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The Best Environmental Journalism of 2013
OnEarth picks its favorite #greenreads of the year. Flying cows, confused clownfish, stargazing dung beetles, and the microbes in your small intestine all make the cut.

It was a great year for environmental journalism, if not necessarily for the planet itself. The pieces published in 2013 gave us a lot to think about—and a lot of challenges to tackle. In what’s become an annual tradition, we asked OnEarth editors and contributors to pick their favorite science and nature stories of the year*. As usual, some couldn’t restrict themselves to just one. Even so, we almost certainly missed some great reporting and writing, so chime in with your favorites by leaving a comment below or tagging the story #greenreads on Twitter. And happy reading!

*excluding those from our own magazine, of course—that wouldn’t be sporting.

How Junk Food Can End Obesity” by David H. Freedman, The Atlantic
Colleagues know that I'm the last person you'd call a foodie (I positively cringe at news of Brooklyn's hottest new tattooed butcher or chocolatier, and I've never met a piece of bacon I didn't like), nor am I an eager consumer of the “food writing” genre. But this year I have to admit that I was stopped in my tracks by the flood of superb reporting on the horrors of our industrial food system. I hardly know where to begin, but I’d definitely include the damning takedowns of the meat industry by my colleague Ted Genoways in Mother Jones and Bloomberg BusinessWeek and a slew of important stories in the New York Times,  WiredEarth Island JournalAeon, and other publications on the ways in which food "scientists" work to keep us hooked on salt, fat, and sundry unspeakable and unpronounceable synthetic substances. But if I have to choose one (ed.—you do, George, that’s the assignment!), I give my vote to Freedman's story, which poses an audacious, uncomfortable, and utterly counterintuitive challenge to the ways in which we normally think about healthy food and healthy living. The core purpose of magazine journalism, after all, is to make us think, and on that score Freedman's piece is hard to beat.—George Black, executive editor (UPDATE: See a different take on this story from Paul Raeburn of MIT's Knight Science Journalism Tracker in the comments below.)

"Sea Change" by Craig Welch, Seattle Times
For a story so rich in images, videos, and animated gifs, there's also plenty of important reporting behind all the bells and whistles in this four-part examination of the damage climate change is doing to our oceans. From confused clownfish to Alaska's endangered crab industry, the explorations in "Sea Change" are both fascinating and scary. And it ends, as every good piece should, with urchins.—Jason Bittel, news blogger

Cows Might Fly” by Veronique Greenwood, Aeon
Airlifting sick or injured cattle out of the Swiss countryside—which happens a lot more often that you might think—doesn’t seem, at least at first glance, like an obvious lens through which to explore the modern state of the environment. But that’s precisely what makes this piece interesting. Greenwood uses the routine evacuations to discuss what it might take to protect our world’s natural resources once we’ve used many of them up. Touching on issues ranging from climate change to population, Greenwood eloquently explains how “that cow flying through the air is the result of a complex calculation involving limited resources, economic forces, and compassion.”—Susan Cosier, managing editor

The Rise of the Tick” by Carl Zimmer, Outside
"The Lyme Wars” by Michael Specter, The New Yorker
A twofer! Like a horror movie come to life, Zimmer chronicles the explosive growth of tick-borne diseases across the United States in recent decades, with Lyme playing the part of the tick’s poster pathogen. The debate over Lyme and its strange ability to seemingly make people sick decades after infection is the central subject of Specter’s equally fascinating and frightening piece, which explains that the medical community can’t even settle on the central question of how many people actually become infected annually. (Is it 30,000 or 300,000? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offered both numbers this year.) A combination of factors, mostly environmental, seem to be contributing to the tick’s spread. Though their topic is disturbing, these skilled writers' prose offers delightful moments, as well. Take Zimmer's description of how the tick goes about its dirty work of infecting other creatures. “It’s a pretty grim existence,” he writes, “but as an evolutionary strategy it shows no signs of going out of style.” Now let’s hope we can quickly evolve some defenses.—Scott Dodd, editor

"America's Real Criminal Element: Lead" by Kevin Drum, Mother Jones
It's almost too horrible to contemplate. In this riveting story, Kevin Drum convincingly argues that the unexplained upsurge in violent crime in the 1960s and its steady decline since the 1990s was caused by the rise and fall of leaded gasoline in America's cars. What is most devastating of all is considering how environmental lead poisoning may still be contributing to a cycle of violence and poverty in neighborhoods that are dominated by old and rundown houses (with lead paint and lead pipes), close to highways or polluting factories, or near dumps or scrap heaps. For anyone concerned with environmental justice, this is a must-read.—Ted Genoways, editor-at-large

A Great Aridness by William deBuys
I'm cheating a bit here (ed.—that seems to be a theme), since this book is technically a year old, but it was new to me in 2013. Over the last few years I have been working on a book of my own about the American West, and since one of my subjects is the 20th-century author Wallace Stegner, I have focused on putting together the big picture in Stegnerian fashion. It’s a tall order obviously, and one I often fall short of. Take earth, fire, water, and mix in human culture and history and economics, and now, just for fun, add something called climate change. Of course Stegner knew the basics of his home region—more than the basics, he knew the fundamentals—and he had an uncanny knack for putting those fundamentals together to see the big picture. But he didn’t have our fundamentals. The puzzle might be the same, but some of the pieces are brand new. And the few who can really put things together the way Stegner could are frankly scared stiff. One of the best at putting today’s pieces together is journalist William deBuys; his masterful book tackles Western drought, fire, water issues, tree loss, and--as the title implies--how these will all be affected by an ever-drier climate. It’s a must-read for anyone trying to put today’s puzzle pieces together.—David Gessner, columnist/contributing editor

"Some of My Best Friends Are Germs" by Michael Pollan, New York Times Magazine
Pollan’s feature on the microbial ecosystems within our bodies had me at the line: “the world is covered in a fine patina of feces.” I already had a strong appreciation for all of nature’s grossness, but reading about what scientists are coming to learn about the wonderful (and less wonderful) things these tiny life forms do inside our mouths, eyes, noses, guts, and colons gave me, all at once, a greater sense of individuality and community. "It turns out that we are only 10 percent human," writes Pollan. "For every human cell that is intrinsic to our body, there are about 10 resident microbes." Mind, blown.—Melissa Mahony, senior editor

Tom’s River: A Story of Science and Salvation by Dan Fagin
For all the heat and hoopla that swirl around the phrase “cancer cluster,” it comes as a great surprise to learn that only two residential cancer clusters have ever been confirmed in this country: the one you may know from the book or movie version of A Civil Action (which takes place in Woburn, Massachusetts), and the one documented in thrilling detail—in both the dramatic and the scientifically precise sense—in Dan Fagin’s new book Toms River. (Note: Fagin is a member of the OnEarth editorial board.) Grabbing readers by the lapels, Toms River guides readers through sixty years of chemical pollution, disease surveillance, political inertia, and grassroots fury in this small New Jersey town, offering a vital civics lesson for anyone concerned with environmental health.—Elizabeth Royte, columnist/contributing editor

"Dung Beetles, Dancing to the Milky Way" by Alan Burdick, The New Yorker
This year, researchers discovered that dung beetles are able to roll their dung balls in a straight line at night by observing their position relative to the Milky Way. This piece is an existential mediation on that strange fact: dung beetles, too, contemplate the cosmos. Sort of. "We suppose that we are superior to dung beetles, but are we really?" Next time you look up at the stars, you won't just imagine all of the people, but rather all of the beings, who are down here gazing up with you.—Kim Tingley, columnist

Recalling Francis Schaeffer’s Christian Environmentalism” by John Murdock, First Things
Last year I profiled Katharine Hayhoe, a Texas Tech climate scientist and evangelical Christian whose faith has given her unique access to those who might otherwise be inclined to ignore or deride her warnings about global warming. So as someone who has long been interested in the way that religion, politics, and science intersect, I was excited to come across Murdock’s article on the 20th-cenury Protestant theologian Francis Schaeffer, whom I previously knew (vaguely) as a firebrand religious conservative and hero to the modern religious right. What I didn’t know about Schaefer was that his politics—especially his environmental politics—were far more complex than that superficial gloss suggests. Citing Schaeffer’s 1970 book Pollution and the Death of Man, Murdock reveals a thinker who defied the glib ideological characterizations common to our era. Do today’s conservative Christians know that one of their favorite religious philosophers believed that commune-dwelling hippies of the late 1960s were far better stewards of the earth than pious churchgoers? Do they know that Schaeffer’s faith compelled him to “refuse men the right to ravish our land,” or that he steadfastly refused to own a car after 1948? I sure didn’t.—Jeff Turrentine, articles editor

Buried Secrets” by Patrick Radden Keefe, The New Yorker
The tiny west African republic of Guinea has been blessed with a multitude of natural resources: diamonds, gold, uranium, and oil, to name a few. This fascinating piece focuses on the nation’s iron ore—a spectacular cache of it, hidden beneath a mountain—and involves corrupt officials, coup d'états, international spies, fourth wives, and a profoundly tanned man named Beny Steinmetz, said to be the richest guy in Israel. The sleazy characters, double-dealing, and tropical heat will put you in mind of Graham Greene or John Le Carré. Sadly, it's all true: a devastating portrayal of a country rich in resources, though none the better for it.—Jocelyn Zuckerman, contributing editor

And don't miss: OnEarth's most popular stories of 2013

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Comments (2)
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As a media critic at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker, I try to take an unbiased look at science, medical, and environmental coverage in an effort to improve coverage. I just wanted to say that I found David H. Freedman's piece on junk food and obesity to be misguided and misleading in a number of ways. For starters, the headline is an attention-grabbing trick, not meant to be taken seriously. And there are many other things we should not take seriously in Freedman's story, in which he paints himself as the single person who can see the truth through the clutter. (We should always be suspicious of such claims.) The story is thought-provoking, I'll grant you that; but it is not a good piece of science journalism. You can find my analysis of the piece here:
Thanks Paul, we're big fans of the Tracker here at OnEarth, and we appreciate your analysis and hope our readers check it out for another view. Thanks for the link.