Adventures in Media Surreality – Part 2
Global Climate Catastrophe – Mustn’t Grumble
by David Edwards and Media Lens
Days Of Carnage And Tears
In the aftermath of September 11, the media reported endlessly on the likely identities and motives of those responsible, on the options open to Western leaders, and on the urgent need for decisive action. On September 12, 2001, for example, an impassioned Guardian editorial wrote of, “the heartfelt conviction that Britain and the British people... will do all in their power to assist the American government in finding those who are responsible. The United States, its government, and its people did not deserve this. For this day of carnage and tears there can be no justification or excuse”. (Leader, ‘The sum of all our fears’, The Guardian, September 12, 2001)
Compare and contrast the media response to the many days of carnage and tears being wrought by climate change: 13,600 additional deaths reported during France’s record-breaking heatwave this month, 1,500 heat-related deaths in India, 1,316 deaths in Portugal in two weeks, 500-1,000 deaths in the Netherlands, 900 additional deaths in Britain, 569 deaths in China. In Italy and Spain, death rates have risen by 20% in some areas.
Professor John Schellnhuber, head of the UK's Tyndall centre says: “What we are seeing is absolutely unusual. We know that global warming is proceeding apace, but most of us were thinking that in 20-30 years time we would be seeing hot spells [like this]. But it's happening now." (‘Global warming may be speeding up, fears scientist’ John Vidal, The Guardian, August 6, 2003)
Latest predictions suggest that earlier forecasts have badly underestimated the extent and rate of climate change. The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) reports that catastrophic runaway global warming is likely unless the US, the world's biggest polluter, can be persuaded to take action.
On August 18, David Rose reported the closure of Europe’s Mont Blanc:
“This year, for the first time since its conquest in 1786, the heatwave has made western Europe's highest peak too dangerous to climb... The conditions have been so extreme, say glaciologists and climate experts, and the retreat of the Alps' eternal snows and glaciers so pronounced, that the range - and its multi-billion-pound tourist industry - may never fully recover. The freak weather, with no substantial snowfall since February, means pylons holding up ski-lifts and cable cars may be too dangerous to use next winter.” (‘Record heatwave closes Mont Blanc to tourists - Dramatic proof of global warming as peaks begin to crumble in high temperatures and snowline retreats’, David Rose, The Observer, August 17, 2003)
Dr Jonathan Bamber, reader in glaciology at Bristol University, said that the damage to the Alpine environment may be irreparable:
“People don't seem prepared to take real notice of [global warming] and start to press for something to be done until it affects their own backyard and livelihood. What's happened to the Alps this year, coming after a long run of very warm years, is almost an allegory for the kind of events that may take place elsewhere... This is a major wake-up call, and no way is a normal winter going to put this back.“ (Ibid)
Last year the US National Academy of Sciences warned of a very sudden global climate disaster, perhaps within the next ten years. Reviewing the academy's report, the then UK environment minister, Michael Meacher, wrote:
"We do not have much time and we do not have any serious option. If we do not act quickly to minimise runaway feedback effects we run the risk of making this planet, our home, uninhabitable." (Watt, 'US rejection of Kyoto climate plan "risks uninhabitable Earth"', The Guardian, May 16, 2002)
While the media does report the latest disasters and warnings in this way, there are few serious attempts to explore the identity and motives of opponents to action on climate change, or to draw attention to the vast scale of the folly being imposed on the world by those responsible. The refusal to respond to climate change is presented almost as a natural human phenomenon, or is loosely blamed on “America” or “China”. But the opponents of action are easily identifiable.
The US National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), for example, representing much of US industry, was candid enough in its letter to George W. Bush in May 2001:
"Dear Mr. President:
On behalf of 14,000 member companies of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) - and the 18 million people who make things in America - thank you for your opposition to the Kyoto Protocol on the grounds that it exempts 80 percent of the world and will cause serious harm to the United States." (Michael E. Baroody, NAM Executive Vice President, Letter to the President Concerning the Kyoto Protocol, May 16, 2001, http://www.nam.org)
The website adds further:
"The NAM strongly opposes the [Kyoto] accord... President Bush also opposes Kyoto and is now pursuing a more reasonable approach to climate change."
That other great voice of US business, the US Chamber of Commerce, declared in a letter to the US president:
"Global warming is an important issue that must be addressed - but the Kyoto Protocol is a flawed treaty that is not in the U.S. interest." (www.uschamber.org, July 19, 2001)
The US Chamber’s website notes that it is the world's largest business federation representing more than “three million businesses and organisations of every size, sector and region”.
You will do well to find even whispered references to this extraordinary depth of business opposition in what is, after all, a corporate press. The fact and significance of the NAM’s opposition, for example, has never been explored by the Guardian or the Independent.
Instead, a threat that makes international terrorism look trivial is often treated whimsically. The Independent’s editors commented this month on Britain hitting the 100F mark:
”Inevitably, it was late and we almost despaired of its arriving. Finally, though, the wish produced the fact... We can boast that ours was the generation that first experienced subtropical Britain.” (Leader, ‘Under pressure’, The Independent, August 11, 2003)
In an equally surreal editorial (headed ‘Mustn’t grumble’) the Guardian wrote:
“At last the hot nights, strumming crickets and warm sea which we usually pay so much to visit for a fortnight's package holiday are here on our doorstep. Rejoice, as Lady Thatcher once instructed us, rejoice. But er ... judging by the comatose and in some quarters almost hostile reaction to the heatwave, Britain has a long way to go before centuries of phlegm and caution are discarded for the fervour and excitement of permanently warmer climes.” (‘Mustn't grumble... Summer heats up to more than 311K’, Leader, The Guardian, August 11, 2003)
No matter that thousands have died already, or that the London-based Global Commons Institute predicts more than two million deaths from climate change-related disasters worldwide over the next decade. Journalists joke about airliners slamming into buildings at their peril, and challenging the fabricated ‘threat’ of Iraqi WMDs can see you barracked and smeared, dragged before MPs’ committees and banned from reporting. But climate change has not been labelled a “serious and current threat” by the people with the power to make things real for journalists.
Particularly since September 11, Western commentators have been eager to identify religion as the root of much of the world’s evil. Polly Toynbee wrote in the Guardian:
“This is about confronting religion at a time when it threatens global Armageddon. It is there in the born-again Christian fundamentalism demanded of every US politician, turning them all into ‘crusaders’. It drives on the murderous Islamic jihadists. It makes mad the biblical land-grabbing Israeli settlers. It threatens nuclear nemesis between the Hindus and Muslims along the India-Pakistan border... religion is not nice, it kills: it is toxic in the places where people really believe it.” (‘Religion isn't nice. It kills’, Polly Toynbee, The Guardian, September 6, 2002)
In reality, however, modern democratic society is filled with irrational beliefs that are quite as dangerous as any of the dogmas of theistic religion. There can be little doubt, for example, that many people perceive a pattern and direction in modern consumer society that echoes the “manifest destiny” proclaimed by American colonists justifying the annihilation of Native American society. In 1845, John O’Sullivan, editor of the Democratic Review, declared it:
“Our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” (Quoted, Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States, HarperPerennial, 1990, p.149)
How many people today - in awe of ever faster computers, ever miniaturising cell phones, nanotechnology, and the rest take it for granted that it is our “manifest destiny” to progress towards an ever more sophisticated and powerful technological future? These are the same people unmoved by the most astonishing irony of our time, that while corporate adverts endlessly persuade us to fixate on the latest technological tweak to modern comfort, we are blind to the fact that the natural world around us is literally falling apart. Theodore Roszak comments:
“Sick souls may indeed be the fruit of sick families and sick societies; but what, in turn, is the measure of sickness for society as a whole? While many criteria might be nominated, there is surely one that ranks above all others: the species that destroys its own habitat in pursuit of false values, in wilful ignorance of what it does, is ‘mad’ if the word means anything.” (Roszak, The Voice Of The Earth, Simon & Schuster, 1992, p.68)
The belief, often sincere, that people are working as part of a state-corporate system contributing to the positive development of society makes it extremely hard for them to recognise the destructive impact of their actions it challenges their whole sense of who they are as benign, reasonable people. This is surely why so many of us, journalists included, find it so hard to recognise the Western subordination of Third World people to profit, and the catastrophic subordination of planet to profit.
Consider, also, the remarkable superstition surrounding the ethics of employment. Innumerable documentaries and news reports this summer have shown British servicemen in the Gulf pilots mutilating people with cluster bombs, submariners incinerating people with cruise missiles declaring their hatred of war but adding: “I’m just doing my job.” In reality, of course, there is no rational basis whatever for the view that paid employment overrides other human and ethical considerations. It is almost as if employees label themselves ‘soldier’, ‘sailor’, ‘Washington correspondent’, and then actually come to believe that the label defines the reality.
The BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan who exposed deep concerns in the intelligence community about government ‘spin’ on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction - has been rebuked by several MPs for “making the news rather than reporting it”. According to this view, the fact that someone is employed to report on politics means they are stripped of all ethical responsibilities for exposing government lies and protecting human life. But why is it unreasonable for a journalist to be a good citizen as well as a good reporter? In his brilliant study of the professional mindset, Disciplined Minds, Jeff Schmidt writes:
“Professionalism in particular the notion that experts should confine themselves to their ‘legitimate professional concerns’ and not ‘politicise’ their work helps keep individual professionals in line by encouraging them to view their narrow technical orientation as a virtue, a sign of objectivity rather than of subordination. This doesn’t mean that experts are forbidden to let independent political thoughts cross their minds. They can do so as citizens, of course, and they can even do so as experts, but then only in the ‘proper’ places and in the ‘proper’ way.” (Schmidt, Disciplined Minds: A Critical Look at Salaried Professionals and the Soul-Battering System that Shapes Their Lives, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2000, p.204)
Finally, we might also consider the related, irrational tendency to depend on authority for definitions of reality. As we have discussed above, a threat only truly becomes a threat for the media when it is defined as such by people in power. A rationalisation for this is undoubtedly the argument that the views of elected officials should be reported and discussed as a service to democracy. But, again, this ‘professional’ view of media reporting becomes absurd when it is allowed to override our own capacity for independent thought and critical analysis.
If we know perfectly well, for example, that the main political parties are all beholden to corporate interests, that they therefore focus on threat responses that benefit business but not on responses that damage business; and if we know that these ignored issues present a grave threat to human life, then obviously it is our job as journalists to discuss them.
David Edwards is the editor of Media Lens, and the author of Burning All Illusions: A Guide to Personal and Political Freedom (South End Press, 1996). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the Media Lens website: http://www.MediaLens.org
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