Saturday, October 13, 2018

Book Review: 'Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist' by Bill McKibben

Review by Susan Gardner

Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
By Bill McKibben
Times Books
$18.61 Hardback, $11.04 Kindle
272 pages
September 2013

I've always suspected that many activists, particularly environmentalists, are at heart introverts. Think about it: In order to devote your life to preserving nature, wouldn't you have to have actually enjoyed to some extent, retreating into the natural world, escaping the bustle of cities and people, honoring the refreshing stillness and solitude of deserts and mountains and oceans from time to time?
But it seems difficult, on the face of it, to balance the need to immerse one's self in the natural environment with the drive to connect with other people to create the change needed—not to sound grandiose, but … to save the world.

Bill McKibben captures and explores this contradiction in his latest book, Oil and Honey, released last fall. Add to his personal dilemma the fact that he's a writer, a person whose vocation requires spending a lot of time alone somewhere crafting words, and you've got a real quandary on your hands, explored more beneath the fold.
For years McKibben jokingly referred to himself as an "accidental activist," primarily viewing himself as an author first, a user of words to persuade, rather than a dedicated organizer. In the past few years though, that changed. With the help of others, he helped spearhead, wrote an astonishingly influential article for Rolling Stone in 2012 (one that "galvanized" billionaire Tom Steyer to join the climate battle in a big way) and stepped up to the barricades to resist the Keystone XL Pipeline. No longer behind a desk, McKibben spent nights in jail, spoke before crowds and criss-crossed the globe to preach the message that our time is running out to preserve the planet.
How McKibben stays grounded as a very public figure in this fight (the one against "oil" referenced in this book's title) is by balancing this frenzied life with returns to Vermont, where he pursues a friendship with a local almost-off-the-grid beekeeper (hence, the "honey"). These moves between the big world and the small, the global and the local, the public and the private, the draining and the replenishing, is at the heart of Oil and Honey. It's a message similar to that of Mary Pipher in The Green Boat (which I reviewed here last year), a dedicated eco-activist who recognized the need to recharge by taking refuge in family and community. McKibben recharges through learning more about beekeeping and falling in with the ebb and flow of seasons in Vermont. And then he's off again ... speaking, writing, protesting, exhorting, teaching to crowds.
His writing in Oil and Honey is, as always, engaging and thoughtful. His message and passion are vital, his energy inspiring. Overall, this is a terrific and easy read.

Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.