Inducing Passivity

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A few days ago, in a blogpost entitled “Are We All Sleepwalking?” I argued that many of us are unaware of the severity of our environmental predicament because news media are failing to provide coverage of environmental stories in proportion to their importance. I listed a number of reasons for that failure. One such reason is that environmental problems are cropping up all over the globe, often in remote locations, so the cost of covering those stories is high. Like other businesses, the media want to get the biggest bang for their buck, so they look for less costly stories to cover.

With the bottom line in mind, the news media tend to cover stories that come from institutional sources, via press releases from agencies or press conferences with officials. For example, last weekend, when the United Nations released the news that 146 nations, including China, India, and all of the world’s major economies, have now pledged to control their greenhouse gas emissions, a number of news outlets covered the story. Likewise, last August, when President Obama announced a plan to cut carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants and Senate Majority Leader McConnell (Republican from Kentucky) promised to pass legislation to thwart the president’s plan, those stories were widely reported.

So it isn’t as if there’s a blackout on environmental news. The media do cover environmental stories to some extent. It’s just that profit-minded news producers, on the lookout for stories that are cheap and easy to report, are overly dependent on handouts from institutional sources (in my humble view). And the trouble with those stories is that they tend to create the false impression that most of us have no role to play in the unfolding environmental drama. So, for example, when we see a story about a new power-plant regulation, we tend to think that either the President is taking care of the problem for us or that the Republicans are preventing the administration from acting. Either way, we’re passive observers, at most, applauding or booing.

Our unbalanced diet of institutionally sourced stories seems to be making us complacent. When we hear from the United Nations that almost every country, and all of the biggest polluters, have pledged to cut their greenhouse-gas emissions, many of us breathe a sigh of relief, in the belief that the powers that be are taking care of a major environmental problem for us. But the truth of the matter is that they’re not. While 146 nations have plans to cut their emissions, an analysis by Climate Interactive (a group that the U.S. and many other governments rely on for data) indicates that the Earth’s average temperature will rise more than 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit even if every nation keeps its pledge. And while that’s an improvement over the 8.1 degrees that scientists say the temperature will rise if we continue on our current path, it’s far from the goal of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (or 2 degrees Celsius), which, according to scientific consensus, is the maximum we dare allow.

So it’s up to us to act. The things that are being done in our name to address environmental problems simply aren’t getting the job done. We, as individuals, must take a bigger role, and we better do it in a hurry.

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