Saturday, 5 April 2014


OIL AND HONEY: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
Black Inc., 2013, 255 pages, $29.95 (pb)

Review by Phil Shannon

When the American environmental writer, Bill McKibben, became a climate change activist, he discovered the delights of Internet abuse (‘Asshole!  Shitstain!  Harvard Grad! … Harvard Nazi scumbag moron climatebecile!’ was one of the more baroque emails) and the public meeting crazies including followers of Lyndon LaRouche, the leader of a “marginal and bizarre but tenacious political cult”, as he entertainingly describes in Oil and Honey.

When his quarter-century deployment of scientific facts with literary flair proved inadequate against these foes, and the more deadly fossil-fuel-funded, climate-change-denying Republicans and the cowardly Democrats “afraid of Big Oil”, McKibben, in 2009, set up, “the first big green movement for the Internet age”, named after the atmospheric CO2 level above which climate change starts to get really serious. revolutionised organising on global warming, including the following virtual-human protest extravaganzas.  An international Twitter campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies (whose hashtag “drew more tweets on any one day, falling just short of birthday greetings to Justin Beiber”, he wryly notes).  An Internet-based global day of action spreading to 181 countries.  A human siege and encirclement of the White House.  The “biggest climate rally [50,000] in US history”.

1,253 arrested at the White House in 2011 in a civil disobedience protest against President Obama’s hankering to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s dirty-oil-rich tar sands to Texas refineries, a “fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent”. A bus tour across America which seeded divestment campaigns by students at 252 campuses for university trustee boards to withdraw from their fossil fuel investments.

A vibrant ‘Do The Math’ campaign theatrically elucidating, with McKibben’s typical explanatory clarity, three crucial numbers: 2,795 gigatons of CO2  in the coal, oil and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and petro-state countries which are planned to be burned for profit, a catastrophic five times higher than the 565 gigaton ‘carbon budget’ that can be burned if we are to keep global temperature rise below 2 degrees since the Industrial Revolution when coal and oil companies developed carbonated capitalism.

Campaigning in desperate times calls for leadership and McKibben, who gently mocks himself as an “accidental activist, making it up as I went along and kind of sorry to be having to bother anyone”, stepped up.  He has survived the tiredness, the endless emails, conference calls and travel, the ten speaking invitations a day, the challenge of saying afresh the same thing for the hundredth time, the ever-present question of ‘what next’ after the post-protest exhilaration.

McKibben’s book is not all about carbon, however.  There is honey, too, as he takes respite from the personal strain of activism through his love of beekeeping.  The global and the local are his twin focuses for societal change and, although he doesn’t always achieve a seamless integration of the two political philosophies, nor manage to quite gel the two strands of the book, McKibben succinctly notes how the climate-change-induced wild weather of 2012 wrecked the world’s honey crop - “no flowers, no nectar”, “too much oil, too little honey”.

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