The best piece, however, is the most incisive feature I’ve seen so far on Canadian oil sands, which now commonly pop up in shorter energy news articles (especially ones about carbon sequestration), but haven’t received much dedicated treatment themselves. Not only does this effort capture the environmental impact of the “dirty, wasteful business” on a global scale, it gets in a poignant description of the social (drug abuse and prostitution), demographic (soaring real estate prices and homelessness), and medical (possible cancer cluster and government hush job) ripple effects in northeastern Alberta. The only thing in Mother Jones that tipped toward boring was Bill McKibben’s green cheerleading-he’s a dedicated environmentalist and talented writer, but the essay lacked bite. So did the one he wrote for Outside’s 2008 Green Issue, which came out in March. And that’s another problem: editors know the obvious essayists (guys like RFK Jr. and McKibben) for these annual spreads and they really need to guard against overlap, especially the innocuous kind.
There was other, much better stuff in Outside, but unfortunately not as much as in last year’s issue, which had more variety. Still, there are two notable works. The first is an engaging account of Cuba’s accidental and haphazard environmentalism. Patrick Symmes, who has been reporting there for fifteen years, goes in search of the communist nation’s underground green movement. The tale is not very sciencey, at least not in the typical way, with loads of experts; instead, it’s more travelogue, which gives it a genuinely frustrated feel that is very readable. The other nice piece is an off-the-beaten-path political profile of Mark and Tom Udall, cousins and representatives from Colorado and New Mexico, respectively. It’s an interesting account of the conservationist legacy of the Udall clan going back a century, and amid the noise of the presidential campaign, an interesting take on the balance of power regarding control of environmental legislation among politicians of the interior West. Lamentably, there’s not a lot in to recommend in Outside besides these two articles.
Fortune, however, was even more disappointing; instead of publishing a Green Issue this year, it demoted coverage to a Going Green section. The articles were good enough in most respects, but they merely rehashed old information about carbon markets and the like, and showed none of the ambition that was on display last year. The exception was a outstanding piece about Kona Kamapachi and progress and future of sustainable aquaculture.
A better read, overall, was Discover’s Better Planet Issue. If the longer narratives of the other magazines aren’t you’re style, this is also the place to go, obviously, for some nuts-and-bolts science reporting. It starts with a series of briefs on better energy, water, air, conservation, and food. It then moves on to one of the best stories I’ve read on the swirling debate around the threat of chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates in plastic consumer products. Just as Michael Shnayerson did with polar bears in Vanity Fair, Jill Neimark takes a step back, calmly summarizes the literature, describes the scientific uncertainties, and makes a deft argument for more regulation. The other thing to check out in Discover is a fascinating breakdown of your magazine’s (helps to be holding the print edition, I guess) carbon footprint. The editors track emissions generated to print about one million copies every month-from harvesting timber and making paper, reporting, writing, and printing stories, to delivery and disposal. The analysis is similar in a way to the “body burden” chemical studies that have become so annoyingly popular in the media today, but it’s far more interesting and conclusive. It’s a detailed account of the magazine manufacturing process, which ultimately produces 962 tons of carbon dioxide per issue, or 2.1 pounds per individual copy.
The New Republic
Alongside Outside and Fortune in the midrange quality of its Green Issue is The New Republic (they call it the Environment Issue). TNR deserves praise for being a newcomer to the spring fling, and also for launching a very good energy and environment blog online, but the table of contents is pretty thin on eco-investigation. There’s a very average piece about nuclear that serves as the only environmental feature. Most of green ink is crammed up front in short articles. The best one there is an interesting analysis by Jeffrey Rosen of the Bush administration’s manipulation and distortion of the GOP’s traditional antifederalist platform in order to strong-arm environmental policy.
The New York Times Magazine