Bill McKibben and Xiye Bastida, Two Climate Activists 40 Years Apart in Age, on the Movement’s Future

I’m not the youngest anymore. So how do I, as somebody who was younger in the movement, open up to the next generation coming up, the new 14-, 15-year-olds? You are always in the middle of others. You’re never the end or the beginning.

BASTIDA Well, I’ll first describe the type of hope I don’t like, because I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such a telling moment. I was recently on a Washington Post panel for the women’s summit. I was onstage with Alexandria and my friend Wawa [Wanjiku Gatheru]. I said, “By the end of this 20-minute panel, the fossil fuel industry will have gotten this many subsidies.” They get $11 million of subsidies per minute, so that amounts to, I think, $221 million. And I said, “By the end of the day, the fossil fuels industry will have made $2.8 billion in profit.” I was trying to instill this feeling in people that the climate crisis is not slow, and it’s all about things that can happen by the minute. And that means that the changes can be implemented with effects that can happen by the minute.

At the end of the panel, 15 people came up: “You give me so much hope.” [McKibben bends over, laughing.] Not any other comment. Even a climate denier gives you more conversation.

So that is the type of hope that I don’t like. I like the kind of hope that inspires you to change. A hope that inspires you to act. A hope that inspires you to realize that if other people are doing it, it means that I must be doing that as well. And I’ve seen people get that type of hope. I was invited to a Vogue panel. The person who invited me, after the panel, said that they have never felt so hopeful, and they were actually going to change a lot of the way that Vogue operated. It’s very different to say, “I’m going use my power and my influence in the space that I occupy to change things because of something you said,” versus, “You give me so much hope.”

McKIBBEN When they say, “You give me hope,” part of what they’re saying is, “I don’t want to feel so bad about myself.” The thing that drives me crazy is when people say, “Well, it’s up to the next generation to deal with these problems, and they’re so good.” That is a cop-out of major proportions. I accepted a long time ago that a large part of my job was just going to be to be a professional bummer-outer of other people, because I’ve had to bring this message for a long, long, long time that things were going very badly. And now, happily, there’s lots of other people bringing that message, and it’s sinking in. One of the one of the things that makes me feel hopeful is that I no longer feel lonely in this work — which I did, through some decades. But I don’t think we owe anyone hope. The job of activists is not to make people feel psychologically improved and more hopeful. There’s days when I don’t feel particularly hopeful. But Xiye is absolutely right: If there is hope, it lies in people deciding to join together to do this work.

One of the things that’s important is to keep reminding ourselves all the time that we’ve got to find some joy in this work as we’re doing it. Because it’s going take our whole — it’s already taken my whole life, and it’s going take all of Xiye’s life to come to terms with this. So we might as well figure out some ways to make it joyful along the way.

And such credit to young activists for really thinking about that right from the start.

BASTIDA Yeah, I love this quote that says the way that you spend your life is the way that you spend your days. Every single choice that you make builds up everything about your legacy, and who you are, and the purpose that you’ve put in your life. So I know that every single day I have agency. And I know it’s the simplest concept that the future is made of our present actions. But when we really think about it, we’re not just living our lives; we can actually shape the way in which other lives are lived. That is a responsibility that I have taken. And I want my life to have been a joyous life, so I am modeling the world that I want to see.

I think I’m doing really well at keeping up with school and doing all the activism work with my organization, and doing panels — then my brother calls me and says, “You haven’t talked to me in a month!” Knowing that it’s never going to be perfect, knowing that there’s always going to be balance, that you are never doing things the best way that you can. Approaching balance is really what all of us are trying to do.