- Written by Adrian Tait Adrian Tait
- Published: 06 February 2013 06 February 2013
In the early days of my work with Paul Hoggett at the Centre for Psycho-Social Studies, I used, somewhat tongue in cheek, the phrase “unified field theory”, about the need to link up the many layers or dimensions involved in the subject of human responses to climate change and ecological crisis.
That need still seems valid and it follows that those of us involved in climate psychology should work together to develop a conceptual platform, so that we can communicate with each other and with a wider public from a shared basis of understanding. Differences are important, but the narcissism of small differences shouldn’t be allowed to divert us from looking for common ground and a common language, which can only give us all a stronger voice and a more effective medium.
Despite the diversity that has been deliberately built into the CPA Steering Committee, I think I’ve witnessed the beginnings of a coherent culture, during the two years in which the Alliance has started to take shape. This is confirmatory of the original vision and relevant to any discussion of “the media” in this context, given the argument I want to make, namely that we need to look in two directions at once: at the media “out there”, the organs of mass communication, and at the organ we ourselves are seeking to create, through conversations, alliances, events and website.
At a recent conference organised by Positive Money, one of the speakers was Patrick Chalmers, an ex Reuters correspondent and author of “Fraudcast News – How Bad Journalism Supports our Bogus Democracies”. (download free: http://fraudcastnews.net). I was struck by his disillusionment with mainstream journalism.
Chalmers, whilst acknowledging some exceptions, made a number of points about journalists as a breed – some of which, it seems to me, pertain to society as a whole: They flock to those with power and celebrity. Their publications are understaffed; they go in for “churnalism”; time pressures discourage depth of thought. They’re pack animals, with few real contrarians amongst them. They are biased towards “free markets” and de-regulation. They fear backlash if they stray too far from the prevailing ideology.
Perhaps we are more fortunate with climate and ecology reporting, but I wonder how much so. There is a systemic problem in the mass media, involving commercial pressures, political myopia and mixed messages (which often get erroneously interpreted as objective uncertainty).
In these lights, there is paradoxically much to be gained and much at risk when engaging with the mainstream media, both in its own right and as a microcosm of wider attitudes.
A recent example of how hard it is for the most powerful mainstream medium to break out of its complexes comes from Al Gore, in his 2013 book The Future. Referring to the fear of discussing global warming which afflicts U.S. television networks, he says: “Even the acclaimed BBC nature program The Frozen Planet was edited before the Discovery Network showed it in the United States to remove the discussion of global warming. Since one of the over-arching themes of the series was the melting of ice all over the planet, it was absurd to remove the discussion of global warming, which is of course the principal cause of the ice melting. As activist Bill McKibben wrote: ‘It was like showing a documentary on lung cancer and leaving out the part about cigarettes.’ ’’ (The Denial Machine pp 325-9).
Those of us who are convinced that Earth Inc. is on a disaster course need organs of communication that are under our own control. Chalmers’ main advice to anyone wanting to challenge aspects of the contemporary system and zeitgeist is to pursue the route of “citizen media” or “participatory media” of which CPA’s website is an instance. Its aim is to help mobilise and focus efforts to address the ecocidal elements present in our culture. The website is of course an application of information technology and whilst technology is all too often a tool of human omnipotence and dissociation from our roots in nature, this in no way contradicts its value for our purposes. It is desperately urgent that all available resources be used to foster engagement with the problems that science and our own senses (if we are able to use them) have been telling us about for decades. The urgency stems both from the escalation of the problem we’re causing and the increasingly intolerable weight of guilt, fear and hopelessness that gets harder to face, as it gathers at the periphery of our awareness.
Although the broad objective is clear, we need to ask ourselves what the medium of CPA is designed to carry and what are we looking to the wider media to help us convey. This links back to the point about finding a holistic picture of the human engagement problem. We need some sort of map on which to locate ourselves as climate psychologists, and in particular to consider the role of the media. My aim in this article is to propose that task as part of our venture, in the hope of wider involvement in taking it forward, building on the work of Roszak, Rust & Totton, Weintrobe and others.
At the centre is what climate science has been telling us loud and clear. Greenhouse gas emissions (now 90 million tons a day) are rapidly undermining the period of relative climate stability which has enabled human civilisation to develop – hence the proposition that we are now moving from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. There are uncertainties about how this process will play out at given levels of future emissions, but there is a high level of consensus about the process of devastation that we are unleashing and the need to do all in our power to mitigate it. Alongside this is the knowledge that we are responsible for an escalating extinction of other life forms, impoverishing us all and further undermining the health and resilience of the biosphere on which we ultimately depend.
I can hear most readers of the above paragraph saying “We know all that”, but I imagine that relatively few of us have committed to a personal path leading down to two tons of CO2 emissions pa (as opposed to the UK average of ten tons). And we are presumably a fairly concerned and well-educated group on these matters. So we are all involved in a degree of disavowal, part of the spectrum of denial defined by Weintrobe et al’s Engaging with Climate Change.
Amongst the vast majority of people not reading this article, there will be some in the same boat, some saying it’s a problem but owning little responsibility in the matter. Some switch off, to protect against anxiety and/or because they cannot see the relevance of the problem to themselves. Others align themselves with denialism, for ideological or psychological reasons When I listen to what people actually say, I realise that what often seems to be going on is a muddle of wanting to act responsibly but without too much sacrifice, combined with elements of that whole spectrum of denial. For most of us who are not in some form of extreme denial, I suspect there’s a projection of responsibility, both for the problem and for remedial action: onto corporations, government or activists.
My point is that the human engagement part of the map is a mess, both because of the conflicts, inconsistencies and evasions to which we’re all prone and because, faced with the size of the challenge, there’s a vast deficit in the take-up of responsibility. The buck is being passed around and the hotter it gets the faster it moves. Illustrating both these points, George Monbiot pointed out in his book “Heat” that people want government to take action on climate change and they want these measures not to affect them (ie to fail).
The human engagement territory must be drawn in psycho-social terms. The problem cannot be charted or understood without reference to both psychology and the way that social, cultural, political and economic systems function. A case in point is that we need psycho-social tools to understand the functioning of the mass media. We know about the dependence of commercial media on their sponsors and advertisers, their concern for circulation or listening/watching figures – a popularity contest that has something in common with the political system. We could perhaps augment that knowledge with reference to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and the skill of the tabloid press in activating people’s basic security concerns, by pin-pointing groups in society that are defined as a threat and by appealing to our appetites for titillation and distraction. The blame game is a much easier sell than the message that we’re all invested in a system which guarantees its own nemesis by fostering appetites that are unsustainable and values that are grossly wasteful and destructive.
So I come inevitably to consumerism and the need for a different yardstick of human well being. Sermonising won’t work, but perhaps our own participatory medium will encourage us to walk the talk, as we discover the rewards on offer from the community we are helping to create. That way we might, as Ecopsychology has been pointing out for years, contribute to a shift of awareness, in favour of transactions and experiences that enrich without devouring and plundering.
Finally, in Positive News (Winter 2012). Catherine Gyldensted has a double page piece headed “Positive Psychology Could Revolutionise Journalism”, followed by the strapline: “The science of positive psychology offers a new, more constructive foundation for news reporting.” Chalmers makes a similar point in the opening pages of Fraudcast News.
She points out that a diet of bad news induces learned helplessness and stops people wanting to listen and engage. She gives various examples of stories where the positive element has been, or could be, emphasised in order to convey hope, even when the background subject is a difficult one. Amongst these are hurricane Sandy and the trial of Jared Loughner (the Tuscan, Arizona shooter). But hang on a moment, I also read a recent article by Monbiot about Australia’s descent into climate chaos and how the opposition leader Tony Abbott, in the very act of praising the undoubted courage of Victoria’s fire fighters, maintains and encourages denial of the underlying problem.
I suspect that there is a lot of truth both in Gyldensted’s and Monbiot’s contrasting arguments. It will take care and skill to develop our own medium and utilise the other media available to us in such a way as to help inspire the quest for a saner way of living and at the same time to hold constantly in mind the forces we’re up against and how high the stakes are.