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Bill McKibben, Oil and honey (Review)

November 20, 2013
Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey

Courtesy: Black Inc

It’s coincidental, but nicely appropriate, that the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its Provisional Statement on the Status of the Climate in 2013 last week, just as I was finishing US environmental activist Bill McKibben‘s latest book, Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist. It’s likewise coincidental that, three days before WMO’s announcement, Stefanie (of So Many Books) published a post titled Gardening for Climate Change* containing her thoughts on her garden and how climate change might affect it.

WMO’s statement says, among other things, that “During the first nine months of 2013, most of the world’s land areas had above-average temperatures, most notably in Australia, northern North America …”. As you know, I live in Australia; Bill McKibben and Stefanie live in the northern part of the USA. We are seeing (feeling) the changes, and are concerned. What I’m going to say next is pretty obvious, but I’m going to say it anyhow because I always like to start with the basics in discussions like this. There are two critical issues in the climate change debate: Is the climate changing and, if it is, Is it human-caused? It’s hard to imagine, given all the data available, that there’s anyone out there who really believes the climate is not changing, though I believe there are still some who think it’s simply a case of “climate variability”. These people think that the climate will get back to normal (some year soon, they hope). The trickier issue, however, is the causal one. Most of the deniers are not so much denying that the climate is changing, but that we are causing it. This brings me to Bill McKibben.

McKibben does not, in Oil and honey, spend time trying to prove that humans are causing climate change. For him it’s a given. Rather, he shares how he changed from being an environmentalist, who researched and wrote books, to an environmental activist who campaigns (and writes books). It’s an interesting, clearly written book about one man and his path, but can also be read as a how-to for those who want to get active.

You may now, though, be wondering about the title. Oil and honey? I’m sure there’s an ironic allusion here to the biblical “land of milk and honey” (which we are not heading towards), but there is also a literal meaning to the title. The narrative shifts pretty seamlessly between his two main passions. One is to do with bees, honey and good farming practice. The other is oil, or the fossil fuel industry, and how to stop its impact on the climate. Oil and honey, climate and farming. It’s all related.

You may also be wondering, particularly if you’re not American, who Bill McKibben is. As the blurb on the back of my edition says, he has written over a dozen books including the New York Times bestselling Eaarth and The end of nature. He also founded the environmental organisation 350.org and “was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming”. Despite all this, he did not until recently see himself as an activist. After graduating, he worked as a journalist for The New Yorker for five years, but quit in 1987 when its long-term editor was forced out of his job. Since then he has been a freelance writer.

Oil and honey is his latest book. I’d call it part-memoir part-manifesto, because it is both the personal story of his transition to full-blown activism and the story of his passion for saving the planet. The personal aspect of the book helps make it a good read. We get to understand his thinking, we feel his anxiety about becoming not only an activist but a leader of activists, and we learn that his activist philosophy is inspired by the non-violent resistance ideas of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. We see his love for nature and for working close to the land on the bee-farm he bought for his friend Kirk Webster to run. This farm functions both as respite and as a place for him to see land stewardship working.

That’s the memoir aspect. In the manifesto aspect, he shares with us the development of his ideas and strategies. We learn of various campaigns he has been involved in since 2009, including Step It Up, Keystone XL,  Do the Math. And he explains how he and his co-activists have shifted from focusing on politics and politicians – through such activities as sit-ins at the White House and lobbying politicians – to directly tackling the fossil fuel industry. He came to realise, he says, that the situation was/is becoming so dire there’s no time “for slow graceful cultural evolution”. Consequently, the last part of the book deals with the goal of encouraging educational institutions to divest their investment portfolios of fossil fuel industries. They’ve targeted educational institutions because students represent a significant percentage of climate change activists. For these students the question is simple:

are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?

I’ve only touched the surface of what this book covers. Like many books of its type, chances are that it will only be read by the converted. That’s a bit of a shame, but it’s not useless says McKibben:

You might think it’s a waste to preach to the choir, but the truth is, you need to get the choir fired up, singing loudly, all out of the same hymnal. The choir is there, but most of the time it’s just humming in the background, or singing so many tunes that no distinct harmony emerges.

So, if you’re part of the choir, this book is still for you. And if you’re not, think about joining. It could be the most important thing you do.

Bill McKibben
Oil and honey: The education of an unlikely activist
Collingwood: Black Inc, 2013
255 pp.
ISBN: 9781863956178

(Review copy supplied by Black Inc)

* Stefanie has since posted a link to a British blog called Climate Change Garden.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 21, 2013 2:36 am

    Thanks. As part of the choir, I appreciate both you and McKibben.

    • November 21, 2013 2:59 am

      Ah good, Marilyn, thanks. I enjoyed this read more than I expected to – it was engaging and personable rather than preachy though he clearly had messages.

  2. debbierodgers permalink
    November 21, 2013 3:33 am

    This book addresses two of my “hot” issues. I’m especially concerned about the collapse in honeybee populations and expect a global famine any year soon (only half-joking). I’ve put this on my ‘must-read’ list. Thanks for the recommendation and thoughtful review.

    • November 21, 2013 8:12 am

      Thanks Debbie … This book sounds right up your alley then. There’s quite a lot about organic bee or honey farming in it.

  3. November 21, 2013 4:54 am

    No, no Canada most certainly did not have above average temperatures at the beginning of 2013. Everyone said to me it was one of the worst and longest winters in their memory. Unless, by reversing his statement, it’s still true, climate-change-ily?

    • November 21, 2013 8:14 am

      Was that Canada or your part of Canada, Hannah? The data is for northern North America as a whole so the average was apparently higher for that whole region. I’m assuming this includes the northern US States. Unless the WMO is lying?

  4. November 21, 2013 6:11 am

    Even with our long winter this year and cool wet spring, Minnesota still averaged 2-5 degrees above normal every month. And this fall, we continue. I don;t know when the last time we had a month with normal or below normal average temperature. It’s alarming. McKibben has essays now and again in the New York Review of Books and even among that crowd which I would think be overwhelmingly sympathetic, there are still plenty of letters the next month attacking McKibben. Very sad. I might have to give this one a read. The choir does indeed need to be fired up from time to time!

    • November 21, 2013 8:18 am

      Oh I know what you mean Stefanie re adverse comments in places you don’t expect them. I’m surprised at some of the emotive arguments I see on our academic supported blog, The conversation. McKibben actual quotes a few of the negative mail he’s received. Vituperative is almost too soft a word to describe it. I wish the book had an index so I could easily go back to find “stuff”. Probably a good one for the kindle!

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