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An Unlikely Climate Activist: A Review of Bill McKibben's Oil and Honey, New Matilda
  • Matthew Rimmer, Australian National University College of Law

The COP19 talks are underway in Warsaw. What led world leaders to take climate change seriously? Matthew Rimmer reviews climate activist Bill McKibben's new book In his book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, the environmentalist Bill McKibben tells two stories: "Here’s a story of two lives lived in response to a crazy time – a time when the planet began to come apart, a time when bee populations suddenly dropped in half." One is a political story, a call-to-arms for climate activists against the fossil fuel industry. It is a war story of fossil fuel divestment, civil disobedience, and political protests. The other is a personal memoir, a Henry David Thoreau-style work of philosophy, poetry, naturalism, and reverie, centred on Vermont, with its agriculture, farming, and bee-keeping. He is particularly fond of the rich metaphorical language associated with bees, hives, and honey. "Bees lead the animal world in cheap metaphor production, but there are times when despite all precautions you simply can’t avoid them," he writes. McKibben is hopeful that the two stories are complementary. "These stories mesh together, I hope: awkwardly right now, but perhaps, with luck, more easily in time to come," he writes. As a whole, the book is a honeycombed biography of a climate activist. An important theme in the book is the influence of the fossil fuel industry upon United States politics through political donations and fund-raising. "This industry alone holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of the planet, and they’re planning to use it," McKibben writes. To him, the fossil fuel industry are radicals, outlaws, rogues, and scofflaws. He laments that "donations from the fossil industry managed to turn one of our two political parties into climate deniers and the other party into cowards." McKibben tells of the "Dirty Energy Money" database, compiled by Oil Change International, which tracks the campaign money given by fossil fuel companies to members of Congress. This money feeds the fossil fuel industry's supreme confidence and arrogance: "Big Oil was certain it would win." "Environmentalists clearly weren’t going to outspend the fossil fuel industry, so we’d need to find other currencies: the currencies of movement," McKibben writes. "Instead of money, passion; instead of money, numbers; instead of money, creativity." He has sought to build a popular movement of climate change activists under the auspices of 350.Org, which he describes as a "great planetary hive, less an organisation than a loose campaign designed to mesh with the Internet ethos of distributed action." In concert with Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, and fellow board member of, McKibben devised a strategy of pushing for fossil fuel divestment: "Divestment wouldn’t bankrupt the fossil fuel companies, but at least we’d alter the geometry of the political battle a little."

  • Bill McKibben,
  • Divestment,
  • Investment,
  • Fossil Fuels,
  • Climate Change,
  • Renewable Energy,
  • Agriculture.
Publication Date
November 15, 2013
Citation Information
Matthew Rimmer. "An Unlikely Climate Activist: A Review of Bill McKibben's Oil and Honey, New Matilda" (2013)
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