By Bill McKibben
$18.61 Hardback, $11.04 Kindle
I've always suspected that many activists, particularly environmentalists, are at heart introverts. Think about it: In order to devote your life to preserving nature, wouldn't you have to have actually enjoyed to some extent, retreating into the natural world, escaping the bustle of cities and people, honoring the refreshing stillness and solitude of deserts and mountains and oceans from time to time?
But it seems difficult, on the face of it, to balance the need to immerse one's self in the natural environment with the drive to connect with other people to create the change needed—not to sound grandiose, but … to save the world.
Bill McKibben captures and explores this contradiction in his latest book, Oil and Honey, released last fall. Add to his personal dilemma the fact that he's a writer, a person whose vocation requires spending a lot of time alone somewhere crafting words, and you've got a real quandary on your hands, explored more beneath the fold.
For years McKibben jokingly referred to himself as an "accidental activist," primarily viewing himself as an author first, a user of words to persuade, rather than a dedicated organizer. In the past few years though, that changed. With the help of others, he helped spearhead 350.org, wrote an astonishingly influential article for Rolling Stone in 2012 (one that "galvanized" billionaire Tom Steyer to join the climate battle in a big way) and stepped up to the barricades to resist the Keystone XL Pipeline. No longer behind a desk, McKibben spent nights in jail, spoke before crowds and criss-crossed the globe to preach the message that our time is running out to preserve the planet.
How McKibben stays grounded as a very public figure in this fight (the one against "oil" referenced in this book's title) is by balancing this frenzied life with returns to Vermont, where he pursues a friendship with a local almost-off-the-grid beekeeper (hence, the "honey"). These moves between the big world and the small, the global and the local, the public and the private, the draining and the replenishing, is at the heart of Oil and Honey. It's a message similar to that of Mary Pipher in The Green Boat (which I reviewed here last year), a dedicated eco-activist who recognized the need to recharge by taking refuge in family and community. McKibben recharges through learning more about beekeeping and falling in with the ebb and flow of seasons in Vermont. And then he's off again ... speaking, writing, protesting, exhorting, teaching to crowds.
His writing in Oil and Honey is, as always, engaging and thoughtful. His message and passion are vital, his energy inspiring. Overall, this is a terrific and easy read.
By F. Kaid Benfield
People Habitat Communications
$20.48 Paperback, $10.83 Kindle
McKibben's latest work dovetails nicely with a set of 25 essays about urban design and space by sustainability activist F. Kaid Benfield, who works at the National Resources Defense Council as a special counsel for urban solutions and who teaches at George Washington University School of Law.
Benfield approaches urban environments not from his law background, but as an avid pedestrian and simple lover of cities. This set of essays ranges over topics as obvious as transportation and density requirements to the more subjective question of what makes certain "people habitats"—as he terms our cities—so lovable and others so … well, unlovable.
It's not as simple, he discovers, as designing by numbers, i.e., having this amount of residents per square block, or a specific number of mixed-use buildings per square mile. There is some other sort of "lovability" index beyond the well-known "walkability" scores that make certain streets and quarters magnets for residents and tourists to hang out. Part of it is history, part of it is in use of light, part of it is in peppering streets with inviting spaces and quirky visual draws. The main attraction of one street over another is often hard to quantify and name, but the areas that make you want to linger instead of stride on through carry a magical attraction.
Benfield, even as an urban enthusiast, notes that while people definitely are social animals and like to congregate, they also have a need for privacy, solitude and nature. As he discusses cities from Paris to Madrid, from Asheville to San Francisco, he finds the nooks and crannies that help explain what separates the adequate city from the marvelous: reliable public transportation and local shopping draws, it should go without saying. But he also spots such amenities as pocket parks, courtyards, unexpected vistas that open up, wide sidewalks, outdoor seating at lively cafes. All of these add up to an ineffable vibrancy that is luring millennials and retirees alike back to city living after the wide open spaces and visual (and often mental) boredom of the 20th-century sprawling suburbs.
Older suburbs, the ones located around the rings of older American cities, are re-experiencing a resurgence as well, and the patterns of parks, nature walks, small local businesses and the unexpected are explored by Benfield as he looks back at where we've settled in the past and what our new re-settlings mean for the future. This is more a philosophical set of essays than design blueprints, as he finds meaning in how the environments we create speak to how we value our health, our work and our relationships as we find fulfilling ways to live together.
It's truly a delightful and leisurely read, and coupled with McKibben's book, points to how we need to get over our addiction to fossil fuels, invest our time and thought in how we build our primary communities, and the importance we place on preserving not just the natural world, but our cities, for future generations.