Philly Steaks Out New Ground

April 17, 2024
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Tour attendees at the annual SEJ conference taking no crap at a Delaware chicken farm. Photo: David Helvarg.

SEJ News: Philly Steaks Out New Ground

By David Helvarg

The ground trembled and the sky would soon darken as the Society of Environmental Journalists contemplated its annual conference theme, “Democracy, Disinformation, Activism, Ozempic, Beyonce’s New Country Album – What’s Environmental Journalism’s Role?”

The election-year gathering of over 1,000 citizens and reporters was held April 3-7 in Philadelphia, where the American Revolution was not made (that would be Boston) but the paperwork got done. 

Meanwhile, a warning from another historic era loomed over the gathering: “First they came for the journalists and then we don’t know what happened.”

One of the conference speakers said journalists “take up the watchdogging space,” which is arguably better than the “Guantanamo space” where some might find themselves if one of the presidential candidates prevails. Of course, I’m talking about RFK Jr. and his plan to ship health and science reporters there.

While I missed the opening Wednesday workshops, which covered the energy transition, watersheds and climate disinformation (I wouldn’t trust anything in that one), the evening’s welcome included climate scientists and the director of Annenberg’s Public Policy Center (who seemed to embrace QAnon, otherwise why would she keep insisting that the only way to know the truth was to use her QR code?)

Thursday was SEJ’s field trip day. I went on the Delaware (don’t know, Alaska) tour in the hope we might share an ice cream cone with that state’s favorite son — Registered “Reggie” Corporation.


Egged on by our organizers, we entered a

Perdue contract farm with 100,000 birds,

which gave us a pungent take on

modern farming (the smell of money).


Egged on by our organizers, we entered a Perdue contract farm with 100,000 birds, which gave us a pungent take on modern farming (the smell of money), plus, surprisingly, a major corporation’s honest assessment of their own chickenshit programs.

I was told the wind turbine tour was a breeze, although — being SEJ — attendees also visited a nuclear power plant and a sewage station. A colleague who went on the Revolutionary Raptor Hawk(less) Mountain tour sung its praises, sending out many tweets.


Hot topics: Roast beef, whiskey

Thursday night’s receptions included the usual mix of corporate and NGO sponsors, who I failed to connect with based on my journalistic ethic that if I’m going to eat your food and drink your alcohol, I won’t speak to you.

A later plenary speaker heatedly objected to the American Petroleum Institute having had a roast beef station there, although I found it kind of fat and oily.

Friday morning started with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan, who was as smooth as polished marble. He came out in favor of whiskey, justice, ineffective recycling, clean air and water as transparent as the EPA’s new FOIA forms, which he claimed were 95% better than the last administration’s. That’s kind of like saying my late tabby Teddy was 95% sweeter than a rabid bobcat.

Regan was one of a number of folks promoting the IRA, and I don’t know if it’s President Biden’s Irish heritage or what, but the Irish Republican Army stopped fighting the Brits over 25 years ago, so why all the fuss now?

Meanwhile, the administrator encouraged voluntary programs to reduce pollution flows down the Mississippi, pledging to see how that goes based on his “measure 200 times, cut once” principle. During the Q&A there was also a questioner who seemed to confuse Regan’s visits to East Palestine, Ohio, with the war in the Middle East.


Natural disasters and networking maps

Friday’s panels included one on carbon capture, a topic that no one could seem to get ahold of, and another, “Hydrogen: Climate Solution or Climate Distraction,” where things got heated and then blew up.

Then, suddenly the conference was rocked by a 4.8 earthquake (what we Californians call a 2.1). This struck me as a hopeful sign — a natural disaster that was all natural. We know this because there was no fracking or Taylor Swift concerts going on at the time.

Looking for my next panel I went on the Whova app, which provided me useful directions to: “Networking table map.”

Again, there was a “What To Know About the IRA” panel. I could have explained from early in my career how drinking with an IRA bomb maker will only get you a massive hangover.

In the afternoon there was a plenary on the election, in which everyone agreed that climate change won’t determine the results but could have marginal impacts, particularly if this summer’s hurricane season takes out Miami, Tampa, Charleston and Houston, while boiling shrimp in the floodwaters.

The following “Happy Hour With EPA PIOs” was a classic example of disinformation. I haven’t been that happy since I contracted COVID-19 at the last SEJ conference in Boise.


Local reporters on limited budgets

no longer have to travel to cover

climate disasters, as they’re

coming to a neighborhood near you.


That evening’s beat dinners included one on covering climate change in your community, which had some great news: Local reporters whose papers or stations have limited budgets no longer have to travel to cover climate disasters, as they’re coming to a neighborhood near you.

And I heard the methane dinner was also a gas, but I wasn’t so thrilled with the “dim sum and decarb” dinner, as it seemed to be encroaching on SEJ’s resident comic.


Trigger warning for the closing plenary

There was a lot of downsizing Saturday with mini-workshops and mini-tours. One I attended, “Reporting on the Global Polycrisis,” reminded me that without pollywogs — larval toads and frogs – we wouldn’t have the “frog in the boiling pot of water” metaphor for climate change. So, it’s all connected.

The “Covering Plastics” workshop included the head of America’s Plastic Makers pointing out how the mechanical recycling of the last 30 years didn’t work but the chemical recycling that’s not working yet could save the planet. Also, that sea turtle with the plastic straw up its nostril was a known cokehead.

“Fenceline Watch” activist Yvette Arellano may have had the best definition of the “circular economy” however: “They promise they’re going to save you with the same technology they poisoned you with.”

The closing plenary was titled (trigger warning), “Battling Disinformation, Fending Off Despair and Staying Relevant.” No wonder this was the first year SEJ provided free alcohol.

A consensus seemed to emerge that if we tell more diverse, angry personal stories about climate change we’ll feel better about not educating the public on how, for example, George Soros had nothing to do with that ship hitting that bridge.

My own theory on why climate communications has become so difficult is that the EPA lied to us and never took the lead out of the paint.


It’s not AI, its NI

One reporter was concerned with having his first byline along with AI, as AI will always be listed first. Personally, I’m less afraid of AI than NI, the Natural Intelligence of Homo sapiens that guarantees we’ll never run short of disaster stories.

And here’s the “funnier” version of that last paragraph I requested from Chat GPT

One rookie journalist was sweating bullets over getting his first byline paired with AI, fearing it would always have the upper hand with its name leading the charge. But me? I'm not losing sleep over AI; it's NI, Natural Intelligence, that keeps me up at night. After all, with Homo sapiens at the helm, disaster stories are in endless supply. It's like our brains are hardwired for headline havoc!

OK — so not an immediate threat.

At the SEJ’s closing party, evidence that environmental journalists never mindlessly follow others. Photo: David Helvarg.

Saturday afternoon’s mini-tours included urban hiking. Its bus was delayed and I couldn’t figure out why they just didn’t start. I went on the transportation tour through West Philly.

The city’s public transit system carries 750,000 riders a day on hybrid gas-electric buses, subway cars powered by electricity and trolleys that go clang, clang, clang.

Another tour went to the dogs, which turned out to be a singular animal — Peat the sniffer dog — a hyperkinetic black lab that can nose locate invasive species and endangered plants and has been trained not to eat them, throw up and then roll in it.

Unfortunately, Saturday night was just another disco ball, dance floor, live band, bowling alley bar party like in New Orleans. Still, it was worth it to see Jay Letto doing his moves to “Dancing Queen.”


As dozens of SEJers danced to a

deafening rendition of “We Are Family,”

I kind of got a drunken dampness

in the corner of my eye.


Later, as dozens of SEJers danced to a deafening rendition of “We Are Family” I kind of got a drunken dampness in the corner of my eye … until they formed a conga line and it turned embarrassing. I thought reporters didn’t unquestioningly follow others?

I missed the Sunday “Breakfast, Books and Birds” held in a tidal marsh to reflect the swamp the publishing industry has become, but I’m sure I’ll get a tweet. Excuse me, an X. Tweets once again simply signify innocent birdsong. So there is hope.

Finally, a quick Dad joke for those of you who survived, perhaps even enjoyed, the solar eclipse that encored the conference.

Q. Father, can you explain what an eclipse is?
A. No, son.

So, if you think it’s always sunny in Philadelphia, start pre-packing for the dust, cacti and oven-hot vistas of concrete, as SEJ moves either to Guantanamo in 2025 or the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU in Phoenix.

Talk about towering figures in journalism, Cronkite continues to represent something significant for those looking for a secure career in a free, independent and respected public-service-oriented media … in that they’re both dead.

David Helvarg is presently working on a book on kelp forests and co-hosts the Rising Tide Ocean Podcast. He’s thought about stand-up but is keeping his day job. His last SEJ conference spoof was 2023’s “Environmental Journalists, Idling in Idaho.”

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 16. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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