different.

    What follows is a brief artistic expression that is intended to convey a symbolic meaning parallel to but distinct from, and more significant than, the literal meaning.

    Please consider an allegory: that a titanic struggle between human beings and the natural world is in the offing. It seems this struggle is fulminating now precisely because too many leaders of the 6.7 billion {soon to be 9+ billion} members of the human family generally do not share the distinctly scientific, evidence-based perspective of many within the Orion community. Many too many of our brothers and sisters, especially those with great wealth and power, pompously and erroneously believe that human organisms are separate from, and somehow superior to, life as we know it on Earth.

    At least to me, it appears that an epochal contest is taking shape on the far horizon between the ‘team’ of “mother culture and father profit” on one side and ‘Team’ Mother Nature on the other.

    This could be the greatest show on Earth in 10,000 years.

    The team of “mother culture and father profit” appears adamant in its willful intentionality to stay the same old business-as-usual course of recklessly overconsuming limited natural resources; relentlessly expanding large-scale production and distribution capabilities without regard to physical limitations of the natural world; and overpopulating our planetary home, come what may for children and coming generations, biodiversity, the environment and the Earth’s body.

    Team Mother Nature simply is.

    Which team will likely be seen by reasonable and sensible observers as winning the contest for success in 2012, 2020 and 2050, if the human community continues its idolatry of distinctly human overconsumption, overproduction and overpopulation activities by choosing forevermore unbridled overgrowth activities just as we are doing now?

    If the leaders of the family of humanity do not choose change, do you have any ideas about which team will prevail and when will the outcome of the colossal contest no longer be in doubt?



    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001,+Steven+Earl

  13. Steven Earl Salmony states that “Science is indisputably the finest source for gaining an adequate understanding of the way the world we inhabit actually works and for accurately enough grasping the “placement” of the human species within the order of living things on Earth.”

    Apparently, this “truth” is so self-evident that it allows no dispute. I dispute it in its entirety, and the fallacy lies in the very language with which it is stated.

    The scientific method, though it might be useful for the accumulation and application of knowledge and the taxonomic placement of humanity within the biotic community, is perhaps the most narrow method of discerning truth employed in the broad scope of human experience.

    Science acknowledges only observable, physical and quantifiable data and denies any form of intelligence beyond logical reasoning. Ironically, it denies the intuitive faculty which is the font of all hypotheses, and denigrates emotional intelligence or “extra”-sensory experience.

    For instance, nearly every time an anthropologist has asked an indigenous healer how s/he came to know the healing and poisonous parts of the plant world, and the answer is “I listened to the plants”, this is (mis)interpreted as metaphor for trial and error (the only method the scientist knows). In fact, all indigenous healers can communicate with the natural world, and hunter-gatherers are highly telepathic.

    The scientific paradigm has brought us to the multiple global crises we now face, and proposes to lead us out by the same methods which created them.

    That is a form of insanity to which many moderns fall prey. No “leaders” will initiate the paradigm shift that is necessary for our survival. The change will come, if at all, within the hearts of each one of us. But not to those who cannot think, or even imagine, outside-the-box.

  14. I would be fine with Steven’s assertion regarding science if scientific research were done in a vacuum by honest, principled and ethical scientists – all of them all the time. That’s theory though, not reality.

    There are too many evidences of scientists arriving at their results by mixing in ideology (the DDT-malaria debate is one example), or because they don’t want to bite the hand that gives them their paycheck. Whatever Monsanto has done in the name of science would not have been possible without some scientists being complicit. There’s proof of oil industries muddying the scientific debate in the US regarding AGW, again done by scientists on the payroll.

    Science-as-practiced is over-rated and needs to be questioned more often, instead of becoming another religion or a blind faith. Just because something is published in a peer-reviewed journal does not make it the ultimate, indisputable and infallible truth, though that is how most peer-reviewed papers are treated. Just my opinion.

  15. Bill – thanks for this article whose content is I think long overdue for activists’ consideration.

    Personally I’d go a little further, and point out that, until we have negotiated the Treaty of the Atmospheric Commons,
    with its annual contraction of the global GHG budget,
    and with its annual convergence toward per capita parity of (tradeable) national emissions rights under the budget,
    all our personal & national efforts at cutting our fossil fuel usage
    just marginally lower fuel prices allowing other people to buy more of them to burn.

    Until we have a treaty,
    (that is necessarily simple in its structure and is sufficiently equitable in its operation to endure the stresses it will face)
    I wonder if you may agree that all the voluntary personal & national actions are really just dress rehearsals, R&D;, & confidence building ?

    As you say, “Screw in a global treaty. Now you’re talking. “

  16. I disagree that all the voluntary personal & national actions are really just dress rehearsals, R&D;, & confidence building. In fact, it is only the personal that makes a difference and as Margaret Meade, Gandhi, and Jesus preached, it is the only thing that ever has.

    Nobody here disputes that we need a new, green economy and that we ought to push our elected officials and business leaders to make that happen quickly. Few dispute that it will take two to ten years to implement any of these grand plans. In the short-term we cannot continue to spew GHGs at the same rate so taking personal responsibility (aka sacrifice or taking matters into our own hands) is essential for our survival.

    If environmentalists want to be labeled soft liberals, then waiting for government or pater to save us from ourselves is, indeed, the only thing in which we ought to place our hopes. For my part, I am not waiting for Uncle Sam, King Coal, and our brothers and sisters in Detroit to make everything better.

  17. Democracy is what the people can make the wind blow for, not politicians they are people, and no one, can completely influence a person and there free will. Democracy is the major influence in the country; it can control our entire existence, if it so chooses, so politicians should step up and implement some more policies for recycling, and maybe even force recycling. Most people will not be happy with this, but it may be what is needed to lower the people’s impact on this earth. Obama and his term of presidency may change our foot print or do nothing at all, nothing is certain, he may be the first to put solar panels on the White House or he may not even worry at all for the well being of the earth. 5% of a population can sway a vote in this country, only because not that many people use their right to vote, and yes the last presidential election did have and astonishing number of votes, but still not 100% of the population voted.

  18. Actually, Shayne, President Jimmy Carter put solar (hot water) panels on the roof of the White House in 1979 (and Reagan removed them in 1986).

    At the time, Carter initiated the nation’s first energy policy and called it “the moral equivalent of war”. He said then that if we did not reduce our energy demand, it may lead to a national catastrophe.

    He tried to set the example by turning down the heat and putting on a sweater, but Americans did not want to reduce their “standard of living”. So here we are.

  19. Alexander – it seems you may have misunderstood my remarks on personal efforts (at cutting GHG output) as being no more than “dress rehearsals, R&D;, and confidence building”.

    These are necessary activities, but they are not sufficient to cut the production of fossil fuels even a bit; they simply mean those fuels become affordable to somebody else, who will buy and burn them as long as there is no treaty constraining all nations’ GHG output.

    I hope you’ll appreciate that I’m not knocking personal efforts (I’ve been urging them for some decades) but instead recognize that sponsoring R&D;and confidence building is a useful contribution to the requisite treaty.

    What Bill is saying (as far as I understand him) is that personal efforts are fine, but until we focus on getting the treaty agreed, we’re not really getting anywhere much, while our window of opportunity is diminishing by the month.



  20. Robert, thank you for correcting me on my mistake, ( it shows I need to brush up on my White House history),but what I was trying to convay is that you never know what is going to happen, such as the first Bush, who promised no new taxes when he was president,and one of his first acts in presidency was to implement new taxes. It all goes to show that someone may promise the world, but they may not deliver.

  21. Lewis,

    I appreciate your clarifications. I could not agree with you more that from a biological point of view, our window of opportunity is shrinking.

    I am not such a believer in markets that I accept your premise: if we don’t use it, somebody else will. I am not Alan Greenspan, hoping upon hope that everybody is honorable and acts that way at the marketplace; however, morality does play a role. Furthermore, we use 25% of the world’s energy in the US. If we solve our addictions and dependencies, it would take a lot of work to export all of that consumption. Certainly my worst nightmare is everybody in Mumbai mimicking American behavior and using an electric dryer. It would take the same two to ten years to make that shift as it will for us to shift to the New Green economy.

    Anyway, where we agree is greater than where we disagree. We need a treaty and we need it now.

  22. The problem with all Climate Change solutions proposed to date is that they all involve a significant reduction in our Western standard of living. I can’t see anyone every getting reelected in a democracy after they have purposely lowered a majority of their constituent’s standard of living.

    I know I’m reluctant to become voluntarily poorer based on computer models and admonitions from folks who don’t seem to agree with me with that poverty sucks worse than anything other than being dead or seriously ill. Especially when many of the most obvious, feasible and economically viable solutions like Nuclear power are dismissed based on irrational fears. I just can’t see the US ever having a reliable, affordable electric grid using solar panels and Bird Cuisinarts for any significant part of our base load. The only currently viable alternative to coal for baseload electricity generation is Nuclear energy.

  23. Bruce,

    When I first arrived in the US more than 10 years ago, and after observing the life here for 2-3 years, my impression was that the American lifestyle is highly wasteful. I think to a large extent, high standards can be maintained – look at Europe, do you think they have a significantly lower standard of living that us? (While their energy consumption is also high, it is lower than ours.) – while also bringing about a reduction in CO2 emissions.

    As for nuclear, I hear you. But check out Amory Lovins’s analysis of nuclear (go to RMI website), and how new plants will be subsidized by taxpayer money – basically, socialism masquerading as free-market. If we are to spend such huge amounts of money, why not on renewable energy instead? Also, we have that little problem of radioactive waste that will still be here when our great-great-great-grand-kids will be scampering around.

  24. If President-Elect Barack Obama and his splendid team of scientists are not able to bring about necessary change, then I do not know where we are to find such vitally needed leadership.

    In some deep sense, President-Elect Obama and his new Administration are carrying the very future of children everywhere on his shoulders.

    If only we could undo the earliest years of Century XXI so that they were not filled with a colossal fool’s errand, catastrophic financial failures and ecological nightmares: an unnecessary and unjustifiable war; a collapsing economy; a human-induced, recklessly degraded environment and relentlessly dissipated planetary home.

    The challenges before the human community now appear to be daunting, that is easy enough to see; nevertheless, I believe our children will behold a good-enough future. Between now and the time our children lead the world come the necessary changes, I suppose.


    Steven Earl Salmony
    AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population,
    established 2001

  25. Keep going, Bill Mc and Scott W. Very best wishes to both of you for 2009.

    Thanks for all you are doing to protect the environs from wanton, irreversible degradation and global biodiversity from massive extirpation; to preserve Earth’s resources from relentless dissipation and the future of our children from reckless endangerment; to save “the pale blue dot” from the ravages of unbridled global overproduction, overconsumption and overpopulation activities of the human species in these early years of Century XXI.

  26. I would like to know how one can have the most energy efficient home in vermont, and what it would take to build one in Pennsylvania.

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