Social advice for the environmentally conscious among us

Grist, the sassy Seattle-based webzine focused on environmental news and commentary, has been running a series of advice columns called “The 21-day apathy detox.”

The title says much about the series, which is written for environmentally minded folks who have given up late-night Facebook fights and fancy salads and now find themselves parked in front of the television doing nothing but wondering if there is a future for our species.

Umbra Fisk // Image: Grist

“Can I learn to hope again?” comes the question from such a person begging for help from Umbra Fisk, Grist’s advice columnist who writes on the environmental and climate-change front.

“Well, you’ve found the right advice columnist,” Umbra replies. “I’m here to quietly change your Facebook password and not-so-quietly offer the best tools, tricks, and advice to help you fight for a planet that doesn’t burn and a future that doesn’t suck. You’ll build civic muscles, find support buddies, and better your community!”

Umbra’s 21 tips, coming to a conclusion tomorrow, focus on personal, social and political habits. The ideas are crafted so thoughtfully that one might be tempted to try them all — from “meet your neighbors” to “green your power sources” to “fight city hall.” But even if you do none of the specific actions, the series may convince you that personal actions really do count.

I especially liked the advice given on Day 4 of the 21-day regimen. It’s about subscribing to a local newspaper. The goal is not just to keep yourself informed about your community, it is also about maintaining the proper function of government.

“We need boots on the ground, reporting day-in and day-out from city councils, zoning meetings, school boards and regional planning authorities, to catch the seeds of something huge,” Umbra writes. “There are way too many towns for even the best national newspaper to keep an eye on.

“In Flint, Michigan, local journalists broke the story of the town’s poisoned water supply a year before the big outlets picked it up and almost two years before the governor declared a state of emergency.

“A reporter at a 10-person Iowa newspaper just won a Pulitzer for editorials calling out the likes of Monsanto and the Koch brothers over a local water pollution case….

“Watchdogs are awesome, but you’ve got to feed them. As important as the hometown shoe-leather might be, the little guys are hurting. Hundreds of newspapers have closed in the last 10 years. Why? Because papers make their money from print sales, and now we have a little thing called the internet. Nobody wants to pay for their news anymore…. But damn, we should pay for news.”

Forgive me, Umbra, for truncating your argument, which is more detailed and includes links to authoritative sources.

Umbra Fisk, who has been writing the column “Ask Umbra” for 15 years, is actually a fictional character. Nevertheless, the writers of the column are very real. Reporter Felicity Barringer wrote about the adventures of Umbra for the New York Times in 2008. She credited Becka Warren, a Vermont writer for Grist, with some of the initial concepts. Now, after a hiatus following the November elections, Umbra is back on the job.

Here are the advice articles posted in “The 21-day Apathy Diet”:

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