Friday, February 26, 2010

Calling All Gristians: The Role of Media in the Future of the Environmental Movement

Yesterday, Chip Giller, CEO and founder of Grist, a cutting-edge environmental news site around since 1999, came to campus to deliver a lecture co-sponsored by us, GU Center for the Environment, and Lecture Fund. The talk had the facetious title "Tweet Huggers: Media, Sustainability, and the Future." Although I didn't see many people hugging tweets at the event (Alas, I can't seem to get Twitter on my phone anymore---or, at least I have not since the 3 months ago when I last tried. How does one "hug" a tweet anyway?), there was a riveting discussion about the future of environmentalism.

In his introduction, Chip presented an interesting parallel history between the environmental movement and modern journalism. Both saw their beginnings in the late 19th to early 20th century, with press icons like William Randolph Hearst and environmentalist forefathers like John Muir. For most of the 20th century, both were highly centralized in form. The press was concentrated in large newspapers that had broad reach and an unquestioning audience, and the environmental movement placed most of its efforts at change on the macro, federal level (such as the Clean Air Act, Superfund, etc.). However, just as the 21st century has seen a decentralization of the media with blogging, tweeting, citizen journalism, and the like, the environmental victories we see today (on sites like Grist, among others) are becoming more localized. Just go on their site or Tree Hugger's, and you will see the great initiatives and innovations being taken in different communities across the country (and the globe).

What is particularly interesting about juxtaposing environmentalism and journalistic media is that both are so tightly linked to the concept of information. At the core of environmentalism is the desire to learn and to recontextualize: to know from where our food comes, to know from where our energy comes, and to place ourselves in a more globalized worldview so that we can see how all of our actions have consequences. Journalism was born to do the same: to inform, to search for the answers to these budding questions, to put issues into perspective. The only way to know about an environmental problem--or an environmental solution--is for someone to write about it.

Moreover, Chip focused on the importance of the tone created by the environmental movement. He designed Grist to have an irreverent twist--to make puns, to crack jokes, to be an equal opportunity satirist, and never to take itself too seriously. Environmentalism is often viewed as being too preachy, and a moralizing rant will not win over hearts and minds--but a shared laugh can.

Since we had a somewhat small group, we were able to have a very interactive Q & A session after the talk.

One question that I had been pondering was the role of credibility in the world of new media. Just as the decentralization of media can bring many benefits, it can also bring pitfalls. "ClimateGate," for instance, shows how easily misinformation can spread across the blogosphere, and once something is out there in the public space, it's stuck.

Jessica Lioon (MSB'10) asked about the business model of Grist. Grist runs itself as a nonprofit, getting its funding from foundations as well as generous readers. Grist does an excellent job at putting fun into fundraising--back in December, I remember seeing their "friends with benefits" campaign (You be their friend, and you'll get some benefits.)

Tripti Bhattacharya (SFS'10) asked about reaching out to wider audiences. When new media is becoming more niche, does one end up only preaching to the choir? This is one of the main issues that faces any advocacy organization: how do you connect with those that may not agree with you or just may be unaware? Chip noted that, although most of their readers will agree with their perspective, they can arm their readers with the information needed to explain the issues to others. He compared this to the way in which evangelical churches have grown, by bringing in converts---Gristians, in this case. A good environmental website is not preaching to a choir: it is teaching the choir the songs to sing and how to sing them.

Many people, even if they do not see themselves as environmentalists, care about a lot of the same issues. They care about the food they eat, the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the ways in which what we do now will affect our children. However, the word "environmentalist" to too many people connotes an unshaven crunchy hippie who doesn't shower. (Believe me, environmentalists shower.) The word "green" has been reduced to a corporate buzz word, ripe for branding and selling products to idealistic consumers. Moreover, I wonder how many people actually understand what the word "sustainability" even means. The important task, then, is to help people to connect the dots--to see environmentalism for what it is: a passion for caring for all life--both our own, that of our global neighbors (both big and small), and that of our future generations.


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