July 27, 2020

The Back Page: Are We Getting It Right?

Mark A. Ryan

“Cartoon. A sketch or drawing, usually humorous, as in a newspaper or periodical, symbolizing, satirizing, or caricaturing some action, subject, or person of popular interest.”

—Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language (1985)

When I took over as the Back Page editor in 2009, the Back Page consisted of a list URLs of interest to the readership. That feature started in the early days of the internet, before Google made it remarkably easy to find just about any website with a few quick keystrokes. I thought the URL idea had outlived itself, and the magazine would benefit from a short-format op ed piece to counterbalance the long, in-depth articles that normally populate Natural Resources & Environment.

I also thought, for variety, a cartoon would be a fun diversion from the typical NR&E article on post-Keynesian economic impacts of CERCLA regulation in eastern seaboard bauxite mines. I just made that up, but you get that point. When I originally pitched the idea to the NR&E Board, it was met with skepticism. We’re a professional journal. It wouldn’t fit. It could be controversial. When I asked how many of the Board members read The New Yorker Cartoons before the articles, the deal was done. We had a cartoon.

The cartoons are a bit of a team effort. I come up with the cartoon idea for each issue, and Steven Mach, our talented artist, cleverly turns my ideas into the drawings you see. We’ve enjoyed a wonderfully symbiotic working relationship over the years (in spite of me once asking him to painstakingly rearrange the animals playing Supreme Court Justices in our cartoon to match the real Justices’ seating chart). The cartoon themes flow straight from my day-to-day experience working in environmental law. Source material is plentiful, so ideas are not hard to come by. Whether they are clever or relevant is another matter. Paula Schauwecker, a fellow NR&E Board member, acts as the sounding board for my ideas. She has the good sense to know when to kill the bad ones and has contributed invaluable tweaks, encouragement, and advice over the years. Jonathan Scoll took over for a time as Back Page editor from 2015 to 2019 and did a great job carrying on with the new format.

Are the cartoons sometimes controversial? Yes, of course. I aim for the middle, but it’s an elusive target, and a completely neutral cartoon would lack punch. It would be boring. Because of the nature of what we do, many of these cartoons are necessarily political in nature. Charlie Brown, they’re not. They’re topical. They are designed to reflect current policy or issues we face in environmental and resource law. They are meant to make us think, and, hopefully, to incite discussion. And they’re meant to entertain. We occasionally get a complaint about the cartoon being too biased. Guilty as charged. I now represent mostly business and agricultural interests, but my years of training as environmental scientist, followed by many more years as an EPA attorney shaped my world view in ways I can’t undo.

Good cartoons are thought provoking. They pack more punch than many 650-word op ed pieces. They graphically make us question our values. They give us a perspective on the world we may not naturally have. In a quick glance, they make us think. When they feel a bit uncomfortable, I would argue, they’re most effective. The recent cartoon on the burning Cuyahoga River (with an observer bragging about the stock market) dusts off and reimagines the age-old tension between economics and the environment. An earlier cartoon with two fish jumping up a fish ladder with one saying “Damned if we do, dammed if we don’t” tells a big, complex story in eight words. You may not agree with the simplistic message, and it may strike you as an unfair interpretation of the issue, but it gets your attention. It makes you ask, for just a moment, are we getting it right?

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Mark A. Ryan

Mr. Ryan is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment, the author of the Clean Water Act blog, and is with the firm of Ryan & Kuehler PLLC in Winthrop, Washington. He may be reached at mr@ryankuehler.com.