A Guide Through the Jungle of Green Issues

Green news has grown into a print jungle that -- sometimes unique and probing, sometimes more fad than fact -- can be difficult to navigate.

Green is the new black. It’s the new red, the new white; it is the new red, white, and blue. In the pages of newspapers and magazines around the United States, green is usurping just about every other color in the rainbow. So, at the risk of sounding cliché, we’ll just go ahead and say it: green is the new gray.

There are at least four “Green Issues” on the newsstands this month, from Vanity Fair, Outside, Fortune, and Elle. On Sunday, the New York Times Magazine, though not making an Issue out of it, ran a very green, very floral American flag on its cover for Thomas Friedman’s essay on “The Greening of Geopolitics.” Newsweek weighed in with a special report called “Leadership and the Environment,” joining the ranks of at least a half dozen publications — including The Economist, Time, and Scientific American — that have run special sections on the environment in the last year.

Propelled by growth in the environmental movement and mounting public concern about global warming, the wave of eco-oriented press is a welcome sign of social and (hopefully) political priorities shifting in the right direction. Nonetheless, green news has grown into a print jungle that — sometimes unique and probing, sometimes more fad than fact — can be difficult to navigate.

The first and recently published place to begin a tour of this jungle is with Friedman’s long essay on how America can regain its “international stature … by taking the lead in alternative energy and environmentalism.” If you can get through what is, unfortunately, a kind of obnoxious and egocentric introduction — with sentences about restoring “America to its natural place in the global order,” and Friedman “renaming green” as if he coined it the first place — it is a well-reasoned argument for the “geostrategic” importance of environmental pioneering. Friedman does not stress global warming, preferring to frame environmentalism as a matter of sustainability, energy independence and national security. Power comes from prevailing in the marketplace, he argues, and alternative energy and clean technologies are the markets of the future. Friedman tempers his faith in capitalism with calls for government incentives and regulation, and warns us not to “fool ourselves” about humans’ commitment to the environment.

Some publications offered more undiluted praise of the markets.

Fortune is the place to turn for more eco-economics. Its Green Issue purports to be “the only [one] that matters.” The pages are chock full of stories about companies that are reconciling environmental protection and profit incentive. When it comes to global warming solutions, the lead article states, “Only business is capable of innovation on that scale.” The issue also contains a list of 10 corporate “green giants,” and complimentary features on DuPont, once the epitome of corporate polluting, and Patagonia, a private operation that has been evergreen. Like so many publications before it, Fortune also threw in a Q&A with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the eco-champion of California, who appeared on the covers of Outside’s Green Issue, and Newsweek’s special report on environment and leadership.

Outside, predictably, was one of the greenest of the green issues, with environmental stories stacked cover-to-cover. Like many other publications that have turned their attention to climate-related stories, the table of contents includes good pieces on China and the global water crisis, in addition to the omnipresent list of things that individuals can do to cut back their eco-impacts. What stands out in Outside is a fantastic profile of Grist.org, the campy environmental news blog that Newsweek called “‘The Daily Show’ of the green space.” Its own special report featured a diverse collection of articles kicked off by an apt review of Schwarzenegger’s role in making the Golden State green by turning green to gold. More intriguing still were a graphical spread on the environmental records of leading presidential hopefuls for 2008, and an article about Columbia University’s work on the as yet unproven, but vitally important carbon sequestration technology; both of these latter stories are subjects in dire need of more press coverage generally.

Vanity Fair should probably get the award for best overall Green Issue for its second annual go at it. As the cover — a photomontage of actor-environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio and Knut, a three-month-old polar bear born in the Berlin zoo — suggests, the content is a mix of the deeply reported, long-form narrative and celebrity glorification for which VF editor Graydon Carter is known. But unlike other magazines, VF resisted the pull toward unbridled optimism and delivered a more realistic, though less heartening review of environmental accomplishments. There is a scathing condemnation of Rush Limbaugh by James Wolcott, who calls him “a grand obstruction, a massive blockage endowed with the gift of gab,” who has obfuscated climate science. There are two riveting narratives, one on the degradation of the Amazon rainforest, another on the next generation of low-emission hot rods, and a profile of “oil-industry mouthpiece” and oft-quoted media source Myron Ebell. Finally, there is a twenty-eight-page photo spread of “Global Citizens,” from Hollywood stars to student youth leaders; it’s comprehensive and, as expected, the photography is fantastic.

The really trendy stuff is in Elle’s Green Issue, which is the only one of the genre where the color of Kermit does not actually grace the cover, except, of course, in Mandy Moore’s seductive eyes. For shoppers, this is definitely the place to go; nowhere will you find more information on eco-friendly clothing, home, beauty care and hygiene products. The surprising exception to consumer-oriented fluff is a feature questioning undeclared Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich’s apparent reconciliation with the green ideology. The conservative mastermind of the GOP takeover of Congress in the 1990s is now publishing an “environmental treatise” called Contract With the Earth, which features a forward by famed conservation biologist E.O. Wilson. Fortunately, Bill Lambrecht’s skeptical exposé does not give Newt a free pass on what is thus far mostly lip service, concluding that Newt’s greenness is still up in the air.

But the greenness of the press, at least a significant part of it, is no longer in doubt. The nearly overwhelming volume of environmental coverage in April alone is a welcome development. But we hope this is not just modish behavior on the part of the media. An avalanche of Green Issues can seem a little like bandwagon-jumping at times, especially when there is a lot of overlap in the coverage and an increasing amount of the ink is going toward consumer news, but patience on the part of readers will pay off. From Fortune to Elle, the offerings are littered with emeralds worth digging up.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.