Bestselling author and environmental activist Bill McKibben recounts the personal and global story of the fight to build and preserve a sustainable planet
Bill McKibben is not a person you'd expect to find handcuffed and behind bars, but that's where he found himself in the summer of 2011 after leading the largest civil disobedience in thirty years, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House.
With the Arctic melting, the Midwest in drought, and Irene scouring the Atlantic, McKibben recognized that action was needed if solutions were to be found. Some of those would come at the local level, where McKibben joins forces with a Vermont beekeeper raising his hives as part of the growing trend toward local food. Other solutions would come from a much larger fight against the fossil-fuel industry as a whole.
Oil and Honey is McKibben's account of these two necessary and mutually reinforcing sides of the global climate fight―from the center of the maelstrom and from the growing hive of small-scale local answers to climate change. With empathy and passion he makes the case for a renewed commitment on both levels of the fight to stop global warming, telling the story of raising one year's honey crop and building a social movement that's still cresting.
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Bill McKibben is the author of more than a dozen books, including The End of Nature, Eaarth, and Deep Economy. He is the founder of the environmental organization 350.org and was among the first to warn of the dangers of global warming. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar at Middlebury College, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the 2013 winner of the Gandhi Peace Award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Here’s a story of two lives lived in response to a crazy time—a time when the Arctic melted and the temperature soared, a time when the planet began to come apart, a time when bee populations suddenly dropped in half. Each story is extreme. They’re not intended as suggestions for how others should live, and I hope the reader won’t feel the need to choose, or reject, either one. Each story is mine, at least in part, for sometimes I think I’ve learned more in the past two years than in all the decades that came before. Some of that education came in the tumult and conflict of my own life, as I helped to build an active resistance to the fossil fuel industry. And some came in the beeyards of my home state, while I carefully watched a very different, very beautiful way of dealing with a malfunctioning modernity. These stories mesh together, I hope: awkwardly right now, but perhaps, with luck, more easily in the time to come.
I first met Kirk Webster in the fall of 2001. Newly ensconced at Middlebury College in Vermont, I’d offered to teach a course on local food production. There were two problems. One, I can’t really grow anything—my heart is green, but not my thumb. Two, this was long before Michael Pollan or Barbara Kingsolver had taken up local agriculture, and there wasn’t really much to read. We could choose among the remarkable essays of Wendell Berry, the seductive novels of Wendell Berry, and the tough poems of Wendell Berry. Looking through back issues of a magazine called Small Farmer’s Journal, however, I came across an essay by a beekeeper named Kirk Webster. I’m not sure I noticed, the first time I read it, that he was a neighbor. I was just taken by his confident prose and his descriptions of his life among the honeybees.
“Surely the best kept secret in the U.S. today is the wonderful way of life that’s possible with full-time farming on a small place,” he began. “If more people understood the opportunities for faith, freedom, responsibility, health and education that good farming can provide, our rural areas might be repopulated and the self-destructive course of our society reversed. This timeless activity is so much more than just a way of making a living—it is in fact the Middle Path described in the Buddha’s teachings and the object of St. Thomas’s words: ‘The kingdom of heaven surrounds you, but you see it not.’ ”
He was, it turned out, living in the next town over, and easy to track down via the small-farmer grapevine; he agreed to come to class and talk. I don’t recall everything he said that day, but I do remember my first impression: he was bearded, shy, and a little ill at ease, but we all took to him instantly. Even the students who had no intention of becoming farmers—the ones bound for finance or medicine or the other high-powered careers you leave for from a place like Middlebury—were shaken a little by his quiet resolution, and by his story.
He’d grown up in suburban New Jersey (like many of them), in a family he described in his essay as “largely dysfunctional and aimless” (so, not unlike a lot of them). “I always liked to read, and I didn’t have trouble getting good grades, so everyone assumed I would be able to get scholarships and somehow continue as far as possible with ‘education.’ ” By the age of fifteen, though, “it was clear that I was soon going to seek elsewhere for something to do in my life.” Nature and the outdoors world had become an “irresistible magnet,” and so in order that he earn some kind of diploma his parents sent him to the Mountain School in farm country Vermont, a rural outpost that grew its own food and cut its own firewood, and where he was all but adopted by one of the families whose parents taught at the school. Bill and Martha Treichler, and their boys and girls, taught him how to garden and to build and to do the hundreds of other jobs of rural self-sufficiency; he suddenly had a model that made sense—a joyful and tight farm family who were living outside the normal economy.
“One evening, just before dinner in the noisy school dining hall,” he wrote, “Bill told me that the year their fifth child was born, the family’s gross income was $600. I almost dropped the pitcher of milk I was holding. The sights and sounds in the room started to spin, and I felt like someone had just hit me right between the eyes with a stick of cordwood. Here were the most capable, healthiest, and best educated people I had ever met, who with five young children at home, had chosen a way of life with only $600 of cash income (perhaps equivalent to $2,400 today). They certainly could have pursued any number of jobs or careers to make a normal income, but chose instead to be together as a family and pick and choose carefully which aspects of the larger society they would get involved with. Farming and healthy self-sufficient living in a debt-free situation allowed them to do this. In that moment in the dining hall, all of my developing notions of making a living, security, jobs and careers were shattered, and I knew I would have to start again in learning what these things really mean.”
That moment ramified. When he was wracked up in a toboggan accident that winter, someone gave him a book on beekeeping, and it captured his imagination; home on vacation in New Jersey he found an octogenarian Ukrainian immigrant who needed help with his hives. That man told him about another—Charlie Mraz, in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, and when Kirk returned to school he hitchhiked across the state to ask the veteran apiarist for a job. He worked there for two years after high school, eating meals with the family but sleeping in the honey house. And then, still a very young man, he struck off across the country, working on a variety of farms and doing carpentry to pay his bills. Everywhere he went he built up small apiaries, honing his skills, and in the fall of 1985 he returned to the Champlain Valley and began his life’s work, raising bees and selling colonies, queens, and honey. Slowly, patiently, and in the face of growing problems with mites that were decimating many apiaries, he built his business into a going concern, pioneering a number of new techniques and becoming one of the very few beekeepers in the country who made a living without using chemicals in his hives. It was a decent living, too—when he came to my class that day, he bought his books with him, and showed us that Champlain Valley Bees and Queens, Inc., was grossing $50,000 a year, of which about half netted out. “After living, and enjoying life, for so long with so little money, this frankly seems like an enormous fortune to me,” he said. “In terms of the American greedy lifestyle, it’s still not very much money. But I consider it to be a more than ample reward for the independence, the wonderful way of life, and the chance to live apart from a predatory society that beekeeping and farming provide.”
He was, in other words, leading a somewhat Amish life, with the obvious exception that he wasn’t surrounded by an Amish community where everyone else was living likewise. There are other small farmers in the valley, and they were his friends; nonetheless, he was, perhaps, a little lonely—more on that later. But the deeper problem went like this: he thought his farming wouldn’t truly matter until he could pass on what he’d learned. “If there are young people anymore, interested in beekeeping, I’d like to have a few of them come here to learn the trade,” he wrote. “This is still in the planning stage, but it should be possible to expand the apiary enough to support one or two apprentices, then spin off the excess bees as the young folks return home to start propagating bees and producing honey on their own. If even one or two full-time apiaries resulted from this process, I’d be able to at least approach my own definition of successful farming.”
As the decade wore on, I’d see Kirk now and again—have him over for dinner or meet him for a cross-country ski. And so I knew he was shepherding his apiary through the most difficult decade in beekeeping history, surviving everything from the colony collapse disorder that killed so many beehives to the flood of cheap (and adulterated) Chinese honey that threatened to wreck the market. He’d continued to follow his unorthodox route. Instead of trucking his bees to California, like most apiarists, to cash in on the almond pollination season, he kept them close to home all year round, and worked diligently to rid his apiary of all trace of chemicals. And it had worked—but not well enough for him to take on the apprentices he’d wanted. He had no farm of his own, so he lived in a rented home on a small patch of land and had his shop nearby; his colonies were, as with most apiaries, spread out at a dozen locations around the valley. It all worked, but there was no room for young people to come, stay, and learn. And there was no land to make the apiary the hub of something even sweeter, a small farm with crops and animals. Had he lived some other place, he could have done it, but the cost of land in Vermont is unnaturally high—New York and Boston are within driving distance, and so prices get set less by what a farmer can earn than by what a stockbroker can afford.
It became clear to me that the moment was passing—Kirk is strong and healthy, but he’s got another decade at his peak, I’d guess. If he was going to pass on what he knew, the time was ripe. And I, too, felt a 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 I made him a proposal: What if I buy you a piece of land and grant you free lifetime tenure on it? In return, you build the farm buildings and get the land working, and pay the insurance and taxes. By any global standard, I’m a rich man. But I’m not in the class of people who buy farms willy-nilly. Still, I’ve always wanted something tangible to leave my daughter; since Kirk and I are about the same age, she should be the ultimate beneficiary, inheriting the operation when Kirk died. Given what I knew about climate change, the gift of productive land seemed like the best thing I could hope to pass on to her, an insurance policy worth more than money in some account. In the meantime, Kirk could fulfill his farming destiny.
Kirk agreed, and I went looking for the money—as it turns out, the check for this book covered the down payment. And together we started the search for land, wandering one property after another. There was no shortage of possibilities—every month a few more dairy farms disappear, done in by the low price of commodity milk and the impossibility of competing with the giant ten-thousand-head megadairies of the West. We looked at many, but they were hard worn, their outbuildings crumbling after a few decades of cash-strapped deferred maintenance. We eventually checked in with the Vermont Land Trust, which has been conserving farmland around the state for decades. (It works like this: a farmer decides that instead of selling off his land in lots for vacation homes, he’ll sell the development rights to VLT; he can keep farming, and the land will stay intact.) VLT connected us with a farmer who wanted to unload—after selling his development rights he’d gotten sick of the entire farming business altogether and moved on to California, and now his seventy-acre parcel outside the town of New Haven was just sitting there. There was a driveway and one double-wide trailer. The land was pretty near the geographic center of Kirk’s various beeyards around the county, and when we tested the well the water flowed pretty well. With the great help of our lawyer friend Dick Foote we managed finally to settle the deal. The farm wasn’t especially picturesque—the neighbor directly to the west ran a noisy excavating business, and the fields were rimmed with scrubby sumac. But some of the soil was rich loam, not the standard Champlain Valley clay. And the woodlot was plenty large enough to keep Kirk in firewood forever. We both knew it was the place.
The double-wide would serve for the someday apprentices; the first order of business, in that spring of 2011, was to get a barn built, and then, if his money held out, a small farmhouse, where Kirk was pretty sure he’d spend the rest of his life. This new operation would not change the world, both of us knew that. But it would, you know, change the world. The sum total of a million of these kind of small shifts would be a different civilization, one you could just begin to sense emerging as farmer’s markets spread across the nation. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had just announced a seismic demographic shift: For the first time in 150 years the number of farms in America was no longer falling. In fact, over the past half decade, it had begun inexorably to rise. All the growth was coming at the small end of the business, with people growing food for their neighbors. Vermont was a case in point: dairies continued to disappear, but we suddenly had neighbors growing wheat and barley—the kind of crops we hadn’t seen for a century in this state. The number of farmers in the United States was still small—just 1 percent, or half the proportion of the population behind prison bars. But something had definitely begun to turn. Given enough time . . .
Time, of course, was the trouble. Offered a century’s grace, I have no doubt we could subside into a workable, even beautiful, civilization. But 2011, when Kirk and I bought the farm, was shaping up to be one of the warmest years on record. As that summer wore on, we saw record heat in the Southwest and a drought so deep it killed five hundred million trees in Texas. Meanwhile, there was record rainfall across the Mississippi Basin, and the river swelled so fast that the Army Corps of Engineers was blowing up levees and flooding farmland to try to save cities from inundation.
Those were the facts of my life, those and a million other such stories and statistics. For twenty-five years—almost my entire adulthood—I’d been working on what we first called the greenhouse effect, and then global warming, and then climate change. Back in 1989, when Kirk was building his first apiaries, I was writing my first book, which was also the first book on the topic for nonscientists. The End of Nature was a best seller, translated into a couple of dozen languages, and my initial theory (I was still in my twenties) was that people would read the book—and then change.
That’s not quite how it happened, so I kept on writing, one book after another, about some aspect of this great crisis. I wrote articles, too, for just about every magazine you could name, and op-eds, and when blog posts became a thing I wrote those. I assumed, like most people, that reason would eventually prevail—that given the loud alarm sounded by scientists, governments would take care of the problem. And for a while that seemed, fitfully, to be happening. I was in Kyoto in 1998 when the world’s nations signed the first accord to staunch the flow of carbon dioxide, and I remember thinking that we’d turned a corner. It was going to be close, I thought, but we were headed in the right direction.
That’s not quite how it happened, either. As it turned out, the United States never ratified the Kyoto accord, and soon China was building a coal plant a week. Carbon emissions kept soaring, and donations from the fossil fuel industry managed to turn one of our two political parties into climate deniers and the other party into cowards. Power, not reason, was ascendant, and writing yet another story about the latest scientific findings seemed less and less useful. By 2009, a decade after Kyoto, the U.S. Senate—then with sixty Democrats—was so scared of Big Oil that it wouldn’t even take a vote on t...
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