Bill McKibben: American Environmental Policies and Saying No to Big Oil Today and in 2014

Bill McKibben: American Environmental Policies and Saying No to Big Oil Today and in 2014

Paul Fischer


Bill McKibben: American Environmental Policies and

Saying No to Big Oil Today and in 2014

Bill McKibben is a regular contributor to many publications including the New York Times. His work has been steadfast and consistent in protecting the environment from corporate and at times even government institutions which threaten ourselves and the world we are surrounded by. Looking at an interview from 2014 with Bill Moyers brings to light some particularly important issues which are in the national headlines today, such as the Keystone pipeline and the impact of Big Oil in politics today. McKibben’s own activism goes beyond steady writing and academic work, however, but is instead rooted in political work which has even been criminal in nature. Shortly before the interview, he had been arrested after chaining himself to the White House in an environmental protest, an action which created national headlines and drew attention to the work of environmental activists.

The two met on a canoe trip, which holds significance one of the potentially greatest threats to the environment from the new pipeline are the vital waterways which sustain our nation culturally and have historically provided the backbone of economic systems in the nation. A potential target in this area has certain risks in times of peace; in the event of a war on the home-front, the cost of providing security for such a monument could prove, well, monumental. Then the potential catastrophes which are warned against would be a certainty.

More importantly, it could destroy the nation’s ability to protect itself without self-inflicting permanent and persistent damage on America’s greatest resources, economically and environmentally. An example of a similar situation in another wartime which threatened to reach American shores was in the Manhattan project carried out by American scientists. While Albert Einstein was able to organize a widely diverse collection of ethnically and even linguistically separate experts and professionals into completing the nuclear race in time to save Allied military efforts, original plans included disposing of the waste into major American waterways in the mid and northwest.

Fortunately this plan was squashed by the once powerful fishing interests in these waterways out of fears it might impact in the long run their productive output. Given modern information about the nature of radioactive materials, it is likely that such disposal could have not only exposed tens of millions of Americans to lethal amounts of radiation, but also destroyed the agricultural output of the entirety of what was once called the Louisiana Purchase. This is an example of the precautionary principle successful by accident only; it was not until recently that the full effect of radioactive exposure has been determined and revealed on plant and animal lifeforms. Unfortunately, inappropriate weapons testing and disposal techniques contributed or caused extensive damage to American ecosystems and health concerns following that effort, and the arms race with the Soviet Union exacerbated those harms.

Following this with debate on the pipeline is critical. Not only must a dangerous proposal be defeated, but it must also be defeated for the right reasons and by the correct interests. Understanding the full potential effects of such construction, as well as that of an economic depression or recession such as that which recently occurred, on security costs and the viability of maintenance of the undertaking is necessary in order to not only prevent the great disaster, but also smaller ones to follow. In the interview, this is the crux of the argument delivered by Bill McKibbens.

Rather than focusing on the short-term effects of the construction and damage that may be done by bad maintenance or in the event of economic disaster, his focus in the interview is on what happens when things proceed properly. The global warming effects of the carbon released from 800 thousand barrels of oil a day, or nearly a quarter billion barrels a year, could change the emissions released by the United States by a factor of ten percent. As the USA begins negotiations next month in Paris in which there is an effort to show commitment to environmental protection and energy independence through renewable sources, there will be an effort to quantify the effect of American pollutants on other countries, as well as the global warming disasters which greenhouse gases will predicate if not properly understood and regulated.

This is not an individual who survived the dust-bowl sands of the 1930’s, in which American prospects simply dried up and cornfields turned to storms and death, but it is clear that he has a specific understanding of the seriousness of failure to control economic development and of global industrial development on the environment and productivity. What then cost billions and breadlines in America (along with some interdependent nations), today would mean global starvation and the destruction of American international hegemony in a way that not only could no nation possibly step in to fill the gap, but in fact warfare on a scale unprecedented, this time likely nuclear, could be initiated. While Bill Moyers estimates the costs of action at twenty trillion dollars (no time frame was given), he fails to point out what President Obama and Bill McKibben instinctively emphasize: this is the mutually assured destruction of our time. That is, America was faced with the same question in the past, and invested tens of trillions of dollars in deterrent nuclear weapons and understanding the consequences and actions both of doing so and in not doing so. The investment initiated and prolonged the Cold War, in the long run critical information on the nature of carcinogens in huge numbers of products was discovered and mandatory age limits or recommendations have been set on products from cigarettes and cosmetics to carpets and landfills which otherwise could have contributed to trillions in excessive health care costs.

In that time period, the consequence was falling victim to a foreign nuclear strike and decades of cancer mortality and cultural slavery under the satellite system of a foreign superpower. Now we face our own generational questions with the same rewards and losses. Failure to act will not only spell disaster for American agricultural and infrastructural investments, but unlike the dust-bowl of the 1930’s, will induce far more severe consequences for nations we are obligated to help. That means immediate repayment of our own debt in some nations, and loss of direct foreign investment which adds up to a cool trillion dollars every few years. This is a simple equation: failure to invest (or rather simply not exploit currently) these 20 trillion dollars now can cost American businesses, corporations, and taxpayers the opportunity to invest over 200 billion dollars in lucrative investments internationally every year and require some fraction of the nearly 20 trillion dollars in US debt currently held by other nations to be paid or to face severe global catastrophes. This can mean billions, such as Hurricane Katrina, Sandy, or here in Vermont, Irene, or trillions in the event of the worst-case scenarios presenting themselves.


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