‘The Story of Our Lifetime and Our Planet’ — Environmental Journalism in Troubled Times
By Tara Lohan
Journalist Meera Subramanian wants to tell you a story about the environment….
That's getting harder and harder, though. The media landscape has become a version of "The Walking Dead," with newspapers around the country closing, being acquired by hedge funds, or cutting their editorial staffs to the bone.
What's a journalist to do in a world where people are polarized and persuaded more by beliefs and opinions than objective facts?
For many, the answer is to dig deeper into storytelling.
That's what Subramanian did in her award-winning InsideClimate News series, "Middle Ground: Conversations Across America." Published in 2017 and 2018, the series told deeply personal and character-driven stories as it tracked climate effects in conservative communities.
In the process, the series revealed a far richer and more complex story than we often hear in narratives diluted to simply climate deniers versus believers.
Subramanian has made a career of unearthing stories that give people a better understanding of the natural world and each other. Her work has been widely published and anthologized in collections such as Best American Science and Nature Writing. She's the author of A River Runs Again: India's Natural World in Crisis from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka. And she's currently the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron visiting professor in the environment and the humanities at Princeton University.
In December she carried her experience to a new arena as president of the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), which works to support professional journalists and increase the public's understanding of environmental issues. It's a job that seems to get harder each day, with newsroom budget cuts and threats to journalists' safety.
The Revelator talked with Subramanian about the challenges and opportunities environmental journalists face today, and how to deal with an inbox full of bad news every morning.
As president of an organization that helps support environmental journalists, what’s most concerning for you right now?
A number of things. We're seeing more restrictions domestically in terms of press freedoms and access to information. SEJ has been really active working to defend the Freedom of Information Act.
And then there are safety issues for journalists. On the international level, it's a frightening time. People who are covering the environment are increasingly being targeted by governments. This is happening online in terms of social media harassment, doxing and that kind of activity. (Editor's note: Shortly after this interview, the Department of Justice announced arrests of violent extremists in four states who had made threats against American journalists.)
But it's more than that. Just last month SEJ was writing letters to help free a Mongabay editor who was detained in Indonesia. And you're hearing about journalists, some of them not just being detained, but being murdered, for their activity exposing environmental stories. So there's personal-safety issues for journalists.
I think the other huge challenge is that just being a journalist has always been demanding and financially challenging. Now more than ever. We also have a 24-7 news cycle you're constantly responding to. It's harder to do the slow-burn stories — the stories that are not as immediate as the entire continent of Australia being on fire but are just as critical to put those stories into context.
What do you see as some opportunities?
I feel like we're at a very interesting point because the climate change issue is affecting so many realms. People are thinking about covering energy and the environment in a very different way than they did even five years ago.
There's a lot of opportunity there in terms of other beats that are not traditionally thinking about the environment. There's climate fiction happening in the arts section. The business pages are writing about BlackRock divesting. There are journalists who didn't do environmental stories before and now they do. I think that's really positive.
It seems like every week we read stories about newspapers shutting down, layoffs and consolidation in the media industry. What are the risks to our understanding of environmental issues?
Shrinking newsrooms and these expansive news deserts are getting even worse. The mission of SEJ is to inform the public on environmental issues and to keep them engaged. And that can be challenging when there are newsrooms in particular states that don't have a single environmental reporter.
But when there are these news deserts, hopefully journalists who wouldn't normally be thinking about environmental issues can come to SEJ and can find the resources to figure out how to cover those stories better.
I've also seen a lot of responses to the news deserts. The Knight Foundation is putting money into getting people in newsrooms. SEJ has the Fund for Environmental Journalism to support journalists who would otherwise not have the funding or the institutional publishing support to do these stories.
Each time there seems to be a crisis within journalism, there are creative responses that rise up to try to deal with it. Sometimes it's hard to tell if you're fundamentally gaining ground in terms of getting good, robust journalism out there in the world. But people are still trying to figure out new models to make this work.
I think that there has to be a recognition that there will need to be a continual process of being creative, of figuring out what works and what doesn't. And then don't get too used to it, because it will change.
As environmental journalists we constantly face bad news, and this can be emotionally tough, as The Revelator has covered recently. Do you feel the weight of that?
Yeah, I feel it. I've been amazed at how much I'm hearing it from other people as well.
I'm teaching now, so I'm also hearing it from my students who are 20 years old and they've got a lot more life ahead of them than I do. And it's looking really precarious in many respects. If you have watched the lack of action happening for decades, it's totally understandable that they don't have much faith that something is going to shift.
But on the other hand, there's also been incredible activism coming from the younger generation in terms of just getting engaged with these issues. And I'm completely impressed with how many of my students are interested in journalism and are eager to do it, despite the challenges.
I feel like there's a whole new generation of journalists who are coming up who are thinking about these issues in a different way than prior generations. They are thinking about how it's not just a science issue or a policy issue. But it's about human rights and equity. They're thinking about all these much more integrated ways of looking at a problem. That gives me great hope.
What drives you to keep doing this work?
It can be hard staying up to date on all the information. And it's mostly bad news, pretty much every morning, in your inbox. So that's not easy.
But I feel like this story is really the story of our lifetime and our planet. It's the story that crosses every boundary that we humans have artificially put upon the world. Anybody who can be engaged in dealing with it, on any level, should do that. And so, being a journalist, I feel it's my responsibility to tell these stories.
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.