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Economic Growth: The missing link in environmental journalism

Environmental journalists are like doctors. Doctors run from patient to patient, harried, dealing with symptoms more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing pills to talk about holistic health. It’s an approach that makes money for the health industry but isn’t so great for public health.

Environmental journalists run from issue to issue, harried, dealing with environmental impacts more than causes. They’re too busy dispensing stories to talk about context. It’s an approach that makes money for the media but isn’t so great for environmental protection.

The analogy isn’t perfect. Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to protect the environment like doctors are obligated to patient health. But journalists are obligated to tell the truth: the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. Here we’re concerned with the “whole” truth, and it’s worth extending the analogy in this direction.

Let’s say the doctor has an overweight patient. The patient was small as a child and developed an obsession with gaining weight. It’s hard to shift mental gears. Fully mature now, this patient’s top goal is growing even more! This has led to all kinds of problems: bad knees, high blood pressure, and sleep apnea to mention a few.

Now imagine the doctor prescribing more pills for each new ailment, never saying a thing about the patient’s obsession with growth. When will the doctor talk about the big picture? The patient is just not getting it on his own. To him, getting even bigger seems like the solution to all problems, not the cause.

Similarly, we have a society — a readership — that considers economic growth the top priority. This unhealthy obsession has led to all kinds of problems: biodiversity loss, climate change, and ocean acidification to name a few. Yet the reader is just not making the connection. Growing GDP seems like the answer to all problems, not the cause.

A code of ethics prevents journalists from advocating policies. It’s “just the facts ma’am.” But environmental journalists would probably be working for the environment if they weren’t writing about it. That’s my guess after attending three of the last five Society of Environmental Journalists conferences, most recently two weeks ago in Lubbock, Texas.

Yet the journalists have been missing the environmental forest for the trees. Try to remember the last article you read about an environmental problem in which economic growth was even mentioned, much less explored with nuance. Can you?

Journalists covering climate negotiations sometimes identify economic growth as the goal in the way of progress. China and India aren’t about to give up on growth now, and for that matter neither is the United States. Our “way of life is not up for negotiation.” But that’s about it for coverage. There’s little exploration of the nuances: of how in a 90% fossil-fueled economy, economic growth means climate change; of how “green” energy can’t substitute for fossil fueling of the economy; of how a stabilized climate amounts to a steady state economy.

And that’s just the context of one environmental problem: climate change. When, in reading about biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, depletion of aquifers, fisheries decline, etc., do we read about the linkage to economic growth? All environmental problems track with GDP growth, and it’s no coincidence. The relationship between economic growth and environmental impact is causal, just as gaining weight is causal of bad knees. Economic growth is an 800-pound gorilla with two arms: population and per capita consumption. It doesn’t happen without environmental impact.

It’s ironic that environmental journalists don’t tap into the big picture of economic growth. After all, generating a buzz is all about connecting with society’s concerns. It’s about relevance. What is more relevant today than economic growth? What is more covered in the broader media? What gets more attention from politicians?

The environmental journalist’s take on economic growth will sound odd at first. Readers are used to thinking of economic growth as the solution to problems, not the cause. But that’s OK. Readers are like the obese patient intent on gaining weight. When it dawns on them that economic growth is the cause of so many problems, not the solution, their interest will be piqued, and many will develop an appetite for journalism on economic growth and the sustainable alternative, the steady state economy. The whole truth will set them free from the fallacious rhetoric that “there is no conflict between growing the economy and protecting the environment.”

Environmental journalists don’t have an obligation to environmental protection. But they do have a unique opportunity. They have the opportunity to raise awareness of the whole truth, however inconvenient, that environmental protection doesn’t square with economic growth.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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