Nature’s Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual and Activist

Matthew NisbetMatthew C. Nisbet

Shorenstein Fellow, Fall 2012
School of Communication and the Center for Social Media
American University

Read the full paper (PDF).

Watch Nisbet discuss the paper and knowledge journalists as public intellectuals (Video).

Summary:

In a new paper released by the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University, Fall 2012 fellow Matthew C. Nisbet examines writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben’s career and impact on the debate over climate change, drawing comparisons to other journalists and public intellectuals writing on the topic.

McKibben is the author or editor of more than ten books and has been an influential voice on the environment for over two decades. He is most recently the founder of the advocacy group 350.org which has led campaigns against the Keystone XL oil pipeline and on behalf of campus divestment from fossil fuel companies.

McKibben is an example of what Nisbet calls a “knowledge journalist,” a special class of public intellectual who writes journalistically, but who unlike most of their journalistic peers specializes in the translation of complex subjects, often championing specific policy positions or causes. These writers tend to view the world deductively, immersing themselves in the synthesis of complex areas of research, offering analysis across cases and events. Yet, as Nisbet describes, “they are also sometimes criticized for their characterization of uncertainty, for imposing their point-of-view, for lacking specialized credentials, for reducing explanations to a single idea, theory, or field; and often, for blurring the lines between journalism and activism.”

Nisbet opens the paper by introducing a broad framework for understanding the influence and career trajectory of journalists as public intellectuals; focusing on their training, style, celebrity, branding, and ability to frame complex problems. He then details the career trajectory of McKibben, examining his main arguments across books; the intellectual traditions within which he writes; how his work has been received and evaluated by reviewers and scholars; and his turn in recent years to activism.

Nisbet concludes that McKibben deserves immense credit for being among the first to call attention to the problem of climate change; for his ability to articulate a compelling vision of a different kind of society; and for most recently, changing the way that environmental groups practice politics. But, according to Nisbet, he can be faulted for offering “arguments for action on climate change that evoke a vision of the future that reflects his own values and priorities, rather than a broad, pragmatic set of choices designed to both effectively manage the problem and to align a diversity of political interests in support of policy action.”

Nisbet notes that multiple discourses about climate change exist, even among those who are the most dedicated to addressing the problem. What are needed then as a complement to voices like McKibben are forums and venues like Andrew Revkin’s New York Times’ Dot Earth blog. In this style of “networked” knowledge journalism, Revkin combines his experience and authority as a veteran science journalist with the interactive tools of blogging, providing a “crosscutting discussion of science, policy and politics that challenges assumptions among partisans on all sides and widens the menu of options available to policymakers rather than narrowing them to just a few,” notes Nisbet.

This is a style very different from other contemporary knowledge journalists writing as book authors or essayists, but perhaps uniquely suited to promoting understanding and societal consensus on climate change.

Read the full paper (PDF).

Watch Nisbet discuss the paper and knowledge journalists as public intellectuals: