Bill McKibben is an activist, author of a dozen books, founder of the far-reaching environmental grassroots campaign 350.org, and over the last couple of years has led the Tar Sands Action to defeat the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline, which would have carried 700,000 barrels of “dirty” tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico daily, had it been completed. He was the first popular writer to alert the world to the environmental crisis, in 1989’s The End of Nature. He has been called “the planet’s best green journalist” by Time Magazine, holds a dozen honorary degrees, was a past Guggenheim and Lyndhurst Fellow, and last year was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Q: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us, Mr. McKibben. AIGA launched a national initiative, Design for Good, in 2011. However, many designers are still finding it difficult to break out beyond the natural constraints of self-reference and siloed working patterns. There is an ongoing debate within the community about whether or not every problem can be a design problem. What are some ways in which we can collaborate with experts from other fields to affect real social change?
A: A big battle—like the one over Keystone [XL Pipeline]—is like any other kind of campaign: it requires a huge mix of skills being brought to bear. So: research, behind-the-scenes lobbying, and logistics (it’s harder than it sounds to get 1253 people successfully arrested); but also visual communication. We had all kinds of great tableaux, from Daniel Dancer’s human pipeline (he’s a great aerial artist that we’ve done lots of stuff with) to our basically “graphical” decision to surround the White House with people. People can freelance, of course – making art that helps spread the word on their own. But often it’s most useful when they link in with whoever’s leading the charge, in this case 350.org. Designers have always been a great help to us, and the superb 350.org logo and brand have served us well for these past four years.
Q: In your recent Rolling Stone piece, “
Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” you lay out some pretty sobering indications of where civilization is headed. Has the “sustainable design” movement of the last decade made any positive inroads in fighting anthropogenic climate change?
A: Sure – we know how to do lots and lots of things much more efficiently and beautifully than we used to; we have, in many ways, most of the technology and technique we require, but people need to understand that that’s not enough. We also have to win the ultimate fight, against the political and financial power of the fossil fuel industry, which continues to slow and marginalize the important solutions. You don’t get to do all the work at your office!
Q: In the 90’s, design activists were influenced by the First Things First Manifesto and Naomi Klein’s No Logo to assume a more confrontational approach. During the next decade, with the mainstreaming of environmentalism, designers turned to focus more on green capitalism and technological solutions. Is it more beneficial for designers to work with large corporations to try to push them towards ethical practices, or should they be working to help grow and enrich small-scale local economies?
A: They should be working to enrich small-scale local economies, and also to help fight the fossil fuel industry, which is the nexus of the problem. Naomi [Klein] and I will be spearheading a “Do the Math” tour, based on the numbers in that Rolling Stone article, in the fall – we’re going to try and foment a wide-scale divestment movement, and we’re going to need serious help from many quarters, the design community included. This is all getting very real very fast.