23 May 2005
Ian Spellerberg asks why network television devotes so little time to the biggest story of our time the likely failure of the world s natural systems and cycles.
The likely fate of all humanity was announced on Thursday, March 31 2005. Newspapers, radio and television around the globe carried the story that future generations can no longer take for granted the Earth's ability to provide the air, water and soil needed to sustain life. There is irrefutable evidence that human activity is damaging the planet at such a rate that outbreaks of disease and ecological dead zones are likely. An abrupt collapse of the human population is entirely possible.
The findings of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, based on the work of 1300 scientists in 95 countries, delivered the starkest warning possible about the limits of the Earth's physical systems. We are descending further into debt an ecological debt that we may not be able to repay.
Despite the enormity of the message, the Millennium Ecosystem report was just one of many hundreds of items of news published on that day. It sat alongside relief efforts for the latest Indonesian earthquake, squabbles over NCEA and Police resourcing and news that a New Zealander has made Who magazine's list of the World's Most Beautiful People for 2005.
Within 24 hours, the pronouncement of the fate of humanity was virtually gone. It was a message of colossal importance that gained but a moment of global attention - just one small blip on our collective radar screen. By Friday, the world had moved on.
For anyone familiar with the concept of sustainability, and sustainable development (SD), the response to the Millennium report came as no surprise. In the last 30 years there have been dozens of global, authorative reports that show massive degradation and over-consumption by developed countries. There is no doubt that it would take at least two Earth's to provide all six billion humans with a New Zealand lifestyle.
It so happened that, just as the Millennium news was breaking, New Zealand was hosting many of Australasia's environment professionals - among them, managers, technical people, policy makers, planners, scientists and communicators. For this group (The Environment Institute of Australia and New Zealand) the news came as no surprise, and there was a familiar air of desperation - a desperation for change. We wanted people to finally listen, and for Governments to intervene in an economic system wedded to the impossibility of unending consumption. We wanted sustainability to be propelled; to leap out of political rhetoric and land squarely in the middle of mainstream values. We imagined the world's broadcasters being seized by enlightenment (if only by the revelation that there is little future for them with a resource-starved or diseased audience) so that the imperative of reducing our ecological footprint would be the foundation of a new set of social norms.
At any gathering of sustainability practitioners, the role of the mass media becomes a topic for debate. Progress is being made on many fronts, but it is still incremental. It is difficult to see how society can develop accepted codes for living sustainably, or less unsustainably, when our view of the world is packaged around messages which encourage consumption and waste as a central aspect of our lifestyle. Most of this concern is reserved for television, the mass media with the most power to reflect and shape the behaviours of the majority.
Recent research has confirmed the paucity of material to reflect current efforts on sustainability, and there is almost nothing to encourage a less damaging existence. For example, a three-month survey has shown that less than 4% of network television news relates to the environment or sustainable development. In addition, most news in this category is about wildlife and species conservation. There is virtually nothing that explores the deeper concepts of sustainability, human eco-dependency or declining environmental indicators. My own associated research shows that network television programmes on environmental issues are even more scarce, accounting for less than 1.0% of total broadcasting time. Some of the better programmes screen at 4am. Another of my colleagues has monitored network television advertising and found an alarming selection of advertisements containing messages that glamorise or trivialise environmental impacts.
Such a lack of regard for environmental sustainability themes is difficult to reconcile with the broadcasters stated aims. In particular, Television New Zealand Ltd, a state-owned enterprise, has a Television Charter which aims to... "seek to extend the range of ideas and experiences available to New Zealanders" and to "feature programmes that contribute towards intellectual, scientific and cultural development, and promote informed and many-sided debate".
Our study of network television content illustrates the need for broadcasting codes to have greater regard for ideas and events that support a paradigm shift in human values and patterns of resource allocation. But how might this be achieved? One suggestion is to promote a change to the Code of Broadcasting Practice. The code currently contains 11 standards relating to, for example, good taste, decency, violence and gender issues, but there is no code to encourage environmental stewardship. Such a code is not without precedent.An association of motor vehicle advertisers has recently adopted a code to ban the portrayal of cars and four-wheel drives in environmentally damaging situations. If the motor vehicle industry can agree on this principle there must be others ready to follow suit.
All of the mass media have a vital role in delivering information that contributes towards sustainable development objectives that are acknowledge by almost every nation of the world. The television industry has a special role because of its immediacy, visual impact and enormous reach.
Imagine how much more could be achieved if the television industry, our most powerful norm-setter, considered the challenge we all face together.
Ian Spellerberg is Professor of Nature Conservation at Lincoln University