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  • Writer's pictureTamanna Mohapatra

Oil & Honey- A book review

Bill McKibben’s latest book with a subtitle of ‘The Education of an unlikely Activist’ was no doubt a good read. I was and am impressed by everything he has done for our generation, this country and the cause of reversing Climate Change. I have no authority whatsoever to criticize him or be critical of him. But after finishing this novel, I think the character I end up remembering and wishing I was is the person behind the honey- Kirk Webster; the local Vermont monk/farmer who practiced (quite successfully) bee farming.

The premise of the book is that Oil and Honey are two necessary and mutually reinforcing sides of the global climate fight. By writing about the state of oil in the world and thus publishing this book, Bill was able to generate the income to pay for the honey farm. He was both proving a point of ‘small scale local answers’ as well as supporting his point.

As any good citizen and climate believer should do to anyone who will read, glance or take the time to understand. Bill talks about 3 important numbers that we all need to understand and live by. He’s given many talks on this around the country under the rubric of ‘Do The Math’ tour. I quote them directly from his book here-

#1-The official position of the planet Earth at the moment is that we can’t raise the temperature more than two degrees celsius. It’s become the bottomest of the bottom lines. Two degrees. We have so far increased the earth’s temperature about 0.8 degrees, which would mean that we are less than halfway to the target. In reality, we are more closer to three-quarters of the way to the two-degree target. This is because the oceans are storing a lot of the heat which will eventually make its way to the atmosphere.

#2- 565 gigatons is again roughly how much more carbon dioxide scientists say humans can pour into the atmosphere by mid-century and still have some reasonable hope of staying below two degrees celsius.

#3- These two numbers are not scary. Here’s the last number and the scariest of the three. Ready? There is 2795 (approximately 3000) gigatons of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries. This number as you can tell is five times (3000 vs. 600) higher than the number we can support to keep temperatures below 2 degree celsius.

Thus unless these reserves stay under the earth (thus the term stranded assets) where they can do least amount of damage to humanity, it is what James Hansen, our well-known climate scientist likes to say ‘Game Over’ for all of humanity.

Bill McKibben has therefore successfully initiated and led the divestment movement since last one or two years. One of the biggest success for this movement came when Harvard announced recently that it will not be investing in any fossil fuel companies.  You can read and support this movement by clicking here.

The book is a good account of the beginnings of, a lot of great details about bee-keeping and honey bees, as well as all the effort that went into opposing the Keystone XL pipeline. It is true, Bill McKibben and his staff and supporters at are probably the main reason the pipeline project is still lying in the pipes (pun intended), but I did find three interesting reflections that I would like to share in my summary of the book.

1. At one point Bill describes a time when his daughter (who then studied at Brown University, Rhode Island) fell sick. Without a moment’s thought (as any father would), Bill ‘jumped in the car and made the long drive to Providence’. This was to check on her. If the number one man fighting against fossil fuels is unable to stop from jumping into a solo car and making a 7 hour drive to check on his daughter’s health and using the same fossil fuels to get there, how are people less educated, less concerned ever going to be able to make the change? This is not a criticism but just a sincere question that came into my mind. The thought that what we are wishing for and wanting to do requires so much sacrifice, so much planning and so much one track devotion to the cause. It will take a lot from us and we just have to remember no matter what, it needs to be an individual level.

2. In the same paragraph he goes on to state, ‘ One cares about saving the world, but one cares about one’s daughter; it was a long day in the hospital, exactly none of it spent worrying about Shell or Obama or Keystone.” Again, I support him for sharing his honest feelings but want to reflect on his thoughts for a moment. Isn’t this why science and environmentalists have so few supporters? Life in general is hard for everyone; we are all struggling and probably have similar issues to deal with on a regular if not daily basis. So, how can we ask people to support causes when we ourselves forget about all causes when our loved ones are in trouble and need our attention? That’s not to say there are enough people enjoying life without a care for another or for this planet we inhabit..but a lot of people would like to help but feel overburdened with life worries of their own. Let’s be a little understanding and encouraging.

3. The last reflection I have from reading this book ties back to my first thought about wishing to be in Kirk Webster’s shoes. I quote: Kirk learned to meditate. One of the insights he said was, “ The way I live is a little like being on a retreat all the time.” “When I was, the meditation was like an island in me. It occupied a niche. But eventually it grew, it spread to other parts of my life. And it felt like those other parts of my life became a more powerful form of meditation.” Wow..imagine living such a powerful life. I wish…..

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