Pop Culture: The Green Invasion

From eco-friendly films to progressive podcasts, Plenty picks the best in summer entertainment

No Static at All

IT’S EASY TO BE A PODCASTER (microphone: check! laptop: check! Internet connection: check!), and as hot as global warming to be an ecophile. Combine these two phenomena and you’ve got an influx of enviro-themed radio shows of decidedly mixed quality. Take More Hip Than Hippie: its two female hosts, Dori and Val, offer practical tips on environmental topics, but you’ve got to sit through a half hour of their uninspired anecdotes about family life or other minutiae first. Try though they might, Dori and Val can’t maintain the comic juice in their off-the-cuff repartee—something that (like them or not) Click and Clack of NPR’s Car Talk have perfected in nearly three decades on the air.

There’s also audio spam masquerading as eco-radio. Doing Well While Doing Good, a podcast categorized in iTunes as an environmental show, turns out to be a construction supplier soliciting investors to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (from the company’s owner: “We think our share price is going to quadruple in the next 45 days.”)

Then there are the vegan pocasts, or more specifically Go Vegan with Bob Linden, which offers up food-related news tidbits sprinkled among heavy doses of moralizing about the ethical failures of omnivores. Hosts like Linden can’t negotiate the fine line between satirizing meat-eaters and, well, skewering them, which not only plays into the hands of anti-environmentalists, but also turns off otherwise sympathetic listeners. Why bother mocking an easy target like figure skater Sasha Cohen (a spokesperson for the beef industry), whose awkward falls during the Winter Olympics were gleefully recounted on another vegan podcast, Erik’s Diner, when there are legitimate animal rights issues to report on?

To be fair, vegans are also easy targets (“I’d sure be pissed off if I couldn’t eat bacon,” etc.) and podcasts are tough to produce on a shoestring. Still, all this new static makes the eco-news hunter hunger for a show that offers substance: namely, a traditional radio program. Enter NPR’s Living on Earth (LOE), the longest-running radio show devoted entirely to environmental issues. In its 15-plus years, host Steve Curwood and his staff have reported on every topic in the eco-sphere with authority, conviction, and an appropriate amount of nuance. It may not be in vogue to dig oldschool, old-media NPR, but NPR’s got LOE, and LOE gets eco-issues right.

The high standards set by LOE (which is broadcast on more than 300 NPR stations, reaches 80 percent of the country, and yes, is available as a podcast at loe.org) can be traced to Curwood himself. Before launching the show, he had been a Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative reporter at the Boston Globe and host of NPR’s Weekend All Things Considered. He was raised in Massachusetts and Ohio, and spent much of his childhood on a family farm in southern New Hampshire (where he now lives) and at a 1,000-acre wooded preserve at Antioch College, where his mother, a scientist and birder, taught for years. LOE was in equal measures a career move and a way for Curwood, who once aspired to be a biomedical engineer, to reconnect with his earlier interests. “I’d just finished a book and my agent said, ‘Why not write about the environment next? That’s a hot topic,’” he says. “So I started looking into climate change research, and my hair practically stood on end. I realized that the environment touches on science, politics, culture, religion, race—every topic you could ever report on. And I thought, no one’s doing this on the radio.” That was in the late 1980s, before Al Gore published Earth in the Balance, and long before Clinton, Gore, or Bush made environmental protection—or at least the idea of it—a campaign issue. The first LOE broadcast took place in the spring of 1990; the show has been running continuously since April 1991.

Over the years Curwood has paid the price for a few of his stories. “We lost some stations over endocrine disrupters,” he says, referring to LOE’s ongoing coverage of chemicals that tinker with the normal functioning of hormones, which some chemical companies objected to. But far from being one-sided, Curwood and LOE’s reporters regularly feature skeptics and detractors of environmental issues. He hopes the media will step up coverage of water (“we can replace oil with other energy sources, but if we don’t have clean water, we’re all in trouble”) and is still troubled by what he calls continued “shakiness” about climate change. “I felt embarrassed that we [journalists] took a long time to understand that a broad trend in scientific data can be real,” says Curwood, “even though the trend doesn’t mean that scientists can predict temperatures or specific climate changes.” The reporting has gotten better, he says, but there’s room for improvement.

Curwood is gratified to see the eco-beat getting more street cred these days. “People used to say environmental journalism was nothing more than advocacy,” he says. “Yet no one ever criticizes sports reporters for, say, caring about baseball. There’s greater acceptance now that reporters can cover news about the environment without pushing a particular point of view.” He’s also remarkably upbeat about the future of the planet. “A hundred years ago we were killing whales and using their oil in lamps for light, so our use of solar power or biodiesel is just a natural evolution of our knowledge,” he says. “We’re coming up with terrific solutions to the challenges we face. And the more scientists study our biological responses to nature and other species, the more they understand that making those connections is not just good in a mumbojumbo, PC kind of way—it actually enriches our mental state and improves the human condition. Where else can you get that kind of good news?”

Where else indeed? Some radio programs are just talk. Thankfully some, like Living on Earth, have something to say.

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Issue 25

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