A few years ago, Robert Costanza went rogue. A professor of ecological economics at the University of Vermont, Costanza, along with a few colleagues, attempted to publish a paper in Science magazine that argued for the creation of a global “atmospheric trust” as a way to control and reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. This trust, they asserted, should consist of an auction-based cap-and-trade scheme that would put a price on CO2 and return a portion of the auction revenues to every person on Earth.
The content of the paper wasn’t unorthodox for ecological economics, a field of study that attempts to fashion a world where the economy and the environment operate in harmony. What was unusual about the piece was its target — an academic journal. Academic journals deal in esoteric, highly specialized topics — “On the Elusive Twelfth Vibrational State of Beryllium Dimer” is an article from a recent issue of Science — not grand-scale solutions offered in accessible language.
The paper was eventually included in the February 8, 2008, issue of the magazine, but as a letter, not an article, and “only after a long haggle with reviewers who just didn’t get it,” Costanza recalls. “They just didn’t know what to do with this kind of article.”
The experience prompted him and David Orr, a James Marsh professor-at-large at UVM and a professor of environmental studies at Oberlin College, to contemplate a publication in which the brain power of academia could be mediated by the populist sensibility of journalism. And, just as importantly, a publication that would aggressively focus on solutions to social, environmental and political problems. “We need to move away from the argument culture,” Costanza explains, “where everything is cast as a right-or-wrong, either/or debate, to more of a dialogue/discussion culture, where we can actually build a shared vision about what the solutions might be.”
The product of Costanza and Orr’s two-year campaign — aptly and boldly titled Solutions — is a “Nature meets New Yorker” magazine, its creators suggest. It launched this month at the National Conference on Science, Policy and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Though the journal’s contributors are spread across the globe, a significant portion of its nerve center lies in Vermont. Its editorial board includes Seventh Generation CEO Jeffrey Hollender, environmentalist and author Bill McKibben, and Middlebury professor Jon Isham. On its editorial staff are, among others, biologist John Todd, Burlington-based journalists Jack Fairweather and Christina Asquith, and Ida Kubiszewski, a PhD student at UVM who cofounded the reference website Encyclopedia of Earth.
Kubiszewski, 26, met Constanza while she was in graduate school at Boston University, just as the ideas for the journal began forming in his head. Kubiszewski’s experience of starting and managing the Encyclopedia of Earth — a sort of peer-reviewed Wikipedia — was attractive to Costanza, and they began working on the logistical details by interviewing editors at other magazines. “We heard different opinions from each,” Kubiszewski recalls, “but the one thing they said consistently was, ‘Don’t start a publication right now.’”
With newspapers and magazines shuttering in alarming numbers over the last five years, that advice was probably sound. But the seed of Solutions was something distinct from almost any other publication in existence, so its founders were not afraid to be creative.
Finding start-up money was the first challenge. Conventional wisdom holds that it takes at least $2.5 million to launch a publication. Orr secured $500,000 from Adam Joseph Lewis, a philanthropist who funded the construction of Oberlin’s über-green environmental studies center. That money has brought the publication, a not-for-profit corporation operating on a shoestring, a long way. Though the magazine will sell subscriptions to its print version, all of its content will be available for free at its website, thesolutionsjournal.com. Going forward, Costanza says, Solutions will follow the “public radio” funding format — relying on grants and donations. “We want to think more about information as a public good that should be freely accessible,” he explains. As part of that belief, the articles in Solutions will be in the Creative Commons, which means they can be used, with attribution, by anyone for no charge.
Asquith, a former staff writer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, believes being a nonprofit is particularly appropriate for the type of public-interest journalism that Solutions intends to produce. “The for-profit model gives the newsroom an automatic bias, before you even start to publish,” she says. “Why not remove that bias and create coverage that educates the public and strengthens democracy?”
That sort of logic is difficult to refute, but its biggest weakness is its experimental status. Finding a viable financial model for print and online journalism has proven to be one of the toughest conundrums of the Internet age, and Solutions represents one attempt at, well, a solution. “We don’t know if this is going to work,” Asquith concedes.
Solutions also differs from other publications in the way its articles are crafted. In academic journals, professors and researchers write pieces and submit them to a journal’s double-blind peer-review process. The article is reviewed by an expert in the field, whose job it is to find problems with the work. The reviewer then sends comments back to the writer, who begins making revisions. This process is flawed, says Costanza, in various ways. First, it tends to be antagonistic and destructive, a battle between the writer and the reviewer. Second, it takes a long time — 1.5 years from submission to publication in most cases. And third, it doesn’t have room for interdisciplinary collaboration. “The whole thing tends to prevent creative ideas from emerging,” Costanza says.
Most of the articles in Solutions, by contrast, will either be coauthored by an academic and a journalist, or written by an academic and edited by a journalist. The aim is to create something similar to Scientific American — “competent scientific pieces understandable to the lay public, but presented in a way that’s not dumbed down,” Costanza explains. The articles will be peer reviewed, but with the goal of building on the writer’s ideas. An example from the first issue is a feature article coauthored by Bill McKibben and Peter Barnes, a senior fellow at the Tomales Bay Institute, on restructuring carbon-credit markets and creating a cap-and-dividend system. Though it addresses a thorny, complicated issue, it’s constructed in a reader-friendly format with sidebars that summarize the article and lay out its key concepts. Another sidebar offers a comment by Costanza and Joshua Farley, a research professor at UVM, with a different opinion on how the dividends should be spent.
Environmental issues figure prominently in the first edition of the magazine, but Asquith says she wants to broaden the scope to cover topics such as Afghanistan, urban public schools, campaign finance reform and the obesity epidemic in the United States.
Solutions’ most critical departure from other media outlets is its attempt to cultivate answers to the dilemmas plaguing the globe. “Academics and practitioners have been focusing too much on describing the problem,” Kubiszewski says. “We get it, we’re in trouble. But now what? We have to retrain society to think about what’s next.”
Asquith admits falling into the habit when reporting on the problems Mexican migrant workers in Pennsylvania experienced as they tried to integrate into society. It never occurred to her to write about the solutions to those problems. And if she had, she would have learned that university professors were doing research on the topic. “If I had searched that angle out,” she says, “I think I would have written more useful articles.”
Now Asquith can partner with academics such as Jon Isham, a professor of economics and environmental studies, and help the public benefit from their research. Isham is guest editing a Solutions issue with the theme of reducing the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million. It complements his academic work, which has included organizing a conference called “What Works? Strategies for a Melting Planet.”
Isham believes Solutions’ time has come because “the way people talk about solutions is not always helpful,” he says. He cites an example from his recent trip to Copenhagen for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. He recalls seeing a booth at the Bella Center that proclaimed, “Heat Pumps Will Stop Global Warming.”
“Everyone has their favorite technological fix,” he says, “but it will obviously take a portfolio of solutions to make real change. I don’t pretend to know the answers, but let’s help create an environment that produces them.”
We all know Vermont's media landscape is changing, but explaining how is a challenge. It's hard to cover a subject in which you are directly involved. Plus, the media's main mission is to tell other people's stories - not its own. Seven Days aims to change that with our annual Vermont Media Issue, which uncovers the conflicts - and characters - behind the headlines. Are Vermonters getting less news than they used to? Can community newspapers compete with Twitter? You'll find the answers inside, and it's not all bad news.