SHEFFIELD >> In the early 1990s, when I was the executive director of the environmental organization and magazine, Orion, I spent a decent amount of time on the road with Bill McKibben, who was, at that time, author of the recently published "The End of Nature," the first book for a general audience on climate change. Bill was helping us launch a program called The Forgotten Language Tour.
The tour took its name from a poem by former U.S. Poet Laureate W. S. Merwin:
I want to tell what the forests
I will have to speak
in a forgotten language.
The Forgotten Language Tour was modeled on the barnstorming poets of the 1960s, who spoke out on themes of war, and on the medieval troubadour tradition. Over the years, the tour travelled to all parts of the country, going from town to town, speaking about a range of urgent environmental issues, including global warming.
I remember quite vividly those days on the road with Bill and other environmental writers — Terry Tempest Williams, Kim Stafford, Gary Paul Nabhan, Scott Russell Sanders, Christopher Merrill, Barry Lopez, Robert Michael Pyle, Pattiann Rogers, Gary Snyder, Wendell Berry, among others — often traveling to universities. Bill was often on the stops in the Northeast. Yale, Middlebury, Antioch, Bowdoin, Tufts, Holy Cross, Clark. At these places we would lead roundtables followed by public readings.
The schools that we visited hosted us with varying degrees of engagement. At some, like Middlebury (my alma mater, where Bill now teaches) we had packed rooms and professors like the legendary John Elder leading the chorus. On other campuses, the majority of schools I am sorry to say, we faced modest receptions, often with no more than a dozen or so students and maybe one or two professors sitting with us to discuss environmental matters.
During this time, when Bill McKibben's climate crusade was in its early months, I would listen to him over and over, town after town, tell tour audiences the hard truths about emissions and heat-trapping and the ramifications of said things. It was my practice to study the looks on the faces of people in the audience, to study their body language, to see how this information was being absorbed. And I would also study Bill McKibben.
What I came to see, to feel, was a palpable sense of burden, of loneliness, that he carried. Bill is a tall, slim man, and even then, over 20 years ago, he had a bit of a stoop in his shoulders. This, I had no doubt, was literally due to their carrying the weight of the world.
Aldo Leopold, one of our nation's greatest nature writers, describes this weight adeptly in his classic book, "A Sand County Almanac":
"One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise."
That, my friends, was the Bill McKibben I knew 20 years ago. Nearly all environmental writers, scientists and educators bear similar scars from our ecological education. Despair knocks on our door so frequently it becomes like a friend. It's carried like a screaming baby, like Gollum's ring. Bill's ring was his education in climate science and his boogie monster was, as he said to me over dinner in Vermont a number of years ago, "the end of the world as we know it."
Try to imagine if you will, if you can, the burden this man has borne for decades. Imagine the loneliness of Bill McKibben, sitting in rooms in some of the finest educational institutions in our nation, with only a few students and a professor or two to hear his story — arguably the most important story a human could tell on Planet Earth during the last few decades.
World joins in
If you had been there, as I was, you would find it hard to imagine that on the last day of November, 2015, the largest gathering of world leaders in history began in Paris; over three quarters of a million citizens demonstrated in hundreds of towns and cities across the world; most of the world's media, and all of the world's intelligent media, wrote stories; and Bill's advocacy organization, 350.org, founded with Middlebury College students, had the ears of tens of millions of climate activists.
Hard to imagine that a couple weeks ago, when I spoke to the new impact investing initiative at MIT (where we discussed how to properly invest divested funds), another group of students had just entered their third week of protest (@fossilfreeMIT), camped outside the MIT president's office — a scene similar to ones taking place at Harvard, Stanford, and innumerable other colleges and universities around the world.
This man, Bill McKibben, and a few others, like Dr. James Hansen, have effectively transformed their personal burdens over climate change into the world's burden.
And, also, the world's promise. Because now we get to write an ending... and a new beginning.
This really is a story like no other.
It may be "the end of the world as we know it," but what comes next, in Paris and beyond, could in fact be quite beautiful. The whole world (nearly) is behind Bill McKibben now and together we can forge a new world — clean and sustainable.
Bill, we got your back.