For readers like me who were impressionable kids during the last great green boom, in the early 1990s, the original environmental guru isn't Al Gore but a certain blue-skinned, green-haired, red-briefs-wearing superhero. That would be Captain Planet, summoned by the combined powers of his Planeteers to battle the enemies of Earth like Looten Plunder and Sly Sludge. (The early '90s were a simpler time.) The animated Captain Planet series aired for a few years before petering to an end in 1996 — just a little before the U.S. failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, which is almost certainly a coincidence.
But the captain is back, this time online as one of the top features offered by a new environmental website, the Mother Nature Network (MNN). Launched by a group of green Atlantans, including Chuck Leavell, a part-time tree planter and full-time keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, MNN is the latest website to try to ride the environmental wave online. (See grist.org, treehugger.org and TIME's own Going Green.) But if the idea behind MNN isn't new, the website's sheer ambition is. Launched in the teeth of the recession and a media apocalypse that has not spared environment-themed properties — the paper edition of the eco-friendly magazine Plenty folded on Jan. 5 — MNN aims to be nothing less than a one-stop shop, a "green CNN" for the online audience. "Our product is going to be better than anything out there," says Joel Babbit, MNN's president. "We're not just another site."
Though the site has barely gotten off the ground — it officially launched on Jan. 6 — it's already impressively close to its goal. Thanks in part to the countless media layoffs around the country, MNN has been able to assemble a surprisingly accomplished staff for such a new property, including Peter Dykstra, the former head of CNN's science unit, and bloggers like the New York Times's Jim Motavalli, a transportation expert. That talent has enabled MNN to get a fast start on harder environmental news, even as it does the yeoman's Web work of aggregating content from other sites.
But the real point of MNN isn't to provide the kind of complexity and depth you might get on a website like grist.org, where greener-than-thou commenters will dissect the minutiae of a carbon tax. Instead, it's to offer simplicity. That's on display in one of the site's more innovative features, "Translating Uncle Sam," in which MNN's bloggers take raw data from government websites — whose comprehensiveness is eclipsed only by their impenetrability — and put it into user-friendly terms. Given the way people twist data, knotting them like Atlanta traffic, in environmental debates — especially those about global warming — this is a genuinely valuable service. Notes Babbit: "We'll have better graphs."
MNN is also trying to expand its coverage beyond the usual green-media hot spots of New York and Northern California by hiring college journalists, with the aim of getting at least one reporter in each of the 50 states. But the real soul of MNN is in its green-living features — leavened with the help of Leavell's celebrity friends. If you want to get green tips from the likes of Jeff Goldblum or Jane Fonda, MNN is the place to go. Given that just about the only two subjects that remain viable in today's blasted media landscape are celebrity and the environment, combining the two might just give MNN the ability to turn green into gold.