Bill McKibben on Social Trust, Science, & Cryptocurrency — CleanTechnica Interview
This is the third article in a three-part series based around my recent interview with Bill McKibben, a legend in the world of climate activism and climate communication. In the first part, McKibben talked about climate grief, the climate crisis, climate activism, and US climate policy. In the beginning of the second episode, we talked about Tesla, unions, and Elon Musk. This article is about the same episode, but the second part of it, where we focused more on social trust, cryptocurrency, and Libertarianism. Personally, this was my favorite portion of the interview and I think the most important portion. (This portion of the interview starts at 13:07 into the SoundCloud and Spotify embeds below.)
In this part, I started off by asking McKibben to talk about how broken US society’s understanding of the scientific method is. I noted that we long saw this as a climate-specific problem, but that the pandemic highlighted how much it’s a broader problem, especially in times of crisis. Interestingly, McKibben quickly reframed that in an interesting and useful way:
“If you think about it, it’s not really a deep understanding of science that’s required, because I’m not sure people were way more scientifically literate in the ’50s when everyone lined up quite happily to get a polio vaccine. They were just more willing to trust in the sort of social structures of their world. And, you know, I get a front row to see what that old world kind of looks like ’cause I live in Vermont, which has the highest levels of social trust in the country, by all the ways that social scientists measure this. We’re very — you know, it’s a state full of villages. [It’s] the most rural state in the union, so people are used to governing themselves through things like town meeting every spring and things.
“Well, one result of this high level of social trust is that, despite the fact that it’s a rural state, with older people, with a Republican governor — all the things that should’ve led to big problems with COVID, it’s done a better job with it than just about any place in the world. Everybody went and got their vaccines. Everybody wore masks when they were supposed to. Those questions of social trust are really important, and they go back to some of these questions we were talking about when we were talking about, like, multi-zillionaires and things. You have to build societies that work reasonably well for everybody if you want to be able to make progress at all. Otherwise, you’ll end up in these worlds where people are full of rage and resentment and it turns to craziness — you know, someone tells them that it’s because Hillary Clinton eats babies or something, and then before long you’re off to the races. That’s the point I was trying to make before about how things are linked together.”
We talked a bit about how this attack on social trust goes back decades. I brought up former President Ronald Reagan and his attack on institutional trust with the line “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” McKibben recalled the whole line: “The nine scariest words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” (I’m finding via Google that he said “most terrifying” rather than “scariest,” which is even more dramatic, but I assume he used both — and they are nearly the same, of course. Also, I guess just be repeating them here we are, to some extent, reinforcing the fear mongering.) With his literary talents, McKibben then stated, “It turns out that the scariest words are ‘we ran out of ventilators or the hillside behind your house just caught on fire.’ And those are things you can’t address by yourself. That’s why you need working governments and working societies.
“Forget Elon Musk, the really dangerous billionaires in our society are people like the Koch brothers, who just have spent their entire lives working to make sure that we don’t have working societies, working governments — and have undermined that so deeply that it’s very difficult now to make the progress we need when we’re faced with an existential crisis.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
I then took that into the topic of “the cryptocurrency craze,” since I think those efforts are a big factor at play here. “It’s basically saying, ‘Let’s drop social trust and trust in governments, and go to a much more energy-intensive system because we don’t trust each other.’” I should give credit where credit is due here and recommend strongly that anyone curious about this matter read: “Why Bitcoin Truly Is Bad For The Climate & Environment, And Counter To Tesla’s Mission” and “How Does Bitcoin Work? What Is Bitcoin Mining? What Is Bitcoin Backed By?” (the former of which was written by the same author who predicted far in advance that Tesla would shift to much greater use of LFP batteries, based on his thorough first-principles analytical nature).
I said, “I mean, yeah, governments are not perfect, unions are not perfect, but they’re better than a free-for-all, don’t-trust-anyone society where we don’t put trust in each other. These all link together.”
McKibben added, “Cryptocurrency’s actually a beautiful demonstration of that, because it’s precisely — the log behind it, the stated logic behind it, is precisely what you said. We don’t want to have to trust anyone, so we trust this strange algorithm or blockchain that almost no one can actually explain to anyone.”
Before changing topics, I just felt a need to put extra emphasis on the inconvenient truth of Bitcoin and similar such systems that many fans of the concept would like to ignore: “It’s not a comparable system to like ATMs, banks, and whatnot. This is specifically a highly, extremely energy-intensive system, and even if it’s using renewables, you’re taking renewable energy potential away from other uses, and every single plan that tells us how we deal with the climate crisis says — you need a huge growth in renewables, electric vehicles, and a huge cut in energy use. …
“And you saw Tesla adopted it, saw humongous spikes in energy use and coal use — I don’t know where they found that data, but they did — and said, ‘okay, we’re not doing this any more because we saw the results.’”
McKibben rightfully and insightfully circled back to the political predecessors to this. “Your remark about Reagan before and that whole ‘the government is the problem’ thing — that’s the most important thing that happened in our political lives, in my political lifetime — the rise of this Libertarian notion that we should all just look out for ourselves — turns out to be the most dangerous of ideas, and it’s incarnated in things like Bitcoin that are quite clearly about not wanting to trust anybody else. And the fact that you have to burn a huge amount of energy in order to make it happen is just sort of the cherry on the top, you know.
“But it is unbelievably aggravating to think of people trying to desperately win this race to get more low-carbon energy out there and having, by now, non-trivial amounts — one, two percent or something of the planet’s energy — you know, the equivalent of a Scandinavian country worth of energy — being used for no good reason.”
McKibben also talked a bit further about the deeper history of Libertarians like the Koch brothers buying their control of the Republican Party, and the party’s now total blockade of good climate and energy policies. He also made an interesting comparison by pointing out that although those old oil, gas, and coal guys have very little in common with the Silicon Valley community, “the one place that they overlap is in this devotion to the idea everything would be better if government would just get out of their way. And everything isn’t better when government gets out of the way.” It’s an insightful link, and it does of course bring to mind Tesla’s recent decision to move its HQ to Texas, something that had not happened at the time of this interview. Texas, the land of — “We will take away voting rights. We will take away companies’ rights to mandate that their employees be vaccinated. We will take away basic rights of women. We will make it easier and incentivized for women who have been raped to also be criminalized. We will block human rights. But we will let corporations pollute as they wish and do whatever they want just as long as it isn’t too progressive.” But let me get back to what McKibben was saying:
“Yes, government is annoying, other people are annoying some of the time. Here’s a way to think about it that I try to think about it sometimes — when you think about this basic question of whether you want other people around, or whether you want to go off in a space capsule. Most people will tell you that college was maybe the best years of their lives. That’s what all the old alumns who come back to the college where I teach are always going on about. It’s not because, you know, they loved Sociology 101 so much. It was because it was the only 4 years in an American life where you actually lived the way that most people have lived for most of human history — in close physical and emotional proximity to a lot of other people. And that’s annoying. Sometimes the guy down the hall has the stereo on too loud at two in the morning. But it’s also deeply gratifying. There’s always people around to bounce ideas off of, do things with. You have a community, you know.”
I’ll leave it there. To hear more, listen to the full podcast.
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See part one of the Bill McKibben interview here: “Bill McKibben On Climate Crisis, Climate Grief, Climate Action, & US Climate Policy — CleanTechnica Interview.” See part two here: “Bill McKibben On Unions, Tesla, & Elon Musk — CleanTechnica Interview.”
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