Five Years

By James Cooper, 11 October 2004

In 1992, 1,700 of the leading scientists in the world put their names to a document that was released to the press and which included the following phrases: "Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course... The environment is suffering critical stress... Heedless exploitation of depletable ground water supplies endangers food production and other essential human systems... Since 1945, 11% of the earth's vegetated surface has been degraded - an area larger than India and China combined - and per capita food production in many parts of the world is decreasing... The irreversible loss of species, which by 2100 may reach one-third of all species now living, is especially serious... Current economic practices which damage the environment, in both developed and underdeveloped nations, cannot be continued without the risk that vital global systems will be damaged beyond repair..." They concluded by mentioning that: "No more than one or a few decades remain before the chance to avert the threats we now confront will be lost and the prospects for humanity."

As a call for help, as a call for a community-based effort to change human behaviour, it was practically unprecedented. However, although you may consider yourself a tolerably well-informed human being, although you may consider yourself aware of some of the issues involved - global warming, for example, or the human population explosion - you probably were not aware that a significant chunk of the most intelligent people on the planet were so alarmed that they had got together to issue this warning.

And why weren't you aware of it? Not, you may be surprised to hear, because of any error or oversight on your part. It's even simpler than that. You didn't get to hear of it because not one major newspaper in Britain or the United States considered this statement newsworthy. Not one of them covered it. And yet, the signatories were no bunch of crackpots. 58 of the world academies of science were represented in this document. When a similar statement was released five years later - in time for the 1997 Kyoto Earth Summit - scientists from 63 countries signed it, among them 60 US National Medal of Science winners and 110 Nobel Laureates, including 104 of the 178 living Nobel Prize winners in the sciences. These were not the New-Agers nailing themselves to trees that the media so loves to poke fun at. These were the most conservative, hard-working, wife-and-two-kids science nerds on the planet. And they were ignored. (The Independent was the only major English language newspaper to cover the 1997 statement.)

In his address to the Gaia Society (given at the Linnean Society, Burlington House, on the 5th October), scientist and author Dr. David Suzuki posed the question: How could this be? How could the death of Princess Diana or the trial of O.J. Simpson be considered more important than the news that life as we know it will end if we do not do something about our management of the environment within the next ten years? The fact that the media could have ignored such a call is irrefutable evidence that the traditional tools of liberal democracy - freedom of the press, binary debate - have failed. Politicians and business interests have become so adept at manipulating them that it is no longer possible to communicate the truth - any kind of truth (and I deliberately write it without a capital 'T') - to the general public.

One example of this is the way in which the media, in a traditionally laudable attempt to always present both sides of the argument, continue to insist upon giving airtime to those who deny the existence of global warming despite the fact that it is an almost universally accepted hypothesis among climatologists. And when, earlier this year, the last shred of contradictory evidence supporting the nay-sayers turned out to be false data caused by a weather satellite's unreported decline in orbit, there was no coverage beyond that of the scientific press.

The aim here is not to deny the minority view or to silence the outsider. But something needs to change if vested interests are not to be allowed to continue to exploit any institutionalised good-will that exists towards the underdog. The problem may lie in the essentially formulaic nature of contemporary media presentation. News programmes tend to give the impression of debate, without allowing debate to actually happen. The first problem is that arguments always have to be left unresolved 'in the interests of fairness.' The second is that the participants are often forced into a binary opposition with one another. Confrontation may make good TV but the fact is that in our heterogeneous and minutely variegated society the binary form is all but moribund as a useful form of thought and interaction. New forms are needed.

If I were to bow to tradition I would end this article by demanding that you judge for yourself. What worries me is that with the evidence you have at your disposal it is no longer possible for you to do so. Perhaps it was never possible, and all that has happened is that this is finally becoming apparent. Hopelessly apparent, because even were we all equipped with the appropriate knowledge about the state of the Earth's ecological web, it appears that it is already too late to apply it.

David Suzuki is the author of Genethics: The Clash Between the New Genetics and Human Values, and The Sacred Balance: Rediscovering Our Place in Nature. Details of the Gaia Society's on-going series of talks can be obtained from  gaia AT

Cooper James: XCooper AT