The environmental movement has seen its share of ebbs and flows over the last 50 years. Martin Wright asks what role the media should play in shaping a better relationship with the planet
If you had to pinpoint a start date for the environmental movement, you could do worse than May 1966. That month saw the launch of Resurgence, which, with its coverage of everything from organic farming to the art of the soul, was arguably the first truly environmentalist publication.
This summer marks its 50th anniversary – and the 80th birthday of its longstanding editor, veteran green guru Satish Kumar. He’s stepping down after 43 years at the helm – a period which has seen the rise and – to some extent – fall of green journalism. “When Resurgence started”, he recalls, “there was no such thing as an environmental correspondent. There wasn’t even a department of the environment.”
Twenty years later, all that had changed. Virtually every paper sported an environment desk, as did all the major news channels – not just in Britain, but internationally. But, Kumar argues, that didn’t equate with really in-depth coverage. “It was not holistic. It didn’t acknowledge that we are totally dependent on nature – that we are nature. Instead it took the view that ‘the environment’ was something out there, and it existed to serve human needs.”
And it’s been much the same ever since. For the most part, he adds, journalists only pay attention when environmental issues show up on the political stage. Richard Black concurs. Now director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, he was for many years a leading BBC environment reporter, and so saw first-hand how the mainstream media approached the topic.
“What made climate change a really big issue [for them]? When Tony Blair said it was important!” He cites the 2006 G8 Summit at Gleneagles, when the UK, exercising its rights as host nation, decreed that the priorities would be Africa and climate change. “So you suddenly had all these Westminster correspondents going, ‘Oh! Climate change – qu’est-ce que se? – I’d better find out!’ – and so it rose up the agenda and pretty much stayed there until after [the failed] Copenhagen [climate summit].”
To some extent, green issues rose again with the successful Paris climate talks last year, but by then the media landscape itself had shifted. The business model of the traditional press had started to collapse; newspapers were laying off staff in droves, and environmental specialists were seen as expendable.
Climate scepticism had reared its head, too. In the face of aggressive complaints from a very vocal and well-funded minority, some news outlets fell over backwards in search of ‘balance’ – presenting climate science as a point of view rather than well-founded fact. This might have been infuriating, but it wasn’t without its advantages, says Black: “It forced us to look at the language we use, to question what we were being told by environmentalists, and to make absolutely sure we were accurate.”
But for the cash-strapped traditional media, such in-depth investigation is becoming harder to resource. By contrast, says Black, small specialist websites, such as Business Green and Carbon Brief, are thriving. The net result, he says, “is that if you’re already deeply engaged [in environmental issues], you’re probably better informed than ever before. But if you’re not, and you’re relying on the mainstream media to tell you what’s going on, you’re probably less informed than you were.”
It forced us to look at the language we use, to question what we were being told by environmentalists, and to make absolutely sure we were accurate
At the same time, the rise of social media, Twitter in particular, holds out the promise of a degree of ‘citizen journalism’ unimaginable even a decade ago. It’s rarely balanced, it’s not always particularly informed, but it does make it harder for environmental crimes to sneak completely under the radar.
So where does that leave us, after half a century of environmentalism and environmental journalism?
For Satish Kumar, who’s watched it all ebb and flow down the decades, it’s a mixed outlook. “For the most part, people still are looking to the government and its response, rather than take a holistic view. So I’m not wildly positive. But there is at least a little awareness that we need to address issues like lifestyle and consumption. So yes, I can see a flicker of light, a flicker of hope.”
And those flickers of hope could be the answer. Because if 50 years of doom-and-gloom reporting have taught us one thing, it’s that scare stories don’t cut it. Even before climate denialists reared their heads, it was clear that endless warnings of imminent apocalypse were leaving their audience cold, rather than stimulating them to action. Indeed, they might even have helped trigger the very climate scepticism they sought to dispel. Why?
Because as well as depressing the hell out of people, they were in danger of sounding like the boy who cried wolf. If we’re really all doomed, readers reasoned, then why does the sun still rise every morning? Why don’t we actually see this disaster unfolding around us, right here on the high street?
And those flickers of hope could be the answer. Because if 50 years of doom-and-gloom reporting have taught us one thing, it’s that scare stories don’t cut it
Better then, perhaps, to change tack, and focus slightly less on problems, and more on solutions – on the myriad breakthroughs in everything from solar technologies to community regeneration that are bubbling up all over. That was very much the thinking behind Green Futures magazine, founded by Jonathon Porritt and edited by myself, and is of course the lifeblood of Positive News.
The best solutions stories not only lift the spirit, but give people agency; a practical next step to make life sweeter for themselves and the world. It might be any number of things: signing up to a community energy scheme; joining a local tool-sharing library; buying a tiny patch of rainforest to secure its future – there are any number of examples. And they all, in their way, do more to stave off the apocalypse than a hundred melting icecap nightmares.
I’m reminded of a cartoon that appeared around the time of one of the big climate summits. It shows a speaker with a PowerPoint slide listing all the benefits that come as a result of action to tackle climate change: energy independence, healthy cities, green jobs, conserved forests, clean air and water, healthier children, less disease… And in the audience, a cross looking man is rising from his seat, pointing an accusing finger at the speaker: “Yes, well that’s all very well. But what if it all turns out to be a hoax? Then we’ll have created a better world for nothing!”
Solutions, then, and a touch of humour. The future of environmental journalism? I rather hope so.
Martin Wright is a writer and editor specialising in environmental solutions and sustainable futures, and a director of Positive News.
Photo: Alisdare Hickson
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Resurgence, The Resurgence Trust is staging a three-day event, One Earth, One Humanity, One Future, from Thursday 22nd to Sunday 25th September, at Worcester College, Oxford