The Politics Of Wired: Saucy, Ignorant Contrarianism

By Guest on Jun 7th, 2008 at 1:00 pm

The Politics Of Wired: Saucy, Ignorant Contrarianism»

Our guest blogger is journalist and author Paulina Borsook.

Wired Magazine 16:06The June 2008 issue of Wired magazine, which counsels “rethinking everything you ever learned about being green” (with an implicit message of “don’t listen to the pieties of the left”), and has a forward by Wired co-founder Louis Rossetto, harkens back to the bad old days of its libertarian anti-progressive politics.

When Wired magazine first hit the scene fifteen years ago in June 1993, part of its gestalt was a kind of world-turned-upside-down saucy contrarianism. Information technology is sexy! And more indirectly, pious humorless liberals are repressive and not on the side of change! I should know, as I was in its early days the magazine’s in-house critic/loyal opposition.

And rather like a Rockette brought out of retirement to kick up her heels at the senior center follies, I’ll weigh in once again on the politics of Wired. It would be too tedious to argue with all ten of Wired’s inconvenient mistruths, so let me take on a typical example, “Screw Organic“:

The path to virtue, we all know, begins with organics. Meat, milk, fruit, veggies — organic products are good for our bodies and good for the planet. Except when they’re not good for the planet.

Even accepting the claim that only “cutting carbon” matters in dealing with global warming, the Wired author’s argument is nonsensical:

Dairy cows raised on organic feed aren’t pumped full of hormones. That means they produce less milk per Holstein — about 8 percent less than conventionally raised cattle. So it takes 25 organic cows to make as much milk as 23 industrial ones. More cows, more cow emissions. But that’s just the beginning. A single organically raised cow puts out 16 percent more greenhouse gases than its counterpart. That double whammy — more cows and more emissions per cow — makes organic dairies a cog in the global warming machine.

Recollect that conventional agriculture is petroleum-based agriculture. Which means what didn’t factor into the Wired author’s accounting were:

– The carbon footprints for the oil exploration and refining, coupled with the carbon footprints involved in the manufacture of the fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides demanded by conventional agriculture.

– Nor were the carbon footprints calculated for the transportation of these components of factory farming from manufacture to feedlot; nor was the general carbon footprint of Big Ag factored in, where GMO (again, petroleum-based) rules.

– And then there’s the carbon footprint for the manufacture and transportation of hormones and antibiotics (Big Pharma and AgriChem not being known for their sustainability), many no doubt coming from across the sea; the carbon footprint involved in the cleanups from the toxic runoffs from feedlots; the carbon footprints of cropdusters. You get the picture.

– Or how about the indirect carbon footprint that comes from eating food that is higher with carcinogenic residues and lower in nutrients — and in the case of feedlot-beef, higher in unhealthy fat? (recall Michael Pollan’s seminal New York Times magazine article on the short, unhealthy, very unhappy life of a feedlot cow, and what its meat consisted of after that short unhappy life). Down the line, assume higher health costs with their increased carbon footprint — Conventional healthcare facilities are the second-most energy-intensive industry in the country.

It’s so Wired — to ignore the costs of industry; to see what you want to see in pursuit of defying conventional wisdom; to ignore interconnectedness where convenient; and to do the math but leave out the bits that don’t conform to ideology. Brew me a pot of organic chamomile tea, please — after fifteen years, I’d rather be “Tired” than “Wired.”

UPDATE: Ezra Klein writes:

I meant to make fun of Wired’s cover story telling you to “rethink everything you ever learned about being green,” but forgot. Magazine stories of the “everything you know about X is wrong” variety are, in general, almost always wrong. Big, well-covered issues populated by lots of expert voices do not trundle along in ignorance until some editor somewhere decides to assign a contrarian story on the subject, thus finally uncovering the truth.

UPDATE II: For Gary Jones at Muck and Mystery, who points out that the online version of the article is entitled, “Surprise! Conventional Agriculture Can Be Easier on the Planet” — the article had numerous headlines and teasers:

  • Forget organics. (cover)
  • SCREW ORGANIC. (two-page title spread)
  • Organics Are Not the Answer (print, online)
  • Surprise! Conventional Agriculture Can Be Easier on the Planet (online only).

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9 Responses to “The Politics Of Wired: Saucy, Ignorant Contrarianism”

  1. gerryblog Says:

    I wrote a little bit about this myself the other day, making much the same points.

    But mostly the Wired issue stands as a noteworthy testament to what happens when you allow an unholy trinity of technopositivity, kneejerk know-it-all contrarianism, and fierce resentment of hippies to drive your coverage: even your good insights get drowned in smarm.

  2. aaaa Says:

    If you’re right then it’s more carbon-efficient to drink organic milk than regular milk. Pumping cows full of hormones might still make sense though–the carbon savings from needing fewer cows might outweigh the costs of manufacturing the hormones. The same is true of the first two bullet points. Making pesticides costs carbon, but maybe the increased productivity is worth it. Some organic farmers use hot steam to kill weeds–does that really burn up less carbon than manufacturing herbicides? You’re mentioning the cost of everything and the value of nothing. As for the last point, maybe feedlot beef is unhealthier, but is conventional meat really that bad? Your analysis is wider-ranging then Wired’s, but both of them are basically hand-waving.

  3. aaaa Says:

    sorry, i meant conventional milk–what this is ostensibly about.

  4. coaxial Says:

    Of course this focus on organic == good, is a bit single-minded. Organics have a lower production rate, and consequently cost more. Food has to be manufactured somewhere, and food transportation costs (both economical and environmental) are non-trivial. There’s a finite amount of land, and you simply can’t produce enough food for large metropolises near by. (Unless of course you’re in Northern California, where that’s about the only place where you can get sufficient locally grown produce.) Then of course you there’s the problem that not all kinds of food can be grown in all places. You still have the transportation problem.

    So now you have more expensive food, that still has to be trucked in, all because you’ve decided to forgo modern agricultural methods.

    My whole problem with this post is that it screams of “B-b-but that was my holy calf!” If you really want to refute the article, then refute it with real data instead of whining about political bias and links to equally shallow blog posts.

    I thought this was the Wonk Room. Get wonky damn it.

  5. Mugsy Says:

    My experience has ALWAYS been that Conservatives can’t see beyond two-steps-down-the-road. That’s how we got stuck in Iraq; that’s how we have no energy policy, that how cutting interest rates resulted in an explosion of bankruptcies… and on & on.

    It were Conservatives that pushed for NAFTA in the ’90’s, which Bill Clinton foolishly co-opted (against his own Party’s wishes) to score some cheap political points.

    And it is Conservatives, despite the mess in Iraq in 2004, that voted to put George Bush back in office in the misguided belief that if you put sour milk back in the fridge, “maybe it’ll be better tomorrow.”

  6. jus777 Says:

    I believe that it’s cow burps, not cow farts, that are responsible for the majority of their co2 emissions. Non-organic cows (and organic cows, too, in the last few weeks of their lives) are given diets high in grain and even corn which creates a build-up of acids in the stomach. This buildup creates gas which is not only unhealthy for the cow (and one of the reasons they need to be given antibiotics) but makes them burp a lot. The devil is in the details.

  7. Ikono Seidler Says:

    This is reminiscent of the very 60s-ish character of the Bush gang. They portray themselves as the envelope-busting freethinkers not constrained by the “pre-911 way of doing things”, or “creeping usurpations of power by Congress”, or “reality” or “common decency”. We’re edgy! (See “The Conquest of Cool”.)

    They’re here to free the true creative souls in our midst (rich people, people who run large businesses, and cranky white guys) from the powerful evil oppressors who’re keeping them down, all of whom look exactly like either Willie Horton or “Mallard Fillmore”’s depictions of Professor Ponytailsteinbergowiczstein or of Hillary Clinton.

  8. G Money 2008 Says:

    Personally, I find 6 foot tall D breasted 11 year olds enough for me to chose organic Milk and Meat whenever possible.

    But you know America - Bigger is Better - that is until they become 250# whiskered adult diabetics.

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