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December 2001/January 2002
Bridging the Divide

The Satya Interview with Jim Motavalli


Jim Motavalli is the editor of the award-winning Connecticut-based E Magazine, a national environmental bi-monthly. Motavalli also writes columns and articles for numerous other magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times. His writing on population issues won a 1999 Global Media Award from the Population Institute. He is the author of Forward Drive: The Race to Build “Clean” Cars for the Future (2000) and Breaking Gridlock: Toward Transportation that Works (2001), both published by Sierra Club Books. Motavalli hosts a public affairs and music radio show on listener-supported WPKN-FM in Connecticut. He teaches journalism at Fairfield University. Angela Starks asked him about E Magazine and the connections that he sees between different activist movements.

How did E Magazine come into existence?
It was founded in 1990 by Doug Moss, the publisher, and by his wife Debra Kamlani. Doug was also involved in the start-up of The Animals’ Agenda magazine and I was the editor so we both have a background in animal issues.

What are the guiding principals and themes of E Magazine?
It’s a broad digest of environmental news; a newsstand publication aimed at the general reader. The basic idea is to take what are somewhat esoteric environmental topics and make them palatable and understandable. We don’t use a lot of scientific jargon. We use a lot of interviews, colorful descriptions, and photographs.

So it’s mostly environmental issues that you cover?
It’s all environmental issues. But I’d say we take a broader approach to that than some other publications. We tend to think that some animal rights issues have a place.

Do you see a link between animals and the environment?
I think there is–or should be–a natural affinity between environmentalists and animal rights people, but traditionally the two groups are very far apart and even antagonistic to each other. I think that’s unfortunate because they have so much in common, but they see the world very differently and that gap is very hard to bridge.

Can you give an example of how they see the world so differently?
Animal rights people are emotionally driven, so they care about the individual animal and its suffering. Environmentalists look at it in the broader context, they care about the survival of a species as a whole. A lot of the real emotional issues for animal rights people are about animal species that are not in any way endangered; like deer, for instance. Hunting as an issue doesn’t have much resonance with environmentalists; deer tend to be overpopulated in many suburban areas anyway, and because only five percent of Americans hunt, the deer population isn’t significantly endangered. Factory farming is another example; I think environmentalists tend to see the issue in terms of the waste created by big factory farms. So the cruelty of packing those animals into slaughterhouses—and those kinds of things—is not as much of an issue for them. Also none of those species are naturally-occurring and, again, that’s what environmentalists tend to care about. These species have been specially bred and wouldn’t even exist if they weren’t being raised for food.

Do you see any places where there is a connection or a sense of understanding?
Yes, for instance the waste issue. In the upcoming January issue of E Magazine, I make the case that environmentalists really should be vegetarians and I come up with four main reasons why. There’s world hunger, because it takes almost five pounds of grain to produce a pound of beef. That’s a total waste of resources and is something that environmentalists should be able to understand. Then there are the environmental costs of grazing, including the destruction of rainforests to create land for grazing. Thirdly, there’s all the energy used by factory farms. And finally there’s the waste, because they generate more than a billion tons of animal waste a year and it’s very polluting to waterways.

So you would see meat-eating as one of the biggest causes of environmental degradation?
It’s huge. I think the waste problem is up there with the radioactive waste problem. It’s a huge disposal issue. How can we do it safely? For instance, environmentalists made a lot of noise—and rightly so—about the Exxon Valdez oil spill that dumped 12 million gallons of oil into Prince William Sound in Alaska. But in 1995 there was a hog waste spill of 25 million gallons that did more damage. It killed more than 10 million fish, but there was no uproar about it.

As an example of how social justice and environmentalism can clash: In the November/December issue of E Magazine, you wrote a feature on the effects of population growth on California’s environment and referred to the impact of immigration, but some people say that it is racist to blame immigration.

I don’t think it’s racist to just point out what’s an obvious truth, which is that almost all of the population growth in California is attributable to immigration. I think many groups, for political reasons, are ignoring this but it’s simply a reality. I just wanted to take this out from under the covers where it seems to be hidden. The evidence is pretty clear that California’s population would not be growing if the state did not have such high levels of immigration. We’re not saying anything negative about the immigrants themselves. It’s just a numbers thing. It has nothing to do with where they come from.

Then there’s the case of the logging industry where some people say we have to let it continue in certain areas because otherwise much-needed jobs would be lost, but environmentalists say we need to save trees, not jobs. What are your thoughts on that?
In many of those areas, the logging jobs constitute only a very small part of the economy. I’ve seen some pretty convincing figures about that. The logging industry has been shrinking for some time. And many of these areas have really shifted to a service-based economy and the extraction industries are only a very small part of it. That’s not to minimize the loss of jobs, but I don’t think that loss is necessarily as devastating to the economy as it once was. The logging industry tends to make it look like these towns become ghost towns when the logging firms disappear, but they’re not big employers anymore.

How relevant are the themes of E Magazine in the wake of September 11 and in the context of the current war on Afghanistan?
If you look in our latest issue there’s something called ‘Lessons from the World Trade Center.’ In the millions of words that have been written about this, one of the things that isn’t getting a lot of attention is the need for energy independence. Right now, the U.S. has five percent of the world’s oil but we consume 25 to 30 percent of it, and 65 percent of the world’s oil is in the Middle East. I think we import something like a million barrels of oil a day from Iraq alone. The reason we went to war against Iraq is because they threatened a major oil partner—Kuwait. And I think our defense of Saudi Arabia is also based on their tremendous oil reserves; they have something like 30 percent of all the world’s oil. Since that part of the world is so dangerously unstable right now, I think it’s rather ironic to see all the American flags flying from the bumpers of huge SUVs because this is part of the problem. I am a huge believer in alternative energy sources, hydrogen fuel cells in particular. [See Interview with Seth Dunn, p. 26] Through conservation and new technology, we can hugely reduce the amount of oil we use.

How do magazines such as ours move on to other themes after such a huge tragedy?
Well I think we can try to put the tragedy in context. I don’t think any of the environmental issues are going away and if we don’t pay attention to them they’re only going to get aggravated. A primary example of that is global warming. Even if no one is paying attention to it, we’re still pumping record amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So the problem is getting worse rather than better. I do see the 21st century as one being dominated by environmental issues because I think so many of them are coming to a head. From our current perspective, I think it’s hard to see environmental issues back in the center of the table but I think it will happen.

After reading E Magazine, in what general ways do you hope readers will be inspired or educated?
I think they will learn a lot about the facts behind environmental issues, and they’ll get both sides. And they’ll get contacts at the end of our stories, so if they want to become involved on either side, they can do that. We think of it as empowering readers to both know more about subjects and to get involved in them if they want to. I try very hard to balance the stories so they’re not one-sided activist-oriented journalism.

Anything else you’d like to add, especially in regard to connections between the different movements?
Well I think a lot of different movements come together in the environmental movement. There’s been increasing recognition of environmental racism. And obviously globalization is also an environmental issue. I found it interesting: I recently attended the Animal Rights 2001 conference and there were a lot of people there who were also globalization protestors and environmentalists. Also, feminists were objecting to the PETA campaigns (like ‘I’d Rather go Naked than Wear Fur’) because they thought they were sexist. So it showed that they were applying lessons from other movements to the environmental and animal rights movements which I think is a good idea. There was also evidence that a younger generation of people is getting involved in animal rights, which I don’t think has always been true.

To learn more about E Magazine or to order a subscription ($20), see or call (815) 734-1242.


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