November 29, 2012

The media and climate change: A race between media reclamation and future calamity

The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in the United States has jolted out of complacency wider public discourse on the issue of climate change. The near- universal concern seems to now be that, wow, we should really do something about climate change. The near-universal understanding, however, is that we probably won't -- at least certainly not to the degree that is needed to address the matter in any substantive way. Sure, we might mention the matter in passing at an election-night speech, but we very like won't launch a massive-scale retooling of the economy like that done to put humans on the moon or build an atomic bomb. Our unwillingness / inability to act is sometimes displayed to humorous effect, most notably by the Onion.

But seriously, why not? Given that most Americans have finally seen the abstract and abstruse phenomenon of climate change made breathtakingly tangible, what's keeping us from acting? Some analysts have pointed out, quite rightly, the forces aligned in favor of the political and economic status quo -- particularly those of the fossil fuel industries, which profit mightily from the sale of fuels that have been implicated in a warming planet. Those industries use their profits to lobby and to buy advertisements that fall on the range of truthfulness from arguably misleading to outright lying. Winning change often means defeating one or more entrenched, seemingly intractable lobbies, but if that's what it takes then that's what it takes.

That's not to say it can't be done. In fact, I've been fortunate to play a hand in times in the defeat of such lobbies. For example, I've seen this firsthand in the efforts over lower-power FM radio in 2010 (which will finally come to long-promised fruition in 2013). In fact, I found it shocking how fast progress could be made once evil lobbies are out of the way. Once the National Association of Broadcasters had finally seen their clock cleaned by longtime grassroots efforts that spent more than a decade on the matter, the issue sped its way through the requisite legal bodies and was signed into law in a matter of weeks.

And it won't just be the fossil fuel lobbies that need to have their clock cleaned on the issue of climate change, it'll be the gamut of industries that rely on those industries, from automobiles to airlines and many besides. And that includes the commercial media in the United States, which haven't devoted a fraction of the energy or effort on climate change as they have on other whose biggest advertisers include (guess who!) the fossil fuel industries and their friends.

This is one way how climate change dovetails with the media reform movement. The media reform movement has fought for, and won victories on, fighting media ownership concentration, increasing the number of local media outlets, and placing certain positive programming requirements like children's broadcasting. But I think we need to dream bigger. One modest proposal in order to tackle the media problem and bring to bear its attention on the climate crisis and other issues, we need to:

  • Immediately suspend the licenses of all commercial network broadcasters.

  • Place all of those licenses under the control of locally responsive media, like Pacifica outlets, and responsible college and independent broadcasters, and responsible public access cablecasters.

  • Nationalize the profits of those licensees to provide an initial funding base for those media outlets.

  • Provide a longer-term independent non-profit funding base by establishing a TV licensing system in the United States and by establishing an excise tax on the sales of all TV sets.

Though many people might expect this proposal to be tantamount to a government takeover of the airwaves, I believe it's more accurately framed as a popular reclamation of the airwaves from corporate control. That corporate control is, it can be persuasively argued, what got us into this climate predicament -- given the reliance on fossil fuels for advertising dollars, and the successful defense of the status quo for the most part by incumbent media (which are corporations) and their fanged lobbies. But we have to attack that status quo with renewed vigor: as everyone saw vividly with Hurricane Sandy, the fight is not just about popular reclamation, as noble a goal as that is, it's now about survival.

What I just proposed might be deemed by well-nigh everyone (including myself) as not being highly realistic, to which I respond "No kidding". I could have proposed here something a bit more radical, like abolishing the markets which fuel corporations altogether and replacing them with a participatory economy. At least I didn't call for that, though I suppose the case for that can be persuasively argued for that too.

But if we don't tackle the problem of media and climate change, and the corporations / markets that connect the two, the day will come soon (probably much sooner than any of us expect) when Hurricane Sandy will be a modest occurrence compared to what awaits us. Consider this: Sixteen nuclear power plants found themselves in the path that Hurricane Sandy took along the eastern United States. Hurricane Sandy could well have wrecked any or some of them, not necessarily by direct means but indirectly by fomenting the kind of outside power outages that ultimately did in Fukushima Daiichi. What happened there first could well be what happens to us next, and unless we want that to happen, we better get to work on that count, and be sure to include in media reclamation efforts.

Update I: For a sense of how bad it could get, read this article by Chris Hedges, "Stand Still for the Apocalypse".
Update II: Opportunism can go both ways, as John Anderson at reminds us."