April showers bring May flowers. But another April torrent brings something considerably less pleasant: the special Earth Day-timed “green” issues with which the publishing industry deluges the reading public.
By most accounts, Vanity Fair kicked off the trend two years ago. Its 2006 “Special Green Issue” was a marketing coup, tapping into Hollywood’s heightened eco-consciousness and appealing to Tinseltown’s sense of importance. The cover, featuring George Clooney and Julia Roberts posing with Al Gore and Robert Kennedy Jr., ominously termed global warming “a threat graver than terrorism.” Below that howler was a tease asking how much of New York and Washington will be under water. Scary stuff. Sure, it might have been factually wrong, but at least it was dramatic and caught people’s attention. That’s entertainment, folks. As they use to say on American Bandstand, “It’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.”
Not so the current crop of eco-editions, which play like funeral dirges. Vanity Fair has spawned environmentally themed issues the last two years at magazines ranging from Elle and Glamour to Wine Spectator, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. Yet they fail to live up to Vanity Fair’s standard. Oh, they’re just as wrongheaded as VF’s inaugural, just as ignorant of the facts. The real shame of these green magazines, however, is that they make for absolutely dreadful reading.
These self-described “green issues” can be divided roughly into two categories. The first are the self-help editions, which aim to give readers quick and easy tips for a more environmentally conscious lifestyle. Many of these are no surprise and represent the clichés of modern environmentalism: drive smaller cars, turn the thermostat down, switch to compact fluorescents, install a solar panel, and, if you are feeling really ambitious and in harmony with Mother Earth, consider composting.
The packages are slightly different, but the message is the same. Elle offers “30 ways to minimize your eco-footprint and maximize your look.” Competitor Glamour offers the “Top 10 Things You Can Do for the Planet,” advertising this advice alongside the “Five Easy Steps to the Big O.” (Which is more important to Glamour’s discerning readers? One can take an educated guess.)
National Geographic feels so strongly about the need to combat climate change that it dedicates not one issue annually to the topic, but four. Their quarterly Green Guide is advertised as “the resource for consuming wisely.”
“Our goal is to make going green an easy, gradual, affordable process rather than an all-or-nothing plunge,” writes Green Guide editor Seth Bauer, whose maiden issue is full of appeals to recycle plastic sandwich baggies, compost table scraps, and use a ceiling fan instead of air conditioning.
The Sunday New York Times waded into the self-help arena with a green issue promising “some bold steps to make your carbon footprint smaller.” It featured most of the same prescriptions, but with more detail and analysis. This is Glamour for the advanced-degree set — minus, of course, that magazine’s critical “Five Easy Steps.”
A number of airlines have introduced green magazine issues among their in-flight publications, all the better for their captive audiences to consider how to fight global warming while generating huge carbon emissions (nearly a ton per passenger flying roundtrip coast-to-coast on a commercial airliner).
Delta’s Sky magazine noted that if the airlines’ 40 million frequent-flier members “were to spend 1 minute less each day in the shower over their lifetimes, they would save 4 trillion gallons of water — the total amount of snow and rain that falls over the entire lower 48 United States in a day.” Unmentioned in the issue, but incontrovertibly better for the environment? Foregoing air travel completely.
The other category of Green Issue, as opposed to the self-help variety, is the ringing-call-to-action. This type of special issue informs its readers that we must act before it’s too late. The appeal takes on the same tone as the letter urging one to renew the subscription for the same reason.
Sports Illustrated did this last year. Its special eco-issue featured All-Star pitcher Dontrelle Willis on the cover, standing in water past his knees in the middle of Miami’s Dolphin Stadium (a doctored photo, in case you were wondering). The attempt at provocation fell ridiculously flat. “We’ve reached critical mass,” according to an SI editor. “It’s time to address this in all venues — why shouldn’t sports be one of them?”
Why indeed, except that Sports Illustrated failed to make its case. “As global warming changes the planet, it is changing the sports world.” Rather than giving evidence to support the charge, the magazine offered an overwrought warning that baseball will soon suffer more rainouts and that we’re losing our skiing seasons. We only have ten years to act. As SI awkwardly put it — desperate to adduce sports references for their political posturing — “That’s two-and-a-half Olympiads.” So get on the stick. We’ve already lost one year.
Time magazine made a similar plea this year with its special green-bordered issue. With a cover borrowing from the epic photo from Iwo Jima, but with soldiers planting a tree rather than a flag, Time makes clear that fighting climate change is now the moral equivalent of war … which sounds a lot like Jimmy Carter. The issue did a bang-up job offending veterans groups who resent the comparison of hooking wind mills into the electricity grid with saving civilization from barbarism.
In this case, the enemy isn’t Hitler or Tojo. It is us. “The U.S. produces nearly a quarter of the world’s greenhouse gases and has stubbornly made it clear that it doesn’t intend to so a whole lot about it.” Time conveniently omits that the U.S. also produces nearly a quarter of global GDP. The issue, simply, is too important to let important facts get in the way of sober and reasoned analysis.
In the end, the only magazine that puts out a green issue worth a damn is Vanity Fair. Last year’s featured Leo DiCaprio posing with celebrity polar bear, Knut. Sure, as lefty journal Mother Jones archly pointed out, VF spewed 140 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere flying DiCaprio, Annie Liebowitz, and others to Europe to shoot the cover. And sure, this year’s version highlights Madonna, in her signature outfit of next-to-nothing, grinding her rear end into a giant globe. And yes, it’s most assuredly not printed on recycled paper. But at least these issues are readable, with interesting articles by Hitchens, Dominick Dunne, and lots of celebrity and political dish. Vanity Fair makes no pretense to be about anything other than trying to sell a lot of magazines (which, incidentally, would result in lots more trees cut down). Good for them.
Most other green publications — like vegan meat substitutes and soy milk — can be pretty tough to swallow. They are overly earnest and preening, making no pretense that they are about anything other than guilting people into thinking they have to change their selfish behavior. That hardly sounds like a strategy for sustainable publishing.
– Max Schulz is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.