Many people who would be interested in Our Task have probably heard of Bill McKibben. I first read one of his works this summer, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. McKibben’s newest release Oil and Honey, the Education of an Unlikely Activist is a memoir, of sorts, recounting the story of how he became involved with 350.org, his worldwide, grassroots environmental campaign. Overall it’s an enjoyable read that has a little bit of something for everyone. He touches on his intense speaking tour schedules, gives some behind-the-scenes looks at how to plan an incident of mass civil disobedience (including what it's like to be in a DC jail), and how his friends and neighbors in Vermont responded to the devastation of hurricane Irene.
The voice he uses is definitely his own, and his sincere tone and humble self-criticism will seem quite contradictory with his often controversial, muckraking public persona. But the point of the whole book is to focus on the contrasts in Bill McKibben’s own life that led him to transition from a ‘quiet guy’ author to the leader of a worldwide activism campaign. The theme of contrasts permeates the book and lends a human quality to McKibben’s writing- here is a guy who is famous but is definitely not accustomed to it. It leads one to question how they would handle the grueling tour schedule, hate mail, and lowball fossil fuel industry attacks if they were in his position.
The ‘Honey’ portion of the title refers to Bill’s longtime friend Kirk. Kirk is an organic beekeeper in rural Vermont, and by organic, he really means zero chemical additives. This sets Kirk apart from other beekeepers in unexpected ways; conventional wisdom dictates that fertilizers (or their beekeeping equivalents) and antibiotics will lead to higher yields. Kirk instead applied the theory of evolution and avoided applying anti-parasite measures to his bees. Sure enough, the bees eventually developed resistance to the parasites that most other keepers only keep at bay through the continual use of expensive and potentially hazardous chemicals. Kirk can keep bees in Vermont because he uses a species native to eastern Russia, which is more accustomed to cold winters than the Italian-origin bees used in the American South. McKibben intersperses his book with numerous metaphors and lessons he was ‘taught’ by the bees, and by Kirk’s low impact, flexible, and adaptable beekeeping philosophy.
The most striking metaphor learned from the bees is what an individual hive taught McKibben about extractive industries and corporations. McKibben notes that bees are very good at doing a single thing- collecting nectar to make into honey. Evolution has selected worker bee populations to be extremely specialized at this task, while it has not selected them for an especially high degree of adaptability. This shows when Kirk turns a hive upside down, and the orderly line of returning bees all bump into one another and become confused and agitated, unable to locate the hive entrance’s new position. McKibben realizes that corporations operate in the same way- they are not innately evil, as many on the left are quick to say. Rather, they are wonderful tools if you want a single task performed, such as pulling a lot of oil out of the ground very quickly; the same tool for pulling oil out of the ground is not designed for keeping carbon emissions low or for fairly compensating those who live nearby. The corporation is also like the beehive in that it will not react kindly to being told to leave oil in the ground-- you can’t talk a bee into staying away from a flower.
For me, the take-home message from this apt metaphor is that a single-minded devotion to money robs a person of the very essence of their humanity- the ability to compassionately and empathetically connect with others is not ‘on the table.’ Individual actors in an extractive industry (or, one could argue, the financial sector) cease to act as humans-- with accountability, self-awareness, and conscience-- and instead effectively become a feedback loop, a “some plus more equals even-more.” To some, this may fit their definition of evil. To me, it is an overload of a cognitive system which is maladapted to the scale of the consequences that reckless wealth-seeking creates. This argument could go on all day, but I’ll return to the book.
Stretched to find faults, I’ll confess the way McKibben switches between stories of his activism and the quiet down-on-the-farm stories of beekeeping struck me as slow at times. I found myself waiting for the bee stories to get over with to get back to the exciting stuff, the stuff I’d interacted with before in college. While it was exciting to hear about the actions and when he visited his friends in prison or when children in Uzbekistan spelled out 350 in candles, the bees serve the same purpose in this book as they did for Bill: they keep him grounded in a quiet, natural place. That is crucial for someone flying around the world, taking speedboats to remote island monasteries in Turkey, and getting thrown in jail for sitting-in outside the White House.
Oil and Honey is a great book to read if you’re just ‘getting to know’ Bill McKibben. I say this because I do feel like I know him better as a person by the end. He is very honest and recognizes that he has no inherent right to preach to anyone. He doesn’t even claim not to be motivated by self-interest: who wouldn’t want a planet not ruined by global warming for themselves? But you can see what gets him out of bed every morning, and he sincerely wants people who read Oil and Honey to feel as motivated as he is, and to help build the climate movement globally from the ground up. As he quotes from a profile from Outside magazine, “If, as is far more likely, he has zero impact, and we become Venus 2, and all those pixels of snowflakes and sand castles and little girls holding signs are nothing but melting chips of silicon on a dead server, then it won’t be because William Ernest McKibben didn’t give it a shot.”
Seems good to me.
Overall rating: 4.5/5 stars; recommended to anyone who wants to learn more about activism and 350.org