Time magazine called him a “cold warrior” and the world’s best green environmentalist. He has spent decades writing about climate change. Bill McKibben organized the online revolt against the proposed Keystone pipeline through 350.org with 5,200 simultaneous demonstrations in 81 countries. He has been called by some an extremist. But one thing he is, for sure, is determined. In a photograph, he’s standing in the snow (not very deep because it is one of the warmest winters ever in the northeast), looking very tall, very lean, very strong and very determined.
The only time I met McKibben was when he was a little boy. His father, Gordon McKibben, was a college friend. We worked on the school newspaper together and remained in touch until his untimely death from brain cancer. Gordon McKibben was a well-respected newspaperman. His first job after college was with the Wall Street Journal. Then he was recruited by the Boston Globe where he served as their business editor, then London bureau chief and finally as the paper’s ombudsman. He also wrote a book about Gillette, the razor company.
When I worked for General Electric, I was sent to their Hanford Works in Washington state to do a series of articles on the company’s plutonium plant for a San Francisco newspaper. I visited McKibben, who lived in Kirkland. He suggested a tour of the Grand Coulee Dam. On the way he pointed out how dry, brown and barren eastern Washington was versus the rainy and verdant western sections. As we approached the dam, you could begin to see the results. Suddenly there were green and fertile fields. It was the first time I had seen one of these monumental structures, a tribute to American engineering. It was awesome. I don’t know how Bill McKibben would feel about dams today, but those were different times.
When his son was home the summer after graduating from Harvard — he had served as editor of the college newspaper, The Crimson — he received a phone call from William Shawn, the editor of the New Yorker. The senior McKibben picked up the phone and was very excited. Young Bill was invited to work for the magazine. The New Yorker was considered the top place if you were a serious writer. It is said that John McPhee and other notables sweated over every word, every punctuation mark, every sentence and every paragraph before submitting articles. Bill didn’t seem to share his father’s enthusiasm and was on the verge of turning down this incredible offer when his father started jumping up and down and waving his hands and writing messages to the effect that this was something he just had to do. So Bill McKibben went to work for The New Yorker and stayed there until Shawn was fired in 1987. It was a surprise when McKibben left with the old-time Shawn hires. This was not something he had to do.
Bill McKibben and his young wife, also a writer, moved to a cabin in the New York Adirondacks where amenities were non-existent. He “walked the talk” as he wrote his first book, “The End of Nature” and predicted the terrible impacts of climate change if we did not change our ways. He and his wife lived an energy-efficient life out in the winter cold and summer heat. When he couldn’t convince enough people through his writing, he became an activist and launched a digital activist group which organized climate rallies across the world. His official website proclaims: “we’ve built a new earth. It’s not as nice as the old one. It’s the greatest mistake humans have ever made, one that we will pay for literally forever. What happens next is up to us.”
But before that, McKibben decided to test and improve his strength. He persevered for a year of grueling training for long-distance cross country ski racing which he describes in “A Year of Living Strenuously.” He wrote of his physical struggles, the pain, the exhaustion. At the same time, his father was in a nursing home trying to stave off death. In his book, Bill McKibben says his physical challenge didn’t compare to what his father was going through in fighting cancer. The father never lived to see the full fame and accolades his son would receive. And while the father may not have agreed with everything his son wrote or said, you bet he was proud.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.