[A version of this essay was delivered as the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India, March 18, 2010.]
There is considerable attention paid in the United States to the collapse of journalism — both in terms of the demise of the business model for corporate commercial news media, and the evermore superficial, shallow, and senseless content that is inadequate for citizens concerned with self-governance. This collapse is part of larger crises in the political and economic spheres, crises rooted in the incompatibility of democracy and capitalism. New journalistic vehicles for storytelling are desperately needed.
There has been far less discussion of the need for a journalism of collapse — the challenge to tell the story of a world facing multiple crises in the realms of social justice and sustainability. This collapse of the basic political and economic systems of the modern world, with dramatic consequences on the human and ecological fronts, demands not only new storytelling vehicles but a new story.
In this essay I want to review the failure of existing systems and suggest ideas for how to think about something radically different, through the lens of journalists’ work. The phrase “how to think about” should not be interpreted to mean “provide a well-developed plan for”; I don’t have magical answers to these difficult questions, and neither does anyone else. The first task is to face the fact that every problem we encounter does not necessarily have a solution that we can identify, or even imagine, in the moment; that identifying how existing systems have failed does not guarantee we have the capacity to devise new systems that will succeed.
This is a realistic attitude, not a defeatist one. The lack of a guarantee of success does not mean the inevitability of failure, and it does not absolve us of our responsibility to struggle to understand what is happening and to act as moral agents in a difficult world. In fact, I think such realism is required for serious attempts at fashioning a response to the crises. The eventual solutions, if there are to be solutions, may come in frameworks so different from our current understanding that we can’t yet see even their outlines, let alone the details. This is a time when we should be focused on “questions that go beyond the available answers,” to borrow a phrase from sustainable agriculture researcher Wes Jackson.
The old story
Before taking up that challenge, I want to identify the story that dominates our era, what we might call the story of perpetual progress and endless expansion. This is the larger cultural narrative in which specific stories that appear in journalistic outlets are set. Charting the whole history of this story is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will confine myself to the post-WWII era in which I have lived, when this progress/expansion story has dominated not only in the United States and other developed countries but most of the world.
This story goes like this: In the modern world, human beings have dramatically expanded our understanding of how the natural world works, allowing us not only to control and exploit the resources of the non-human world but also to find ways to distribute those resources in a more just and democratic fashion. The progress/expansion story assumes we have knowledge — or the capacity to acquire knowledge — that is adequate to run the world competently, and that the application of that knowledge will produce a constantly expanding bounty that, in theory, can provide for all.
The two great systems of the post-WWII era that were in direct conflict — the capitalist West led by the United States and the communist East led by the Soviet Union — shared an allegiance to this story, that humans had the ability to understand and control, to shape the future, to become God-like in some sense. Even in places that carved out some independence in the Cold War, such as India, the same philosophy dominated, evidenced most clearly in big dam projects and the Green Revolution’s model of water-intensive, chemical farming.
The failure of the communist challenge was said to be “the end of history,” a point where the only work remaining was the application of our technical knowledge to lingering problems within a system of global capitalism and liberal democracy. Even with the widening of inequality and the clear threats to the ecosystem from human intervention, the progress/expansion story continues to dominate, bolstered by a widely held technological fundamentalism (more on that later).
The bumper-sticker version of this philosophy: More and bigger is better, forever and ever.
There’s one slight problem: If we continue to believe this story, and to base individual decisions and collective policies on it, we will dramatically accelerate the drawdown of the ecological capital of the planet, hastening the point at which the ecosystem will no longer be able to sustain human life as we know it at this level. In the process, we can expect not only more inequality, but in times of intense competition for resources, a dramatic increase in social conflict.
This critique cannot be dismissed as hysteric apocalypticism; it is a reasonable judgment, given all the evidence. The progress/expansion story has left us with enduring levels of human inequality that violate our moral principles and threaten to undermine any social stability, and an endangered ecosystem that threatens our very survival. Whatever systems and institutions we devise to replace those at the root of these problems, the underlying progress/expansion narrative has to change.
The collapse of journalism
In the United States, it is clear that at least in the short term, there will be fewer professional journalists working in fewer outlets with fewer resources for reporting. The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism sums it up in its 2010 State of the News Media report: “[W]e estimate that the newspaper industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30 percent. That leaves an estimated $4.4 billion remaining. Even if the economy improves we predict more cuts in 2010.” Newspapers are hurting the worst, but there is no good news from any news media.
That loss of capacity comes from plunging ad revenues: In 2009, ad revenue fell 26 percent for U.S. newspapers, including online, bringing the total loss over the past three years to 43 percent. Local television ad revenue fell 22 percent, triple the decline the year before. Other media also saw a decline in ad revenue: radio, 22 percent; magazine, 17 percent; network TV, 8 percent (for network news alone, probably more). Online ad revenue overall fell 5 percent, and revenue to news sites most likely also fared much worse. Cable news was the only commercial news sector keeping its head above water, barely, according to the report.
Revenue is down, and so are audiences. The PEJ study reports audience growth only in digital and cable news, with declines in local TV and network news. Print newspaper circulation fell 10.6 percent in 2009, and since 2000, daily circulation has fallen 25.6 percent.
This decline is also reflected in employment. According to a report by UNITY: Journalists of Color, Inc., there was a 22 percent increase in the journalism jobs lost from September 2008 through August 2009, compared with a general job loss rate of 8 percent. The news industry shed 35,885 jobs in a one-year period straddling 2008 and 2009.
Despite experiments with new ways to organize and support journalists — including grant-funded news operations such as Pro Publica, university/newsroom partnerships, citizen journalism collaborations with professional newsrooms, and various web projects — it is clear that, at least in the short term, there simply will be less journalism created by professional journalists.
It also seems clear that of the journalism remaining, a growing percentage is of less value to the project of enhancing democracy. I don’t want to pretend there was a golden age when professional journalism provided the critical and independent inquiry that citizens need to function as citizens. For reasons articulated by critics such as Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, contemporary professional journalism is hamstrung by institutional and ideological constraints that have been built into professional practices. As a result, corporate news owners rarely have to discipline mainstream journalists, who are socialized to accept the ideological prison in which they work and police other inmates.
But even with that rather large caveat, the slide of much of contemporary journalism into banality is frightening. Of public affairs journalism, we might paraphrase an old joke about hard-to-please restaurant patrons: “The food is awful here,” one says, and the friend replies, “Yes, and they’ve reduced the portions.”
The markers of this slide in quality are clear enough: An obsession with entertainment and sports, especially large-scale spectacles; routine exploitation of sexuality and violence in ways corrosive to human dignity; an endless fascination with celebrity, with the standards of what constitutes celebrity continually dropping; and a growing imposition of those spectacle and celebrity values on public affairs. This is not a screed against entertainment, pleasure, fun, or the people’s desire to gain pleasure from fun entertainment. It is not an attempt to glorify the rational and devalue the emotional. It is not a self-indulgent lament that the kind of journalism I prefer is losing out. It’s an accurate description of our increasing numbed-out and intellectually vapid culture.
How much of this collapse of journalism is driven by the explosion of news outlets in a 24-hour news cycle, as an ever-larger media beast demands to be fed? How much is a product of bottom-line-focused news managers’ longstanding obsession with producing the extraordinary profits demanded by top-floor-dwelling executives? How much is panic caused by these dramatic drops in audience and revenue by so-called legacy media, leading to desperation in programming?
Whatever the relative weight of these causes, the effect is clear: In the mainstream outlets through which most people in the United States get their news, there is less journalism relevant to citizens’ role in a democracy and more journalism-like material that dulls our collective capacity for independent critical thinking. If journalists had only to struggle to return to some previous state in which they did a better job, that would be hard enough. But journalists can’t be satisfied with striving toward standards from the past. A new journalism is needed.
The journalism of collapse
The immediate crises that journalism and journalists face — some rooted in the pathology of professionalism and its illusory claims to neutrality, and some rooted in the predatory nature of capitalism and its illusory commitment to democracy — are serious, but in some sense trivial compared to the long-term crises in a profoundly unjust and fundamentally unsustainable world. We have to deal with the collapse of journalism, but we also must begin to fashion a journalism of collapse.
To reiterate my basic premise: Whatever the specific story being told in modern journalism, those stories typically are set in that larger narrative of perpetual progress and endless expansion. What kind of story is needed for a world that desperately needs to rethink its idea of progress in a world that is no longer expanding?
Here’s the story: On March 17, 2051, the world will pump its last easily accessible barrel of usable oil. By that time, cancer directly attributable to human-created toxicity will kill 125 million people per year, while major disruptions in the hydrological cycle will so dramatically reduce the amount of fresh water that 18.9 percent of the human population will die each year as a direct result. On June 14, 2047, exactly half of the area of the world’s oceans will be dead zones, incapable of supporting significant marine life. Three and a half years later, topsoil losses will have reached the point where even with petrochemical based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, yields will drop by 50 percent on the most fertile soil and fall to zero on soil that has effectively gone sterile due to contamination and compaction. But there won’t be any petrochemicals anyway, because there won’t be any oil. And there won’t be enough water. And so there won’t be enough food. And getting reliable broadband internet service will be difficult.
OK, that was all meant to be funny. That, of course, is not the story. The story we need to tell won’t be focused on predictions about specific aspects of collapse. I have no doubt that if the human community continues on its present trajectory, such statistics will be all too real. I have no doubt that if the human community does not change that trajectory in substantial ways fairly soon, the future will be grim. But rather than scurrying to make specific predictions, journalism should struggle to help people understand the processes that make that preceding paragraph plausible, and hence not funny at all. There’s little humor in the recognition that continued commitment to an ideology of perpetual progress and endless expansion — operationally defined as ever greater human consumption of the ecological capital of the planet — is a dead end. More and bigger not only is not better, it is not possible.
The response I often get to this view is the assertion that we need not worry about the physical limits of the planet because human ingenuity will invent increasingly clever ways of exploiting those resources. This technological fundamentalism — the belief that the use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology — is more prevalent, and more dangerous, than religious fundamentalism. History teaches that we should be more cautious and pay attention to the unintended effects of such technology with an eye on the long term.
The fundamentalists believe the future is always bright, apparently because they wish it to be so. But the desire to live in an endless expanding world of bounty — a desire found both in those who currently have access to that bounty and those who don’t but crave it — is not a guarantee of it. We certainly know this at the individual level, that “you can’t always get what you want,” as the song goes, and what holds for us as individuals is also true for us as a species.
Those of us who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult designed to derail serious discussion. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects — predictable and unpredictable — on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge to control the larger world.
So the first step in crafting a new narrative for journalists is to reject technological fundamentalism and deal with a harsh reality: In the future we will have to make due with far less energy, which means less high-technology and a need for more creative ways of coping. Journalists have to tell stories about what that kind of creativity looks like. They have to reject the gee-whizzery of much of the contemporary science and technology reporting and emphasize the activities of those with a deeper ecological worldview.
There also is a corresponding need to tell stories about redefining our concept of the good life. Again, the basics are in pop songs: “all you need is love,” and “money can’t buy you love.” We all agree, yet that narrative of progress/expansion is rooted in the belief that acquisition and consumption are consistent with a good life, or perhaps even required for it.
Central to that redefinition is accepting that collectively we have to learn to live with less. In a world with grotesque inequalities in the distribution of wealth, some of our sisters and brothers are already living with less — less than what is required for a decent life, which reflects the unjust nature of our social systems. For those of us in the more affluent sectors, the question is not only whether we will work for a more just distribution within the human family, but how we respond when the world imposes stricter limits on us all.
Living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but to long-term human fulfillment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything — except meaning. The people who defend the existing system most aggressively are typically either in the deepest denial, refusing to acknowledge their culture’s spiritual emptiness, or else have been the privileged beneficiaries of the system. This is not to suggest that poverty produces virtue, but to recognize that affluence tends to erode it.
A world that steps back from high-energy, high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such technological “solutions” can help create and solidify human bonds. Indeed, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships as well as the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices transmit. Stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply a sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards. We need not romanticize community life or ignore the inequalities that structure our communities to recognize that human flourishing takes place in community and progressive social change doesn’t happen when people are isolated.
Telling this story is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. The specific stories told in the journalism of collapse will reject technological fundamentalism and aid people in the struggle to redefine the good life. Journalists need not merely speculate about these things; across the United States people are actively engaged in such projects. Though not yet a majority, these people are planning transition towns, developing permaculture systems, creating community gardens, reclaiming domestic arts that have atrophied, organizing worker-owned cooperative businesses. They are experimenting with alternatives to the dominant culture, and in doing so they are, implicitly or explicitly, rejecting technological fundamentalism and redefining the good life.
This journalism of collapse I am proposing would include stories about the problems we face, the harsh reality of a contracting world of less energy. But it also would include stories about people’s experiments with new definitions of progress and the good life. Such an approach to journalism would not only highlight the threats but also shine a light on the way people are coping with the threats.
Journalism in the prophetic voice
I would call this kind of storytelling “journalism in the prophetic voice,” borrowing a theological term for secular purposes. I prefer to speak about the prophetic voice rather than prophets because everyone is capable of speaking in the voice; the prophetic is not the exclusive property of particular people labeled as prophets. I also avoid the term prophecy, which is often used to describe a claim to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claim to predict the details of what lies ahead absurd . All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than anything humans have faced, certainly people at other crucial historical moments have faced crises without clear paths or knowledge of the outcome. A twenty-five-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in a letter to a friend in1843:
The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. … Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one.
We should understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly — both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:
But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.
To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of Creation as our most profound failure. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves.
Another prominent historical figure put it this way in 1909: “One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.” That was Mohandas Gandhi, on the first page of Hind Swaraj.
Those tasks — attempting to understand and give expression to what ordinary people feel, and then advocating progressive goals, while at the same time exposing problems in the culture — are not likely to make one’s life easy. Journalists willing to take this position will find themselves in a tense place, between a ruling elite that is not interested in seriously changing the distribution of power and a general public that typically does not want to confront these difficult realities of collapse. To speak from a prophetic position is to guarantee that one will find little rest and small comfort. Such is the fate of a commitment to truth-telling in difficult times, and times have never been more difficult.
But others have faced similar challenges. Looking to the tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets condemned corrupt leaders and also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:
Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.
That phrase, few are guilty but all are responsible, captures the challenge of the journalism of collapse. We can easily identify those powerful figures guilty of specific crimes. Who is guilty in perpetrating the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq? That’s easy — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice. Who is guilty in the bailout of Wall Street and the big banks: That’s easy, too — Bush and Obama, Paulsen and Geithner, Bernanke and the boys. One task of journalists is to pursue the guilty, perhaps with a bit more fervor than contemporary U.S. news media; our journalists are too polite in handling war criminals and servants of the wealthy.
But when we look at the fragile state of the world, in some sense our future depends on recognizing that we all are responsible, depending on our status in society and resources available to us. Those of us in affluent sectors of society have the most to answer for, and the task of journalists is to raise questions uncomfortable for us all. This will rarely make journalists popular, but that also is not new. In each of the four Gospels, Jesus reminds us: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4)
Since journalism has never really been an honorable profession, perhaps that makes us the perfect candidates for raising our voices prophetically.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. He is the author of All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (Soft Skull Press, 2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (South End Press, 2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (City Lights, 2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (City Lights, 2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (Peter Lang, 2002). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film “Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing,” which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. Information about the film, distributed by the Media Education Foundation, and an extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff are online at http://thirdcoastactivist.org/osheroff.html.