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Book Review

‘Oil and Honey’ by Bill McKibben

Bill McKibben.
Bill McKibben. Steve Liptay

In his previous bestsellers, particularly “Eaarth” and “The End of Nature,” environmental writer Bill McKibben has warned us repeatedly of the dangers of climate change. Though he’s certainly not alone in his concern — writers from Wendell Berry to James Hansen have sounded the alarm for decades — McKibben has proven to be one of the most accessible voices in the fight for a more sustainable planet.

In “Oil and Honey,” the author extends his approach and message by meshing the global with the personal. McKibben dovetails his examination of the trajectory of his rise to prominence as one of the go-to speakers for the environmental movement with his burgeoning interest in and involvement with beekeeping. In the fall of 2001, while teaching a course on local food production at Middlebury College in his home state of Vermont, the author met Kirk Webster, a small-scale beekeeper who raised and sold bees, hives, and honey around the area.


As McKibben began to learn more about Webster’s operation and others like it, he “felt some strong urge to have a more-than-theoretical connection to the landscape and the emerging local economy that I was writing so much about.” So he pitched in, raised some money for Webster to create a more reliable, long-lasting business, and immersed himself in the world of the honeybee, one of the most fascinating — and ecologically significant — creatures in the natural world.

Over the next decade, McKibben became increasingly exasperated by the continued degradation of our planet and what he saw as the seemingly unstoppable alliance between Big Oil and national government — “donations from the fossil fuel industry managed to turn one of our two political parties into climate deniers (and the other party into cowards).”

In 2007, he founded 350.org, “a great planetary hive, less an organization than a loose campaign designed to mesh with the Internet ethos of distributed action.” He has since traveled the world raising awareness about climate change and forcing governments and corporations to directly address the gravity of the situation: “We already have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as any scientist thinks is safe to burn.”


The current state of the environment is “not the old nature,” he writes, but rather a “hybrid of natural and not that is the distinctive mark of our time.” And in that new state of affairs, one of the most important issues, he believes, has been the controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to transport oil from tar sands in Canada to the Gulf Coast refineries.

Alternating with the chronicle of McKibben’s experiences with beekeeping, the pipeline becomes the focal point of the author’s discussion, and he lucidly addresses the pros and (mostly) cons, dismissing in the process the common refrain that its building and maintenance would create thousands of jobs.

Throughout the book, his most readable yet, McKibben is simultaneously authoritative and conversational, and he is careful to acknowledge that his global travels may seem hypocritical for such an outspoken critic of rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. These are not vacations, he points out, but significant calls-to-arms for immediate action on the environment across the world. After all, it’s not just about America, shocking as that notion may be to many Americans. This is a global issue in need of global attention, and often that means flying to meet with world leaders to hash out possible solutions.


“The old cycle we’ve always known is very nearly gone, but not quite,” writes the author. “It lingers yet, and while it does the fight is worth the cost.”

Eric Liebetrau, managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews, can be reached at eliebetrau@kirkus.com.