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Harvard Paper Examines Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual and Activist

Public Intellectuls (left to right) Bill McKibben, Andrew Revkin and Thomas FriedmanKnowledge journalists play a key role in engaging and organizing publics on the critical social issues of our time. In a paper released March 7 by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, I analyze the career of writer-turned-activist Bill McKibben and his impact over the past 20 years on the climate change debate.

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.

As I describe in the paper, McKibben is an example of 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. 

Writers like Tom Friedman, David Brooks, Malcolm Gladwell or Fareed Zakaria tend to view the world deductively, immersing themselves in the synthesis of complex areas of research, offering analysis across cases and events.

Yet, 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.

I open 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. 

I then detail 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.

Public intellectuals who blur and blend discourses

I conclude 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, 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.

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.

Debating the super-achieving journalists who shape societal thinking

At his Dot Earth blog, Revkin started a discussion about the paper, inviting readers to "dig in."  Keith Kloor at Discover magazine asked readers if they thought the local food movement -- championed by McKibben and other writers -- was a realistic approach to sustainability and problems like climate change.

Veteran science journalist Charlie Petit, in a review at the MIT Knight Science Journalism blog, recommended the paper as a "slam dunk must read" for journalists covering the science and environment beat. As he described:

The serious core of the paper is the arc of McKibben's career and his surprisingly, to me, utopian belief that the redemption of mankind must be a return to nature, to locally self-sustaining communities, to a deep acquaintance with how the world works at that micro level, and all the while featuring little or none of the hunger for stuff that keeps our current economy going. McKibben comes off like Frodo the Hobbit with a cozy little Shire to protect and a dragon in a cave to defeat. But McKibben is also, in Nisbet's portrayal, a deeply authentic, well-schooled philosopher-scholar whose motives deserve respect. He is the real deal. As the paper closes Nisbet offers a portfolio of perhaps more effective, immediately useful prescriptions, many of which would infuriate McKibben.

At Forbes magazine, environmental journalist David Ferris nicely summarized the paper, and asked readers to suggest examples of other up-and-coming "knowledge journalists" writing on environment and energy.  In the comments, I offered a few possibilities including Emma Marris, author of The Rambunctious Garden and Bryan Walsh, senior writer for Time magazine.

You can find out more about my approach to the paper and the related book project in a story at the American University web site.  You can also watch a YouTube clip, in which I discuss my approach to analyzing the impact of journalists as public intellectuals.