The best environmental blogs: Sp through Zz, or the terrible secret of Worldchanging Treehugger
November 30, 2006, 11:52 am by bottleman. Filed under: best environmental blogs, reviews.

This was the week that reviewing environmental blogs finally got me down. So much of the same same same, and weirdly enough, it was all so UP! Everything was positive. Groovy. Smooth like butta. I decided it was time to be critical, or at least questioning, of a few of the most popular environmental blogs, Treehugger and Worldchanging.

Before I start throwing down, I have to give props to the sites that kept me awake and interested — those unexpected blossoms — as I struggled through the fields of same old same.

photo by flickr user BPC, used under Creative Commons, see http://flickr.com/photos/bigpinkcookie/68027586/

Most appreciated, schizophrenic, and heroic in its own way was tangledwing — a blog whose mysterious auteur provides, in each post, both a sweet professional high-resolution image (often sized for use as computer wallpaper) and a link to an environmental news story or two.

It’s a combination that’s bizarre at first but really grows on you. Consider some of these actual post titles:

  • Red-winged blackbird, Time for chimney safety check

  • Retro holiday postcard wallpaper, Solar energy equals jobs

  • Leopard picture, Some thoughts on BMW hydrogen powered car

or my favorite:

  • Autumn Maple wallpaper, HDTV on the go, Elephants found to be descended from pig-like ancestors

You go, tangled one! I hope a million people read your blog and change their wallpaper every day. Certainly worse plans have been proposed.

Then there’s sprol, your guide to the “worst places in the world”.. copper mines, polluted river valleys, anywhere that’s getting totally trashed.

image from sprol, hosted by flickr

Sprol’s posts are infrequent but lengthy, more like activist briefing papers than anything else. Documentation in them is sometimes exhaustive, sometimes not. I can’t judge the accuracy of sprol’s material, but you’ve got to admire their stamina.

Then there were a whole mess of blogs that fell into several categories:

1) conscientious individuals trying to be news aggregators, sort of like some of the professional or corporate sites we’ve reviewed before;

2) conscientious individuals trying to announce and review green products, especially products in the areas of home architecture, design, and home economics;

3) conscientious individuals trying to live greener lives via their lifestyle and product choices.

It’s gonna be hard for a conscientious individual to really do a good job of news-aggregating. There’s just too much news and too little time. The other two categories, green products and lifestyle choices, are where all the action is. And really those categories mix and merge, because lifestyle choices often have analogs in product selection. (Am I the kind of person that drives a Yugo or a Yukon? Hmm.)For a purely personal lifestyle blog, you might want to check out Worsted Witch, whose crafty fiberwork pleasantly punctuates some otherwise heavy discussion of eco-correct lifestyle choices. For a design-oriented read, try Vestal Design’s blog, where it’s refreshing to find some designers who are actually interested in a wide-ranging swath of reality as well as the hygenic headspace of lines and colors.

But if you’re talking about product, design, and lifestyle blogs, you can’t ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Treehugger. As of this writing, an amazing 4253 blogs link to Treehugger. Worldchanging is sort of the gorilla’s chimp sidekick. Smaller, with 2089 links in, but real smart .. you can just tell.

photo by flickr user Sparky, under creative commons license, see http://flickr.com/photos/sparky18/135118312/

With numbers like that they must be doing something right. So let’s look at them all cool-like and figure out their essential qualities.

They both post frequently, which is good for keeping a reader base. And they’re both nicely designed, cramming a ton of stuff (including ads) on the page while remaining highly readable.

Treehugger, the most popular, has a really really big focus on “green” branded and marketed products, from clothing to jewelry to light bulbs to prefab houses. Tonight’s lead article is about the sale of an organic chocolate company. Worldchanging focuses a bit more on lifestyle choices, usually in the areas of architecture, planning, and transportation, and lingering a bit longer in the territory of what might be called “social justice.” Tonight’s top story is about “living in an urban cactus” — a groovy conceptual ecobuilding.

They’re both aggressively positive in their material and in their mission statements.

“If you want doom and gloom, this is not the place,” says Treehugger’s “About” page.

“We don’t do negative reviews – why waste your time with what doesn’t work?” says Worldchanging’s statement.

(I’ll tell you why, in a sec.)

I guess the relentless positivity is a good cure for that old vindictive kind of environmentalism: you are bad bad bad! die die die! or feel guilty guilty guilty!

I hate that too. And I agree that there are so many solutions out there that could be wonderful for the environment and people’s quality of life. Win-win.

But here’s the problem: without negativity, there is no perspective. There is no way for the reader to know which products and lifestyle choices are more meaningful than others. And there is no question that some are far more meaningful than others.

For example, Treehugger frequently advocates the use of compact fluorescent bulbs. While I’m all for them — I have several installed! — the authors’ enthusiasm is such that it makes the reader feel like they’re a hero for putting one in.

Readers want to make a difference and they’re looking at a web site like Treehugger as an authority. It’s not just a blog anymore, it’s a trusted source. In that role the posters really should provide a bit of perspective, such as the portion of electrical use actually represented by lighting (a slim 9% in the US).

Gaining that kind of perspective takes a few minutes — it’s basic reporting — but it would help readers learn what they want to know: what really makes a difference? For example that if they’re going to do something heroic around their house, their heating and cooling system would be the best target (31%) and their fridge (14%) the next. Individual light bulbs don’t make nearly as much impact, even if you replace them all, which is unlikely.

Sometimes I get the impression that authors on these sites just want to report on cool-sounding products. A recent guide to “greening your electricity” was a good public service, but the attempt at context, a statement that the “vast majority” of American electricity was coal generated, was simply wrong (look for my comment at the bottom). Remember, Treehugger, zillions of people are reading you. For their sake, you need to get basic facts right.

On a similar note of presentation vs. context, I don’t understand why the sale of one chocolate company to another is an important story. How does it help readers “be the change” as Treehugger’s title bar promises? Is the chocolate sale more or less important than green electricity?

Treehugger won’t tell you, because it doesn’t want to be negative. Anything that’s nominally a green product seems to be equally good on the site.

I think that needs to change. Treehugger’s audience is so large its writers can’t afford to just be cheerleaders anymore. Now big marketeers, such as GM and Shell, want the Treehugger sign of approval. In this post, a Treehugger writer discusses what he saw on a sponsored trip to the LA Auto Show. With that kind of access and popularity comes some journalistic responsibility.

There is one sign of hope. Treehugger’s Lloyd Alter recently picked up on the irony of green mcmansions, and has even written once or twice about it. Stay churlish, Lloyd! Negativity is the way to truth!

Over at Worldchanging, things are better and worse. They’re not so enamored with preposterously meaningless product launches, but they’re lost in hazy dreams of lifestyle changes. Posts are often long sensitive essays about conceptual issues of design — here’s one about street names — that leave the reader feeling as if they were inside one of those airy architectural renderings that are so lovely to look at, and never ever represent the final product.

However, at least one writer on Worldchanging had the guts to introduce the terrible secret that Treehugger’s reader’s will have to confront sooner or later: that all the lifestyle changes and organic chocolates in the world are probably not going to be enough to prevent some sort of massive ecological shift.

This notion is fairly easy to prove to yourself. Go to a web site that estimates your ecological footprint, as I did a month or two ago. Try to get your own footprint down to a “sustainable” level of “1.0 earths”. You can’t. If you do, it’s abject poverty — no transportation, crowded housing, limited food. It’s not something a Treehugger reader, or anyone really, would accept gladly. Organic chocolates, CFL bulbs, Prius cars, and all the other Treehugger fetish products are all fine things, and I’m for them, but they’re just inching us towards a sustainable world, when we need to take leaps and bounds.

All this doesn’t mean the world’s going to end. Or even that it’s going to be a bad place. It just means it’s going to change. I hope life in “Earth 2.0″ or whatever the next phase is, will have all of todays’ madness and wonder of life — something it can be too easy to forget about, sitting in front of a screen, reading blogs.

Which I am glad to say I’m done with for a while. :)

That’s my 2 cents! Cheers, bottleman.

# # #

moving on to the final round are: Worldchanging & Vestal Design




Thanks for the link up there- linkage is always appreciated.

I did the eco footprint once and was frightened by the results- however, your comments make sense too. You really can’t drop it down to a number of earths that at first glance is acceptable. It just doesn’t work. Realizing that makes me feel a little less guilty about taking up so many earths!

Comment by Debra on 30.11.2006 um 10:05 pm

Hi Debra! I think naturally there’s a sneaky little message behind those ecological footprint calculators, which is the issue of human population. Naturally if population was less, everybody’s footprint could be bigger, maybe even sustainable with a quality of life that most people would enjoy. But the “positive message” environmentalists hardly ever want to talk about population, even though it’s definitely the most relevant issue around. Of course i’m not advocating reducing population pro-actively … (in other words, killing). But policy changes now could affect the total population of the earth 20 or 50 years from now, and make a big diff to the ecological shift that’s gonna take place.

I’d say that all the stuff that places like treehugger advocate are good and fine — but that there’s not much sense wringing your hands over whether you meet all of them, since there’s no way they can be “enough” anyway. Nothing is really going to be “enough” to return the earth to conditions of 10 or 100 or 1000 years ago, which is kind of the implicit goal of most environmentalism, even a new-generation forum like treehugger.

Rather, we’re gonna be making an entirely new world as we try to ride out this ecological shift. The worldchanging site attaches itself to that idea a little (their tag line is “another world is here” ) but i’m not really sure they get how different it may be. The vision there is, what? One might call it “Europe for all.”  I think it will be far far weirder than that.
Anyway I’m blathering. Thanks for stopping by.

Comment by bottleman on 30.11.2006 um 11:40 pm

hey, i clicked on that link about mcmansions.  there was an interesting discussion in the comments:

I don’t get it. People who live in a big house but do things to use less energy are ridiculed here. Yet Laurie David, who owns not one but two mansions (in the Pacific Palisades and Martha’s Vineyard) and flies by private plane, is called a hero and treated like a saint. Make up your mind, Treehugger.

this gives me a good idea for a bottleworld feature. when you run out of environmental blogs to skewer, you can create a list of celebrity environmentalists, and write screeds about their flagrant energy consumption. basically, compare their lifestyle to their message, see how they measure up, and skewer as needed. it would be interesting to see if anyone actually measures up to their rhetoric. another interesting slant would be looking at other famous people who do live with a small footprint, but do not preach the green gospel. (notice how this is all me saying “someone else should do this” …)

re: cfl lightbulbs; you can save about 160+ lbs of carbon a year replacing a single 100 watt bulb with a 20 watt cfl bulb, and save money in the process. in contrast, i looked into a solar water heater, a heat pump, a new furnace, etc. those things take decades to pay off, plus by being an early adopter, you’re risking missing out on cheaper better technology that is not available yet. our windows were not cheap, but we needed new windows anyway.

Comment by peter on 05.12.2006 um 1:48 pm

I agree with your comment about the fact that there must be real change and I particularly agree about the value of negativity (which could be put differently as simply due diligence). Personally I find worldchanging and teehuggers oh-so-american compulsory smiliness a real turn off and a subtle hint/threat that you are not allowed to make a determined ATTACK on the system (ie corporate capitalism) as the major single problem. Of course it’s OK to suggest they are doing it wrong, but don’t suggest the entire system is fundamentally flawed and incapable of ever getting it right – after all, consumerism/corporate capitalism is the great US cultural project and the foundation of US cultural identity. (Incidentally, I think parts of the system can adapt or be adapted even if much of it is headed for the knackery)

The feeling I get from much sustainability commentary is a desire to maintain the current world by tinkering with the settings a bit and it just ain’t going to be like that. For starters almost every form of political and social organisation will change, radically and inevitably. The only thing you can be sure of is that most of it will begin with the adaptive reuse of the technology and social forms that exist already (which is why we started our blog http://adaptivereuse.net to do a running commentary on that evolution), it will all happen through a form of rapid evolution with ad hoc-ery piled on ad hoc-ery in most cases. In defence of worldchanging and treehugger, maybe they are the first footholds on that ladder for most people, especially those who can only view life through the ideology of consumerism and therefore can only see change as a change to consumerism.

Comment by Ian Milliss on 30.12.2006 um 6:22 pm

Wow, Ian, thanks for the very thoughtful comment and picture-filled blog (I blogrolled you for what it’s worth).

The feeling I get from much sustainability commentary is a desire to maintain the current world by tinkering with the settings a bit and it just ain’t going to be like that.

Yes, absolutely. The implicit message is that we can hang on to what we have with just a nip and a tuck and a whole bunch of products from some green version of Target. Which is absurd, the more you think about it. The magnitude of changes that have been set in motion are just too large… climate change, population growth, habitat alteration… the world in 50 or 100 years is going to be very different. Once I realized that I actually felt kind of liberated. I was like, “Okay, I’ve got to let go of my dream of the frontier past.” Which then gave me room to start dreaming about how cool the future could be once freed from that dream. For me it turned environmental thinking away from a “conservative” “prudish” mode (that primarily said NO DON’T DO THAT) to a creative mode (that primarily said, OKAY, HOW CAN WE DO THAT?)

In defence of worldchanging and treehugger, maybe they are the first footholds on that ladder for most people, especially those who can only view life through the ideology of consumerism and therefore can only see change as a change to consumerism.

Yes, we must give them credit for shifting the focus away from the old doom and gloom and guilt-trip style of “traditional” environmentalism (at least in America). All their product listings really do counter a tragic misconception from the past … that doing good by the environment meant suffering in your personal life… like when President Carter turned down the thermostat in the White House and wore a sweater. There’s no reason living some more environmentally sensitive way can’t be just as pleasant.

My problem is that the discussion pretty much stops there. That was fine when Treehugger and Worldchanging were just regular blogs, but now they’ve become “authorities” by virtue of their popularity. They owe their audience a little more, IMHO of course.

Say, speaking of adaptive reuse, have you though much about genetic engineering? I think it’s going to be a huge part of the way our world transforms.

Comment by bottleman on 30.12.2006 um 8:47 pm

Thanks for the link, we’re doing a bit of new year restructuring including expanding our links so we’ll return the compliment real soon. Your site is very impressive. I think the most individual bloggers (or small groups like us) can do is provide a distinctive critical voice which you do very well.

But back to the topic, I’d add another big name and that is Joel Makower. His uncritical belief in market solutions could come straight from a neo-con textbook. As an Australian looking at the US from the outside (I have spent time there) it is always shocking to see supposed progressives like Makower who are nonetheless permeated with right wing individualist ideology. Right now we should be cherry picking ideas from every political ideology. The Europeans are better at that, much more free thinking. So I was interested to see this post yesterday on Gristmill http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/12/31/104751/62 about learning to love the nanny state. That’s a step in the right direction – governments are the only large scale organisations that we have even the remotest chance of controlling – even if it doesn’t look too good right now.

Secondly, on positivism, having been involved in these issues for decades now we’re over doom and gloom long ago. Without wanting to sound like the inane positivism I criticised earlier, things are now so inconceivably bad that they’re good. I suppose it’s a bit like being diagnosed with a fatal disease, suddenly life’s trivialities disappear. I feel that humanity’s catastrophic position means we’ve been given this enormous privilege, the freedom to propose and discuss almost anything . I genuinely feel that every new mega-problem is an amazing opportunity to do something interesting. It may be over for humanity but that’s not certain and we want to go down fighting for imagination and creativity, the only things that may save us (and not just humans, I feel a deep seated shame for our failure to show care for other species). But we are not prepared to waste one iota of imagination on keeping things going the way they are, we are only interested in how the world as it is now can be warped into something else. That means being brutally tough minded and critical, not the Pollyana approach that global capitalism will push till the very end.

Re genetic engineering, I agree that the simplistic responses are not good enough. We’ve been collecting links to write more about it. There’s no doubt that when used to extend corporate power, as in the case of food crops, it’s a disaster, but in the meantime our race is inadvertently engineering massive change by the destruction of diversity and entire habitats (eg all of the Arctic…who would ever have imagined that?) so any idea that there is a moral imperative to maintain some pristine world untouched by human genetic tinkering is now an absurdity. As usual I hope and work towards the best while planning for the worst.

Hope this isn’t too long and windy a reply.

Comment by Ian Milliss on 01.01.2007 um 9:55 pm

Thank you for your comments about TreeHugger. I am usually churlish about once a day, and a lot of comments you make are true. CFL’s are an example: most of our readers are young and not all have control over their fridge or their furnace. For most of us the only things we can control are the light bulbs we use, the food we eat, the water we consume and the way we get around. It is, in the grander scheme of things, less important than how much coal China is burning, but it is a start and it is personal. That first step leads to greater awareness; When you look at the UK or Canada where that start is turning into political action, you see that they are very important small individual steps that will lead to big things.

You are also right about us being quoted as authorities. I statement I made about bamboo not being the perfect was picked up flooring material was picked up by the New York Times, no less. We are working a lot harder at making sure that we know what we are talking about. I keep George Monbiot on my desk at all times to remind me of the seriousness of the crisis we face, but it will do no good if we scare everybody away.

Comment by Lloyd Alter on 02.01.2007 um 2:01 pm

It’s a very pertinent point that consumption is the only part of their lives that many people have control over. It’s also a heart-breakingly sad indictment of global capitalism and it’s accompanying alienation and social brainwashing.

Treehugger and similar lifestyle sites can encourage critical (rather than passive) consumption. Hopefully that may also create more educated people who will become politically active.

But after that a whole tougher approach is needed to continue to create an unaligned mass movement (not a mass panic!) that can intimidate politicians throughout the world into acting as rapidly as possible. Right now politicians don’t fear voters, they despise them, but they fear corporations simply because corporate control of the media can be used to destroy their careers if they ever step out of line. We have to make both politicians and corporations fear our media even more, and that is not easy given that our media is itself subject to corporate control. Lots of fun ahead!

Comment by Ian Milliss on 02.01.2007 um 6:15 pm

Hey Lloyd, thanks so much for stopping by and responding. You’re a big man for that. I wish I had more time for a thoughtful response but I’ve suddenly become embroiled in a major paid job that will slow my activity on this site for the next several months. I’ll check back in with Treehugger and perhaps with you then. Happy new year! bottleman.

Comment by bottleman on 02.01.2007 um 7:14 pm

I thought that I would let you know about my new environmental blog that doesn’t fit so neatly in your listed categories. It is very very practical (hard for an academic!) and encourages people to better their own personal environment. It provides practical information and answers to environmental health questions. Check out http://ecohelper.blogspot.com. I would be curious to know what you think.

Comment by ProfHelen on 05.01.2007 um 9:50 pm

Wondefully thoughtful post and comments! I agree with much of what has been said – on both sides of the issue.

As a social constructionist, my belief is that we both create and make sense of “reality” in relation and in conversation. The key contribution of Web2.0 is its ability to support these kinds of relationships and conversations among disparate and geographically dispersed people. So very cool that we have these blogs and social networking tools – thanks to all of you who are speaking out (and listening in)!

Is the happy talk limited and one-sided? Yes, probably. But it attracts an audience that is optimistic and energetic and wants to “do something.” There’s nothing wrong with that – it meets those folks where they are and begins their education.

Does doom-and-gloom, end-of-the-world, apocalyptic naysaying have its place? Yes, it creates that “burning platform” that motivates people and organizations to change. However, over-reliance on it leads to long-term “compassion fatigue” and a sense of nihilism – nothing matters, nothing I do is going to change anything, so why bother?

Maybe it is the dynamic of this “positive” and “negative” conversation, this creative tension, that will help us generate a collective, shared vision of the future that will pull (as opposed to push) us forward.

We stand on the edge of chaos. It’s a scary place, AND the potential for generating new ways of thinking, being, and doing is maximal for those who have the courage to recognize it and the capacity to stay in it.

Again – great conversation. Thank you!

Comment by Tina Kreminski on 07.01.2007 um 10:07 am

Glad to have served you. :) cheers, bottleman.

Comment by bottleman on 07.01.2007 um 2:15 pm

This opinion piece on grist http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2007/1/8/17593/71594 has implications for this discussion.

Comment by Ian Milliss on 09.01.2007 um 12:02 am

ever read the blog by No Impact Man….that one is my personal favorite, because he hits with real realities, while always keeping his blog positive somehow…it never makes you feel overwhelmed or guilty..

Comment by Kim Henderson on 30.12.2007 um 8:04 am