Last month, New York Times reporter Andrew Revkin received Columbia University’s prestigious John Chancellor Award, along with New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer. A video of his acceptance speech is below. The award is given to journalists that have demonstrated excellence in the coverage of a particular beat—in Revkin’s case, climate change, and in Mayer’s, the Bush administration’s war on terror—over a long period of time. Revkin has covered environmental issues for over a quarter century. He started working for the Times in 1995, where his reporting earned the esteem of journalists, scientists, politicians, and policy advocates on all sides of the climate story. In October 2007, he launched the Times blog Dot Earth, where he covers sustainability more broadly. CJR’s Curtis Brainard talked to Revkin about the past, present, and future of environmental reporting.
Curtis Brainard: In your Chancellor speech and on Dot Earth you made the argument that climate is not the story of our time, but rather a subset of that story, which is sustainability. When and how did you realize that? Or have you always felt that way?
Andrew Revkin: I guess 2002 was really the first time that I shifted gears toward the broader theme. There’s a line in my 1992 book on global warming that gets at this, where I say, essentially, that this is all the growing pains of a species that has to come to grips [with living on a planet that has finite resources].
And I had a conversation around 2003 with William Clark, from Harvard, who runs a sustainability science program there, and he was already expressing concerns then that climate, since the 1992 Rio treaties, had taken too much of the oxygen out of the environmental arena – that the loss of biodiversity is equally consequential and also irreversible.
So there’s been a growing sense through these years that the issue is bigger than climate. But in 2002, we did a whole section of Science Times called Managing Planet Earth, about how we limit our impacts on the planet as we go through this growth spurt. So in a concrete sense, that’s really when I absorbed this, but, until Dot Earth, my reporting was still not really centered on the bigger question.
Chancellor Awards ceremony, Columbia University
CB: Do you think that the public sees it the same way?
AR: No. In fact, if you look at the press release (pdf) that came out when I got the award, Nick Lemann, [the dean of Columbia’s journalism school,] says that the stories of our time are global warming and civil liberties. I think there’s this sense—and this probably devolves from the Al Gore push—that the climate crisis is the issue of our time.
[The media] try to distill as much as possible, but the problem is that the reality is complicated. And of course it’s a lot harder to say, “The human growth spurt is the story of our time.” It’s a lot harder to get a headline out of sustainability and the bigger question of how we manage our infinite aspirations on a finite planet. It’s very hard even to write a short sentence about it. People have been trying and failing to describe sustainability—you know, what is that?—for decades.
CB: Given the lack of public engagement with sustainability issues, would the world have been better off if the media had clued in to the bigger story sooner?
AR: Well, in that sense, I think the media inevitably migrates from theme to theme. That’s almost unavoidable. There’s interest in the news, and when you have a confluence of events that make something seem important—Katrina, Al Gore’s movie, the IPCC reports in 2007, [melting sea ice] in the Arctic—that kind of defines the issue.
So we’re always going to be bouncing from one thing to the other, and there’s no way for the media to take up the more nuanced issue. In fact, one reason I started Dot Earth is that it’s hard to find space in the newspaper for these other issues. Many of them are what I call “slow drips,” or “iffy” looming catastrophes. We don’t do well with “if” stories and we don’t do well with dispersed stories. So the blog created a space to keep sustained focus on them.
CB: But a while back, you wrote that you’d be spending less time on Dot Earth in order to do more for the paper. It doesn’t seem like that’s happened. Or am I wrong?