Bill McKibben
Bill McKibben; drawing by James Ferguson

Four years ago, I gave a morning talk at Wes Jackson’s Land Institute in Salina, Kansas. It was the institute’s thirty-first Prairie Festival, a sparkling autumn weekend in the central Kansas hills. For years, the Land Institute has been one of the centers of positive thinking about agriculture. It is both farm and laboratory, a place where Jackson and his colleagues are trying to create, among other things, a way of farming with perennial plants instead of annual crops like corn and soybeans.

My subject was the dedemocratization of the rural landscape. Ruthless concentration—what the USDA likes to call “efficiency”—has depopulated America’s farmland since World War II, leaving fewer and fewer people behind to vote on its behalf. Dedemocratization isn’t merely an effect of industrial agriculture. It is one of its tactics. Track the spread of factory farming, and you’ll find it where there are no zoning laws or where zoning and local control over land use have been deliberately weakened. It’s like tracing the source of cholera back to a single contaminated well. Find a county or township where confinement hog barns crowd the landscape—where the air downwind is vile and the water downstream is polluted with antibiotic- resistant organisms—and you will surely have found a place where democracy has gone awry. No one who has the chance to resist will consent to live within the ichorous effluent of factory farms.

That afternoon in Kansas, there was a photo opportunity for everyone present. A National Geographic photographer climbed a tall stepladder and began waving people into the frame. They all huddled together in the sunshine against an old barn, and, on command, they raised their arms in the air. No one needed to tell them to smile. The date was October 1, and the photos would be uploaded to the website of the group called, which, on October 24, would hold its International Day of Climate Action, the first major public outcry against climate change. was founded by Bill McKibben and some of his students from Middlebury College. Its name is meant to remind us that the safe threshold for the amount of atmospheric carbon is 350 parts per million. Four years later, we have crested 400 parts per million, and there is barely a hope of even starting to slow down.

I admit that I stood at the periphery when those photos were taken. Something about crowds—even right-thinking crowds—has worried me ever since I joined a few of them, right-thinking I thought, at Berkeley in 1970. Like many of the people at the Prairie Festival, I knew that 350 ppm was an educational, motivational symbol and a real, measurable number—about 75 ppm more atmospheric carbon than there was in 1800. I remember thinking, too, that it was a historical marker, not as dramatic as September 11, 2001, perhaps, but one in whose lee we were living nonetheless. Still, what really bothered me was the good-natured jostling and the waving arms. It was cheerful, optimistic, and naive.

There’s probably no such thing as nonviolent protest without a measure of naiveté. (Not that there’s anything sophisticated about violent protest.) Chanting on Pennsylvania Avenue, waiting to be arrested, forming a human chain around the White House—these actions, all of them staged by, are overwhelmingly indirect. But when it comes to taking on the fossil fuel industry and slowing the rate at which we pour carbon into the atmosphere, what would direct action look like? This is the conundrum McKibben addresses in his new book, Oil and Honey.

McKibben is a man of many virtues. He’s a great guy, an inspiring speaker, an indefatigable writer, researcher, teacher, and organizer. But his most important virtue may be simply that he remembers what it is to be naive. From his own experience he’s able to show readers how it feels to discover the terrible things they themselves are discovering: the extent of climate change, the depth of its likely consequences, the scale of congressional corruption and inefficacy, the power and callousness of the fossil fuel industry. I would even say that McKibben has a certain tenderness for the moment when naiveté falls away in tatters. That moment resembles a conversion experience, which is one of the most powerful bonds a group of people can share, even when the conversion is reality-based, even when the conversion means a loss of faith and not its sudden coming.

Here’s an example of McKibben’s fundamental decency, all the more telling when you remember that almost no one has been writing about climate change longer or working to fight it harder than he has. In January 2012, he appeared on a panel with Lee Terry, the Republican congressman from Nebraska. The subject was the Keystone XL pipeline, which, if built, will carry diluted bitumen from Alberta’s tar sands region, through Nebraska, to a refining and export hub on the Texas Gulf Coast. During the conversation, McKibben remarked that Big Oil “was using the congressmen it funded heavily to make [the pipeline] happen.” Terry, bristling, immediately asked whether McKibben was saying that Congress has been “bought off.” And McKibben blushed.


Here’s the point. We would, most of us, have blushed with him. Congressman Terry is one of the most outspoken advocates of the pipeline, and he had just written a truculent bill that would have forced President Obama to approve its construction. And of course, as McKibben soon discovered, Terry had taken more than $350,000 in campaign contributions from Big Oil since 1999. It’s one thing to know, within yourself, that Congress has been bought and sold. It’s something else to say it loud enough to hear yourself saying it in public and in front of a self-righteous congressman. Nothing in a good Methodist upbringing prepares you for that. Losing your faith isn’t hard. That happens to good Methodists like McKibben all the time. What’s hard is losing your residual faith, the desire to believe that the system is working—the desire to believe after belief itself has gone.

Oil and Honey charts the progress of McKibben as a polite pilgrim, a man burdened and graced by his politeness. It’s a middle-aged bildungsroman—but all bildung and no roman. And if it reads like a campaign diary, that is only one of the many burdens this book carries. No real writer wants to become an explainer, but McKibben has forced himself to become one. Again and again, he has to explain to audiences the patterns that lie behind climate change. Worse, he has to explain to them that they’re living with lost illusions. This is where the lingering memory of his own education comes in. I’ve seen the earnestness with which audiences question McKibben. There’s often a striking imbalance between the passion they feel and the solutions they propose. Will driving a Prius help? What about more bike lanes? LED bulbs? Going vegan? We’d all like to believe that personal sacrifice of some sort will make the difference, if only because we want to take direct action against the problem. McKibben’s woeful task is to say, simply: do what you can to make yourself feel better about it all, but it will make no difference in the long run. The problem is so much larger than that.

Only a person capable of communicating a little tenderness to his audience—something richer than sadness or regret—can begin to make that message palatable. A touch of impatience, a hint of cynicism, and it would be unbearably harsh. In the past couple of years, the questions themselves have grown more urgent as the weather has grown stranger and McKibben’s audiences have grown more knowing, thanks in part to the efforts of People are now asking what they can do to prepare themselves for the world that climate change will bring. McKibben’s answer? Live “anyplace with a strong community.” Where do we find those communities? McKibben: You make them.

The implication is easy to miss. The warming atmosphere carries a heavier and heavier load of moisture just waiting to be loosed on, say, Boulder, Colorado, where seventeen of its thirty annual inches of rainfall fell in mid-September, nine inches in a single day (September 12, 2013). It’s going to take strong communities to survive the forces of nature and repair the damage. But it’s also going to take strong communities to survive social fracturing under that kind of stress.

For many reasons, our culture is obsessed with a postapocalyptic world. Yet the problem before us isn’t the postapocalypse. It’s a rolling apocalypse, working its way unequally, differentially, from place to place as the years pass, erasing assumptions, testing and almost certainly unraveling social bonds. There are really no analogies for what we face. The September floods in Colorado weren’t “biblical,” though in that born-again neck of the woods the word seemed to fly with the wings of a bat. The floods were human. No wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.

Like most professional dispellers of illusion, McKibben routinely faces the extraordinary human capacity to normalize the abnormal. Our hopes and fears may live in the future, but we live appallingly in the present. The hard part is getting us to act as if in fact there will ever be such a thing as the future. As a species, we may be unbelievably adaptable psychologically—we’re descendants of the twentieth century, after all—but we are not unbelievably adaptable physiologically. Neither is any other species. The short message is this: we’re going to have to remake how we live before we’re forcibly remade in ways we’re only beginning to imagine. The long message is however long it takes to get the short message across.


The problem—call it McKibben’s conundrum—is that human nature changes infinitely more slowly than we are changing nature. We like to believe that, ultimately, culture is our nature, that we live within an edifice of our own construction. And we do, except in ways, again, that we’re only beginning to imagine. The carbon load we’re dumping into the atmosphere—and into the oceans, which all too readily absorb atmospheric carbon—is almost entirely anthropogenic. It’s a cultural product. But the forces it unleashes are natural forces. Suddenly, the weather has new raw materials to work with—a lower albedo, or capacity to reflect light, on the Greenland ice sheets, an open-water Arctic, a higher load of moisture. Everywhere you look, you can see the squeeze we’re putting on nature—the accelerating extinction of species, the relentless destruction of natural habitats. And now everywhere you look, you can see the squeeze that nature is putting on us. An Old Testament kind of mind might even think we deserve it.

Bill McKibben has been living with these facts—and the endless array of facts behind them—for longer than almost anyone, ever since he published The End of Nature, in 1989. It’s worth asking, then, how he finds it possible still to be surprised by the story, where he finds those valuable, hidden reserves of naiveté—the uncompressed coal that will be turned, eventually, into a diamond-like candor. One answer is that McKibben keeps trying to discover ways to tell the story of climate change more effectively. His Do the Math campaign—an offshoot of an article he wrote in 2012, for Rolling Stone, called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math”—is a good example. The other answer is that the story keeps getting worse.


Nati Harnik/AP Images

A sign protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in a field it would cross near Bradshaw, Nebraska, March 2013

Which brings me to the pipeline. The New York Times published its first editorial attacking the Keystone XL pipeline on April 2, 2011. That elicited a response, published five days later, from Russ Girling, the president and CEO of TransCanada, which hopes to build the pipeline. He wrote:

The United States has a choice: receive oil from a stable, friendly nation in Canada or get oil from volatile, unfriendly regimes overseas.

TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline can help provide that energy security. The pipeline is a $7 billion, shovel-ready project that will transport 500,000 barrels per day of crude to American refineries. Keystone will put Americans back to work, creating 20,000 construction and manufacturing jobs and 118,000 spinoff jobs. The project will also inject $20 billion into the United States economy and provide millions more in state and local taxes for decades.

There is barely a word of truth in that. Most of the oil the pipeline would carry is meant for export. It would replace no foreign oil. It would not lower fuel prices in the United States. The jobs created during its construction would be short-term jobs, and far fewer than the number Girling claims. It’s hard to estimate how much money the pipeline would inject into the American economy, but it’s not too hard to estimate who will get most of it.

The real trouble is that most of Girling’s assumptions were already embedded in the State Department’s evaluation of the pipeline. The reason is that, in effect, TransCanada was hired by the State Department to evaluate its own pipeline. As the pipeline’s defenders have writhed back and forth—finding new arguments in its defense—the State Department has also writhed in successive drafts of its environmental impact study. The most interesting echo—if that’s the right word—to be found in a State Department study is the argument that the tar sands oil of Canada and elsewhere will find a way to market whether the pipeline is approved or not. The logic of that falls just short of “don’t even try to stop us.” But every analysis has made it clear that this is nonsense. So have the reactions of the people of British Columbia, which an alternate pipeline would have to cross. The potential financial boom from Alberta’s tar sands depends almost entirely on President Obama’s approval of the pipeline.

What would direct action against the fossil fuel industry look like? It would look like President Obama saying no. What makes this pipeline special isn’t just the lies that have been told on its behalf or the collusion between the State Department and TransCanada. Nor is it the consummate waste of digging up a pristine boreal forest and creating one of the largest industrial zones on this planet just so a few American oilmen—the Koch brothers chief among them—can export more oil. No, what makes this pipeline special is that one man can stop it, simply because a presidential permit is required to construct any pipeline that crosses our international border with Canada.

The pipeline’s defenders—in the oil industry and the media—like to argue that the fight over Keystone XL is largely symbolic, that building it wouldn’t make much difference in the overall carbon load we’re adding to the atmosphere. They have a point. Killing the pipeline would indeed be symbolic—exactly the kind of symbolic action we need to see this president finally take. And killing the pipeline would be like cutting off one of the Hydra’s heads. Look around, and you see petroleum booms all over the place—major new discoveries in Kenya and off Madagascar and Cyprus. Killing the pipeline isn’t going to kill them too.

Do the math, says Bill McKibben. And behind the math is a chilling realization. The wealth of the fossil fuel industry—and the wealth that depends on that wealth—is predicated on the eventual extraction and sale (and combustion) of gas, oil, and coal assets that for now remain in the ground. How much carbon is that? “The number,” McKibben writes,

is 2,795 gigatons—that’s the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal, oil, and gas reserves of the fossil fuel companies and countries (think Venezuela or Kuwait) that act like fossil fuel companies. It’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn.

Planning to burn, because our economy is based on it. Writing off those underground assets—leaving them underground, in other words—would mean, according to one of McKibben’s sources, writing off some $20 trillion. Burning those assets means… Well, here’s McKibben: “We already have five times as much oil and coal and gas on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.” We’re hoping, desperately, to keep the global temperature increase under 2 degrees Celsius. To do so means, at best, pouring no more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by midcentury. The captains of fossil fuel have already made plans—and raised money on those plans—to burn five times as much.

What would direct action against the fossil fuel industry look like? It would look like a campaign to persuade institutions to divest themselves of the fossil fuel stocks in their portfolios—the kind of campaign that has begun to spread across college and university campuses around the country. Its purpose is simple—to strike directly at the source of that industry’s power to corrupt: its wealth. There was nothing simple about getting universities and others to divest tobacco stocks, or stocks in companies that profited from South Africa during apartheid. Asking for divestiture of fossil fuel stocks will be vastly harder. It seems to strike against the very idea of normalcy, against the habits of mind and body our lives have been built on. And that is its point: a sharp awakening, an illusion in tatters. But its other point is actually to reduce the amount of money made from carbon, and with it the influence that Big Oil and Big Coal and Big Gas have on every level of government.

Like the organizers of most battles for social justice, Bill McKibben and are working to redemocratize this country. For McKibben—a Vermonter—that means, in part, keeping democracy alive at the town meeting level. It also means driving the moneylenders from Congress, so to speak, and refreshing the resiliently naive expectation that our representatives will actually represent us.

As for us, our job is to keep our eyes and minds and mouths and wallets open. If you knew anything about the coalbed methane boom in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin in the 1990s, nothing about the fracking boom of the past few years would have surprised you. If you’d watched the persistently antidemocratic workings of industrial agriculture, building its hog barns all across the country, you would have found nothing surprising in the antidemocratic workings of the fossil fuel industry, its outright trading in congressmen as if they were biddable commodities. It’s all too easy to give in to cynicism or go home to the farm and the bees. Better, perhaps, to be surprised, if only because it helps fuel the kind of outrage you feel in Bill McKibben, who is the most rational of men.