Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey is a Jeremiad about Global Warming that’s also a charm offensive. The author’s faith in the appeal of his teacherly Yankee persona seems almost as strong as his certitude rising levels of atmospheric carbon will have a devastating impact on the climate.
The book jumps between McKibben’s life on the road—or online—as a campaigner out to build “the first Green movement for the internet age”—and off-the grid scenes with a Vermont beekeeper/farmer who pursues his calling on property McKibben bought for him (though it will be inherited by the author’s daughter).
McKibben bets readers will be engaged by the dailiness of his life in both worlds. He’s eager to share his feelings and tastes as well as his analysis of climate change:
I had my 350.org baseball cap on, my earphones pulled down tight and now my northern soul playlist has turned over to the too-soon-forgotten Prince Philip Mitchell and his not-quite-a-hit “I’m So Happy.” Don’t know if we’re going to win, but we were rolling…
McKibben’s self-presentation sparks resistance in this reader (for reasons I’ll get to later), but I’ll cop to being won over by the mellow Italian bees he describes in his book’s Honey sections. They act like they’re “from a warm country, where plants blossomed most of the year, winters were mild; life was good.” According to McKibben’s beekeeper bud, “they almost mimic the stereotypes of Italians…’” (FYI, Russian bees seem to be mimics too: “’They are more conservative…Once they’ve put up some honey in a sealed cell they have to be at death’s door before they’ll open up that cell and eat it. And they’re used to a long hard winter.’”)
McKibben’s memoir of his works and days seems most genuine when he’s learning bee lore or zeroing in on wilder animals:
Moose are exquisitely well-adapted to the cold, which is to say that they’re exquisitely badly adapted to the heat—above 20 degrees Fahrenheit they start looking for shade…By contrast ticks love the new warm weather…and the Minnesota scientists were reporting that moose, who had evolved, to deal with ten thousand ticks, now were carrying as many as seventy thousand at a time. The insects were driving them so crazy that they were scratching off their fur—biologists reported finding animals with only 10 percent of their fur intact. And then, what if we have the occasional old school cold spell? “With no hair, if you’re trying to survive in a cold climate, you’re basically going to die from exposure,” said one expert.
McKibben’s reporting here should get under your skin. But you might be tempted to brush him off when he mashes up existential threats to moose in Minnesota—or Antarctic polar bears—with heavy rains his neighbors in Vermont have been experiencing more often than previous generations of New Englanders. McKibben’s narrative links flooding in Vermont caused in 2011 by Hurricane Irene to a coming “chain of disasters that will turn civilization into an emergency response drill.” On his account, the morning after “Thatcher Brook and the Winooski River overtopped its banks in Watertown” ought to live in memory like the night of the Johnstown flood. I don’t want to seem callous about any natural disaster—and I appreciate the “generous spirit” displayed by Vermonters in Irene’s aftermath—but when McKibben suggests that storm was a telltale sign of a process that will “make humid New England a swamp” he sounds overwrought.
McKibben believes the atmosphere has already reached the tipping point—the number in the name of his NGO 350.org “refers to the theoretical maximum safe level, in parts per million, of atmospheric carbon dioxide, a level we have already surpassed.” Per the summation by the Atlantic’s Charles C. Mann (in “How to Talk About Climate Change So People Will Listen”) who likens the fearful futurism of McKibben and his doomier colleagues (shall we call them inconvenient truthers?) to Paul Ehrlich’s discredited projections in The Population Bomb. Ehrlich is the shrill Malthusian who assured readers in 1968 nothing could be done to stop hundreds of millions of people from starving to death due to overpopulation. A year later, “he gave even odds that ‘England wouldn’t exist in the year 2000.’” McKibben never mentions Ehrlich’s follies or acknowledges The Population Bomb’s fizzle complicates any attempt to convince non-believers about the dangers of global warming.
Straight talk from a longtime labor organizer is on point here. McKibben and friends should try to hear this potential ally who’s been willing to criticize “unions that forego alliances with Greens that could strengthen workers’ power (and establish a new economic development model) in order to protect a couple of thousand temporary pipeline construction jobs.” Yet he’s put off by mainstream eco-rhetoric that…
has the apocalyptic character of the “population bomb,” and similar movements: divorced from the really existing political economy and devoid of any interest either in preserving the status quo or driving change. And using the “tipping point” imagery to characterize an incremental process just seems stupid from an organizer’s perspective. If we’ve already passed the point of no return, why bother? Might as well just move to higher ground and stock up on canned goods.
McKibben almost goes there in Oil and Honey, using the example of his tenant farmer to map a provincial utopian alternative to actually existing political economies. His devolutionism seems irreal. (Though it’s good news to find out the Feds have reported—“after a century of decline”—there are now 30,000 more farms—mostly small ones like McKibben’s—in America.)
McKibben aims to reconcile his localism with the global nature/challenge of climate change. His crusade against global warming has taken him all over the world. And Oil and Honey is full of virtual journeys too. Like this one in McKibben’s account of his 350.org’s “Connect the Dots Day of Action” web-campaign:
On Cape Town’s Table Mountain climbers rappelled down from the top to hang a giant red dot above the nearly sea level flats where hundreds of thousands of poor people live in shanty towns. At the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, the largest church in the hemisphere, the priests blessed hundreds of bikes…
But this sort of birds-eye enviro-internationalism passes right over whole ways of struggle. You can’t truly connect those dots if you’re not fully alive to all that distances the damned in shanty towns from blessed bicyclists on Manhattan’s Upper West Side (or those South African rappellers?). “Short of genius,” said Peguy, “a rich man cannot even imagine poverty.” It’s not McKibben’s fault he’s no genius but he needs to try harder. After all, he’s up against one actual genius—theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson—whose critique of the science behind global warming alarums is informed by clarity about fossil fuels’ link to economic development that’s lifted millions of people out of poverty. I can’t tell if Dyson’s right when he claims computer models of the “holy brotherhood of climate experts” fail to take in “the clouds, the dust, the chemistry and the biology of fields and farms and forests..the real world that we live in.” But, beyond this scientific dispute, Dyson has summed up a larger culture-clash between humanists (like him) and naturalists (like McKibben):
Naturalists believe that nature knows best. For them the highest value is to respect the natural order of things. Any gross human disruption of the natural environment is evil. Excessive burning of fossil fuels is evil. Changing nature’s desert, either the Sahara desert or the ocean desert, into a managed ecosystem where giraffes or tuna fish may flourish, is likewise evil. Nature knows best, and anything we do to improve upon Nature will only bring trouble.The humanist ethic begins with the belief that humans are an essential part of nature. Through human minds the biosphere has acquired the capacity to steer its own evolution, and now we are in charge. Humans have the right and the duty to reconstruct nature so that humans and biosphere can both survive and prosper. For humanists, the highest value is harmonious coexistence between humans and nature. The greatest evils are poverty, underdevelopment, unemployment, disease and hunger, all the conditions that deprive people of opportunities and limit their freedoms. The humanist ethic accepts an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as a small price to pay, if world-wide industrial development can alleviate the miseries of the poorer half of humanity.
McKibben might reject Dyson’s antimony between naturalists and humanists. But he avoids the h-word in Oil and Honey. He stakes a claim on another term, though, insisting Greens like him must be seen as the planet’s true conservatives. Perhaps he’s right on. Yet there’s a high-low tradition of conservatism that’s long been defined by skepticism of any projection that assumes revolutionary transformations in human civilization/nature are imminent. Subtle or silly minds biased against the-shock-of-the-new (and in favor of the Zen of Ike) aren’t likely to be over-awed by dizzyingly complex—and very variable—abstractions of climate modelers.
Not that there aren’t self-described conservatives who break with the consensus on the right that climate change is a scam. Andrew Sullivan recently gave McKibben a platform. And the unorthodox “pro-science” rightist Charles Johnson at the Little Green Footballs website upholds the environmentalism of Margaret Thatcher (whose responsiveness in the 80s to warnings about carbon in the atmosphere was amped up by her antipathy to British coal miners).
McKibben doesn’t bring up the Iron Lady in Oil and Honey. His ideal of a heroine is Naomi Klein who is famously a woman of the Left. Though his connection to her isn’t chiefly about ideology. (McKibben jokes he’s more Methodist than Socialist.) When he invokes Klein’s role in the “road show” he launched after the 2012 presidential election, her je ne sais quois trumps any political message (though the phrase infantile leftism did come to mind as I read the following passage):
Thank heaven that was night Naomi Klein joined the tour live…The video she’d cut was sterling, but having her there in person made life much sweeter…We got to play around with [her infant son] Toma for an hour backstage before the show (life would be much better if everyone just went around blowing raspberries on each other’s tummies) and then I got to play around with her onstage. She took half the script, and we threw lines back and forth like pros. It couldn’t have gone better, which was nice, since my mother was in the third row.
Oil and Honey doesn’t make much of a case for McKibben’s home-training. Take his take on that tour. It’s an ego-trip that includes a how-you-know-I-told-you-so boast about his debate with an oil company exec—“a rout”—as well as a thumbs up review of his last gig: “I gave the truest talk of the whole long month, a valedictory that gathered in strength as it rolled to its end.” I was struck by another prideful passage that made me worry about McKibben family values earlier on in Oil and Honey. It’s a praise-song to McKibben’s daughter that mixes up Nature with The Meritocracy: “By the time she was fifteen she’d climbed all forty-six of the high peaks in her native Adirondacks, which made me at least as proud as her college admissions letter did a few years later.” Readers might be missing part of the back story here—perhaps the mountaineer had to overcome unobvious academic barriers—but it’s hard to see why Harvard man McKibben should take such pride in his entitled daughter’s cultural climb.
McKibben recalls his own transition as a young man from Harvard to the New Yorker, which gives him a chance to cite his mentor, editor William Shawn. But his stance in Oil and Honey is pretty far removed from Shawn’s recessive ways.
A glance at McKibben’s nod to another magazine’s editors hints how his campaign against climate change is predicated on self-promotion that might have seemed unseemly to Mr. Shawn:
The editors [at Rolling Stone “who’d published the longest magazine piece I’d written in years”] didn’t make me pull any punches. “We have met the enemy and they is Shell,” I’d written and they hadn’t blanched. I was glad to get it in print…But I didn’t expect much of a reaction…I was wrong. Not since The End of Nature had I struck such a nerve. Within a day, five hundred thousand people had read it on the web, and the numbers kept climbing past two million. By the time the week was out it had been “liked” 100,000 times. Since I’m not a facebook user that didn’t mean much to me…
But McKibben’s all in when the subject is his own (relative) significance—“ExxonMobile, the top company on the Fortune 500 had but 8,800 likes.” And our life-long learner wants extra credit—“twelve times more likable than ExxonMobile!”
McKibben’s giddy response to writing a piece that went viral isn’t in sweet harmony with his notion Americans might learn from his beekeeper friend “to adapt to a crazed world with care and grace.” A writer with a better moral imagination might help readers see around the contrarieties. But McKibben doesn’t come across as a conflicted visionary agitated by the contradiction between birthing a social movement and buying that farm. He seems like a bicoastal promo man who can’t keep his shticks straight. His small-is-beautiful riffs get old quick since he’s so obviously fiending to live large.
McKibben’s exemplary beekeeper/farmer isn’t made for this world. (As far gone from modernity as the Amish—he’s a law-abiding cousin to wild ones who reject “the Culture of Maximum Harm.”) But there’s not much that’s countercultural about his landlord. McKibben is not only at peace with the internet (and at ease with the Meritocracy), he’s out to align himself with those who are most at home in the bad new days. Oil and Honeyis stuck on stars. McKibben’s rapture in the nearness of Naomi Klein isn’t a one-off. There are name-checks of (former) movie stars at a demo: “Margot Kidder, who’d played Lois Lane…Tantoo Cardinal…—you saw her in Dances with Wolves. Darryl Hannah.” He’s thrilled by a side-trip to Old Hollywood where he heads up “Mandeville Canyon to what may be the single most beautiful house I’ve ever seen, the hilltop property of Norman and Lyn Lear who were hosting a session for fifty or sixty screenwriters in the hopes they’d insert story lines about climate change into their films and tv shows.” Back on the East Coast he’s juiced by a younger player: “Omar Metwally who’d starred in Rendition and was about to play a Vampire in the next Twilight film, stayed half a day.”
Movie stars are only the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Oil and Honey is full of nadameetings with remarkable men and women. McKibben’s encounter with Gary Snyder—the poet who was the model for the character Japhy Ryder in Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums is typical of the book’s empty star turns:
We drank tea and talked about fellow writers we loved, such as Wendell Berry and Terry Tempest Williams; about the woods east and west, about words and gods and hopes and fears.
McKibben’s chattiness will charm certain readers but this is one of numberless passages inOil and Honey that traduce the Beat idea a book could be like a friend. There’s nothing compelling about McKibben’s discourse with Snyder. It comes down to clichés—those “hopes and fears,” that undifferentiating “love” that conflates fan-ship with close imagining.
McKibben’s afternoon with Snyder leads to a starry night. Snyder introduces him to Jerry Brown who attends McKibben’s evening lecture:
[P]eople were actually scalping tickets outside, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen at a talk of mine. I gave it my best, partly because the governor and his wife were in the front row, each of them scribbling notes like graduate students, and partly because Gary had introduced me…
McKibben’s celeb-mongering is one aspect of a larger addiction to hype: “Al Gore was the greatest climate advocate on the planet”…“Bob Semple, the legendary editorial writer forThe New York Times”…“the great writer Rick Bass…” In the beginning, McKibben applies gift words to others, but as the book moves on he gives back to himself. That Peter Travers-like rave for his own “valedictory” I quoted above isn’t the low point. In the book’s oiliest passage a “clearheaded friend” becomes a vector for pure self-celebration:
She quoted from the end of a recent profile of me in Outside Magazine:“‘If, as is far more likely, he has zero impact, and we become Venus 2, all of those pixels of snowflakes and sand castles and little girls holding signs nothing but melting chips of silicon on a dead server, then it won’t be because William Earnest McKibben didn’t give it a shot.’”
She finished her upbraiding [!] like this:
“If you make any mental adjustment, I wish it would be to move away from the self-description that you’re ‘a mild-mannered Methodist Sunday School teacher.’ You’re not. You’re a fighter and a hero. That’s how others see you. So really the only one you’re now fooling with the Sunday School line is yourself.
Maybe it’s time to shift from being Clark Kent to being Superman.”
This is not an aside. It’s meant to be one of Oil and Honey’s key takeaways. The book is, in part, a chart of McKibben’s ever-growing readiness to become a legend in his own mind—to Superman up.
Post-publication, though, McKibben has flipped this script. The paperback edition of Oil and Honey includes a “never mind” Afterword: “As the pages of this book make clear…I’d come to think of myself as a leader…In recent months I’ve come to like that idea of leaders less and less.” That afterword might inspire more confidence in McKibben’s changes if it had been recast as a foreword to let a buyer beware.
McKibben says he’s into de-centered politics now. He’s looking past top-down models of leadership. Alternative energy practices provide him with a metaphor for a “distributed, loosely linked power network,” though he acknowledges his analysis of democratic practice isn’t fresh: “Much of this is old news to people who have been building movements for years. I haven’t.” Fair enough. Yet this reader’s impulse to cut him slack is undercut by the rote quality of his responses to folks who know much more than him about movement-building. Near the end of Oil and Honey, he recalls a moment of frisson: “the biggest thrill came when we were joined by Julian Bond, the former head of the NAACP and got to listen when he told of his days in 1960 when he went to jail for helping to desegregate lunch counters in Atlanta. You could feel the movement broadening, deepening…” Actually, this episode makes you feel just the opposite since the passage is a dead ringer for an earlier one in the book describing how Benjamin Jealous, “the young and dynamic head of the NAACP,” “thrilled” a crowd of environmentalists with his “tales of Civil Rights organizing:” “It felt like we were taking the movement new places…” Bond and/or Jealous don’t enable McKibben to get deep into a useable past. Their role in his text is to provide color (and cheap thrills).
McKibben mentions he’s been reading Taylor Branch’s history of the Civil Rights Movement with his students at Middlebury College. But that turns out to be a tease sinceOil and Honey isn’t a contribution to the history of the American organizing tradition. McKibben doesn’t try to provide an account in real time of a burgeoning social movement. His book, with all its self-checks, is best understood as an attempt to enhance unconditional positive self-regard among a niche-market of green politicos.
That market overlaps some with other sectors of the reading public that buy into ideologues on the left. Noam Chomsky, for example, may soon be competing for market share with McKibben. Chomsky has begun to work the threat of global warming into his s’all bad raps on current affairs.
Eighty years ago, Martin Heidegger extolled Nazi Germany as providing the best hope for rescuing the glorious civilization of the Greeks from the barbarians of the East and West. Today, German bankers are crushing Greece under an economic regime designed to maintain their wealth and power.The likely end of the era of civilization is foreshadowed in a new draft report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the generally conservative monitor of what is happening to the physical world…
McKibben’s tone is sunnier than Chomsky’s and his happy didact’s product is probably an easier sell than the dark mandarin’s. I don’t know how much McKibben’s voice has been shaped by marketing imperatives, but his in-it-to-win-it side is on display in a column (“Inside the List”) on bestsellers in a recent New York Times Book Review. The column addresses the success of Naomi Klein’s new book, published on Sept. 16th:
[F]ive days, as it happened, before hundreds of thousands of protestors gathered in Manhattan for The People’s Climate March. Klein was among them. “How did it feel,” the author and march organizer Bill McKibben asked her earlier that week, “to see 200,000 people coming to New York for your book party?”
McKibben knows from book parties. The paperback of Oil and Honey ends with pages summarizing the contents of four recent works by him. One of them is Enough—a title that acquired an unintended connotation once I got through Oil and Honey.
 Over-the-top praise for a famous F.O.B. provides cover for McKibben to spread the self-love:
When Si Newhouse bought the New Yorker and fired the editor, William Shawn, who was only the greatest editor who’d ever lived, I quit the best job in journalism and walked away. So, ok, gut check and I passed.
McKibben sounds like a wannabe insider when he invokes “Si” and an eternal suck-up in re the late Shawn. His memory of walking tall got me thinking about another better-known episode where editorial succession at the New Yorker led to a public break between a writer and a newish boss. Back in the 90s, George Trow quit the New Yorker in a protest against Tina Brown’s attempt to make the magazine over into a celebrity-first pub with sizzle. But Trow wasn’t moved to go when Robert Gottlieb replaced William Shawn. Did Trow fail some kind of gut check then? As long as I’m wondering, it occurs to me McKibben’s latest stuff would’ve fit right into Brown’s hype-ridden pages. And one more thought. McKibben has bowed to—and blurbed—Trow’s works of cultural criticism, but I’m not sure he’s been upfront about how much he owes his former colleague. Try the following quote (attributed to McKibben’s The Age of Missing Information at the Good Reads website):
TV was like a third parent—a source of ideas and information and impressions. And not such a bad parent—always with time to spare, always eager to please, often funny.
Compare it with Trow’s lines from Within the Context of No Context (which came first):
Your parents had a third parent—television. If you went back to 1952, you would be surprised. Many people—of all kinds and conditions—had just two parents.
McKibben’s version doesn’t improve on the original. His spin on Trow, though, suggests he might not be wrong when he talks up his own audacity. There’s no reference to Trow inThe Age of Missing Information‘s index. But in the book’s acknowledgements, there’s this: “George Trow, dear friend and colleague, made me think very hard about the media and I am immensely grateful to him.” Maybe that covers it/him.
2 Given McKibben’s hoary Pogo reference, I’m not sure those editors deserve credit for being so hands-off.
3 If corporations are people too, I guess I’d rather hang with Bill McKibben. Though his affirmation of “a windy party at St. Stephen’s church, with my friend DJ Spooky spinning records and telling stories about his trip to the Antarctic” proves his idea of a good time isn’t mine. Back in the 90s, I once was stuck waiting in a cavernous Manhattan club for a friend who was running late. The place was dead—nobody at all on the dance floor. And there was nothing to concentrate attention except the impossibly awful music. It was an evening to forget but it snuck into memory because it occurred to me in that moment I was listening to the single worst DJ I’d ever heard in decades of musicking in New York City. The One (who was never on the one) that night was DJ Spooky. Word he’s adding stories about watching snow melt to his mixes seems apt. Perhaps the secret meaning of climate change for Spooky is: Become what you are.
The DJ’s role in Oil and Honey as a designated African-American F.O.B. isn’t that far removed from Julian Bond’s or Ben Jealous’s. (Though they’re blameless and Spooky’s not.) I’m just now recalling McKibben cites R&B singer Frank Ocean too. (Not in the context of rising sea levels.) And of course McKibben wants you to know he’s a Northern Soul Man.
His Green/Black thing notwithstanding, someone should tell old Bill he’ll be vanilla till he dies.