An Open Letter to Bill McKibben

Dear Mr. McKibben,

Anyone as famous as you will have some people disagreeing with him. I’ve long admired your brilliant writing, but I’ve wished that you would say more about the role played by our economic system. I’ve often complained online about this omission of yours, but I assumed that you’ve already heard anything I could tell you. Still, one of my online friends recently said “he responds to email … I’d be interested in what came of a direct correspondence between the two of you.” So here I am.

I first became aware of your economics omission in your 2012 “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” You spelled out very clearly why the fossil fuel companies need to write off twenty trillion dollars in assets. But the implication you’ve left your readers with, in that article and since then, is that the fossil fuel companies are evil for not voluntarily taking that twenty trillion dollar loss.

The fact is that corporations are compelled, by both their corporate charters and market competition, to maximize profits for their shareholders. Thus they cannot voluntarily take a twenty trillion dollar loss, even if they cared to. If we want to save the ecosystem for our grandchildren, we cannot continue this crazy economic system.

Another of my online friends commented: “Either

  • activists like McKibben are in denial, unable to see or acknowledge that the problem isn’t just a few bad players but the system itself or
  • he has convinced himself that he must act strategically, careful not to offend the powers that be who, if he confronted them directly would further marginalize him and reduce whatever leverage he feels he has.

Whichever the case, he is actually doing harm to any attempt to deal with our environmental meltdown, focusing his efforts on the wrong target and misleading those who admire and respect him.”

I agree. If avoiding economics ever was strategic, I think that time has passed. I urge you to reconsider your approach.

Eric Schechter
retired professor of mathematics
Nashville, TN


I emailed this to McKibben on July 21, 2018, but it bounced back with a “mailbox full” error message. I don’t know what else to do with the letter, so I’m reposting it here. Maybe, if enough people share it, it will eventually reach him. I’ve prepared a printed version that fits on two sides of 1/2 page; perhaps I’ll try handing it out at climate rallies and Earth Day festivals.

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