Responding to Bill McKibben’s book Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2014)
In 1989, when he was still in his twenties, Bill McKibben wrote The End of Nature. It was his first book and the first of its kind, a book on climate change written for non-scientists. It was a best seller, translated “into a couple of dozen languages.” He continued to write, more books, magazine articles, op-eds, and blog posts, hoping that people would be persuaded about the climate dangers facing the world and change how they lived.
When changes did not occur even after twenty years had passed, Bill concluded that more direct action was necessary and that he had to take the lead. He gathered friends from across the country, consulted with experts on activism, and recruited students from the Vermont college where he taught.
Early in their consultations, they decided that the oil industry had to be their target and they focused attention upon a project that previously had been little known, a pipeline proposal called Keystone XL that was designed to transport almost a million gallons a day of oil pumped from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Construction was underway and all that seemed still to be needed was approval from President Obama who had already given signs that he was likely to approve.
Bill and his collaborators formed an organization entitled 350.org. He cross-crossed the nation, making speeches to audiences that kept growing in number. He led protests, frequently being one of the people arrested. During this period of time, the nation was experiencing increasingly serious weather that seemed to confirm what Bill and other activists were saying, but even so there seemed to be little response from business or political leaders. Dangers because of human impacts upon climate continued to become more threatening.
At the same time that he was learning to be an activist in the campaign against big oil, Bill was becoming an activist of a radically different kind. He became friend and then business partner with Kirk Webster, a reclusive Vermont beekeeper who was developing what Bill describes as “a very different, very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity.” In 1985, Kirk had begun raising bees and selling colonies, queens, and honey. Despite the increase of disease everywhere that was decimating the bee population, Kirk was determined to pioneer a better response, which was to refuse the use of chemicals and develop bees resistant to disease and adapted to new conditions, including those brought about by climate change.
He lived alone, made no use of the internet and other technologies that seem to dominate the lives of most people today. When Bill needed respite from his battle against big oil, he spent time on Kirk’s little farm, helping him during the course of an entire year covered by the book. Kirk was demonstrating the “wonderful kind of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place” (p. 2).
Late in the book, Bill gives the moral of his double narrative. It is not what one oil executive was saying, that global warming is an “engineering problem with engineering solutions,” and that as weather changes require us to move crops around we’ll adapt. Rather, Bill writes: we should instead start producing a nation of careful, small-scale farmers such as Kirk Webster, who can adapt to the crazed new world with care and grace, and who don’t do much damage in the process.” Already, Bill continues, people are making that change. In the previous year, after a century of decline, there had been “a net gain of thirty thousand farms in the country. And almost all the new ones are small” (p. 167).
At book’s end, Bill was coming to a second conclusion. Despite the success of his activism, including the public acclaim he was receiving, the life he was living didn’t feel like his life. “[I]t wasn’t me, or at the least it wasn’t the me that used to be the one that wrote difficult books, that had time to figure things out instead of just reacting.” He supposes that some people thrive on the constant rush of the internet and public action, but he concludes that he is not one of them. “A writer, if you think about it, is someone who has decided that their nature requires them to hole up in a room and type. You can violate your nature for a while, but eventually it takes a toll” (p. 239).
I for one am glad that Bill McKibben is a writer and continues to bless the world with what he writes. Oil and Honey is one more proof that his proper work is putting words on paper and giving them to the world—words that describe reality, identify wrong doing, propose new possibilities, and give us hope. In the paperback edition that I read, Bill writes a new afterword, describing a change of mind that he was experiencing, one that depended much less upon a few leaders than upon movements of people, vast numbers of people everywhere who develop new ways of life and resist the energy-hungry, climate-changing way of life that now is threatening to destroy the world.
He sees an analogy in what the power industry describes as “distributed generation.” Instead of a few huge power plants, what we need are “ten million solar arrays on ten million rooftops” linked together to provide the electricity we need. While we need a few gifted people to lead us forward, even more, we need millions of ordinary people who are changing the way they live in order to live better lives and, while there’re at it, saving the world. Together, we are “fighting for a world with less oil and more honey.”