The Write Stuff

Environmental activist and editor Jason Mark makes climate change interesting, not insurmountable.

By James Sherwin

Jason Mark is the editor of Earth Island Journal (EIJ), an award-winning quarterly magazine dedicated to environmental news. But Mark is more than a magazine editor: Over the years, he’s worked as a human rights activist, a reporter, and even an organic farmer. Mark spoke with Plenty from a train station in Irvine, California about advocacy journalism and what environmental stories we can expect to see in EIJ in the future. He was traveling across the state—sans car—to promote his new book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots.

How did you first get involved with environmental activism?
I cut my teeth as a progressive activist protesting sweatshop work. About ten years ago, I worked as a reporter at the San Francisco Bay Guardian, but got fed up with the strictures of “objective journalism.” I was lucky enough to get hired as the communications director at the human rights group Global Exchange, where I spent four years. I then launched what we then called the Jumpstart Board campaign, which is now called the Freedom From Oil campaign, and spent two years as a nationwide, grassroots campaigner trying to work with communities across the country to try to break America’s oil addiction. I became increasingly concerned about climate change and peak oil, and knew that it was essential for us to start limiting our petroleum consumption.

What makes EIJ’s perspective unique?
One thing is our commitment to advocacy journalism. While we’re dedicated to the facts, we also believe that it’s our job to raise people’s ecological consciences. But what really distinguishes Earth Island Journal is that we’re a quarterly. We have the opportunity to uncover the real news behind the headlines. A great example of that was our report on E. Coli and the spinach crisis last year. We were able to ask, “What did the daily newspapers miss?”

How do you define advocacy journalism and how does EIJ achieve that?
Advocacy journalism is the belief that reporting, analysis, and commentary are going to be informed by certain core beliefs and a certain world view. In the case of Earth Island Journal that’s a commitment to ecological defense and restoration. We use first-rate reporting to gather the facts and make people more aware of the different ecological crises that are converging on us. I think in a way all journalism is advocacy journalism. The New York Times and The Washington Post want to inform people about issues they feel are important. That’s what we’re doing, but through a green lens.

How do you inform your readers without depressing them?
We balance out hard-hitting investigating exposés with hopeful stories of change. Otherwise it’s no longer news you can use because it’s so relentlessly depressing. By combining the two, people see that, yeah, we’re in some real trouble, but there’s also a lot of people doing incredible work to turn this thing around.

Do you have any green issues on your radar that people aren’t talking about yet?
One thing I’m trying to wrap my head around is this biofuels question. We’re hoping to do a big story or even package of stories on that next year. Trying to really figure out the pros and cons of biofuels is an important issue. Another is increasing access to local, sustainable, organic foods. There’s the whole Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver phenomenon, causing more people to be interested in where their food comes from.

Tell us about your current book tour.
I just had a book published called Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots that I co-wrote with Kevin Danaher. I’m now out on book tour in California visiting college campuses by bicycle and train along with a young woman named Nina Rizzo who’s a campaigner with Global Exchange and Energy Action. I do the dog and pony show around the book and then Nina encourages the students to get involved in local sustainability initiatives on campus. Most of the point is just to show folks that they’re not alone, that there is this broad and deep movement across the country—in big cities, small communities, red states, purple states, blue states—trying for some real environmental progress.