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No Longer Obeying Orders

Speech to the Enviromedia conference, Johannesburg, South Africa, 5th October 2004.

I would like to begin by discussing the context in which all journalists operate.

If we concentrate, for the moment, on the mainstream media, there is a very limited number of outlets that I would broadly describe as “free”. By free I don’t mean that the product is given away. I mean that it is free from the direct influence of private proprietors. I will give you a couple of examples from my own country.

The most famous is the BBC. It is not free of all influence, by any means. It is run by the state and financed by a tax on the ownership of televisions, called the licence fee. From time to time it is spectacularly and disastrously disciplined by the government, generally acting in concert with the right-wing press. It operates in a hostile environment, and the perspectives of its enemies – the enemies of free speech – often inform its coverage of the world’s affairs. But there is no proprietor to tell it “you cannot do such and such because that offends the interests of my shareholders”.

My second example is the newspaper I write for, the Guardian. Like its sister paper, the Observer, it is owned by an organisation called the Scott Trust, which in turn is run (but not owned) by a board of liberal trustees, among whom are a couple of Guardian journalists. It is not wholly free from the influence of power, partly because it relies for much of its funding from advertisers, partly because it has to recruit many of its journalists from other newspapers, who bring with them the political baggage they have accumulated on their journey to the promised land. It tends to be close – often too close in my view – to the Labour Party. But there is no one to tell us what to think, and no one to say you may not write this or that because it will damage my interests.

But media such as the Guardian and the BBC are unusual, in that they are big, they are well-funded and they don’t belong to anyone. In almost all other cases, the big well-funded media are owned by corporations or rich individuals.

Now to own a national newspaper or television or radio station, you need to be rich; very rich indeed. I once saw the costings for the takeover of a tabloid newspaper: it required a minimum capitalisation of £400 million: almost four billion rand. You need, in other words, to be a multi-millionaire.

Now what multi-millionaires want is what everybody wants: a better world for people like themselves. A better world for multi-millionaires is, by definition, a worse world for everybody else, for the simple reason that it relies upon vast levels of inequality. They don’t want everyone to become a multi-millionaire: in such circumstances there would be no point in being one. They want to remain richer and more powerful than everyone else.

So they have a problem. Their interests are plainly at variance with those of their readers or viewers, who are much poorer than they are. They can’t instruct their editors to write “we want a better world for people like us, and a worse world for people like you.” What they must do instead is to present a picture of the world which favours their interests. In other words, they must misrepresent the key issues. They must misrepresent the choices we face. They must portray those choices which are in our interests as being against our interests, and portray those choices which are in their interests as being in our interests. They must create a world which is in many ways the opposite of the real one.

This is not to say that the proprietor is on the phone every day to the editor saying “I demand you distort your coverage in my favour.” Though it does happen. I would like to quote from the autobiography of Max Hastings, formerly editor of the Daily Telegraph, which was, at the time, owned by the multi-millionaire Conrad Black.

“Like most tycoons, Conrad was seldom unconscious of his responsibilities as a member of the rich men’s trade union. Those who have built large fortunes seldom lose their nervousness that some ill-wisher will find means to take their money away from them. They feel an instinctive sympathy for fellow multi-millionaires, however their fortunes have been achieved. ... Not infrequently, adverse comment in our newspaper about some fellow mogul provoked Conrad’s wrath. Our excellent art critic, Richard Dorment, once wrote scathingly about the malign influence on the international art market of the vastly rich Walter Annenberg … It took some days of patient argument to dissuade Conrad from insisting upon Dorment’s execution for speaking unkindly of his old friend Walter.”

But normally such direct intervention is unnecessary. The proprietor appoints an editor in his own image: the corporate god’s representative on earth. That editor knows precisely where the proprietor’s interests lie, and precisely what assists them and what harms them. He will stay in his job as long as he continues to interpret them correctly. And so will the journalists who work for him. On the whole, no one needs to be told what to do. You very quickly evolve an accurate conception of where the limits are, and what you have to do to work within them.

This is the environment in which almost all mainstream journalists work.

It is not likely to improve very much. As the neoliberal, market-driven model of governance sweeps all before it, no one in government seems brave enough to challenge the multi-millionaires. And of all the multi-millionaires, the owners of the newspapers and media channels are the most powerful. When they say jump, governments respond “off which high building?” When they demand deregulation, they get it. When they demand the right to build their media empires to the point at which they can almost monopolise public perceptions, the government lets them do so. Governments don’t tell them what to do. They tell governments what to do. Their growing power is a major impediment to democracy. It is a major constraint on human freedom. But if you want to work in the mainstream press, these are, unless you are very lucky – and I consider myself very lucky – the circumstances in which you will have to operate.

A journalist who is concerned about the destruction of the environment will by definition find herself at odds with the prevailing media culture. This is because the interests of the men who own the media don’t end with the media. Many of them have a direct financial involvement in dozens of different kinds of business. And as the quote about Conrad Black suggests, even if they don’t, they associate with those who do. And multi-millionaires who run, for example, extractive industries or public utilities, want exactly what the multi-millionaires who run the media want: complete freedom to swing their fist, whether or not your nose is in the way. They want, in other words, deregulation.

So let us picture a journalist who is interested in the environment, and who works for a newspaper run by a rich man with rich friends. Let’s say she wants to write about climate change, and that she knows that much of it results from the carbon dioxide emissions produced by coal-fired power stations. Straight away she runs into a problem: the power stations are owned and run by members of the rich men’s trade union. She has several options.

The first is to publish and be damned: to write an article which tells the whole story of climate change: what it is, where it is coming from, what its effects will be, what should be done about it. In doing so, she would make a clear connection between climate change and the way our power is generated. In determining what should be done about it, she would call for a change in government policy, to phase out coal- burning power stations of the kind owned by her boss or her boss’s friends. When she is challenged by her editor, she will stick to her guns and say: this is how the world is, so this is how I should write about it. In doing so, she will make her immediate superiors unhappy. She will make her editor unhappy. She will make her proprietor unhappy. She will damage her prospects of promotion. She might even damage her prospects of keeping her job.

Her second option is to write three-quarters of the story. She will identify what climate change is, where it is coming from and what its effects will be, but she will, because she knows how much trouble it would cause her, stop short of recommending what should be done. This the kind of self-censorship in which most journalists engage on most working days. The pressure to cop out at the end of the article can be immense. I was once commissioned to write an article for a well-known British tabloid, about the contribution to climate change made by sports utility vehicles. Before I wrote it, the section editor quizzed me about what it would say. I told him that I would summarise the research concerning the fuel consumption of SUVs, and how that consumption was contributing to climate change.

“And what will your conclusion be?”, he asked. “There should be more research?”

“No!”, I said. “All the important research has already been done. We already know what the answers are. We should discourage people from driving SUVs by taxing them heavily.”

“Er, right,” he said.

Well I wrote my article, and concluded that SUVs should be heavily taxed. To my surprise it was published. But when I read the conclusion to the piece, it said “plainly what we need is more research.”

By such means, environmental problems, even when they are acknowledged as existing within the sphere of possible realities, are constantly deferred into an ever- receding future. They are repeatedly portrayed as things that might happen, rather than as things that ARE happening. And this permits the reader or the viewer to imagine that the impacts of environmental destruction might happen one day to someone else, but will never happen to us. Nothing could be so corrosive of the idea that we should act today, rather than waiting until somebody else, in some imaginary future, is prompted to respond.

Well, not quite nothing. There’s another means for journalists to let the multimillionaires off the hook, and that is something called Corporate Social Responsibility. Instead of calling for governments to regulate the corporations, our journalist can call for the corporations to regulate themselves, which is precisely what the corporations want.

They want it for one simple reason: it doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because it is voluntary. As soon as it becomes inconvenient for a company to reduce its carbon emissions or stop dumping pollutants in the river, it can drop its commitment to do so. Please do not forget that the directors of publicly-listed corporations have a legal duty – its called their “fiduciary duty” – to maximise the financial returns to their shareholders. They can be disqualified, they can even go to prison, if they don’t uphold it. Now in a situation in which they are faced with a choice of neglecting their fiduciary duty or neglecting their voluntary, unenforceable commitments to corporate social responsibility, what decision do you think they will take?

All the evidence we have shows that purely voluntary commitments aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. A recent study by the Organisation of Economic Development and Cooperation, for example, shows that companies which claimed they would voluntarily reduce their carbon emissions performed no better than companies which had made no such promise, unless the government had made credible threats of major penalties if they didn’t clean up their act.

Another study, commissioned by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, showed that the so-called “Responsible Care” programme adopted by the US chemicals industry in 1990 has resulted in no decline whatsoever in chemical releases into the environment and the deaths of workers through chemical poisoning.

Similarly, in the United Kingdom, when the Conservative government decided in 1996 to switch from the regulation of health and safety to voluntary compliance, and reduced enforcement activities by 25%, the number of deaths at work immediately rose by 20%: the first rise in more than 20 years.

There are plenty of other examples. The entire corporate social responsibility agenda is a fraud. It has been developed as a means of avoiding regulation, by trying to persuade the public that there is no need for the government to act, because the corporations are acting already. Study after study shows that the only thing which works is the threat of legal penalties. And yet the press repeatedly champions corporate social responsibility as the way forward. It’s not hard to see why.

So those are options 1 and 2 : enrage your editor, or water down the message until it’s no longer threatening to the multi-millionaires.

Option 3 is the one taken by most journalists, and that is to ignore the issue altogether, because it causes more trouble for them than it’s worth. Most journalists are relatively prosperous. They belong, as a whole, to the class which can, for the moment at least, buy its way out of trouble. When the water starts to run out, they are the ones who can still afford it. When their suburb becomes polluted, they are the ones who can afford to move. Journalists are among the last people to be directly affected by environmental destruction, so they can afford to be complacent about it. Our journalist has a powerful incentive to ignore it: the potential wrath of her editor. She has no direct incentive to cover it.

But the options don’t end there. There is a fourth one. This is to deny it, and to attack the people who draw attention to it. This is the only option which permits you to cover the environment and actually IMPROVE your career prospects within a media organisation run by a multi-millionaire. And journalists all over the world have been jumping on this opportunity.

Let me give you a couple of examples from my own country. The first is a series which was broadcast by the television station Channel 4 in 1997, called Against Nature.

The series argued that there was no environmental problem, that the whole issue had been invented by environmentalists. It claimed that environmental activists in rich countries were responsible for the deprivation and death of millions of children in poor ones. What impoverished people in the South needed were vast hydroelectric projects like India’s Narmada Dam, whose construction had been suspended because of campaigns by First World environmentalists. In their callous disregard for human welfare and their fetishism of nature, the greens, it maintained drew their inspiration from the Nazis.

Indian peasants, according to Against Nature, desperately wanted the Sardar Sarova dam on the Narmada river to be built, in order to get fresh drinking water.

In reality, the Narmada Dam had no drinking water component. It will divert water away from peasant villages and towards the sugar plantations of the richest and most politically powerful people in the state. Its construction was halted not, as the series claimed, by Northern environmentalists, but by the Indian Supreme Court, in response to a suit filed by a local people’s movement. Indeed, since 1988, hundreds of thousands of local people have been protesting against the dam, and the drowning of villages, risk of floods, corruption and fraud it involves. They were not mentioned by Against Nature. I could go on and on, cataloging an extraordinary number of unsupported allegations and straightforward distortions. But this series was given three one-hour prime slots on Sunday evenings. After it was broadcast, the Independent Television Commission handed down one of the most damning rulings it has ever made: the programme makers “distorted by selective editing” the views of the environmentalists they interviewed and “misled” them about the “content and purpose of the programmes when they agreed to take part.” Channel 4 was forced to make a humiliating prime time apology. But this did not stop the series from being sold to television stations all over the world.

The second example is the publication of a book by the Danish statistician Bjorn Lomborg, called the Sceptical Environmentalist. This book also claimed that most environmental problems had either been exaggerated or made up altogether, and that even where they did exist, there was no point in seeking to do anything about them. Now there have been thousands, probably tens of thousands, of books about the environment published in Britain, but none of them has had anything like the media treatment this one received. You couldn’t go anywhere without seeing front page extracts from the book, high-profile interviews with the author, programmes presented by him. He became an overnight hero for the corporate media, and they pushed and pushed his book as hard as they could.

Needless to say, while championing his scepticism towards the claims of environmentalists, they applied no scepticism of their own towards the claims he made. Yet they were plainly in need of rigorous examination. To give you just one example, Lomborg claimed to have calculated that global warming will cause $5 trillion of damage, and would cost $4 trillion to ameliorate. The money, he insisted, would be better spent elsewhere.

The idea that we can attach a single, meaningful figure to the costs incurred by global warming is simply laughable. Climate change is a non-linear process, whose likely impacts cannot be totted up like the expenses for a works outing to the seaside. Even those outcomes we can predict are impossible to cost. We now know, for example, that many of the Himalayan glaciers which feed the Ganges, the Bramaputra, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the other great Asian rivers are likely to disappear within 40 years. If these rivers dry up during the irrigation season, then the rice production which currently feeds over one third of humanity collapses, and the world goes into net food deficit. If Lomborg believes he can put a price on that, he has plainly spent too much of his life with his calculator and not enough with human beings. But no such points have ever been raised about his book in the corporate media.

***

So I have looked at the choices facing a journalist working for the corporate media, and at the pressures placed upon that journalist to diminish, dismiss or deny the dangers of environmental destruction in order to keep her bosses happy. But that isn’t the only problem we face. There’s an even bigger one, and this is that the environmentalist message contradicts almost everything else we have been led to believe.

Let me mention some of the founding myths of industrial society. These myths are dominant in both capitalist and communist thought.

The first one is that there is no limit to human potential. We can be anything we want to be, we can do anything we want to do. Our potential awaits only further economic and technological development. One day everyone will be able to run a four-miniute mile. One day everyone will live to be 200. One day, if we choose, we could all abandon the planet we live on and move to another one. As economies and technologies develop, we can expect to see the welfare of everyone on earth improve: what the neoliberal economists call the rising tide which lifts all boats.

This leads to the second myth: the confusion of progress with progressivity. In other words, the assumption that industrial and post-industrial development will automatically distribute wealth, rather than concentrating it.

Both these myths are entirely dependent on a third one: that the resources required to bring this utopia about are infinite. The world can keep providing for its people, however many there are, and however much they want to consume. In the capitalist mythology, the market will magically cause new resources to materialise when the old ones run out. In the communist mythology, the free development of each leading to free development of all will mystically discharge the same function. They are both variants of a far older belief: we might have messed up our chances of survival, but the Lord, or the gods, or the spirits will nevertheless provide. Today we say: technology will provide, the market will provide. We place our faith in them just as we once placed our faith in God. The industrial worldview, in either of its dominant forms, is entirely incapable of engaging with the problem of finity.

All these beliefs are plainly irrational, and bear no relation to what is actually happening on earth. They overlook some basic facts of material existence. Let me list a few.

Basic Fact Number One:

At any rate of use, non-renewable resoures are, by definition, depleted. They will not come back. As soon as you begin to use one, the clock starts ticking towards the day on which it becomes exhausted. This applies even to the non-renewable resource on which the entire modern economy is built: namely petroleum. Global oil production will soon reach its peak and then decline, at which point the Age of Growth will give way to the Age of Entropy.

Not immediately, of course, but unless another source of energy, just as cheap, with just as high a ratio of “energy return on energy invested” is discovered or developed, there will be a gradual decline in our ability to generate the growth required to keep the debt-based financial system from collapsing.

Those of us who are alive today have been lucky enough to have been brought up in an age of energy surplus. This is a remarkable historical and biological anomaly. A supply of oil that exceeds demand has permitted us to do what all species strive to do – expand the ecological space we occupy – but without encountering direct competition for the limiting resource. The surplus has led us to believe in the possibility of universal peace and universal comfort, for a global population of 6 billion, or 9 or 10. If kindness and comfort are, as I suspect, the results of an energy surplus, then, as the supply contracts, we could be expected to start fighting once again like cats in a sack. In the presence of entropy, virtue might be impossible.

Basic Fact Number Two:

Beyond a certain rate of use, renewable resources are depleted. There is no clearer example of the limits of human action than the paradoxical fact that the global resources which are running out first are not the non-renewable ones, but the renewable ones. Fisheries, forests, fresh water, soil. Their decline is our momento mori, our reminder of the limits of finity, of the fact that we and the resources on which we depend are mortal: a fact which all of us would prefer to ignore.

Basic Fact Number Three:

Beyond a certain rate of exploitation, renewable resources become non-renewable resources. If you hit them too hard, you destroy the ecosystem which permits them to regenerate. This we have seen already in certain fisheries and forests and hydrological systems.

Basic Fact Number Four:

The earth’s capacity to absorb pollution is limited. This applies to the atmosphere as much as it does to our rivers. Beyond a certain level of carbon dioxide emissions, human life becomes impossible. The upper limit for temperature rises this century predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is six degrees centigrade. The last time there was a global temperature rise of six degrees was at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago. The result was an almost complete collapse of biological productivity: the total mass of biological matter. Around 90% of the earth’s species were wiped out. No animal bigger than a medium-sized pig survived.

But already several eminent climatologists are challenging the Intergovernmental Panel’s figures: on the grounds that they are too low. Some are predicting an upper range of 7 or 10 or 12 degrees of climate change this century.

Basic Fact Number Five:

The system which governs our economic lives, which we call capitalism, is itself is a limited resource. Capitalism is a pyramid scheme. Let me try to explain this.

It is a built on a system called fractional reserve banking. Almost the entire money supply – generally, depending on where you live, between 90 and 95% of it – is issued not by the state, but the commercial banks. It is issued not in the form of notes and coins, but in the form of loans. Between 90 and 95% of the money supply, in other words, is debt.

To pay off the debt that is issued today, the banks must issue more debt tomorrow, and so on and so forth. In a world which is not based on material realities, the world which might exist, for an example, in a computer model, it could expand for ever. But in the real world, the supply of money is linked to material realities called collateral: the real wealth which gives the loans meaning, and without which the whole scheme would be exposed as a fraud. Eventually the amount of lending must inevitably exceed the availability of meaningful collateral, for the simple reason that the material world is finite while the possible issue of credit is not. That is the point at which the whole structure comes tumbling down.

Basic Fact Number Six:

The people who get hit first and hit hardest by any one of these realities are not the rich but the poor. The depletion of resources is inherently regressive: it might enrich the wealthy, but it makes the lives of those who are already poor still harder.

These are the realities, but the three great myths of the industrial era still prevail. Almost everyone on earth, to one degree or another, accepts them. Despite everything I know to be true, sometimes I catch myself believing them.

And this, I believe, is the result of an even deeper problem, an inherent human characteristic which long pre-dates the industrial era.

It is as follows. We do not live in a world of reason. We live in a dreamworld. With a small, rational part of the brain, we recognise that our existence is governed by material realities. We recognise that as those realities change, so will our lives. But underlying this awareness is a deep semi-consciousness. This absorbs the moment in which we live, then generalises it, projecting our future lives as repeated instances of the present. This, not the superficial world of our reason, is our true reality.

***

So the task of the environmental journalist is not just to highlight damage to the environment. It is not just to challenge some of humankind’s most fundamental perceptions. It is to challenge humanity itself. I hope I am not putting you off.

And you will not be congratulated for doing so. Having spent nearly twenty years banging my head against the wall, I have developed a maxim which I am immodest enough to call Monbiot’s first law of journalism. It is this. Tell people something they know already, and they will thank you for it. Tell them something new, and they will hate you for it.

If you write something which corresponds to the prejudices and preconceptions of your readers, you will be inundated with messages of congratulation. People will tell you that you are insightful, brilliant, courageous, when all they are really saying is that you believe the same thing as they do. But if you write something which challenges the prejudices and preconceptions of your readers, and especially something of this nature which is based on hard fact, you will either be ignored altogether, or you will be inundated with messages of abuse. You will be called dumb, out of touch, even, paradoxically, cowardly. You will learn words you never knew existed.

***

So here we are, as environmental journalists, responsible for conveying to the public that its most fundamental beliefs are wrong, and for doing this in a working environment and a social environment which are, by and large, deeply hostile to that message. How on earth is this possible? This is the question I would like all of you to address in the course of this conference. I believe that there are ways of navigating the circumstances in which we must work. There is the potential to find chinks in the corporate wall, and there is huge potential, as some South Africans have been discovering, for the development of alternative media outlets which are not governed by the demands of multi-millionaires. What I want to hear from you over the next three days is how we can best discover this potential, and how we can best make use of it once we have found it.

But for now I would like to leave you with this thought: what all of us are engaged in is not just a career. It is not just a means of bringing home the rent. We are engaging with reality here, with deeper realities than almost any other profession has to face. And this means that there are no excuses. It is not sufficient to say, when doing the will of a multimillionaire, “I was only obeying orders”. In choosing to become an environmental journalist, you have taken on a vast responsibility: the responsibility to persuade people that we cannot continue to live as we do without appalling consequences. I know that if you did not take that responsibility seriously, you would not be here. So I thank you for what you doing, and I ask you never to forget the responsibilities you have taken on, and the size of the challenge you must confront.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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