For Steyer’s Political Godfather, Environmentalism Means Living With Less

Bill McKibben, advocate for ‘controlled decline,’ advises the country’s biggest political donor

Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben / AP
October 22, 2014

Does Tom Steyer want Americans to live more like Ethiopians? His ideological mentor and the man responsible for his political ascendance does.

Middlebury professor and environmentalist radical Bill McKibben recruited Steyer into the national green political apparatus in 2012. Steyer has since become the nation’s single largest Super PAC donor, giving $55 million to outside spending groups.

Ostensibly a dyed-in-the-wool environmentalist, Steyer actually made his fortune at a hedge fund that invested heavily in the types of fossil fuel resources he now decries. The details of his ideological views are still being teased out.

McKibben’s views, spelled out in books and essays over the last 25 years, are far more explicit: de-industrialize the United States (and the developed world in general) and learn to accept a dramatically lower standard of living.

Given McKibben’s friendship with Steyer and close involvement in his political efforts, an examination of his proposed solutions to what he sees as a global energy and climate crisis might provide some insight into the intellectual tenor surrounding arguably the most powerful political financier in the country.

Democrats have McKibben to thank for the tens of millions of dollars that Steyer has poured into competitive Senate races around the country.

He has not succeeded in making climate change a wedge issue, one of his stated goals, but he has provided air support for vulnerable Democrats in races that the party needs to win if it hopes to hold on to the Senate next month.

Some of the ads produced by NextGen Climate Action, Steyer’s personal Super PAC, have ignored environmental issues altogether, or even endorsed alternative fuels that Steyer himself has criticized in attempts to attack Republican Senate candidates.

However, his foray into national politics is very much rooted in environmentalism. It began with a 2012 hike with McKibben in the Adirondack Mountains.

"By the time he and environmentalist Bill McKibben finished a hike up two tall Adirondacks peaks on that summer day in 2012, Steyer had revealed that he was ready to change his life—he would unload his investments in fossil fuels and become an activist in the fight against global warming," the Washington Post reported in June.

Later that year, McKibben joined Steyer, his wife Kat Taylor, NextGen adviser Chris Lehane, and White House adviser and Center for American Progress chairman John Podesta.

The group discussed political strategy and decided to focus Steyer’s efforts on the Keystone Pipeline. The following year, Steyer made it the litmus test for his considerable political sway: oppose Keystone, you could get NextGen cash. Support it, even as a Democrat, and you risked environmentalist wrath.

McKibben’s long battle against the pipeline is, he admits, symbolic as well as practical. Even many environmentalists admit that the pipeline will have a negligible impact on global carbon emissions.

For McKibben, the pipeline represented an energy-intensive economy he has long opposed not simply as a means to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but as part of a longer campaign to alter Americans’ way of life.

He has spelled out his vision for a less energy-dependent economy in numerous writings. His vision for the world is, he tacitly admits, well outside of the political mainstream, if for no other reason than Americans are not eager to cede their historically unprecedented standard of living.

"My point throughout this book has been that we’ll need to change to cope with the new Eaarth we’ve created," McKibben wrote in his 2010 book Earth.

"We’ll need, chief among all things, to get smaller and less centralized, to focus not on growth but on maintenance, on a controlled decline from the perilous heights to which we’ve climbed."

That sort of "controlled decline" would require real sacrifices on the parts of Americans, he said the next year.

"I don’t think everyone can live a middle class American lifestyle all over the world, including middle class Americans," he told a student publication at Ohio State University in 2011.

McKibben backtracked on those predictions in an email to the Washington Free Beacon. "I'm encouraged by recent developments—say Germany's renewable surge—to think we're making more progress than I'd hoped on how to transition off fossil fuel without unending pain," he wrote.

Five million German households were recently hit by electricity rate hikes as a result of the high costs of the country’s increasing reliance on renewable energy sources. Taxes and fees used to pay some of those costs have nearly tripled since 2004.

While such costs might be a difficult political sell in the United States, they are a far cry from McKibben’s previous proclamations about the need to scale back standards of living.

"The environmentally sane standard of living for a population our current size would probably be somewhere between that of the average Englishman and the average Ethiopian," he wrote in his 1989 book The End of Nature.

He acknowledged at the time the political reality of such a proposal. "This sort of talk would erode what support environmental concerns enjoy among the privileged," McKibben wrote.

However, even more mundane consequences of McKibben’s ideal energy economy might turn off Americans accustomed to a high standard of living.

"Oranges all year round—oranges at any season in the northern latitudes—might prove ambitious beyond our means, just as the tropics might have to learn to do without apples," he wrote in The End of Nature.

Are he and Steyer on the same page? "I would doubt he does share them," McKibben wrote in an email to the Free Beacon when asked about some of his more radical views.

NextGen did not respond to questions about the extent to which his political mentor’s vision permeates the billionaire environmentalist’s own political activism.