When I was a political reporter, politics was the lens through which I viewed the world. But when I started covering business and the environment for “Marketplace” radio, I came to see money as a more accurate lens, driving politics as much as environmental policy and business decisions.
“Marketplace” began specializing in multidisciplinary beats with its health desk, just in time to chronicle the tobacco lawsuits and the rise of managed care. Since then, the show has added beats focusing on business and transportation and the arts and technology. Still, the business and environment beat was hardly our invention: The Wall Street Journal has done a superb job covering this combined beat for a long time, and Journal reporters who are on the environment beat routinely consider economic impacts whether they’re covering coal in West Virginia, smog in California, or farming practices in the heartland.
The result of this combination could have surfaced the worst tendencies of each beat—wonky environmental reporting with dry, dense business writing. But that didn’t happen. For one thing, environmental reporters are often perceived as preachy, while business reporters tend toward boosterism, so combining the beats can neutralize both impulses by canceling them out. And, from the beginning, my editors also never demanded that I define this beat as being merely about corporate carpooling programs or the cost of recycling to business. Instead, it evolved into a beat that gravitated toward big-picture stories. And there was always plenty of conflict. Simply put, there exists a fundamental clash between the goals of business and the way nature works. This beat gave me room to explore it all.
Chronicling the Clash
The Western economic system demands open-ended growth, but the planet is a closed loop ecosystem. The emphasis on quarterly profits, constantly rising consumption, and endless growth is squarely at odds with slow-moving but inexorable planetary forces such as climate change, deforestation and the depletion of topsoil and fresh water. Our continued existence as a species depends on the availability of clean air and water, intact wetlands and forests, and ecosystems with healthy and diverse populations of plants and animals. But our economic system often does not assign a monetary value to any of these things. Some in the field of environmental economics have tried to quantify such intrinsic values, but their efforts have been met with mixed reviews. In fact, some corporations with the most to lose have questioned the validity of science, period. (This is not to say that Wall Street seems all that scientific—or even rational—about its number-crunching, either.)
Covering the intersection of business and environment liberates me from some constraints faced by full-time science reporters. For instance, I don’t waste time rehashing the endless debate over whether climate change is human-caused. Instead, my stories are about how seriously the business community is taking the prospect of warmer temperatures, weirder weather, rising seas, and a ban on fossil fuel burning sometime in the not-too-distant future. It turns out that many large corporations are pursuing a two-track strategy. They are clinging to old technology until the last drop of oil is gone while simultaneously preparing for a time when it might be necessary to put a meter on the sun.
Some are even rebranding themselves as part of this preparation. Concern started with insurance companies, which were shocked at rising payouts during the 90’s—a decade chock-full of 100-year weather events. Next came the petrochemical giants (except Exxon Mobil) and the auto industry. BP (whose new slogan is “Beyond Petroleum”) has recast itself as an “energy company,” and Ford Motor Company now says it’s in the “transportation business.”
What such companies are paying attention to is what scientists call the “precautionary principle.” Though industry refutes the concept publicly, it turns out that choosing the safest path is as useful a decision-making tool in the arena of profit-making as it is in figuring out how to handle a hole in the ozone layer or the specter of multiple species extinctions.
A Bounty of Stories
The beat is always relevant.
Take some of the biggest recent news stories: The Enron story wasn’t just about manipulating energy markets to make money, but also about nurturing Capitol Hill allies into making big policy changes like deregulating the power market, rushing to build more gas-fired power plants, suspending environmental regulations, and reducing oversight of utilities. Enron might be effectively gone, but those changes still ripple.
And the terrorism we experienced on September 11 reshaped the business and environment beat as much as any other part of our lives since then. Already the war against Afghanistan has solidified shifting alliances controlling oil and gas resources in central Asia, and war with Iraq could further alter world petroleum supplies and distribution and thus have a major impact on energy policy, related environmental consequences, and the national economy. And there are the stories about what did not happen after September 11. The Bush administration did not launch a push for energy conservation or a WPA-style investment in renewables.
The beat suffers the same problem the science beat does: It’s always tough selling editors, who are attuned to the fast and new, on stories about slow-moving incremental changes. And there are special problems for radio—it’s hard to capture the sound of endangered grizzlies and even harder to record the climate changing. But all stories worth telling are ultimately about people, including stories on this beat, and for television, complex and challenging business stories about the environment can be visually rich.
I now make documentaries full time for public radio stations throughout the nation and for Oregon’s statewide television network. The longer form offers more air time to deal with the tectonic themes I discovered covering business and the environment. But when I worked for “Marketplace,” I also managed to file frequent 45-second, solid pieces, so I know it can be done. And it should be done.
A word about balance and objectivity: Scientists shy away from making definitive pronouncements about things they cannot yet prove. But policymakers forge ahead, even in the absence of scientific proof, and make decisions that can be essentially massive environmental experiments. My goal as a journalist is to record what’s happening while framing the stakes so listeners can make informed decisions as citizens.
Though my lens was different on my “Marketplace” beat, the old reporting mantras still worked. Question authority. Think global. Act local. And follow the money. A good story will emerge.
Christy George produces documentaries at Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB). She started at OPB in 1997, creating the business and environment desk for the Los Angeles-based national business show, “Marketplace,” where she shared in a 1998 DuPont-Columbia Silver Baton Award and a 2000 Peabody Award. She won a 2001 Pacific Northwest Emmy for her TV documentary, “The Oregon Story: rural.com.” She is on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists and was a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford.