Climate Disrupted Culture: Media in the Mess-Age

This article is adapted from a lecture given by the author at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, Washington, on April 21, 2016.

Lawrence Lessig writes in Free Culture that Sen. John McCain testified to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Oversight committee in 2003 that “five companies control 85 percent of our media sources.” The same percentages hold true for music and cable TV companies. Such conglomerate control via concentration of media should shock both conservatives and liberals alike. Monopolizing holdings allows for media companies to maximize profits and minimize expenses; more importantly, it allows for greater editorial control of content.

“The danger in media concentration,” writes Lessig, “comes not from the concentration, but instead from the feudalism that this concentration … produces. It is not just that there are a few powerful companies that control an ever expanding slice of the media. It is that this concentration can call upon an equally bloated range of rights … that makes their bigness bad.”

When media corporations flex their commercial interests and their Supreme Court-given rights as “citizens,” when they broadcast their profit-driven content while wearing the sheepskin of public interest, and when that content shuns climate change research for its fossil fuel fetish, the public suffers.

The problem reaches back decades. Enormous fossil fuel companies have conducted a two-prong obfuscation offensive using consolidated media: First, they have hidden their own internal documents about their knowledge of the deleterious effects of greenhouse gas; and second, they have waged a deliberate campaign to cast doubt on external, independent scientific research.

The First Attack

In 1978, Exxon launched an ad campaign with the slogan, “Energy for a Strong America.” Exxon ads show an America needing some pumping up of patriotic hydrocarbon machismo in the ’70s because, do you remember? The White House had solar panels on its roof! The recent rout by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) on oil supply pushed Jimmy Carter to advocate lowering the thermostat, wearing a sweater inside and increasing alternative fuel use.

What Exxon did not disclose to the public were the internal communications that showed they knew of the “CO2 problem” well enough to suggest taking the lead in countering its effects.

Cleaning up this cultural mess will require multiple solutions of prevention and intervention, applied vigorously in community actions, at the voting booth and in our daily good habits (see Peter Singer’s works). We also need a thorough, organized purge of government, societal and cultural stonewalls if they cannot change and reduce immediately the excessive greenhouse gas emissions. If we fail, we have everything to lose.

The Second Attack

Naomi Oreskes and Eric M. Conway describe in their seminal study of corporate media obfuscation, Merchants of Doubt, how two historical cover-ups have harmed the public interest by acting as agents and ministers of doubt. The first cover-up serves as model for the second. They write that “the overwhelming evidence that tobacco [products] killed people … was a fact, and the industry knew it. So they looked for some way to deflect attention from it … doubt.” And this, “the industry’s position was that there was ‘no proof’ that tobacco was bad, and they fostered that position by manufacturing a ‘debate,’ convincing the mass media that responsible journalists had an obligation to present ‘both sides’ of it.”

This cooled the issue, and by the time of the second Bush administration, the science on climate disruption — especially anthropogenic — held little influence over those who held power. Vice President Dick Cheney quipped in a 2007 television interview, “Where there does not appear to be a consensus, where it begins to break down, is the extent to which that’s part of a normal cycle versus the extent to which it’s caused by man, greenhouse gases, et cetera.” Cheney’s broadcast from the dais as vice president shows his preference for doubt and doubt-inducing inaction.

Is the shift visible here? Hannah Arendt wrote in The Human Condition that in the modern era, “man realized his newly won freedom from the shackles of earth-bound experience; instead of observing natural phenomena as they were given to him, he placed nature under the conditions of his own mind, that is, under conditions won from a universal astrophysical viewpoint, a cosmic standpoint outside nature itself.” Arendt describes hubris as a modernist mode that comes from riding the crest of the Industrial Revolution and from a kind of thinking where humans stand apart from the rest of nature. Conversely, reading nature with the clear eyes of science requires the humility to act on what we read.

Just who is corporate media protecting with their omissions? The oil executives? The politicians? Or themselves? In Censoring Science, John Grant quotes Frances Beinecke: “It isn’t often that the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Commerce, the United Nations, the National Academy of Sciences, the European Union, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Intelligence Council, and the Shell Oil Company agree on anything,” but they agree on Anthropogenic Climate Disruption (ACD).

Beinecke continues, “The illusion that there might be serious controversy about global warming within the scientific world is maintained thanks to the attention given by the media to the very loud voices of a few contrarians.”

“Fire and Ice: Solutions”

We know that good journalism has a long tradition of presenting both sides of a controversial issue and letting the reader decide, but this practice needs a minor role here, “where reporters’ efforts to present a ‘balanced’ story on climate change tend to result in extreme minority points of view getting equal time with the consensus view,” write Seth B. Darling and Douglas L. Sisters on in How to Change Minds About Our Changing Climate. “A consequence of this,” they write, “is that the general public has an unbalanced perception of the facts, and this, in turn, can delay action on mitigating climate change.”

Compounding this misperception, when news from corporate media outlets present that the only places climate disasters occurs is in so-called developed nations, it merely shows a paucity of media attention in undeveloped nations. Many climate disasters “in rural areas go completely unnoticed in the urban-headquartered media and aid community, and under authoritarian regimes that suppress the free flow of reliable information,” write Bradley C. Parks and J. Timmons Roberts in A Climate of Injustice. This distorts our collective perception of the problems. Our global predicament requires global information.

Another solution for journalists lies in confronting the ideology wars head-on by challenging those who rant deceptively about a liberal bias in the media. The baseline goal for all of us requires earnest fact-finding, determined reporting and bias busting. Yet the cynicism behind the manufactured ruse of the denial master-debaters bites when one considers, as Peter Hart describes in The Future of Media, that many “conservatives don’t actually believe in such a bias, but they do understand the political effectiveness of claiming that one exists. Over the course of two decades, they have forced media to internalize the ‘liberal bias’ critique, and in some cases to over compensate in order to try and prove the critics wrong. This strategy (‘working the refs,’ as Republican National Committee chair Rich Bond once described it) has certainly contributed to some of the media successes of the conservative movement in recent years.”

The risks from a Mutual Assured Destruction of nuclear weapons assure a quick incineration and a lingering irradiation that will make the zombie genre in filmmaking seem like a Sunday school picnic. We know that government and civic leaders around the world have restraints placed on them to control such destruction because we all, everyone, can comprehend how that warfare will cause a global genocide. The risks from our climate disruptions, while slower than nuclear vaporization, will assure a global ecocide. George Lakoff states in The Political Mind that we need “a new view of what it means to be a human being” in this latter scenario, an “ecological consciousness.” We need to engage our conscious and collective selves and coordinate a response that will benefit all families and not just the Brothers Koch.

James Howard Kunstler writes in Too Much Magic that “whatever we do in the future to generate heat, electricity, and mechanical power beyond the economically recoverable supplies of fossil fuels, we must be prepared to live very differently. We are not going to run the familiar infrastructures of modernity on any combinations of wind, solar, et cetera. We will … have to say good-bye to continent-scaled electric grids, the interstate highways, suburbia, air travel, Walmart, Disney World, the U. S. military in its current form, and many other giant systems.”

I believe Arendt’s assessment of the mess of our age captures our irresponsibility. In The Human Condition, she writes, “the modern age continued to operate under the assumption that life, and not the world, is the highest good of man.”

The melting is here. Our climate disruptions need to make us concentrate our thinking. Seek to know by following independent media sources; follow nonprofits dedicated to media exposure; help nongovernment organizations that have a history of helping populations against the tyranny of governmental and corporate raiding. Speak out, speak up, apply yourself, volunteer, campaign, write letters, help the elderly, teach the young, organize, write, paint, sculpt, pose, sing, race, climb, march, join in here and drop out there and vote. Check that. Don’t just vote, but vote well. Time is of the essence.

Creativity is merely future memory. As creative as we need to be, it will be based on accurate information provided by principled journalism. The expression, “the right side of history” functions as double entendre; its first meaning signifies acting today in such manner that those who reap the results of our actions will view us with favorable regard, but embedded in that expression, in a second meaning, resides the speculative notion that any actions we make today could ever really be called right or wrong, left or right, conservative or liberal. Just as we will never completely know what occurred in the past despite our best documentation, future historians we will never meet will never completely interpret our current decisions and actions.

We will never meet those who will ponder us in the future. But we hope those yet to come will recognize the seed of decency we planted and cultivated but let them harvest so they, too, can do the best for their age — keeping this messy culture replicating. Why? Because when the parade of human culture passed by us today, now, here, we recognized the right things to do and we did them. In The Human Condition, Arendt wrote: “It is quite conceivable that the modern age — which began with such an unprecedented and promising outburst of human activity — may end in the deadliest, most sterile passivity history has ever known.” We need to prove that statement wrong.

When we fight against the causes of warming mollified by a bought corporate media and seek to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and cease scorched earth harvesting and try to refill the aquifers and bring jobs to the displaced building canals, solar panels, wind turbines and support local rather than corporate businesses, we will do so because first we have been informed. The United Nations lists 17 different ways we can resist ACD.

The fight is to expunge the current Great Chain of Immorality and its media storm that spawns an oligarchical, international, neo-feudal fester of fossil-fuel corruption.

Our struggle will be against those who destroy the atmosphere and the environment for mere greed, for cash idling in offshore accounts.