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Book cover of Bill McKibben's Oil and Honey
Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
By Bill McKibben
Times Books
$18.61 Hardback, $11.04 Kindle
272 pages
September 2013

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, 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.


People Habitat book cover by F. Kaid Benfield
People Habitat: 25 Ways to Think About Greener, Healthier Cities
By F. Kaid Benfield
People Habitat Communications
$20.48 Paperback, $10.83 Kindle
304 pages
January 2014

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.

Originally posted to Daily Kos on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 01:30 PM PST.

Also republished by Kitchen Table Kibitzing and Readers and Book Lovers.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I like how both books deal with Ambiversion: (15+ / 0-)

    the way interesting individuals have Extrovert & Introvert sides, while the most charming cities make room for society and for solitude.

    I've found another balance in my favorite cities, between planning and organic growth. It's nice when there's some sense to a city, when functions, neighborhoods and transportation all fit into a harmonious big picture. But the cities with the most atmosphere also have a style of their own (Paris, Lisbon, San Francisco), and the whole city grows in many little plots, all adding up to a distinct personality. The lines are engineered, and then colors develop artistically within the pattern.

    Republished you to R&BLers. Thanks for the review of two more appealing books, Susan Gardner.

    "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

    by Brecht on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:16:25 PM PST

    •  The style of their own (8+ / 0-)

      Yes, indeed.

      But it's often hard to measure in a meaningful way. I love the new thinking about urbanism, but it is often reduced to ideals of numbers (how wide sidewalks should be, how much density per block, etc.). Banfield wrestles with trying to capture this throughout his book of essays, and it's really interesting to see him come out the other end with no set formula. He obviously wants to, but simply can't.

      For the record: My favorite cities to wander in: London, Rome, San Francisco and (not sure if it qualifies in the same company), my current hometown of Berkeley, CA.

      •  Wandering round Rome late in a summer evening (5+ / 0-)

        can be pretty magical, certainly. I remember going there when I was eight (we moved to Florence), approaching Christmas, and discovering the street-mechants roasting chestnuts, and selling them in rolled-up newspaper cones.

        Setting ambiversion aside, I find this other dichotomy (mechanic/organic - science/art - Classic/Romantic - Thinking/Feeling) permeating half the topics I mull over. Jung does a pretty good job on it in his Theory of Psychological Types. That's where The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Test came from, with its four dichotomies: Extravert/Introvert, Sensation/Intuition,Thinking/Feeling and Judging/Perception. And Jung, in his masterwork, traces it back through a few millennia of art, history and religion.

        Cooking is a good example of a field where, to excel, you need both the science and the art of it. Urban design, as you say, and also interior design. But I think experts in all sorts of fields apply these rigorous straight lines and sensitivity to subtle shades: just that they usually have internalized hundreds of ideas, and apply them unconsciously. They just develop a gut sense of what's working.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:51:11 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

        •  Cooking is a good example (3+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          Brecht, mimi, RiveroftheWest

          In many ways, so are the other creative arts. Learning perspective for painting, learning sound building methods for architecture (load-bearing, etc.) are the foundation of knowing exactly when and where to break any rules.

          In cooking, knowing how to assemble the basic ingredients to make a cake rise is important, but what you bring to the flavoring is more of an art.

          Maybe in every undertaking, it's a matter of mastering underlying physical laws and then tweaking the "flavoring" to get those special outcomes, whether it's urban settings, omelets or abstract art that works.

          •  Book Reviews too; many kinds of essay. (2+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            mimi, RiveroftheWest

            Your first job is to outline the object, so we can see its shape and dimensions; then you want to fill in as much richness of color and subtlety of hue as possible, so your readers can taste the thing itself, and savor your essay.

            "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

            by Brecht on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:12:12 PM PST

            [ Parent ]

  •  I've often had this notion that environmentalism (7+ / 0-)

    can be viewed as a revival (or "timeless tendency" in the words of one of my old college heroes) of Romanticism.

    After all, the Romantics often retreated to the woods, to the mountains, to the crashing rivers and roaring waterfalls, to get their inspiration. It was at odds often with the Classisists, who liked order and rationality, and always tried to tame wildness with imposed lines and tidiness, as witnessed by Versailles gardens.

    And Romanticism knew that warring with nature, that always trying to "tame" it, that cutting yourself off from it, always leaded to disaster.

    Wow. Do I sense an essay in there somewhere?

    "The soil under the grass is dreaming of a young forest, and under the pavement the soil is dreaming of grass."--Wendell Berry

    by Wildthumb on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:27:59 PM PST

  •  Thanks for the this (9+ / 0-)

    great to connect these two hugely important issues, climate change and urban planning.

    Bill McKibben has been a huge inspiration to many of us, tireless in his activism, and yet wise enough to keep connecting with the Earth's wisdom.

    Personally I've had the great fortune to be inspired by him out here on the West Coast on multiple occasions.

    From the Moving Planet rally in 2011:


    to an interview I got to do with Bill as part of his Do the Math tour, thanks to Patriot Daily and the Climate Change SOS team right here on Daily Kos.


    to helping the City of San Francisco divest from fossil fuels (with Supervisor Avalos)


    to bringing the Summer Heat to Chevron, on his way to getting arrested.


    Next up will be our a blogathon this upcoming week coordinated with and around 16 other NGOs, in a campaign to encourage people to submit public comments opposing the Keystone XL pipeline during the National Interest Determination (NID) public comment period.

    Bill has been a huge part in sparking this kind of activism everywhere!

    Ecology is the new Economy => Kosonomy

    by citisven on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:46:19 PM PST

  •  Nature is not for introverts! (6+ / 0-)

    In my experience it is somewhat the opposite.   When I lived in Oakland, CA I  pretty much ignored my neighbors; or more precisely never saw them often enough to form any kind of bond.    People moved around a lot from apartment to apartment; my only social ties were through work or music.

    Out here in the boonies of Orcas Island I actually have to deal with my other neighbors because we share a road and a water system.    We have to make decisions about how to maintain those systems because if we don't, we can't get to our houses and have no water.    

    If I were to see somebody broken down by the side of the road I would definitely stop and help; with no reliable cell phone service people have actually died here from survivable auto accidents.    Not true in Oakland (simply not brave enough unless it was something exceptional.)    If a tree is across the road, I will clear it unless it is too tricky (then I call on a neighbor who is a professional logger.)  

    When you tend to see the same people over and over you do form more of a connection than in the city.   It is not always pleasant especially for someone who is relatively introverted; if you get mad at some stranger in the city it doesn't come back to haunt you quite so often as when it is one of your few other community members.    Literally it is sometimes nice to go into a city store where not quite everybody there knows you with all your flaws.

    When I am exploring the south coast of B.C. by boat and kayak you would imagine it would be the ultimate introvert experience, but in fact you encounter and deal with other boaters even more than one does rural neighbors.    

    •  That's really interesting (5+ / 0-)

      It sounds a bit like you're equating rural=introvert and urban=extrovert.

      Maybe I just have a more simplistic description. To me, introvert=recharged by solitude and extrovert=recharged by social interaction.

      Certainly, there can be extroverts in a rural setting; in fact, having grown up in a small town, I can testify that sometimes rural settings can be the perfect venue for extroverts. The dependence on others in an emergency, the necessity of forging social bonds for ties like you talk about are real. And everyone is familiar with how alone you can feel and be in a big impersonal city.

      And there's always the situation of having a big family or social gathering IN nature itself (a big family or friendship-based camping experience, for example).

      I've just always associated introversion, I guess, with long walks or hikes in solitude, amidst a beautiful natural setting. That's what recharges me. I guess different associations with natural settings are what's coming into play with different definitions here.

      •  "extrovert=recharged by social interaction" (3+ / 0-)

        That's how psychologists generally use it. A standard question is "When you go to a party, do you leave feeling charged up (E) or worn out (I)".

        An extrovert finds themself in society - while an introvert finds themself in solitude. An extrovert left alone too long would get depressed or go stir-crazy.

        It's more complex than that, but that's a good indicator. But Orcas George experienced solitude in Oakland, and found more society and meaningful interaction on Orcas Island.

        "Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth" Samuel Johnson

        by Brecht on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:00:37 PM PST

        [ Parent ]

    •  Some city neighborhoods are like that too (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      I love that after a storm, when I go out to shovel my sidewalk, up and down the street Mike and Rachel and Benoit and Tim and those college girls across the street are out doing their pieces of sidewalk. A few months ago Mike saw my fence leaning over precariously -- not the one on his side, the other one -- and just came over and fixed it, and wouldn't even take money for the materials. (It gives me more willingness to overlook his too-loud music and other annoyances.) My upstairs neighbor (a one-year renter) doesn't garden but carefully adds to my compost pile.

      The key, IMO, isn't urban vs. rural. It's a combination of getting out of cars -- walkers and bus riders interact more -- and staying in one place long enough to form relationships not just a sequence of one-off encounters.  

  •  Thanks for this! (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, RiveroftheWest

    Ordering Bill McKibben tonight for my Nook!

    Be sure you put your feet in the right place; then stand firm. ~ Abraham Lincoln

    by noweasels on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:53:22 PM PST

  •  My new post (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    citisven, RiveroftheWest

    "If Wall Street paid a tax on every “game” they run, we would get enough revenue to run the government on." ~ Will Rogers

    by Lefty Coaster on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 02:54:58 PM PST

  •  Apollonian/Dionysian (6+ / 0-)

    Cities need to be Apollonian--rational, organized, practical-- in matters such as infrastructure, transpiration, energy supplies. They also need to be Dionysian--delightful, surprising, whimsical--in matters such as scale, walkability, and materials. Where I live it is hard for the city planners and big developers to include both in their plans and projects. As a result planned developments seem one-note, even sterile. Popular neighborhoods have been brought back to life by artists and small entrepreneurs. They rely on creativity and hard work to create attractive places. Where the city opens the door, such as by permitting food carts, or by creating safe bike paths, or permitting micro-houses, there is an explosion of exciting new ideas and new businesses and the city becomes more lively and livable. So the right balance maintains the urban framework while supporting innovation and artistry.

    •  Exactly (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Brecht, citisven, mimi, RiveroftheWest

      The sterility can be a real problem with urban design by numbers. What you call "whimsical" is what Banfield would call "lovable," I think.

      And it takes a lot of unplanned serendipity to make that happen—as you say, street carts, artists, small entrepreneurs.

      Maybe the best we can do as we plan our urban settings is to go with best rational practices and then step back and see what happens when creative people have room to step in and make things happen.

  •  Yet ... front page silence as 400+ arrested (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:


    I appreciate your thoughtful and engaged review of Bill's book.

    However, I find it truly odd to be seeing this on the Daily Kos front page on a day when 1000s protested Keystone XL at the White House and some 400+ (as of last reporting) have been arrested.

    This book review is on the front page ... but the protests and arrests are not.

    We'll have a blow-by-blow of the Oscars but nary a mention of the climate movement.

    The crickets -- other than the 'usual suspects' (MB, Laurence ...) -- on this is distressing.

    What does it take before a progressive activist movement is embraced?

    Blogging regularly at Get Energy Smart NOW! for a sustainable energy future.

    by A Siegel on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:46:04 PM PST

  •  Thanks for the diary! Couldn't hear about McKibben (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    without thinking of his wonderful "God's Taunt" sermon at the Riverside Church in New York City. (It's about 22 minutes long.)

    It reminds me that all great movements have not only intelligence, but also a moral sense, which I think he captures and presents very well.  I've watched it a half-dozen times or more and still can't wait to watch it again!

    "Push the button, Max!" Jack Lemmon as Professor Fate, The Great Race

    by bartcopfan on Sun Mar 02, 2014 at 04:57:15 PM PST

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