Life is full of surprises. For example, for years people called me an “environmental journalist.” But last month I was suddenly informed that I’m not. Such was the conclusion of the Society of Environmental Journalists, which arbitrates such matters. This organization recently considered, and rejected, my application for full-fledged “active” membership, granting me the lesser “associate” status instead. Not that I was terribly disappointed. I joined mainly to receive the group’s newsletter. Nevertheless, I called the SEJ office to ask about the reasons for my exclusion. And lo! – it turned out the denial was just a big mistake. I was told I could consider myself a full-fledged, pontificating member of this august group after all.

So why am I not happy? Partly because I’m uncomfortable with the sobriquet “environmental journalist,” anyway. It’s like calling oneself a “small pox” journalist. Since one’s career advancement depends on the continuation of the catastrophe in question, it transforms scribes into advocates of doom. So I prefer to see myself as an observer of popular culture – a task that includes covering attitudes toward, and policies concerning, the environment.

That accounts for my uneasiness with the society itself. Founded in 1989, its members now exceed 1,000. While many of these remain dedicated to objectivity as a collective, SEJ seems more concerned about marketing the environment (thereby enhancing the careers of its members) than pursuing truth by promoting dissent.

And this leads to paradox: By hyping environmental problems, society is often less than tolerant toward those who doubt the severity of these putative crises. Its meetings are largely love feasts. And this conformity tends to make the field both boring and irrelevant, negating the promotional efforts of the faithful.

Like much environmental press coverage, SEJ’s national meetings have become exercises in orthodoxy, where true believers reign and dissenters are denigrated. In 1991, the society’s chosen target was the late columnist Warren Brookes, who according to several eyewitnesses, was treated savagely. In 1992, I was a guest heretic, and the principal speakers were the doomsayers Lester Brown of World Watch, Jeremy Rifkin of “Beyond Beef” and Ted Turner of the Tomahawk Chop. The 1993 meeting featured discussions on “backlash” journalism (thereby conceding existence of an orthodoxy against which doubters represent a “backlash”), where participants took turns chastising New York Times reporter Keith Schneider for ideological deviancy.

In 1994, the guest victim was Peggy Reagle of the property rights group Fairness to Landowners Committee, who would have fared better being thrown to lions.

Yet even as the society discourages apostasy, its members worry that environmental journalism has achieved the impossible: to become both sensational and tedious. Most reporting conforms to the man-bites-the-environment formula that readers have come to dread.

Thus, this journalism is caught in a downward spiral, where fear of declining popularity motivates reporters to hype stories, thereby ignoring debate and falsely creating the impression that issues are simplistic contests between good guys and bad guys. In this way, they bore and misinform simultaneously.

Dedication to the twin goals of advocacy and issue avoidance is evidenced by the agenda published for SEJ’s upcoming national meeting, scheduled for Boston in October. “We’re trying to put the environment on the political agenda of the United States,” Conference Chair David Ropeik told the newsletter “Environment Writer.” To further this self-promotion, the journalists have invited Mr. Irrelevant himself – former presidential aspirant Michael Dukakis – to speak.
Indeed, the entire conference could sidestep most of this year’s hottest issues. As presently scheduled, it offers panels on “the environment and spirituality” and “building a sustainable society,” but none on deregulation, the Endangered Species Act, risk assessment, cost/benefit analysis, ecosystems management, abolishing the Environmental Protection Agency, national parks closure, national forests or grazing and mining reform.

Rather than treating major domestic controversies, the meeting promises an international focus including discussions of the “environment in international trade and politics” and “state of world fisheries,” along with such old saws as global climate change and ozone depletion.

Conference organizers, therefore, might be advised to issue participants coffee and Prozac along with their name tags – coffee, to counteract the effects of the soporific agenda, and Prozac to relieve the angst of cub reporters who come hoping to find sexy stories to advance their careers. At least these palliatives might be more effective than the panels SEJ has planned – on “computer-assisted reporting” and “free-lancing: selling your ideas.”

Such is the mischief caused by treating environmental journalism as a distinct profession: It inevitable transforms practitioners from disinterested reporters into salespeople promoting their trade.

That’s why, as I follow this dubious parade myself, I find myself wondering: Does being awarded full membership mean that I’ve done something wrong?