Eco Realism: What Your Newspaper Should Look Like

newspaper reading

Last night a friend and fellow committed lover of the earth our home invited me to sit on a committee for a local environmental advocacy organization. Why not? I’m an advocate of stopping the rapid dismantling of the planet’s life-support systems, of arresting the extinction crisis, reining in climate change, ending widespread toxic polluting of our lands, airs, and waters, of more equitable distribution of our relatives (as Haskell Indian Nations University professor Dan Wildcat urged audience members to think about the planet’s “resources” recently). But I balked, as I should have. While I am a member of a couple environmental education organizations, these groups don’t get involved in trying to sway public policy.

earth day pinI had to decline, I said, because although my interests usually dovetail with those of her organization – and my conclusions more times than not approximate, as well – “I couldn’t cover environmental stories, organizations, or issues with a straight face” writing as a member with “pins on my shirt.” What about those times my interpretation of facts is at odds with the group. I’d be forced to submit my opinion or interpretation to the leadership, of course. As a journalist, my ultimate master must be to something higher.

Of course, as a writer whose starting point is the disheartening fact of our current global environmental crisis, as one who accepts the turbulence we find ourselves sailing through as a species, I know I won’t be read by some as an impartial interpreter of modern tales of development and exploitation, of contesting clean and dirty energies, of displacement of the globe’s marginalized by the economic powers of globalization. Because I accept as unwelcome — even “bad” — the dissolution of complex systems that have taken millions of years to entrain and thereby make life possible, I am consigned in popular media frameworks to the status of an activist writer. I’m OK with that. I’d prefer to continue to write in plain terms about the most consequential issues of our day, thank you very much.

But while I was hacking out spumes of crabgrass from my small front lawn (the 12′ by 12′ patch not overlain with square-foot gardens) I wondered if I would appear to be such an odd duck if the rest of our media community found it in their collective brain/heart to also accept that the planet we inhabit is in a state of crisis. I guarantee you it would be a very different animal from what we have today. Local development fights would be scrutinized with a global lens. Issues of our “inalienable rights” would be carefully weighed against our planetary “inalienable responsibilities” (Wildcat, again, whose address helped close the Association for the Study of Literature & the Environment conference in Lawrence, Kansas, over the weekend).

We’d move past the era wherein publication of an occasional story trying to peg one weather event or another on climate change served as evidence at daily editorial board meetings that the paper was meeting its public obligations. Instead, editors would begin to judge every development project through a sustainability lens. Does that new conference center tip the global scale further toward destabilization or would it, by increasing an area’s walkability and enhancing public transportation, reduce future emissions over time?

When considered through this lens of ecological realism, any leadership without both a plan to rapidly reduce greenhouse gases to prevent needless suffering around the world and brace for the impact of an increasingly violent climate (say, flooding) – particularly for its most vulnerable residents – would be raked through the journalistic coals as roughly and thoroughly as a leadership that tolerated a police force that beat innocent motorists in the streets, who allowed embezzlement or indulged blatant narcotic-fueled recreation among its staff (while supporting laws barring others to do likewise, should they so choose), that protected planners caught conniving to seize private property for public projects designed to enrich the few.

recent survey of scientific papers on the subject of climate change published from 1991 to 2011 found that more than 97 percent support the scientific consensus that humans are driving climate change (anthropogenic global warming, or AGW). The science, it turns out, has been settled for 20 years. And yet the oil and gas interests, intent on wringing out the last ounce of profit from the game, took their fight to the opinion makers, the worlds of print and TV journalism.

They’ve been rewarded for it.

As Graham Readfearn reported recently:

To this day, these dead theories [opposing human-caused climate change] hang around like slack-jawed zombies in the graveyards of global media outlets. …  found that climate change contrarians outnumbered four-to-one those authors calling for firm action to reduce fossil fuel emissions.

In the US, the Union of Concerned Scientists has looked at climate change coverage in the Wall Street Journal and on Fox News over a six-month period.  In the case of Fox, UCS classified 37 out of 40 segments as “misleading” on climate change science. In almost a year of Wall Street Journal articles, just nine out of 48 articles were deemed to accurately reflect the state of the science.

skeptic study

What do you expect when the papers (and news channels) of record continue to hide the affiliations of their “experts”?

I come from daily newspapers and believe that it will soon dawn on their editors and owners that environmentalism is about saving our own species as well as so many of our relatives now being pressed into obsolescence. A global mindset will inevitably settle into the seats of Big Media (or, at least those not owned by the earth eaters). Unfortunately, even if the traditional news outlets are able to transition with enough integrity intact to provide the policy-setting public the tools they need to change course decades of death and destruction will have already been locked in place. And the storytellers will have earned their own their thick slice of blame for it.

Not that my writing or analysis is perfect. In fact, more days than I care to admit it’s been woefully deficient. But I know the time that I live in. And it’s a wild one. One demanding profound honesty and integrity – qualities frequently lacking in our political system even when the risks are low.

The risks today are anything but.

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