Bill McKibben: Humble Leader

“Wilderness and Gandhian nonviolence were the two most potentially revolutionary ideas of the twentieth century, precisely because they were the two most humble: they imagine a whole different possibility for people.”

– Bill McKibben, Wandering Home, 2005

I was in high school in the early 90s when I first heard of Bill McKibben and his famously dark environmental text, The End of Nature (1989).  But it wasn’t until my husband and I moved back east nine years ago, to Middlebury, Vermont, where McKibben works these days, that I grew a bit fixated on him.  A global figure in the environmental movement, he became my local hero.  In the years that followed, I devoured his books and articles, following his global organizing and political action with 350.org, cheering his acts of civil disobedience, and eagerly streaming his appearances on Letterman, The Colbert Report, and Democracy Now!

When I got interested in the local foods movement, I read McKibben’s Deep Economy (2007).  When my husband and I were debating whether or not to have a child, I read Maybe One: A Case for Smaller Families (1998).  I read Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (2010) when it was first out in hardcover, but it was in the summer of 2012, when I had the opportunity to interview McKibben for a friend’s literary publication that I finally backed up and read The End of Nature (1989), McKibben’s first book, and the first ever on global warming written for a general audience.  In my experience, The End of Nature lived up to its reputation for being foreboding, even at times depressing, and I felt the need to follow it immediately with Hope, Human and Wild (1995), which McKibben wrote – after the birth of his daughter Sophie – in response to his own first book.

One of the first courses doctoral students in UVM’s Educational Leadership and Policy program take is Advanced Seminar in Educational Leadership.  For that course, back in 2012, an early assignment required me to read a memoir of a leader I admire and to reflect on his or her leadership style.  For that assignment, I read one more McKibben book: Wandering Home: A Long Walk Across America’s Most Hopeful Landscape: Vermont’s Champlain Valley and New York’s Adirondacks (2005).

In Wandering Home, over the course of a few weeks, McKibben walks from his mountain home in Ripton, Vermont, fifteen miles from my current home in Bristol, to his mountain home in Johnsburg, New York, twenty-nine miles from the Adirondack lake where I have spent many of my summers from early childhood.  He visits places and talks with people I know well.  I interrupted my own reading time and again to say to my husband, “Now he’s with Jay. . . . Oh!  He’s at Lincoln Peak. . . . Rocky Peak Ridge . . .”  Reading this book was like sitting around a campfire listening to a wise elder tell the stories of my home.  McKibben doesn’t just write about the places and people I know and love, he teaches me again and again what these people and places mean from personal, local, and global perspectives.

McKibben identifies first as a writer.  In Wandering Home, he spends the second night of his journey in the Bristol home of John and Rita Elder, and he reflects

“Like John, I am primarily a writer.  We are, that is, good with words, verbally dexterous, jugglers of symbols.  And so we have a role to play helping to nudge our communities toward some more reasonable path, toward something that might not rely quite as deeply on the environmental ruination of cheap oil, on the human ruination of cheap labor.  We can coax, we can alarm, we can point to possibilities.  But let’s face it – the Western world is knee-deep in symbol-manipulators right now.” (p. 24)

Perhaps that long walk in 2005 marked a turning point for McKibben.  In 2006, he led his first major demonstration demanding action on global warming, a five-day walk across Vermont.  In 2007, he helped organize the Step It Up campaign, which had evolved by 2008 into the international, Internet-based action group 350.org.  In the years since, 350.org activists have organized thousands of events in nearly 200 countries.  Their videos of worldwide action (like this one and this one, among many others) make me cry with joy.  In a 2010 interview for the Utne Reader, McKibben said,

“I spent a long time thinking that I was doing my part by writing and speaking about [climate change], and that since it wasn’t really my nature to be a political organizer, someone else would build a movement.  But it never happened, and it became clear to me that this was one of the reasons we were making so little progress.  It’s the most important issue we’ve ever come up against, so I figured I’d better do what I could.”

So McKibben, in his own humble way, took the lead, and the movement is growing.

In Take the Lead (2011), Betsy Myers talks about the need for leaders to be above all else authentic.  McKibben’s authenticity rings out in descriptions like this as he reflects on The End of Nature in Wandering Home:

“Half of it was pretty much straight science reporting: here’s how much the temperature is going to go up, here’s how we might rein it in a little.  But the other half explored the reasons that the prospect of massive climate change made me so sad – basically because it threatened my newfound love affair with the wild world.  I had found a place I belonged, I knew that in my bones.” (p. 98)

The threat to that place was the basis of McKibben’s intrinsic motivation.  When asked why he leads, McKibben responds, “I just keep trying to explain what’s going on with our planet – and now, to explain what’s going on with our politics, which explains why we’re not doing anything about the former.  I’m far less a leader than a writer.”

McKibben certainly does not present as a leader in the classical sense.  Utne Reader author Keith Goetzman (2010) describes him as “350.org’s founder” and “driving force” but goes on to explain, “He believes that there are plenty of top-down green groups and sees 350.org as a bottom-up, grassroots organization fueled more by the passion of its activists than by a strong hierarchy.”  This description resonates with much of what I’ve read about modern and evolving forms of leadership.  In Connective Leadership (1996), Jean Lipman-Blumen speaks of early connective leaders ahead of their time, and in Understanding Leadership: Paradigms and Cases (2004), Gayle C. Avery describes an emerging organic style of leadership.  Through these lenses, McKibben can be seen as a leader in the style of Gandhi and King.  His work is powerful because it focuses on inspiring and empowering a generation of leaders around the world.  350.org is effective because it connects the voices and efforts of the diverse many, scattered geographically but united in purpose.

It was three years ago that I first sat and reflected on McKibben and his leadership style.  In the time since, I have had many opportunities (academic and professional) to think critically about approaches to leadership and creatively about the type of leader I mean to be.  I have come to admire a wider range of leaders in the climate movement  – Naomi Klein, Pope Francis, Bernie Sanders, among others.  But I still believe that Bill McKibben is one of the greatest leaders of our age.  In the face of complex, interconnected, global and environmental crises, McKibben offers insight, compassion, science, and eloquence.  His honest, humble style of leadership empowers others to step up, take action, and lead themselves.

This model of distributed leadership and the resulting massive collective action have shifted the global conversation.  As the 21st annual climate talks play out in Paris, I am watching for representatives from countries around the world to follow the lead of the people and become a part of a networked solution to the complex problem that is global climate change.  In the years to come, I’ll look to McKibben and others like him as I continue to work through my own understanding of the type of leadership needed most in these changing times.

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About Caitlin S. Steele

Caitlin S. Steele is a graduate teaching fellow, research assistant, and doctoral candidate in the University of Vermont's Ph.D. program in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Her research focuses on complex systems as an interdisciplinary lens in K-12 curricula. Through her dissertation, she is exploring the concept of systems literacy and questions around how one becomes systems literate. Before arriving at UVM, Caitlin taught English for twelve years. In 2009, she received a Rowland Foundation Fellowship to support her work collaborating with colleagues across disciplines to develop a sustainability-themed freshman academy. She continues to work closely with the Rowland Foundation, serving as a Rowland Associate organizing professional collaboration among past and current fellows located across the state of Vermont and beyond.