Climate Change, Global Media, and Neocolonial Storytelling

July 28, 2017

Soon after the US President withdrew participation from the Paris Agreement, another country made headlines for its eco-consciousness. In July 2017, Western media with a global reach lauded India—the world’s third biggest carbon polluter after US and China—as it broke a world record by planting 66 million trees in twelve hours. The previous world record was set by India’s neighbor, Pakistan, at 847,275 trees.

Repeatedly, Western media praised India’s reforestation “in accordance with” or as her “commitment to the Paris Agreement.” World Economic Forum and ABC News reiterated India wasn’t the only third world country to “make a commitment to reforestation” as African nations promised to follow suit[1].

What I find interesting—and infuriating—about a self-proclaimed “global media” and its storytelling about Indian eco-awakening is a myopic diagnosis of and solution to global environmental crisis, aka climate change, through a perception of time seeped in historic amnesia. Climate change here is primarily attributed to carbon emissions, and once eco-solutions—reforestation being the most popular—are drafted in centers of Western imperial power, the third world’s obedience to Paris climate accord becomes newsworthy. The National Geographic even headlined the prime jewel of British Empire’s reforestation efforts with a nice fatherly pat on the shoulder: Well done, India![2]

Yet global media—known to be mostly authored by white middle-aged men[3]–isn’t the only one enthused about Indian eco-awakening. So are Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his political fraternity. An article in The Independent even shows two world leaders, Narendra Modi and Emmanuel Macron bear-hugging and pledging cooperation to save our planet through “solar energy and … the companies of both nations.”[4] Immediately after highlighting the Indo-French Alliance, the article states the duo’s pledge to combat terrorism with New Delhi ordering “French-made Rafale fighter jets” and the building of French nuclear reactors in India. As if the link between political, military and economic power via green-speak weren’t obvious enough, the National Geographic ends its reportage on India by directly stating Modi’s interest in climate change “as it is good economics and politics.”

In observing Western journalism’s storytelling, my intention here isn’t to dismiss our planetary commitment to reforestation. I was raised in Mumbai—one of the world’s most polluted megacities—and grew up with chronic sinusitis issues. I’ve experienced India’s urgency for higher environmental care in my body’s repeated malfunction and am thrilled at her proactive reforestation. Nor is my intention here to propose an easy binary of the East needing to green-speak for itself, divorced from the corrupting solutions of a patronizing West. 21st century globalization entangles the East and the West in a complex game of mutual political and economic power, I safely assume.

Trained as a literary critic, what frustrates me about mainstream environmental journalism is a neocolonial storytelling, one that reproduces and freezes colonial hierarchies between an environmentally avant-garde white West that applauds its colored Rest when they finally wake up to eco-solutions drafted in the West. For instance, as Western media praised India’s reforestation efforts, it simultaneously blamed much of global climate change on the third world’s rapid modernization, imported from who else but the West.

If Western journalism repeatedly claims environmental foresight, it seldom convinces of historic hindsight.

Still, what if we made-believe for a moment? What if we imagined a global media whose stories on global ecological futures stayed woke to our global historic past? What if environmental journalism considered a history of Empire, painfully pertinent after November 2016?

To begin with, we might remember the basics of World History 101. First, through storytelling across media—trade documents, scientific and anthropological theories, translations of holy scriptures, travel and literary fiction—Europe once legitimized the colonization of the third world, increasingly post-Enlightenment and its rhetoric of progress, modernity and technological advancement, much in a way Western journalism today on the non-West does. Second, while Empires have risen and fallen across history, and man has always manipulated nature for profit, European colonialism is remarkable for the scale of its damage – cultural, economical and ecological. In fact, by early 1900s, Europe had managed to colonize about 90% of our planet, including the radical transformation of third world ecologies for the growth of cotton, tea, coffee, jute, opium, indigo, sugarcane, “tropical” fruits and other cash crops.

Fortunately, a visible community of woke fiction writers, ecocritcs and advocates of environmental justice have written about the consequences of European colonialism that produced in its wake draughts, deforestation, starvation and split our current world into haves and have-nots in an unprecedented way. They have talked about key successors to European colonialism via US Imperialism, the World Bank, IMF and other multinational corporations, along with the dangers of Euro-American environmentalism that divorces nature from culture or an imperial past from our ecological present and future. Postcolonial ecocritics have further shown how an allegedly avant-garde Euro-American environmentalism was in fact birthed in the former colonies of Asia and Africa at the time when a white West was actively destroying the planet to enrich itself.

What if global media offered stories of global environmental justice?

At most, we would hear stories about a West’s overdue commitment to its colored Rest in the aftermath of colonial ecological disaster. Acclaimed writer Amitav Ghosh talks at length about this possibility of “distributive justice” from a western to a non-western world in his 2016 book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable. We might also hear alternative stories of the Paris Agreement—one of the most influential documents of global environmentalism—as yet “another neo-liberal frontier where corporations, entrepreneurs, and public officials will be able to join forces in enriching each other.”

In the least, when reporting the sale of French nuclear technology following India’s reforestation efforts, a woke journalism could highlight the neocolonial game of power justified in the name of global environmentalism. It might even give those from the “third world,” the Wretched of the Earth, a chance to cheer someday: Well done, West!

[1] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/02/india-plants-trees-breaks-world-record/ and http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-05/india-breaks-record-planting-66-million-trees-in-12-hours/8677302

[2] http://www.nationalgeographic.com.au/nature/66-million-trees-planted-in-12-hours-well-done-india.aspx

[3] http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-08/morris-a-balanced-media-not-when-it-comes-to-gender/7228262

[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/emmanuel-macron-and-narendra-modi-pledge-cooperation-on-climate-change-after-trump-pulls-out-of-a7771216.html

Namrata Poddar

Namrata Poddar writes fiction, cultural criticism, and teaches postcolonial literature at UCLA. Her non-fiction on coastal cultures, global migration, environmentalism and tourism have appeared in anthologies on the Caribbean, Pacific, and Indian Ocean across the world. Her creative work has appeared in The Feminist Wire, The Margins, The Caravan, The Aerogram, Transition, Necessary Fiction, Los Angeles Review of Books Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry Review (forthcoming), and elsewhere. She holds a Ph.D. in French Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, UCLA Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship in Transnational Cultures and an MFA in fiction from Bennington Writing Seminars. Website: www.namratapoddar.com.

Tags: climate change messages, cultural stories, India, Media