Top Menu’s Bill McKibben Inspires Sustainability in America’s Secret City

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Ever notice how the most skillful teachers never have to raise their voice to be heard by a classroom full of students? Instead, their technique can involve an attention-getting near-whisper.  Sitting in a hushed auditorium filled with people of all ages felt it must be like sitting in Bill McKibben’s Methodist Sunday school class, minus most of the scripture references.  Even if he wasn’t quoting scripture, McKibben’s entire talk was rich with subtext about faithful stewardship of God’s creation, Christ’s call to care for others, and particular concern for “the least of these.”  While his world view is clearly Christian, the nonprofit that McKibben co-founded five years ago spans every continent and respects every faith on its mission to educate about impending climate change.

Secret City Sustainability teens greet audience members for
Keep the Faith and Do the Math presentation.
“I think it’s quite an honor to have him here,” said climate change intern Scott Julias with Organizing for Action, who heard McKibben speak at Oak Ridge High School in East Tennessee along with hundreds of others.  Some elderly men and women used their walkers to reach their seats in the auditorium, while teens and preteens attended with parents, many eager for the New York Time’s best-selling author to sign their copy of the book eaarth.

Host Dan Terpstra pauses after introducing
Bill McKibben to speak in Oak Ridge, TN.

University of Tennessee researcher Dan Terpstra introduced McKibben, explaining that he first discovered this author by reading The End of Nature, which was published in 1989. Terpstra has spent the past three years inviting McKibben to speak in Oak Ridge, the so-called Secret City with historic ties to the atomic age and a notable energy research center. The Vermont-based journalist had politely declined the invitations, finally saying he would speak if Tepstra could put together a “real crowd.” When Terpstra asked him to quantify that, McKibben responded with “you’ll know.” Terpstra beamed as he scanned faces across the auditorium, “tonight I know.”  His special guest went on to speak to the large crowd for an hour, receiving a standing ovation, then raising his hand to brush over his closely shaven hair while appealing for everyone to please sit down so he could take questions for another half hour.

Standing ovation in Oak Ridge, TN for speaker Bill McKibben

McKibben is the most prominent face of, a grassroots organization that now spans 188 different countries in the effort to solve the global climate crisis.  The group’s name represents 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, declared the safe level by leading scientists like NASA’s James Hansen that the Earth needs to stay under to avoid extreme climate problems. This spring, that number already reached 400 ppm. McKibben’s most urgent message, backed by hard science, is that the fossil fuel industry has enough reserves to burn and enough plans for extracting more natural resources to wreck the planet’s climate many times over.

Climate scientists say more weather extremes, like hotter droughts and fiercer hurricanes, are connected to our human activities that are releasing more greenhouse gases into the air than ever before. uses this common scientific knowledge to show that stopping the Keystone XL pipeline from entering the United States would help keep the Canadian tar sands in place and avoid some of the dirtiest energy usage that could tip the planet even farther out of balance.  McKibben announced that September 21 will be another day of action that all communities can take part in to promote clean energy alternatives Keystone XL.

Despite the human toll that climate change already takes around the globe, from deadlier hurricanes to more people starving in droughts to communities without enough clean drinking water, McKibben never strays into the sentimental. The closest he got was a statement while showing slides of people around the world who’ve joined the movement.  He was speaking of the devastation that comes with extreme climate change and shared, “The effects of this are happening at such speed that it’s almost heartbreaking to watch.” His final slide showed young Haitian children standing in a flooded street, where we often forget that Hurricane Sandy took lives before it even hit the US coast. Their signs said to the rest of us “Your Actions Affect Me.”

Sounding more like a missionary than a glib journalist who’s written for Rolling Stone, McKibben urged, “If change is gonna come, it has to come from places like this,” referencing the developed world that includes East Tennessee, “and it has to come pretty fast.”  Other missionaries ask for your help after people’s lives and homes have been wrecked. Through, this missionary is asking everyone to help prevent more disasters.

Eaarth author Bill McKibben signs a copy of his book for
expectant mother Adrienne Schwartz,
while retired minister Wil Howie, founder of Living Waters for the World, looks on.

Mother Adrienne Schwartz, who is expecting her second child very soon, was thrilled that McKibben signed her copy of eaarth after his talk.  Schwartz teaches environmental design at Maryville College, so she understands the science behind the movement.  As a mother, she also connects with the message emotionally because it affects her children’s chances of living on a stable planet, “I have real concerns about what they’ll have to endure when I’m not here.” Founder Bill McKibben pictured with
Oak Ridge teens who’ve started Secret City Sustainability
and are calling for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Sophomore Sumner Byrne at George Washington University is inspired that supports cleaner energy alternatives and ways to conserve in order to limit climate change.  She noted about McKibben, “He’s not just saying this is bad.  He’s giving us solutions.”  Byrne and several other youth from the Oak Ridge area have organized Secret City Sustainability, with the high school’s Student Council President Lois Johnson finding ways to inform and educate her peers about climate change.  Along with Vanderbilt sophomore and science student Ben Terpstra, the group is leading the way in asking the city of Oak Ridge to divest from the fossil fuel industry.  Said young Terpstra boldly, “This is a problem that nobody is doing anything about.  So we need to start.”  While McKibben’s visit to the area included meeting with many notable church and community leaders, he said his highlight was getting to know this local group of young people.

Marge Swenson said she got inspired to hear McKibben speak after seeing the Do The Math movie that explains the science and urgency of the climate issue.  “We have to get busy, we cannot let this go on.” Swenson felt a sense of enthusiasm about the speech that topped a day of Creation Care themed events in town, including participation by her church.  Her engineer husband, Steve Ash, told me the scientific facts speak for themselves and it’s a shame that communities need a guest speaker to get people emotionally charged about such a matter-of-fact issue.
As was expected in the Secret City, one person asked what role McKibben thought nuclear energy would play in a clean energy future.  He answered carefully, “My guess is that it’s gonna play a small role in getting the US out of the trouble that we’re in.”  He noted that nuclear is very expensive, while energies like solar are getting more and more affordable. McKibben shared that he has solar panels on his home.
Volunteers gather signatures to stop fracking on Tennessee’s
public lands, outside a speaking event about
fossil fuels and climate change.

The title of McKibben’s presentation in Oak Ridge was “Keep the Faith and Do the Math.”  True to the organization and website, his talk was full of scientific facts such as:  “On average, the atmosphere is about 5% wetter than it was about 40 years ago.” He is skillful at synthesizing volumes of scientific reports and interviews with scientists to explain how our climate is out of balance with its acidic oceans, melting icecaps, higher sea levels and other extremes.

Because he’s been writing about environmental concerns for the past 25 years, this man with the skills of a journalist and the heart of a Sunday school teacher has now turned, via, to rare acts of civil disobedience in the tradition of civil rights leaders.  He cautioned the crowd that young people should not have to resort to this, but that his age group should begin to take a leadership role in this moral stand for human survival in the face of climate crisis. is also leading the way in widespread divestment from the fossil fuel industry, saying “If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage.”

East Tennesseans gather to hear Bill McKibben speak
at Oak Ridge High School.

Hearing him speak in person, powerful as his message and delivery are, you have to believe McKibben when he says he’d rather be at home writing.  He is a reluctant prophet for our time, putting himself in harm’s way to share a message that many people still don’t want to hear. He patiently tries to explain why time is running out for the rest of us. Like a Sunday school teacher sharing the gospel, he doesn’t push us into believing it’s a bad idea that careless human activity has already raised the Earth’s temperature by a full degree and started melting the Arctic.  But he does deliver the message in a restrained tone, “If 1 degree melts the Arctic, we’re fools to find out what 2 degrees will do.”

Here’s our one-on-one interview earlier the day of McKibben’s speech.


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