Environmentalist Bill McKibben Shows Support for the Swarthmore Divestment Movement and Encourages More to Join

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

“The most important issue that human beings have ever faced is the issue of climate change,” began Bill McKibben at a rally of students, faculty and community members at Swarthmore College. “Right now and right this week the absolute white hot center of the movement to try to slow down the destruction of the planet is on the second floor of Parrish hall.”

McKibben, environmentalist, activist and journalist and founder of 350.org, spoke on Thursday, March 26 to show his support of Swarthmore’s Divestment Movement and the sit-in that students, alumni and faculty have been participating in on the second floor of Parrish. The talk was attended by many students and faculty members who have been participating in the sit-in, along with other members of the community who support the divestment movement.

“It’s at the point that we’re at the cusp of real real trouble,” said McKibben. “And the scary part of all of this is the change we see already—the loss of most of the summer ice in the arctic, the undercutting of the great ice sheets in the west and east antarctic, the ongoing acidification of the oceans, the rapid change in the hydrological cycles that bring drought to some places and flooding to others—these changes that we’re seeing now are happening with about 1 degree Celsius worth of global warming. The same scientists who told us that this would happen tell us that we’re now heading for about four degrees worth of global warming in the lifetime of the people in this room unless we interrupt this cycle and interrupt it now.”

McKibben shared statistics about the effects that have already been seen from global warming, and told stories of the efforts that countries around the world are taking to decrease their usage of fossil fuels. “As of last year there were more solar panels in Bavaria than the United States,” he noted.

McKibben stressed that it will take a lot of effort to reverse the harm we have already done to the earth, but that we must act now to save our future.

“The engineers have done their job,” McKibben said. “We know how to move rapidly with sun and with wind and with other renewable energy to allow the world, especially the poorest places on it, to more forward. But we’re not doing it not in any real way, not in any way that matters, not at a scale that matters. Not in a way that interrupts the slide towards hell, or with a place with a roughly similar temperature.”

Despite the work that scientists and engineers have done to stall the process of global warming, McKibben noted that the work to restore the planet needs a lot more than facts and solar panels.

“We won the argument,” said McKibben. “20 years ago we lost the fight and that’s because the fight was never about data and all of that. The fight, as fights usually are, was about power and there was another side to it and that side was the richest industry in the world, the richest enterprise that humans have ever thrown up—the fossil fuel industry. And they are, as it turns out, willing to take the planet over the hill if they can keep what they’re doing now going a little longer.”

McKibben noted that the fossil fuel industry is willing to go far to continue to make profits, and that Swarthmore should no longer invest in these companies.

“Those are not normal companies—Exxon, Shell, BP, Peabody Coal—they’re not normal companies,” said McKibben. “They are rogue companies. If their business plan is carried out then the planet tanks. That means that it is not ok for places like Swarthmore to own those shares and participate in that process.”

Over twenty colleges and universities around the world have committed to divestment, including Stanford University and Pitzer College. McKibben spoke about the financial gains that institutions that have chosen to divest have already seen. “Places that paid attention to their students a few years ago and divested have bigger endowments as a result, can offer more scholarships, can fund more important work,” said McKibben. “If Swarthmore had had the good sense to listen to its students when they raised this issue 5 years ago than Swarthmore would be in an even richer spot than it is in now.”

McKibben concluded his speech by encouraging students, faculty and alumni to join the sit-in movement to continue to encourage the Board of Managers to divest from fossil fuels.

“For the moment the center of the most important fight on the planet is a hundred yards from here and all of you in this room, if you are wondering what it is you should be doing to affect this greatest problem we’re facing, right now for this week you have the chance to do something profound and helpful about it,” urged McKibben. “It’s not very often that people get that chance it’s not very often that these moments come along. Do not waste it. Make the most of it.”

Featured image courtesy of 350.org


  1. Did McKibben bike to campus?

    I am skeptical towards but understanding of Swattie environmental activism, but whenever I see them being riled up by a flame-throwing populist, their activism loses a bit of credibility.

  2. Bill McKibben is my neighbor here in Vermont and one of the most principled people I know. He calls himself a reluctant activist, but after 20 years as a journalist covering global warming, he was convinced by a group of his students to help them start the precursor to 350.org.

    Bill works very hard to reduce his personal carbon footprint, but his voice is needed in places like Swarthmore, and he is in demand all over the world. Many of his events are held by tele-conferencing,and he limits his travel as much as possible.

    He speaks from a place of deep conviction and is the most eloquent speaker on the topic of climate justice that I have ever heard. The Swarthmore campus should be honored that he came to speak.

    I support his coming to Swarthmore so he can draw attention to a historical event–the Swarthmore sit-in for divestment. I hope that after his meeting yesterday, students, faculty, alumni, and others will join the sit-in in large numbers.

    Swarthmore students have started something that is sparking others around the world to follow suit. I applaud all of you!

  3. “alumn” is obviously not actually an alumna or alumnus of Swarthmore College.

    Such specious reasoning and wildly inaccurate characterization of an important national figure would not play well around the tables in Sharples Dining Hall, where intelligent discussion of the issues of the day helped immensely to inform my understanding of the world.

    The bike comment is a facile attempt to charge McKibben with hypocrisy. The same comment appears ad nauseam in online comments on many climate stories. It’s the universe ploy that attempts to discredit anyone working to change the world because they are guilty of living in this one. It appears to be the best argument opponents of responsible action on climate now have.

    But even if McKibben were a hypocrite, that would be entirely irrelevant to the merits of his arguments and the quality of the evidence he presents. The comment begs the question, would “alumn” cease ad homonym attacks and listen to McKibben were he to arrive by bicycle? Knowing Bill, my guess is that he’s tried this, and no, it didn’t help.

    “alumn,” it’s not surprising you chose not to use your real name, as that would reveal you have no connection with Swarthmore College. I suspect it might also reveal that you have yet to complete the 10th grade.

    • I’m sorry Rob Briggs ’72, but your comment has given away that you too have no connection to Swarthmore. I can tell because of your incorrect use of “begs the question.” Begging the question refers to a particular type of logical fallacy in which one assumes the conclusion one wishes to prove in the initial premise of an argument. It is not synonymous with “raising the question,” unless you are an uncultured swine who uses the colloquial meaning instead of the actual one. No true Swarthmore student would be so stupid as to make such a mistake.

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