Divest! Bill McKibben, Big Coal, and The Carbon Bubble
A Review for The New Matilda of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, Melbourne: Black Inc. Books, 2013.
In his book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, the environmentalist Bill McKibben tells two stories: ‘Here’s a story of two lives lived in response to a crazy time — a time when the planet began to come apart, a time when bee populations suddenly dropped in half.’ One story is a personal memoir, a Henry David Thoreau-style work of philosophy, poetry, naturalism, and reverie. It focuses upon Vermont, agriculture, farming, and bee-keeping. In particular, McKibben recounts his meeting of minds with a Vermont apiarist, Kirk Webster. He is particularly fond of the rich metaphorical language associated with bees, hives, and honey: ‘Bees lead the animal world in cheap metaphor production, but there are times when despite all precautions you simply can’t avoid them.’
The other is a political story, a cri de Coeur, a call-to-arms for climate activists against the fossil fuel industry. It is a war story of fossil fuel divestment, civil disobedience, and political protests. McKibben is hopeful that the two stories are complementary: ‘These stories mesh together, I hope: awkwardly right now, but perhaps, with luck, more easily in time to come.’ As a whole, the book is a honeycombed biography of a climate activist.
An important theme in the book is the influence of the fossil fuel industry upon United States politics through political donations and fund-raising. Bill McKibben depicted the fossil fuel industry as radicals, outlaws, rogues, and scofflaws: ‘This industry alone holds the power to change the physics and chemistry of the planet, and they’re planning to use it.’ In a series of articles for The Rolling Stone, and his lecture series, ‘Do the Maths’, he expressed concern about the fossil fuel reserves, unburnable carbon, and the ‘Carbon Bubble’.
McKibben lamented that ‘donations from the fossil industry managed to turn one of our two political parties into climate deniers and the other party into cowards.’ He discussed the database of ‘Dirty Energy Money’ compiled by Oil Change International — which highlighted the campaign money given by fossil fuel companies to Congressmen and women. Such a concern has been shared by Lawrence Lessig who has campaigned for the reform of the United States Congress with his group Rootstrikers. The fossil fuel industry is supreme in its confidence and arrogance: ‘Big Oil was certain it would win’.
McKibben concluded: ‘Environmentalists clearly weren’t going to outspend the fossil fuel industry, so we’d need to find other currencies: the currencies of movement.’ He maintained: ‘Instead of money, passion; instead of money, numbers; instead of money, creativity.’ McKibben has sought to build a popular movement of climate change activists under the auspices of 350.Org. He observed that the group seeks to inspire global action on climate change: ‘It’s a great planetary hive, less an organization than a loose campaign designed to mesh with the Internet ethos of distributed action.’
In concert with Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo, and fellow board member of 350.org, McKibben devised a strategy of pushing for fossil fuel divestment: ‘Divestment wouldn’t bankrupt the fossil fuel companies, but at least we’d alter the geometry of the political battle a little.’
McKibben was in part inspired by the divestment movement in United States universities against South Africa’s apartheid regime. A leader and historian of the anti-apartheid movement, Bob Massie, advised McKibben: ‘Given the severity of the climate crisis, a comparable demand that our institutions dump stock from companies that are destroying the planet would not only be appropriate but effective.’
In his fight with the fossil fuel industry, Bill McKibben has also been inspired by the efforts of public health advocates, with their campaigns for tobacco divestment, graphic health warnings, and plain packaging. McKibben observed of the fossil fuel industry: ‘We need to take away their social license, turn them into pariahs, and make it clear that they’re to the planet’s safety what the tobacco industry is to our individual health.’
While recognising that ‘movements rarely have predictable outcomes’, McKibben was hopeful that ‘any campaign that weakens the fossil fuel industry’s political standing clearly increases the chances of retiring its special breaks.’ He was conscious, though, that ‘climatologists insist that even if we stopped burning fossil fuels tomorrow, the temperature and the damage would increase for decades to come.’
Initially, Bill McKibben and 350.org focused their efforts upon building a student movement to encourage colleges, universities, and higher educational institutions to engage in fossil divestment: ‘We’d go over the math, we’d have some music to charge people up, and then we’d send them off to see their trustees with this question: are you paying for our education by investments in an industry that guarantees we won’t have a planet to make use of that learning?’ The campaign has had mixed success. Half-a-dozen progressive United States educational institutions have supported fossil fuel divestment. However, educational institutions have also rebuffed such efforts — including McKibben’s very own Middlebury College.
Bill McKibben has also appealed to religious institutions to engage in fossil fuel divestment, lamenting ‘the basic blasphemy we’re engaged in as we write the first chapter of Genesis backward — as we destroy the planet we were given.’
Unexpectedly, Bill McKibben and 350.org have achieved significant outcomes with cities and municipalities adopting fossil fuel divestment policies. Seattle’s Mayor Mike McGinn has maintained: ‘We really have to find a way not just to get more efficient and show a better way to grow economically and build great communities — we have to leave those fossil fuels in the ground.’ John Avalos and the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco have called upon the city’s pension fund to renounce its fossil fuel investments. Portland’s Mayor Charlie Hayes has also shown significant leadership. There has been even a push by Benjamin Downing in Massachusetts to promote state-wide fossil fuel divestment.
In the book Oil and Honey, Bill McKibben depicts President Barack Obama as an enigmatic and mercurial figure in the debate over climate change. Relying on civil disobedience, he organised and led a high-profile campaign against the Keystone XL Pipeline, placing pressure on the President: ‘The Keystone pipeline would also be a fifteen hundred mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent, a way to make it easier and faster to trigger the final overheating of our planet, the one place where we are all indigenous.’ In a 2013 speech to Georgetown University, President Barack Obama showed greater commitment to taking action on climate change, even urging his supporters to ‘Invest, Divest!’
The call for fossil fuel divestment has become mainstream, and has been taken up internationally by a range of leaders, politicians, and elders.
A 2013 University of Oxford study charted the rapid growth of the fossil fuel divestment campaign.  While recognising the direct impact upon the fossil fuel industry may be limited, the report noted that ‘the campaign might be most effective in stigmatising the fossil fuel industry, with the coal industry being most vulnerable, and particular companies within the industry.’
Even the Future King of England, Prince Charles, recommended that pension funds should take into account climate risks and divest from fossil fuels. Such an endorsement would be likely to give cognitive dissonance to the current monarchist Prime Minister of Australia [Tony Abbott].
In October 2013, Climate Change Leader Al Gore and David Bloodai argued in The Wall Street Journal that fossil fuel divestment ‘is certainly the surest way to reduce carbon risk, though we fully recognize that divesting can be complicated and may be difficult for many asset owners’.  The pair maintained ‘that the transition to a low carbon future will revolutionize the global economy and present significant opportunities for superior investment returns’. Gore and Bloodai warned that ‘investors must also acknowledge that carbon risk is real and growing’ and that ‘Inaction is no longer prudent.’
In September 2013, a group of citizens and advocates led by Mary Robinson issued a Declaration on Climate Justice. One of the priority pathways named to achieve justice was ‘investing in the future’. The Declaration maintained that ‘a new investment model is required to deal with the risks posed by climate change — now and in the future, so that intergenerational equity can be achieved.’ The Declaration emphasized: ‘By avoiding investment in high-carbon assets that become obsolete, and prioritizing sustainable alternatives, we create a new investment model that builds capacity and resilience while lowering emissions.’
In an interview, Mary Robinson elaborated upon her concerns: ‘We can no longer invest in companies that are part of the problem of the climate shocks we’re suffering from.’ She stressed: ‘There’s an injustice in continuing to invest in fossil fuel companies that are part of the problem.’
There is a tension in the book between Bill McKibben’s deep pessimism about international law, politics, and diplomacy, and the need for substantive, global action on climate change. There could be a way to reconcile such concerns. The guidelines of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control provide for public institutions to engage in tobacco divestment. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change could be updated to require government entities to engage in fossil fuel divestment.
Such hectic and unceasing activism has taken its toll. As the subtitle of the book suggests, BMcKibben thinks of himself as an ‘unlikely activist’. He charts the stresses and strains involved in his transition from an author to a global educator and an activist: ‘I miss, sometimes desperately, the other me: the one who knew lots about reason and beauty and very little about the way power works; the one with time to think.’ In the book, Bill McKibben sounds fatigued, jet-lagged, careworn, homesick, and burnt-out. He is battle-weary from the endless controversies over climate change: ‘The ritual nature of political action — they say something, we say something, they push, we push, constantly keeping just list this side of an imaginary line — was grinding me down’. McKibben is uncomfortable about the cult of personality and celebrity surrounding political movements and campaigns. Little wonder he has promoted distributed, networked action, and leaderless structures in the climate change movement.
As a history of a movement, Oil and Honey is an impressionistic piece of work; an activist’s laboratory notebook; a jazz scat. McKibben is a pithy communicator — his years as a journalist have given him the ability to convey his messages in memorable phrases and images. His helter-skelter activism, though, has not been conducive for writing a comprehensive history. Apologetically, McKibben notes at the end of the book: ‘The problem with writing a book of this sort is that, being a kind of memoir, it focuses on one person’s experiences to the exclusion of so many who played as large a role or larger’. He maintains: ‘Those battles have become so broad, and are being fought so ably by so many people, that they would be better served by a real history, which I hope someone will someday write.’
Despite such weariness, McKibben remains hopeful about the potential of a popular movement, demanding substantive action on climate change. The book concludes with the thought that the battle between climate activists and the fossil fuel industry will be the ‘most fateful battle in human history.’
Dr Matthew Rimmer is a Professor in Intellectual Property and Innovation Law at the Faculty of Law in the Queensland University of Technology (QUT). He is a leader of the QUT Intellectual Property and Innovation Law research program, and a member of the QUT Digital Media Research Centre (QUT DMRC), the QUT Australian Centre for Health Law Research (QUT ACHLR), and the QUT International Law and Global Governance Research Program (QUT IL GG). Rimmer has published widely on copyright law and information technology, patent law and biotechnology, access to medicines, plain packaging of tobacco products, intellectual property and climate change, and Indigenous Intellectual Property. He is currently working on research on intellectual property, the creative industries, and 3D printing; intellectual property and public health; and intellectual property and trade, looking at the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the Trade in Services Agreement. His work is archived at SSRN Abstracts and Bepress Selected Works.
This piece was published in an abridged form in Matthew Rimmer, ‘An Unlikely Climate Activist: A Review of Bill McKibben’s Oil and Honey’, New Matilda, 15 November 2013, https://www.newmatilda.com/2013/11/13/unlikely-climate-activist