With the long-fought battle for the Keystone XL pipeline now at an end, it is a fitting time to visit “Oil And Honey; The Education Of An Unlikely Activist,” the recent book by best-selling author, Bill McKibben. Known as a committed environmentalist and the founder of 350.org, McKibben has penned an intriguing analysis of the juxtaposition of the exhausting environmental fight to defeat the controversial pipeline against the calming world of all-natural bee keeping. It is where these two contrary stories converge that the book settles into itself.
McKibben has long be a canary-in-the-coal-mine voice for climate change. Before he became a mainstream environmental activist, he was a teacher, and it was in this capacity that he fell into the world of bee keeping. It was while teaching a class on the value of the local food movement at Middlebury College in Vermont that his plans overlapped with local bee keeper, Kirk Webster, who also happened to be a neighbor.
Webster’s belief in small scale farming was rooted in motivations that were much more than just environmental; they were spiritual. McKibben invited the soft-spoken and introspective farmer to speak to his class, and it was there that their collaborations began. New to Vermont, McKibben was looking to acquire some land, as a nest egg and as something to pass along someday to his daughter. He offered Kirk “free life time tenure” of the property, as a place to practice the principles of local and organic farming, with the cornerstone of the project being bee keeping.
It is McKibben’s belief that the trend for farming is beginning to shift from big industrial businesses to locally focused small farms, with neighbors feeding neighbors. “The sum total of a million of these kinds of small shifts would be a different civilization.”
The trend is heartening, but time is not on its side. With climate change reaching alarming benchmarks more quickly than expected, McKibben laments that it may not be fast enough. He has been beating the warning drum for decades, always hopeful that sweeping change would follow, but “power, not reason, was ascendant.” To be successful, movements need numbers, numbers which need to impact the flow of money to the powerful. The environmental movement, McKibben says, can occasionally take one hard-earned small step forward, but this is very often followed by a dozen well-financed large steps backwards.
McKibben’s organization, 350.org’s name comes from tipping point numbers based on a preeminent climate scientist’s prediction of parts/million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. And even though the planet is looking at those dire numbers in the rear view mirror now, McKibbon still sees plenty of momentum behind the many necessary tasks that remain.
The Keystone pipeline was the main focal point of 350.org’s early days, and much of the book focuses on that journey. Even when he was traveling the world on behalf of his organization’s fight against big oil, he knew he was fighting for the things he loved at home—the smallness of the world, not the bigness. He feels economies need to come closer to home, meaning there is a need to go beyond local food, for example—there is a more encompassing need to return to more local living, in general.
As he details the battle against the pipeline, he never gets too far away from the bees, always tying the bigger picture into the subtle goings on in the hives back home, highlighting how the changes in the environment can damage entire colonies, even those being carefully isolated from destructive pesticides and chemicals.
With the world trying to find momentum and consensus in an attempt to tackle the challenges of a changing climate, “Oil And Honey” provides an impassioned view from someone on the front lines of the fight.