Bill McKibben is an activist, author, and most recently, founder of Third Act. The group, which launched in 2021, has grown to more than 50,000 members who address climate and racial justice issues. What’s unique about this group? Everyone involved is over the age of 60.
Yale Climate Connections sat down with McKibben to learn more about why he started Third Act and how older adults’ strengths complement the enthusiasm and momentum of youth activists.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Yale Climate Connections: Why did you feel the need to start an organization for adults over 60 that focuses on climate?
Bill McKibben: People over the age of 60 may have a deeper sense almost of anyone of how much change has come. We remember the first pictures that came back from the Apollo Mission of the Earth viewed from outer space. And it’s a shock to us to realize that the world doesn’t look like that anymore; the top isn’t white like that still. And I think over that long baseline, we have an almost intuitive sense, a visceral sense, of how much change there’s been. And so, we know better than most what’s happening, and we have a sense of obligation. If you’re 70 now, you’ve been on this Earth for about 80% of all the carbon that humans have ever emitted. So we know that we’re implicated in this and that we are capable of doing much about it, and that combination really gets people out to work.
It’s not as if we haven’t always known in our generations that pollution was a problem. We marched in the first Earth Day in 1970 and won passage of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act, but we did not anticipate that the poles were going to melt. Climate change is an order of magnitude different than anything we’ve ever seen before.
I’ve had the idea [for Third Act] in the back of my mind for 10 years, ever since we started the fight against the Keystone pipeline. I wrote the letter that asked people to come to Washington to do civil disobedience, and it was the largest turnout of civil disobedience in this country for a long time. But I said in the letter that I did not think that young people should have to be the cannon fodder for this.
I’d heard too many people say, “Oh it’s up to the next generation to solve this problem.” And that just seemed ignoble, and it also seemed impractical. Young people, for all their energy and intelligence and idealism, lack the structural power to make change we need, on the scale we need, in the time we have. We don’t have 30 years for them to grow up and take the reigns of power and change all our institutions. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t, but it’ll be too late on these questions, so right now is the time to provide the support that we can.
And some of that support is just psychological. One of the reasons that so many young people feel climate despair and anxiety, I think from talking to them, is the sense that somehow they’re expected to solve all these problems on their own. And that clearly is unfair and unworkable. So, it’s really fun and powerful doing this kind of intergenerational organizing.
YCC: What strengths do older adults bring to this conversation?
McKibben: There are a lot of older Americans: 70 million of us over the age of 60. That’s bigger than the population of France. Multiply that by some factor because we all vote — there is no known way to stop old people from voting. And we ended up with most of the country’s financial resources: Fair or not, boomers and the Silent Generation have about 70% of the country’s money, compared with about 5% for millennials. So if you want to push around Washington, or Wall Street, or your state capital, it helps to have some people with hairlines like mine.
If you’re 19, you’re probably deeply engaged in the climate fight, but you also may not want, may not really need, an arrest record on your resume. One of the few unmixed blessings of growing older is past a certain point, what the hell are they going to do to you? We didn’t ask people as they were getting arrested by the thousands [at the Keystone pipeline protest] how old they were because that would be rude. But we did say “Who was president when you were born?” And the two biggest cohorts were from the FDR and the Truman administrations. It really confirmed my sense that older people were ready to play a much more active role in these things.
Now the drawback, theoretically, is that people become more conservative as they age. And that’s why I think no one’s really tried to organize this group for a long time, maybe since the Gray Panthers in the 1970s. But our sense is that if you’re in your 60s, or 70s, or 80s now, in your first act, you were around for that period of epic, social, cultural, and political transformation — the period when we started taking women seriously in public life, when we saw the apex of the civil rights movement, that first Earth Day with 10% of the population out marching. So this kind of activism is in our muscle memory, our kind of generational DNA, and we were pretty sure we’d be able to summon it back. And so we have.
It doesn’t look exactly the same. I mean, we did a big march against these banks with a bunch of youth a few months ago. We were in New York, and there were hundreds of high school kids there because there always are. So they were at the front of the march, and we were not keeping up. But there was a bunch of us behind from Third Act with a big banner that said “Fossils Against Fossil Fuels” and everybody enjoyed it. It was really powerful for young people who are feeling despairing and anxious to see elders backing them up.
YCC: How did the campaign to target the banks become one of Third Acts campaigns?
McKibben: [Fridays for the Future] organizers were some of the first to suggest [the campaign against big banks]. I’d done a lot of writing about banks and climate for the New Yorker and helped form this thing called “Stop the Money Pipeline” that was a big coalition of groups and they’ve been working hard on it. And really, once we picked this date, everybody joined in, and you know, they were 50 groups including the biggest environmental groups in the country, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club that rallied to join in. The whole thing was beautiful reminder of what a big, broad, diverse movement we have.
We carried out massive demonstrations against the big fossil fuel-funding banks, 100 demonstrations on the same day in March that ended with a huge sit-in conducted entirely in rocking chairs that closed down the four banks in Washington, D.C.
YCC: How else does Third Act support youth?
McKibben: We’ve been working hard to register young voters. We’ve had a project called Senior to Senior, where older people are writing letters to younger people, encouraging them to register to vote, telling them why voting has been important in their lives.
And this has been a fascinating project from both ends. I was recently at a retirement community giving a talk and afterwards they took me up to the nursing wing to meet one of the super volunteers there. She was confined to a bed because she was 97 and quite frail, but she was writing 10 and 15 letters a day because she wanted to continue having some effect on the world that she loved.
And meanwhile, for the young people getting them, it turns out if you’re 17, there’s a reasonable chance no one really ever wrote you an actual letter before in your life. You’ve gotten lots of Snapchats or something but precious few physical letters. And so they’re quite powerful.
In some ways, it’s made easier by the difference in ages, because generally, we’re talking about people who are the age of grandchildren and grandparents. And that’s an easier relationship, less fraught sometimes than parent and child. You know, everybody cuts their grandparents some slack, and all grandparents love their grandchildren no matter what they’re up to at the moment.
YCC: Who’s joining the group?
McKibben: We find a combination of people. We organize chapters not just by geography, though they are now springing up all over the country, but also by what you did in your lifetime. So, there’s Third Act lawyers, and Third Act educators, and Third Act people of faith, and on and on and on. There’s even a group of amazing union organizers, people who spent their lives as union organizers, and man, are they good at figuring out how to put pressure on things.
Some people have been at this work all their lives, or at least were very active in their youth, and some of their stories are amazing.
Heather Booth is on our board. She went south in 1964 with Freedom Summer to register voters in Mississippi, and now she’s registering voters across the country. When she got back from the South, she organized the Jane Collective to find access to abortion for people before Roe v. Wade. So there’s heroes like that. We have leaders like Sam Brown who organized the Vietnam Moratorium days in .
And there are also wonderful, heroic people who’ve never done the slightest thing like this in their life because, well, they were raising kids, working jobs, doing the things that people do. And now they have some time, and now they have a sense that, I guess when you get a little nearer the exit than the entrance, that legacy is something very real. It’s not an abstraction, it’s the world you leave behind for the people you love the most. And we’re in some danger of being the first generations to leave the world [a] much shabbier place than we found it. And people do not want that.
YCC: How have youth activists responded?
McKibben: With gratitude and relief for the most part. You know, there’s plenty of that “OK, boomer” sentiment out there in the world. But I think that as soon as people show that they’re willing to be good partners in this work that younger people are grateful. And younger people understand that there’s often lots of things to be learned from people who’ve been at this for a long time.
People are going outside their comfort zone because the planet is outside its comfort zone, and our democracy is outside its comfort zone. And so people are stepping up to that challenge, even if some of the time it means sitting down in rocking chairs.