Crossing over

CAPE TOWN: Bill McKibben looked tired. Tired, but intense. The organiser-activist sat opposite me at the table of a curb-side café, punch drunk from crossing time zones. South Africa today, Israel tonight, who-knows-where tomorrow. His stare fixed on the brick paving somewhere to my left as our conversation lumbered slowly to a start.

It was an absurdly early hour on a Saturday and the little fishing village of Kalk Bay, near Cape Town, was still rubbing the sleep from its eyes.

“You started out as a journalist? How did you make this transition to being an activist?”

“Mmmmmm,” he considered the question, sipped on a dangerously creamy-looking hot chocolate, shifted into gear. “After college, Harvard , I went straight to The New Yorker magazine.”

The transition came later, he said, and partly by accident. First there was his book, End of Nature, about climate change. Then there were years of journalism on the issue, the “most important story of our time”. But the turning point was in a hospital in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s first big outbreak of the mosquito-borne disease, dengue fever, early this decade. It struck McKibben how the prone victims had done nothing to cause the outbreak, which was linked to the shifting footprint of the disease due to altering weather patterns, since most of the emissions responsible for climate change come from the developed world.

“My naïve assumption was that were I and others to write and talk about climate change, it would be taken care of. That was incorrect.”

Mounting evidence indicating the speed with which climate change is unfolding, punctuated by the rapid melting of the Arctic in 2007, convinced him that human beings were past the point of solving the climate crisis “one light bulb at a time”. What was needed was a big movement. Enter: (, a global campaign to rally communities to pressure governments into a sufficiently urgent response.

It’s an interesting position, though, particularly for environmental writers where the line between straight reporting, and activism, can be a little fuzzy.

Journalist, columnist and author Naomi Klein, in the book Global Values 101, said she considers herself “an activist journalist” and identifies herself primarily as “an activist… driven by (her) desire for social change”.

“You can be an activist in any profession… (an) activist doctor… lawyer… entrepreneur… journalist. It means that you use your skill and talents in the service of social change. There are people whose job it is to be a straight-ahead reporter, and they have to be much more guided by the rules of balance. I do not believe that anyone is objective. You must be fair and balanced, and you must not be a propagandist.”

South Africa has its own history of activist journalism, where many left-wing reporters and photographers used their profession to rally against the apartheid state. Ruth First springs to mind – her activism got her assassinated by the SA government while she was in exile in Mozambique in 1982.

South African science journalist Jorisna Bonthuys, with Die Burger, fielded a question on this very issue during a workshop hosted by the Southern African Science Journalists’ Association (SASJA) in February this year. She was slightly more reticent, saying environmental journalists need to be conscious of the fact that they are not activists, because being that could undermine what they do.

“The mere fact that you are an environmental journalist already colours your attitude in a certain way.”

Apartheid wouldn’t have fallen without the deliberate efforts of journalists to highlight the topic, she said, and one could say that climate change needs a similar response from our profession.

“That doesn’t mean that you have to be the activist, but rather that you should give activists coverage, without being in their corner. You’re a journalist before you’re an environmental journalist.”

“As long as we remember that,” she told the workshop audience, “we’ll be ok.”

Bill McKibben has long crossed over onto the side of out-and-out activist. But then, maybe the world needs all kinds.