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Environmentalist urges activism during speech at ECU

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Bill McKibben speaks as the lecturer for the 27th Distinguished Lecture on Religion and Culture at ECU on Sept. 19, 2019.

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By Tyler Stocks
Staff Writer

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Driving a Prius will not save the planet but large groups banding together to do something about fossil fuels and rising carbon emissions, even if it requires activism and civil disobedience may bring about change.

That was the central message of globally recognized environmentalist and activist, Bill McKibben as he spoke to nearly 400 people at East Carolina University on Thursday night.

The lecture was hosted by ECU's religious studies program.

In addition to being an outspoken proponent for the environment, McKibben is a best selling author, teacher and journalist who has written extensively on the effects of global warming. He has authored a dozen books including "The End of Nature" (1989), and "Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play itself Out?" (2019). McKibben was awarded the Right Livelihood Prize ("alternative Nobel") in 2014. In 2013 he was the winner of the Gandhi Prize and the Thomas Merton Prize

While he criticized big oil and coal companies for their "environmental sins" he also praised the individuals who have found ways to lower the cost of renewable energy sources, scale it and make it more affordable to the end consumer.

"There may be things we can do to keep things from getting entirely out of control and one of those things is to thank God for the engineers among us who have done enormously good work for the last 10 or 15 years," McKibben said. "They've gone about the task with great discipline of lowering the price of solar power and wind power with really dramatic effect."

McKibben, who is a Methodist Sunday school teacher, called what humans are doing to the planet, the greatest sin of all.

And the penalty of those sins, according to McKibben, has been devastating storms, wildfires and other disasters that have forever changed the lives of those who experienced them.

In particular, McKibben referenced how Paradise, Calif., turned into paradise lost after a massive wildfire.

"A city called Paradise turned into hell in half an hour," he said. "These are the most important signs of the times and the damage we've done at this point is enormous."

During his presentation, McKibben also showed dozens of images of people living in less-developed countries who he said have to endure devastating storms that are caused by fossil fuels and overconsumption by those living in developed countries like the United States.

He also discussed a time when he witnessed chunks of ice falling into the ocean while on a trip to Greenland.

"It was sobering to hear and it was sobering to stand there and watch as minute after minute, hour after hour, great huge 12- to 15-story-high chunks of ice just crashed in the Fjord. It is stunning, powerful and it is scary as hell," McKibben said.

Waking up to the reality that climate change and carbon emissions iare an issue isn't something new and profound. he said. It's something that's been tossed around for decades.

"It's not very mysterious chemistry and physics," McKibben said. "In fact, people knew about it 100 years ago. It's just since the 1980s that we've had the computing power to track it and what we didn't know 30 years ago was how fast and how hard it was going to pinch.

"Thirty years ago we were offering warnings about what was to come if human beings did not change their ways," McKibben said.

He added, "We're in a tremendous heap of trouble and the good news is we know what to do about it."

On Friday, McKibben and millions of others around the world joined together for a global climate strike to raise awareness of how fragile the earth is and how if humans don't change their ways, the planet will cease to exist.

"I work around climate change, which is the biggest issue that the world's ever faced and the bad news is that it's getting much much worse very quickly," McKibben said. "Around much of the world tomorrow, there will be the biggest day of climate action yet. These global climate strikes will drive millions of people into the streets all over the planet. That will be one more step trying to persuade our leaders to actually lead on this issue."

McKibben said that people have to decide to set aside their individual wants and needs if it means saving the only planet we have.

"The most important thing is for individuals to be a little less individual and to join together in these movements large enough to change our political and economic realities," he said. "The greatest challenge for our time on the planet is climate change. We need to figure out how to unite the world around this necessary transition off fossil fuels and we need to do it fast."

For those who refuse to accept climate change as a real threat, McKibben had this to say: "You may not believe in global warming but global warming believes in you."

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