Take the Plunge

I’M WRITING THIS COLUMN in late July, midway through the busiest year of my life by far. I’ve already visited countries from New Zealand to Sweden to Turkey; later today I fly to India, then on to the Mideast and to Africa and São Paulo and Anchorage and wherever comes next. I’m spewing an ironic and embarrassing cloud of carbon behind me as I work with my colleagues at 350.org to organize people for the planet’s biggest day of climate action ever, set for October 24 — right around the time this magazine comes out.

Today I’m in Male, the capital city of the Maldive Islands, one of the most interesting places I’ve ever been. Male is one of twelve hundred islands in an archipelago that stretches nine hundred kilometers north to south across the Indian Ocean. If you’ve ever gone to one of those yoga classes where they tell you to close your eyes and imagine that you’re on a tropical beach and the sky is blue and the sand is warm and — that’s the Maldives you’re imagining. Male, the lone city, is crowded and bustling, and it’s also in the midst of a political renaissance: a year ago, right before Halloween, the population managed to vote out of power a kleptocrat who had ruled for thirty years, replacing him with a man named Mohammed Nasheed, who had spent too many of his forty-two years as a political prisoner. Think Barack Obama with a dash of Nelson Mandela; among many other reforms, he quickly announced that the Maldives would be the first carbon-neutral nation on Earth.

But he announced something else, too: that his nation would be setting aside a portion of its tourist income each year in case it someday had to buy a new homeland and resettle its population. Because the Maldives is low to the water — most of it only a meter or two above sea level, a bad place to be in a century when scientists think that unless we act swiftly sea level may rise . . . a meter or two. And because those twelve hundred islands are ringed by coral reefs that provide them not only with food, but also with protection from waves and storms, yet the coral is dying — in many places 90 percent was killed during the last strong El Niño in these parts, when seas were warmer than they’d ever been in human history.

It is, in other words, like all places, intensely local, with its own history, and its own peculiar set of problems and possibilities. But it is also, like all places in this age, intensely global, dependent on everyone everywhere making wise decisions if it is to thrive, or even survive. So the question for us as organizers has been: how do we help people pull these two threads together? How do we help them use the particular genius of their own place to have a voice in the most important debate the globe has ever undertaken?

And the answer, here, is scuba gear. Also snorkels. On October 24, the people of the Maldives will hold the largest underwater political demonstration in history, a momentary intrusion of the noisy outside world into the quiet timelessness of the reef. I doubt the floating stingrays will mind, or the green sea turtles, or the clouds of parrotfish — they seem to look on with mild interest at everything that happens. But this will be a scene: 350 divers descending beneath the waves with signs and banners. A local photographer will snap a picture and swim to the surface and plug in his MacBook Pro and upload that image to a server. And there it will join thousands of other images piling in from all the other local places around the planet: climbers high in the Himalayas and Andes and Alps with 350 banners, and the slow food club in Barcelona serving 350 solar-cooked paellas in the town plaza, and teams of 350 bicyclists crossing corners of each continent, and 350 Nigerians planting 35,000 trees. The scale of some of the actions will be enormous: in Johannesburg and Sydney people will spell out giant 3s with their bodies, and in London and Zurich immense 5s, and in Copenhagen and Quito huge 0s — so that CNN will have to do our work for us, putting together the puzzle to show that you can’t solve this problem without crossing borders, without thinking about the planet as, well, a planet. Elsewhere they’ll be very localized: the handmowers league has promised to scythe 350s into many hayfields on that afternoon, in Vermont, and in Nova Scotia, and in Scandinavia.

The only common theme will be that strange number, 350, which — and I cannot say this enough times — is the most important number on Earth, the maximum amount of carbon scientists now tell us we can have in the atmosphere if we hope for a planet “similar to the one on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted.” Which we do hope for — because one thing I’m reminded of every day I travel is just how beautiful that planet is.

But the question is, how do you bring all that incredible diversity and creativity to bear? How do you allow the 300,000 people of the Maldives a seat at the table in the negotiations that will decide their future? How do you let poor people and nations have influence equal to that of Exxon-Mobil? The answer, as best as I can figure, is precisely this creativity I’ve been describing. Instead of another march on Washington or London, we’re collecting images from every corner of the world, that will stick in people’s minds and hearts — images that repeat a single number till it becomes a kind of mantra. And because we live in a wired world, we have a method for bringing those images together, for making that collection of photos add up to more than the sum of its parts.

On October 24, we’ll have a giant screen at the United Nations, where we’ll be flashing up those images in real time as they arrive from around the globe. In the weeks between then and December’s huge climate conference in Copenhagen, we’ll be using those images, and the human energy they represent, to push for a solution, not an agreement. To demand that physics and chemistry have a place at the table alongside economics (maybe even above economics, since its laws are easier to amend than the laws of nature). There’s no guarantee any of this is going to work — some scientists think we’ve already waited too long to get started. But the consensus is there’s still a window.

Which confers responsibility, a responsibility that some days I feel more keenly than I’d like to. Last night after my speech the first question came from an eight-year-old girl who’d been sitting in the front row with her father. “If things don’t go well at Copenhagen, how much longer will I be able to live in the Maldives?” she asked. “When will we have to move?”

The only answer I could give her (after a lifetime of burning fossil fuel) was: “I hope you’ll be able to raise your family here, and I’m doing everything I can to make it happen.” Since I seem now to be an organizer as much as a writer, I hope you’ll give the same answer. If you’re reading this magazine before October 24, I hope you’ll put it down and go to the computer and log on to 350.org and figure out how you’re going to help. But this battle will stretch on for years to come, requiring the same kind of creativity, and the same kind of solidarity, and the same kind of hope against hope. If you can muster any of that, then you’re badly needed.

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 350.org, 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. The students of my Environmental Communication Class at Conserve School in northern Wisconsin are taking a “walk” by sponsoring a Get Up! Get Out! Get Green! walk-a-thon event Oct. 24th. We also have Eric Larsen as a speaker. Eric is trying to become the first person in history to go to both poles and the summit of Mt. Everest in one year to dramatize the effects of climate change. Get Up. Get involved.

  2. The carbon dioxide concentration level is currently about 386 ppm and there is no way that the the methods installed by humans can bring it back down to 350 ppm. Scientists have not said that society can do that. The level may drop back to 350 ppm in a few hundred years time (because primarily much is absorbed in the oceans to the detriment of the marine eco system) if the global rate of fossil fuel emissions were to be cut back very rapidly. There is no possible way that policies adapted by society will stop the concentration level from rising in the foreseeable future. Irreversible climate change is already under way. Politicians have a duty to propose measures that will benefit society and its life support system. The current proposals do not do that. Activists would be serving the public much better is they promoted policies that adapted to the impact of climate change rather than promoting fallacious policies to do the impossible.

  3. Thanks Bill for devoting your life as of late to this international cause. I will be organizing a 350 action on Saturday to join the voices calling for policies to remedy the climate crisis.
    Everyone can send out an S.O.S.

  4. Denis: Bill McKibben is one person you can be sure is also talking about scalable solutions, for example here in Orion magazine:


    His above article about biochar is a good eg: we would be able to pull down massive amounts of carbon this way and use it to help humanity grow more food. Bill has also written about producing electricity by capturing waste flue heat from factories in Orion. These are good things for us to be working on alongside the big policy initiatives that this grassroots climate campaign advocates.

    Erik, Orion Grassroots Network

  5. It takes 23ounces of crude oil to make 1 Big Mac. Industrial Agricultre is now 1 cal of food for every 10 calories of fossil fuel. STOP BIG AGRICULTURE. Plant a garden. Google Michael Polan.

  6. There are many proposed activities, like bio char, that can make real contributions. I was not criticizing positive remedial measures like those put forward by Bill. I was only pointing out that the 350 campaign is based on a widespread misunderstanding of what is physically possible. This misunderstanding will inhibit the contributions that sound remedial proposals will make.

  7. While 350 and Mr. McKibben can make noise, the groups involved have no program other than cutting emissions that can not get control of the climate crisis. Contrary to Mr. Frith statements, going negative carbon and negative heat energy, the unrecognized cause of climate change, can be achieved by making our massive ever-growing messes of organic wastes and sewage solids into a resource. These messes can be pyrolyzed to get inert charcoal to use as a soil amendment thus remaking a fossil fuel with heat energy incorporated back into it. The pyrolysis process is getting developed by several cos. but only one seems aware of not burning the charcoal, which would not get removal of carbon or heat from their biosphere overloads. The charcoal formed, if made by renewable energy, means removing some carbon and heat energy from the biosphere that could in time reduce CO2 levels back to 350 ppm. Dr. J. Singmaster

  8. It is unfortunate that Dr. James Singmaster makes claims that appear plausible to those who do not understand the physics involved. What does he mean by ‘negative carbon’ and ‘negative heat energy’? Whilst there are sound grounds to support using biomass to provide some energy, it is ridiculous to even suggest that this can offset the loss of carbon sink due to de-forestation. The use of fossil fuels have released many billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and a lot of this has been absorbed in the oceans, causing acidification. Global cutting back on emissions will only slow the rate of increase in the level.

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