Bill McKibben popped up in the Zoom window on my laptop screen looking a little haggard, perhaps showing his 60 years, having just spent many hours in the custody of the D.C. police. Logging in from his Washington hotel room, he had been arrested that morning in front of the White House, just one of the hundreds engaging in mass civil disobedience as part of the Indigenous-led The People vs. Fossil Fuels week of actions.
But appearances, especially as related to age, can be deceiving. There was not the slightest hint of fatigue in Bill’s voice. I’ve known him for more than two decades—the past ten years as a climate movement comrade—and he’s as tireless and irrepressible as ever. And that’s good to know, because McKibben’s latest initiative, Third Act—a nascent organizing network for people over 60, i.e. boomers for the most part, focusing on climate, voting rights, and racial justice—is going to keep him plenty busy.
McKibben and I were joined from Oakland, Calif., by his new colleague Akaya Windwood, a veteran organizational trainer, coach, and consultant to social change nonprofits, who recently came aboard as lead advisor on Third Act. Windwood, at age 65, has worked in racial justice and other social-movement organizing spaces for decades, and when McKibben came to her with the idea for Third Act, she immediately saw the potential to reenergize and reengage a large number of people who often seem to have gone missing from progressive activism—namely, their own generational cohort.
I talked with Windwood and McKibben about their project, and where they see Third Act fitting into the progressive landscape at a time when the generational dynamics of our politics are hard to ignore.
The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
I want to draw a little bit of a distinction between the sort of eternal idea of generations, people get older and whatever, and the particular time that we’re in, and the particular generation that we’re talking about, the boomers. The hope, I think, is that there’s a way to get those of us in that generation thinking a little differently about what our life story is. Because like all generations, it’s a unique one, marked by its own history. Which in this case means that those of us who are over the age of 60 at least bore witness to, if we didn’t participate in, pretty remarkable moments in the earlier parts of our lives. And I have a feeling that what happens in the earlier part of your life leaves a mark. So I think that’s the interesting challenge here.
But yeah, it’s not a surprise to me that younger people are not that happy with what, taken as a whole, this generation has been doing for the last few decades. And if I had to sum it up, I might say that we ended up more concerned with consumerism than citizenship.
AW: Exactly right.
BM: But now we’re at a different place, and that’s exciting. And we have lots of skills, maybe more than our share of resources, and you know, in many cases, kids and grandkids, lots of reasons for everybody to be thinking about legacy. And I think that there’s some ability to reach back a bit, to at least tell ourselves that our “third act” might be informed as much by our first as by our second.
And I’ll just say in the most utilitarian terms, in political terms, at the moment this block of 70 million people, 10,000 added every day, constitutes a fairly profound obstacle to change. We vote in very large numbers. We have a lot of assets compared to other generations, and we’re not really employing them at the moment to make change, to back up the kind of change that young people are demanding. We’re obviously not going to change that in any wholesale way, but if we change it in some ways, and change it for as many people as we can, that will help in what will be very close fights in the years ahead.
AW: I actually am a little more optimistic than that.
WS: OK, let’s hear it.
AW: Well, when we think about it, this loud boomer generation, we kind of cut our teeth, we were forged, in revolution. I was talking with someone recently, an old white guy, and kind of conservative, and he said [whispering], “At one point, I had longer hair.” [Laughter]
And that was telling to me. We have the memory of saying “This isn’t right” still in our generational DNA. Everybody I’ve talked to since Bill invited me in has gone, “Yes! Yes! Organize!” I have a feeling that the part of us that all had longer hair, back in the day, is not dead—and actually would be eager if we said, “Come on and play again.” So, to me, this moment is an opportunity for that memory, and I think it’s body memory—we’ve marched—that what we did, substantively, made a difference. And I’m betting that if we say, “Come on, let’s bring it again,” and we do it in a way that’s respectful of the next ones, there’s going to be quite a bit of appetite for it.
And when I’ve talked to the younger generations, I’ve said, for years, “Maybe it’s time for us to step aside, time for my generation to step the fuck out of the way.” And even as much as they strategize around us, I got a clear, “No, actually we don’t need you to do that. Please don’t step out of the way. We need you to step beside us. We need you to step with us, because we need some elders here. We’ve not been here before. You’ve got some wisdom that we need.”
BM: I very much hope that Akaya is absolutely right. She knows way more about organizing than I ever will.
WS: Bill, when you launched 350 in 2008—with a bunch of young people, by the way—it carried an implied critique of the environmental movement at that time. Something was missing, and there was a very felt need for it, both emotionally and strategically. Is it the same with Third Act? I’m not asking you to critique specific groups in the climate movement, or the broader progressive movement, but if you’re saying anything to younger people, especially younger leadership, what would that be?
BM: First thing is, there isn’t any implied critique at all, that I can think of. Just the opposite.
I feel like I’ve been through a little bit of this generational thing before. There was a time 15 or 20 years ago when everyone was looking around at young people, and saying, “Oh, kids today, they’re so apathetic.” I heard people say this over and over. And I never believed a word of that. That’s why I started 350 with seven college kids. You know, everybody I’ve organized with for years have been young people, a lot of ‘em anyway, and they’re fantastic, they’ve built this amazing youth movement. So I’m wary of people’s stereotypes about generations.
One of the things that really helped young people was that sense of agency that begins to emerge as movements build. There are a lot of forces in our society designed to make us not feel powerful. And part of organizing is just helping people feel their power, their potential power, emerge.
WS: Akaya, do you want to add something?
AW: Actually, what we’re saying that they need to hear is that we believe in them, that we actually have faith in what they’re bringing and what they’ll do. Our job, to be in deep relationship but not run the stuff, is really crucial here. Because I can tell you, I’ve mentored a bunch of folks over the years, and the best thing I can say is, “You’ve got this. I’m with you. I believe in you.” And people then rise to the occasion. It’s important for us as elders, as it were, to signal that consistently: “We got you. Go ahead. Go out. Be. Dream.” But we also need to say that to ourselves. If Third Act can say to the folks over 60, “We believe in ourselves, there’s something for us to bring, it’s different than what we brought before, and we believe in us,” I think that’s crucial.
BM: One of the things that young people I think have done a good job of modeling is how to connect up different movements in palpable ways.
AW: That’s right.
BM: And I don’t think that’s something that our generation, even in its beginning, was very good at.
WS: In the organizing spaces I’ve worked in, in the climate justice movement, those that have been most successful have always been an intergenerational effort, people of all ages working together. It seems that’s how you develop real intergenerational solidarity, when you learn how to work together. Is Third Act about older people doing their own thing, or is it part of that effort of linking up with others, being part of a broader movement?
AW: So this is where I think issues of race come into play. Because among Black folks, we knew as we were doing the civil rights work and the subsequent, even Black Lives Matter, it’s just always been cross-generations. That is just part of our cultural pattern. I couldn’t imagine, I mean, it’s just part of our culture. And I know Indigenous cultures that you just don’t do anything unless the elders come along. These are gross generalizations, but it’s actually true. So I think the kind of hyper-distinctive “boomers versus Xers versus millennials,” as though we are discrete from one another, is not necessarily centered on communities of color. And one of the things that we’re going to have to pay close attention to, as we build this idea out, is how do we reach back to those roots. Because I have a feeling, if we go back far enough, even for white folks—before you became “white,” when you were actually ethnic people from a particular ethnic group—generationally, those distinctions were not so evident either. I think it wasn’t until a certain kind of whiteness happened, where folks get cut off from those roots, and a kind of hyper-individualistic, “I shall do this myself” thing, that’s gotten us into so much trouble. I think this is in some ways a reknitting of a set of relationships that were artificially cut.
BM: I think that’s going to be one of the most interesting parts of this, trying to reknit some of that together.
My sense is, there’s actually a ton of latent desire out there, on both sides of this generational spectrum. No one likes the idea that their elders have sort of checked out of participation. I think people hope for a kind of solidarity.
AW: I would even say long for, yearn for—because they’re aware that something is missing. But isn’t that a lovely thing? That we would long for one another? Because as we go from longing, we then belong. And so how do we belong with one another again?
WS: If we’re really serious about climate, then we need more than just a “climate movement,” or even a “climate justice movement.” We need a broad “movement of movements” for democracy and human rights and social justice, the whole thing. Of course, that’s the promised land of progressive politics, and we never quite seem to get there, though maybe we’re making some headway on it these days. I’m curious how you see Third Act fitting into that picture?
AW: I’m appreciating Bill’s focus on climate and voting and racial justice, because that’s broad enough to actually name a lot of things. My guess is, if we do this right, various chapters, however this gets organized, will say, “That’s great, but we’re really focused on this.” And they can say, “Right now, gender is so much more salient to what we care about that we’re going to focus on that here,” and that we can still be an umbrella for that. So that the sort of cross-sectional movement aspects will organically emerge, as we do this work.
I hope that we’re not very prescriptive, that our job is to provide the architecture and the resources, and some of the thinking. The degree to which we can create a lot of spaciousness, so that people can say, “Yeah! I want to do that. And not only do I want to do it, but I have some folks who want to do it with me.” Amen. And so, I think that the intersectional work that’s been done by your generation and the next ones, for the most part, now there’s sufficient traction, there’s enough critical mass on that, that we don’t have to worry too much about insisting on it.
BM: One of the first things we want to figure out how to work on is voting rights and voter suppression. And partly that’s because it allows for this lens that history helps with. The single most useful thing that Congress might have done in my time on the planet might have been the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
AW: That’s right.
BM: Not that I was old enough to be fighting for it, but to watch it be eroded and taken away may be especially painful for people who have some sense of what it took to get it done. And that’s one of the parts that we can bring to that fight—a little bit of institutional memory. Also because there’s no way we’re going to deal with the climate crisis or anything else if we don’t have full participation by as many people as possible.
WS: So, I wonder, with boomers and older, if it’s about rediscovering their agency? I mean, I think it’s well past time for people my age, Xers—and especially the more privileged among us–to start taking some real risks with their commitments. I’m curious, Akaya, how you see that relationship to risk and asking people to, you know, up their game?
AW: I hear you. I’m stuck with the word “agency,” because I don’t love it. Because as boomers we have had a lot of agency. Too much. And so to shift our stance from having agency to having a responsibility to a larger whole, that is much greater than just us. That shifts how I think about agency. I actually don’t want us to have more agency. I want us to have more authentic, intimate, relationships—across generations, across movements, across race and class and gender and all those things. That’s the only way I can see us moving forward. It’s a covenant, perhaps—a set of obligations, in the best sense of the word—that we take care of the whole, and that that’s part of our job. It’s just, you know, you make a meal and you clean the dishes. And it’s no more complicated than that.
And if we are going to build the authentic, intimate relationships that we know we need in order to make this work, that is hugely risky, just that alone. It’s not about going to jail—or, as you say, that may be a piece of it—but more, it’s about risking being vulnerable with one another. Risking our identities, such as they may be, and being willing to really be different.
WS: I love that. So, when we’re talking about climate—and maybe this a question for Bill—I mean, it’s late, man. The hour is late. What does a theory of change, or a strategic vision to “win,” whatever winning may mean, look like at this late hour?
BM: Sure. At some level, winning means having more power than the fossil fuel industry to determine the outcome of political and economic debates. And over the last 10 years we’ve gotten some of the way there. We seem to have, in Congress, the power to call the question at this point, but maybe not the power to carry the question, as far as we need to, anyway. And the same on Wall Street. We have the power to raise the question. I don’t have a grand strategic vision, but it certainly won’t hurt to have a bunch more people in that space, and in all these spaces, all these fights, around voting rights and civil rights, and so many other facets of all this. At some level, one of the things movements need to do is have numbers of people.
WS: Do you feel a need for a lot more of those numbers of people you’re talking about, among older people and those who may be more privileged, to really throw down, really lay it on the line?
BM: Well, just today I’ve been getting arrested in front of the White House. So, the first time I did that, it was at the beginning of the Keystone demonstrations. In that case, I wrote the letter that asked people to come to Washington and get arrested. And one of the things I said in that letter, 10 years ago now, almost exactly, is we don’t think young people should have to be the main cannon fodder. Because if you’re 19 or 22, an arrest record may not be the best thing for your résumé. But past a certain age, what the hell are they going to do to you?
WS: I remember that line well.
BM: And so it was really good then to watch a lot of older people respond. It was really good to see that happen. And it was really good for young people who were there to see elders acting more in the way we probably need elders to act in a working civilization. Not, as you say, everybody getting arrested. That’s not on everybody’s bucket list, and doesn’t need to be. But our democracy is way outside its comfort zone, and so is our planet. That’s what the Arctic melting means. That’s what January 6th meant. So if democracy and the planet are outside the comfort zone, then it’s time for more of us to be outside our comfort zones. And there may be an odd way in which that gets a little easier, when you’re nearer the exit than the entrance.