The McKibben Doctrine

How Deep Green Politics Undermine Climate Action

In the two decades since he first wrote about global warming, Bill McKibben has become the most visible environmental activist in the United States, pioneering new methods of social protest, and redefining the way environmental groups practice politics. Today he is at the center of the US climate movement.

I recently spent four months as a visiting fellow at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy where I studied McKibben’s writing and career, assessing his impact on American environmental debates. In doing so, I developed a deep admiration for his ability to convey the urgency of climate change and to articulate a better approach to life that includes more time for family, reflection, and nature. His work as an activist is equally impressive. From his start in 2006 working with a handful of college students to his leadership of today, McKibben has helped shift the U.S. environmental movement from an almost exclusive focus on insider lobbying, legal strategies, and think tank-style influence to focus greater resources on grassroots organizing and mobilization.

Yet as a public intellectual, McKibben has failed to offer pragmatic and achievable policy ideas. Instead, reflecting his intellectual roots in the deep ecology movement, McKibben’s goal has been to generate a mass consciousness in support of limiting economic growth and consumption, with the hope of shifting the United States towards localized economies, food systems, and “soft” energy sources. In particular, his ability to appeal to Yankee virtues and to provoke abolitionist-style outrage over the practices of the fossil fuel industry resonates with many upper-income Baby Boomers and young people living in regions like New England or the Pacific Northwest.

But I wonder how many of the people turning out to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, working on behalf of divestment, or following along on Twitter and Facebook are aware of McKibben’s long standing vision of societal change first detailed in The End of Nature and most recently in Deep Economy and Eaarth. In this pastoral future free of consumerism or material ambition, Americans would rarely travel, experiencing the world instead via the Internet, grow much of their own food, power their communities through solar and wind, and divert their wealth to developing countries. Only under these transformational conditions, argues McKibben, would we be able to set a moral example for countries like China to change course, all in the hope that these countries will accept a “grand bargain” towards a cleaner energy path.

No Compromise: Defending a Romanticized Nature

To jump-start this hoped-for transformation of society, McKibben advocates on behalf of conventional policy approaches such as a cap and dividend bill, a carbon tax, and a binding international agreement on emissions, while insisting that there can be no compromise on the Keystone XL pipeline or fossil fuel industry divestment. Yet each of these legislative or international policy approaches has proved politically elusive, despite years of lobbying and advocacy. The response to legislative failure from McKibben and other environmentalists has been to double-down in their commitment to their policy paradigm, attributing failure to the political prowess of conservatives and industry, and to a corresponding lack of grassroots pressure and moral outrage.

Yet McKibben’s romantic vision of a New England-style utopia and pursuit of a narrow set of policy goals have blinded him to considering alternative approaches that may not only be more effective at curbing greenhouse gas emissions and providing for the material needs of large, diverse populations but also more politically probable. Moreover, McKibben’s line-in-the-sand organizing strategies may in fact be only deepening polarization and making it that much more difficult for President Obama to broker support for policy even among members of his own political party.

“If we pursue the route of seeking ever larger and grander solutions to climate change we will continue to end up frustrated and disillusioned,” warns Mike Hulme in Why We Disagree About Climate Change. “Global deals will be stymied, science and economics will remain battlegrounds for rearguard actions, global emissions will continue to rise, and vulnerabilities to climate risks will remain."1 As alternatives, Hulme points to the framework put forward by the London School of Economics’ Gwyn Prins, Oxford University’s Steve Rayner, and others who argue that climate change requires a portfolio of “clumsy” policy solutions, implemented across levels of government and through the private and nonprofit sectors.2

In this approach, by breaking down the wicked nature of climate change into smaller, interconnected problems, achieving progress on these smaller challenges becomes more likely. At the international level, examples include reducing especially powerful greenhouse gases like black carbon (or soot) from diesel cars and dirty stoves and methane from leaky gas pipes. A similar strategy focuses on slowing the rate of deforestation. In contrast to endless international summits, these goals can be pursued through bi-lateral negotiations with specific countries like Indonesia, China, India or Russia.3

The Keystone Fixation and the Energy Innovation Challenge

In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions from power plants dropped in 2011 from the previous year’s level, a decline driven by the revolution in natural gas drilling, which has shifted energy production away from coal and towards cleaner burning natural gas.4 A recent analysis by the Clean Air Task Force argues that Obama can meet his Administration’s goals for reducing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions without the need for major legislation. These strategies include finalizing Environmental Protection Agency rules on emissions from new power plants, proposing limits on existing power plants, and by aggressively regulating methane leaks and environmental risks from natural gas drilling.5

In combination with these limits to emissions, analysts from the Brookings Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and Breakthrough Institute argue that the Obama Administration should also aggressively pursue increased research and development and procurement spending on clean energy technology, including carbon capture and storage and advanced nuclear technologies.6 Others have argued for greater investment in regionally tailored adaptation initiatives that protect, prepare, and defend people and communities from current and future climate change-related risks.7

“I think we’ve gotten stuck because we expect old solutions are going to solve our new problems. We try the same things, again and again, and they just don’t seem to work. So we try them again, hoping that this time they will,” wrote Jonathon Foley recently, director of the Institute on the Environment at the University of Minnesota. “But we should all remember the old definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over, expecting a different result.”8

To be sure, pursuit of more incremental policy approaches can benefit from the grassroots pressure generated by Yet today, McKibben and allies like Van Jones appear to have little tolerance for political pragmatism, as they voice extreme dissatisfaction with Obama’s track record on climate policy. In this case, McKibben’s work as an advocate risks distracting from progress on the problem. The controversy over the XL pipeline is a leading example, as the editors at the journal Nature and others have argued.9 “I’m not a fan of the pipeline and would rather it wasn’t built, but it’s hardly the top priority for addressing climate change that many have claimed,” wrote Foley. “At best, it’s a bit of a sideshow. At worst, it’s a distraction from the bigger issues that contribute to climate change.”10


McKibben can also be faulted for his quasi-religious opposition to specific forms of technology. In The End of Nature and in later works, he warned strongly against pursuing technologies like genetic engineering that might allow us to better adapt to climate change impacts, a path that would result in an “artificial world, a space station.”11 In doing so, he drew an analogy to the years following the Civil War, in which slavery was no longer an acceptable method for whites to exercise control over blacks. But rather than converting to “new notions of universal fellowship and equality, white Americans invented segregation.” Using technologies like genetic engineering to cope with climate change, according to McKibben, was the moral equivalent of segregation: “Just as the old methods of dominating the world have become unworkable, a new set of tools is emerging that may allow us to continue that domination by different, expanded, and even more destructive means….”12

Today, as journalist Keith Kloor has detailed in a series of articles at Slate magazine, McKibben’s techno-skepticism is echoed by many environmentalists, local food enthusiasts, and writers like Michael Pollan, as they advocate on behalf of organic farming and against genetically-altered crops in the United States and abroad, presenting barriers to the development of the technology as a means to cope with climate change-related impacts.13

McKibben is perhaps at even greater fault for downplaying the need for “hard” technological approaches like nuclear energy or carbon capture and storage, focusing instead on “soft” technologies like solar, wind, and efficiency. These technologies, however, are unlikely to alter the dynamics of fossil-fuel energy use and dependency worldwide. Consider that globally, an estimated 1,200 coal power plants are scheduled for construction, with China and India accounting for three-quarters of this number.14 Compounding the challenge, according to University of Manitoba energy analyst Vaclav Smil, solar and wind energy sources are unlikely to be able to overcome the problems of intermittency, storage capacity, cost, and be scalable in time to compete with coal power worldwide.15

In other words, innovative technologies are needed that can not only power the mega-cities of Asia, but that can also limit emissions from the thousands of coal plants already in place and scheduled to be built around the world. In advocating for nuclear energy, NASA scientist James Hansen puts it even more bluntly: “Suggesting that renewables will let us phase rapidly off fossil fuels in the United States, China, India, or the world as a whole is almost the equivalent of believing in the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.”16 Both nuclear and carbon capture and storage have significant trade-offs – and face a great deal of uncertainty in their development and eventual deployment, but for McKibben and others to ignore the need for alternatives to solar, wind, and efficiency misleads both themselves and the public. As Keith Kloor writes at Slate: “Bill McKibben says we need to ‘do the math,’ … It’s a powerfully frightening equation. But we also need to do the math for the energy equation, which should be equally frightening.”17

According to Arizona State University’s Dan Sarewitz, the techno-pessimism of environmentalists like McKibben represents a “misplaced reverence for science that increasingly, and with ever-greater precision, documents the problems associated with a technology-dependent society.” Sarewitz argues that this outlook limits the ability of environmentalists and their liberal allies to achieve their political and social goals, as they become overly preoccupied with “small risks to individuals rather than the potential for very large benefits to society” from technology.18

In this case, useful comparisons can be made between McKibben and environmentalists like Stewart Brand and Mark Lynas who have urged their peers to adopt a new outlook on technological innovation. Sharing many of the same political aims as McKibben, over the course of his career, Lynas has developed a very different perspective about technology and humans’ relation to nature. In his most recent book The God Species: How the Planet Can Survive The Age of Humans, Lynas argued that “we cannot afford to foreclose powerful technological options like nuclear, synthetic biology, and [genetic engineering] because of Luddite prejudice and ideological inertia.”19 Specific to geo-engineering, Lynas warned environmentalists of repeating the mistakes of genetic engineering, “where opposing a technology a priori meant that lots of potential benefits were stopped or delayed for no good cause.” Most importantly, he wrote, “Environmentalists need to remind themselves that humans are not all bad … we can nurture and protect as well as dominate and conquer.”20

What’s clear from the analysis of McKibben’s writing and career is that multiple discourses about climate change exist, even among the most visible voices arguing on behalf of societal action. As New York University’s Jay Rosen noted in a 2011 speech to the UK Conference of Science Journalists, this is to be expected, since on wicked problems: “There is no kumbaya moment. You never get everyone on the same page,” and you never reach consensus. Yet as he argues, “What’s possible is a world where different stakeholders ‘get’ that the world looks different to people who hold different stakes.”21 Similarly, as Andrew Revkin writes, citing the work of Hulme and others: “Confusion and division over ‘global warming’ often grows out of the meaninglessness of the phrase on its own. The result is that people with very different world views, in essence, create their own definitions of the term.”22

Against Polarization

In a recent essay titled “Wicked Polarization,” Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus describe progress on climate change and similarly complex social problems as obstructed by experts and public intellectuals who have “come to frame virtually every national problem as a consequence of the irrationality, ignorance, and immorality of the political Other.” Arguments for action on climate change that evoke idealized visions of small-scale, hyper-efficient agrarian communities powered by wind and solar reflect the priorities and values of environmentalists like McKibben, rather than a pragmatic set of choices designed to both effectively manage the problem and to align a diversity of political interests in support of compromise. “The problem is not that we are in a post-truth age but rather that we have not learned to adapt to it,” write Shellenberger and Nordhaus. “Perhaps a good place to begin is by recognizing our own biases, perspectives, and agendas and attempting to hold them more lightly … bringing an end to our ideological arms race will ultimately require that we force partisans out of their comfort zone by redefining those problems in ways to which partisans do not already know the answers.”23

As a complement to journalists and public intellectuals like McKibben, there is therefore a strong need for writers and forums which serve as bridges between discourses and perspectives. On this function, “The idea here is not just to highlight points of communality and sites for compromise,” writes political scientist John Dryzek and co-author Hayley Stevenson, “but also to provide possibilities for contestation and the reflection it can induce.”24 Similarly, as the University of Michigan’s Andrew Hoffman concludes, what’s needed are initiatives that offer “broker frames,” discourses and contexts that expand, diversify, and blur perspectives on the issue, beyond the mostly left-leaning, affluent, older and white segment of Americans who are currently alarmed by climate change.25

As news organizations expand digital and social media initiatives, an ideally organized beat for covering a problem like climate change would depend on a socially diverse network of contributors, rather than relying on the expertise of a single journalist and a few sources. Since the people who have the most expertise on climate change are unevenly distributed across the planet, this form of networked journalism would be guided by a philosophy that “my readers know more than I do,” argues Jay Rosen.26 In all, a networked approach to journalism that features a plurality of perspectives is a philosophical approach that challenges directly the outlook offered by Walter Lippmann, who assumed his readers lacked the capacity to contribute substantively to expert-level discussion. The networked approach also contrasts with the traditional model of book author, essayist, and columnist employed by most contemporary knowledge journalists.

A New Challenge for the Public Intellectual: Convene and Question

Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog at The New York Times is a leading example of a networked approach to knowledge journalism that expands and blends discourses about climate change. Drawing on his experience as a science reporter, Revkin is not only able to function as an explainer and informed critic of science, but he also serves as a convener, facilitating discussions among a diversity of experts, advocates, and various publics, while contextualizing the uncertainty relative to specific claims, technologies, and policy approaches.

He also brings a different perspective to the wicked nature of climate change, arguing for a broader definition of the societal challenge and to a broader menu of political and technological approaches than most environmentalists might prefer. At Dot Earth, Revkin writes, “If I had to choose one of two bumper stickers for our car — CLIMATE CRISIS or ENERGY QUEST — I’d choose the latter.” As he continues: “This doesn’t mean I reject the idea that we face a climate crisis. I just don’t think that phrase is a productive way to frame this challenge.”27

Revkin has described his views on climate change as a sub-set of the bigger sustainability challenge, defined as “how we manage our infinite aspirations on a finite planet.”28 For his students at Pace University, he explains this challenge by referencing the expected population in the year 2050: 9 Billion People + 1 Planet = ? According to Revkin, sustainability is about managing the key questions we face “on a trajectory towards 9 billion people: how many people are too many, how much nature is not enough, how much poverty is too much?”29 Similarly, in a 2012 profile of McKibben at Outside magazine, Revkin said he considered McKibben “an incredible organizer and motivator, particularly for young people. But we’ve drawn different conclusions about several important aspects of the science and approaches to getting traction on related energy issues. I prefer 350’s days of action to its focus on a number, which I think doesn’t have sufficient meaning unless it’s accompanied by ‘350 when’ and ‘350 how.’”

Revkin explains that his ultimate focus at Dot Earth is the “broader exploration of new ways to make information work – to give ideas the best chance of getting where they are needed to help advance our relationships to the environment and each other.” Rather than frequently advocating for a position, he prefers posing questions, describing answers from experts and others, an approach that McKibben has criticized as “relentlessly middle-seeking.”30 But as Revkin writes, he views his role mainly as “interrogatory – exploring questions, not giving you my answer … I think anyone who tells you they know the answer on some of these complex issues is not being particularly honest.”31

As Revkin described his goals in a 2011 interview: “The blog is very different than most in that most blogs are built to provide a comfort zone for a particular ideological camp … I’m not here to provide you with a soft couch and free drinks if you’re an enviro or if you are a conservative. It’s a place to challenge yourself.” In doing so, Revkin recognizes his departure from peers like McKibben who have combined their journalism with advocacy, or those in the tradition of Walter Lippmann like Tom Friedman who speak to their readers from the position of enlightened authority. Instead, Revkin views himself as providing a “service akin to that of a mountain guide after an avalanche. Follow me and I can guarantee an honest search for a safe path. This is a big contrast from the dominant journalism paradigm of the last century, crystallized in Walter Cronkite’s "That’s the way it is’ signoff."32

Further Reading

Matthew Nisbet, "Nature's Prophet: Bill McKibben as Journalist, Public Intellectual and Activist," Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy. Discussion Paper Series, D-78 March. Cambridge, MA: Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, 2013.

Matthew Nisbet, "The Opponent: How Bill McKibben Changed Environmental Politics and Took on the Oil Patch," Policy Options (Canada), 2013.

Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, "It's Not About the Climate," The Breakthrough, April 29, 2013

1. Hulme, M. Why We Disagree About Climate Change: Understanding Controversy, Inaction and Opportunity. Cambridge University Press, 2009, p. 395.

2. See G. Prins and S. Rayner, “Time to Ditch Kyoto,” Nature 449, no. 7165 (2007). Also G. Prins et al., “The Hartwell Paper: A New Direction for Climate Policy after the Crash of 2009.” London: London School of Economics and Political Science and University of Oxford, 2010. For an overview on clumsy approaches to complex policy problems, see Verweij, M. and Thompson, M.(Eds.) Clumsy Solutions for a Complex World. Palgrave McMillian, 2006/2011.

3. G. Prins and S. Rayner, “Time to Ditch Kyoto,” Nature 449, no. 7165 (2007).

4. Drajem, M. “Oil, Gas Production Among Top Greenhouse Gas Sources.” Reuters, 2013 Feb. 8.

5. Plumer, B. "Can Obama Tackle Climate Change in His Second Term?" Wonkblog, The Washington, 2013 Jan. 13.

6. Marc Muro Steven F. Hayward, Ted Nordhaus, and Michael Shellenberger, “Post-Partisan Power: How a Limited and Direct Approach to Energy Innovation Can Deliver Clean, Cheap Energy, Economic Productivity, and National Prosperity,” (Washington DC: American Enterprise Institute, Brookings Institution, and The Breakthrough Institute).

7. On policy, the need to focus on adaptation was proposed as early as 1998; see R.A. Pielke, "Rethinking the Role of Adaptation in Climate Policy," Global Environmental Change 8, no. 2 (1998). Also see R. Pielke et al., "Lifting the Taboo on Adaptation," Nature 445, no. 8 (2007).

8. Foley, J. “New Problems Call for New Solutions.”, 2013 Jan. 28.

9. Anon. “Change for Good: The US Must Boost Its Spending on Clean Energy to Make its Mark on the Climate Debate.” Nature, 2013 Jan. 29.

10. “Obama: Stealth Climate Warrior?”, 2013 Jan. 30.

11. McKibben, B. The End of Nature. Random House, 1989/2006, pg. 129.

12. Ibid., pg. 144

13. Kloor, K. “Delusions of Danger.” Slate, 2012 Nov. 5; Kloor, K. “GMO Opponents are the Climate Skeptics of the Left.” Slate, 2012 Sept. 26; Kloor, K. “The Great Schism in the Environmental Movement.” Slate, 2012 Dec. 12.

14. Plumer, B. “The Big Climate Question: Will the World Build 1,200 Power Plants?” Wonkblog, The Washington Post, 2012 Nov. 20.

15. Smil, V. Energy Myths and Realities: Bringing Science to the Energy Policy Debate. AEI Press, 2010.

16. Hansen, J. “Baby Lauren and the Cool Aid.” Personal web site.

17. Kloor, K. "The Pro-Nukes Environmental Movement." Slate, 2013 Jan. 14.

18. Sarewitz, D. (2012). "Liberalism’s Modest Proposals." Breakthrough Journal, Winter 2012.

19. Lynas, M. The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans. National Geographic, 2011, pg. 11.

20. Ibid. pg. 12-13.

21. Rosen, J. "Covering Wicked Problems: Keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists." PressThink Blog, June 25, 2012.

22. Revkin, A. "The Enduring Cloudiness of in Climate and Coastal Forecasts." The Dot Earth Blog, The New York Times, 2012 Nov. 29.

23. Shellenberger, M. and T. Nordhaus. “Wicked Polarization: How Prosperity, Democracy and Experts Divided America.” Breakthrough Journal, Winter 2013.

24. Stevenson, H. and J. Dryzek. “The Discourse Democratization of Global Climate Governance.” Environmental Politics, 1, 12, 189-210.

25. Hoffman, A. “Climate Science as Culture War.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, 2012 Fall.

26. Rosen, J. "Covering Wicked Problems: Keynote address to the 2nd UK Conference of Science Journalists." PressThink Blog, June 25, 2012.

27. Revkin, A. "On the Energy Gap and Climate Crisis." The Dot Earth blog. The New York Times, 2010, April 7.

28. Brainard, C. "Q&A: Andrew Revkin: NYT Reporter Discusses Climate, Sustainability, and Long-Haul Reporting." Columbia Journalism Review Online, 2008, Dec. 16.

29. Brainard, C. "Dot Earth Moves to NYT Opinion Page." Columbia Journalism Review Online, 2010, April 1.

30. Revkin, A. “Can Obama Escape the Alberta Tar Pit?” The Dot Earth blog, The New York Times, 2011 Sept. 5.

31. Brainard, C. “Dot Earth Moves to Opinion Section.”

32. Revkin, A. "My Second Half." The Dot Earth blog, The New York Times, 2009 Dec. 21.