Small flood in Sri Lanka; no white people dead
It seems like a lifetime ago now, but the spur that led directly to what was to become the Dark Mountain Project was a blog post I wrote a few years back about my final, exhausted withdrawal from life as a journalist. I was sick of the media, and I didn’t want to play the games anymore. I wanted to do something else; something purer, more real, something which focused on the things that were actually important. It was this post that led Dougald to get in touch with me, and the rest is history.
I haven’t really kept my promise, in that I’ve not abjured journalism completely. But I no longer call myself a journalist, or feel like one, and I no longer ‘consume’ very much mainstream news either. Sometimes, events happen which forcibly remind me why.
Today, I would like you to compare three news stories which are currently playing out in different parts of the world. Here’s a summary of the main points of each, with the geographical references removed.
Story one: Heavy rain has led to a major city being hit by the biggest flood in forty years. 20,000 homes are threatened with partial or total flooding. The city has been partially evacuated. Surrounding areas have already been inundated, and entire towns almost washed away. The country’s prime minister describes the destruction as ‘mind boggling.’ Death toll so far: 12.
Story two: Heavy rain is leading to mudslides and massive flooding in several towns surrounding a major city. This follows several months of flooding, which has left thousands homeless. The country’s biggest city was recently hit by chaos caused by heavy rains. The mayor of one affected town calls the situation ‘a huge catastrophe, a major disaster.’ Death toll so far: 93.
Story three: Heavy rain has caused severe flooding which has displaced nearly 200,000 people. Two weeks of rain has led to the destruction of villages, towns and farmland. The country’s president is unable to visit the scene due to the extreme conditions. Reservoirs are bursting their banks, and people are going short of food. 800 makeshift camps for homeless people have been set up, but they are now being affected by the floods as well. Death toll so far: 18.
These stories are all playing out in different continents at the same time. They all appear to have the same cause – an unusually severe La Nina year, which is driving extreme rainfall across the world. And they are all being reported in the media in the UK and around the world.
The difference in the level of coverage, however, is striking, One of these stories is receiving blanket coverage as I write. It is leading every news bulletin, it is on the front page of every paper, it is being analysed and commented upon on every news site. The others are being reported in small pieces on the ‘world news’ pages of papers and news website, where you have to look hard to find them. If you don’t look hard you might not even know they were happening. You would be forgiven for not knowing; the airwaves are so taken up with the one flood, that the others are barely getting a look in.
The story that is getting this blanket coverage is story one – the story of Australia. Story two is happening in Brazil, and story three in Sri Lanka. The first is perhaps the least catastrophic of the three. All, of course, are terrible and devastating for those involved, but so far the damage to Australia has been less than to the other two nations, and as a rich country it is best placed to mitigate it and repair it afterwards.
So what is going on here? Why is this happening? And why, time after time, is this pattern repeated in foreign news coverage? It’s tempting to say that the driver is simply a kind of unspoken, primitive racism. Australia is full of white people. People like us! They live in cities, drive cars, speak English, play cricket (sort of). Brazil, on the other hand, is full of poor brown people, and poor brown people are always dying in natural disasters. Economically speaking, their lives are actually worth less than ours (just ask Mr Obama’s economist Larry Summers.) As for Sri Lanka – where is that again? Is it near Burma? Oh right, it’s that island with the elephants on. Well, they’re always bombing each other and dying of cholera and things. Floods probably happen there all the time. It’s not the same as Brisbane, is it? Brisbane’s a bit like London, or New York. Brisbane is full of People Like Us.
Is it a subconscious, culturally ingrained racism that drives this? I think so, yes, at least partially. But like any discussion about ‘race’, there’s more under the microscope than skin pigmentation. The old assumption about the superiority of white people, after all, was never simply biological. It was very much tied up with the cultural, economic and political achievements that the white people were responsible for. The Victorian notion of the ‘white man’s burden’, remember, was a charitable one. At the time, it seemed obvious to everyone that We were better than Them. We had steam trains, surgery, dirigibles, ironclads, neckties, the Bible. They had cholera and superstition and poverty and animism. Our moral duty was to help Them Become Us.
This imperial narrative morphed, after the death of the Western empires, into the narrative of ‘development’ that we still cleave to today (I recommend this explanation of the process). Now, the world is divided up into ‘developed’ countries and ‘developing’ countries. Developed countries are largely white. Developing countries are largely brown. The latter are assumed to be on an inevitable trajectory that will lead them to converge with the former. When this happens, it will be known as ‘global justice.’ It will mean that everyone finally has access to suburban houses, laptops, antibiotics, cars, Nike shoes and representative democracy.
Those assumptions, I think, are what we are seeing played out in this reportage. When a ‘developing’ country is devastated by a natural disaster, it’s to be expected. When a ‘developed’ country is hit, it’s counter-intuitive; it automatically becomes a crisis. This is the playing out of the Myth of Progress on the world’s front pages. Progress means never having to get flooded. Progress means being insulated from nature. When Progress fails, it’s big news. When the poor die, it’s business as usual. Except that business is starting to look very unusual indeed, more and more of the time. When the media finally, eventually, wakes up to that, what does the world start to look like through its lens?
Well, we shall find out.