An Earth Day message from one-time Lexington resident Bill McKibben

By his own telling, Bill McKibben’s path to fame — as an internationally acclaimed author, environmentalist, and climate change activist — took root in the classrooms and corridors of Lexington High School.

Author Bill McKibben (left) and Steve Surko participating in the Lexington High School debate team in 1977

“I edit[ed] the Musket and work[ed] for the Minuteman beginning at about age 14,” learning the basics of verbal craftsmanship, McKibben recalls. He further honed his language chops as an inaugural member of the school’s debate team, where his former debate coach and fellow Harvard University alum Ray Karras showed him the power born of thorough preparation, clarity of thought, and word choice. “I loved helping found the debate team at LHS,” McKibben says. “Karras taught us serious argumentation and research. I never had a class nearly as tough in college. He was a very, very great man.” The young debater proved pretty great as well, winning the state championship with his partner Robin Jacobsohn in 1978. “I’m not sure they’ve lost it yet,” he says with satisfaction. 

By the time McKibben was a senior in college, his wordsmithing skills landed him in the editor’s seat at the Harvard Crimson. A quick perusal through the paper’s archives shows his writing then was sharp and at times lyrical. But his interests were far from green. “I didn’t cover environmental issues then — I covered mostly the city of Cambridge and its politics.” The upside for him —  another tool he would wield years later — “I learned an awful lot about how power works in the process.”

McKibben moved on to The New Yorker after college, where he focused primarily on social issues. “[I] ran a homeless shelter in the basement of my church for instance. But I [also] wrote a long piece about where everything in my apartment came from (the water, the electric, the gas, and where the sewage and trash went), and that played a role in teaching me what a physical place the world is,” something he says he never saw clearly while living in Lexington. Composing the piece began to retrain his attention. By 1989, McKibben had published his groundbreaking book “The End of Nature,” widely considered the first book about global warming written for a general audience. Yet despite its impact, to the young author, it still didn’t seem to be enough.

“For a long time, I thought that my job was to write more books…that we needed to ‘win the argument.’ But at a certain point I realized that we’d won the argument but were still losing the fight, because the fight wasn’t about reason or evidence or data, it was about what fights are usually about: money and power.”

McKibben could have been referencing a page from his father’s own playbook. The elder McKibben was an early 70’s anti-war demonstrator, and was once arrested at a peaceful protest on Lexington’s Battle Green. “I remember it very well,” the author-turned-activist says. “I was ten, and it made a huge impression — I was very proud of him.”

In 2008, McKibben institutionalized his activist impulses and growing concern over fossil fuels, establishing, a global organization that describes itself as “an international movement of ordinary people working to end the age of fossil fuels and build a world of community-led renewable energy for all.” 350 is a reference to 350 parts per million — “the safe concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere,” according to the website. “We didn’t really know what we were doing,” McKibben admits. “But there was an unfilled ecological niche, and within a year or two we’d organized a day of action with 5,100 simultaneous demonstrations in 181 countries. CNN called it ‘the most widespread day of political activity in the planet’s history.’” currently has independent affiliates in 20 states, including one in Massachusetts.

Anti-fossil fuel sentiment has continued to grow, along with McKibben’s reputation as a leading climate change expert. His list of honors has more than kept pace, including the Gandhi Peace Award. He says he was especially touched by that particular recognition because Gandhi “is one of my great heroes, and because I believe another of its recipients was Eleanor Roosevelt, another idol of mine.”

Bill McKibben leads a Rocking Chair Rebellion in March 2023

As McKibben edges toward what many would consider their retirement years, he shows no loss of passion or energy toward the movements he helped inspire. Barely two years ago, he created yet another global organization, Third Act, which helps inspire and organize people over 60 to help fight climate change. “I’d mostly worked with young people, who were providing most of the leadership to the movement,” he explains (and rightly so, since they’ll be most affected). “But I got a bit tired of hearing people say, ‘it’s up to the next generation to solve this problem.’ That seemed unfair, and it also seemed impractical.” Many young activists lack structural power, something that older people typically hold. “There are 70 million of us, we all vote, and we ended up with most of the money, so we might as well use it.”

In looking back — and forward — McKibben remains optimistic. “I think people by and large have green values and aspirations.” With a nod to his former hometown, he says that “big houses and big cars are hard to make really green.” Yet there are still plenty of ways Lexingtonians can take a stand. “What I care about most is if Lexingtonians are using their large political power to help restructure the town, the Commonwealth, the country and the world. The most important thing an individual can do is be a bit less of an individual and join together with others to make changes in the basic ground rules of our political and economic life.”

As to specific steps that townsfolk might take on this year’s Earth Day?

“I hope they’d cut up their credit cards from Citi, Chase, Wells-Fargo and Bank of America, and send a letter to the banks telling them why: because they’ve become the biggest funders of the fossil fuel industry. And I hope they’ll join some group of others to help organize year round — if you’re over 60 come find us at Third Act.”

Read Bill McKibben’s most recent piece for the New Yorker about Lexington’s new multifamily housing plan and his most recent book, The Flag, The Cross, and the Station Wagon that talks about his Lexington youth.

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