Professor Freya Mathews
This was originally published in The Conversation Monday 20 August, 2012.
The news treats nature as a backdrop to the dramas and delights of human life. In the 21st century, our dramas are driving nature’s destruction, and that destruction threatens an end to our delights. But the news carries on regardless, relegating nature to the background. Isn’t it time for a change?
One night a couple of years ago (March 11, 2009, to be exact) I listened to the news on ABC Radio National at 10.00 pm. The headline was about a gunman in southern Germany. The last item concerned a rugby league player charged with sexual assault. Tucked in between, amongst miscellaneous items, was an item about the acidification of the world’s oceans due to absorption of carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.
A recent study had shown that the shells of certain microscopic marine animals (foraminifera) are growing dramatically thinner as a result of the acidification of sea water. It is largely through the mechanism of these organisms, whose calcium carbonate shells sink to the ocean floor when the organisms die, that the oceans sequester atmospheric carbon. So the thinning of the shells will reduce the oceans’ effectiveness as a carbon sink.
Moreover, since these tiny animals help to constitute the base of the marine food pyramid, anything that compromises their survival threatens to compromise the entire pyramid. As the Radio National reporter put it, the thinning of the foraminifera shells, which is no longer merely a matter of hypothesis but has been established, might cause the entire fabric of marine life to unravel.
This item was not the headline. It was presented as less important than a gunman shooting several people in Germany, and as comparable in importance to a footballer being charged with sexual assault. I listened to the 11.00 pm news bulletin, but it had been dropped by then. I was left in stunned disbelief at the way our news media are registering and representing the unfolding chronicle of our planet’s actual – no longer merely prospective – ecological collapse.
What, I wondered in despair that night, is going on? Are we all completely mad? Are we more interested in the drunken behaviour of a footballer than evidence of the unravelling of the entire system of life in the ocean? Have we no moral imagination whatsoever outside this mind-numbingly narrow frame of gunmen and footballers?
There are no historical precedents for our current failure to grasp the moral significance of the ecological collapse of the biosphere.
Isn’t it time to examine the criteria of significance that guide the daily construction of “the news”? The news has, after all, assumed the status of supreme arbiter of significance in our society: almost everyone stops everything at least once a day to listen to the news. No other source of information currently enjoys such prestige and currency.
But isn’t this prestige being squandered, if those who construct the news focus generally on items of relative triviality while ignoring the literally earth-shattering changes that are occurring at an accelerating pace all around us? Images spring irresistibly to mind of people in the brightly lit lounges of the Titanic gossiping animatedly about scandals in politics and religion while around them the vast forces of nature are closing in.
Perhaps the newspapers that arose to express the assumptions of the industrial, pre-environmental era (mid-19th to late-20th century) are now merely relics of an age that has passed. And perhaps this is true of many other contemporary current affairs outlets as well, whether print or on-line. Most such publications and outlets carry over the 19th century assumption that the natural world, perennial and relatively unchanging, is mere backdrop to the sizzling dramas of human society. With this 19th century assumption goes the further assumption that what happens within the realm of nature is not our responsibility: nature looks after itself and we cannot intervene in its intricately ordered webs of eaters and eaten without upsetting the whole kit and caboodle.
As the natural world undergoes a vast array of anthropogenic changes in the 21st century, the fates of all kinds of living things are attaining new moral salience for us. In this new “age”, known now as the Anthropocene, we are entering a new moral universe, a universe in which the old parameters of meaning are shifting.
Our media, still so inveterately old-fashioned despite the much-trumpeted technical revolutions in delivery, do not reflect this shift and are tragically failing to convey it. Instead they are creating the impression that items about the ecological collapse of the planet are on a par, in terms of moral significance, with everyday items about crime, celebrities, scandals, financial vicissitudes, trends in lifestyle.
Perhaps this is the deeper reason why our newspapers, and web sites based on them, are rapidly losing relevance. As they strive to cater more and more blatantly to what they imagine are the tastes of the market, they lose their entitlement to names like “guardian”, “leader”, “tribune” or “courier”, let alone “mirror” or “truth”. They become instead mere “tattlers”, purveyors of tittle tattle, to which people instinctively pay little serious attention.
Perhaps we need new newspapers and current affairs sites with names like The Anthropocene and The Planet. This would signal our shift to a new epoch, a new, expanded moral “age”, and would re-engage the public, particularly the young.
At the very least, the 19th century category of “the news” needs to be thoroughly overhauled. Headlines need to be reserved for what matters most, and the truly earth-shattering developments that mark our “times” need to be properly “heralded”, not relegated to low-key, special-interest sub-spots uninvitingly labelled “science” or “environment” in the depths of labyrinthine web sites or in the back pages of old-style newspapers.
Freya Mathews is Adjunct Professor, Environmental Philosophy at La Trobe University.