“Working Together Is What Humans Are Built To Do” — Bill McKibben On COVID-19 & The Climate Crisis

Apr 3, 2020 by


April 3rd, 2020 by 

“It’s social trust that’s the issue,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, argues in a recent editorial about the coronavirus pandemic. “Working together is what humans are actually built to do.” But unlike the conservatives who bemoan big government, the distinguished author and environmentalist suggests that we struggle to solve both the coronavirus pandemic and the larger climate crisis because the US has been mired down by a pervasive libertarian philosophy that has shaped the way Americans now think.

working together

“The Libertarian Lion Statuary” | photo by Carolyn Fortuna.

Paying homage to the “souls of tens of thousands of individuals, from remarkably kind nurses to online sellers seeking to corner the market for hand sanitizers (until finally deciding to donate them),” McKibben outlines how human nature is truly collaborative, that government can be a mechanism to solving human problems, and why markets must work alongside climate activists if we are to solve the greatest existential threat of our lifetimes — the climate crisis.

Is Government Really the Problem?

A conservative view of the world sees government as the cause of citizens’ woes, to the point that individuals and corporations should be freed from government control. This view, McKibben argues, “has made it all but impossible to address global warming.”

The Koch oil and gas tycoons have opposed restrictions on the fossil-fuel industry for 2 reasons. First, a keen self-interest has driven their decision-making. Second, they hold firmly to the belief that government action necessary to tackle climate change is incompatible with conservatism.

McKibben outlines their right-wing syllogism:

  • Markets solve all problems.
  • Markets aren’t solving global warming.
  • Therefore, global warming is not a problem.

He goes on to contradict Ronald Reagan’s famous saying, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are ‘I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’” McKibben adds in a few contemporary proverbs of his own that he states are more pressing than government intervention.

  • “The hillside behind town is on fire.”
  • “The subway system is flooded.”
  • “Your test came back positive.”
  • “There are no ventilators.”

McKibben shares how countries currently best dealing with the coronavirus are those with high levels of social trust:

  • South Korea has a comprehensive national health system where everyone can be tested or treated without payment worries.
  • The UN March 20 report points to the Scandinavian nations as the ones in the best position to deal with recent crises. Nations “with higher levels of social trust and connections are more resilient in the face of natural disasters and economic crises,” the report concluded, because “fixing rather than fighting becomes the order of the day.”

Interestingly, the Nordic nations lead the climate fight, and South Korea’s ruling party proposed a sweeping Green New Deal to confront the economic slump that the virus left behind. (Hmm. That’s what CleanTechnica‘s own Steve Hanley proposed in an article this week…)

Photo by Nancie Battaglia

Final Thoughts about Working Together

Instead of a “society where economic fortunes are mostly determined by Zip Code and skin color,” the US has the capacity to be a place where we can work together to confront inequities. As McKibben says, “we can build new health, educational, economic, and other systems that genuinely insure opportunity for all.”

If you need inspiration in these times of self-isolation, McKibben suggests reading Pope Francis’s “remarkably moving sermon, delivered last week to an utterly empty St. Peter’s Square.”

“Greedy for profit, we let ourselves get caught up in things, and lured away by haste. We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet.”


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About the Author

 Carolyn Fortuna, Ph.D. is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. She’s won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. As part of her portfolio divestment, she purchased 5 shares of Tesla stock. Please follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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