It is obvious to me that the great majority of humans will need to have a significant change in thinking, an epiphany, around the global environmental situation and the part humans play in it, before we can make serious progress towards sustainability. Trying to figure out how that might occur, or be caused to occur is a daunting task. The trick to making large scale predictions on the future seems to mostly be in separating what may change from what will probably not. Some things, like basic human nature and form, change quite slowly, while some things, like human ideas and feelings, can change in minutes. This capacity for rapid change is only increasing with the continual development of electronic media, and without it, I don’t think humanity would be able to avoid serious, large scale problems in the next few decades.
Currently, 20% of the global population are thought to be on the Internet (link). That number has grown by 265% overall from 2000-2007, and by rates between 600% and 1000% in the developing countries. I can’t find any good figures from a Google search, but I have to believe that other electronic media (TV and radio) have a much greater penetration, perhaps to as much as 80% of world population. (Though a 2005 estimate indicated 2 billion humans did not have electricity, I believe that number is dropping rapidly in China and India.) Thus, I believe rapid changes of direction can be achieved in our pursuit of sustainability, as long as they don’t require changes in human nature (or form … but this item is not intended to go in a science fiction-y direction – “shape shifting” is not going to help us). What can bring about rapid change, though?
It is obvious that events involving a lot of negative emotion, fear in particular, have tremendous impact and have the potential to dominate media coverage. The terrorist attacks in the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, were a striking example of this, and the news coverage worldwide was dominated by those events for a period of days to weeks. That event, and its shocking and dramatic coverage, also changed the thinking of at least hundreds of millions of humans within a matter of days. This makes it pretty clear that a major negative event could potentially change the thinking of a majority of humanity within a very short time.
Can such a change be brought about without the shock and negative emotional content, though? While it is possible, it is probably less likely. The media profit from having more viewers, and the competing corporations are involved in a never-ending battle for “share”, as human nature is first to do what benefits you personally. Media corporations have long known enough about human nature to know that that shock value attracts and keeps people’s attention. That’s what they promote news with shock value most intensively. I don’t expect human nature to change, and it follows that truly rapid changes in human thinking on a global scale won’t happen without fearful and shocking events to drive the news media.
Under most circumstances I can envision, though, we don’t need change to occur that rapidly. Changing people’s minds over a period of months or years may be sufficient, as long as it gets things going in positive directions towards sustainability. This is already happening, as I have seen significant changes reflected in news reports over the past few years. People are buying more fuel efficient cars, most of them because of rising energy prices, but some certainly because more and more are starting to think long term, and recognizing that the current world situation is threatened with ecological problems. Some people are even starting to see the population-driven nature of the problems.
Publication of scientific reports about large scale environmental problems is getting more and more attention in the media. It isn’t clear if that drives public interest and attention, or the other way around, but it is needed, however it comes about. Major media releases such as the eco-disaster movies and “An Inconvenient Truth” have had some effect. It is encouraging to me that, while many eco-disaster movies have been produced, they weren’t huge successes, while a work with more scientific substance behind it – An Inconvenient Truth – got a lot of serious public attention. It reassures me that the majority of people have enough education and are sensible enough to think hard about such things. Whether they believe in any particular message is not as important to me as the fact that they actually thought about it, and it is likely that many sought other sources of information to confirm, deny, and/or expand on what they learned.
While some government and corporate entities are starting to think and act with more of a long term focus, and some even apparently thinking seriously about sustainability, the movement in that direction may still be driven more from the grass roots, the average people, than from any other force. When elected officials are hearing, consistently and frequently, that their constituents support candidates who recognize the problems of overpopulation as important, their behavior will change, as it already is in some cases. When corporate entities see the buying behavior of their markets changing, and hear from their customers that ecological concerns are important to them AND affect their buying behavior, corporate behavior will change. And when stockholders speak up to let the companies in which they are stakeholders know of their concerns for the global future, boards of directors will change their behaviors. It all comes back to the need for everyone who is becoming aware of and thinking about global ecological problems and the need for sustainability to speak up to their candidates, the press, and the corporate entities they deal with, and to begin to think of protecting themselves and their descendants with real actions.
In the end, it appears to me that the media definitely has the power to change minds worldwide, and to do so quickly enough to offset our growing ecological problems and at least mitigate, to a considerable degree, the extent of the disasters we will have to cope with in the future. It won’t happen without your, and my, and everyone’s careful thought and action, but I believe it will occur.
As always, I welcome your comments.