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Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
Bill McKibben
St. Martin's Griffin, 2014
288 pp., $16.99

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Jonathan Hiskes


Who's Radical?

Bill McKibben's testimony.

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If that sounds confrontational, it is. McKibben, long fond of describing himself as a Sunday school teacher and mild-mannered Methodist, admits he can no longer hide behind those monikers. "I've changed, and not always for the best," he writes.

To keep himself grounded during the whirlwind of campaigning, he apprenticed himself to a beekeeper near his Vermont home. Kirk Webster is a longtime beekeeper who developed a hive-management method that promised to turn real profits selling hives and honey. In search of a dedicated young apprentice, Webster settled on McKibben—middle-aged and perpetually on the road (who also purchases land for Webster in exchange for training).

The "honey" thread of the book is not as dramatic as "oil" (how could it be?), but it offers a glimpse of what climate solutions look like on the ground. Although America has petroleum-intensive corporate farms and inspiring boutique farms, says McKibben, it needs more mid-sized farms that could help sustain low-carbon local economies.

Oddly, the beekeeping interludes end up highlighting how little Oil and Honey is about solutions. That's not a criticism, though. Protest and visionary solutions both have their roles. They are a sort of yin and yang, balancing each other. Elsewhere, in his books Hope, Human and Wild and Deep Economy, McKibben has sketched visions of successful climate-resilient communities.

That's an essential task. Americans may sense that our auto-dependent economy is sputtering, but uniting for a low-carbon future requires something to work for and not just against. We catch glimpses of this in Vermont's civic-minded communities and in the walkable urbanism of cities like Portland, Oregon.

We have policy tools for building out these solutions too. Carbon-pricing methods (cap-and-trade or a carbon tax) essentially tell industries they can't dump waste for free—the same standard we expect for other pollutants. Solar power, embraced in Germany, now provides that northern country with 30 gigawatts of electricity—the equivalent of 30 nuclear plants. And home-weatherizing programs bring a trifecta of benefits—lower energy usage, lower heating and cooling costs for families, and work for tradespeople that can't be outsourced to Asia.

McKibben aims to contribute something more: a mass movement to hold leaders accountable. To date, 350's divestment campaign has more than 300 colleges, religious groups, and cities and states working to rid their endowments of fossil-fuel investments. Students have faced the same objections that opponents of South African apartheid faced: it won't work, it's impossible to disentangle complicated investment funds, leave this to grownups. The work continues.

The aim of divestment is to drain the vast financial reserves of fossil fuel companies, and the influence over politicians that comes with it. But it has a deeper goal too. For young people in particular, the campaign is a way of asserting control over what we think of as normal and what we think of as radical. We think of men in business suits as normal and protesters in tie-dye and dreadlocks as radical. The businessman's habits are normal, even if those habits involve pumping enough carbon dioxide into the skies to fuel heat waves, droughts, fires, and hurricanes. The protestor's sweaty fervor is radical, even if her purpose is to preserve something as benign as frosty January mornings, northern honeybees, and sugar maples resting dormant as they have for thousands of winters.

Perhaps, at this historical moment, our understanding of normal and radical is backward. The oil and coal executives altering the chemical composition of the atmosphere to make money are radical. The students marching to preserve the climate we've known for centuries are sensible—conservative, even.

Jonathan Hiskes is a writer at Bastyr University in Seattle. His reporting has appeared online at The Guardian, Mother Jones, Grist, Sustainable Industries, and Comment.

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