“Civilisation exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” (Will Durant, historian)

Festive Depression

Curious things happen to the British public around Christmas. The weeks and months leading up to December 25 are characterised by a manic focus on consumption, materialism and unrestrained hedonism. The Season of Good Will actually sees more alcohol-fuelled violence on our streets, more family strife, and raised levels of suicide. One in two people suffer from “festive depression” after Christmas, the Guardian reports, with 51% of Britons suffering in some way following holiday excesses. (‘A merry Christmas – but not such a happy new year,’ Sandra Haurant, The Guardian, December 9, 2003)

For many Westerners, then, the tsunami of December 26 struck at an extraordinary time and place. A catastrophe that left millions with nothing occurred exactly as Westerners were over-indulging in everything. The waves that killed 150,000 brought hell on earth to many of the places we think of as paradise.

Empathy for the victims was doubtless increased by the dramatic, televised nature of the disaster, the involvement of large numbers of Western tourists – a number of journalists were themselves holidaying in the area at the time – and by the fact that these are indeed much-loved tourist destinations. Indonesia, in particular, is also a major economic and military ally of the West.

Certainly no one should imagine media corporations are suddenly guided by selfless altruism. Jacques Steinberg reported in The New York Times:

“In mounting their public-relations campaigns, however quietly, the networks were mindful that whatever the drop in network television viewership in recent years, people tend to flock back at times of crisis. And this story, like the Sept. 11 attacks or the capture of Saddam Hussein, offered that rare chance to try to recapture their interest.” (Steinberg, ‘Reporting Live From Hell: TV Scrambles for Glory,’ The New York Times, January 10, 2005)

Likewise, leading British and US politicians – in actuality war criminals still at large – eagerly swooped on the chance to divert public attention from the ongoing, man-made catastrophe in Iraq, and to recast themselves as humanitarians bringing aid, fair trade and justice to the Third World.

The claim might be taken seriously if political parties and powerful popular movements were moving to reform a corporate system programmed to maximise profits at any cost – costs that have for centuries included the mass exploitation and immiseration of the poor, and even the demolition of the environmental life support systems on which all life depends.

Nevertheless, governments around the world +have+ been shamed into matching and leapfrogging the generosity of their own people. With promises of aid touching $2bn, Japan heads the donor list with a promise of $500m. But, again, realism is required.

After an earthquake killed more than 40,000 people in the Iranian city of Bam in December 2003, the international community pledged $1 billion in aid. Of this money Iran received some $17 million. The streets of Bam are still filled with mounds of rubble. Tens of thousands of people remain packed into prefabricated housing. (Ginger Thompson and Nazila Fathi, ‘Earlier Disasters – For Honduras and Iran, World’s Aid Evaporated,’ The New York Times, January 11, 2005)

In October 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Central America, killing 9,000 people in Honduras at a cost of more than $9 billion in damage. The international community pledged $9 billion to rebuild Central America – most of the money was never sent. Three years after the hurricane, 20,000 people were still living in temporary shelters.

Selective Compassion

The current response to the tsunami, we are told, will be different. Jan Egeland, the UN emergency relief coordinator, is certainly impressed:

“The compassion has never ever been like this.” (‘Record aid operation, but progress slow,’ Brian Whitaker, The Guardian, January 3, 2005)

But as dissident writer Harsha Walia noted on ZNet Asia:

“Compassion has become morally and politically appropriate, as it should be. What is inappropriate is the ability to decide which images are worthy of those emotions. What is inexcusable is when those images are a direct consequence of policies waged by our governments and corporations for which we are culpable, we seem to exhibit compassion-deficient syndrome.” (Harsha Walia, ‘The tsunami and the discourse of compassion,’ ZNet Asia, December 30, 2004)

Indeed, the admirable outpouring of media and public compassion for the victims of Asia’s natural disaster makes the near-total indifference to the suffering of Iraqi civilians under Western attack even more stunning. Who would believe, looking at the images of devastation from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand, that Britain and the United States are responsible for bringing a comparable disaster to a single country, Iraq? While the US government has so far pledged $350m to the victims of the tsunami, and the UK government £50m, the US has spent $200 billion on the Iraq war and the UK £6bn.

Simon Jenkins writes in The Times:

“To me the greatest disaster of 2004 was not the Indonesian tsunami but the continuing conflict in Iraq, the bloody endgame of the 9/11 disaster. The upper estimate of deaths in Iraq, 100,000, is eerily similar to that for the tsunami.

“While the one disaster rates as an act of God and the other an act of man, to whit the President of the United States, to the hapless Iraqis the difference must seem notional. They must feel as impotent in the face of falling bombs and the continuing tidal wave of destruction. The bodies of their loved ones must seem just as dead.” (Jenkins, ‘In the absence of God, blame has become our prevailing religion,’ The Times, December 31, 2004)

But Jenkins is wrong – the upper estimate for deaths made in the only serious scientific study to date is 194,000. Professor Richard Garfield – one of the authors of a report conducted by the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health on Iraqi casualties published in the Lancet science journal – has said: “The true death toll is far more likely to be on the high-side of our point estimate [98,000] than on the low side.” (Email sent to Media Lens reader, October 31, 2004)

And yet our search of the LexisNexis media database in early January showed that the words ‘The Lancet’ and ‘John Hopkins Bloomberg School’ had been mentioned a total of just 23 times in all UK newspapers since the report was published on October 29, 2004. The words ‘The Lancet’ and ‘Iraq’ had been mentioned 127 times. By contrast the words ‘tsunami’ and ‘Asia’ were mentioned in 700 newspaper articles in just three days in early January. The total since December 26 overwhelms the counting capacity of LexisNexis but certainly runs into many thousands.

In responding to the question of why the BBC has focused so heavily on numbers of dead in Asia, but not in Iraq, director of news, Helen Boaden, wrote to one Media Lens reader:

“I think the real problem is that the estimates of Iraqi civilian dead are so divergent and so open to challenge that we find it very hard to quote them in brief news items. Clearly establishing exact numbers for the tsunami is also almost impossible but there are government estimates which are being regularly updated and are not being challenged in the same way.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, January 10, 2005)

This is a classic example of media servility to power. For journalists like Boaden, estimates are lent credibility precisely because they are government estimates, whereas non-government estimates (especially those subject to government attack) are viewed as lacking in comparable credibility. The Lancet study was published by one of the most highly respected scientific journals in the world. But if cynical vested interests launch crass and baseless attacks, these are sufficient to make the findings “so open to challenge”.

To be fair, the logic is at least consistent – if authority is the final arbiter of right and wrong, then it is only right that common sense and rational thought be discarded in deference to the same authority.

It is worth considering that every time we see the swathes of destruction from Aceh in Indonesia that these images are comparable to the scenes of utter devastation that we are +not+ being shown from Iraq. And yet, as Jenkins points out, the slaughter in Iraq is even more appalling, even more worthy of our horror and compassion, for the simple reason that it was entirely man-made, entirely avoidable. US secretary of state, Colin Powell, declared of the tsunami disaster zone:

“I’ve been in war and I’ve been through a number of hurricanes, tornadoes and other relief operations, but I’ve never seen anything like this.” (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2005-01-05-powell_x.htm, January 9, 2005)

With Fallujah fresh in everyone’s minds, the media failed to make the obvious point. Iraqi doctor Ali Fadhil, however, reports from the shattered city:

“By 10am we were inside the city. It was completely devastated, destruction everywhere. It looked like a city of ghosts. Falluja used to be a modern city; now there was nothing. We spent the day going through the rubble that had been the centre of the city; I didn’t see a single building that was functioning.” (Fadhil, ‘City of ghosts,’ The Guardian, January 11, 2005)

This was done by human beings, illegally, in contravention of the Geneva convention. Perhaps Powell had forgotten about Fallujah. Perhaps the media had, too.

Dwarfing The Tsunami – Climate Catastrophe

The tsunami of December provides a very real warning, for the horrors of consumer-driven climate change threaten not just Asia but the entire world with devastation that dwarfs what we have just seen. The worst disaster last year was not the Asian tsunami, nor even Iraq; it was the world’s failure, yet again, to respond to the potentially terminal threat of climate change.

On December 31, the British government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir David King, told BBC Radio:

“What is happening in the Indian Ocean underlines the importance of the earth’s system to our ability to live safely.” (‘Tsunami highlights climate change risk, says scientist,’ Press Association, The Guardian, December 31, 2004)

King warned that the melting of the Greenland ice sheet will raise global sea levels by six to seven metres but other effects of global warming, such as increased storms and flooding, are already happening.

Last year, the world’s second-largest reinsurer, Swiss Re, warned that the costs of global warming threatened to spiral out of control. The economic costs of global warming threatened to double to $150 billion (£81 billion) a year in 10 years, hitting insurers with $30-40 billion in claims, or the equivalent of one World Trade Centre attack annually. Swiss Re observed:

“There is a danger that human intervention will accelerate and intensify natural climate changes to such a point that it will become impossible to adapt our socio-economic systems in time. The human race can lead itself into this climatic catastrophe – or it can avert it.” (http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsPackageArticle.jhtml?type=worldNews&storyID=468753§ion=news)

Over the next 50 years, global warming could kill a quarter of land animals and plants. According to a four-year research project by scientists from eight countries, published in the prestigious journal Nature last January, 1 million species will be doomed to extinction by 2050. The findings were described as “terrifying” by the report’s lead author, Chris Thomas, professor of conservation biology at Leeds University. Professor Thomas said:

“When scientists set about research they hope to come up with definite results, but what we found we wish we had not. It was far, far worse than we thought, and what we have discovered may even be an underestimate.” (Quoted, Paul Brown, ‘An unnatural disaster,’ The Guardian, January 8, 2004: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,3604,1118244,00.html)

The problem is that the human race is being prevented from taking action by its oldest and most stubborn enemy – institutionalised greed.

The Guardian’s environment editor, Paul Brown, wrote in his 1996 book, Global Warming – Can Civilisation Survive?:

“At every meeting anywhere in the world where climate change is to be discussed the oil industry is there… Their brief is simply to slow down the business of doing something about climate change as much as possible.” (Paul Brown, Global Warming – Can Civilisation Survive?, Blandford, 1996, p.176)

If this had been al Qaeda plotting attacks with consequences that could annihilate a billion human beings, our newspapers and TV channels would be packed with analysis of their ‘evil’ machinations and of how best to stop them. But because we have a corporate ‘free press’ reporting on the corporate maniacs responsible, the public know next to nothing about the deep business opposition to Kyoto, the business subversion of democratic politics that might otherwise oppose the insanity, and the business strangulation of a mass media system that might otherwise inform the public about the insanity.

Thus Alan Wood, economics editor of Australia’s wretched Murdoch-owned newspaper, The Australian, can write, even now: “… given the considerable uncertainty about the causes, the future extent and consequences of global warming, it would be irresponsible for any Australian government to sign up to Kyoto when it is impossible to say if the costs of doing so will exceed the benefits”. (Wood, ‘Investors slugged by flawed climate goals,’ The Australian, November 23, 2004)

Writing before Asia’s tsunami, historian Will Durant observed:

“Civilisation exists by geologic consent, subject to change without notice.” (Quoted, David Hale, ‘Waves of Change,’ The New York Times, January 7, 2005)

But there is an infinitely more relevant truth to which we had best wake up in one very great hurry: civilisation exists by climatological consent, subject to no-notice and perhaps irreversible change.


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.

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Email: [email protected]