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Illustrations by Niki Usagi

Episode 7: Patti Smith and Bill McKibben Combine Forces for Climate Justice

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Tackling climate change can feel so overwhelming, but the featured guests in this episode approach their climate justice work one event at a time. Punk icon Patti Smith, along with her friend, writer and activist Bill McKibben, stages inspiring events that use music, poetry and letter-writing (yes, letter-writing, in the middle of rock concerts) to mobilize against climate change.

Read Episode 7 Full Transcript Below


A black-and-white photo of host and writer Ashley C. Ford, a Black woman with close-cropped hair wearing an off-shoulder top and dangly earrings. Brittany Falussy

ASHLEY [VO]: I’m Ashley C Ford and this is Into the Mix, a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast about Joy and Justice, produced with Vox Creative. Let’s get into it.

Today, we start with someone who is not an organizer or an activist. At least according to her.

Patti Smith is many things, though. She’s a musician. An artist. A writer. A cultural icon who came of age in New York City during the gritty 1970s. She’s known as punk’s poet laureate because of the way she weaves poetry and rock together. But really, her creative work isn’t easily defined by one medium.

And while she occupies a place in our culture as a true rock legend, she blends right in with most New Yorkers. She’s tall, reaching towards 6 feet, but from her slightly slouched body language, you might not guess that she’s spent so much time on stage.

Of course, as a musician and a poet she has. And these days, some of those appearances are to call attention to the urgency of climate change.

I’m interested in talking with her for many reasons, but it’s the way she uses her creative talents to draw attention to this crisis that interests me here today. Even if she won’t call herself an activist.

Photo Credit: Steven Sebring

PATTI: I’m essentially an artist. I’m really not an organizer. I’m not, um, I’m not even that, you know, politically attuned. Um, I really, um, I’m moved by common sense. I’m moved by common sense and love and what is best for the human condition.

[SFX: Ambi of a field comes in, birds, grass rustling]

PATTI: Our earth is suffering, you know, and our species are suffering. And when I think as a child, how I would walk through a meadow and there’d be hundreds and hundreds of butterflies and hummingbirds and you know, and wild flowers and herbs everywhere, and you just felt life everywhere. And I feel. I’m starting to feel that life drained away and, uh, and sensing a loss.

We all have to do better. We all have to do whatever we can do, the smallest gesture. Attending to our environment and climate change is the number one issue for humanity.

ASHLEY: There’s a role for the artists in activist spaces. And I’m wondering from your perspective, what’s the most powerful thing that an artist can keep in mind as they attempt to collaborate with activists in these spaces?

PATTI: I could never count myself as an activist, but I do know one, one can sense that they have a certain amount of worth and to use that wisely.

We can incite change. Artists don’t change the world. The people change the world. United we can do, we really can do anything. But we have to believe that we can do anything united. And, um, yeah, sorry. I feel like I was going to start singing in a moment.

ASHLEY: I love that you went full artist for me. I love it. That was inspirational!

[MUX: Music with piano lead comes in]

ASHLEY [VO]: None of this is new. This passion for the environment, this urgency for change. These days, Patti channels her activist energies on stage at an event called Pathway to Paris, which we will get to in a moment.

But to be honest, Patti has been concerned about the climate since she was a girl.

PATTI: Well, I mean, my activism was very, um, very small, but, uh, when I grew up in the early fifties, they started to invent disposable items. Disposable pens, paper towels and um, disposable, uh, razors. And all of this was very shocking to me. I thought it was very wasteful and, um, I refused to use them.

ASHLEY: I know that somebody like you, I would think of as an elder in a lot of these fights toward a more equitable world, um, toward a more just world. Do you see yourself the same way?

PATTI: Well, I am an elder. I, you know, I’m 75, I’ve seen a lot. I always thought of myself the way I was raised, we were really raised to be, uh, humanist.

My mother and father, you know, they tended and took care of anyone they could take care of.

And, um, I, I just tried to proceed through life, you know, with my parents as an example, and then you know, looking at my children, I feel that, uh, you know, they magnify their, their mother and father and their understanding of our world.

Illustrations by Niki Usagi

ASHLEY: You have this wonderful daughter who is doing all of these amazing things specifically in the climate activism space. How has she changed your relationship to activism over time?

PATTI: Oh, she absolutely has. Um, she’s inspired me and she continues to, uh, teach me. You know, that, that song, teach your parents well? She has um, as a child, she was already concerned about our environment.

And now she has, you know, um, started Pathway to Paris. I’ve done so many, concerts and, and events with, Pathway to Paris, but they’re more than concerts.

ASHLEY [VO]: Pathway to Paris takes a creative approach to activism, one that very much marries art and culture with clear actions for the climate movement.

It’s named after the Paris Agreement, and a goal to turn the international treaty on climate change into a reality. They use the setting of concerts and festivals to activate people in that moment, like writing letters to their local politicians.

PATTI: Sometimes you, you’ll do something for a certain cause. And through the night, you wonder what the cause is. It seems to have vanished within a rock and roll concert. She doesn’t do that. She’s um, uh, I’m amazed. She, she brings people from all over the world. Speakers, action, Bill McKibben.

Jesse really has counted Bill is as, uh, as one of her mentors. But just see, seeing him at work on the stage, getting people, motivating people in the middle of, of, of a concert, to, to, uh do something. Some type of action and instill them and make them, uh, make them happy to do it or shame them into doing it.

He is relentless. He’s got so much joyful energy, even though like us all, he’s heartbroken over so many things. But he just gets up there and, and, and gets people working and, uh, you know, rolls up his sleeves. And I just, I just think he’s a wonderful person.

ASHLEY [VO]: Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and a journalist who has written extensively about climate change. He literally wrote the book on climate change. Actually. Literally. He wrote it!

BILL: I wrote the first book on climate change uh, thirty three years ago now, I guess. Um, and I’ve been at work on it ever since in one way or the other.

ASHLEY: What made you title that first book, The End of Nature? Because I got to tell you, you sound like someone who has a lot of hope and faith in the future of humanity. But “the end of nature” sounds kind of like, you know, the end of us.

BILL: Yeah. Um, so the title is, I mean, look, this is a truly serious crisis. It’s the worst problem that humans have ever wandered into. But the title was really more about the end of our idea of the natural world as a place independent of human beings.

ASHLEY: Can you share a little bit about the spaces you grew up in? Did you spend a lot of time in nature as a kid? Did you grow up in a space where your community valued spending time in nature?

BILL: I grew up in the suburbs. But my family, my father in particular, was always a great, uh, lover of the outdoors.

Every vacation we’d head for the mountains and do some hiking. And so on. So those things were always important to me, but it’s not where I thought I would really end up.

But this work around the climate intruded in profound ways. Uh, you know, I really began to realize that this was the most important story in the world and, and that no one else was covering it.

Um, and, so I kept writing books, Ashley. For some years and speaking and things, but at a certain point, it became clear to me that I kind of miss-analyzed the problem. That is to say, uh, because I’m a writer, I thought that we were engaged in an argument and that the way to win an argument was to pile up facts and data and reason.

And that’s what we did. And we won the argument. I mean, there was no doubt about what was going on, but we were still losing the fight. Because the fight with the fossil fuel industry was not about facts and data and reason. The fight was about what fights are usually about money and power.

ASHLEY: I know that I was probably first introduced to the idea of climate change – though, I don’t think it would have been called climate change or that anybody called it that when I was a kid – Um, in terms of just kids being taught about what we can and can’t do to recycle or how to, you know, make sure that we’re not using too much water when we shower to save the whales or something like that.

And it wasn’t until I got well into my college years that I discovered that climate change was something that was affecting us at a much greater scale and certainly beyond what would have been what I thought were my individual choices. I thought that, you know, it was really going to come down to whether or not I separated my plastics and my glasses in, you know, my, my trash that I put out. And the knowledge that we have about it has become so sophisticated.

I mean, even just in the last 20 years. So when was it first presented to you? Or when did you first encounter it as like, this is a real issue and why am I just now learning about it?

BILL: So really the world learned about climate change in the late 1980s. Uh, and we can really almost pick the date in June of 1988 when James Hanson, uh, a great, the most important climate scientist in the world, testified before Congress.

And it was a hot day in June of 1988. The country was in the midst of a very deep heat wave. Uh, the drought along the Mississippi was so bad that they, barges were no longer able to travel the river.

And Jim Hanson testified before Congress that we now had enough data to show that humans were heating the planet and that it was going to be a very serious problem. And you know, it was, uh, within a year of that, I’d published The End of Nature.

And, um, that’s when all of this came into focus. And at first, Ashley, it looked like people were going to try and do something about it.

But as we now know, within a year or so, the fossil fuel industry had rallied. They’d uh, gone and hired all the people who used to work for the tobacco industry. And they set about spending large sums of money to build this architecture of deceit and denial and disinformation that kept us locked for 30 years in this completely sterile debate about whether or not global warming was real.

We now know that the oil companies knew it was real. They knew it was coming. But they didn’t tell the rest of us. And instead they told what turns out probably to be the most consequential lie in human history. Because it’s cost us the one thing we most desperately needed, which was time.

We do have one piece of very good news, which is that the scientists and engineers have really done their job and they’ve dropped the price of sun power and wind power and the batteries to store them. About 90% in the last decade. So there’s no longer really a technological or economic obstacle in the way. If we wanted to make rapid change, we could. It just is gonna take a huge, huge effort. The kind of effort that in the past, we’ve reserved for fighting wars.

ASHLEY: It’s, you know, the weird thing is, as I listened to you speak, I don’t feel hopelessness. What I actually feel is kind of a weird relief that somebody just saying it all out loud. Like it actually feels oddly relieving to talk to someone and really not only hear the true gravity of it, but to also hear that like, ‘Yeah, there’s still there’s things you can do. There’s can do.’

BILL: There are things we can do. And there were people trying to do it.

MUX

ASHLEY [VO]: Plenty of times in life, we’re taught that as individuals, we can barely make a dent in our biggest, most complex problems. But that undermines all of the incredible work being done. Some of which we’ve been featuring in this show, of course.

But one of the biggest threats when it comes to climate change is actually inaction; keeping things the way they are. Believing that one person can’t make a difference.

Illustrations by Niki Usagi

BILL: The most important thing an individual can do is be less of an individual. To join together with others in movements, big enough to change the basic political and economic ground rules.

Movement is key. And sometimes that movement looks like dancing.

ASHLEY [VO]: After the Break, we hear more about Pathway to Paris, and Patti Smith singing on stage.

BILL: If nothing else, say what you will about baby boomers, I’ll fight you, we had the best music that there ever was.

MIDROLL BREAK

PATTI: I’ve never been, uh, to a, um, a benefit, uh, concert where people had the guts really to stop the music. Um, talk about, you know, the things that were important. And then do it, an action live on stage.

ASHLEY: At one event at Carnegie Hall, Jesse and Bill, and the crowd wrote letters to the New York City Comptroller asking him to divest the city’s pension fund from fossil fuels. And, like the first day of school, they came prepared.

PATTI: There were pens and paper under the seat.

BILL: And we collected those 3,000 letters.

PATTI: That is right during the event. I thought, oh my gosh, how are people going to respond to this? And people, you know, they, they joyfully get involved.

BILL: Jesse and I went and mailed them actually at the big post office in the center of Manhattan. And within a month, um, the comptroller of the city of New York had divested the city’s $250 billion pension fund.

ASHLEY [VO]: The comptroller set a plan to fully divest the pension fund within five years, actually, not a month. And they did it, by 2021.

PATTI: They have made a difference.

ASHLEY [VO]: At each Pathway event, they always make sure to mix in action with the art and music. It’s a part of their effectiveness.

BILL: Pathway to Paris always charges me up because, um, pretty much every on every occasion, I think we’ve ended up, uh, at the end with everybody on stage and Patti Smith leading everybody in her great anthem, “People Have the Power.”

PATTI: [humming] Dah nah num. Um, mm, mm.

We wrote the song, “People Have the Power” that, um, both, uh, addressed the strength of the individual. But, uh, the endless possibilities of change through a united people.

And, I’m trying to think. It says, “the people have the power to redeem the work of fools. Upon the meek, the grace is showered. It’s decreed, the people rule. And I believe everything we dream can come to pass through our union. We can turn the world around. We can turn the Earth’s revolution. For the people have the power.”

ASHLEY: That sounds to me like an earned hope. You know what I mean? That doesn’t sound to me like I’m like empty gestures, platitudes. That sounds so much like, uh, like asking people to trust you.

PATTI: Well, trust themselves! Trust, trust their ability. You know, if each individual understood that, you know, the power of good is in their hands. And, um, and we all united with that purpose. And we, and we strolled there together, none to laugh nor criticize. I mean, the, the idea of the song is, once again, it’s a humanist song.

ASHLEY [VO]: There are more ways than one to activate people. Even Bill, who knows the cold, hard numbers about climate change, he very much sees the value in an artist, a guitar and an activist on stage.

BILL: What a ride to get to watch and work with, um, Pathways Paris over the years.

Part of the problem is shifting the zeitgeist, uh, shifting people’s sense of what’s normal and natural and obvious. And that’s what, where culture is so important.

PATTI: [humming] Mm, mm, mm, mm, dah, dah, dah, dah mm.

ASHLEY: During our interview, Jesse Paris Smith was right outside the studio. She had accompanied her mom there. And while we talked, Jesse was actually pacing, nose buried in her phone. This was the week that Russia invaded Ukraine and she was working on videos her mom was making about the violence. As we talked about Pathway to Paris, Patti, in her humble way, kept deferring to her daughter.

PATTI: I feel like I should go and get, Jessie’s in the other room. You should be asking Jesse these questions. I can’t give you the most accurate questions. I feel like I should be opening the door and asking her.

ASHLEY: She did this more than once. So finally, we did go and invite Jesse into the room.

[Sound of Jesse opening the door to the studio]

PATTI: Ashley, here is Jesse.

JESSE: Hello. Wait, I wanna see you. Oh, this is so fancy.

ASHLEY: Jesse and her Pathway to Paris co-founder Rebecca Foon have an enormous task ahead of them. And I was curious, with an issue as large and pressing as climate change, how does she measure the success? For herself and for the movement.

JESSE: Um, I think that there are so many different kinds of success. Like I obviously, I have such a great feeling when we do an initiative where 3,000 people will write a letter and it will cause a change to happen that’s public and inspires other cities to make, um, similar changes like those big, um, like tangible, um, successes are really great.

But I also feel that, You know, when I was younger, I thought I had to be like a climate scientist or have like a master’s in whatever, like something related to climate science, or be a politician, but then I realized, no, I can just use the, my own vocation to do what I can. So that’s what we try and tell everyone. Everybody has um, an important role to play.

PATTI: [humming] Dah, dah, dah, dah.

ASHLEY: But we’re not done yet! We couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to Vermonter, Bill McKibben. You didn’t think we forgot to say goodbye to him did you?

ASHLEY: So we’re having this conversation for the Ben & Jerry’s podcast. And that is because Ben & Jerry’s obviously takes this very seriously. They are a very activist minded company. Can you describe how you think of the organization, Ben & Jerry’s, in relation to your climate work?

BILL: I’ll tell you a story.

The very first large-scale – though it wasn’t all that large – climate demonstration in the US may have been something that I organized in 2006 here in Vermont, where we marched across the state for five days, uh, sleeping in farm fields at night and whatever. We got to Burlington, our big city, there were about a thousand of us marching.

Ben & Jerry’s was there along on that first journey too, um, and helping feed people, helping people’s, keep people’s spirits up. Um, and, and, and that’s been a truly important role.

Um, just as music is key, so is food in helping us figure out how we’re going to build the world that we need. These are things we share. Um, and, and Ben & Jerry’s always there. So we’re always grateful.

ASHLEY: Bill McKibben. Thank you so much for your time. I very much appreciate it.

MUX


ASHLEY: Into the Mix is a Ben & Jerry’s Podcast produced by Vox Creative and ABF Creative. This episode was written by Jessica Glazer. Production help from Ken Miles and Gary Swaby. The Vox Creative team includes Executive Producer Annu Subramanian, Lead Producer Jessica Glazer, Production Coordinator Veronica Guity, and Production Manager Taylor Henry. The team also includes associate director of client success, Ryan Phelan.

The team from ABF Creative includes Head of Production Wanda Reynolds, Executive Producer Anthony Frasier and Producer Mike Bisceglia. Sound design, mixing and mastering by Chris Mann. Original music by Israel Tutson. Fact checking by Girl Friday Productions.

The Ben & Jerry’s team includes Jay Tandon, Jay Curley, Emily D’Alessandro and Chris Miller.

I’m Ashley C Ford. Thanks for listening.

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