Bill McKibben in the Belly of the Beast

What a contradiction Texas is – the leader in oil, and the leader in wind. And Austin – vast and sprawling and car-dependent, yet in the process of being the first city to pledge true carbon neutrality (of the whole city, not just the government). And the University of Texas – owners and beneficiaries of a huge oil-producing territory, and yet earnestly running a Sustainability Office which invites Bill McKibben to speak on divestment.

And yet, here he was, at the old Austin City Limits Studio, just yesterday:


The press was anything but out in force – all the living presidents are in town celebrating the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act at the LBJ Library. Three different friends alerted me to this event, and Irene and I arrived early, but there wasn’t a huge mob waiting to see McKibben. Aside from undergrads attending for credit, it seemed like just the usual suspects from the local Unitarian green circle showed up. (I have my problems with them but on the other hand they make me feel young!) The room was full but not packed.

To not overstate the liberalism of UT, Bill was accompanied by a second speaker who was hastily rounded up (apparently two other profs had bailed out). It was this guy, David Spence, a business prof, advocating a grab bag of can-do Tinker-esque half-measures, whom my phone camera appropriately enough refused to get into focus:


McKibben’s starting point, of course, is that the carbon has to stay in the ground. I was saying this years ago, but Bill went further, noting how the fossil fuel companies have these reserves on their books. There is thus, on our existing socio-economic model, enormous pressure to burn it all, despite the fact that doing so would cook the planet beyond recognition. Thus, like it or not, we have little choice but to make enemies of the owners of these so-called resources.

There are counter-arguments to be made to this position, but they have to acknowledge the stubborn truth that we simply cannot afford under any circumstances to allow that much CO2 into the air. Spence’s position, of course, was that one had to be reasonable and not frighten moderate people.

The coincidence of the Civil Rights Act anniversary celebrations in town of course left McKibben with a wide opening, but he made masterful use of it. He’s really come into his own as a speaker. I saw him on Letterman a few years ago and he was dire and pretty much the specter of doom, hardly as inspiring in person as he has always been in writing. But yesterday was another story.

He basically pointed to MLK’s arguments with the “moderates”, both black and white, of the mid-century deep south, who urged the black population to settle for something less than freedom; perhaps a few modest scraps of increased dignity might be enough? We don’t celebrate King nowadays because he capitulated to this pressure. Injustice is injustice.

Is every tank of gas, every BTU of electricity, an injustice? That’s less clear, of course. People who act that way really do tend to lose their influence. But the system which implies that every drop of oil will be used, every blob of tar squeezed, every lump of coal burned – that is a real and fundamental injustice to the future, and we need to realize that we are the beneficiaries of that injustice. It is ourselves we need to discomfort.

The conversation eventually turned into a proxy argument about natural gas. McKibben overreached a bit and Spence utterly flubbed his response. A case really can be made for the “bridge fuel” idea, but Spence failed to make that case. I think the word “bridge” never passed his lips.

Even professors steeped in the energy industry don’t seem to understand the fundamental constraint. The carbon must stay in the ground. Or at the very least, it has to be kept out of the environment. The time for gradual measures has past.

It’s a hell of a thing to advocate at UT. Oil and gas exploration, development, and exploitation is really what makes the school a power in the world. Just as everything at U Wisconsin revolves around biological sciences, everything at U Texas revolves around energy. UT’s efforts toward carbon capture and sequestration could be framed as a crucial part of the puzzle, but it seems to the compulsive moderates who thrive in academia to be too early to be betting the farm on it.

The problem, of course, is that the farm is already at stake.

Nobody challenged McKibben on what it would mean for Texas to divest. We can cheer the folk at Harvard on easily enough, but it’s really hard to know what to do here. You might as well ask Exxon to divest.

The year that the SuperComputing conference was here in Austin, among the swag I collected was a burnt orange T-shirt with the UT slogan “What Starts Here Changes the World“. It’s true enough, but it sort of understates the situation. Perhaps I should take a marker to it and change the message to “What Starts Here Ruins the World”. It would have the virtue of clarity, anyway.

I wouldn’t really wear such a shirt in Austin, of course. I love the place too much! My feelings toward that shade of burnt orange are as enthusiastic as ever. (Not to say as enthusiastic as anyone’s. That would be a high bar indeed.)

Somebody has to be the brains of the oil industry, and those people are going to thoroughly enjoy anything exothermic, the hotter the better, and that just comes with the territory.

It’s hard to spot the way out of this tangle. I am not just being cleverly ironic with the question here. I’d like to discuss what the University of Texas (really, what the whole UT system and the whole A & M system) should actually do. This is not an idle irony – it’s a real puzzle to me and I’d suggest a real ongoing quandary for the whole substantially oil-well-owning oil-funded oil-professional-training and oil-technology-developing Texas higher educational system.


  1. Tinker is upper-cased deliberately.

    It refers to Scott Tinker, chariman of the peculiar division of UT called the Bureau of Economic Geology, the oddly socialist arm of the Texas oil industry. Tinker is the prime mover of Switch, the ill-titled movie which should have been called "You Might Want to Eventually Partially Switch Energy Sources for Reasons We Won't Dwell Upon".

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