The best environmental blogs: Sp through Zz, or the terrible secret of Worldchanging Treehugger

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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.

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.

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

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