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  Sierra Magazine
  September/October 2008
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  COOL SCHOOLS:
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Ten That Get It
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Sierra Magazine
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Mixed Media | big ideas and oddball interpretations
September/October 2008

The Evolution Will Be Televised | Earth Beat

The Evolution Will Be Televised
The brightest color on your TV? Green.

A convict digs his way out of a prison yard using a "locally sourced" lunch tray; another has "recycled" a toothbrush into a shiv. The ad for Discovery Channel's new 24-7 eco-living television network offers the tagline "Do time with Planet Green," but the real message is, "We promise not to bore you."

Those of you who killed your television years ago may not have noticed, but a green TV wave is crashing over U.S. viewers. To keep them hooked, producers are using every trick short of lining up anorexic models with briefcases full of money--while holding the finger wagging in check.

Planet Green, which replaced Discovery Home Channel in June, is the splashiest effort. But it has plenty of company, from CNN to the Weather Channel to the Sundance Channel, which serves up three hours of environmentalism every Tuesday night.

The people at Sundance wondered what Americans would watch and came up with a time-tested answer: import shows from Europe. It's Not Easy Being Green follows a U.K. family as they leave the city and learn to live off the land, and features the stiff cheer and caustic wit that the Brits do best. Meanwhile, Outrageous Wasters is about a SWAT team of environmentalists who drop in on eco-clueless families and send them off to a reform school in the woods. And Ideas for a Small Planet plants a camera in front of the composters, recyclers, architects, clothiers, and urban activists who are doing their bit for the earth.

On the Weather Channel's Forecast Earth, former CNN anchor Natalie Allen offers, in newscaster cadences, info on warming, rising waters and disappearing bees. The network must be doing something right: In 2007 senator and climate-change denier Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said global warming was "a Weather Channel conspiracy"; Scientific American called its coverage "surprisingly excellent." Cable powerhouse CNN offers similar climate fare with its series Planet in Peril.

Public television is in the fray too with a Brad Pitt–narrated series, e2, whose heady subtitle is "The Economies of Being Environmentally Conscious." The show has profiled Nobel Prize–winning Bangladeshi solar activist Muhammad Yunus and architect William McDonough, champion of "cradle to cradle" design.

Planet Green is betting that the best approach to an unfamiliar subject is showing a familiar face. That's why many of its 17 shows are fronted by people you may recognize. On Renovation Nation, host Steve Thomas strides around authoritatively in his denims like he did for years on public television's This Old House, only now he's installing secondhand doors and solar panels. (One observation after watching a spate of green-it-yourself shows: Why does everyone seem to go over budget with green remodeling?) Indefatigable chef Emeril Lagasse introduces organic cooking on--you guessed it!--Emeril Green, and Dancing With the Stars MC Tom Bergeron moderates Supper Club, in which Bergeron and various eco-stars cook, hang out, and make glib comments. ("Excessive vanity can help save the earth!" Bergeron crows of celebrities' obsession with sustainable food.)

The relentless positivity can overreach. The hosts of Planet Green's newsmagazine G Word are so blandly pleasant you'll think Prozac has supplanted fluoride in the station's tap water, and its Hollywood Green sees no irony in discussing Leonardo DiCaprio's series, Greensburg (about the sustainable reconstruction of a tornado-ravaged Kansas town), while fawning over the eco-resort the star is building on his private island in Belize.

Reality programming has proven that eavesdropping can be great fun. So enjoy Planet Green's Wasted as host Annabelle Gurwitch (recycled from TBS's Dinner and a Movie) shakes her head in dismay as she meets clueless suburban families who use Styrofoam cups at every meal or fraternity boys who don't recycle their beer cans, then awards them a trash bin of greenbacks if they change their ways. Fortunately, the show's dollops of imparted information are accurate and useful.

Planet Green raises the question of whether "around the clock" means "over the top." The network recently added Mean Green Machines, in which low-carbon vehicles race their gas-powered rivals, and Battleground Earth, an odd-couple duel between rapper Ludacris and rocker Tommy Lee to see who can be greener. The answer may be found in Sundance's short films called Green Porno, in which Isabella Rossellini simulates bug sex on a set that looks like a fifth-grade papier-mâché project. —David Ferris

ON THE WEB Even if you don't have access to the triple-digit cable channels where much of today's innovative green programming resides, you can still watch entire episodes or select clips on the networks' Web sites. You can also view limited-run series, like the seven-episode Sierra Club Chronicles, on Sundance 's site, and online-only programming on Club-sponsored cleanskies.tv.


Earth Beat
Working for the real Daily Planet

Felicity Barringer has been a reporter for the New York Times since 1986, covering the Soviet Union, the United Nations, the media, and business. For the past five years, she's been the newspaper of record's national environmental reporter, a role the veteran journalist found surprisingly taxing but has "come to learn to love." This year she donned another hat: teaching environmental journalism at Stanford University. Sierra caught up with Barringer as she juggled grading papers and filing stories.

What's different about covering the environment?
I came to the environmental beat pretty confident. Two years later I was still reeling. Every story involved an under-pressure, weeklong graduate seminar in a new subject.

You write about federal policy and lighter stories, like hiking up Mt. Whitney. Which do you prefer?
I like them all. A steady diet of important policy issues is like eating tough meat night after night. The lifestyle stories are by far more likely to be on the Times' "most e-mailed" list.

How did covering the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 frame the way you approach environmental stories?
It was great training for the environmental beat. I learned that environmental-health stories always have a profound emotional content, and that makes them political and religious stories. As an environmental reporter, you need to cover the emotional impacts, but science is your bottom line.

Did the experience help you deal with flacks?
From time to time I've been tempted to say to government or corporate officials--and even to officials of environmental groups--"You sound like the scientists who had the first press conference on Chernobyl!"

Has teaching changed your perspective?
It has helped me think through the evolution of environmental journalism. I see four generations. The first was stories that were so clear in their moral valence that they were close to parables. You had villains, you had heroes, you had victims. The second generation was a transition to stories about legal solutions in legislatures and Congress. The third generation was reactive to the first two, like the Sagebrush Rebellion, corporations starting to do things (many of them cosmetic), and community-based environmentalism.

Today the categories are scrambled. The villains of the first generation are in the rough-and-tumble political debate over climate change. You've got DuPont, Duke Energy, General Electric--companies that were on the wrong end and are now side by side, more or less, with environmental groups on cap-and-trade proposals. The problems are going to be fixed by all sorts of entities and alliances. The characters have all changed. And that requires, for a journalist, not being too wedded to the old storytelling devices.

Does that lead to he-said, she-said journalism?
It requires that if you cover environmental issues, you'd better know how businesses think. You'd better know a fair bit of chemistry, atmospheric science, and economics. Your knowledge will lead you to smart people who may be partisan but are willing to articulate the other side's position and the flaws with it. When you've found those people, you don't have to have your journalism turn into sound bites.

What do you see in students today that surprises you?
Folks in their twenties today have internalized environmental issues, and that's going to change the political landscape. They're skeptical of all "isms" and givens. And they're scared that climate change will cause havoc.

Are they reacting to climate change the way earlier generations did to the threat of nuclear weapons?
In some ways climate change is more worrying because states controlled nuclear bombs. Who's causing the emissions? Everybody. As soon as you say everybody is guilty, you get in a vast existential cloud. You need government action, international action, individual action.

What's your environmental vice?
I'm indifferent to recycling. —interview by Reed McManus


Photo for e2: iStock/diane39; used with permission.
photo of Felicity Barringer: Heidi Schumann; used with permission.

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