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Nature as a Stage

Section
6. Ensure Media Acknowledgement of Environmental Context
Page
6.6

While listening to evening radio on the public broadcaster a few years ago, the presenter, who was new to radio, said how much he’d learnt from experienced radio people, such as the oft-lauded morning presenter, whom I have spoken of previously (see webpage 6.1, ‘Introduction’). The ‘golden’ advice, apparently, was that radio was all about conflict, and if you get conflict going, then the audience will be engaged and all will be well. The fact that the evening program virtually never dealt with anything contentious, and was strictly a mild, sort of ‘easy-listening’, program, didn’t seem to occur to the presenter, and he told the story as if he had been prostrate at the feet of the Oracle of Delphi.

(Image left: educationhq.com. 2017; image right: viralbaby. 2018. The mass media loves conflict and almost any subject matter, including the environment, can meet this purpose, regardless of whether it is a more ‘serious’ show like the ABC’s Q&A, or more ‘Punch and Judy’, like NBC’s Jerry Springer Show).

I don’t think this story is as inconsequential as it seems. The default mode, the go-to position for much of the media, the tried-and-true, is conflict, real or confected. It’s an easy, lazy formula of assembly of combustible materials, the lighting of a match, and then the standing back and watching/listening/commentating on the ensuing ‘fight’. We have all seen it in its many forms, from shock jocks and talkback, to Jerry Springer-esque TV shows, to pretend debating forums of more ‘serious’ programs, to deliberately antagonistic opinion pieces, and on it goes. The combatants are assembled, the crowd boos or cheers, shouting ensues. Job done.

As conflict is the goal, and conflict is the product, subject matter is irrelevant. It can be anything, and even the environment will do, as long as it is seen as being sufficiently ‘combustible’. Protests and demonstrations are good in this regard as there is colour and movement and noise, and environmental movements are caught in a cleft stick here as they want attention and action for their cause, but at the same time are feeding a cynical media formula that merely wants to exploit them; a sort of ‘damned if you do, ignored if you don’t’, dynamic.

Addressing the conflict formula is harder than it looks. At various times I have had dealings with the media, most of them constructive, I am pleased to say, but many have been the times, when presenting for an interview, to be ambushed and find that ‘an opponent’ or opponents, have been invited, and a stage set for conflict. One will often find, also, that one’s responses to questions will be broken-up and edited with opposing comment, even though one was not alerted to the fact that other opinion was being sought, nor given any right of reply; a post-event set-up that one is powerless to respond to. When challenged about these shady practices, the usual media response is that they are just airing debate, giving justice to different opinions, which, of course, may be true, but this is not answering the accusations of non-disclosure and conflict creation.

I have been interested to observe, in more recent times, the rightful anger of climate change scientists when exposed to these media ‘tricks’. They are relatively new to the game and seemed unprepared for what many of us have been dealing with for decades. Nonetheless, their grievances are real, and the media’s determination to find a contrary opinion, conflict to any work or finding, no matter if it were by literally thousands of scientists and the result of years of work and millions of data points, is as determined as it is astonishing. As famous tennis player Andre Agassi is reputed to have once said: “the beautiful thing about opinions is that they are like arseholes; everyone’s got one”. This is good enough for much of the media when truffling for conflict on climate change or other topics. Someone, somewhere, can be found to disagree and this is presented as genuine, as ‘equivalent’. Of course, it isn’t, but if tackled on it they usually play the disingenuous, post-modernist ‘card’; that all responses are equal and that they are some sort of champion of egalitarianism.

This championing of ‘diverse opinion’, though, is highly selective. As mentioned re the ‘optimism imperative’ in 6.5, ‘important’ topics don’t have to conform. Pieces on the economy, growth, spending, interest rates, race, gender/identity, population, etc. and so forth, are almost always presented alone, as one-dimensional, and no opposing or questioning viewpoint is sought or allowed. This is Chomsky’s ‘manufacturing consent’ in stark relief: these matters are very important, agreed upon, and cannot be questioned or even discussed in a wider setting. The environment, on the other hand, is conflict fodder.

B. For Other Agendas

Just as the environment doesn’t really matter for media outlets seeking conflict (or indeed, entertainment, enemies, or shock and fear), it is merely a means to an end, so to can it be a stage, a platform, a carrier for other agendas. These agendas may be very worthwhile and indeed important, but that is not the point: the environment is subjugated to the role of tool or mechanism, rather than of importance in its own right.

In a general sense this has already been discussed in 6.3, 6.4 and 6.5, where the media uses the environment to engender fear, hatred, create and identify enemies, or to entertain. Drilling down to finer detail, the imposition of other agendas can probably be roughly separated between the approaches of the more Right-leaning media, and those of the more Left-leaning.

On the Right, the environment serves as a vehicle for development, a potential El Dorado, but there is a problem, and that is that some people want it to remain as it is. This can be demonised as ‘anti-human’ and ‘locking it up’ (note the identical tactics to some on the Left, as identified in 6.4), when, of course, it is quite the opposite, and there are dozens and dozens of activities allowed and encouraged in protected areas, just not damaging ones. The old and discredited ‘multiple-use’ is then usually trotted out as a Trojan Horse for development, untold tourism dollars, or whatever development being touted, is projected, and the process of conversion to some sort of farm or parkscape is begun. Nature here is an opportunity, a wasted financial opportunity, that must be converted from natural capital into human capital asap. If resistance persists, then unlikely allies can be enlisted and deployed as further Trojan Horses, such as the ‘Safety Horse’ or the ‘Disability Horse’. These are presented as unimpeachable and every inch, everywhere, must, apparently, be made ‘safe’ and available to everyone, no matter what. (There is a strange inconsistency here: this mantra is applied to public land only; private land is ever more tightly held and exclusionary).

(Simoes, D./designwanted.com. 2019. Bailong Elevator, Zhangjiajie, China. Built within a national park and despite UNESCO protests at its damage to this World Heritage Area. A prime example of conversion of natural capital into human capital)

 

We have all witnessed this process hundreds of times over. Nature is not really extant at all, but mere inert clay ready to be shaped by our hands into something of worth. The building of the Bailong Elevator, in China, above, exemplifies this attitude.

I had the misfortune of hearing a radio commentator in Tasmania a few years back getting very hot under the collar about a caller objecting to the idea that the famous Overland Track (a walking track through beautiful, wild, mountain country in western Tasmania) be converted into a road for 4WDs, and even wheelchairs. Nevermind that approximately 10,000 people walk it each year1, over 220,000 people visit the National Park that surrounds it each year (ibid.), and that we have 64 million kilometres, plus, of roads across the globe2; the fact that there are still a few, tiny, places on earth that cannot be driven on and ‘developed, is offensive!

 

Here’s Australia’s version of the Bailong Elevator from the Hobart Mercury (a News Corp paper):

‘Mt Wellington Cableway Company finally reveals detailed plans’

“THE Mt Wellington Cableway Company has unveiled its final plans, including the cable car’s route, designs for the pinnacle centre – and a new road. VOTE IN OUR POLL

JIM ALOUAT

August 4, 2018 – 12:00AM

An artist’s impression of the proposed pinnacle centre for the Mt Wellington/kunanyi cable car. Picture: Supplied

THE proponents of the cable car project will sell it to the public as a low-impact, environmentally friendly tourism investment that will improve the kunanyi/Mt Wellington experience.

After years of speculation, the Mount Wellington Cableway Company will finally reveal today that its proposed $50 million cable car project will launch from a clearing along the main fire trail within Mount Wellington Park.

MWCC’s preliminary proposal was for a two-stage cableway over 4.6km from the Cascade Brewery and also had an option for the end of Old Farm Rd.

But Carlton and United Breweries took those options off the table when it said it would not lease or sell any land to the company.

MWCC’s cableway length is 2.7km, which retains a height gain of almost 1000m, making it “the tallest cable car in the southern hemisphere”.

The proposed route for the cable car goes straight in front of the Organ Pipes.

The cable car will go over the Organ Pipes and the route proposes three towers. The first two towers are 45-55m in height near the base station.

The plan estimates only 10-15m of these towers will be visible above the tree canopy.

The last tower, near the summit, will be 36m tall sitting below the skyline when viewed from the city.

For this tower, there are two different options to gauge public preference — a rust-coloured metal lattice tower or a sculptured concrete tower.

MWCC has commissioned a custom-built cabin design from a Switzerland engineering company called Doppelmayr Garaventa Group.

The cabin features floor-to-ceiling glass, no motor and an open-air balcony for its two cable cars. These silent cable cars will be secured by three cables — two track cables for stability and one haul rope for propulsion, which the company says will allow for reliable operation in windy conditions.

At top speeds the cable cars can ascend and descend in under seven minutes, fit up to 80 passengers each and will be staffed by a tour guide.

Ticket prices for the service will be determined after a development application has been approved.

MWCC chairwoman Jude Franks said the company had listened to the public feedback.

“Our detailed plans address a range of issues raised with us including the location and road access to the base station, traffic amenity and flow,” she said.

Ms Franks said the company was highly confident in the technical design, safety and financial viability of the project.

“Since 2014 a massive amount of work has gone into the design and engineering as well as very detailed studies of weather and visitation patterns, and other aspects of this project,” she said.

Swiss engineers from Doppelmayr Garaventa Group will arrive tomorrow to examine the potential site.

The Mercury understands MWCC has applied for a new authority from the State Government to carry out final geotechnical surveys and is seeking permission from the council for a flora and fauna study for a proposed new link road.

If both are approved, MWCC will submit a development application to the council. The proponent aims to have the cable car flying high by 2021.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS

How much will it cost?

About $50 million.

What is the scope of the project?

The route is 2.7km long with three towers. It consists of a base station serviced by 2.5km of new road and a pinnacle centre. The centre will contain a restaurant, bar, viewing areas and public amenities.

Will the cable car pass over popular walking tracks?

Yes, several walking tracks, in particular the Organ Pipes track, are under the path of the proposed route. The cable car will pass over the Organ Pipes.

Will the cable car require private land to be resumed or pass over private land?

MWCC says the project does not require private land.

Will the development on top of Mt Wellington or the cable car be visible from the city?

The developer says the visual impact of the cable cars will be minimal and the pinnacle centre on the summit will be positioned below the skyline.

What impact will the development have on traffic?

The developer predicts a slight increase in traffic on upper Macquarie St and Cascade Rd and a large reduction of cars and buses on Pinnacle Rd and the summit carpark.”

As far as pro-development pieces go it’s pretty tame and played fairly straight, but notice no dissenting views or information is included, and there’s a cosy list of ‘Dorothy Dixers’ at the end of the article for the developer to answer. Despite this, there has been, and still is, marked opposition to this project.

 

On the left of the divide, the media is no less keen on a good development story or two at the expense of the environment, but it has to be for identified disadvantaged groups (really anyone other than better-off, urban, First World, white people). This is seen as a human ‘right’ and any attempt to deflect it and say, ‘No, this is not the way forward for anyone’, is met with cries of racism, elitism, selfishness, etc…We have already touched on this type of response (e.g. webpage 6.4), but more common than this is the use of Nature as a stage for displaying the ills of the world and the need for change. This, of course, may, and probably is, very much true, we need to change a great deal – and fundamentally – as T10 is constantly pointing out, but this is not the point we are making here. This approach from the Left-leaning media is, again, not about the environmental issue in question, but about what it may say about other issues, about dysfunction within the system, that can be used as a weapon to bring about whatever the desired change elsewhere may be. For the Left media, this is usually social and political reform (curiously, the field of economic reform has, increasingly, been abandoned).

As the Left media has narrowed the field drastically as to what ‘the environment’ is (limited now almost exclusively to climate change and indigenous rights), then it is to these issues that we must look for ‘other agenda’ omnibuses.

Climate change is a vital issue in its own right, has, and will increasingly, have profound environmental impacts, and much of what is addressed under this banner is sincere, serious and genuine. This said, it also serves as a carrier for other concerns, an exemplar of ‘what is wrong’ that can become dominant, and the environmental aspects can be left behind.

 

An interesting article in the leftist ‘New Statesman UK’ demonstrates some of these traits, some of this use of climate change for other agendas, even though it is a serious and well-referenced article that I am sure wishes to address climate change, per se, as well.

‘How the rich could stop climate change’

“The global clean energy transition will not come cheap, but billionaires could do much more to finance this change.

By Nick Ferris  13/1/2022

Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The mega-rich love to talk about climate change. Whether it’s Amazon founder Jeff Bezos telling the Cop26 climate summit that it took a trip to space to understand the need to protect the world, or Microsoft founder Bill Gates writing a book on the subject, the journey from entrepreneur to billionaire to climate advocate is a well-trodden path.

But given that they are not climate scientists, the most valuable asset these individuals can offer to the climate fight – reducing their personal emissions aside – is money. The cost of reaching net zero emissions is tens of trillions of dollars, a bill the world’s billionaires – collectively worth $13.1trn – could make a hefty contribution towards. 

Data shows that philanthropic spending on climate action remains low. Donations from charitable foundations and rich individuals to environmental causes accounted for just $1.4bn out of a total of $64bn of philanthropic giving in the US in 2020. 

The collective wealth of billionaires has soared by $5.5trn during the pandemic, estimates the US-based Institute for Policy Studies, yet individuals stumped up less than $3bn at Cop26. Bezos leads the way for climate-giving among individual donors, having launched his $10bn “Earth Fund” in 2020. But only $1.4bn has been handed out so far, 0.7 per cent of Bezos’s estimated $200bn fortune. 

In addition to a lack of spending on climate action, there is often an unsettling contradiction in approaches to climate philanthropy. Foundations that fund environmental causes often do so with money made from fossil fuel investments. The situation has improved in recent years: the number of major foundations that have fully divested from fossil fuels has increased from 17 to 192 since 2014, as tracked by the DivestInvest Network. But a legacy of dirty investment portfolios endures. The $13bn-endowed Hewlett Foundation – one of the most prolific climate philanthropies, giving $466m in climate grants in 2020 – has divested from coal, but maintains investments in oil and gas (a spokesperson told the New Statesman that it expects to divest from all fossil fuels in the next five years).

An analysis from academics at Indiana University also shows how billionaire philanthropists produce emissions thousands of times greater than the average individual. Gates and Bezos, respectively, are estimated to produce 7,400 and 2,000 tonnes of carbon a year, compared with a global average of 5 tonnes. 

Other highly polluting philanthropists have deliberately directed their money to work against climate action. “Conservative philanthropists like the Koch brothers – whose $100bn business empire centres on fossil fuels – have given millions to conservative think tanks and climate-sceptic academics,” said Paul Vallely, author of Philanthropy: From Aristotle to Zuckerberg.

It can be tempting to fixate on the hypocrisy of calling for change, while being responsible for outrageous levels of emissions. But Bernice Lee, from the think tank Chatham House, suggested this is not a reason to dismiss philanthropy as a force for climate action. “Emissions are correlated with wealth and consumption, not the size of the giving,” she said. “Philanthropists are obviously beneficiaries of the current system, but their giving can support efforts to correct the injustices of a system that has made some wealthier than others.”  

Correcting or trying to avoid injustices is indeed the focus of the Ford Foundation. Set up in 1936 to make grants from automobile manufacturer Henry Ford’s personal fortune, it aims to marry climate action and social justice “to protect human rights and communities”, said Anthony Bebbington, director of its Natural Resources and Climate Change programme. A focus on people becomes “a climate change intervention”, he explained, because strengthening indigenous people’s territorial claims in forest areas or ensuring a stable local environment when a mine providing energy transition minerals opens, also works in the interests of the planet. 

The Laudes Foundation, which gives on behalf of C&A fashion billionaires, the Brenninkmeijer family, was established in 2020 solely to address the dual crises of climate and inequality. It was a key backer of the Beyond Oil and Gas Alliance, the first-ever international agreement to end oil and gas extraction which was launched at Cop26. “It’s easy to support existing initiatives, but we want to disrupt and transform by targeting philanthropic capital into areas that can really unleash new creativity,” said Laudes’s CEO Leslie Johnston.

But the roughly $77m that Johnston claimed Laudes invests each year pales in comparison to the potential donations that could come from the world’s deepest pockets. Other foundations need to “step up” to meet the scale of the climate challenge, she said.

“Billionaires need to step up their philanthropic giving in the climate space commensurate with the pace of climate disruption,” said Chuck Collins, senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies. He also emphasised that the focus of philanthropic giving often remains “legacy gifts” to universities, hospitals and other institutions, rather than giving that targets systemic change. “It can make us wonder if [billionaires] are living on a different planet, facing different challenges,” he added.

[See also: Ann Pettifor on why the rich must be first to pay for the climate crisis]”

 

Despite the heading, the dramatic photograph of fire and the ostensible reason for the article, I can’t help feeling that this is really about having a bit of a cheap shot at the rich. Yes, they should behave responsibly, and yes, they have disproportionate power, but it is all a bit too easy to say, as the heading does, ‘How the rich could stop climate change’. Well, no they couldn’t, but they could and should make a significant contribution.

I have trouble with this sort of easy displacement of global problems and solutions onto one or other group. We are all responsible for climate change through our almost universal use of fossil fuels, an energy source that ‘runs’ the modern globe. Addressing this will require major change by all of us (see Section 8, ‘Energy’), rich and poor, politicians and businesspeople, media executives, Australians and Albanians.

The highlighting of some rich people’s carbon footprints – ‘Billionaire Emissions’ – is a complete distraction and a red herring. Again, yes, they should behave better and set a better example, but their total contribution to greenhouse emissions is infinitesimal. In addition, many of the people listed are not involved in the fossil fuel industry and their potential influence on same is limited, at best.

Throughout the article there are hints that really climate change is the bridesmaid of this article, and not the bride. ‘Injustices’ are mentioned a number of times, and desired focus is provided by the reference to the Ford Foundation, whichaims to marry climate action and social justice ‘to protect human rights and communities’ “, and that “a focus on people becomes ‘a climate change intervention’ because strengthening indigenous people’s territorial claims in forest areas…works in the interests of the planet”. Similarly, the Laudes Foundation is quoted as being set up “to address the dual crises of climate and inequality, and to “disrupt and transform”.

I am not saying that these issues are not related, nor in any way denying climate change’s highly cross-sectional nature, but I am suggesting that the core interest of such pieces is, perhaps, not what it first appears, and that climate change is the vehicle, the stage, rather than the main item.

What’s wrong with that? On face value, nothing. These are important issues in their own right and connections and interrelationships should be highlighted and explored. However, there is a danger in this, a danger that the ‘environmental’ aspect of the problem and solutions will be forgotten and, even, that more damage will occur.

This becomes evident when climate change is reduced to a human-economic problem that can be solved by classical economics. Scarcity in resource ‘A’ will simply lead to exploitation of resource ‘B’, etc and so forth. Substitution, married to technological innovation, will achieve a clever segue from fossil fuels to renewables and more, and the Growth faith will steamroll on as before; business as usual. This is not possible (see Section 8, ‘Energy’) and is just more desperate ‘techno-dreaming’ and exemptionalism that will delay dealing with real problems and the finding of genuine solutions. It will also do nothing to address the urgent problems for the environment of habitat destruction, direct exploitation, pollution and invasive species (see ‘State of the Environment’).

Second, a focus merely on emissions, a reduction of ‘the environment’ to climate change and greenhouse gases, runs the great risk of missing the wider environmental context and has the potential to laud ‘solutions’ that do more harm than good. I have already mentioned the problem of hydro-electric schemes – now portrayed as a universal ‘good’ – as are biofuels, regardless of their very real wider environmental (and social) consequences. Windfarms, too, if sited insensitively, can be aesthetically and biologically damaging.

 

1 Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service.

2 CIA, 2013. World Fact Book. https://www.cia.gov/the-world-factbook/

Explore Other Media Environmental Context

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