In September 2011, I joined Grist as its executive editor. It was an eventful time. President Obama was soon to make a momentous decision about the Keystone XL pipeline. Congress was beginning to wrestle with a new farm bill. The clock had basically run out for our species to act to stop global climate change.
It's two and a half years later. Keystone? That decision still looms. Farm bill? We got that, finally, though it was touch and go. The climate? Still not looking good.
Despite the Groundhog-Day-ish nature of this apparently static reality -- the Eternal Gloom of the Sustainable Mind -- I have never felt a sense of futility as I've overseen Grist's coverage. On the contrary, it's been a blast. Laughing over the abyss is what we do here -- even as we're trying to picture the distance between the two sides accurately, and crossing our fingers that we'll make it safely across.
At the end of next week, I'll be leaving this editor's job for personal reasons. I love Grist and will continue to do some part-time editing work; but the organization is based in Seattle, I'm based in the Bay Area, and it's time for me to stop pretending that it's possible to be in two places at once. Therefore, this brief stock-taking.
Earlier today, we posted a brief item in Grist List about a new study reporting that the herbicide glyphosate has come to permeate air and rainfall in the Mississippi Delta.
That study is alarming in itself, assuming you don't relish having a weed-killer atmosphere. Glyphosate, a.k.a. Roundup, has become a massively used chemical in Big Ag farming, in good part because it's the cornerstone of Monsanto's GMO business. The company's "Roundup ready" crops are designed to take a glyphosate dousing and keep on growing. That works fine for a while -- until glyphosate-resistant weeds start sprouting, at least; but it can also lock farmers into a cycle of dependence, which is why the whole program has been dubbed "agricultural heroin" by some.
Unfortunately, in seeking to explain why we might not welcome our new glyphosate overlords, we went looking for information about glyphosate's toxicity and health risks, and we fell for a bit of junk science that we should have steered clear of. We linked to a paper -- "Glyphosate’s Suppression of Cytochrome P450 Enzymes and Amino Acid Biosynthesis by the Gut Microbiome: Pathways to Modern Diseases" -- that has been widely debunked, for instance here. (As that post points out, any paper that uses a phrase like "exogenous semiotic entropy" ought to set off alarm bells.) We should have known better -- particularly since we've recently run some in-depth coverage of glyphosate as part of our Panic-Free GMO series.
We're sorry. The post was up for only a few hours before we corrected it and removed it from our homepage and other listings. We're not taking it down completely; rather than "disappear" the evidence of our goof, we're laying it all out for you. Because that's, you know, the right thing to do.
The sparkle of the glass! The depth of the screen window! The sleek bezel! The smooth feel! The desperate losing battle to keep greasy fingers from ruining all that perfection!
We know you love your tablets because we see a steady increase in the percentage of Grist articles that are consumed on them. (It's now about 10 percent.) That's why I'm very pleased to introduce you to a brand-new Grist-for-tablet design that you'll now see every time you load our site up on your iPad or Android tablet.
My immensely talented developer and designer colleagues here on our product team have invested all sorts of creative energy in making Grist easier and more fun to read on these platforms.
No more zooming in on text to read stuff. Our simpler home page design means that you can discover more stories with a quick swipe. Behind the scenes, pages should load faster, too.
This new design is built on the foundation of the smartphone design we rolled out last fall. Later this spring we'll be extending this same approach onto our desktop version -- and all of Grist will be unified under one big, bright, beautiful vision. Then, our master plan will be complete: One responsive design to rule them all! The world will TREMBLE ...
Sorry, I don't know what came over me. We're taking a humble, iterative approach to this project, of course, and it will continue to evolve based on your feedback. So leave a comment below, contact us, or tweet at us @grist! And enjoy.
Our winter fundraising drive is nearly over. With just one day and 1,239 donations left to go, your contribution is essential to reaching our goal of 2,500 donations by Dec. 17.
As you’ve no doubt noticed, Grist isn’t your typical nonprofit.
Our news, advice, and opinions provide info and lend strength to groups -- large and small -- that are tackling this big, nebulous problem called climate change. We’re helping people like you take action, too: Over 65 percent of readers say you’ve made a change for the greener because of something you read on Grist.
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No, this isn't a fundraising pitch or a plea for more readers. What we're looking for is a few good fellows. (In the dictionary's sense of "a student or graduate receiving a fellowship for a period of research." Not, you know, dudes.)
Today, we're proud to open the doors on a new Grist Fellowship program we've been hatching for some time now -- inspired by the top-notch fellowship programs that our colleagues at other publications like the American Prospect and Mother Jones have developed over the years.
We're inviting writers, editors, and online journalists of every stripe who are at an early stage of their career to come work with us for six months. You get to hone your journalistic chops at a national news outlet and deepen your knowledge of environmental issues. We get to teach you and learn from you and bring your work to our public. You won't get rich -- but you will get paid.
Maybe you're a cub reporter fresh out of college inspired by Nate Silver's 2012 election coverage and hoping to apply some statistical magic to the climate fight. Or perhaps you're a science writer intoxicated by the power of the moving image. If you're irreverent, imaginative, and hungry to improve your skills, this might be your place.
You'll work closely with our editors in Seattle, and with the program's director, Andrew Simon, on reporting and writing stories for Grist. If your skills extend beyond the traditional skills of journalism into realms like data journalism, multimedia, and software development, all the better.
In 1980, the biologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon made a famous decade-long bet. Ehrlich had written a bestseller titled The Population Bomb and become a celebrated advocate of population control to prevent global famine and disaster. Simon, an up-and-coming market-oriented business professor, believed that we don't need to fear the depletion of global resources, since human ingenuity will keep finding new ways to find, fabricate, or redefine them.
After the two began butting heads in public, Simon challenged Ehrlich to a $1,000 wager: Ehrlich could pick any mix of raw materials; if the inflation-adjusted price rose in 10 years, Ehrlich would win; if it fell, Simon would win.
Ehrlich bit. He consulted some friends and assembled a portfolio of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten that was supposed to represent some key finite resources whose prices might reflect the impact of population pressures.
Ten years later, he sent Simon a check -- no doubt gritting his teeth as he sealed the envelope.
The Simon-Ehrlich wager tapped into an intellectual debate about growth and limits that stretches as far back as the 18th-century thinker Thomas Malthus and that continues, despite the conclusion of the bet itself, to this day. In his new book The Bet: Paul Ehrlich, Julian Simon, and Our Gamble over Earth's Future, Yale historian Paul Sabin retells this story in the context of the rise of environmentalism in the U.S., the changing fortunes of green ideas in an age dominated by free market thinking, and the urgent alarms sounded by climate scientists. It's a deft and thorough account of a debate that continues to split the American public and its leaders.
We talked with Sabin recently by phone.
Q. How'd you come to write this book?
A. I was interested in the rise of the environmental movement in the 1970s. I was trying to understand its relationship to some of the broader political conflicts in the nation. And I figured that enough time had passed that we could look back and assess the major successes and some of the limitations of the earlier environmental politics. I was also looking for a topic that would challenge me and had some strong and engaging characters -- a good story.
Spoiler alert, but I think everyone knows that the economist Julian Simon won their bet. That raises interesting questions: Why did he win? What does it mean? How should we think about the clash of issues between these men?
You'll want to watch our video and learn more about joining our Thunderclap campaign -- a mass effort to coordinate tweets that's super easy to sign up for, and that will surely shake the rafters of the Twittersphere.
If you do this, you will:
(a) help Grist get a $15,000 challenge grant;
(b) have the enormous satisfaction of knowing that your PISTosity is contributing to a larger PISTitude.
Geoengineering's time has come -- or so a chorus is beginning to swell. Since so far we've failed to apply political or economic fixes to the unfolding global warming disaster, a technofix can look -- depending on where you sit -- like either a slam-dunk no-brainer or a regrettable last resort.
Geoengineering means deploying technology to roll back climate change now that we've missed the opportunity to avert it. Schemes come mostly in two flavors: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management. In the former, we try to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and get it back in the ground; or we shunt CO2 aside at the smokestack before it gets to the atmosphere, and bury or store it; or we promote algae blooms that absorb CO2 at the ocean surface and then die off and carry it to the ocean floor. In the latter, we try to deflect solar energy from the Earth by stirring up reflective sea mist or seeding clouds with sulfur particles or doing something else to sunscreen the planet.
In other words: Tamper with the climate even more to deal with the fallout from our climate-tampering! Sounds terribly Rube-Goldbergy -- and it is. (If you want more detail, try Grist's explainer on the subject.) These are large-scale undertakings with large-scale implications for largely opaque systems that we don't largely grasp.
Unfortunately, the slam-dunkness of geoengineering turns out to be illusory at best. We really don't know if any of these schemes can or would work. How much time, energy, and money should we put into finding out?
Things are going to get a lot warmer around here. And everywhere.
Even if the entire global economy woke up tomorrow morning, drank its coffee, and swore off fossil fuels, our future would still unfold at higher temperatures than our past. You can dream up wisecracking variations on "Hot enough for you?" and "Getting hot in here!" all day -- believe me, we have -- and that fact would just sit there, staring dejectedly at you and refusing to crack a smile.
Here at Grist we looked at the news, eyed the calendar, and decided that it's time to turn our gaze in the thermometer's direction. Our theme of the month for May is Hot and Bothered -- which is not just how we feel about what our carbon emissions are doing to the climate, but also, increasingly, how we're all going to feel about what the climate is doing to us.
Here's some of what we're working on this month:
Not so hot? Not so fast
Perhaps you've heard the statistic that's been going around suggesting that the planet has not, in fact, grown any hotter for 15 years? We'll untangle what's true in this claim, what's not, and why it's not a "get out of jail free" card for climate-change deniers. (Hint: It may well have to do with oceans.)
As summers just keep getting hotter, which American cities are the most screwed -- and which best placed to ride out the rougher weather?
Last year, they burned an area the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. How much worse can they, will they get? And why do we keep making our homes in places likely to be threatened by them?
All summer, our handy-dandy 50-state map will track wildfires, droughts, storms -- all U.S. disasters that are potentially related to rising temperatures. By autumn, we'll have a record of all the scars this season will have wrought on our landscape.
Now you see it
We're putting together a stunning gallery of before-and-after shots of those places where once, there were glaciers, and now, there aren't.
Don't just sweat there -- do something??
As warming trends continue, so does the rising chorus of can-do optimists who argue that we have the technical capacity -- and perhaps the moral obligation -- to geoengineer our way out of the climate mess. Can humankind somehow pull down the Earth's shades? Should it? Grist, along with Earth Island Journal, is hosting a live discussion on this question this Thursday in Berkeley, Calif., at 7 p.m. Join us for "Hack the Sky" if you're nearby!
These and other stories await you during Grist's Hot and Bothered theme for May. Got other ideas along these lines? Tell us below in the comments, or on Twitter or Facebook.
We know that paying attention to the news about climate and the environment is unlikely to leave you in a sunny mood. That's as it should be. But we also know that if you let the green news get you too blue, you'll never summon the spirit to do anything about it.
That's why we've decided to make Happiness our theme of the month here at Grist for April. (And apologies for the slightly late start, but, you know, we had to get our taxes out of the way first.)
Don't fret that we've gone feel-good soft; we're not trading in our critical edge for the warm-and-fuzzies just yet. But we think that there are plenty of compelling questions to explore where the fields of "happiness studies" and sustainability overlap -- at the intersection of Bliss and Green, if you will.
We started asking these questions a couple of years ago with David Roberts' groundbreaking essay "The medium chill," which described trading in relentless ambition for "satisficing" -- "stepping off the aspirational treadmill, forgoing some material opportunities and accepting some material constraints in exchange for more time to spend on relationships and experiences."
As part of our Happiness Month, Roberts will revisit this topic. (Although he protests that he's already said his piece on the matter, we know that once he dives in again we'll have to rip his digits from the keyboard to get him to move on.)
Scott Rosenberg is Grist's executive editor. He's the author of Say Everything and Dreaming in Code, founder of MediaBugs.org and co-founder of Salon.com. He covered technology for a decade and wrote theater and film reviews for another decade, and has yet to resolve the resulting left-brain/right-brain conflict.