Waylon Lewis: New media pioneer, lazy yogi, elephant lover
Waylon Lewis and Bill McKibben
Waylon was born and raised in Boulder, Colo., where he resides today. He is the host of the "Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis" stage show where he has interviewed luminaries such as Deepak Chopra, Bill McKibben, Paul Hawken, Michael Pollan and Dr. Andrew Weil. He was named a "Green Hero" by the Discovery Channel's Planet Green and was highlighted as Denver's Most Eligible Bachelor by 5280 magazine. He rides his bike year-round and admits to being a passionate, but mediocre rock climber.
I have been following Waylon for the past couple years and love what he does at the Elephant Journal. Last summer I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Boulder and finally got to meet him face-to-face. The Elephant Journal is doing really well and is pulling in more than a half million unique visitors a month, mostly thanks to Waylon's tireless efforts. Waylon squeezed some time out of his packed schedule and answered these seven questions. Enjoy!
MNN: You famously took your nationally distributed magazine Elephant Journal from print to Web only. Do you think you'll ever find your way back to print?
Waylon Lewis: I love print. It's beautiful, it encourages rather than, like the Web, discourages focus and relaxation in the reader, and it encourages good old-fashioned perspective, research and editing — you know, journalism.
That said, hell no. Print is wasteful: we printed Elephant Magazine on eco-paper, but once we grew to national distribution, I found out the hard way that distributing the magazine in an eco-responsible manner was impossible. Most magazines sell three out of 10 copies. The rest, after being cut, shipped, milled, printed, bounded, reshipped, then reshipped again ... wind up getting recycled. Recycling paper is better than the alternative, but it's not that "green" — it's energy-intensive to get all those inks out and turn it back into useable product.
Publishing online allows Elephant to reach millions with a small staff, to forgo investment (which would turn us into a profit-centered vehicle bent on selling out) and to focus on our mission — to get the good word out about living a good life beyond our choir and to the masses.
What's been the most surprising thing about being 100 percent on the Web?
Compared with print, it's scientific. You experiment, and quickly find out what works and doesn't. Sex sells. So does controversy, and real breaking news, and comedy, and fear. The tendency, therefore, is to chase after traffic. So it's important to always come back to your editorial mission. We publish sexy stuff, for sure — sex is great, and a part of "the mindful life," as we call it. But if it doesn't connect to our mission, then we're just exploiting, dumbing down, selling out, and losing reader loyalty — which ultimately isn't good for growth.
The invective in comments is surprising. There's a cartoon that shows a normal person, you or me, with a plus sign, then "Anonymity," another plus sign, then a computer, an equal sign, then a picture of a raging devil. Our community of readers and commenters is 80 percent positive — still, the tendency to leave lazy, insulting comments instead of taking the time to offer thoughtful, personal, constructive criticism is rampant, and dangerous for community, and democracy, and our own inner life.
Social media has been an unexpected delight. It's enabled me to save my house from foreclosure (when I killed my profitable magazine to go online, I decided against investment, gave up my office, staff, car and nearly my home). It's a personal medium that's well-suited to desperate, passionate entrepreneurs.
What's wrong with media?
I just got done saying I'm glad to be done with print — but new media and our desire to consume new media for free is killing the kind of investigative, independent, fourth estate journalism that democracy depends on. Papers are shuttering completely, or just closing their foreign bureaus. One journalist was left in Iraq to announce that the war was formally over. Where journalists cede power, the public loses, and corporations can get away with murder.
The solution? Simple. Support quality journalism. Subscribe — pay for product. Remember life is short and stop watching "Jersey Shore." My site, elephantjournal.com, has been voted best in #green on Twitter two years running. We're closing in on a million unique viewers according to Google Analytics. And yet what we offer isn't yet real journalism. We can't afford to pay our writers for researched, fact-checked, edited articles because our readers don't yet pay much or en masse. We'll get there — it's a part of our mission. But in the meantime, support media like NY Times, New Yorker — media that's willing to criticize its own sponsors and advertisers, media you can trust.
What's the difference between green and greener?
None of us in the U.S. are truly "green." I eat organic much of the time, local much of the time, I bike 365 days a year, I save the cold water from my showers and use it to water my plants, I use eco cleaning products, take my shoes off outside, buy clothes from thrift stores and my home is solar-powered. Still, my carbon footprint — as a Buddhist, I might say my "karmic footprint" — is about five times what our Earth can sustain. In other words, if everyone on Earth lived like I did, we'd all be effed.
The way to live "greener" is to live simply. Buy quality products that will last your lifetime, if not beyond. Desire to own less, live more. It's often forgotten in the "green" conversation, but who we are is the most important thing of all. I have a lot to learn, but as a Buddhist I practice being mindful, being present, being generous. There's a riddle in Buddhism that says "If you want to be happy, think of others. If you want to be unhappy, think first of yourself." That's what we all want — to be happy. A gated community and a plasma TV won't get us there. Being comfortable with who we are will. And if we like our life, we don't need to buy lots of cheap crap Made in China to distract us from our own insecurity.
Does the world need saving?
Helllll yes. I hate my fellow greenies who say, "no, man, the earth will be fine, we might all go extinct but the earth will be fine." The earth is not a rock. There's a million planets out there. As far as we know, the earth is the only one that supports biodiversity. We are killing that biodiversity — you know, life. Elephants will be extinct in just 10 years in the wild. Same with tigers. Dozens of species go extinct every day. Now, Monsanto is patenting, and killing, food. 99 percent of wheat, corn, soy is already GMO'd.
But the solution is easy, on some level: we just have to remember that we are, for all our Air Conditioned Malls and SUVs and fast food, directly dependent on our environment. I interviewed Dr. Deepak Chopra on my "Walk the Talk Show" once, and he snapped at me when I called it "the environment." "There is no 'the' environment," he chided me. "It is our environment. We are all connected. Interconnected. Dependent on one another." That's a great reminder for me. Never call it "the" earth or "the" environment. Always call it "our" earth, "our" environment. Not in the sense of ownership — but in the sense of co-dependence. We're in a co-dependent relationship with our earth.
Who is one person doing good in the world (besides yourself) who we should know about and why?
I could give a shiite about celebrities. I was just at Coachella, and in the VIP area they're a dime a dozen. The people who give me butterflies are those serving the greater good. I interviewed Gov. Howard Dean yesterday. What he did with bottom-up, Internet-based fundraising gave the outsider we now know as President Obama a fighting chance. Jamie Oliver has transformed reality TV into a vehicle for fighting childhood obesity and diabetes. Steve Ells, founder of Chipotle; Kim & Jeff Jordan, founders of New Belgium; Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia, have demonstrated that remaining independent and trying to do the right thing can make for successful business and loyal customers. President Obama is perhaps our first post-partisan president. Of course, partisanship is dominant, and without sufficient public support he's got a tough time changing that culture. Jon Stewart just might be our most influential voice in America — and he uses his humor to cut left and right — to have fun with bullsh*t wherever he finds it. Finally, Chogyam Trungpa, a Buddhist teacher, taught me and my parents how to train our minds to come back to the present moment. The present moment is the only moment where anything ever happens — it's the key to creating a kinder, more sustainable world.
And, yah, my mom. She's a teacher, and was one of those single moms that our society ought to be building statues to.
(Shea's note: I asked Waylon to come up with and answer his own question here) Is "green" a fad?
Yes. Business after business has told me that people won't pay extra for "green" anymore. Still, polls show that, all things being equal, customers will choose the healthy, mindful, fair choice.
And...no. Calling "green" a fad is like declaring that the sun is old news come nightfall. Given our ever-expanding population, our hunger for energy, electricity, homes, gadgets, travel ... sourcing more and more from less and less will necessitate that "eco-responsibility" will, within our lifetime, become a bipartisan thing much in the way that New Yorkers or other city-dwellers have smaller footprints because of how society is structured rather than because they're treehugging liberal hippies. Ranchers care about our earth. Children love animals. Republicans and Democrats alike want their children to grow up with blue skies and be healthy and happy. We just have to remember that happiness doesn't come from greed: it comes from our day-to-day actions, a life lived slowly, fully, with open eyes and heart.
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