Longtime environmental writer and activist Bill McKibben is likely sympathetic to aspects of Kolbert’s worldview. Her despondency about human violence to the planet resonates with much of his work. But McKibben has recently hit upon a new way of framing the issue of climate change: demonizing a subset of bad guys—that is, identifying a “them.” In a 2012 Rolling Stone article called “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” McKibben wrote that the fossil-fuel industry is planning to extract and burn more than five times as much carbon as the scientific consensus deems safe. “We have met the enemy and they is Shell,” he wrote, in a significant twist on that famous quote. (He presumably knows the original context of the quote, though his readers may not.) In his next move, he would target the enemy not just in word but deed: a campaign, centered on college campuses, to divest from fossil-fuel companies, modeled on the campaign to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. In a pivotal victory for the young movement, Stanford University announced plans in May to divest from coal companies.
McKibben chronicles the development of this strategy in his book Oil and Honey. As he tells it, his current role is “unlikely” because at heart he is a writer, happiest in his beloved Vermont, alternating between his desk and the woods. But his overwhelmingly keen awareness of the climate emergency has, he writes, forced him to become the reluctant leader of a nascent movement—constantly on the road, giving speeches, sitting on panels with members of Congress. It’s too soon to say whether he will achieve his goals, but he deserves credit for helping to create a new, adversarial dynamic. If the enemy is us, only a small minority of people will ever join the fight.
What does it mean for McKibben to transform himself from a writer into an activist? As a dichotomy, it’s somewhat misleading: McKibben’s writing has always had an activist bent, and his current activism involves a great deal of writing, including this new book. As he recalls here of his first book, The End of Nature, “my initial theory (I was still in my twenties) was that people would read the book—and then change.” But as that theory proved increasingly untenable, he was compelled to think hard and long about how words, in conjunction with actions, could produce the impact he sought.
His writing often falls these days into the genre of the exhortatory tweet (“Half a million emails is a lot. I don’t know if we can do it. But we’re sure as hell going to try”). He also exhorts himself (“Back to work. On message”) or engages, to his chagrin, in some calculated posturing with political types: “they say something, we say something back, they push, we push…. It ran counter to every instinct of a writer, which is simply to say what’s true.” He is constantly communicating with a variety of constituencies, with specific intentions: to persuade, inspire or bluff, depending on his interlocutor. On one of his whirlwind tours, he spends an afternoon with the poet Gary Snyder and writes, “For an afternoon—and it was the greatest present he could possibly have given me—I felt like a writer again, the thing I most wanted to be and at least for the moment really couldn’t.”
In this conception, being a writer means dwelling on the sounds and textures of words, not on their utility; meandering in the eternal, not obsessing over the latest news cycle in Washington; savoring complexity, not dividing the world into good and evil. It means the primacy of curiosity, of irreverence; really, it means allegiance to no cause. McKibben, as an activist, needs to privilege the instrumental over the poetic, rhetoric over subtlety. He aches for his old, less strictly activist role, but he is drawn to make this sacrifice—and one of the instrumental purposes of this book is to inspire its readers to make sacrifices of their own.
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