ARE WE ALL SLEEPWALKING?

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Well, folks, once again, I want to apologize for bringing up depressing environmental issues so often. Playing the role of Cassandra doesn’t come naturally to me, and I dislike it. But as I mentioned before, given my years of observation and study, I feel a duty to alert people to what’s happening and to make suggestions about what we can and should do to cope.

Every day, I come across disturbing reports about the rapidly degrading quality of the environment. Sometimes I think I should spend my days walking up and down busy sidewalks yelling—“WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WAKE UP! WE DEPEND ON THE ENVIRONMENT FOR OUR EXISTENCE, AND IT’S FALLING APART!”—but I don’t. Why not? Well, for one thing, I suspect that a couple of big burly men in little white coats would come after me with nets if I wandered the streets ranting at the top of my lungs. Besides, I remember hearing several times as a kid that it’s dangerous to awaken a sleepwalker suddenly, and sometimes I think we’re all sleepwalking when it comes to our awareness of what’s happening to the environment. Day to day, we go through our usual motions unaware of the dangers that lie ahead.

Unfortunately, the barebones truth of the matter is that we’re not living in the same world we grew up in. That world has already slipped away. From now on, maximizing our wellbeing will require adapting to a rapidly evolving and increasingly chaotic world.

Few of us recognize the extent of the environmental dangers we face. For the most part, we depend on the news media to alert us to critical local, national, and global issues. When it comes to the environment, however, the media fail to provide coverage in proportion to the gravity of the challenges. Why do they fail? I’m sure there are many reasons, but here are a few that come to mind:

  • Typically, news media depend on advertisers for most or all of their revenue. Environmental stories sometimes indict specific sponsors or their industries. Naturally, media are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them.
  • Most news outlets are in business to make a profit, so they tend to cover stories that they can count on to attract large audiences. Environmental stories rarely fall into that category.
  • Environmental problems are cropping up sporadically—but with increasing frequency—all over the world. Many times, evidence of environmental degradation appears in remote locations. With limited budgets, the media give priority to easier-to-cover, more profitable stories.
  • For the past few decades, conservatives have tended to subsume environmental issues under the banner of liberal causes. They have also claimed that news media have a liberal bias. In an effort to counter that claim, media have often given as much time to conservatives to deny the results of environmental studies as they have given to the individuals who present the actual results of scientists’ research. This (ahem) fair-and-balanced approach has done much to confuse the public. A 2013 poll found, for example, that 37 percent of the public said scientists do not agree that human activity is causing the Earth to get warmer, and 10 percent said they didn’t know what scientists think.[i] In fact, as of 2013, in nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed studies, between 97 and 98 percent of climate scientists concluded that human activity is causing the average temperature of the Earth to go up.[ii] But because the media give global-warming deniers and climate scientists the same amount of time to argue their cases, a significant percentage of the public thinks that scientists’ opinions are more-or-less equally divided, when, in truth, climate scientists are nearly unanimous in their acceptance of human-caused climate change.

In any case, those are some of the reasons why the news media are failing to inform the public adequately about current environmental problems and looming ecological catastrophes. To make matters worse, the media inundate us with counter-messages that are designed to funnel our minds into materialistic channels of thought. As a result, we lack the information and the motivation to act.

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[i] Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. “GOP Deeply Divided over Climate Change.”

[ii] Anderegg, William R. L., James W. Prall, Jacob Harold, and Stephen H. Schneider. “Expert Credibility in Climate Change.” PNAS. June 21, 2010. http://www.pnas.org/content/107/27/12107.abstract; Cook, John, Dana Nuccitelli, Sarah A. Green, et al. 2013. “Quantifying the Consensus on Anthropogenic Global Warming in the Scientific Literature.” Environmental Research Letters. Vol. 8, p. 6.

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