Instead of switching to fluorescent light bulbs, urging my congressional representative to support climate legislation, or attending one of Manhattan’s green consumer extravaganzas, I spent Earth Day reading through the now regular spring tide of magazine Green Issues.
It’s hard to keep up. I’d meant to write a roundup in time for Tuesday’s environmental celebration, but wound up, obviously, squeaking this column in a few days later. Thank the green heavens that Earth Day has now stretched out into Earth Week in many places. The frenetic political, business, and scientific activity geared ostensibly toward creating a more sustainable planet is certainly enough to fill up seven days worth of eco-optimism. It’s also more than enough to fill the pages of April’s glossy magazines. Last year, there were half a dozen Green Issues (not including more consumer-oriented publications like Town & Country and Glamour); this year, though not all are mentioned here, there are at least twice as many.
Like Earth Day celebrations, most Green Issues adopt a tone of optimism, focusing on all that has been accomplished and all that stands to be accomplished in the world of sustainability. Perhaps the most notable aspect of this year’s cadre is the 108-degree change in the tenor of Time magazine’s cover (Matthew Nisbet has a good analysis at Framing Science). Two years ago, in a special report on global warming (something less than this year’s “environment issue”), the publication drew accusations of alarmism (from climate skeptics and environmentalists alike) for flying the banner, “Be Worried. Be Very Worried.” Compare that to this year’s homage to the iconic photograph from Iwo Jima, which showed a group of soldiers raising a redwood instead of the flag and carried the headline, “How to Win the War on Global Warming.”
Journalists and activists alike are figuring out that playing on the public’s sense of fear and guilt is less effective than tapping into other, more buoyant emotions. Indeed, Time’s cover story capitalizes on exactly the same approach as Al Gore’s “We” campaign, whose first commercial put the climate challenge on par with World War II by flashing scenes of American troops storming the beaches of Normandy. Such overtures to Americans’ sense of patriotism and cohesiveness are a marked departure from the scare tactics of films like Leonardo DiCaprio’s 11th Hour and even, to a lesser extent, An Inconvenient Truth. Lest Time’s readers think that optimism is all that’s needed, however, environment correspondent Bryan Walsh’s article (an “agenda setting … call to arms,” the editor’s note boasts) concedes that, “There’s a chasm between where we are and where we need to be-and our current strategy for bridging it is murky is best.”
If that isn’t enough to induce a little “eco-anxiety”, readers can turn to Vanity Fair for vivid renderings of the physical despoliation our planet has already suffered. The thickest of all Green Issues continues to set the bar for the rest. Continuing to break the trend of armchair reporting that plagues so many news outlets these days, Vanity Fair once again sent journalists to far-flung corners of the globe to bring back long, multifaceted, and descriptively wrought narratives of environmental malfeasance. There are a number of outstanding pieces, but the real emeralds are an intrepid and resourceful investigation of Monsanto’s Gestapo-like tactics to protect its genetically modified seeds, and what is perhaps the most thorough summation to date of global warming’s threat to polar bear populations in the Arctic, a story around which many journalists have struggled to get their notebooks. And though I am generally opposed to any more eco-manifestos from Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (simply because they are everywhere and I favor fresh journalism), the one in this issue of VF is likeable for its attention to the underreported fragility of our national power grid.
The nice thing about those VF articles is that they dole out plenty of room for the complicated intersection of science, politics, and business that entrench so many of our environmental problems. For readers who don’t have time to leaf through eight to ten thousand words, however, Mother Jones’s May/June issue accomplishes the same feat with slightly shorter articles. MoJo doesn’t actually note anywhere that it’s a special issue, but the cover is bright green and sports a C.F.L. bent into a question mark. It is also one of the few magazines that really stacked the book from cover to cover with environmental stuff. There is an excellent analysis of the international geopolitics of oil, which makes a forceful argument that national oil companies, such as PetroChina and Russia’s Gazprom, are far more hazardous, in many ways, than the big, private companies, like Shell, that we’re used to hearing about.