“Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,” by Bill McKibben. Times Books (Henry Holt and Company), New York, 2013 (272 page. $26)
Bill McKibben makes the case in his new book that there is now no doubt that our highly industrialized, urban, commercial and ultra-competitive lives are irrational. There is reason to believe that a warming climate could have dire consequences, among which are rising ocean levels, increased human disease, great droughts and even greater storms, the destruction of agricultural productivity, desertification of large parts of North America, Africa and central Asia, and animal extinctions. Global warming is the direct result of mankind’s addiction to fossil fuels, he writes. When burned they release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere which acts as an insulator, keeping in heat which would ordinarily radiate or reflect away from the earth.
McKibben’s book, “Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist,” undertakes to answer a number of personal, political and moral questions. McKibben is the author of “The End of Nature,” a chronicle of our species’ increasing alienation from the natural world, a book which stands alongside “Silent Spring” as a call to action and a warning. In a dozen books, McKibben has investigated industrial mono-culture agriculture, individual environmental stewardship, and population issues, and most recently the nature of our own capitalist approach to economic activity. He is the founder of the environmental organization 350.org., a non-profit fighting the influence of the mega-fossil-fuel industry by warning of the dangers of global warming.
“Oil and Honey” recounts a personal crisis McKibben underwent during 2011, when record drought on most of the North American continent combined with record Arctic melting and a record hurricane Irene scouring the Atlantic, to scourge the country. McKibben realized that something more than books is needed if the powerful forces of the oil and gas industry and its political allies and serfs in Washington were to be confronted and overcome. As a writer and “rural Methodist”, activism did not come naturally to McKibben, though he was used to public speaking. And so it was in the summer of 2011 that McKibben found himself behind bars, having led the largest civil disobedience protest (against the Keystone XL pipeline) in thirty years. More than twelve hundred demonstrators went to jail with him as the fight for a sustainable economy was elevated to public consciousness.
Part of “Oil and Honey” recounts McKibben’s many travels and travails as a newly minted activist. From picket lines and arenas to universities and town halls, McKibben takes the fight to the people, a gutsy and exhausting battle that took place against the backdrop of a heated presidential debate in 2012. At the same time, McKibben partnered with Vermont natural beekeeper Kirk Webster, an innovative non-chemical agriculturalist, to produce natural honey for local consumption in the face of what has become a plague of chemically adulterated Chinese commercial honey. McKibben’s book is thus the chronicle of two sides of the environmental battle – the intensely personal and local which centers on individual responsibility and humility, and the national and political, which hinges on mass movements, logistics, and existential solidarity.
And in this political battle, who are the radicals? Well, McKibben answers, the radicals are the executives at oil, coal, and gas companies who are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere to make money. No one has ever done anything more radical than that. Realize for example that the Alberta Tar Sands are large deposits of bitumen (heavy crude oil) covering 54,000 square miles of boreal forest and peat bog in northeastern Alberta. By open pit mining and steam-assisted gravity stimulation methods, a consortium of companies has destroyed the landscape, burned natural gas to process its product, and used untold quantities of fresh water in the process. The region is a vile moonscape where birds and fish have suffered death in untold numbers and the Athabasca River is a slough of toxic chemicals. If we burn all the fuel in these sands, world temperatures will continue to rise. And restoration, though decreed by law, is hardly possible. In our own country, McKibben makes the case that hydraulic fracturing for natural gas and mountain-shearing coal mining in the Appalachians are equally destructive.
These days the cards are stacked against the planet. During the 2012 elections – and as a direct result of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce outspent both the Democratic and Republican parties to elect candidates who were on record as climate-change deniers. One week before the elections, Chevron made the largest political contribution of the post-Citizens United era in an effort to ensure the election of a House of Representatives responsive to its own interests. The Koch empire engages in costly efforts to directly affect elections and legislative initiatives in many states.
Whether we citizens as individual human beings can alter our fate is unknown. Political action, civil disobedience, divestment movements, recycling, local food movements and public demonstration will all be required.