An 'unlikely activist' tells story of green struggle

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Oil & Honey: The Education Of An Unlikely Activist
Bill McKibben
Black Inc., 2013
255 pages, $29.95(pb)

When the United States environmental writer Bill McKibben became a climate change activist, he discovered the delights of internet abuse and public meeting crazies, as he entertainingly describes in Oil and Honey.

When his quarter-century deployment of scientific facts with literary flair proved inadequate against fossil-fuel-funded, climate-change-denying Republicans and the cowardly Democrats “afraid of Big Oil”, McKibben set up in 2009.

Named after the atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide required to ensure a safe climate, McKibben says it is “the first big green movement for the Internet age”. has organised virtual-human protest extravaganzas. These included an international Twitter campaign to end fossil fuel subsidies, whose hashtag McKibben wryly notes, “drew more tweets on any one day, falling just short of birthday greetings to Justin Beiber”.

An internet-initiated and organised global day of action spread to 181 countries. A human siege and encirclement of the White House were features of the 50m000 strong “biggest climate rally in US history”.

At a 2011 civil disobedience action, 1253 people were arrested at the White House to protest against President Barack Obama’s keened to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada’s dirty-oil-rich tar sands to Texas refineries. also organised a bus tour across the US that seeded divestment campaigns by students at 252 campuses for university trustee boards to withdraw from their fossil fuel investments.

Campaigning in desperate times calls for leadership. 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”, has stepped up.

He has survived tiredness, endless emails, conference calls and travel, the 10 speaking invitations a day, the challenge of saying afresh the same thing for the 100th hundredth time and the ever-present question of “what next” after 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.

Though he doesn't 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 ― noting “no flowers, no nectar” and “too much oil, too little honey”.

From GLW issue 1006