The man who Time Magazine has called "the planet's best green journalist" lingered on campus Tuesday morning to eat breakfast in the Baker Center's Toyota Auditorium with a small gathering of students and professors.
Bill McKibben, the author and lecturer who wrote 2013's Life of the Mind book, "Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet," began his visit in Knoxville Monday night, speaking to some of the 4,300 freshmen UT has admitted this year, its largest class in over a decade.
The Monday night lecture focused on the book that all incoming students were instructed to read and discuss with their Welcome Week groups, but Tuesday's gathering allowed for a more vigorous question and answer session as well as a post-lecture photo opportunity.
Eric McKanly, a co-president of Students Promoting Environmental Activism in Knoxville (SPEAK) and a junior in chemistry, said he hoped the activist's radical message of environmental activism would resonate on a campus considering a fracking research project on UT property.
The proposal goes before the Board of Trustees at their October meeting.
"Whatever decision they make, we just want an opportunity for more voices to be heard and not swiftly thrown under the rug just to make it happen," McKanly said.During his speech, McKibbon briefly addressed the fracking discussion in the air after Nick Alderson, a senior in environmental studies, asked him to "explain why it is a bad idea for our university to conduct a fracking study on public land that was given to us by the state."
"There was a loaded question," McKibben laughed.
He went on to explain how fracking was once expected to become a "bridge fuel," one that would lead to a renewable future.
"When you burn it you generate about half as much carbon dioxide as you do when you're burning coal," McKibben said, "which would be good."
Despite the apparent benefit of fracking, McKibben warned of the danger of methane molecules, which are much more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
He cited a research project in Utah carried out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that found methane leak rates of 8 percent."If you do the math, a fracking operation with a leak rate of greater than about 2 percent is worse even than burning coal," he said to the nearly silent room. "If that research is even close to true, it will be disastrous."
The brief discussion of fracking was sandwiched between several other questions about environmental impacts through divestment campaigns, which represent student pressure on the university to reinvest money from fossil fuels into more sustainable sources.UT students passed a referendum in favor of divesting in the 2013 SGA election ballot, and McKibben said that for a major public research institution to do so could make a powerful political impact.
"If you really want to keep the conversation going, there has to be something at stake," he said. "It will be in the context of, 'are we going to divest our holdings in fossil fuel science or not?'
"If there's not a fight about that, it will fade away. People will move on to whatever the sort of daily things that their daily life is."
McKanly said SPEAK members and local activists met with McKibben on Monday afternoon before his Life of the Mind lecture to discuss the UT divestment campaign and its future, as well as the activism in Knoxville and on campus.
"He was able to give us some examples of other schools that were able to do that, one school in San Francisco," McKanly said after Tuesday's breakfast. "At the same time, we realize San Francisco is not Knoxville. He shared the sentiment that it's going to be much more difficult to get something like that accomplished."