This month, as we get the ball rolling on editing the first issue of Climate Confidential, we’re running a short get-to-know-you series about each of our contributors. We’ve started the conversation off with some background questions, but we want to hear from you. After all, answering your burning questions is what we’re planning to do here at Climate Confidential. So, without further ado, let’s hear from Celeste LeCompte. Feel free to grill her with your own questions in the comments section.
What inspired you to become a journalist covering technology and the environment?
These were two separate questions when they were given to me, but I made them into one, because I am terrible at following directions. I became a journalist because I started writing about the environment.
As an undergraduate, I had written my thesis about community organizing around sustainable agriculture in Illinois, where I grew up. I felt that the problems I saw during that research — around land use, pollution, economic development, transportation, and urbanization — weren’t being talked about nearly enough, and especially not in ways that focused on the people who were trying to do something about them.
I was so inspired by the work I saw people doing; The Land Connection, in particular, had some really inclusive approaches to problem solving that I still think about today. I questioned why these weren’t the stories being told about my homeland. If these stories made headlines — instead of tales of meth epidemics, rural obesity rates, and the medical industry brain drain — then maybe people would stop calling my beloved Midwest “flyover country.” (Seriously. Search “rural communities” on Google News if you ever want to fall in a pit of sad headlines.)
Despite that fact, when I moved to Portland, Ore., in 2004 (back when it was still like moving to the moon, as far as my friends and family were concerned), I wanted to be a regional or transportation planner. But it turns out that entry-level jobs in that field are pretty boring. (Well, I thought they were.) I really like talking to people. I preferred doing more informational interviewing to the unpaid internships I was offered. So, I found a job where I could get paid for interviewing people!
I wound up working with the team at Sustainable Industries, which was — as far as I know — the first magazine (at least in the U.S.) that focused entirely on sustainable business. It closed up shop this year, but it played an important role in shaping my perspective on reporting. Instead of writing stories that focused on environmental problems, we spotlighted the entrepreneurs and companies that were working to improve them. Sometimes, we wrote about the barriers that got in their way, too. But overall, it was a solution-focused approach to environmental issues, without being advocacy or activism. I loved it, and it’s still my preferred approach to stories today.
As for technology, well, increasingly, if you want to write about people working to solve problems, you’re going to bump into it. I have my reservations about some of the “technological solutionism” (to borrow a term from a book I haven’t read) that exists in the cleantech space, but on the whole, I think that technology is a really great tool for learning about and solving problems. So, I’m always happy to see how it’s being applied to real challenges we’re facing in terms of climate and environmental issues.
What do you hope to achieve with Climate Confidential?
I want to show that regular people will support independent journalism. And I think they (er, you) will! I’m always sending emails to my journalist friends and asking them to write about something I am too lazy or clueless to understand on my own. It’s so much fun to have smart reporter friends, and I want other people to have that opportunity.
Other publications are like an arranged marriage between the writer and the reader; I think this is more of a love match.
It might sound cheesy, but I also—for real—want to learn what kinds of stories readers (you) want us to tell. I’m super curious about that. Why do you guys care about this stuff? Is it for your jobs? Is it just because you’re curious about things? At this point, it’s become my livelihood and way of being; it’s hard for me to know why other people read about these things. Writing for other publications, I feel a little insulated from these kinds of questions; the editors and publishers decide what kinds of stories get written based on their data about their demographic surveys, web traffic, and experience. I’ve done that, and we’ll continue doing that here, too, but I’m hopeful that Beacon and Climate Confidential will give us an opportunity to really work for a community of readers who aren’t afraid to tell us what they want to know about directly. Other publications are like an arranged marriage between the writer and the reader; I think this is more of a love match.
What’s the most memorable thing that has happened to you while on assignment?
I was in China’s Yunnan Province, on a motorcycle trip along the Salween River —the last un-dammed major river in China. We had been riding all day, and were hoping to catch the freeway for the last portion of our drive back to Dali. Unfortunately, we didn’t realize that the freeways were closed to motorcyclists. So, we found ourselves facing a long, cold drive in the dark. We decide to get dinner and stretch our legs in the town where we’d hoped to get on the freeway. It was a mostly Muslim community, with a gorgeous mosque overlooking the city below. We took photos there at sunset before dropping down into the streets below. We wandered around, bundled up in our thick jackets and heavy boots, peeking in doorways and looking around.
People were very friendly, and a group of men beckoned us in to a beautiful courtyard behind some big wood doors. We started to look around and quickly saw that we were in a religious building of some sort, during evening prayer—and it was all men, except for me. We then realized that they had assumed that I — with my short hair and motorcycle garb — was also male. Everyone was very friendly and tried to welcome us in further, but we ducked out quickly, not wanting to be disrespectful. It was really beautiful, and I wish we could have stayed. I feel like this is one of the fun things about reporting; you often end up in scenarios where you can’t believe someone has actually let you in to their space.
What is your life like when you’re not working?
It’s usually like this:
Oh, wait. I was working when that photo was taken.
But, honestly, when am I not working? As a freelancer, there are very few things I do that don’t turn out to be work at some point down the road. I travel as often as I can, but that often feels like work, because I’m pretty much always traveling with my laptop. I guess I’ve never written anything about running, which is my favorite break from the computer screen. I’ve recently started finding new running routes in Oakland, Calif., where I moved last year, and I am always trying to find car-owning friends who want to go out for a trail run or hike on the weekends. I cook whenever I can (usually as a form of productive procrastination). I secretly keep a food blog. No, I won’t tell you where to find it.
Celeste LeCompte with editing by MC O’Connor.