BY James Trainor in Opinion | 06 JUN 07
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Issue 108

Hot Topic

What are the environmental costs of publishing a magazine?

BY James Trainor in Opinion | 06 JUN 07

I am writing this on a blazingly hot late-February afternoon a few miles from where the Tropic of Capricorn bisects the South American continent. In a couple of months frieze will publish its summer ecology issue, and the irony gnaws at me that I am here weighing the ethical implications of art in the age of global warming after having flown 4,759 miles, burnt through 95 gallons of jet fuel and lofted roughly one ton of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Each keystroke reminds me I am sucking on the Brazilian power grid, while George Bush is coincidentally also in São Paulo, sealing a deal for the steady supply of ethanol to the US market. The move could be seen as a neo-con nod towards the proponents of alternative fuels, until you consider that Brazil, a leader in biofuel technology and production, is rapidly clearing the Amazon to produce the crops needed to make all that ethanol.

This is the year that terms such as ‘carbon footprint’, ‘sustainability’, ‘deep ecology’ and ‘the 10,000 mile Caesar salad’ entered the mainstream lexicon in the US. Al Gore became the unlikely prime agent for making climate change a sexy topic from Memphis to Nairobi, kids quizzed their parents about their position on carbon sequestration, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger switched to a hybrid Hummer, the UN re-leased its direst report card yet about the prospects of global climate, and the City of New York threw down the gauntlet before the coal-powered Bush administration, presenting a massive 50-year master plan for making the metropolis one of the world’s greenest cities by 2050.

What is the role of the art world in all this? The long hot summer ahead is about as good an opportunity as any to do the maths. The ‘grand alignment’ of Venice, Basel, documenta and Muenster will see a record amount of globe-spanning jet travel, discount-airline city-hopping, mass shipments of art works and art tourists, top-heavy mega-yachts jostling for anchorage in the Venetian lagoon, VIP galas, after-parties, excess: energy consumed and waste produced. (Thirty years ago, during the oil crisis of the 1970s, the population, foraging zones and overall impact of the itinerant art world were negligible by comparison.) We can debate the eco-ethics of art production (does an immaterial Tino Sehgal get a green star for being inherently sustainable?), but unless everyone collectively decides that the spectrum of permissible art-making should run from Goldsworthian bio-degradable ‘leaf-litter art’ to low-impact relational aesthetics, the thornier ethical knot is not how and what artists make but how the art world, itself a subset of the grander cultural-industrial complex, addresses its own responsibility in this mess and takes steps to be more accountable.

It’s now May, and I am staring at a stack of thick ‘green issues’ piling up on the desk. It seems this year everybody has one: from Vanity Fair I learn that Leonardo DiCaprio is completing his own eco-movie, The 11th Hour (the magazine finding it fitting to fly Leo to Iceland for an Annie Leibovitz photoshoot on the Jökulsárlón glacier); from Forbes I am no longer surprised to hear Wall Street praise the outdoorsy apparel giant Patagonia Inc. for its eco-initiatives; in The New York Times magazine I read liberal hawk Thomas Friedman claiming that ‘green’ is the new patriotism and that by embracing eco-innovation the US can recapture its lost geopolitical mojo. What I learn most of all is that you can push more paper these days if the subject is green (even if the paper is not).

What I don’t learn from devouring all this enviro-porn is anything about the thing that I am holding in my hands: the magazine. For all the anguished editorializing, I can’t find a single mention of the environmental costs of making a magazine. It seems more than an oversight. So, in the spirit of digging a ditch in a minefield-cum-landfill, let me tell you what you, the reader, have in your hands – the drag on the environment this 23 x 30 mm bound sheaf of pictures and ideas and opinions represents on the ground. Based on some quick back-of-the-napkin calculations and extrapolating from the invaluable in-house findings of our colleagues at Creative Review, the only monthly publication we know that has actually bothered courageously to investigate the impact of its own existence on the environment, I can tell you that with every issue frieze uses approximately 200,000 sheets of 640 x 960 mm paper (sized to minimize wastage), which, coupled with the office paper we use, is enough to wrap New York’s Museum of Modern Art eight times a year. The printing process consumes several hundred litres of ink and involves a chemical cocktail that would fill a bathtub, although our printer uses a recovery system that reduces the use of solvents by 80 percent. Over 100 kilos of aluminium are used in the form of printing plates (all of which get melted down and reused as raw material). Our paper is chlorine-free, meets ISO 14001 environmental standards and comes from managed sustainable forests, but is not recycled. The cover is coated with an oil-based varnish, not easily recycled. There is, as yet, no such thing as ‘green distribution’, so our international shipments don’t do the environment any favours. Our carbon footprint at the London office alone is roughly two tons per month.

That’s it. So now you know it. We’re not as bad as we thought, but we want to find a way to better bridge the gap between our ethics and our work practices. Environmentalism, contrary to what Dick Cheney notoriously grumbled, has got to be more than a display of personal virtue. We all go to work on bikes or on public transport; we turn the heating down; we walk up the stairs; we use some energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, even though they make us look pale and ghoulish, and in one office we have switched to an energy supplier that draws its power from renewable sources. We plan to expand our website, placing more content online, saving more trees. While we take trains whenever geo-logistically possible, we still rack up hefty air miles to do our job the way it needs to be done.

What is clear is that we can no longer simply talk the talk, editorially speaking, and find ourselves nursing an eco-fatigue hangover one year hence. Because if the world fails to stop processes that are inexorable in their consequences, and some version of environmental apocalypse eventually overtakes us, twig-and-stick art may be about all we can manage, and the art press and whoever else is around may need to forage elsewhere. But in the meantime, have a good summer. When you’re done with this issue, sequester it in your archive or share it with a friend or colleague, donate it to some lucky library or get out scissors and glue and make funny hats for your next party. But don’t get weary of the subject. It’s not going away.

James Trainor was US editor of frieze between 2004–07