In his classic book, The Sane Society, published in 1955, psychologist Erich Fromm proposed that, not just individuals, but entire societies “may be lacking in sanity”. Fromm argued that one of the most deceptive features of social life involves “consensual validation”:
“It is naively assumed that the fact that the majority of people share certain ideas or feelings proves the validity of these ideas and feelings. Nothing is further from the truth… Just as there is a ‘folie a deux’ there is a ‘folie a millions.’ The fact that millions of people share the same vices does not make these vices virtues, the fact that they share so many errors does not make the errors to be truths, and the fact that millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make these people sane.” (Fromm, The Sane Society, Routledge, 1955, pp.14-15)
Fromm concluded that modern Western society was indeed insane and that this insanity threatened the very survival of the human species.
If this sounds extreme, consider the media response to the most terrifying threat of our time – global climate catastrophe. In 2004 a paper in the leading science journal Nature warned that, as a result of climate change, fully one-quarter of all plant and animal species could be doomed to extinction by 2050. The danger signals have been coming thick and fast since then.
In considering the sanity of the media reaction there is little point analysing the worst media – trashy magazines, gossip-filled tabloids and the like. Instead let us consider the performance of the very best media on climate change. In Britain this means the Independent newspaper. On December 3, a front-page banner headline in the Independent declared:
“Climate Change: Time For Action. Today, protestors unite in 30 nations – this is what lies ahead if nothing is done.”
The illustrations and text identified the usual litany of horrors: “killer storms, rampant disease, rising sea levels, devastated wildlife, water shortages, agricultural turmoil,” and “the x-factor” – the possibility of sudden, devastating climatic phenomena that we cannot even imagine.
Page 2 reported global protests in 33 countries, while page 3 focused on “a monument to ecological folly” in Dubai – one of the world’s largest indoor ski resorts in the middle of the desert:
“While the outside temperature can reach 50C, the Ski Dubai centre will expend thousands of watts on keeping its indoor climate at minus 1.4C all year round.” (Maxine Frith, ‘In the middle of the desert: a monument to ecological folly,’ The Independent, December 3, 2005)
Below, the Independent’s own folly began to emerge in the form of an advert for Vauxhall cars. PC World advertised PS2 and X-Box game consoles on page 4: “Game On! This weekend”. Immediately adjacent, the Independent wrote of “10 things you can do at home” to avert climate change, including “Turn off electrical appliances not in use”: “The power wasted releases an extra one million tons of carbon into the atmosphere every year”, we were told.
On page 5, flymonarch.com urged readers: “Let Santa pay – Find hundreds of 1p flights”. Immediately adjacent an emergency appeal from Care International reported: “Food crisis across Africa”, explaining: “Failed harvests, erratic rains and chronic poverty means millions of people across Africa are at risk of starvation.” This echoed the Independent’s own front page, which linked climate change from the burning of fossil fuels to drought in Africa:
“The hundreds of millions of people living in the world’s marginal agricultural lands, such as the countries of the Sahel region, already face a desperate struggle to grow food… The terrifying images of African famine are as nothing to what will come.”
It is not just Santa who pays for the 1p flights promoted by the Independent.
The page after the warnings of mass starvation featured a half-page full-colour advert for Dior Christal watches: “48 diamonds and sapphire crystal chronograph”. Stories of impending climatic collapse had by now dried up. Instead, by way of a bitter irony, a large “Kodak price crash” was featured on page 7, promising “The future… for less.”
Page 8 featured a full-colour British Airways advert: “London-Malaga return” for just £59. “Have you clicked yet?” the advert asked potential flyers. Had Independent readers?
Page 9 was taken up completely in “Canon Week – great money saving Canon offers” on digital cameras, camcorders, printers and memory cards.
Page 10 promoted last minute.com holidays. Pages 12-13 sold British Telecom phones. All of page 15 was reserved for “Citroen Happy Deals”. The adverts for cheap holidays, cars, computers and other high-tech goods continued: Comet, Davidoff, Travelodge, Halfords, Vauxhall, Currys, last minute.com, bmibaby.com (“the airline with tiny fares”), Sony, 118trades.com, The Link.
Finally, after dozens of pages of this remorseless propaganda promoting mass consumption, the paper returned to the front page issue with an editorial on page 40: “Global warming and the need for all of us to act now to avoid catastrophe”:
“Governments must demand greater energy conservation from industry. And action must be taken to curtail emissions from transport. That means extensive investment in the development of alternative fuels and the taxation of air flights.”
The editors concluded:
“But it is not just governments that have a responsibility. Individuals must act too. By opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving everywhere, we can all do something to reduce emissions. If more of us turned off electrical devices when not in use and recycled our waste properly, our societies would be hugely less energy inefficient… A failure to act now will not be forgiven by future generations.”
As though these words had not appeared, the rest of the paper returned to adverts, consumer advice and financial news (“bet on easyJet to fly higher”). The Independent’s holiday supplement, The Traveller, urged readers to climb on fossil fuel burning planes and visit Paris, Brussels, Syria, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Aspen, Chamonix, Mallorca, Australia, Dubai, New Zealand, Lapland, Spain, North America, Austria, Germany, the Maldives, and on and on.
Beyond Petroleum – Beyond Reason
One day later, the Independent on Sunday published two full-page, full-colour adverts on successive right-hand pages promoting BP’s “Beyond Petroleum” campaign.
BP’s claim to be moving beyond petroleum is a sham. James Marriott of the environmental social justice group, Platform (www.platformlondon.org), told us that BP investments in renewable energy – such as solar and wind power – currently constitute around 2 per cent of the company’s total investments. Marriott comments:
“The amount of capital being put into renewables is minute. So they +are+ going ‘beyond petroleum’, but at this rate it will take several hundred years.” (Interview with Media Lens, December 13, 2005)
“Beyond Petroleum” is part of a cynical strategy targeting what the public relations industry calls “special publics”. Advertising is specifically focussed on the Independent, the Guardian, the Observer, the Financial Times, Prospect magazine, Channel 4 News and the New Statesman. Marriott explains:
“The campaign is targeting the liberal intelligentsia. It’s not focussed on drivers on the forecourts – it’s focussed on changing the opinions of opinion formers. The idea is to bring them on side, to drive a wedge between them and people they perceive as intractable opponents. Shell has used the same tactic with considerable success.”
Nevertheless, an article by Saeed Shah in the Independent bore the title: ‘BP looks “beyond petroleum” with $8bn renewables spend’ (November 29, 2005).
An alternative title might have been: ‘BP claims to look “beyond petroleum”…’
On closer inspection, the article revealed that BP’s chief executive, Lord Browne of Madingley, admitted that the company plans to continue raising its production of oil and gas for years to come. Browne said the “beyond petroleum” marketing slogan was not meant to be taken literally: “It is more a way of thinking.” Needless to say, that is +not+ the impression given by the adverts.
Friends of the Earth (FoE) recently analysed car adverts in national newspapers in the UK and discovered that the media are primarily promoting the least fuel-efficient gas guzzlers rather than smaller, greener cars.
FoE looked at the best-selling national newspapers and the two best-selling car magazines for the first two weeks of September. They found that over one third (35.8%) of adverts promoted cars in car tax band F, the top band, for cars emitting more than 185g/km CO2. Over half (57.6%) were for cars in either band E or band F, for cars emitting more than 166 g/km CO2. Only 3.1% were for cars in bands A and B, the lowest bands, for cars emitting less then 121 g/km CO2. (http://www.foe.co.uk/resource/press_releases/government_and_industry_mu_09112005.html)
More details are provided by advertising industry sources who have told us that between January 1 and October 7, 2005, Independent News and Media PLC – owners of the Independent newspapers – received the following revenues from advertisers:
BP Plc £11,769 (this figure has risen substantially since October 7 as a result of the ‘Beyond Petroleum’ campaign)
Citroen UK Ltd £418,779
Ford Motor Company Ltd £247,506
Peugeot Motor Co Plc £260,920
Renault UK Ltd £427,097
Toyota (GB) Ltd £715,050
Vauxhall Motors Ltd £662,359
Volkswagen UK Ltd £555,518
BMI British Midland £60,847
Bmibaby Ltd £12,810
British Airways Plc £248,165
Easyjet Airline Co Ltd £59,905
Monarch Airlines £15,713
Ryanair Ltd £28,543 (Email to Media Lens, December 12, 2005)
It is enlightening to compare these figures with the Independent editors’ suggestion, cited above:
“Individuals must act too. By opting to cycle or walk, instead of driving everywhere, we can all do something to reduce emissions.”
At the same time, the Independent is hosting adverts specifically designed to disarm dissent and pacify the public.
Always Stuck On ‘Square One’
Mainstream journalists and editors never tire of insisting that they cover all issues ad nauseam – they tell us the problem is that readers would be bored to tears if they kept on repeating dissident arguments. In reality, analyses of the kind we are presenting here are essentially never seen.
But the same journalists really +do+ endlessly regurgitate the same empty nonsense on “the need for all of us to act now” on climate change. Take any number of editorials from the Independent, the Guardian, or any other liberal media newspaper, from the last twenty-five years, and almost exactly the same words can be found: governments need to do more (especially the Americans!), but “we” need to do our bit, too – something must be done!
Journalists and editors, and perhaps many readers, fail to notice that this remains “square one” of a sane discussion on climate change. They fail to notice that the media forever remain on this square while obviously important issues are not even addressed, while nothing fundamentally changes, while the same media that are part of the same destructive corporate system continue devastating the world.
The point is that the media are structurally obliged to remain on square one. What is a corporate business like the Independent to say about the impact of its own corporate advertising on environmental collapse? What is it to say about the remorseless activities of its business allies working to bend the public mind to their will over decades? What is to say about their determination to destroy all attempts to subordinate short-term profits to action on climate change? What is it to say about the historical potency of people power in challenging systems of entrenched and irresponsible power of this kind, of which it is itself a part?
And what are we to say of a public that continues to take these tossed bones of trivial comment seriously as a sane response to the astonishing threat facing us?
What we can say, surely, is that we are living in an insane society.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Ask the following editors how they can call for action on climate change while themselves receiving millions of pounds in revenue from some of the world’s most damaging fossil fuel advertisers.
Write to Simon Kelner, editor of the Independent: Email: [email protected]
Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday: Email: [email protected]
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