Sweet Crude

Glenn M. Ricketts

Watch for Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist to become a popular selection in college freshman common reading programs and composition courses. It’s a very easy read, written in a jaunty, sometimes amusingly quirky, first-person idiom that comes off as travel log, memoir, diary, morality play, hymn to nature, and… introduction to beekeeping. What should clinch the deal, though, is the book’s grim urgency as a passionate environmentalist manifesto. It’s both a call to arms and a tactical field manual in which author Bill McKibben exhorts us to join his crusade to save the Earth from an impending climatological catastrophe at the hands of a politically powerful, profit-sucking fossil fuel industry.

As McKibben sees it, there’s simply nothing to talk about on this score: it’s scientifically incontestable that anthropogenic global warming (AGW) is for real. Planet Earth’s climate is changing drastically—caused directly by human activity, an apodictic certainty denied only by the wicked or the gullible. Global temperatures are spiking and polar ice caps are melting before our eyes as increasing varieties of wildlife face extinction. Ominous new weather cycles simultaneously produce super storms like Hurricane Sandy and parching droughts or rising floods around the world. The single relevant question is a simple one: What can we do about it?

McKibben is a long-time environmentalist who’s written a string of bestsellers—Eaarth, Deep Economy, The End of Nature, Diet for a Hot Planet—and reams of popular journalism on AGW. He also teaches in the environmental studies program at Middlebury College in Vermont. Several years ago, he concluded that his advocacy work and his writing and academic work weren’t nearly enough, because we are facing a rapidly accelerating ecological crisis. It was time for action: time to engage in grassroots social protest, time to take on the fossil fuel industry and its gold-plated philanthropic ally, the Koch Foundation, time to go after its hired politicians in Congress, mostly Republicans. Such a daunting task would require more than one man’s efforts, and in 2008 McKibben, with a group of academics and some Middlebury undergraduates, founded 350.org, a worldwide organization committed to the cause. (The name reflects the view of climatologist James Hansen, “the planet’s premier climate scientist,” in McKibben’s words, that the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide content should not exceed 350 parts per million if we are to avoid an environmental calamity. According to McKibben, we’re already above 400.)

It appears to be a youthful organization—lots of recent college graduates people the 350.org staff page—and McKibben emphasizes that colleges and universities will provide the personnel and steam for the new movement. He shouldn’t have any trouble finding a surfeit of eager new recruits. The burgeoning “sustainability” movement arrived on campus some time ago, and is the only show in town, from the president’s office to the classroom to the dorms to the parking lot. No doubt the content in “Social Movements in Theory and Practice,” McKibben’s own course at very, very green Middlebury, is thoroughly on board with the program.

At the moment, the two major goals for 350.org include blocking construction of the proposed Keystone LX pipeline (intended to connect Hardisty, Alberta, and Steele City, Nebraska) and pressuring academic institutions to divest themselves of any financial holdings in the fossil fuel industry. How will that be done? The history of the organization is brief and tangential—the book is much more a personal memoir with occasional references to 350.org. As McKibben explains in Oil and Honey, he wants direct action in the form of organized protests, including the kind of civil disobedience that served the civil rights movement so well in the 1960s. So by all means get involved: in demonstrations, political campaigns, boycotts and rallies, networks, newsletters—anything to get the word out. And if you’re willing to go to jail, as were McKibben and some of his cohorts, he explains how to get arrested and offers some gritty descriptions of what to expect once you’re in the cooler. Beyond this, he includes numerous quotidian accounts of his myriad speaking engagements, meetings with celebrities, lobbying efforts, and ceaseless travels spanning the globe. During one such sweep in 2012 McKibben made the rounds, in the course of a few days, from Boston to Columbus to Chicago to Munich to Istanbul to a conference on Halki, a small Dodecanese island, and only a day later to the Rio + 20 environmental summit in Brazil. There’s some choice irony here, since McKibben complains at one point that environmentalism is often criticized as a self-indulgent leisure pursuit of “rich white people.” And while he laments the amount of jet fuel and concomitant carbon emissions necessary for his frequent excursions, he doesn’t mention that they also require a level of affluence well beyond many of his readers still budgeting for this year’s summer vacation.

The informed opposition, incidentally, is entirely absent from the pages of Oil and Honey. Scientifically competent critics such as Judith Curry, Freeman Dyson, Will Happer, Roy Spencer, Bjørn Lomborg, Richard Lindzen, David Legates, Patrick Michaels, and alarmist-turned-apostate James Lovelock aren’t so much as mentioned. McKibben occasionally chafes at the perverse obstinacy of anonymous “climate change deniers,” quotes some cranky, vituperative missives from his vast daily email intake, and revels in his trouncing of former Shell CEO John Hofmeister during a public debate. Potentially more articulate interlocutors, however, he simply ignores.

Alternating with all of this are lengthy descriptions of the Vermont wilderness and of the natural beauty now direly threatened—and of bees and beekeepers. McKibben recently learned a great deal about bees, after he admirably underwrote a friend’s purchase of a parcel of land subsequently used to establish an apiary. It’s not clear what larger wisdom he wants to extract from bee-watching, beyond escaping the grind of his frenetic social activism and from the oil-drenched American society he obviously disdains. At any rate, McKibben joins company with a host of other observers, dating back to antiquity, who have discerned human parallels or paradigms within the beehive. In the fourth book of the Georgics, Virgil admired the colony’s organization as a model for Roman republican civic virtue. Similarly, the seventeenth-century English clergyman Charles Butler saw bees as the productive and law-abiding subjects of The Feminine Monarchie, while his contemporary John Wilbye waxed musical in the delightful madrigal, Sweet Honey Sucking Bees. And in The Fable of the Bees (1705), the Augustan age satirist Bernard Mandeville found a basis for modern economic and industrial civilization.

McKibben himself seems struck by Cornell biologist Thomas Seeley’s Honeybee Democracy (2010), in which the bees engage in a kind of consensual, local democracy and then act on these collective decisions as a small, self-sufficient community. That seems to be the future McKibben envisions for us, since in his calculations our present habits can’t be sustained:

It’s clear to me that we can’t have precisely the same economy that we’ve grown up with, not the globe-spanning anything-at-any-time consumerism, not the starter-castles-for-entry-level-monarchs housing stock, not the every-man-a-Denali/Tahoe/Escalade driveway. We’re going to have to change our patterns, our laws, our economies, our expectations. (pp. 21–22)

McKibben doesn’t indicate how such a drastic overhaul might be accomplished, but I have to wonder if he’d endorse the coercive regulatory measures advocated by earlier environmental alarmists such as Barry Commoner and Paul Ehrlich. But whatever McKibben’s long-range vision, the short-term imperative is unequivocally clear: we face an emergency, time is very short, and we need to act RIGHT NOW.

I must respectfully decline the invitation, although McKibben and I do share some common ground. As a life-long conservationist, I hearken back to the early 1960s, when cleaning up rivers, lakes, and coastal waters made sense to nearly everyone, and enjoyed robust bipartisan public support. I’m in favor of the Keystone pipeline, but I have no soft spot for the petroleum industry and support the search for realistic alternative energy sources. I actually hit on the idea of solar power during my senior year in high school, hoping to prevent the replacement of a local streetcar line (which didn’t pollute) with diesel-powered buses (which did). Alas, I didn’t persuade anyone, but I’ve stuck with my support for electrically-powered rail transportation. As one who resides in a semi-rural region, I’ve joined in efforts to preserve local agriculture and have stoutly resisted encroachment by mega-developers, eager to build prefab castles for aspiring arrivistes. I don’t have air conditioning in my own house, and as a gardener I’ve never used insecticides, preferring nature’s balance with lady bug larvae and praying mantises. I also make every effort to patronize small local truck farmers and family businesses, although—sorry—I never hesitate to buy from Walmart or Home Depot if an item is in stock and the price is right.

But I am also a lay skeptic (opinions, but certainly no scientist) of AGW. I do not believe that a climate catastrophe is imminent or even remotely likely, and there’s nothing in Oil and Honey that induces me to change my mind. The book presents not an argument, but an affirmation of faith, a declaration of dogma. As such, Oil and Honey epitomizes the assertion-based absolutism that often frames the discussion of environmental issues, especially on college campuses beholden to the reign of “sustainability.”

Which probably makes it just the sort of book they’re looking for in freshman comp.

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