When Worlds Collide #20: Can Journalists Save the Planet?

Text of my ‘When Worlds Collide’ column published in Ceylon Today Sunday newspaper on 17 June 2012

I have a confession to make: I was once an environmental journalist.

With all good intentions, I thought I could help save the planet through my reporting, analysis and opinion writing in the media. I spent several years of my youth sincerely, passionately chasing stories about environmental problems – and solutions.

Luckily for me, and my readers, I realised my mistake after a while. I’ve been striving to see – and show – the bigger picture ever since.

As the UN Conference on Sustainable Development culminates in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the coming week, it is a good time to reflect how we got here, and what happens next. The collective journey thus far has considerably shaped my own career – even though I didn’t always follow the pack…

The conference is also known as Rio+20, counting from the original Earth Summit that Rio hosted in June 1992. I wasn’t there in person, though (as a still green young reporter) I very much wanted to be. A decade later, I did attend the follow up conference in Johannesburg – and came back with mixed feelings about its efficacy.

I’m not a fan of mega-conferences. They generate too much noise, chaos and carbon emissions. But I admit that they provide rallying points for policy buffs and change-makers. Helpfully, they also create news pegs for us columnists to discuss broader issues.

Elusive Goal

The UN system loves to hold big conferences and to produce big fat reports from time to time, some more memorable than others. A quarter century ago, one such report came out during the first year of my journalism that significantly shaped my own outlook.

Titled Our Common Future, it was the final report of the UN-appointed World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED). Chaired by the then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, it comprised 21 eminent persons representing diverse sectors, regions and interests. A planetary Brains Trust.

Their report was the first to make broad links between environmental, social and economic concerns, which until then had remained in separate ‘silos’. It is best remembered for defining sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

Brundtland did not invent that term or concept — various versions had been around since the first 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. But Our Common Future took these largely academic or bureaucratic discussions out to a mass audience.

In doing so, it nudged the environmental movement to evolve from pollution prevention, tree-hugging and species-saving action to embrace a much broader developmental agenda. Issues such as poverty, trade, conflict, consumption and human security were factored in.

Children of Brundtland

It also inspired a whole generation of young journalists, educators and activists worldwide. I was among them: it saved me from getting lost in marginal green pursuits or in grandiose cosmic ones. I switched from an early fascination with mega-science topics such as space travel and genetic engineering to issues of human survival and resilience.

From 1987 to 1992, the Brundtland Report catalysed intense discussion and debate that led to the Earth Summit. Then, as now, sustainable development is easier said than done.

Agenda 21, the Earth Summit’s main outcome, covered a truckload of concerns: from the traditional ‘green’ and ‘brown’ environmental issues to mainstream economics, trade, social justice, scientific research and even international relations.

Since then, the march of economic globalisation has taken us further into resource and energy profligacy from which we are now trying to extricate ourselves — spurred in part by concerns of climate change. (And yes, occasional kicks from OPEC have helped.)

But can we change old habits fast enough?

We must also question the impact of our own work as journalists. Have we done enough besides cheer-leading green activism (allowed in moderation) and occasionally indulging in fear-mongering (not recommended)? Or have we been busy building silos ourselves?

In the early years, I called myself an ‘environmental journalist’ and even belonged to a like-minded group. But later I realised how the growth of environmental journalism had, inadvertently, ghettoised environmental issues within media organisations.

For sure we need journalists to specialise in the environment and other development sectors such as health, gender and disaster management. As issues become more complex and nuanced, journalists require more knowledge and skill to make sense of it all.

But we can’t leave sustainable development issues just in the hands of ‘green journalists’. It’s like expecting a weather forecaster to explain all the intricacies of climate change.

To grasp the bigger picture of sustainable development, and to communicate it well, we need the informed participation of reporters, feature writers and their broadcast equivalent covering politics, business, technology and other ‘beats’. We also need supportive editors and media managers.

Good and bad journalism

In short, plain good journalism that covers sustainable development as an integral part of human affairs.

As my friend Kalpana Sharma, one of India’s most senior journalists, puts it, “Journalists are good or bad, professional or unprofessional. I am not sure if other labels, such as ‘environmental’ or ‘developmental’, ought to be tagged on to journalists.”

Noble intentions of saving endangered species or ecosystems don’t justify lousy reporting. Trying to save the world – as some journalists claim to do – doesn’t give them a license to peddle conspiracy theories, eco-myths or half-truths.

Whatever the topic or issue, we must stay within the A-B-C of good journalism: accuracy, balance and credibility. To this mix I add another ‘D’ and ‘E’: depth and empathy. Without all these qualities, mere reporting can be sterile, dispassionate and ultimately uninspiring.

More confessions: I’ve never planted a tree, released a baby turtle or indulged in any mother Earth worshipping stuff. Instead, I have an enlightened self interest in most topics I cover: from disaster risk reduction and liveable cities to cleaner air and energy that doesn’t cost the Earth.

I’ve been lucky to stand on giants’ shoulders. One of them, maverick editor Tarzie Vittachi (1921 – 1993), used to say: “Most people live and work in day-to-day weather, and can’t relate to the climate. It’s our job as journalists to connect the dots.”

Tarzie meant it metaphorically at the time, but global warming has now made it also literal. When I get confused, disheartened or overwhelmed at times, I ask myself: what would Tarzie do?

Nothing clarifies the mind as going back to the first principles – and having a deadline looming large!

Follow me on my blog: http://nalakagunawardene.com, and on Twitter: NalakaG

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About Nalaka Gunawardene

A science writer by training, I've worked as a journalist and communication specialist across Asia for 25+ years. During this time, I have variously been a news reporter, feature writer, radio presenter, TV quizmaster, documentary film producer, foreign correspondent and journalist trainer. I continue to juggle some of these roles, while also blogging and tweeting and column writing. There's NOTHING OFFICIAL about this blog. In fact, there's NOTHING OFFICIAL about me! I've always stayed well clear of ALL centres of power and authority.
This entry was posted in Environment, Environmental policy, Journalism, Media, Science Journalism, Sri Lanka, Sustainable Development and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to When Worlds Collide #20: Can Journalists Save the Planet?

  1. A friend just emailed this question: “Really good piece – but just one question out of curiosity… which of the stuff that you have “reported” (or preached upon) do you practice personally – considering that you have not planted a tree not released a baby turtle to sea. Oh yes, you are a vegetarian!! And do you use energy saving bulbs? Do you re-cycle your garbage? Do you refuse the plastic bags they offer in the shops?…. dozens more of small but significant things that we can do!!! It may have been nice to add that dimension to the article.”

    • Good point, well taken. I do all the above and more — but didn’t want this particular column to be about my own conduct. My next goal: to go for a small electric powered car, as soon as Sri Lanka markets an affordable one!

  2. Pingback: When Worlds Collide #107: Climate Reporting from ‘Ground Zero’ | When Worlds Collide, by Nalaka Gunawardene

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