03September2014

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IN THE SPIRIT OF NERO

“There ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! We're all gonna die.”

('Feel Like I'm Fixin' To Die' Rag, Country Joe and The Fish, 1967)

The science is now clear: humanity +is+ bringing disaster to our planet. On February 3, the Independent noted that the latest scientific assessment by the prestigious UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) provides “humanity's loudest warning yet of the catastrophe that is threatening to overtake us”. “No more excuses,” the Guardian’s editorial intoned on the same day.

The irony is bitter indeed. While the Guardian’s front page was packed with doom-laden warnings, the centre spread consisted of a two-page, full-colour advert for Renault cars: “Everything is sport.” For good measure, the cover story of the Travel supplement promoted holidays to New York.

independent_070203_page_4_5_thumbA classic double-page was also to be found at the heart of the Independent: graphs of perilously rising temperatures, text explaining the catastrophic impacts, photographs of climate-related disasters around the world. And also, bottom left on the same page, a large advert for Halfords "car essentials" and, bottom right, an American Airlines advert for reduced-fare flights (just £199!) to New York (Click image shown on the left for a larger version).

The rest of the Independent – like all other newspapers - was crammed with the usual inducements to indulge in unrestrained consumerism: Renault, Audi and Hyundai cars, a multitude of hotel breaks, hi-tech electronic gadgets, credit card loans, furniture and yet more ‘cheap’ flights.

The message? We’re rapidly heading for disaster and must take decisive action now. Meanwhile, we must continue accelerating along the same path that is the cause of this disaster. Never has the structural conflict of interest at the very heart of the corporate media been more painfully exposed.

The Beauty Of The Flames

The cover story of the Independent on Sunday’s Review supplement the following day (February 4) was almost beyond belief. The words on the cover ran:

independent_070203_review_thumb"Time is running out... Ski resorts are melting... Paradise islands are vanishing... So what are you waiting for?
"30 places you need to visit while you still can - A 64-page Travel Special..." (Click image shown on the left for a alrger version)

It is worth quoting at length from the article. Its author, Marcus Fairs, wrote:

"I am changing my travel plans this year. Alarmed by global warming, shocked by the imminent mass extinction of species and distraught at the environmental damage wreaked by mass tourism, I have decided to act before it is too late. Yes, carbon-neutral travel can wait. I'm off to see polar bears, tigers and low-lying Pacific atolls while they're still there... In the spirit of Nero - the Roman emperor who sang to the beauty of the flames while Rome burned to the ground - we are determined to enjoy the final days of our beautiful Earth. We are aware that mass tourism damages the very things we are going to see, but this only increases our urgency. We are aware that we will soon have to act more sustainably, which gives us all the more reason to be irresponsible while we still can.

“Not for us the angsty despair of the eco-worriers, nor the stay-home moralising of the greenhouse gasbags. For we are the travel Neroists, and we have spotted a window of opportunity.” (Marcus Fairs, ‘Travel special: Roman holidays,’ Independent on Sunday, February 4, 2007)

In his new book, Affluenza, psychologist Oliver James notes “an addiction to irony“ in modern society: “saying one thing when another is meant in order to establish a disconnection between the speaker and his listener, or between the speaker and that which is being spoken. Or even between the speaker and himself.” (James, Affluenza, Vermillion, 2007, p.284)

How ironic, postmodern, unsentimental and courageous to describe mass death as “a window of opportunity“. The World Health Organization has estimated that global warming already contributes to more than 150,000 deaths and 5 million illnesses each year - a toll that could double by 2030. But in reality, beneath the sham of postmodern bravura, Fairs is a humble conformist serving his paper’s advertisers in the usual way. We wrote to Fairs’s editor at the Independent, Tim Lewis:

“Given this extraordinary and rising level of suffering, what is the moral justification for today's front cover? Are you not in fact subordinating human welfare to short-term profit by publishing this piece? Fairs links to many travel companies in his article - did the Independent on Sunday receive payment for these mentions?”

We have received no reply.

In his article, Fairs presented the holiday industry perspective:

"Travel is often unfairly demonised by the eco-lobby: flying accounts for around 3 per cent of global C02 [carbon dioxide] emissions (compared to 20 per cent for domestic heating and a similar amount for road transport). According to the Carbon Trust, of the 11 tonnes of CO2 emitted each year by the average person in the UK, just 0.68 tonnes comes from flying - whereas a full tonne derives from the manufacture and transport of our clothing. 'Demanding that people stop flying is not the solution to all our problems,' says Responsibletravel.com's [Justin] Francis, 'especially when many developing countries rely on responsible tourism as a significant source of income to protect and conserve their environment.'"

It is natural for a corporate journalist to report the corporate view. But Fairs neglected to cite any of the development experts and climate scientists who dismiss these arguments as toxic, cynical nonsense - as just one more unsubtle attempt to justify inaction in defence of profits.

“We Know What Needs To Be Done”

On the Independent’s leader pages, somewhat removed from the money-grubbing cynicism of the travel sections, there is at least the illusion of sensible analysis. “We”, proclaimed its editors, “know what needs to be done.” Was this to be a call to rein in corporate power? To dismantle ‘free trade’ treaties and institutions like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organisation? To replace them with democratic institutions that might serve all of humanity and the planet we share?

Of course not. The paper, owned by billionaire Sir Anthony O’Reilly, instead told readers that solutions to the impending nightmare must accord with prevailing elite wisdom: that ‘greener’ economic growth will do the trick, that the market can save the planet. All “we” need do is look on while clever economists fix the price of carbon and factor it into the cost of products and services, and while politicians police the framework:

“There must be a global treaty on reducing emissions that will put a high price on carbon emissions and it must be enforced through taxation and fines.” (Leader, ‘Now it is up to the world's political leaders to deliver more than hot air,’ The Independent, February 3, 2007)

Not a word here about the need to base any global treaty on equal per capita emission rights for all people, rich or poor (the Global Commons Institute’s proposal of ‘contraction and convergence’: see www.gci.org.uk).

Meanwhile, the Financial Times, the house paper of the business community, had a similar evangelical message of tweaking the capitalist model:

“The way forward is a framework that compensates developing countries for the costs they bear, but also encourages the most efficient possible use of energy resources. The buying of rights to emit by high-income countries from developing countries is one way to achieve this result. A common tax regime, with accompanying cross-border transfers, would be another.

“The crucial requirements, however, are three: a clear and predictable price for carbon emissions across the world; much increased investment in research and development in renewables, nuclear power and carbon capture and storage; and arrangements for transfer of best technology across the globe.” (Leader, ‘Urgent need for action on climate change. We need a clear and predictable worldwide price for carbon,’ Financial Times, February 3, 2007)

Again, this is all pretty much business-as-usual with a few technofixes and superficial green sheen thrown in.

As for those other stalwarts of the British ‘quality press’, neither The Times nor the Daily Telegraph deemed the IPCC report worth mentioning in their leader columns.

Back at the Independent, its leader writer had one final killer observation:

“The problem is not one of information, but action.”

Yes, this corporate newspaper really would have us believe that all relevant information about the climate disaster is freely available in the public domain.

This is easily put to the test. Where are the discussions about the corporate stranglehold on economics, politics, culture and society? About the fanatical, age-old Western determination to control global resources and markets? About the West’s repeated crushing of regional self-development in Latin America, southeast Asia and elsewhere? About the psychopathic corporate imperative to yield, at any cost, shareholder dividends for rich investors? And about the patently unsustainable business model of endless economic ‘growth’?

That none of this is up for serious discussion - even as the planet teeters on the brink of the greatest mass extinction since the end of the Permian era, 251 million years ago - is actually no surprise at all.

SUGGESTED ACTION

The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you decide to write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Tim Lewis, editor of the Independent on Sunday’s Review supplement
Email: t.lewis@independent.co.uk

Write to Tristan Davies, editor of the Independent on Sunday
Email: t.davies@independent.co.uk

Ask them how they can justify Marcus Fairs’s article describing mass death from climate change as “a window of opportunity” for long-distance travellers.

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