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.
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
The only Green Issue that really tanked this year (even more than Fortune) came from The New York Times Magazine. It stepped it up a notch from last year’s issue, which consisted mainly of a cover story about why the U.S. should lead global sustainability efforts. This year, almost every page went to the environment, but other than a couple of decent front-of-the-book pieces (about incentives that would make Americans drive less, and why a universal charger for all our electronic gadgets is unfortunately unlikely), in the well the editors opted for poorly executed design over solid journalism. Instead of printing any long investigations or deeply reported narratives, they went with forty-two short, stand-alone paragraphs on all manner of things green. Admittedly, they are fairly interesting, and there are a few great tech items-like superconducting cable, permeable sidewalks in Chicago, Paul Crutzen’s risky plan to geoengineer the sky against global warming, and the pebble-bed design for nuclear reactors. It is overwhelmingly disappointing, however, that the Times could not muster the energy to include at least one hard-hitting feature. Also (and I rarely nitpick this stuff) the design of the shorts was terrible-a migraine-inducing font, sometimes in a garish red, with overblown graphics.
Hit or miss, though, it’s nice to see so many magazines making Green Issues a regular spring installment. Last year, when I wrote a similar roundup, a reader posted a comment online asking how these special editions perform on newsstands and in ad sales compared to other issues. It’s a very good question and at press time we were still trying to get those numbers, so stay tuned.Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.