At least it was the cover story. Newsweek, which has fronted its Environment & Leadership section for the last two years, relegated this year’s section to second-tier status. Still, Newsweek did publish half a dozen articles, all dealing with clean-energy debate. Unfortunately, the magazine relied mostly on politicians—including energy Secretary Steven Chu, former Congressman Newt Gingrich, and Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm - to write them. These are illustrious names, but their contributions amounted to familiar stump speeches, lacking much novelty of insight.
The country’s number three newsweekly, U.S. News & World Report, put its usually superior competitors to shame, producing this year’s only truly cover-to-cover Green Issue. Its contents revolve around a central question—“Can America prosper in the new green economy?”—and feature reports on everything from green jobs to shrinking the military’s footprint.
“We’ve seen it, we’ve heard it. We’re locked in the same old debate we’ve been having at least since the ’70s … But a lot has changed very recently, and the debate is moving toward a critical mass for action,” wrote editor Brian Kelly. “What’s changed, in a word, is Obama. The president and the tide of voters who swept him into office want a change in the way we manage energy and the environment.”
As Kolbert made clear in her Earth Day column for The New Yorker, however, Kelly’s enthusiasm and optimism belies a more complicated reality. Enter The New York Times Magazine, whose Green Issue this year featured an apropos cover story about “The Green Mind” and “why eco-consciousness is so hard.” The story, by Jon Gertner, explores behavioral scientists’ research on decision-making. The social sciences produce a miniscule portion of climate studies, Gertner points out, but their insights “may be more crucial than any technological advance in combating environmental challenges.”
The issue is stacked with a couple other articles on the psychology/sociology of green. Jon Mooallem, for instance, has a quirky, intriguing story about the growing “Transition movement,” focusing on its emergence in the small town of Sandpoint, Idaho. “For a generation, the environmental movement has told us to change our lifestyles to avoid catastrophic consequences,” Mooallem wrote. “Transition tells us those consequences are now irreversibly switching on; we need to revolutionize our lives if we want to survive.”
That may be true, but some consequences, such as global warming, are still not readily apparent to most people. One that is apparent, on the other hand, is waste. In keeping with the focus on human behavior and consumers’ response to the financial crisis began, Mother Jones’s Green Issue this year (although it has never actually used the phrase or marked the special issue on the cover) focuses on all things garbage—the breakdown of plastics, zero-waste zealots, and the failure of recycling programs. The short, to-the-point articles jump right into the problems with our waste system. One highlight is an article by Elizabeth Royte on the monopoly large hauling companies have on municipal garbage systems.
“Americans have (post green fad) an economy that still generates literal oceans full of waste, and we thought we should put those wasteful practices up for examination,” Jay Harris, the magazine’s publisher, wrote in an e-mail. “In terms of the zeitgeist, I suspect there was some thought that America may be now, in the New Depression, embracing its inner thrift – waste these days just feels less acceptable.”
One certainly hopes so, but much remains to be seen, including The New Republic’s annual Environment Issue. Editor Franklin Foer says it’s on the way, and “will probably be the same size, if not bigger” than last year’s. We’re also still waiting to hear from Fortune. In 2007, it published a full-fledged Green Issue, which it demoted to a green section in 2008. Whether or not it will disappear entirely this year is unclear, but on Wednesday, the magazine was wrapping up its second-annual Brainstorm Green conference in California.
Given the current political and economic importance of energy and environmental issues, the decline of magazine Green Issues this year is disappointing. One can only hope that editors are true to their word and make these topics a focus of coverage throughout the year. After all, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day?
Curtis Brainard contributed reporting for this article.