Earth Island Journal: Finding Solutions to Protect the Planet


When it came to journalism, Dave Brower had a rule: Don’t just present problems; present solutions. For 16 years, it was my honor to helm the Journal as it became both a tool to communicate information and a means to promote solutions.

Some history: The original Earth Island crew worked with Dave at the San Francisco office of Friends of the Earth (FOE). In the mid-1980s, FOE’s San Francisco and Washington, DC offices were split by a cost-cutting dispute. The DC office wanted to terminate FOE’s activist projects and concentrate on lobbying. Dave likened the decision to amputating the organization’s legs.

Hoping to forestall the cuts, Dave created a full-page “Save the Team!” ad for FOE’s newsmagazine, Not Man Apart. The ad featured photos of staff whose projects faced termination, including Pesticide Action Network and Rainforest Action Network. There was one problem: Dave lacked DC’s authorization to issue a direct appeal to members. Consequently, the operation took on covert overtones. In my capacity as the magazine’s art director, I worked with editor Tom Turner to create a “dummy” news page. At the last minute, we substituted Dave’s “public appeal.”

It almost worked, but a member of the DC team was in town when the issue arrived. As a dolly filled with the new issue passed by, he idly grabbed a copy. Minutes later, a loud oath issued from his office and the entire print-run was ordered destroyed. The SF office was eventually closed. At a final meeting, Dave asked if anyone wanted to keep working under the banner of a new organization – Earth Island Institute.

Dave Phillips, John Knox, and I convened for lunch and, with a flourish of sharpened pencils, mapped out a new publication on a paper-covered table. “Let’s get cheap computers into the hands of activists around the world,” I proposed, “and invite them to file stories.” EcoNet News, “The World’s First Computer Network for the Environment,” soon appeared in Earth Island Journal. It was an innovation that prefigured the arrival of the Internet.

Earth Island Journal debuted in 1986 as “An International Environmental News Magazine” whose mission was to “scan the horizon for early signs of danger” and call attention to problems that had not yet become “issues.” Over the years, a growing community of writers (both unpublished activists and celebrity authors) produced dazzling stories, several of which won Project Censored Awards. The Journal was repeatedly honored with UTNE magazine’s Independent Press Award for Best Environmental Coverage and the Alternative Press Award for Best Scientific and Environmental Reporting.

Among the early Journal’s notable cover stories: “The Climes They Are A-Changing” (one of the first major warnings about climate change); “Chernobyls in Space” (exposing US plans to place small reactors in orbit); “Devastation in the Deserts” (which eerily predicted the oil fires and pollution of the Gulf War); “Project HAARP: The Military’s Plan to Alter the Ionosphere” (an exposé that lead to cuts in the project’s budget and a front-page story in The Washington Post); and “The Coming Paper Drought” (which exposed the environmental impacts of printing).

In 1994, the Journal became the first US magazine to go “tree-free” – publishing on paper made from kenaf, a fast-growing plant that required no chemicals and little water. When I showed Dave a video of the first tree-free magazines rolling off the presses at Alonzo Printing, he slapped his fist on his living room table and announced: “This is important, damn it!” Exposing a problem and supplying a solution was transformative. The Journal’s tree-free initiative led to a new Earth Island project (ReThink Paper), and Dave’s next book (Let the Mountains Talk, Let the Rivers Run) became the first book published on tree-free paper. The Journal’s pioneering advocacy of soy-based ink also helped revolutionize the printing industry.

After our initial tree-free printing grant expired, we followed Dave’s “direct appeal model.” Readers responded by donating $6,000, freeing us to publish tree-free for more than five years. The Journal launched a Green Pages Campaign challenging other magazines to adopt tree-free or recycled-content paper and a reader-supported Green Pages Fund financed tree planting in countries around the globe. It was a classic example of how following a problem with a solution could engage readers and transform the world – a tradition that the Journal maintains to the present day.

Gar Smith is editor emeritus of Earth Island Journal.

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You Make Our Work Possible

We are standing at a pivotal moment in history, one in which education and advocacy around the climate emergency, public health, racial injustice, and economic inequity is imperative. At Earth Island Journal, we have doubled down on our commitment to uplifting stories that often go unheard, to centering the voices of frontline communities, and to always speak truth to power. We are nonprofit publication. We don’t have a paywall because our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

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