The Unlikely Climate Activist


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."

He was in part inspired by the divestment movement in United States universities against South Africa’s apartheid regime. A leader and historian of the anti-apartheid movement, Bob Massie, advised McKibben that, "Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective."

In his fight with the fossil fuel industry, McKibben has also been inspired by the efforts of public health advocates, with their campaigns for tobacco divestment, graphic health warnings, and plain packaging. McKibben observed that taking away the fossil fuel industry's social licence would "turn them into pariahs, and make it clear that they’re to the planet’s safety what the tobacco industry is to our individual health."

While recognising that "movements rarely have predictable outcomes", he was was hopeful that "any campaign that weakens the fossil fuel industry’s political standing clearly increases the chances of retiring its special breaks." He was conscious, though, that "climatologists insist that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the temperature and the damage would increase for decades to come."

Initially, McKibben and focused their efforts upon building a student movement to encourage colleges, universities, and higher educational institutions to engage in fossil divestment. "We’d go over the math, we’d have some music to charge people up, and then we’d send them off to see their trustees with this question: are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?"

The campaign has had mixed success. Half-a-dozen progressive United States educational institutions have supported fossil fuel divestment. However, educational institutions have also rebuffed such efforts – including McKibben’s very own Middlebury College.

He has also appealed to religious institutions to engage in fossil fuel divestment, lamenting "the basic blasphemy we’re engaged in as we write the first chapter of Genesis backward – as we destroy the planet we were given."

Significant outcomes have been achieved in cities and municipalities. Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn has said "We really have to find a way not just to get more efficient and show a better way to grow economically and build great communities – we have to leave those fossil fuels in the ground." John Avalos and the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco have called upon the city’s pension fund to renounce its fossil fuel investments. Portland’s Mayor Charlie Hayes has also shown significant leadership. There has been even a push by Benjamin Downing in Massachusetts to promote state-wide fossil fuel divestment.

US President Barack Obama is a more mercurial figure in Oil and Honey. Earlier this year McKibben organised and led a high-profile campaign against Obama's stance on the Keystone XL Pipeline, "a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent." The President also delivered a speech this year to Georgetown University, showing greater commitment to taking action on climate change — even urging his supporters to "Invest, Divest!"

The call for fossil fuel divestment has become mainstream, and has been taken up internationally by a range of leaders, politicians, and elders.

A 2013 University of Oxford study charted the rapid growth of the fossil fuel divestment campaign. While recognising the direct impact upon the fossil fuel industry may be limited, the report noted that "the campaign might be most effective in stigmatising the fossil fuel industry, with the coal industry being most vulnerable, and particular companies within the industry." Even Prince Charles recommended that pension funds should take into account climate risks and divest from fossil fuels.

There is a tension in Oil and Honey between McKibben’s deep pessimism about international law, politics, and diplomacy, and the need for substantive, global action on climate change. There could be a way to reconcile such concerns. The guidelines of the World Health Organisation Framework Convention on Tobacco Control provide for public institutions to engage in tobacco divestment. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change could be updated to require government entities to engage in fossil fuel divestment.

Without the power of such legal machinery to do the heavy lifting, McKibben has struggled with the stresses and strains involved in his transition from an author to a global educator and an activist. "I miss, sometimes desperately, the other me: the one who knew lots about reason and beauty and very little about the way power works; the one with time to think," he laments.

He sounds fatigued, jet-lagged, careworn, homesick, and burnt-out. He is battle-weary from the endless controversies over climate change. "The ritual nature of political action – they say something, we say something, they push, we push, constantly keeping just list this side of an imaginary line – was grinding me down," he writes. McKibben is uncomfortable about the cult of personality and celebrity surrounding political movements and campaigns. Little wonder he has promoted distributed, networked action, and leaderless structures in the climate change movement.

Oil and Honey is something of an activist’s laboratory notebook. McKibben is a pithy communicator – his years as a journalist have given him a stock of memorable phrases and images. This comes at the expense of a comprehensive history of the movement. Apologetically, McKibben notes, "The problem with writing a book of this sort is that, being a kind of memoir, it focuses on one person’s experiences to the exclusion of so many who played as large a role or larger."

"Those battles have become so broad, and are being fought so ably by so many people, that they would be better served by a real history, which I hope someone will someday write."

Despite his weariness, McKibben remains hopeful about the potential of a popular movement demanding substantive action on climate change, to fight the fossil fuel industry in what he sees as the "most fateful battle in human history."

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.