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Greenreads: The Best Environmental Journalism of 2011

Source: OnEarth

By OnEarth Editors, OnEarth Magazine

Use the hashtag #greenreads in Twitter to spotlight your own picks and follow comments on OnEarth's choices here. Credit: Mo Riza/flickr

A Slight Chance of Meltdown, by Robert Sullivan (New York)
Sullivan goes beyond the usual and familiar pros and cons about nuclear energy — and specifically the much debated, controversial Indian Point nuclear plant located 25 miles from New York City —  and instead takes readers inside Indian Point (literally) to examine the issue first-hand with an entirely engaging, balanced, and entertaining approach. —Douglas S. Barasch, editor-in-chief

The Fallout, by Evan Osnos (New Yorker, sub req.) 
A gripping and thoroughly sobering review of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear-reactor disaster and its implications. —Alan BurdickThe Synthesist

Totally Psyched for the Full-Rip Nine, by Bruce Barcott (Outside)
On every trip I’ve made to the Pacific Northwest, I’ve been sorely tempted to rip up my return ticket and never come home. Barcott’s story on the very real possibility of a Japan-style megaquake and tsunami striking the West Coast (it happens every 500 years on average — the last was in 1700) forever cures me of that desire. Yet he still makes the story a ton of fun to read, even while scaring your board shorts off. Surf’s up! —Scott Dodd, editor

The Fracturing of Pennsylvania, by Eliza Griswold (New York Times Magazine)
In this disturbing and important piece, Griswold takes readers into Amwell Township, Pennsylvania, the heart of fracking country. The article starts out upbeat enough: the farmers here, who for years have had to moonlight as barbers and school teachers in order to make ends meet, are now getting checks from a Texas-based oil company that’s come to extract the natural gas from beneath their homes. But it turns dark when the dogs and horses begin to die off and the kids start complaining of mysterious stomach ailments. “Harvesting this gas,” Griswold writes early in the article, “promises either to provide Americans with a clean domestic energy source or to despoil rural areas and poison our drinking water, depending on whom you ask.” By the time she’s wrapping up her reporting, that clear dividing line has begun to seriously blur. —Jocelyn C. Zuckerman, articles editor

The Great Oasis, by Burkhard Bilger (New Yorker, sub req.)
First, full disclosure: Bilger is my brother-in-law, but that doesn’t prevent him from also being an excellent writer, who can turn his hand to just about any topic you can name (high-altitude skydivers, artificial sweeteners, tugboat captains, nuns who make cheese...). He doesn’t write about environmental topics as much as I’d like, but when he does they’re terrific. His latest is a typically deft mix of portraiture, fine-grained detail, and intellectual inquiry. (If you like this one, also check out his 2009 piece on clean-burning cookstoves, Hearth Surgery) —George Black, executive editor

On edge of paradise, Coachella workers live in grim conditions, by Patricia Leigh Brown (California Watch)
Patricia Leigh Brown deserves high praise for her nuanced investigative reporting as part of California Watch's "California Lost" series on neglected communities. This story examines unsafe and unsanitary conditions in the Eastern Coachella Valley's illegal mobile-home parks, where farm workers live with arsenic-tainted water, sewage backing up into showers, and air polluted by chemical waste dumps. Brown digs into the physical and emotional toll of living in horrific conditions in the midst of one of the nation's richest agricultural areas. —Elizabeth RoyteThe Royte Stuff

Life After Zero Hour: Inside the Exclusion Zone, by Donald Weber
I'm cheating a bit, because Weber's photos from Fukushima aren't a traditional or singular "environmental story," but rather the product of a heroic (some might say stubborn) journalistic mission. Weber was by most accounts the first journalist to travel into the suddenly evacuated region around the nuclear plant as the disaster was still unfolding. His photos of eerily abandoned urban landscapes are haunting, sad, and stunning; they serve as thoughtful reminders of what's at stake as we wrestle with our menu of energy choices in the 21st Century. —Ben Jervey, blog editor

The Plane Truth, by George Black (OnEarth)
To see the West through the air is to see the big picture. To see the big picture is to get the shit scared out of you. —David GessnerWild Life

Natural Histories, by Elif Batuman (New Yorker, sub req.)
At first this seems like a familiar conservation saga: quixotic ornithologist fights long odds to save rare birds. Then, curiously, the protagonist and his fowl disappear for two entire pages devoted to Turkish history and literature. The piece's form and content force a complicated question: are "humankind" and "nature" separate stories? —Kim TingleySpecies Watch

Energy industry shapes lessons in public schools, by Kevin Sieff (Washington Post) 
We often hear about the corrupting influence of industry on education. But my friend Kevin Sieff documents a particularly outrageous example: how representative of the coal, oil, and gas industries fundamentally shape lesson plans and teacher training. —Barry Yeoman, contributor

Back to the Harbor, by Ian Frazier (New Yorker, sub req.)
Ian Frazier writing about seals in New York Harbor is an easy choice for me: I'm a sucker for animal stories, it was set near where I used to live, and it was much more accessible than most wildlife features you come across. Plus, pretty much anything Frazier writes is incredible. —Dave Levitan, production editor

Agony and Ivory, by Alex Shoumatoff (Vanity Fair)
Shoumatoff’s piece is everything that a wildlife story should be. He traces the decline of African elephants, traveling from their home in Kenya to ivory markets in Guangzhou, China, while giving us a portrait one of the most complex, social, and emotional mammals on the planet. The story reminds us that wildlife conservation is and must remain a priority. —Jon Mark Ponder, editorial assistant

Is the Keystone Pipeline Really Dead?, by Jeff Goodell (Rolling Stone)
As a Canadian, I’ve paid special attention this year to reporting about Alberta’s tar sands and the Keystone XL pipeline. This story, which came out after Obama delayed a decision on Keystone, presents the nuts and bolts of the tar sands in a compelling way while providing a glimpse of behind-the-scenes events in the administration. It also noted that this was not actually a win, but just a step towards a possible win. A lot of stories on the issue missed that key point. —Alyssa Noel, intern

This article is provided by NRDC's OnEarth magazine, a Climate Central content partner, and appears online at


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