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Climate-change activist combines polemic, memoir

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Aside from religion, few issues separate people into believers and deniers faster than climate change and global warming, and this polemical memoir by a prominent American environmentalist will irk both sides of the debate.

Bill McKibben is an American writer and activist living in Vermont, where he is co-founder of, an international climate watchdog working in 188 countries.

Now in his 50s, he has made a career of denouncing oil, gas and coal companies for their complicity in creating a world dependent on carbon reserves while wreaking havoc on the environment through deforestation and pollution.

His first book, The End of Nature (1989), is widely considered the first attempt by an environmentalist to thrust the dangers of fossil-fuel dependence into the public domain, thereby changing an unintelligible and questionable scientific theory into a mainstream issue.

A dozen books later, and two decades after his seminal publication, McKibben again confronts climate-change doubters.

There's ice-melt in the Arctic, serious degradation of Greenland's ice cap, increasing size and severity of hurricanes, tornados and floods, and, most ominous of all, the steady rise in average annual temperatures, especially in 2012 when "15,785 high temperature marks" were set -- and Manitobans suntanned in mid-March in their own backyards.

McKibben has always targeted his own country's poor stewardship of nature, but he has usually saved his sharpest aim for the world's fossil-fuel industry.

This time Alberta's tar sands are in his crosshairs, specifically TransCanada Pipelines' much ballyhooed -- and booed -- Keystone XL Project to move oil to the Gulf of Mexico.

Citing the risk of oil spills and the scope of eco-damage in Alberta, McKibben reminds us that only three per cent of the tar sands oil has been extracted so far, but more earth has already been shifted than was moved during construction "of the planet's 10 biggest dams, the Great Wall of China, and the Suez Canal combined."

Into his political arguments, McKibben weaves an account of his personal journey from author to activist.

The organizing, demonstrating and civil disobedience tactics McKibben and his band of stalwarts use -- they even spent time in jail -- he admits are copied from South Africa's anti-apartheid movement.

Never shy to confront politicians who accept largesse from oil and coal companies during elections, McKibben expresses his disappointment over hollow promises from a supposed environmentally conscious Democrat who became U.S. president.

"Donations from the fossil-fuel industry," he writes, "managed to turn one of our two political parties into climate deniers and the other party into cowards."

In homespun prose that waxes poetic and is reminiscent of Robert Frost, McKibben juxtaposes his harried activism with the placid lifestyle of his rural neighbour, Kirk Webster, who has become becomes one of America's foremost organic beekeepers. Thus his title, Oil and Honey.

This comparison serves as a backdrop to the book's Rockwellian theme: America must lead the world by example and adopt simpler lifestyles less reliant upon fossil fuels.

McKibben credits Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein (The Shock Doctrine, 2008) with the idea of emphasizing three numbers to discredit the oil industry's mantra that climate change is a natural phenomenon.

The first number, two, represents two degrees Celsius, a universally accepted absolute maximum the Earth's average temperature can rise before catastrophic climate change occurs. It has already risen 0.8 degrees.

The second number, 565, is the number of gigatons of carbon dioxide the atmosphere can absorb and still stay under the two-degree temperature increase.

The third number, 2,795, represents gigatons of carbon in the form of the world's proven oil, gas and coal reserves waiting to be released as carbon dioxide, a good chunk being Alberta's tar sands.

Oil and Honey is another wakeup call for climate-change deniers, but believers may be disappointed to find McKibben's hopes for the planet naively pinned on people like his beekeeping neighbour.


Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 21, 2013 A1

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