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?
Another recurring theme for me:
I’m interested in popular narratives that shape public discourse. I’m specifically interested in how science and environment-related topics are covered in the media, and how this coverage tends to create dominant narratives.
Along these lines, I’ve explored the genesis and amplification of varied media narratives, from Jared Diamond’s collapse meme and Paul Brodeur’s power lines/cancer connection reportage to Vandana Shiva’s GMO/Indian farmer suicide storyline.
One interesting pattern, as these cases suggest, is that sometimes the emergence and staying power of a particular narrative owes to an influential science writer, well-placed journalist, or popular activist.
In other cases, a narrative coalesces around a stock villain, such as Monsanto as the great Satan, or a phrase like the “new normal,” a term that associates severe weather events with man-made climate change.
I like to explore how these memes originate and what sustains them.
That’s what drew me to this story when it went viral and why I felt compelled to write a corrective. I’ve also been intrigued by recent narratives connecting war or geopolitical strife to climate change.
It is a tricky thing to deconstruct these narratives at a time when people are sincerely and understandably concerned about “merchants of doubt” who willfully muddy climate science and play down the risks of climate change. There are some environmental advocates and climate communicators who have little tolerance for discussion they perceive to be “off message.” Others–such as anti-GMO activists–are also intolerant of critics. People very attached to causes, I have learned, like to make their voices heard.
Given these pressures, it is important for editors and writers to not succumb to nuisance tactics. That is easy to say in a western democratic country with a long tradition of free speech. In certain parts of the world, speaking one’s mind can can get you flogged or hacked to death, as George Packer discussed in his New Yorker piece on the recent killings of Bangladeshi bloggers. But he makes a point that applies universally:
The problem with free speech is that it’s hard, and self-censorship is the path of least resistance. But, once you learn to keep yourself from voicing unwelcome thoughts, you forget how to think them—how to think freely at all—and ideas perish at conception.
As for my own situation, I have decided to stop blogging because it is not conducive to the kind of reporting-driven journalism I prefer to be doing. Over the years, I have been gratified by the appreciative nods from numerous colleagues, particularly those at MIT’s journalism tracker website (now sadly defunct), where, among other things, I’ve been described as a “blogger and an iconoclastic media critic,” and a “reality-based” environmental journalist who is “thoughtful and thorough.” The folks there were very generous in the attention they paid to my blog.
I assure you that not everyone shares these kind sentiments. A famous atheist blogger once characterized something I wrote as “appallingly dumb” and dismissed me as “too stupid to argue with further.” He’s definitely not alone in thinking that.
In recent years, I’ve become uncomfortable with being thought of as a media critic. True, it’s something I’ve done more of with respect to GMOs, but I never intended it to become a beat or part of my professional identity. The same goes for analysis and commentary, which I’ve done my share of in this space, and, which again, I’m appreciative of the notice it has has received from esteemed colleagues, such as Andy Revkin at his indispensable New York Times blog, Dot Earth.
Also, there are some ideas (or at least a term–eco-modernism) that germinated at my blog which I elaborated on elsewhere at Discover and at Slate several years ago, and which seems to have now been picked up on. That’s been interesting to watch unfold.
For sure, I’m going to miss having a vehicle that has allowed me to be part of the daily conversation on important issues. I can envision contributing again to that dialogue sometime down the road. But for now I think it’s time I embark on a new chapter.
Thanks to the folks at Discover magazine for hosting my blog since 2013. Most of all, thanks to the readers of Collide-a-Scape, many of you who have engaged in the comment threads. I’ve sometimes been frustrated by the unruly nature of these online conversations, but I’ve also learned a lot from them.
Please check back in a few weeks for the address to the website where this blog will be archived.