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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