John Schwartz, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, was a climate reporter at The Times from 2014 to 2021.
For the Taking the Lead series, we asked leaders in various fields to share insights on what they’ve learned and what lies ahead.
Although climate change now makes headlines almost daily, the effort to prevent its worst effects has been going on for decades. One of the early voices was Bill McKibben, 62, who published his groundbreaking book “The End of Nature” in 1989 about what was then a looming crisis. Mr. McKibben has since written more than a dozen books about climate change and other issues in a career that blends journalistic advocacy with activism — and occasional arrests at protests. (Mr. McKibben has also contributed to The Times’s Opinion section.)
In 2008, he helped found 350.org, an international climate action campaign. He has opposed fossil fuel industries’ attempts to block climate action and to spread disinformation about the science despite their detailed knowledge of climate risks. (A recent study found that Exxon, for one, predicted the effect of fossil fuels on global warming, yet publicly contradicted those findings.) More recently, he has taken on the major banks that fund fossil fuel exploration. His latest book, “The Flag, the Cross, and the Station Wagon: A Graying American Looks Back at His Suburban Boyhood and Wonders What the Hell Happened,” is a memoir that questions what he calls the country’s slide into consumerism and individualistic selfishness. In 2021, he founded a new organization, Third Act, to involve older people in the climate movement.
Xiye Bastida, 20, was born in Mexico to environmentalist parents. In 2015, when she was 13, floods hit her town outside Mexico City, San Pedro Tultepec, after years of drought. Her family left for the United States, settling in New York City. The experience, she has said, taught her that “the climate crisis is not an ambiguous force that future generations will have to deal with; it defines the reality that we live in today.” She dived into activism. As a participant in Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future movement, she helped build an effort in New York City that led an estimated 250,000 students to strike over climate change. She also helped found the Re-Earth Initiative, a nonprofit organization, and is a frequent public speaker on climate issues at global conferences and TED Talks. She attends the University of Pennsylvania, where she is an environmental studies major.
The two activists spoke together at the end of December over video. Their conversation has been edited and condensed.
How did you start in activism?
XIYE BASTIDA I think as you grow, you realize that you cared so much sooner than you thought. I used to say that I started when I first realized that my story mattered. This was at a U.N. conference that my dad couldn’t go to. So he asked me to go, and this was when I was 15 years old, and it was in Malaysia, so I crossed the world to a U.N. conference. I shared my story of how my hometown had suffered from flooding. I realized that my voice had an impact on people, and that youth voices specifically at these high-level places change the way that people hear things. It’s different for me to say “I’m scared of my future” than for my mom to say that she’s scared of her future.
And then I realized that I started caring when my parents first told me to love Mother Earth — when my parents first told me that was our role on this planet, to leave the world better than we found it. I think I grew up caring.
I think Katharine Hayhoe puts it really well: “To care about climate change, we only have to be one thing and that’s a human living on this planet.”
Obviously, that explodes into strike organization, into starting my own organization, switching my whole career to environmental studies and devoting my life to working in conjunction with people like Bill, and building a better world.
BILL McKIBBEN I wanted Xiye to go first, because I knew that her story would be far more organic and sensible than mine. My path to activism was basically starting to understand my mistakes of perception about the world. I am a writer and a journalist — that’s what I’m trained to do, and it’s what I love to do most in the world.
Key Insights From ‘Taking the Lead’
And what are journalists not really supposed to do? Take sides. That was the world that I’d grown up in. I went to work at The New Yorker the week after I left college. I wrote “The End of Nature” back when I was in my 20s. I knew in the course of writing it that I had a side in this, and I was appalled by what was happening. That took me out of a certain kind of journalism.
But the real mistake was, I spent 10 years after writing that thinking that our job was to win the argument — because that’s sort of how journalists, or writers, think about things. And so I just kept writing more books and organizing symposiums and giving talks and whatever, assuming that if we piled up enough evidence, eventually our leaders would do the right thing. Because why wouldn’t they? The scientists had told us that the worst thing in the world was going to happen. Why would we not act?
When did you first hear of each other?
BASTIDA I think it was when I started organizing in New York. I first got involved with the Peoples Climate Movement, which is a coalition of climate organizations in New York, and basically, I was the only youth there. A lot of the people from the coalition were from 350.
I started researching, and Bill, you are the founder. Then I found out you were a journalist, and I read some of your pieces. I was very grateful that you weren’t writing journalism from that impartial side. Seeing a journalist cut through the noise was, for me, very: “Yes! We’re going in the right direction!”
McKIBBEN When I founded 350, I was in my 40s, but it was with seven college students. We’ve done this divestment campaign, which was mostly college kids on campuses all over the world. And 350 was largely staffed by young people. I say this because I think some of the world thinks that youth climate activism emerged just full blown with Greta Thunberg and her school strike in 2018. And don’t get me wrong; Greta is one of my favorite people in the world. But the media tends to seize on one person as the figure of something in any moment. And I knew that there were, and Greta would be the first to say this, lots of people just like her all over the world doing extraordinary work.
I always have my ear to the ground because much of my work, really, for the last decade has been about trying to find and celebrate people who are doing good work, because I understand that this movement needs to just keep growing and growing. And I knew that lots of them weren’t in college yet — were still in high school. Xiye and [the 17-year-old activist] Alexandria Villaseñor were just immediately two super-obvious “These people are good at this. They figured it out. They know how to talk about this.”
In a lot of ways, they’re a lot better at it than I’ll ever be, because they have grown up thinking about and understanding it. But also because there’s now this kind of understanding in people that age of how important this kind of work is.
What have you learned about leadership from each other?
McKIBBEN I’m going to be dead before the very worst of this crisis kicks in. So watching others take it on, knowing that it’s going to be the substance of their lives, is really powerful. If I were in their place, I think I might be more bitter about the whole thing.
What I admire is the extraordinary seriousness, straightforwardness, bluntness that hasn’t turned to bitterness or cynicism or nihilism in the face of this.
It’s one of the reasons I’m so enjoying this work we’re now doing with organizing old people like me to work in collaboration with much, much younger people.
BASTIDA What I’ve learned from you, Bill, is what it looks like to have a life that is filled with purpose up until the very end. Seeing that you were honest at being able to have a career with something that you care about makes me feel like there’s no question. I don’t really have a specific idea of what I’m going to do after college, but I know that it’s going to be there. That’s made a lot of my own peers switch their majors to something that they care about. They were going towards the majors where there were jobs. My friend, who was at Wharton, is switching to sustainable fashion design in business, and I have my friend in bio doing environmental documentaries. This fills me with so much hope.
We all hate that word in the climate space, because we hate to say that something is giving us hope, or that other people say that we give them hope. But honestly, for an activist to have hope is the most important thing, and to be optimistic. That is part of why we don’t let the anger settle in a negative way, because seeing things change is very powerful.
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.
What does ‘hope’ mean to you?
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 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.