Environmental activist to receive Thomas Merton Award next week

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Bill McKibben, the globe-trotting activist from New England whose early sounding of the alarm about global warming in his 1989 book “The End of Nature” made him the climate change movement’s Paul Revere, will ride into Pittsburgh next week for the second time in less than a month.

Mr. McKibben, a prolific author of books and magazine articles about the environment, nature and conservation topics, also is founder of 350.org, a global grassroots organization formed to combat global warming, and this year’s recipient of the Thomas Merton Award, which he will accept Monday evening at the center’s annual fundraiser dinner.

The award has been given annually by the Garfield-based peace and justice organization since its founding in 1972 to honor “a nationally or internationally known activist with a lifelong passion of working toward the goal of a better world,” said Diane McMahon, the center’s managing director.

“Bill McKibben has written extensively about climate change and worked around the world to get people to recognize the problem,” Ms. McMahon said.

Mr. McKibben has written more than a dozen books about a host of environment, nature and conservation topics, leading Time magazine to describe him in 2010 as “the world’s best green journalist,” and earning praise from the Boston Globe as “probably the nation’s leading environmentalist.”

Mr. McKibben, who was in Pittsburgh in mid-October to speak at the youth activist conference Power Shift, said in a phone interview from his home in Vermont last week that climate change is the biggest problem the globe has faced and a new youth movement must be mounted if the world as we know it is to survive.

“Young people are the heart and center of the climate change movement all over the world, and my message at Power Shift was to keep it up to the extent that we can finally build a movement and take the fight against burning fossil fuels to the next level,” he said.

His 350.org organization — named after the parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that scientists say is the upper safe level to avoid risks of irreversible impacts from climate change events like the melting of the Greenland ice sheet — has coordinated 15,000 rallies in 189 countries since 2009.

His focus now is an international “Divest from Fossil Fuels Campaign,” championed on the Thomas Merton website, that is asking individuals, universities, religious organizations and governments to divest their investments in companies that extract, sell, use, promote or profit from continued use of coal and natural gas ­— fossil fuels.

He said divestiture groups have formed at 380 universities including 10 that have already moved to divest their fossil fuel holdings, more than a dozen cities in the U.S. and a number of religious denominations, most prominently the United Church of Christ.

The Merton Center’s Environmental Justice Committee is circulating a petition for signatures to urge the City of Pittsburgh to divest its investments in fossil fuel companies.

“We’re finally building a movement around this issue, though we’re still not strong enough to defeat the industry, which is so strong with all its money,” said Mr. McKibben.

“We’re working now in the U.S., Europe and Australia and it’s very exciting to see this thing spread so fast,” he said. “But I also realize this work will continue to be hard. Twenty percent of the U.S. is in denial and probably always will be. But ideology, though intractable, isn’t science.”

Mr. McKibben said he’s honored to receive an award named for Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk, mystic and one of the most well-known and prolific Catholic writers of the 20th century, who died in 1968. He said he knew about Merton because his wife, writer Sue Halpern, had written about him in her book “Migrations to Solitude.”

“My faith plays an important part in my work, and good faith communities getting more involved are part of that,” he said. “My knowledge and love for Merton makes this a real honor.”

Past winners of the Thomas Merton Award populate a progressive pantheon, and include Dick Gregory (1974), Joan Baez (1975), Daniel Berrigan (1988), Molly Rush (1992), Winona LaDuke (1996), Studs Terkel (1998), Wendell Berry (1999), Cindy Sheehan (2007), Dennis Kucinich (2009), Noam Chomsky (2010) and Martin Sheen (2012).

Tickets to the Merton Center fundraiser and award dinner from 6 to 9 p.m., Monday, at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel on the South Side can be purchased by calling 412-361-3022.

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.

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