J500 Media and the Environment

After all’s said and done by bendcohen

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect when beginning a class on Media and the Environment.  Those are two very broad things that obviously have a relationship, but finding an interesting way to discuss that relationship in a semester-long college course could be difficult.  In order to really understand the way that mass media  and the environment are connected, the right way to do it in such a time frame is to focus on a specific area, and as I quickly discovered, that is what we were doing.  Admittedly, it is not one which I considered myself well-versed in.

I always hear about the importance of buying local, for the economic reasons if nothing else.  Buy local food, and you support people in your community, while reducing the power and influence of corporate giants like Wal-Mart.  Having once won $50 for making a poster making fun of Wal-Mart (their smiley-face logo had dollar signs for eyes, and the slogan became “Everyday Low Morals”), I’m obviously quite enthusiastic about this.  What I got a grasp on from reading about the various aspects of local foods was that there are many more affects to take pride in, beyond simply malicious joy at harming a chain store.

Local food systems provide the potential for work, community bonding, and healthy diets in places they otherwise would not be.  Food producers with a smaller market to worry about do not need to take such a concern with mass-production, and thus have less problems with animal cruelty, overuse of pesticides and antibiotics, and disruption of nearby communities.  I found it strangely appropriate that the Pitch, a Kansas City-based free magazine, published a story about  a major pork-producer in Missouri losing a court case regarding how the smell from its plant disrupted the lives of the people living nearby right after we discussed major meat producers in class.

That brings us to the “Media” aspect of this class.  While the focus of in-class discussions was often on local food itself, everything was prompted by an article either on a blog or a major media outlet.  Having briefly flirted with becoming a Journalism major early in my college career (I happily went with Political Science instead), the role the media plays as a gatekeeper in any subject interests me.  The semester previous to this one, I took a class on Media and Politics, and got to examine how media outlets, both big and small, portray people and issues.  I started this class curious about the kinds of rhetoric I’d hear regarding the environment within mass media, though my attention sort of shifted to simply WHO was covering food systems.  I mentioned the Pitch, a decidedly alternative publication before, and have noticed that most places which give food the time of day are also smaller, “alternative” sources.  When a major outlet like NPR or the New York Times pays attention, it is in the form of a special interest story, or a response to something else (like a critical NPR review of “Food, Inc.”, from somebody who soon learned had yet to actually see that film).

The sole promotional image from my short-lived campaign for Governor of Kansas.

As a small player in the news media myself, I’m going to be looking with more interest having taken this class at how food is portrayed from here on.  And as a wannabe politician, maybe I’ll get to have a say in the things that make the news someday.  Time will tell.

~Ben C.

Cooshy on your Tooshy by amandat09

It’s something you don’t really think about… unless you’re using it. We’ve all noticed uncomfortable, rough toilet paper before, whether it’s at a restaurant or somewhere on campus. It’s easy not to think about the price of the soft, comfy toilet paper if that’s what you’re used to. But the environmental costs of the softest brands will make you think twice next time you need to go.


Greenpeace recently put out a Tissue Guide that ranks different toilet paper brands based on their recycled content and impact on the environment. In order to get the soft, plush toilet paper most Americans prefer, you have to get fiber from standing trees. This can often lead to cutting down old-growth trees in rainforests for nothing but the use of toilet paper. An article in the New York Times said that European countries were usually satisfied with rougher toilet paper, and used toilet paper with almost explusively recycled content. Why isn’t think something we accept, and why isn’t it something people think about more?

The Greenpeace guide said Americans could save more than 400,000 trees if each family bought just one roll of recycled toilet paper. One roll? That doesn’t seem so hard. I think a lot of people, myself included sometimes, can get stuck in a green “rut,” thinking that recycling cans and using canvas bags are the only things we can do to help the environment. But there’s always something else you can do to help the environment last, even if it’s just wiping your…. ya know.


Global warming doesn’t kill people. Blogs do. by Lauren Keith

Photo by Tayseer, flickr.com

It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your readers are?

They’re right here, you post procrastinator. They are breathing down your avatar’s neck, expectantly drooling on their keyboards, just waiting for you to hit the almighty “save” button.

You’ve been slaving away over a hot CPU all damn day, but in the world of the ever-impending deadline, readers don’t give a ctrl-alt-del.

The New York Times reported Sunday that two well-known technology bloggers suffered from heart attacks and have gone to meet their maker (presumably Al Gore).

It seems the stress of approaching deadlines is taking its toll everywhere.

Mother Nature knows for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for the (environment).

I fear the sixth great mass extinction will begin soon, this time arising from the deaths of environmentalists suffering from green fatigue.

We rush around: turning off the lights, unplugging unused toasters and TVs, digging through the garbage to find one man’s trash that’s another man’s trip to the recycling center and being a vegetarian even when your friends force you to join them for a Buffalo Wild Wings dinner.

But what satisfaction do we get, especially when we come home to find that our roommate has single-handedly chopped down the entire Amazon rainforest and transported its chipboard brothers and sisters to our living room?

The non-organic, petroleum-derived Doritos bag was my addition to this trip down the Amazon Trail.

With global warming putting an impending deadline on the survival of the human race, we need to take a step back before we hit “save” on our daily actions.

People demand news, now, never-ending. As bloggers, we need to make the climate crisis relevant but not redundant, to remember our deadline and to remind readers of theirs.

Don’t forget that you can stop and breathe for a second, but please divert your CO2 elsewhere.

—Lauren Keith

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Chew on this! by rarab

As synchronicity would have it, I’ve stumbled upon a number of recent articles that tie in perfectly with our current discussion about food consumption and environmental awareness. I realize that the last thing my fellow classmates need is another reading assignment, but I think these stories are particularly enlightening–and in most cases highly entertaining, so I hope you’ll at least give them a quick scan. Still, to make sure this doesn’t cut into your ability to watch the Rock of Love 2 “Mud Bowl” in its entirety, I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the passages that I think best address the issues we’ve been discussing–and I’ve bolded the key points to help showcase the main arguments. So here goes…Yesterday, when I got home, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my latest issue of The New Yorker magazine featured a major story on the attempts of some companies within the British food industry to create labeling listing a particular food item’s carbon footprint:

[Terry Leahy, CEO of British supermarket chain Tesco] announced that Tesco would cut its energy use in half by 2010, drastically limit the number of products it transports by air, and place airplane symbols on the packaging of those which it does. More important, in an effort to help consumers understand the environmental impact of the choices they make every day, he told the forum that Tesco would develop a system of carbon labels and put them on each of its seventy thousand products. “Customers want us to develop ways to take complicated carbon calculations and present them simply,” he said. “We will therefore begin the search for a universally accepted and commonly understood measure of the carbon footprint of every product we sell—looking at its complete life cycle, from production through distribution to consumption. It will enable us to label all our products so that customers can compare their carbon footprint as easily as they can currently compare their price or their nutritional profile.”

Leahy’s sincerity was evident, but so was his need to placate his customers. Studies have consistently demonstrated that, given a choice, people prefer to buy products that are environmentally benign. That choice, however, is almost never easy. “A carbon label will put the power in the hands of consumers to choose how they want to be green,” Tom Delay, the head of the British government’s Carbon Trust, said. “It will empower us all to make informed choices and in turn drive a market for low-carbon products.” Tesco was not alone in telling people what it would do to address the collective burden of our greenhouse-gas emissions. Compelled by economic necessity as much as by ecological awareness, many corporations now seem to compete as vigorously to display their environmental credentials as they do to sell their products.

However, as the article goes on to say, developing that universally accepted standard of carbon labeling is no easy task:

In order to develop the label for Walkers [British potato chips], researchers had to calculate the amount of energy required to plant seeds for the ingredients (sunflower oil and potatoes), as well as to make the fertilizers and pesticides used on those potatoes. Next, they factored in the energy required for diesel tractors to collect the potatoes, then the effects of chopping, cleaning, storing, and bagging them. The packaging and printing processes also emit carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as does the petroleum used to deliver those crisps to stores. Finally, the research team assessed the impact of throwing the empty bags in the trash, collecting the garbage in a truck, driving to a landfill, and burying them. In the end, the researchers—from the Carbon Trust—found that seventy-five grams of greenhouse gases are expended in the production of every individual-size bag of potato chips.

“Crisps are easy,” Murlis had told me. “They have only one important ingredient, and the potatoes are often harvested near the factory.” We were sitting in a deserted hotel lounge in Central London, and Murlis stirred his tea slowly, then frowned. “Let’s just assume every mother cares about the environment—what then?” he asked. “Should the carbon content matter more to her than the fat content or the calories in the products she buys?”

But, of course, every story on the environment MUST include the counterpoint argument, and this story is no exception:

“It’s a foolish concept: provincial, damaging, and simplistic.” [Adrian] Williams is an agricultural researcher in the Natural Resources Department of Cranfield University, in England. He has been commissioned by the British government to analyze the relative environmental impacts of a number of foods. “The idea that a product travels a certain distance and is therefore worse than one you raised nearby—well, it’s just idiotic,” he said. “It doesn’t take into consideration the land use, the type of transportation, the weather, or even the season. Potatoes you buy in winter, of course, have a far higher environmental ticket than if you were to buy them in August.” Williams pointed out that when people talk about global warming they usually speak only about carbon dioxide. Making milk or meat contributes less CO2 to the atmosphere than building a house or making a washing machine. But the animals produce methane and nitrous oxide, and those are greenhouse gases, too. “This is not an equation like the number of calories or even the cost of a product,’’ he said. “There is no one number that works.”

Fair enough. The article goes on to say much more, and I highly recommend reading it, but I’ll leave it at that for now. Meanwhile, I also wanted to share an excerpt from this wonderful interview with Food Guru Michael Pollan:

OR: In some ways, this book seemed to make the case for the “shock doctrine” of the food industry. There’s this notion that what’s bad for us is good for the industry.

MP: There is a disconnect between the economic imperatives of the food industry and the biological imperatives of the human eater. You make money in the food industry by processing food as much as possible. It’s very hard to make money selling whole foods as they grow. They’re too cheap and common; farmers are too productive. The price of commodities is always falling.

But if you process food, you then have a way to add value to it. For example, it’s very hard to make money selling oats. Very simple grain, really good for you. I can buy organic oats for .79 cents a pound. That’s a big bag of oats. But there’s little money in it for anyone. If you turn those oats into Cheerios, there’s a lot more money in it. Suddenly, you have your intellectual property, your little design, donut-shaped cereal, you have a convenience food, you just have to add milk, you don’t have to cook it anymore and you can charge about four or five dollars for much less than a pound of oats. So that’s a good business.

But in fact, over time, those Cheerios will turn into a commodity, too, and all the supermarkets will have their store brand and it will be hard to expand your market and grow. So what do you do? You go up the next level of processing, and you make honey nut Cheerios cereal bars. These new bars that have a layer of synthetic milk through the middle and the idea is that it’s a bowl of cereal that you could eat dry in the school bus or in the car.

OR: You have a way of making that sound really unappealing.

MP: They really are. Look at the ingredients on the label — it will say “made with real milk.” Check out what the real milk is. It’s ten ingredients that include some powdered milk and a lot of other strange things. But then you’re selling a few ounces of oats for a great many dollars. By the pound, you’ve taken that 79 cents, and my guess is you’re up to 10 or 20 dollars a pound for your oats because you’ve added all of this excitement and novelty.

And then you go up another level: Now you have these cereal straws. You take that oat material, and you extrude it through some machine that turns it into a straw and then you line that with that fake milk product. Then your children sip milk through it and you feel virtuous because you’re increasing their milk consumption. But at every step of the way, this food has gotten less nutritious. None of them are as healthy as that bowl of oatmeal, and the reason is, the more you process food, the less nutrients it has unless you add them back in. And even if you try to add them back in, you’re only going to add in the stuff you know is missing. There are other things you don’t know about because nutrition science doesn’t see them yet.

So that’s the capitalist imperative behind food. The fact is we would be better off with the oatmeal. The industry has many tricks to make sure we don’t eat the oatmeal. One is to market the wonders of these processed products. The other is to convince us we’re too busy to cook. And they’re very good at that. If you look at the picture of American life, family life on view in food commercials for television, you would think it’s this frenetic madhouse in every household in America, where the idea of cooking is absolutely inconceivable.

Yet, at the same time, there are images of people lounging in front of the television, doing their email and doing all sorts of other things, but there’s simply no time to cook. I think we’ve been sold this bill of goods that cooking is this heroic thing that only happens on special occasions.

Finally, I’d like to share this article from the Feb. 13th New York Times (“I Love You, But You Eat Meat”). The story is about couples with different eating habits (vegans living with meat-eaters, vegetarians and those who observe kosher practices, etc.) It was meant as a cute Valentine’s Day piece about opposites attracting, I suppose, but it also had some themes that resonated with our current discussion about diets–and tolerance. Here’s what I thought was the best passage:

Food has a strong subconscious link to love, said Kathryn Zerbe, a psychiatrist who specializes in eating disorders at Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. That is why refusing a partner’s food “can feel like rejection,” she said.

As with other differences couples face, tolerance and compromise are essential at the dinner table, marital therapists said. “If you can’t allow your partner to have latitude in what he or she eats, then maybe your problem isn’t about food,” said Susan Jaffe, a psychiatrist in Manhattan.

Dynise Balcavage, 42, an associate creative director at an advertising agency and vegan who lives in Philadelphia, said she has been happily married to her omnivorous husband, John Gatti, 53, for seven years.

“We have this little dance we’ve choreographed in the kitchen,” she said. She prepares vegan meals and averts her eyes when he adds anchovies or cheese. And she does not show disapproval when he orders meat in a restaurant.

“I’m not a vegangelical,” she said. “He’s an adult and I respect his choices just as he respects mine.”

Okay, so that’s all the food for thought (sorry) I’m dishing out for now. Sorry for the long post (I think I just slightly went over 250 words), but I hope it inspires discussion–or at the very least, I hope it makes you think twice about the food you consume.



Caption: An excessive carbon footprint has become the equivalent of wearing a scarlet letter. Photograph by Horacio Salinas.

M.I.L.G. (Mothers I’d Like to Green) by acbowman
February 16, 2008, 8:46 am
Filed under: Fashion + Beauty, Society + Media | Tags: , , , ,

I saw this article in the New York Times this morning and thought it was a good story about finding other voices in the green movement.

As Bryan Welch was saying last class, one way to forward the conversation of the environment is to find a community of people and a related value that has positive eco effects. For Natural Home, that was getting mothers to talk about the health of the products in their home. And products that are healthy for us, are most likely healthy for the planet.

The New York Times article was interesting because unlike a magazine which is in some ways a one way conversation, the eco groups in the article were an actual community talking and enlightening eachother.

What is most important about this community though, is the power they wield. Not only in the immediate decisions of family purchase, but in the habits and values distilled in their children.

Ms. Pinkson and her colleagues are well aware of “the mom demographic,” as they call it, in which, according to surveys for the Boston Consulting Group, women say they “influence or control” 80 percent of discretionary household purchases. Thus far, their thrust has been more about being green consumers than taking political action.

Any ideas on how we get men to be more pro-active?