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20 November 2020

Conversations on Integral Ecology: What is the Role of the Media?

In the coming weeks, we’re delighted to present a series of interviews with practitioners and policy-makers who are working with communities on the ground. Our aim is to understand how ideas associated with “integral ecology” are having a concrete impact in the real world, particularly in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this post, we’re pleased to bring you an interview with Dr Ciara Murphy, who is the Environmental Policy Advocate for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice in Dublin. Ciara was in conversation with Dr Tim Howles, who is a researcher at the Laudato Si' Research Institute.

Their discussion focused on the contemporary media ecology and its reporting of issues related to integral ecology.

Tim Howles: We are living through an environmental crisis; some would even say an emergency. What is the role of the mainstream media in reporting this?

Ciara Murphy: The mainstream media has a huge role to play, on account of its reach, but also on account of the authority we invest in it to pay attention to the details of what is happening at a political and societal level. It acts as an interpreter of what is going on and what it means for us. The media has a responsibility not just to present information, but also to communicate the urgency of the situation, a balanced assessment of the costs and benefits of the solutions, and the imperative it imposes upon us to change our lives.

I also think the mainstream media has to do a better job at linking up the various aspects of the climate crisis. In Ireland, for example, you will see articles at different times of the year on flooding and on drought. The impact on farming, homes, and businesses will all be discussed, but rarely do you see the connection between these and climate change. Or, in a single newspaper, there might be mention of air pollution on one page, stats on hospital waiting lists on another, and then whole sections set aside for the promotion of the motor industry. Upon first glance, there is no connection between these, but, as we know, at a deeper level there are many.

Journalists and editors need to help us understand how apparently disparate events link together and use the full potential of their papers (including advertising) to make a coherent story; this is their moral duty.

Is this simplification? Or carelessness? Or I wonder if there are deep structural forces at play that want to keep these events separated? Bruno Latour, for example, has argued that modernity itself is defined by this sort of separation: as moderns, we need to feel that we are “in science” or “in society” or “in politics”; when these become interlinked and “hybridised” (to use his words) we feel deeply threatened.

Yes, the desire for simplification is surely part of human nature. And perhaps this begins with the educational system. At school, we learn in subject areas. But not necessarily the interconnections between them. Think, for example, of the subjects of biology and geography: these influence each other hugely, but only a cursory mention of the other may be mentioned in class. When I myself was studying ecology at the graduate level, learning to appreciate the scale of interconnection between different communities and ecosystems was a major factor. But even here the desire and the need to compartmentalise and to define systems and functions was obvious. The methodology of science suggests that in any experiment the more you eliminate variation the more accurate your results but the less relevant these results may be in their natural systems. There is a constant battle to find a compromise between simplifying enough to be able to understand what is going on and not reducing the complexity so much that it becomes meaningless. This struggle needs to be applied to the implications of and solutions to climate change across society and science.

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So, our media ecology must learn from the various “systems ecologies” that are already out there in the world?

The need for this ecological mindset has been brought into focus by the pandemic. The impact of coronavirus is now “in” every section of the news: in politics, in the economy, in retail, even in sport. It has highlighted just how interconnected everything is. 

I wonder if some of the initial “panic” that exploded in March, right at the beginning of the lockdown periods in Europe, can be attributed to that sudden realization that everything is indeed connected, and that there is a fragility and a vulnerability to the world that perhaps we had forgotten?

And this can lead to “information overload”. To be confronted with a complex issue can be overwhelming for any of us.

 I found myself watching the David Attenborough documentary, Extinction: The Facts recently. I had to watch the TV through my hands, as it were - I felt a sense of panic rising up as I heard the facts and figures about biodiversity loss, damage to marine life, climate change, and so on…

Me too. So there needs to be a balance between shock and solution, between realism and optimism about the future. The solutions need to be presented plainly and obviously. The media has a role to play there too. They need to help us understand that what we do can make a difference; they need to facilitate a sense of agency and participation. It’s challenging.

The media and society in general can’t sugar-coat the consequences of climate change. The facts, stark as they are, need to be laid bare for us to witness. However, we also need to know about what is currently being done – the restoration of ecosystems, the fight to stop fossil fuel infrastructure being built, and communities working together to create a better future. These too need to make the news so we can showcase what is possible. The media also has a responsibility to report on big policy proposals and actions that could make a real difference, especially when there is a need to garner public support and pressure if these are to go through. The solutions of how we can work to get ourselves out of this crisis need to be shown to be possible and desirable so despair does not take over. We need to see the action and hope.

Sometimes the media will latch on to the idea of future technological fixes to the environmental crisis. But as we know, this will not be enough; there has to be personal transformation too. How can the media take responsibility in communicating this?

Relying on future technological fixes is an inherently risky strategy and is not a substitute for drastic emissions reduction. Reducing emissions and protecting and restoring ecosystems including peatlands, forests and marine environments is vitally important. The media has a responsibility to highlight these risks and not just laud future technologies as solutions. We will have to re-evaluate our behaviours in all kinds of areas: land use, water pollution, treatment of animals, and so on. This will entail careful consideration of our own attitudes, choices, and behaviours. To borrow Pope Francis’ term, there needs to be an “ecological conversation”. 

What about balance of perspective in the media? Thankfully, I think we have moved beyond a point where the BBC, for example, needs to have a climate science denier on every environmental discussion forum. But diversity of viewpoints is crucial for a healthy media ecology. How can we secure this? And how can we avoid the presence of competing voices causing the impact of the issues to be diluted in the public imagination?

I think some of this will depend on context – not everyone needs to have an informed opinion about everything. Depending on the situation or the specific issue that is currently in the media it will be appropriate to platform different people or different groups. But a balance between backgrounds and interests would be needed. Here in Ireland, environmental discussions are very frequently framed by contentious topics that might not actually be representative of where the real action lies. This serves to “other” the people who are looking for stronger climate action against different industries and regions. While a proportion of this division may be a construct of media looking for a newsworthy story – and there are plenty of examples and incidents where those in the industries are looking for stronger climate and biodiversity action – this framing of pitching action against inaction makes getting buy-in difficult.

Whenever climate action is discussed in the media here it often comes back to tax and agriculture. One of the most contentious issues in Ireland is how climate action is associated with the agriculture industry. When any climate policies are introduced there will always be questions put to politicians about whether the national herd will be reduced. This one issue tends to dominate the conversation over other issues that are maybe not as disputed. And this tends to result in a division. In these matters a disproportionate weight is given to the voice of the Irish Farmer’s Association over ecologists or climate scientists. A good example of this has been the conversation around the Irish Government’s recent Climate Action Bill and national budget.

While it is critical to have a diversity of viewpoints, this cannot only happen within and through mass media. The larger dialogue will have to happen outside of the media context through meaningful public participation and dialogue. This can be done in several different ways including citizens assemblies and more localised structured discussions between local government and communities. In this context, the role of the media would be to inform the public that these meaningful conversations are happening and what the outcomes are.

How does faith support our engagements with the media? Does it help us to contribute more responsibly?

I think the Jesuit perspective on the environment is a justice perspective, and the ethos of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice means that we are committed to social justice. We are committed to listening to other points of view and to being truthful and transparent in our communications with the media. The change we want to see is always a change that has Catholic social teaching at its core and our faith helps us understand that people are at the heart of this issue, and it is the lives of real people that we want to help.  

Catholic social teaching, and especially the teaching of Laudato Si’, invites “all people of good will” into dialogue on caring for the environment. The climate movement is of such importance that it will need literally everyone who is concerned – including people of all faiths and none – to collaborate and work together on this.

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