Magazines Jump On Environment

February 15, 2008

 

 By BILL DAWSON

Many signs suggest that environmental topics – not just environmental news, in the strict sense – are assuming a bigger place in the journalistic universe, perhaps becoming an enduring Big Deal for editors, news directors, network executives and other media decision-makers.

(Historical note for newcomers to environmental journalism: The prospects for wide-ranging Big Deal status for the beat have waxed and waned in the past.)

The magazine industry serves as an example of recent developments. I can't remember exactly when I started noticing what looked like a surge in environmentally themed magazine coverage of different kinds – issue examinations, personality profiles, business/economy stories, breezy lifestyle/consumer pieces. It was sometime in 2006, I think.

In any case, even without benefit of anything remotely resembling a statistical content analysis, I believe that impression was right and that such an increase has picked up speed. Others have noticed evidence, as well.

In the 2007 edition of the New York Review of Magazines (www.nyrm.org/legere_well.html), produced annually by journalism students at Columbia University, an article that contrasted coverage of global warming in Forbes and Business Week included this observation:

"As the debate over climate change has evolved from whether the earth is warming to whether humans are causing it to how businesses can make money while polluting less, the sophistication and volume of coverage in most financial journals has increased."

Following is an admittedly selective sample of environmental coverage – not just of climate – that appeared in a variety of magazines over the last few months. If this is a genuine journalistic trend, these stories provide a snapshot of it.

Time, notable for coverage of environmental subjects in the past, has continued to pay consistent attention to global warming and other topics. On some of the stories, "Going Green" appears as a department heading, like the magazine's "Nation" and "Essay" and other story categories.

In the Oct. 15 issue, for example, a two-page photo of a forlorn polar bear on an ice floe was graced by a single paragraph of text on new findings about summer ice melt in the Arctic. (Time's editors are fond of such polar bear images. Another one was on the magazine's eye-catching "Be Worried. Be Very Worried" cover about global warming for the April 3, 2006, issue. A polar bear was also on the cover of a special Time collection of global warming articles that was on newsstands in the recent months.)

Another article in the Oct. 15 issue, "Eco-Rebels," by Bryan Walsh, focused on how "skeptics" about global warming are now "questioning the best way to deal with it." (www.time.com/time/magazine/arti cle/0,9171,1668475,00.html) Other recent Time issues have also included multiple articles on environmental subjects.

In the Dec. 3 edition, Walsh's "Postcard: Cornwall" dispatch (www.time.com/time/magazine/arti cle/0,9171,1686834,00.html) presented a case study of "how green concerns have become a daily part of British life." Two of four Person of the Year suggestions that the magazine solicited from prominent figures in different fields were environmental in nature – author John Irving's nomination of Al Gore and comedian Whoopi Goldberg's proposal of "the word green."

In that same issue, a full-page article by Eric Pooley ("The Green Campaign") examined the legislative and electoral politics of climate change. In the Nov. 12 issue, Jeffrey Kluger produced a one-page chart (www.time.com/time/2007/includes /eco_vote.pdf) comparing six major presidential candidates on the environment. Kluger's conclusions regarding the "greenest" candidates: "For the GOP, it's McCain. For the Dems, a toss-up."

NBC anchor Brian Williams nominated "Mother Earth" as Person of the Year in the Dec. 10 issue, which also had a one-page preview of the Dec. 3-14 climate negotiations in Bali.

A Time competitor, U.S. News & World Report, published "Power Revolution" in its Oct. 26 edition. (www.usnews.com/articles/business /economy/2007/10/26/power-revolution_ print.htm) The 2,600-word piece by Marianne Lavelle examined efforts by Silicon Valley-based venture capital fund to jump-start solar and other alternative energy technologies:

"The high-rolling risk takers who brought you personal computing, the telecommunications revolution, the commercialization of the Internet, and, of course, Google now aim to do nothing less than save planet Earth–and make billions while doing it."

Another newsweekly, The Week, which summarizes other news outlets' coverage, led off its "Main Stories" section in its Nov. 30 issue with "An urgent warning on climate change," which sampled news and opinion on the Nov. 17 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that synthesized the three earlier reports by the IPCC in 2007.

The biweekly New Republic, meanwhile, presented its Sept. 24 edition as "The Environmental Issue." Environmental content comprised one of five shorter, front-of-the-book pieces and two of three longer features, as well as a back-page essay. Leading "The Mall" section at the front of the magazine was an article by two scientists, arguing that worldwide species extinctions are "an unparalleled calamity, far more severe than global warming."

One of the two longer feature articles, by James Verini, profiled Environmental Defense's Fred Krupp and asked whether he is "an environmental savior or a corporate stooge." The second long piece was an excerpt from "Break Through," a book by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, known for their 2004 "Death of Environmentalism" essay (www.grist.org/news/maindish/2005 /01/13/doe-reprint/). In the article, the writers called for "a more optimistic narrative from the environmental community."

Outside, no stranger to environmental issues coverage, produced its own presidential politics guide in its December issue, with more detail than Time's. The four-page summary of 11 candidates' positions by writer Amanda Griscom Little was based on "exclusive interviews with every one of the Democrats and most of the Republicans" who were included in the article. The writer's full interviews with the presidential hopefuls, including some candidates not in the article, are on Outside's website (www.outsideonline.com/candidates) and on Grist.org (http://grist.org/ feature/2007/07/06/candidates/), its partner in the venture.

The cover story in the same issue of Outside was a profile by Hampton Sides of British entrepreneur Richard Branson, including discussion of the $25 million prize he has offered to the inventor of viable technology to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and Branson's other "ecopreneurial" activities.

Rolling Stone focused on a less optimistic figure in its Nov. 1 issue (www.rollingstone.com/politics/story /16956300/the_prophet_of_climate_c hange_james_lovelock) in a detailed, 6,000-word profile of British scientist and Gaia hypothesist James Lovelock and his prediction that "the Earth's population will be culled (by global warming) from today's 6.6 billion to as few as 500 million" by 2100. Writer Jeff Goodell's conclusion: Lovelock "may well be wrong. Not because he's misread the science (although that's certainly possible) but because he's misread human beings."

The New Yorker's Nov. 5 issue had a much longer (13,000 words) profile of Paul Watson, founder of the "vigilante" Sea Shepherd Conservation Socity. www.newyorker. com/reporting/2007/11/05/071105fa _fact_khatchadourian?printable=true) The piece by Raffi Khatchadourian is replete with the type of details that lengthy New Yorker articles are famous for, such as this description: "Watson is fifty-six years old, pudgy and muscular. His hair, which is white, often hangs over his eyes in unkempt bangs. During trips to Antarctica, he usually grows a beard or a goatee."

The same issue of the magazine included a 3,000-word article by Elizabeth Kolbert (author of "Field Notes from a Catastrophe," the book based on her New Yorker articles about global warming), in which she reviewed two new books about automotive technology and the related implications for energy and environmental policy. (ww.newyorker.com/ arts/critics/books/2007/11/05/07110 5crbo_books_kolbert)

Harper's, another venerable general-interest magazine with a commitment to long-form journalism, published "Toxic Inaction: Why poisonous, unregulated chemicals end up in our blood" in its October issue. The article, by Mark Schapiro, editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, explored "the nascent science of biomonitoring" and what it has revealed about chemical contamination of Americans' bodies, contrasted Europe's aggressive new REACH regulations for toxic chemicals with U.S. policies under the Bush administration, and reported that "many American states, tired of waiting for direction from Washington" are looking at REACH as a model for state rules.

 

Magazines that typically confine themselves to a more narrowly defined set of subjects have also focused on environmentally related subjects recently.

Harvard Business Review's October issue included a "Forethought Special Report" titled "Climate Business/ Business Climate." The 12 articles included "Regulation: If You're Not at the Table, You're on the Menu," "Reputation: When Being Green Backfires," and "Markets: Investors Hunger for Clean Energy." An associated blog post noted that Gore had remarked when he spoke at Harvard Business School in December, that "addressing climate change also represents one of the biggest business opportunities in history." (http://con versationstarter.hbsp.com/2007/10/ a_strategic_approach_to_climat.html)

Dwell, an architecture and design magazine, published its "annual green issue" in November. Included were articles about various sustainability- oriented residential concepts; an announcement by owner-founder Lara Hedberg Deam that the publication would be printed on recycled paper in 2008; and a grumbling introductory note by editor-in-chief Sam Grawe about "the spectacle of green's ascent to fad-dom" in the culture at large.

No surprise, but two distinguished magazines with long track records of environmental coverage before that ascent – Smithsonian and National Geographic – have continued to devote much thoughtful attention to the environment lately, perhaps even more than usual.

In Smithsonian's October issue (www.smithsonianmag.com/issue/O ctober_2007.html) were articles about the precarious status of mountain gorillas in Africa and global warming researchers using Henry David Thoreau's records in Massachusetts. The November issue (www.smithsonianmag.com/issue/N ovember_2007.html) had articles discussing cleanup efforts on the Ganges and a conservation debate about jaguars in the American West, along with a critical look at biofuels by Richard Coniff, who argues that "we need to stop being dazzled by the word and start looking closely at the realities before blind enthusiasm leads us into economic and environmental catastrophes."

National Geographic, which is engaged in a continuing collaboration with NPR called "Climate Connections," published its own examination of biofuels as the cover story of the October issue ("Growing Fuel: The Wrong Way, The Right Way"). Writer Joel K. Bourne Jr. summed up his findings: "Hard numbers – supply, efficiency, and, most important, price at the pump – will determine the future of ethanol and biodiesel. But for now green fuels have an undeniable romance." (http://magma.national geographic. com/ngm/2007-10/tableofcontents. html?fs=www7.national geographic. com)

The article was billed as the start of a new series in the magazine called "Meeting the Climate Challenge." It was introduced by an essay, "Carbon's New Math," in which writer Bill McKibben provided a brief overview of policy options for reducing fossil-fuel use. One of National Geographic's signature poster maps, "Changing Climate," was also tucked into the magazine.

Continuing the climate theme, National Geographic's December issue included an essay on permafrost by author Barry Lopez, accompanying aerial photographs by Bernhard Edmaier. "When I look at these photographs, I feel a twinge of misgiving," Lopez concludes. "Disintegration of this frozen habitat is now occurring around the world. A silent warning." (http://magma.nationalgeographic.co m/ngm/2007-12/permafrost/barrylopez. html?fs=mountain.nationalgeog raphic.com)

Bill Dawson, SEJournal's assistant editor, is a Houston-based freelancer who also teaches at Rice University.

BILL DAWSON