Bill McKibben’s Difficult Political Education

Bill McKibben’s Difficult Political Education

Bill McKibben at a Stop the Keystone XL Pipeline rally (by chesapeakeclimate, 2011, Wiki Commons)

Since the 2010 defeat of federal cap-and-trade legislation, questions of strategy have provoked a lively debate among U.S. climate change activists. As Mark and Paul Engler reported in the Summer 2013 issue of Dissent, to date, the discussion has focused on the inside-the-Beltway strategy pursued by the chief proponents of the failed cap-and-trade proposal, with critics arguing that curbing carbon emissions can only be achieved if an insider approach is accompanied by a vigorous grassroots movement. But the specifics of an effective inside-outside strategy remain unclear, the Englers said, largely because social movement creation is “much less studied and much less understood than the arts of electioneering, lobbying, and legislative deal-making.”

Among those seeking to redress that neglect is the nation’s most prominent environmentalist, Bill McKibben. The bestselling author is also a co-founder of the 350.org network, which has spurred a global grassroots movement to address the climate crisis. Writing at Grist in January 2013, McKibben allowed that the “behind-the-scenes route” had been “worth a try,” given that insider lobbying had produced most of the landmark environmental legislation of the 1970s, but that the effort was doomed by fossil fuel money and insider contempt for the grassroots. Since the 2010 debacle, two things have improved the outlook for meaningful environmental legislation: a series of disasters—hurricanes, floods, wildfires—has made the public far more concerned about global warming, and a grassroots movement to stem climate change has gathered enough force to push the “center-left swell in the direction it must go.” As evidence of this new potency, McKibben cited key achievements of 350.org: activist projects in 191 countries, fossil fuel divestment campaigns on 210 college campuses, and a delay in the Keystone pipeline approval process stemming from the biggest civil disobedience action in the United States in thirty years.

More recently McKibben has homed in on another reason for optimism: a shift that enables us “to conceive of, and pursue, movements in new ways,” namely the abandonment of rigid hierarchical control for fluid collaboration. In taking up this theme, McKibben broaches a challenge that has long bedeviled the left: how to exercise authority in a manner that is both effective and democratic. Mind you, “authority” is not in McKibben’s lexicon. Before pondering that absence, we need to consider his broader argument.

In “Movements Without Leaders,” a 4,200-word essay posted on TomDispatch last August, McKibben maintains that our fragmented culture has made leadership à la Martin Luther King, Jr. or Susan B. Anthony obsolete. “Save perhaps for the spectacle of presidential elections,” he writes, “there’s no way for individual human beings to draw the . . . kind of focused and sustained attention” that such personages once attracted.

McKibben sees the passing of the “capital L” leader as a change for the better. For starters, it makes possible a more realistic view of how successful movements have always operated. Now we can recognize that King, for example, was only one of “tens of thousands” of “great figures” in the struggle for civil rights in the United States. Embracing a “radically flattened version of hierarchy,” environmentalists can build a “leader-full movement” whose “full-spectrum resistance” is their best counterweight to the energy industry’s cash. Just so, McKibben attributes the growing strength of the climate change movement to its “lack of clearly identifiable leaders.”

He acknowledges that even in this “leaderless movement,” some people have “more purchase than others.” But rather than “charting the path for the movement to take,” they function like “elders,” saying “what they must say” rather than “tell[ing] you what you must do.” They put forth their own ideas or assess what others propose, offering encouragement or criticism as the situation demands, but never acting as the final arbiter.

But what about McKibben himself? Isn’t he a “clearly identifiable,” “capital L” leader? Not really. “[N]o one, myself, included,” he insists, “is the boss of the movement.” True, he instigated the record-breaking civil disobedience demonstration at the White House. And yes, he travels the world, spreading the word about climate change. But in so doing, he’s “at best, a pollinator, not a queen bee.”

McKibben’s celebrity may seem like reason enough for him to insist on his auxiliary status. But he adduces an additional motive: he admits that when he wrote his then-forthcoming book, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, he’d come to regard himself as the very sort of leader whose obsolescence he now hails. “[I]t’s the curse of an author,” he observes, “that sometimes you change your mind after your book is in type.” In fact, he has cause for concern, but it’s not what he thinks.


Published last September, Oil and Honey weaves together two narratives. The first describes the author’s close association with an environmentally exemplary beekeeper, Kirk Webster. The second charts McKibben’s growing involvement in the climate change movement, the experience that furnished the “education” of the book’s subtitle.

He stipulates on page one that the stories he’s about to tell are “extreme” responses “to a crazy time—a time when the Arctic melted and the temperature soared, . . . the planet began to come apart.” They are “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.” Oil and Honey is offered, then, in the spirit of an elder, who says what he must say, rather than telling others what to do.

Yet in the pages that follow, McKibben repeatedly tells others that if they don’t join him in acting to slow global warming, the fragile earthly place we call home is soon going to disappear. And beyond issuing calls to action, he comes up with many of the big ideas about what to do, functioning as a—if not the—major strategist of the U.S. climate change movement.

He dates his entry into activism back to 2006, when he persuaded a few fellow Vermont writer friends to sit in with him on the steps of the federal building in Burlington and then, after learning that the state police would ignore their protest, to walk across Vermont. Eventually a thousand people joined the march. In the spring of 2011,

I decided that 350.org should organize the first major civil disobedience action for the climate movement. . . . [I]t was time to stop changing lightbulbs and start changing systems. If we were going to shake things up, we’d need to use the power King had tapped: the power of direct action and unearned suffering. We’d need to go to jail.

After consulting local opponents of the Keystone pipeline—native leaders in Canada and environmentalist campaigners in Nebraska and Washington, D.C.—McKibben composed an invitation to march on the White House and “quite possibly get . . . arrested”; gathered signatures from Maude Barlow, Wendell Berry, Danny Glover, and James Hansen, among other luminaries; and pushed the Send button. “[F]resh out of jail,” he asked the CEOs of the “Washington green groups” to sign a letter to Obama in support of the continuing demonstration; all of them did.

The following winter, in an effort “to go straight at the fossil fuel industry” and weaken it, McKibben and 350.org launched a national campaign to rally college campuses to push their boards of trustees to get rid of their fossil fuel investments. “There was already a nascent campaign,” he writes. “But I reckoned we might be able to take it up a notch by tying it more explicitly to carbon and turning it into a national campaign.” To publicize the project, McKibben wrote a piece for Rolling Stone and embarked on a cross-country speaking tour that enjoyed sold-out venues.

Last winter, as 350.org planned a week of climate action in mid-February that included “a small and controlled day of arrests outside the White House,” one of his jobs was “helping round up prominent people to go to jail.” Once again, his summons got a stellar response:

a billionaire, . . . a Kennedy (two, actually—Bobby Jr. brought his son Conor, who because he had dated the pop star Taylor Swift got us all kinds of coverage in unlikely outlets)[,] . . . . a former poet laureate[,] . . . a solar pioneer and a prize-winning climate scientist. For many of us, though, the biggest thrill came when we were joined by Julian Bond, the former head of the NAACP. I was handcuffed across from him in the paddy wagon. . . .

And when the White House wanted someone to contact about the action, McKibben got the call.

The foregoing résumé suggests that the “clearly identifiable” type of leader is not passé after all. Oil and Honey democratizes the type by surrounding the author’s visage with the faces of many colleagues. McKibben credits the founding of the climate change movement to his collaboration with seven undergraduates at Middlebury College (where he teaches) whom he met on the walk across Vermont. Together they started Step It Up, which in the spring of 2007 coordinated 1,400 protests, including at least one in every state. They went on to found 350.org., which in 2011 was “still run by those seven young people.” McKibben also cites numerous men and women whose contributions have been essential to the movement, from notables such as Naomi Klein, with whom he fleshed out the idea of the road show, to Matt Leonard, the “stalwart actions chief” of 350.org.

Yet like “Movements Without Leaders,” Oil and Honey leaves an impression of the author as a highly effective leader among leaders. The portrait seems credible. Why, then, is McKibben at pains to repudiate it?


The likely answer has to do with an aspect of his political history that goes unmentioned in the essay but constitutes a major theme in the book: the profound disquietude with which McKibben regards his transition from author to activist. The makeover taught him two things: he’s good at politics, and it’s bad for him. Politicking “violate[s]” his writerly nature, which tends to solitude and contemplation. “Real politicians . . . love to work a crowd, drawing energy from everyone they met [sic].” McKibben, for his part, is inclined to “hole up in a room and type.”

That said, he readily accepts Sierra Club Director Michael Brune’s invitation to “do a lap” around the White House, high-fiving thousands of fellow protesters “nonstop till my hand was swollen.” “[I]t was,” he recalls, “the most fun half hour of the whole fall.” But unlike much of the time he spends as an activist, it was also a half hour in which he was doing what he’d chosen to do. Which points up another dimension of politics that grates on McKibben’s spirit: its relentless contingency. By the start of 2013,

I felt like the marble in the pinball machine, bouncing off one flipper after another. Or maybe I was the one playing the game, shaking the machine. I was good at this, after all; we were on or about our fourth extra Keystone. But it wasn’t me, or at least it wasn’t the me that used to be. . . .

McKibben understands his aversion to political conflict as something more than a writer’s need for calm. “Most normal people, me included,” he observes, “don’t really enjoy controversy.” But controversy is what drives “the ritual nature of political action—they say something, we say something back, they push, we push.” The Internet, which he hails as indispensable to his work, exposes him to “craziness.” He deletes “most of the death threats and insane assaults,” but the promiscuous stream of “acid” is unnerving.

Even politicking with allies is a fraught affair. After learning in March 2012 that Obama will make a campaign stop at an Oklahoma oil town that’s on the Keystone pipeline route, McKibben anticipates a week filled with “a stomach-churning stretch of e-mails and conference calls with our friends in this fight.” The road trip, with its thirteen straight sold-out shows, has its thrills, but it also teaches McKibben “why so many musicians end up doing some combination of drink, drugs, and groupies”: it’s hard to come down from the adrenaline rush.

In the winter of 2012-13, sensing that he’s been living “an unnatural life,” he spends “more time than usual in Vermont,” hoping it will “restore me.” Instead, unable to elude the fights, he finds himself “often blue, in part . . . because home was not the refuge” he remembered. He misses, 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.” Given that “environmentalists never win permanent victories,” he fears that his activist persona, and above all his leadership role, will be his new normal.


This sobering account illuminates McKibben’s reluctance to see himself as a political leader and his corresponding enthusiasm for leaderless movements. If such a movement existed, he could work against climate change and still have a regular life. That alluring prospect tempts him into some farfetched speculation. The primary vehicle of his musings is an overextended biological metaphor. Asserting that honeybees engage in “consensual democracy,” and that we should emulate their behavior, McKibben ventures into the wilds of sociobiology.

His guide is Thomas Seeley, a Cornell biologist who, in his 2010 book, Honeybee Democracy, proposes that a honeybee swarm chooses a site for a new hive through “collective decisionmaking. . . . based on a face-to-face consensus-seeking assembly.” Accompanying this supposition with abundant data drawn from decades of experiments, Seeley tells how, out of the 10,000 or so bees that constitute the average honeybee colony, a few hundred worker bees fly out to “explore thirty square miles of the surrounding landscape, locate a dozen or more possibilities, evaluate each one with respect to the multiple criteria that define a bee’s dream home, and democratically select a favorite for their new domicile.” The returning scouts then have a “debate” in which each one indicates her (worker bees are all females) assessment of the site she’s visited through a “waggling” dance. The stronger the preference, the more intense the waggles. Newly recruited proponents of a site check out the location for themselves and return with their own evaluations. Eventually support for the poorer sites among “neutral” scouts fades away, and the bees unanimously choose a new home that’s usually the best of the available options—a feat that demonstrates “the wisdom of the hive.”

Perusing Honeybee Democracy on one of his cross-country trips, McKibben found that the book’s political interpretation of apiarian house hunting “bore directly on the fights” engaging 350.org., as well as “on the vexed question for me of working close to home or away in the world.” In Oil and Honey he reiterates “Seeley’s commonsense summation” of what the insects “have to teach us about decision making”: utilize “’a frank debate’” in which all ideas are up for review; “’foster good communication’” so that everyone has access to “’valuable information’”; “‘listen to what everyone else is saying,’” but “’listen critically’”; and “‘’register [your] views independently’ instead of slavishly following a leader.”

These precepts are unobjectionable. What’s problematic—okay, preposterous—is the notion that honeybees follow them. Take the bees’ supposed lesson about engaging in “a frank debate.” Bees cannot lie; it follows that they are incapable of being frank. Nor can they debate: the waggling scouts do not address, much less contest, each other’s reports. Rather, each merely conveys what she has found. Moreover, her findings about a particular site do not result from any comparison she’s made with other locations, or for that matter, from rumination of any sort. “[A]lmost certainly,” Seeley writes, “a scout bee does not consciously think through her evaluation of a site. Instead she probably does so unconsciously with her nervous system integrating various sensory inputs….” In other words, she’s going on instinct, estimating a site’s “absolute quality based on an innate (genetically specified) scale of nest-side goodness.” Far from listening “critically” and then throwing in with supporters of a seemingly superior site, the bees join the first dance that they encounter, and what then sways them is the intensity of the dancing. Seeley also concedes that unlike, say, “the people in a town meeting,” “the scouts in a bee swarm have a common interest.”

Writing Honeybee Democracy, a meticulous scientist got carried away by a seductive trope. Reading the book, a smart author-activist was similarly transported, despite having recognized the danger. “Bees lead the animal world in cheap metaphor production, but there are times,” McKibben avers, “when despite all precautions you simply can’t avoid them.” In his case, the price of indiscretion is the soundness of his insight into democratic politics, of the human variety.


Given McKibben’s appreciative synopsis of honeybees’ “exercise in consensual democracy,” you’d expect him to depict 350.org participants engaged in lively debates. But only once do we see the organization’s participants mulling over a course of action, and on that occasion they proceed in a manner that scarcely comports with the bees’ ostensible lessons in decision making.

During the great heat wave of 2012, 350.org decided to respond to Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his claim that “climate change is a hoax” by having an ice sculptor carve “Hoax?” out of blocks of ice on Capitol Hill. Late in the night before the event, McKibben had a tense email exchange with Bob Kincaid, a 350.org supporter and a longtime West Virginia opponent of mountaintop removal coal mining who decried the “shenangigan” as an “elitist” insult to the tens of thousands of West Virginians whose power had been knocked out by “a climate change-driven storm.” At 5 a.m. he consulted with two young colleagues in San Francisco. After getting their okay, he composed a new email blast that began: “Dear Friends: I think I screwed up.” The event was called off. Fifteen hundred people emailed back; three-quarters supported the decision.

McKibben thinks that the episode strengthened the movement. Now people recognized that 350.org was responsive and fallible. Above all, supporters realized “that they were going to have to do most of the work going forward.”

Did they? Most of the work here was done by McKibben and his staffers. Granted, in a political campaign, decisions often have to be taken on the fly. Not everyone who should be consulted can be polled. And this particular decision didn’t matter much. How, then, does 350.org make the ones that are momentous? McKibben reports that when he proposed the fossil fuel divestment project, his colleagues “gulped” and then “began to plan.” Does that mean that they swallowed hard and then deferred to him? Or did they reach consensus through a no-holds barred discussion? We’re not told. The decision making behind 350.org’s other initiatives is even more opaque.

In fact, to judge from McKibben’s characterization of 350.org’s proceedings, the main attraction of Seeley’s bees is not their involvement in debate or openness to conflict but rather what the biologist calls their ability “to achieve an enviable harmony of labor without supervision.” As McKibben has it, “none of the thirty or so of us who work [at 350.org] really ‘organize’ our campaigns. It’s a great planetary hive, less an organization than a loose campaign designed to mesh with the Internet ethos of distributed action.” “The work of a hive,” writes Seeley, “is . . . governed collectively by the workers themselves, each one an alert individual making tours of inspection looking for things to do and acting on her own to serve the cy.” There’s “no all-knowing central planner” or “slavish” submission to a leader. So, too, with 350.org.: everyone has a job and does it with alacrity. Any serious conflict is with an external enemy. And like the results of the bee’s house hunting, the cumulative actions of 350.org participants usually turn out for the best.


The fly in the ointment, to switch insect metaphors, is McKibben. Unlike the harmonious workings of 350.org, his experience of politicking is conflicted. Too often, writers on the left either reduce the emotional side of activism to an inspiring exercise in solidarity or ignore it altogether. There’s plenty of kumbaya in Oil and Honey, but its sits alongside the author’s account of politics’ lacerating effects on his life, providing a welcome corrective to the romanticized view.

Unfortunately, McKibben doesn’t integrate the two aspects. In Oil and Honey he appears to be the only one in the climate change movement who’s wrestling with the rigors of politicking. As a longtime community activist, I find that hard to believe. Political leaders feel greater pressure—McKibben’s situation is credibly “extreme”—but everyone feel some, and everyone talks about those feelings; it’s a way of coping.

McKibben, however, not only personalizes his distress; he internalizes it. He converses with many people about a wide range of subjects—beekeeping, literature, spirituality, the fatuousness of the Rio+20 summit, how to manipulate Obama, and of course global warming. Not once does he bring up his frustrations with political life. Perhaps he believes that an elder needs to maintain a stiff upper lip. Why, then, does he advertise those frustrations to the reading public? And does he present his aggravation as idiosyncratic because he’s afraid of scaring off prospective participants in the climate change movement? If so, he’s done them a disservice. Better that would-be activists know what they’re in for.

McKibben’s story still yields valuable lessons. When he writes, “I’ve willed myself to be someone other than who I have been,” he recounts a history that no bee, with its “innate” cues, could even approximate. Only humankind can do politics, and because doing it is hard, politics demands ongoing resolve.

The closer to home, the more intense the motivation. McKibben marks the specificity of his commitment to the struggle against global warming. “I did that battle,” he writes, “in the name of my place,” by which he does not mean the planet Earth, but the Vermont locale he shares with his family, neighbors and friends:

I can try to imagine “unborn generations” and the “suffering poor” and the other huge reasons to fight climate change, but I never have the slightest trouble conjuring up the tang of the first frosty morning in the Adirondack fall, the evening breeze that stirs as the sun drops below the ridge.

Vermont is also home to Kirk Webster, the fifty-something, unorthodox master beekeeper whose friendship offers McKibben succor from the consuming effects of the activist life. Webster grapples with the same environmental and economic issues as the author-turned-activist, but he does so on a local level and in a pursuit that, unlike most political activity, has palpable—indeed, delectable—results. His farm serves the writer as a refuge from the rootlessness and indeterminacy of global politicking. McKibben is restored by the physicality of the work—he stacks crates and, once, delightedly drives the tractor—and invigorated by his conversations with the beekeeper. After sampling the honey harvest of 2012, he goes “back to work, back on the road, but at least I had that sweet taste in my mouth.”


Instead of “dithering” (his word) over whether he’s a leader, McKibben ought to own the label. To do so, he’d have to acknowledge that leadership involves the personal exercise of power, and that the exercise of such power may be compatible with democracy. So far, he’s offered two problematic alternatives: people who answer a call to action are either behaving like “leaderless” bees or “slavishly” following orders. He should entertain a third possibility: people do his bidding because he’s a recognizable authority. McKibben could help us to reclaim authority by showing how his leadership fosters “democracy in action.” That would require him to take a far more expansive view of conflict and its resolution (or lack thereof) within 350.org and the climate change movement at large.

It would also require him to drop the pretense that 350.org is “not an organization” and to deal with the role of institutions in movements. According to its website, 350.org is a 501(c)3 non-profit corporation with 2012 unrestricted revenues of $3.7 million. How does it actually operate? Above all, how are decisions taken? If, as McKibben reports, 350.org feels like a “homemade effort,” how does it achieve that ambiance? And how does he square the organization’s dependence on foundations—in Oil and Honey, he mentions the Rockefellers and the Schumanns—with the mounting concern about the sway of Big Philanthropy over American public life?

Getting people, starting with himself, to face hard truths is McKibben’s stock-in-trade. His difficult education in activism suggests that the realities of politics are even more daunting than the facts about climate change. At the end of Oil and Honey, he vows that as long as “the old cycle” of the seasons, “not quite gone,” still lingers, “the fight is worth the cost.” Studying his paradoxical account of that fight, we’re better able to calculate its cost and perhaps even to lower the ante.


Zelda Bronstein is a Bay Area activist and writer, and a former chair of the Berkeley Planning Commission.