I wrote an essay recently, “The Final Bakesale,” in As It Ought To Be, about the challenge of conveying climate change as a narrative that grabs people emotionally. Bill McKibben’s memoir, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, is a fantastic braided story that addresses this very issue, weaving back and forth between two narratives: McKibben’s wild activist life on the road and his longing to return to a bee farm he’s helping to support in his home state of Vermont.
Bill McKibben started the organization 350.org in 2009 with 7 undergraduates from Middlebury College, where he once taught. Since then, 350.org has become a global hub that coordinates action and awareness about the looming threat of climate change. I love what 350.org does, but I picked up Oil and Honey with a bit of trepidation. I knew I was going to read it, because what he has to say is so important, but I knew it would sting, as any story of impending apocalypse would.
The challenge with this topic for a writer is daunting yet instructive: how to communicate massive amounts of scary information without shutting down one’s reader emotionally. McKibben–a writer with a long history of publications who started out at the New Yorker in the 1980s–soars in this book.
He doesn’t shy away from delivering information, numbers and data about the number of degrees temperatures are rising and the maximum carbon the planet’s atmosphere can carry before we face species die-off, weather changes that result in all kinds of catastrophes including life-threatening storms, rising seas, and alterations to agriculture. (Spoiler alert: we’re there).
His first technique for making this readable and less scary is to weave the information in with his narrative of joy, which is the story of Kirk, his beekeeper friend who’s completely off the grid and who’s found a way to chemical-free way to breed bees that are resistant to the mites that threaten bee populations around the world. I learned a lot about bees and beekeeping, and the information and the character of Kirk posit a thread of hope tempered with the idea that we are as vulnerable as the bees in the hive unless we work together.
The second technique is McKibben’s vulnerability as a narrator. That’s right–he’s a main character in this memoir. He opens up to reveal his tension in the role of being an activist on the go; he’s a writer, he says, and the constant spotlight drains him yet energizes him at the same time. He focuses on his questions and missteps, the anxiety of not knowing what to do next as a leader, and his dilemmas with even acknowledging his role as a leader. He longs to be with his family, his daughter has a health scare, and he’s overwhelmed with the work and the need to be in constant contact. He’s driven to frustration and occasional despair by political negotiations and the funding network of Big Oil and climate change denial.
Yet he presents enough of the beauty and joy he encounters, along with the rock-and-roll lifestyle on the tour bus for one of his campaigns, that you can’t help but want to join him. He focuses on the work and sacrifices, the humor and humanity, of the diverse activists he works with around the globe, and shows the climate change fight as one about people and heart as well as graphs and numbers. What McKibben must have found within himself, and what he conveys on the page, is a sense of hope in community, in action, and in responsiveness to other people.
His techniques are instructive for any writer looking to delve into a challenging subject, and I’d highly recommend the book both for its writing, and for the subject matter, which is one that will affect the lives of everyone in the coming decades.
On Martin Luther King, Jr., Day and beyond, McKibben offers inspiration for activists, along with incisive critiques of exactly who the enemy is: Big Oil and its cash, and the seemingly insurmountable odds that only people working together can beat. His inspiring message is that corporations are simple, not nimble, and they can be beaten–possibly–by human beings and their flexibility and creativity.