Mourning the loss of the Ecologist
Richard Lemmer | 18.06.12
We feel privileged to have Pat Thomas, former editor of The Ecologist magazine, debating the future of The Ecologist - will it be a Resurgence or do we need something completely different?
The announcement was so small and quiet, and some might say so cynically timed to be buried in the Jubilee madness, that many people didn't really register what happened. The Ecologist, the world’s oldest and most respected environmental magazine – for the last three years a website only – had ‘merged' with Resurgence magazine. Decades ago, Resurgence began as an offshoot of the Ecologist and some say it is a marriage made in heaven. Others, like nuclear apologist Mark Lynas, dismissed it as “wacky meets woo”.
Here's another perspective from someone who actually worked there: whatever this new hybrid becomes we have still lost something precious and irreplaceable.
At heart the Ecologist stood for independence – in thought and action. In the office, as well as in print, it had a culture of challenge that many found difficult. In many ways it operated more like a think tank where every thought could be questioned, every assumption tested, every opinion disputed.This was part of what made the editorial so compelling and courageous and ahead of the curve.
The Ecologist always tried to align itself with those at the leading edge. Each issue was filled with impassioned, intelligent, courageous analyses and critiques of a world that had gone ‘gaga’ over GM, nuclear power, economic growth, medical ‘miracles’, and the intoxicating milieu of corporate power, whilst ignoring the fallout of these things: the devastation caused by pollution, displacement of indigenous people, loss of culture and quality of life, the rape of the natural world.
It takes courage to stand up against the oppressive enthusiasms of popular culture. And the Ecologist was courageous – probably more so than anyone on the outside could ever imagine.
It was run on a shoestring with a tiny staff and yet always managed to punch above its weight, taking on international giants like Monsanto, de Beers, Tate & Lyle and Roche amongst others. Not even our compatriots in the green movement were spared; eco chimera like biofuels, ‘green’ consumerism, eco plastic, carbon footprinting and the corporatisation of organics all came under its critical eye.
When legal challenges came our way we never backed down – even while knowing that a loss could close the magazine. Indeed, the idea of closing the magazine – in a world where it was no longer necessary – was at least part of what kept us going.
While other media outlets busied themselves currying political favour, tapping phones, hacking emails and building monuments to the greatness of their boards of directors and executives, we were consciously angling for our own mortality.
Were we protected from the ‘realities’ of magazine publishing? Sometimes. For most of its life the Ecologist never had to kowtow to advertisers or big business, but relied instead on subscription income and the support of the Goldsmith family. Were we privileged? Certainly. But privileged in the sense that our owners understood what the magazine was for, and how best to achieve its aims. They understood the importance of independence and the price – fiscally, but also in terms of popular opinion – of that independence.
Try to run some of the groundbreaking pieces the Ecologist ran in any other newspaper or magazine and the story would be killed by the legal department before it ever saw the light of day.
Our solicitor, on the other hand, a libel specialist, cheerfully encouraged us to publish and be damned, knowing what most of us know instinctively – that all bullies are cowards.
So now that it’s gone in all but name, what’s next for the environmental media?
It’s probably fair to say that both the Ecologist and Resurgence have lost their way in recent years. Whether the merger will stimulate mutual support and a renewed vision or end up being a case the lost following the lost only time will tell.
When the dust settles we may find that an autopsy of all that has happened will reveal serious flaws, and way too many assumptions, about the benefits of the online pay per view business model. Considering how broad the environmental sector is it is remarkable how quickly this particular model failed to make a difference to the Ecologist’s fortunes.
But there is also a cautionary tale about knowing, and perhaps more importantly respecting, your readers’ needs. People who call themselves environmentalists comprise a group that doesn’t fit easily into traditional demographics. Campaigner Paul Hawken called it a movement without a leader and indeed it’s not education, nor income, nor consumer habits, nor any other specious social measurement that unites this group. It’s a desire for a fairer, saner, more sustainable world.
That’s a broad ask and navigating it requires the kind of curated experience that can’t be found in the free-for-all of a conventional website. Only a magazine can provide this and when the subject matter is complex or challenging readers want, above all, something that they can hold in their hands and absorb whilst sitting in the familiar comfort of their favourite chair, or the bath or on the train – not something they have to snatch between bitefuls of a working lunch. Tablets and e-readers may, ironically, end up being the saviour of the environmental movement.
When all is said and done, it takes a little bit of grit to produce a pearl. We need more Ecologists to get under the skin, to irritate and chafe against our culture’s complacency until a better world starts to emerge. Whether the Resurgence/Ecologist marriage can achieve this remains to be seen.
Pat Thomas is a journalist, author and campaigner. You can find more of her writing on her website, www.howlatthemoon.org.uk, and www.culinaryanthropologist.org.
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