Here's a fellowship that paid off. The winner actually worked hard and made deadline. For, with references to events this very year, just out from the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School is s slam-dunk must-read (for people in the enviro-science journalism business) from Matt Nisbet. It is 56 pages long with a load of footnotes . It includes bits on just about everybody who is anybody in the heavy-thinking, celebrity intellectual end of environmental journalism and a few other beats as well.
Nisbet, associate professor of communication and director of the Climate Shift Project at American University in DC, first came to the attention of many of us around six or seven years ago with his declaration that political issues (global warming was exhibit A) get digested publicly largely according to who is most successful at "framing" or labeling the issues. He and Chris Mooney, one recalls, spent considerable time as a hot one-two punch on the lecture circuit explaining why global warming is such a wicked-hard problem. Nisbet, a fellow at the Shorenstein Center last year, has read just about everything McKibben has ever written and talked with a lot of other people who have done so too. It had a deep payoff.
To start at the shallow end, my personal specialty, the book is a must-read because it is littered with names familiar to most readers of this blog, but are seldom crowded into the same document. The broad topic is knowledge journalism – the trade of people who go beyond objectively-phrased information journalism. These are the ones who try to synthesize, to draw grand conclusions and lessons, and make not only vivid but pedagogically powerful stories of major issues of the day. These are reporters that have strong voices and a clearly focussed mission. They take ownership of their issues and can say expert things without attributing all of them to anybody else. He focuses on Bill McKibben, an accomplished writer (New Yorker, etc) who broke noisily onto the climate journalism scene in 1989 with his book "The End of Nature," wrote a bunch more books, and more recently founded 350.org as an activist organization dedicated to ramrodding the world into shunning fossil fuels before we're so far over 350 ppm CO2 (we're at about 395 now) we're cooked with no way to turn down the knob. He is now, Nisbet declares, "the most prominent climate change activist in the United States." If so, he zoomed right past Al Gore (who once, you know, was a newspaper reporter). Aside from lots on McKibben, which I'll briefly summarize shortly, Nisbet lists among the nation's prominent knowledge journalists, and their academic kin, a who's who dating back to of course Rachel Carson and today including Andrew C. Revkin (who gets particular approval from Nisbet), Thomas Friedman, Michael Pollan, and Fareed Zakariah. From longer ago: John Muir, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Thoreau come up. So do Naomi Klein, Keith Kloor, Daniel Yergin, Amory Lovins, Michael Shellenberger, and Ted Nordhaus.
LATE ADDITION: I have learned that yes and as the quick-witted among our readers (most of them) would have surmised without prompt, this paper is the kernal of a book project. If fruitful it shall have chapters boring deeply into the souls and careers of other select knowledge journalists.
Any graduate or even upper division course in environmental journalism ought, by next fall, to have this paper on its syllabus if only for the discussion of what it means to be an advocate yet an honest broker, not to mention a celebrity, and call oneself a journalist too. McKibben does not come out smelling like roses – far too rigidly idealistic and perhaps mystical, too distrustful of 'scientism' and many of the technologies that science makes possible, for Nisbet's taste. Mine too, actually. Nisbet notes that Rachel Carson was called by some Nature's Nun. Some careful thought went into declaring McKibben to be Nature's Prophet.
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. Such as, maybe it does make sense to stomach one more pipeline, even this Keystone XL thing that McKibben has made his line in the sand, if a myriad other initiatives can be slipped past the snorters on the right and start pushing us away from carbon. By telling McKibben's story, Nisbet has provided a deeply informed portrait of the larger community of thinkers, scientists, and leaders trying to give contemporary humanity a legacy that inspires something greater than contempt.