‘Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist’


272 p. 2013

What turns someone from an interested observer into an activist?  I think that we all have our hot-button triggers, where something enrages us so much that all of a sudden we make the political personal.  For me, it was seeing slimy Alexander Downer talking about the Greater Sunrise oilfield and, smiling sweetly, excusing Australia’s reprehensible behaviour in denying East Timor the riches that would flow from it  with the comment “well, that’s what foreign aid is for, isn’t it?”  At that point, I vowed that I needed to know more about Australia’s actions in the immediate neighbourhood and speak out (however ineffectually).

Bill McKibben is the founder of 350.org, a global environment group that aims to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm.  He is a writer and journalist who has written on environmental issues before.  But with the mooted approval of the KeystoneXL pipeline that would carry tar sand  soil from Alberta Canada to the Gulf for processing, he stepped over the line from writer and commentator to activist.   It would be hard not to, I should imagine, having researched this arrogantly destructive, short-sighted proposal, backed by big business and the geo-political cheersquad for American supremacy.  But, moving beyond emailing and pressuring politicians and doing television interviews, he went one step further. He led a civil disobedience campaign that resulted in him spending three nights in jail, along with many other activists

It’s a rather unusual book.  I found myself wondering if there was an earlier book that I should have read first, because I felt as if I’d been dropped into a conversation half-way through.  However, when I look through the summaries of his books on his Wikipedia entry, I see that many of them are semi-autobiographical, and that many seem to use the overarching structure found in this  book as well: the juxtaposition of the personal and the political.

In this case, the juxtaposition is between the life of his friend Kirk Webster, who keeps bees in Vermont, and his own experience in exerting direct political action over Keystone.   A rather long and laboured metaphor for organization, the bee sections are interesting in their own right as a microcosm of the complex interconnections between life and environment.  The activist sections I found rather less enchanting.  He doesn’t particularly lecture about climate change or environmental degradation but instead describes the change in his life since becoming an activist as well as commentator.  I found myself bridling against the rather syrupy name-dropping, which reminded me a bit of military writing: that need to give every man and woman his due.

I was, I must admit, just a bit disappointed in the book.  I was expecting something punchier, but this is instead a gentler enterprise.

My rating: 7/10

Read because: it was there on the shelf

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

3 responses to “‘Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist’

  1. I read and reviewed this book last year, and was clearly more positive than you, RJ. I really liked the activist sections because he shared both his uncertainty about committing to full-blown activism and then, even more interestingly to me, the strategic thinking he has gone through (as they’ve gone from campaign to campaign) to work out how best to be be active. Perhaps I haven’t read enough other material on this – just the political wrangling going on – so for me it was quite fascinating,

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