It was more than a year later, when I spent a whole day at Colby with Bill McKibben (founder of 350.org and perhaps the leading voice of the anti-climate-change movement—yeah, that Bill McKibben), that I was finally able to reconcile these feelings. Throughout the day, in public talks and our private conversations, he shared a wide range of beliefs, hopes, and ideas pertaining to climate change, activism, and his own experiences. One stood out to me: Activism is uncomfortable; however, being uncomfortable is the only way to create change.
That insight took me back to March of 2014, when I was in Washington, D.C., in a horde of protesters calling
on Obama to reject Keystone XL. I had planned to zip tie myself to the White House gates with 400 other college students, but in the end the possibility of getting a zero on my General Chemistry exam deterred me. The long bus ride back from D.C. felt like heading home defeated after losing a championship.
Long before I started attending climate rallies or founded the divestment from fossil fuels campaign at Colby with a group of passionate students, Bill McKibben was one of my inspirations and role models. When I heard that McKibben—environmentalist, visionary author, and journalist—was this year’s Andrew W. Mellow Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies at Colby, I was elated.
When he came to campus in November, McKibben expressed an interest in talking with students about the divestment movement here and I had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with him and discuss three years of divestment campaigning at Colby. McKibben listened attentively, expressing extreme interest in our creative actions and brainstorming ways we could win the divestment campaign.
That evening, after a dinner with 60 plus students, faculty, and staff, he appeared in his element as he talked for 30 minutes, without notes, about the upcoming Paris climate talks, the desperate need for activism, and his personal journey to where he is today. Despite seeming perfectly at ease, “I have spent the last ten years way outside my comfort zone,” McKibben said. “I’m a writer. Writers are almost by definition introverts. I’ve enjoyed being here with you today, but truth be told, I’d rather be sitting in my room typing.”
McKibben stressed that fighting for change often makes one uneasy. He doesn’t enjoy rallying large crowds, yet he does it almost every other day.
Being uncomfortable is good, said McKibben. It’s no easy task to defy an order from a police officer asking you to move from in front of the White House gates. And yet 1,500 people did that, disobeying and disrupting order, which our society instructs us to obey and maintain.
McKibben, who I’ve looked up to for years, showed me that the only way we are going to create change is by pushing boundaries. Up until this point, I thought I was the only one feeling uneasy while yelling during marches and when needing to take action.
“Activism is citizenship,” McKibben said. The only way that we are going to win this climate battle is by getting out of our comfort zones, questioning the norm. And maybe, just maybe, even getting a zero on a chemistry exam standing up for what we believe in.
Casey Ballin ’16 is an environmental studies major, an economics minor, a member of Colby’s Environmental Advisory Group, and a Colby Senior Admissions Fellow. He spent most of Nov. 10 with Bill McKibben, Colby’s 2015-16 Andrew W. Mellow Distinguished Fellow in Environmental Studies. McKibben will return to campus for a residency in April, when he will participate in Community, Culture, and Conservation, a national conference at Colby seeking solutions for economic and environmental challenges.