There is an impressive amount of research on how climate change and global warming are reported in the media all over the world (Smith 2000, Boyce & Lewis 2009, Boykoff 2011, Eide & Kunelius 2012, Brevini & Lewis 2018, McNatt et al. 2019). However, there is very little research on how the Anthropocene, the name proposed for a new geological epoch defined in terms of human impacts on the Earth System, is reported in the media. The Anthropocene Media Project (AMP), on which this book is based, aims to fill that gap by documenting and analysing how media world-wide report the Anthropocene. While select groups of academics, environment professionals, social scientists, humanities scholars, and creative artists do engage actively with issues of the Anthropocene, it is likely that most people have either never heard of it or if they have, they have no clear idea about it.
The difference between climate change (which most people seem to have heard of) and the Anthropocene, to put it simply in lay terms, is that while climate affects and is affected by every eco-system (oceans, forests, soils, rocks, atmosphere, all interacting with the biosphere of living organisms which regulates the system), the Anthropocene is a more holistic idea that directly implicates human behaviour. The environmental historian Julia Thomas (2014: 1588) expresses this very clearly, declaring that the Anthropocene: ‘is admittedly a contested term, but I use it instead of “climate change” or “global warming” because they misleadingly imply that the threat is limited to atmospheric increases in methane and, especially, carbon’ (expanded in Thomas 2019). Climate change seems to have become a metonym for the Anthropocene, substituting a part for the whole. This matters because everyone knows that the climate (usually understood in terms of the weather) changes and unless you study the science the implications of this may be vague. Neither climate change nor global warming in themselves as phrases imply anything about human agency. If we explain the Anthropocene as the ‘Age of Humans (or Man)’ the issue of human agency is blurred. However, the term ‘Anthropocene’ (and the adjective ‘anthropogenic’) specifically implicate human behaviours. It is important to ask questions about whose interests are served by such an apparently innocuous linguistic choice. This book aims to be a resource for those who want to compare what the media write about the Anthropocene and what scholars write about it, all over the world. This is a difficult task, as the Anthropocene as a concept within and beyond Earth System science is open to many interpretations (see, for example, Steffen et al. 2004, Schwagërl 2014, Hamilton et al. 2015, Angus 2016a, Davies 2016, Bonneuil & Fressoz 2017, Ellis 2018, Lewis & Maslin 2018, Zalasiewicz et al. 2019).
THE ANTHROPOCENE AND EARTH SYSTEM SCIENCE
The Anthropocene concept signifies both a measure of geological time and a system that is more than the sum of its parts, in which positive and negative feedbacks between eco-systems are of vital importance.[i] From these ideas Earth System science, sometimes referred to as the Gaia hypothesis, emerged in the 1960s (see Lovelock 2016, Lenton 2016, and Steffen et al. 2004: Box 2.7). The idea of the Anthropocene is a consequence of these new ways of looking at planet Earth and the impacts of human actions on it.[ii]
The consensus among environmental scientists is that the Earth System has always been changing. However, since the second half of the twentieth century the findings of Earth System scientists strongly suggest that the rate of change, particularly for atmospheric CO2 and other greenhouse gases implicated in the degradation of eco-systems and potentially posing existential threats to human survival, has been increasing unusually rapidly. It is argued that these changes are causing serious (sometimes irreversible) damage to the viability of the Earth System as a whole, as far as humanity is concerned. This has been conceptualized as ‘The Great Acceleration’ (Steffen et al. 2015, McNeill and Engelke 2016, Lane 2019). On the evidence of over 6,000 peer-reviewed papers this is more or less the conclusion reported by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, established in 1988 by the UN to monitor the situation (IPCC 2018).[iii]
Scholars have been warning for decades (in some respects centuries) that such changes may present a credible existential threat to human life on the planet.
It is interesting to compare the tone of two multi-authored scientific papers on the Anthropocene in prestigious peer-reviewed journals a few years apart. The first (Steffen et al. 2011: 862) concludes: ‘Darwin’s insights into our origins provoked outrage, anger and disbelief but did not threaten the material existence of society of the time. The ultimate drivers of the Anthropocene, on the other hand, if they continue unabated through this century, may well threaten the viability of contemporary civilization and perhaps even the future existence of Homo sapiens’. The second (Steffen et al. 2018: 8252) concludes: ‘Collective human action is required to steer the Earth System away from a potential threshold and stabilize it in a habitable interglacial-like state. Such action entails stewardship of the entire Earth System—biosphere, climate, and societies—and could include decarbonization of the global economy, enhancement of biosphere carbon sinks, behavioural changes, technological innovations, new governance arrangements, and transformed social values’. This paper does discuss some alarming concepts: ‘hothouse Earth’, ‘tipping points’, ‘planetary boundaries’ and (not quite so alarming) ‘safe operating spaces’ for the human species. The ideas of planetary boundaries and safe operating spaces, as we will see in Part II, have attracted some media attention.[iv] However, the messages contained in the conclusions to these papers seem rather different. The difference is that in the first the existential risk to human survival is clearly stated, while in the second the role of human agency is mobilized to create what we might (uncharitably) label an optimistic spin to the story of the Anthropocene. The following chapters document the messages mass media all round the world have been sending out in their reporting of the Anthropocene, and ask whether journalists and scientists themselves have been in any way complicit in neutralizing the risks of the Anthropocene?[v]
DILEMMAS OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
The Anthropocene was introduced as a geological concept to name and explore human impacts on the Earth System. In 2009 proponents of the distinctiveness of the Anthropocene began a process to persuade the bodies responsible for naming geological periods by establishing the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) led by Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester.[vi] This is a complicated and lengthy business involving a mass of scientific evidence and many committees. Lewis and Maslin describe the process as ‘The Messy Mechanics of Defining Time’ (2018: 283-94). According to geologists, we have been in the Holocene, a period of moderate temperatures and relative stability in the Earth System (especially as far as humans are concerned) for at least the last ten thousand years. It is not a foregone conclusion that the name Anthropocene will ever officially become part of the Geologic Time Scale.
A simplified Geological Anthropocene Timeline indicates some of the people, institutions and publications in the evolution of the Anthropocene from a relatively obscure geological-stratigraphic concept into a phenomenon that impacts on everything, even ‘the Anthropocene style’ (Rahm 2019), and everyone.[vii]
Our book is not intended as a critique of journalists or scientists, neither does it seek to apportion ‘blame for the Anthropocene’. Rather, it starts from the premise that the Anthropocene puts journalists, scientists, and the rest of us in a series of impossible dilemmas created by the choices taken (knowingly or unknowingly, consciously or unconsciously, deliberately or casually) at as yet still contentious historical junctures by different groups of people in different places at different times. The most important expression of these dilemmas is the debate that swirls around the effort to establish the Capitalocene as a more accurate and radical alternative to the Anthropocene, a name that appears to portray all humanity as an undifferentiated totality.[viii] This ignores the fact that all communist or socialist societies have followed similar patterns of unfettered economic growth based on fossil fuels (thus the label ‘state capitalism’). While not disputing the decisive role of the capitalist system in the creation of anthropogenic ecological destruction, we need to ask if the argument is that capitalists set out from the beginning of the exploitation of fossil fuels deliberately to destroy the planet and the capitalist system for their offspring? Did Karl Marx, warming himself by the coal fire in chilly London, do the same? And today, when information about the perilous state of the planet is readily available, we who drive, fly, consume excessively, the lucky minorities, and the not so lucky billions who do not consume excessively but whose struggles to survive also impact adversely on the eco-systems that sustain them – are we all exonerated? In two previous books (Sklair 2001, 2002) I argued that the transnational capitalist class can be held responsible for ecological unsustainability because of its insatiable appetite for economic growth, and that through the culture-ideology of consumerism it exerts tremendous pressure on everyone on the planet towards consuming finite resources. So, those of us who chose to consume far beyond our basic needs cause ecological damage, as do many of those who consume barely to survive. This is the reality of life that global capitalism provides in the Anthropocene. To argue that we know the few who are really to blame is as naive as saying we are all to blame equally. In the first decade of what we might label ‘Anthropocene studies’ (roughly from the year 2000) most Earth System scientists ignored the political and moral implications of the name (apparently implicating all humans). More recently, however, questions about capitalism and ecological justice are becoming acknowledged by scientists (notably Ellis 2018: 135ff, Lewis & Maslin 2018 and, implicitly, Zalasiewicz et al. eds. 2019: chap. 7). It seems obvious that while the Anthropocene may last thousands of years, capitalism probably will not.
To intensify the dilemmas for journalists, the science is complicated and the timescales are lengthy and uncertain, making it difficult to fit the Anthropocene into the usual media cycles. Further, there is a good deal of disagreement among Earth scientists themselves over detail, for example, the terms ‘uncertain’ and ‘uncertainty’ crop up over 50 times in the first chapter of the IPCC 2018 report.[ix] Merchants of Doubt, by two historians of science (Oreskes and Conway 2012) provides historical context and analytic tools to help understand the dilemmas facing scientists, journalists, and science popularizers in their efforts to communicate the ecological crisis we face (and, by implication, the Anthropocene) to the general public.[x] Oreskes and Conway introduce the argument that where evidence-based research findings rub against the vested interests of big business and governments a few scientists (often no longer engaged in research themselves) can usually be found to support the political-economic status quo.[xi] Alongside the merchants of doubt are those dubbed merchants of fear who raise the alarm, often predicting catastrophe.[xii] It is not always easy to distinguish ideologically-driven merchants of fear from working scientists in many fields who are genuinely afraid of the consequences of the facts as they appear in the established scientific record – perhaps it is best to label them pessimistic realists. What, we may legitimately ask, can researchers, journalists and the lay public make of this?
Strictly speaking, none of the research questions in the book address the Earth System science from which the Anthropocene idea emerged. They are questions that social scientists and environmental humanities scholars ask (see Pálsson, et al. 2013 and Castree et al. 2014). Sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers who research the Anthropocene do not normally go into the field with geological hammers, or measure ocean acidification, deforestation, the death of coral reefs or other material consequences of anthropogenic eco-system change. This has led some to speak about the Anthropo-scene (Castree 2015, Lorimer 2017, and Part III of the book. Anthropo-scene scholars do not usually do Earth System science research themselves, to a greater or lesser extent they accept the research and try to work out what it means for their own disciplines and for human (and non-human) life on Earth in general. In one of the most widely discussed contributions to the Anthropo-scene debate, the historian Chakrabarty (2009) provides a framework for theorizing the connections between the Anthropocene as moments in both Earth and human history, and the reconceptualization of nature/society relationships. Building on his provocative idea that the Anthropocene represents a crisis for the human sciences Chakrabarty began to show how provincializing the Anthropocene and critiques of its Eurocentric roots could not be separated from the experience of colonialism and imperialism – past, present, and future (see chap. 12). As the regional chapters in Part II suggest, these issues are rarely to be found directly in the media, however indirect references from media in both colonising and colonised countries deal with these issues, leading to ideas around what we can label ‘localizing the Anthropocene’.
Scholars in the social studies of science address these issues by engaging with the science-politics of the Anthropocene. Stengers (2015: 136), for example, argues that because scientists were prepared to go public on the risks of the Anthropocene before all the necessary research had been carried out and validated, this gave credence to the merchants of doubt. This is understandable, as those scientists who were already convinced of the severity of the risks considered the situation to be urgent.[xiii] However, the incompleteness of research results, one of the conditions of evidence-based science, meant that doubters could keep the debate going (see van Eeden 2017a, an interesting reflection on materialism and the Anthropocene). Latour argues that science and politics are both frail human endeavours and that we need to move from ‘science-versus-politics’ to ‘politics-with-science’, however risky. Anthropocene politics ‘is not a rational debate … [it is] incredibly easy to make two sides emerge even when there is only one’ (Latour 2015: 147).[xiv] And this is why the ways in which the Anthropocene is reported in the mass media are so important. To put it most starkly, media-produced public perceptions of the severity or mildness of the risks of the Anthropocene may make the difference between human survival or the extinction of the human species on our home planet.
Adequately informed publics all over the world are more liable to change their behaviour and pressure governments, as are international organizations and corporations to change their behaviour if these risks are taken seriously (Carvalho et al. 2017). This seems obvious from two meticulously researched papers in which Clémençon (2012, 2016) deconstructs UN climate change meetings over the past decades, and from Gurwitts et al. (2017) who speak of ‘developed country bias’ in the media. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that if the risks are ignored, downplayed, or otherwise not taken seriously (neutralized) and turn out to be genuine, then extinction of human life on our home planet may be the result. A recent book (Grusin ed. 2019) is advertised as follows: ‘the collection considers extinction as a cultural, artistic, and media event as well as a biological one’. How did we get to this perilous position?[xv]
[i] In scientific terms positive and negative feedbacks mean the opposite to their meaning in ordinary language. Lashof (2018) has suggested that ‘positive’ be replaced with ‘amplifying’. See also Lenton (2016: 5-7).
[ii] There is already a considerable literature for and against the name and concept ‘Anthropocene’, for example, Moore ed. (2015), Angus (2016a), Bonneuil & Fressoz (2017), Bauer & Ellis (2018) and Bińczy (2019).
[iii] For two understandably optimistic surveys of UN activity see Biermann (2012 and 2017).
[iv] The nine planetary boundaries are climate change, ocean acidification, ozone depletion, nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, freshwater, land use, biodiversity, atmospheric aerosol loading, and chemical pollution (Rockström et al. 2009). Zalasiewicz and Steffen (2017) present an admirably clear summary.
[v] On ‘Anthropocene risk’ see Keys et al. (2019). Ulrich Beck’s World Risk Society (1999) has become the classic sociological source on risk, and in one of his last publications (Beck 2014:171) he argued ‘Talk of the “Anthropocene” signals that geologists have now caught up with the reality of world risk society’. See also Cottle (1998) on Beck and the media.
[vi] Zalasiewicz et al. eds. (2019) gives the authoritative version from the AWG.
[viii] Schwagërl (2014: 65, n.132) reports that the term ‘Kapitalozän’ (Capitalocene) was coined by the late Elmar Altvater. The essays in Moore ed. (2015) provide the most comprehensive survey of the Capitalocene. For a thorough critique from an eco-socialist perspective see Angus (2016b). Also of interest here is the idea of the Plantationocene (https://edgeeffects.net/tag/plantationocene/).
[ix] While the first chapter in the IPCC 2018 report places climate change science within the framework of the Anthropocene, the term is absent from the press release and most subsequent media coverage.
[x] See, in this connection, Parham (2006).
[xi] For a sympathetic critique of Oreskes and Conway, challenging some aspects of their analysis of how science works and some sharp comments on the IPCC, see Howe (2012).
[xii] Many commentators link the Anthropocene with disaster and catastrophe (Clark 2014, Scranton 2015, and Barrios 2017). Truscello (2018) discusses mixed messages in documentary films and Fava (2013) provides more sharp comments on the IPCC.
[xiii] See Kolbert (2006: esp. chap. 3) for a poignant discussion.
[xiv] While open to some minor methodological criticism, the conclusions on consensus among scientists around anthropogenic climate change offered by Cook et al. (2016) are widely accepted. See also, Hulme (2009) and the refreshingly polemical Maxwell and Miller (2016). For more, simply search for ‘97% of scientists’ on the Internet.
[xv] For the moral case against any species extinction see Cafaro & Primak (2014) and the online discussion that followed.
This book offers the first systematic study of how the ‘Anthropocene’ is reported in mass media globally, drawing parallels between the use (or misuse) of the term and the media’s attitude towards the associated issues of climate change and global warming.
Identifying the potential dangers of the Anthropocene provides a useful path into a variety of issues that are often ignored, misrepresented, or sidelined by the media. These dangers are widely discussed in the social sciences, environmental humanities, and creative arts, and this book includes chapters on how the contributions of these disciplines are reported by the media. Our results suggest that the natural science and mass media establishments, and the business and political interests which underpin them, tend to lean towards optimistic reassurance (the ‘good’ Anthropocene), rather than pessimistic alarmist stories, in reporting the Anthropocene. In this volume, contributors explore how dangerous this ‘neutralizing’ of the Anthropocene is in undermining serious global action in the face of the potential existential risks confronting humanity. The book presents results from media in more than 100 countries in all major languages across the globe. It covers the reporting of key environmental issues, such as the impact of climate change and global warming on oceans, forests, soil, biodiversity, and the biosphere. We offer explanations for differences and similarities in how the media report the Anthropocene in different regions of the world. In doing so, the book argues that, though it is still controversial, the idea of the Anthropocene helps to concentrate minds and behaviour in confronting ongoing ecological (and Coronavirus) crises.
The Anthropocene in Global Media will be of interest to students and scholars of environmental studies, media and communication studies, and the environmental humanities, and all those who are concerned about the survival of humans on planet Earth.
Table of Contents
Part I: The Anthropocene and Global Media
1 Editor’s Introduction
2 Anthropocene in the Mass Media: The Big Picture
Part II: Media Coverage of The Anthropocene: A Global Survey
3 Africa’s Anthropocene: A Kaleidoscope of Contradictions
Meryl McQueen and Leslie Sklair
4 The Anthropocene in North America: The Pursuit of the ‘Good’ Anthropocene
Leslie Sklair, Chad Steacy, Jonathan DeVore, and Ron Wagler
5 Challenges and Ideas of Representation of the Anthropocene in Latin American and Caribbean Media
Viviane Riegel, Sofia Ávila, and Jerico Fiestas-Flores
6 The Anthropocene in the Media of North Asia
Leslie Sklair, Ka Ho Mok, and Yuyang Kang
7 South Asia: The ‘Provincializing’ Dilemma
Leslie Sklair, Jahnnabi Das, and Sunitha Kuppuswamy
8 Latecomers to Capitalism, Latecomers to the Risks of the Anthropocene
Vladimir Vuletic and Eni Buljubašić
9 Western Europe: Planetary Eurocentrism
Boris Holzer and Leslie Sklair
10 The Anthropocene in Middle East Media: Invisible Oil?
Baran Alp Uncu and Ramzi Darouiche
11 Oceania: Big Islands, Small Islands, and the Anthropocene
Leslie Sklair and Astrid Kusumowidagdo
Part III: From the Anthropocene to the Anthropo-scene
12 Media Coverage of the Anthropocene in the Social Sciences and Environmental Humanities
13 Media Coverage of Anthropocene-related creative arts
14 Conclusion: We Need to Talk about the Anthropocene
Appendix 1: countries in Regions
Appendix 2: sources by coverage