by Melanie Vautier

On Sunday the 6th of May I had the privilege of seeing climate change activist Bill McKibben speak at the Embassy Theatre in Wellington. I cannot overstate what excitement this was for me – in my books Bill ranks among God status (which I am sure he would be less than pleased about, being a very modest dude and a religious man himself). Of course, I leapt at the opportunity to volunteer at the event, and when he emerged from the heavens, touched my shoulder and said how much he appreciated us volunteering, my feet just about lifted off the ground.

The other two speakers, Mahina-a-rangi Baker and Rosemary Penwarden, were amazing as well. Mahina spoke about Maori perspectives – one metaphor she used that stuck with me is that Western culture is like someone in a race who is so far behind that they think they’re winning. That made me smile, as I have a friend who actually had that experience, but it’s also definitely something to think about. Western hegemony is so entrenched that it is can actually be quite novel to consider that indigenous cultures may know things that Western science does not.

And Rosemary, whenever mentioned afterwards, was immediately followed by a gleeful chorus of “amaaaaaazzziing!” She told a personal story of how she came to be a climate activist, inspired by the birth of her grandson. She was equal parts adorable and badass, someone you want to be best friends with but at the same time are a little bit scared of. Her anecdotes of activist exploits made me (and I would assume many others present) wonder what I have been doing with my life and how to be like Rosemary.

Bill was not as I expected. I haven’t seen a whole lot of public speakers, but generally (especially on YouTube) they are smooth, well-rehearsed and energetic. With Bill it was more like a conversation- he actually paused to think about what he was going to say next. It was so natural it was almost unnatural in the context of a stage; just absolutely heartfelt and genuine. He confessed that he would rather be in his office, writing (as is his primary profession). He is there not to sell tickets and glorify himself, he is there because he is desperate. He has been fighting for climate action for thirty years. And it felt like that. He seemed tired. He seemed frustrated.

Despite the many amazing, inspiring stories of public action around the world, he has been beaten down so many times. He showed the graph of how rates of atmospheric carbon dioxide levelled off for a couple of years, when we dared to hope things were finally turning around, only for the CO2 level to resume its increasing trajectory last year. He told of his ‘mistake’ in taking part in an argument that turned out to be bogus from the start – both sides always knew the consequences of burning fossil fuels. It was never about the correct science. It was a public relations effort on a giant scale, a massive billion-dollar campaign to protect a powerful yet dying industry. ‘Facts’ became a matter of who could yell the most passionately.

Bill opened his talk questioning whether he needed to be there – a reference to the recent announcement to not allow new oil and gas permits. This is one factor where I would disagree with him- it is more important than ever. Here in New Zealand we still have eighteen coal mines. We are still subsiding fossil fuels $46 million every year, and don’t subsidies renewable energy at all. The vast majority of our banks, our councils, our universities and our retirement funds invest in (and therefore support) fossil fuels. Existing offshore oil permits can potentially carry on until 2070. At the same time, we know perfectly clearly that if we burn even half of the oil we have already found globally, climate change would be catastrophic.

His final words, about standing shoulder to shoulder in our battle for the planet, reminded me of a scene in Lord of the Rings, when Aragorn gives his final rallying speech. “A day may come when the courage of men fails… But it is not this day! This day, we fight!” Well Bill, I for one can certainly say, you have my sword.

I cannot recommend enough Bill’s book ‘Deep Economy.’ It wraps up climate change, capitalism, and farmers markets all in one incredibly interesting page-turner.

An article to start you off with- kind of old now but still just as relevant- Bill’s Rolling Stone article about the nonsensical investments in fossil fuels