Bill McKibben Editorial: When Words Fail

“We haven’t come up with words big enough to
communicate the magnitude of what we’re doing.”

Orion Magazine
June 29, 2008

When Words Fail
by Bill McKibben

I almost never write about writing-in my
aesthetic, the writing should disappear, the
thought linger. But the longer I’ve spent working
on global warming-the greatest challenge humans
have ever faced-the more I’ve come to see it as
essentially a literary problem. A technological
and scientific challenge, yes; an economic
quandary, yes; a political dilemma, surely. But
centrally? A crisis in metaphor, in analogy, in
understanding. We haven’t come up with words big
enough to communicate the magnitude of what we’re
doing. How do you say: the world you know today,
the world you were born into, the world that has
remained essentially the same for all of human
civilization, that has birthed every play and
poem and novel and essay, every painting and
photograph, every invention and economy, every
spiritual system (and every turn of phrase) is
about to be . . . something so different? Somehow
“global warming” barely hints at it. The same
goes for any of the other locutions, including
“climate chaos.” And if we do come up with
adequate words in one culture, they won’t
necessarily translate into all the other
languages whose speakers must collaborate to
somehow solve this problem.

I’ve done my best, and probably better than some.
My first book, The End of Nature, has been
published in twenty-four languages, and the
essential idea embodied in the title probably
came through in most of them. It wasn’t enough,
though, nor were any of the other such phrases
(like “boiling point” or “climate chaos”) that
more skillful authors have used since. So in
recent years I’ve found myself grasping, trying
to strip the language down further, make it
communicate more. This year I find myself playing
with numbers.

When the Northwest Passage opened amid the great
Arctic melt last summer, many scientists were
stunned. James Hansen, our greatest
climatologist, was already at work on a paper
that would try, for the first time, to assign a
real number to global warming, a target that the
world could aim at. No more vague plans to reduce
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, or keep it from
doubling, or slow the rate of growth-he
understood that there was already enough evidence
from the planet’s feedback systems, and from the
quickly accumulating data about the paleoclimate,
to draw a bright line.

In a PowerPoint presentation he gave at the
American Geophysical Union meeting in San
Francisco last December, he named a number: 350
parts per million carbon dioxide. That, he said,
was the absolute upper bound of anything like
safety-above it and the planet would be
unraveling. Is unraveling, because we’re already
at 385 parts per million. And so it’s a daring
number, a politically unwelcome one. It means, in
shorthand, that this generation of
people-politicians especially-can’t pass the
problem down to their successors. We’re like
patients who’ve been to the doctor and found out
that our cholesterol is too high. We’re in the
danger zone. Time to cut back now, and hope that
we do it fast enough so we don’t have a stroke in
the meantime. So that Greenland doesn’t melt in
the meantime and raise the ocean twenty-five feet.

For me, the number was a revelation. With a few
friends I’d been trying to figure out how to
launch a global grassroots climate campaign-a
follow-up to the successful Step It Up effort
that organized fourteen hundred demonstrations
across the U.S. one day last spring and put the
demand for an 80 percent cut in America’s carbon
emissions at the center of the political debate.
We need to apply even more pressure, and to do it
on a global scale-it is, after all, global
warming. But my friends and I were having a
terrible time seeing how to frame this next
effort. For one thing, the 180 or so countries
that will negotiate a new international treaty
over the next eighteen months are pretty much
beyond the reach of effective lobbying-we can
maybe influence the upcoming American election,
but the one in Kenya? In Guatemala? In China? And
for another, everyone insists on speaking those
different languages. A Babel, this world.

But a number works. And this is a good one.
Arcane, yes-parts per million CO2 in the
atmosphere. But at least it means the same thing
in every tongue, and it even bridges the gap
between English and metric. And so we secured the
all-important URL: (Easier said than
done.) And we settled on our mission: To tattoo
that number into every human brain. To make every
person on Planet Earth aware of it, in the same
way that most of them know the length of a soccer
field (even though they call it a football pitch
or a voetbal gebied). If we are able to make that
happen, then the negotiations now under way, and
due to conclude in Copenhagen in December of
2009, will be pulled as if by a kind of rough and
opaque magic toward that goal. It will become the
definition of success or of failure. It will set
the climate for talking about climate.

So the literary challenge-and the challenge for
artists and musicians and everyone else-is how to
take a mere number and invest it with meaning.
How to make people understand that it means some
kind of stability. Not immunity-we’re well past
that juncture, and even Hansen says the number is
at best the upper bound of safety, but still.
Some kind of future. Some kind of hope. That it
means kids able to eat enough food, that it means
snowcaps on mountains, that it means coral reefs,
that it means, you know, penguins. For now 350 is
absolutely inert. It means nothing, comes with no
associations. But our goal is to fill it up with
overtones and shades and flavors. The weekend
before we officially launched the campaign, for
instance, 350 people on bicycles rode around the
center of Salt Lake City. That earned a story in
the paper and educated some people about carbon
dioxide-but it also started to tint 350 with
images of bicycles and the outdoors and good
health and pleasure. We need 350 churches ringing
their bells 350 times; we need 350 spray-painted
across the face of shrinking glaciers (in organic
paint!); we need a stack of 350 watermelons on
opening day at your farmers’ market; we need
songs and videos; we need temporary tattoos for
foreheads. We may need 350 people lining up to
get arrested in front of a coal train.

It makes sense that we need a number, not a word.
All our words come from the old world. They
descend from the time before. Their associations
have congealed. But the need to communicate has
never been greater. We need to draw a line in the
sand. Say it out loud: 350. Do everything you can.

Bill McKibben is editor of American Earth:
Environmental Writing Since Thoreau. To learn
more about the new campaign and get involved, go

© 2008 Orion Magazine


Bookmark the permalink.

Comments are closed.