Utne Reader

  • by September 4, 2008
I've always dismissed advocacy magazines as being guilty of preaching to the choir. So when I had the opportunity to review Utne Reader, I was determined to approach it with skepticism and the jadedness befitting an aging Boomer like myself.

Yet I was grudgingly surprised to find Utne (billed as "The Best of the Alternative Press") to be infectiously upbeat, insightful, occasionally inspiring and, significantly, tempered with realism about what it takes to make a better world.

The cover of the September-October issue lays it right out: "Tired of the Doom and Gloom? 21 Environmental Innovations to Give You Hope." Articles culled from magazine sources like Conscious Choice, Walrus and Plenty; books like Earth: The Sequel; and Web sites like and, present a spectrum of approaches to clean energy, efficient housing, green communities and addressing climate change. Some of these solutions are on the ground now, some are being refined and others exist only in the minds of imaginative people, and to me that's reassuring.

That's not to say there isn't stuff in Utne that makes you want to throw up your hands and say, "I give up." A case in point is an article about good vs. bad seafood, based on how it is raised or harvested or what manmade crud it's been exposed to. Atlantic cod, flounder, grouper, orange roughy bad ... anchovies, herring, jellyfish, mackerel, sardines good? Yeesh. For somebody who swore off pork, beef and most poultry a couple of years ago in favor of fish, it was discouraging.

Utne isn't explicitly partisan, except for a couple of moderately fawning references to Barack Obama. An article excerpted from Reason magazine criticizes the morphing of the U.S. presidency from the founders' administrative caretaker to the media's cult of personality, and reminds readers that the way this country was designed, power is supposed to flow up from the people, not down from a superhero/benign despot.

The political undertone does run through much of Utne, though. A fascinating article about the Roma (aka Gypsies) addresses the stereotypes and harassment they face on two continents. A touching photostory shows boys in a Kabul orphanage transporting themselves out of the misery around them through yoga. Less comforting is the article that immediately follows, describing the emotional and behavioral deterioration of people interned in a Kenya refugee camp.

Except for the photography, Utne's design is kind of messy, which is too bad, because it does have one toe in the mainstream (Ogden Publications, publisher of Mother Earth News and Natural Home, bought it from founders Eric Utne and Nina Rothschild Utne in 2006) and its progressive ideas deserve to be packaged more attractively. An exception having nothing to do with the in-house design was a book review containing a sampling of way-cool WPA posters from the 1930s and 1940s.

Utne's message of living ethically and consciously appealed to the person I aspire to be when I'm not actively participating in the culture of consumption. But I wonder how much difference its message can make in a world where every person with Utne's values is outnumbered by, let's say, several million to one by those who don't know, or much care, what a carbon footprint is.

You've got to start somewhere if you want to get anywhere, I suppose. To paraphrase John and Yoko, "Doom and gloom is over, if you want it."


Published by: Ogden Publications Inc.

Frequency: Bimonthly

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