app that showed the nearest station pump-
ing the good stu=. But it didn’t matter, be-
cause the next comment would be: “Don’t
these morons know that the plastic fittings
on their bus, and the tires, and the seats are
all made from fossil fuels?”
Actually, I do know — even a moron like
me. I’m fully aware that we’re embedded
in the world that fossil fuel has made, that
from the moment I wake up, almost every
action I take somehow burns coal and gas
to put a price on carbon. At which point
none of us would be required to be saints.
We could all be morons, as long as we paid
attention to, say, the price of gas and the
balance in our checking accounts. Which
even dummies like me can manage.
We simply can’t move fast enough, one by one, to make any
real difference in how the atmosphere comes out.
and oil. I’ve done my best, at my house,
to curtail it: we’ve got solar electricity, and
solar hot water, and my new car runs on
electricity—I can plug it into the roof and
thus into the sun. But I try not to confuse
myself into thinking that’s helping all that
much: it took energy to make the car, and
to make everything else that streams into
my life. I’m still using far more than any
responsible share of the world’s vital stu=.
And, in a sense, that’s the point. If
those of us who are trying really hard
are still fully enmeshed in the fossil fuel
system, it makes it even clearer that what
needs to change are not individuals but
precisely that system. We simply can’t
move fast enough, one by one, to make
any real di=erence in how the atmosphere
comes out. Here’s the math, obviously
imprecise: maybe 10 percent of the population cares enough to make strenuous
e=orts to change—maybe 15 percent. If
they all do all they can, in their homes and
o;ces and so forth, then, well . . . nothing
much shifts. The trajectory of our climate
horror stays about the same.
But if 10 percent of people, once they’ve
changed the light bulbs, work all-out to
change the system? That’s enough. That’s
more than enough. It would be enough
to match the power of the fossil fuel in-
dustry, enough to convince our legislators
much less of that now, mostly, I think,
because everyone who’s pursued those
changes in good faith has come to realize
both their importance and their limita-
tions. Now I hear it mostly from people
who have no intention of changing but
are starting to feel some psychic tension.
They feel a little guilty, and so they dump
their guilt on Al Gore because he has two
houses. Or they find even lamer targets.
That makes you immoral, not them.
Yes, they should definitely take the train
to school instead of drive. But unless you’re
the president of Hogwarts, there’s a pretty
good chance there’s no train that goes there.
Your students, in other words, by advocating divestment, have gotten way closer to
the heart of the problem than you have.
They’ve taken the lessons they’ve learned in
physics class and political science and sociology and economics and put them to good
use. And you — because it would be uncomfortable to act, because you don’t want to get
crosswise with the board of trustees — have
summoned a basically bogus response. If
you’re a college president making the argument that you won’t act until your students
stop driving cars, then clearly you’ve failed
morally, but you’ve also failed intellectually.
Even if you just built an energy-e;cient
fine arts center, and installed a bike path,
and dedicated an acre of land to a college
garden, you’ve failed. Even if you drive a
Prius, you’ve failed.
Maybe especially if you drive a Prius.
Because there’s a certain sense in which
Prius-driving can become an out, an
excuse for inaction, the twenty-first-century equivalent of “I have a lot of black
friends.” It’s nice to walk/drive the talk;
it’s much smarter than driving a semi-military vehicle to get your groceries. But
it’s become utterly clear that doing the
right thing in your personal life, or even
on your campus, isn’t going to get the job
done in time; and it may be providing you
with su;cient psychic comfort that you
don’t feel the need to do the hard things
it will take to get the job done. It’s in our
role as citizens — of campuses, of nations,
of the planet — that we’re going to have to
solve this problem. We each have our jobs,
and none of them is easy. A
Bill McKibben is founder of 350.org, and
Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College. For more information
on divestment, visit www.gofossilfree.org.