The time has come for me to say goodbye to this blog.
I started Collide-a-Scape in early 2009, when I was halfway through a year-long fellowship at the University of Colorado’s Center for Environmental Journalism. I knew I was about to embark on a new chapter in my professional life (from full-time magazine editor to freelance writer) and figured I’d hang my shingle on the Web.
Initially, I thought I’d focus on topical sustainability issues. Perhaps I could draw attention to the backstory of Australia’s bushfires or offer a long view of California’s climate, as I did in my 7th post, when I commented on a piece in the Los Angeles Times that framed global warming as an imminent existential threat to California. I wrote on February 5, 2009:
Nowhere in the story is drought mentioned, which I find astonishing, given that just a few days ago, a state water official said, “We may be at the start of the worst California drought in modern history.” As I wrote here, even that statement fails to take into account a longer climate history of the West. The mega-droughts that occurred a millinium ago make the 1930s dust bowl look like childs play.
As the LA Times reported two years ago, scientists believe that the Southwest is about to enter a new cycle of severe aridity–a state of permanent drought–that will last for decades.
So now comes along a story that suggests global warming will bring California to its knees by the end of this century. But that’s only part of the story. Climate change is a force multiplier–it will undoubtedly exacerbate matters, making the West drier and for longer periods.
The natural cycles of drought and human-induced climate change will combine to write the future of the West.
In ensuing years, when relevant new papers were published, and as drought tightened its grip on California, I periodically revisited this long view of California’s (and the the West’s) drought history. I think I may have been too far ahead of the story.
I always intended this blog to pivot off of newsy stories (the news hook!) but go beyond the headlines. By the time I started Collide-a-Scape in 2009, I had come to view ecological issues through a historical and a socio-cultural lens. In a 1990 essay, Richard White, now a historian at Stanford, discussed a shortcoming (since rectified, I think) in the then relatively new field of environmental history: “the failure to recognize the role of beliefs and value judgements.” I have long felt that much popular environmental writing suffers from a similar failure.
[The historian J. R. McNeill, in his 2003 global survey of the field, gave a concise definition of environmental history: “The history of human relations between humankind and the rest of nature.”]
The human/environment relationship fascinates me. Of specific interest: The nexus of science, politics, and culture. It’s the space I often explore in longer magazine stories. My blog has provided a vehicle for me to explore that volatile space in real time.
It’s been great to participate in environmental and science-related conversations as they play out. But it is also fraught with risk when the topics are contentious. People don’t get worked up over the return of an iconic dinosaur name or a planet the way they do over climate change, vaccines, and GMOs, which are some of the hot-button topics I’ve explored on this blog. I suppose that’s because nobody’s worldview or values is challenged by the Brontosaurus or Pluto.
Many journalists writing about science are attracted to the “wow” aspect; I’ve been drawn to the “why”–as in why are people fighting over endangered species, the meaning of wilderness, the future of conservation, climate change, GMOs, the Anthropocene?
My mother-in-law, who lives in New Jersey, recently mailed me a newspaper clipping. It was about a famous person who came to her state to publicly oppose a bill that would make it harder for parents to exempt their children from school-mandated vaccinations. This same famous person had just visited two other states to lobby against similar legislation proposed in the wake of the Disneyland/Measles outbreak. Local media and wire services have covered the spectacles in Oregon, California, and New Jersey.
Yes, Robert Kennedy Jr. has made headlines again for, as the New Jersey Star Ledger put it in a hard-hitting editorial, “his crazy-talk about a vast government conspiracy to hide the truth that a vaccine ingredient called thimerosal causes childhood autism.” The Star-ledger goes on to correctly note:
He is wrong. Every major scientific and medical organization in the country agrees that he is wrong. Here’s all you need to know about thimerosal: There is no link between it and any brain disorders, including autism. To assuage fears, the government removed it from pediatric vaccines nearly 15 years ago, with the exception of a specific flu vaccine, and childhood autism rates have actually gone up since.
After reading the editorial, my mother-in-law clipped it out and mailed to me with a note:
Saw this–I know it’s an “old” topic–but still in the news!
That’s the infuriating part of this story for many people–that it’s still in the news, from the New York Daily News to the UK’s Daily Mail. Of course, Baba mailed me the story because she had read about Kennedy’s unrelenting and misguided crusade last summer in a piece I wrote for the Washington Post magazine.
I anguished over that story: Before I pitched it, after it was accepted, and each step along the way during the reporting and writing process. I agonized over every sentence, every edit. I agonized because I didn’t want to give any oxygen to anti-vaccine activism, but when it became obvious to me that one of their celebrity crusaders was engaged in newsworthy activities, I felt the story of his obsessive crusade was legitimate. The reactions were all over the map.
I’ve spent enough time with Kennedy and argued with him enough to know that he’s gone down a deep rabbit hole. It’s not just that he can’t let go of the discredited thimerosal/autism connection. It’s his irresponsible conspiracy talk involving the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), calling it a “sock puppet” of the pharmaceutical industry. And his shameless hyperbole, which he has ramped up in recent weeks. For example, here’s what Kennedy said last month before a crowd in California: Read More
A Zurich-based think tank asks: “Who is influencing the way we think today? Whose ideas are determining ours?” To answer that question, it teamed up with an MIT researcher to rank the world’s top 100 thought leaders of 2014.
The Oxford dictionary defines a thought leader as someone “whose views on a subject are taken to be authoritative and influential.”
In a talk I recently gave at Cornell, I discussed how some thought leaders have shaped GMO perceptions and public discourse on agricultural biotechnology. As long-time readers know, I’m interested in the emergence of popular narratives and memes, everything from the Easter Island eco-cide metaphor to the climate wars and climate/conflict framing.
So it’s only fitting, I suppose, that I would also look at those that influence the GMO conversation. As I wrote here several months ago:
Groups like Greenpeace and thought leaders such as Michael Pollan, Vandana Shiva, and Bill Nye have enormous clout in their respective spheres. Greenpeace is a major player on the environmental stage. Pollan has the ear of foodies, Shiva is the patron saint of socially-conscious greens, and Nye is the geeky science hero that takes on creationists. Does it muddy the science communication environment for GMOs if a big environmental group and beloved thought leaders traffic in inaccurate information? Given their reach, I think so.
[Bill Nye, it’s worth noting, has since changed his mind on GMOs, though its not yet clear what he now believes.]
In the wake of the Rolling Stone fallout of a badly botched magazine feature article it published late last year, there’s been a a lot of discussion about journalism’s infatuation with narrative storytelling. As media critic and NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen put it in his assessment:
The most consequential decision Rolling Stone made was made at the beginning: to settle on a narrative and go in search of the story that would work just right for that narrative.
In addition to numerous journalistic lapses, there were bright red flags that popped up during the reporting process of the Rolling Stone story that should have stopped the writer and editors in their tracks. But their own reservations were smothered by their belief in the larger narrative, and so they kept going. It was a collective failure. In another smart take, science journalist Christie Aschwanden laments: Read More
If you are late to the Food Babe phenomenon, by which I mean the rise of a food activist named Vani Hari, there are no shortage of recent media articles exploring her fame. The Atlantic profile is among the best, because it is not judgmental and it gives voice to the science-based critics who are exasperated by her influence. The journalistic fascination with Hari is reflected in The Atlantic’s subhead:
How one woman mobilized an army against food additives, GMOs, and all else not “natural”
What we have not seen–to my knowledge–is a story explaining why that “army,” consisting of a very large number of people, was already primed for action.
There are hints of it in The Atlantic piece, such as this quote from University of Florida horticulturist Kevin Folta:
Vani is very good at marketing herself and telling people what they want to hear.
If you follow climate and environmental discourse as closely as I do, then you know that the recent New Yorker piece by the acclaimed novelist Jonathan Franzen has triggered 1) applause, 2) denunciation, 3) head-scratching.
The self-proclaimed eco-pragmatists at The Breakthrough Institute are cheering.
One of the best essays on climate change and conservation I have ever read. Thank you Jonathan Franzen http://t.co/8Fux7Aq4kI
— Ted Nordhaus (@TedNordhaus) March 30, 2015
— Alex Trembath (@atrembath) March 31, 2015
The self-appointed climate change truth squad is jeering.
— Judd Legum (@JuddLegum) April 1, 2015
— Brad Johnson (@climatebrad) March 31, 2015
Others who focus on sustainability issues found it worthy of discussion.
— Sthlm Resilience (@sthlmresilience) March 31, 2015
So what are we to make of these contradictory reactions? Are critics and admirers reading the same article?
Yes, and they are responding, legitimately, to different arguments being made in the same piece. Let’s break them down and see what Franzen gets right and wrong.
To start, he laments that climate change is at the top of the environmentalist agenda today, shifting wildlife conservation and biodiversity off center stage. This claim is somewhat true, to the extent that climate change dominates public conversation, environmentally speaking. Indeed, Franzen likely channels the frustration of many conservation biologists when he writes: Read More
I recently spoke at Cornell about the public GMO discourse–who has shaped it and how some commonly held perceptions have taken hold in the media.
In one talk, I discussed the importance of thought leaders, such as Michael Pollan and Vandana Shiva. Pollan and Shiva are cultural icons who speak to (and on behalf of) people who share their values. Pollan has the ear of those who care deeply about the production of food. Shiva has the ear of those who care deeply about the environment. Their respective audiences overlap and often coalesce around larger sustainability, corporate influence and social justice concerns. Influential voices in this virtuous space are invested with moral authority. It also helps to be anointed by the media as a thought leader, which elevates one’s standing. The role thought leaders play in the GMO debate is something I’ll expand on in a future post.
The other talk I gave (similar to this one) explored the Frankenfood meme that is still well represented in popular media, as I pointed out in the previous post. There, the role of self-appointed public advocates has been essential to the popular framing of GMOs. As the Washington Post has just noted in an editorial: Read More
Two years ago, a bill to label foods that contained genetically engineered ingredients was introduced into Congress by a Democratic representative from Oregon and a Democratic senator from California. It didn’t go anywhere, and we haven’t heard much about it, though since then proposed mandatory GMO labeling laws in some states have been in the news. As Nathanael Johnson wrote in Grist last year, these initiatives draw media interest, which often helps to educate consumers that are mostly clueless about GMOs:
When veteran health and environmental reporters dig into the GMO debate, they start showing people what all the most trustworthy scientific and medical institutions have found: This technology is no riskier than other cherished new technologies we constantly introduce into our lives.
Such responsible journalism was nowhere to be seen in a seven minute MSNBC segment that aired last month: Read More
I’m racing to meet a deadline, but this story in the New York Times is so dismaying I had to take a few minutes to call attention to it. The headline alone is a red flag: “Could Wearable Computers Be as Harmful as Cigarettes?”
It gets worse:
We have long suspected that cellphones, which give off low levels of radiation, could lead to brain tumors, cancer, disturbed blood rhythms and other health problems, if held too close to the body for extended periods.
Who is “we”? The reporter, Nick Bilton (who covers technology), goes on to mention numerous studies, some which are ambiguous, but one that
concluded that talking on a mobile or cordless phone for extended periods could triple the risk of a certain kind of brain cancer.
The thrust of the discussion in the piece gives the impression that
heavy frequent cell phone users are at risk of developing brain tumors. That would be mistaken, as the National Cancer Institute says on its website. Another expert source apparently missed by Bilton is the Mayo Clinic, which says: Read More
In 2013, a psychology professor reviewing Malcolm Gladwell’s latest best-selling book was critical of the author’s modus operandi:
He excels at telling just-so stories and cherry-picking science to back them.
That charge had been percolating for a while, but people were suddenly paying more attention to it, including science journalists. After the WSJ review triggered a larger debate on Gladwell, longtime science journalist Paul Raeburn weighed in at MIT’s Science Tracker (recently shuttered), a journalism watchdog site that had monitored how science was covered in the media. Raeburn picked up on the mounting criticisms of Gladwell to make some important points, such as this one:
It’s the power of narrative that makes it so dangerous: Seductive storytelling robs us of our critical skills.
I’ve periodically discussed in this space how seductive qualities have helped certain climate change narratives take hold. For example, I’ve tracked how nearly every major severe weather event has in the media become linked to or associated with climate change. That narrative gave rise to a meme called “the new normal.”
The severe weather disaster = climate change is a seductive storyline for those who want to increase attention to the very real threats posed by global warming. Whether the media has conveniently embraced that framing is a question I’ll leave for others to debate.
Another similar example of a seductive narrative for those concerned about a warming planet is the “climate wars” story, which I’ve also tracked. Here is a recent unwitting demonstration from one climate change writer on how that storyline has solidified (my emphasis):
For the last couple years, Middle East experts have pointed to the ongoing civil war in Syria as a prime example of how climate change can contribute to violent conflict. The country’s worst drought on record arrived just as widespread outrage with President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial regime was reaching critical mass; as crops failed, an estimated 1.5 million people were driven off rural farms and into cities. While grievances with the Assad regime are many, from economic stagnation to violent crackdowns on protesters, the impacts of the drought were likely the final straw.
The narrative in Syria fit perfectly with what many top military leaders, including at the Pentagon, were beginning to project: In parts of the world where tensions are already high, the impacts of natural disasters and competition for resources are increasingly likely to ignite violence.
Yes, and when a study recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) linked climate change to the civil war now tearing apart Syria, many in mainstream media (and in climate messaging circles) jumped all over it. The narrative fit perfectly. Global warming had “hastened,” “fueled,” or “helped trigger” the Syrian conflict, and even, according to one prominent climate communicator, “spawned” the rise of ISIS or ISIL, the group of savage Islamic militants that have taken control of and terrorized parts of Iraq.
I discussed the largely uncritical press coverage of the PNAS study in this post. It’s worth mentioning that most of the media stories did a good job emphasizing the multi-causal nature of the Syrian conflict. The study itself laid out the socio-political factors responsible for the country’s uprising. And the press coverage reflected this nuanced aspect of the study. But the authors of the study also fingered climate change-fueled drought as a “catalytic” trigger. Only a few reporters bothered to closely examine the merits of that claim.
In a follow-up post, I reviewed what a number of experts in the multi-disciplinary environmental security field were saying about the study. I also solicited responses from several of them. In short, they did not think highly of the study. Since then, additional reactions have filtered out, including this essay by Halvard Buhaug, Research Director and Research Professor at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), who noted: Read More
In the Guardian, Mark Lynas writes about the “need to recapture the climate debate from the political extremes.” Good luck with that! I’m afraid this proverbial horse has left the barn.
Of course, you should still read the piece, because it’s a necessary reminder of the real dynamics that shape the public discourse on climate change. As I lamented in 2013, the climate debate is overly simplistic, “often framed by those who dismiss the legitimate concerns of a warming planet and those who play up those concerns.”
I’ve been caught in the crosshairs of these rival forces since I began this blog in 2009.
Here’s how Lynas starts off his piece:
Climate change is real, caused almost entirely by humans, and presents a potentially existential threat to human civilisation. Solving climate change does not mean rolling back capitalism, suspending the free market or stopping economic growth.
With those two rather innocuous statements, I have just alienated most people on either side of the climate debate.
Lynas goes on to politely chastise the Guardian for its role in perpetuating the narrow parameters of the climate debate, something I alluded to in this recent post. He then succinctly captures how we got to where we are: Read More