Building A Sustainable World: The Elephant In The Pressroom


An unsettling silence: sustainability in the press.

The tolling of the New Year’s bells signalled the end of the Australian government’s Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (DESD). But you’d be forgiven for having never heard of it.

Although the DESD was a nationwide campaign promoting the importance of building a sustainable future for Australia, neither Fairfax nor News Corp published a single newspaper article on this initiative during its 10-year lifetime.

The virtual blackout has no doubt been a monumental setback for the government program and its goal of “mainstreaming sustainability” across the population.

But this media vacuum is unfortunately not an isolated phenomenon. I recently conducted research at the University of Melbourne analysing a decade of sustainable development reporting in Australia’s most widely-read newspapers, and what I stumbled upon was a deep and unsettling silence.

A brief look at last year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report is illuminating.

When the IPCC published the summary of its Fifth Assessment Report last April, the Fairfax press ran a story revealing that parts of the document had been censored because of its controversial political implications.

Sure, it was an important scoop, that government officials were able to wield such power over the summary of a scientific report. But it was the selective coverage of the final report by the newspapers themselves that should really give us pause for thought.

Yes, melting ice caps, temperature extremes, alternative energy, fossil fuels, carbon pricing and international agreements featured prominently on the climate news agenda; these are all important elements of the report, and certainly issues that we should be taking very seriously.

But there was also a notable gap in the media’s climate narrative: it made no mention of the potential conflict between our affluent lifestyles and our ability to solve the climate problem.

This is worrying given that the IPCC report goes to considerable lengths to detail the connections between the climate crisis, sustainable development, and our own consumption patterns.

According to the document, resource over-consumption has become a “mega-driver” of ecological decline. Tackling this destructive force, along with the equally devastating spectre of global poverty, is a critical objective in the fight for a more climate-resilient future. Considering our record levels of per capita consumption here in Australia, it seems we have a lot of work to do to level that playing field.

But the report doesn’t stop here.

Its authors go on to suggest that such a global endeavour is unlikely to be achieved by economic and technological means alone, but will instead require a transformation of our values, worldviews and lifestyles, and the re-evaluation of our relationship with nature.

This may even mean rethinking the link between human wellbeing and economic growth — a discussion that remains highly controversial in mainstream policy circles. Yet these are hardly fringe ideas.

Increasingly, environmentalists, scholars and economists are acknowledging that global economic growth has, since the 1970s, become largely ‘un-economic’; today, growth both contributes little to social progress and is severely undermining the world’s life support systems. As economist Warwick Smith argued in a 2013 article for New Matilda, we should not necessarily treat growth as “the enemy”, but our almost religious pursuit of it to date has inadvertently placed the future of our planet and our own wellbeing on the sacrificial altar.

Such sentiments are supported by a multitude of studies, high-level reports, and popular books that have emerged in recent decades challenging the predominant belief that we can — and must — have our exponentially growing cake and eat it, too. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1972), Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth (2009), and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) are but some of those exposing the folly of our growth fetish.

Even the most famous United Nations document on sustainable development, Our Common Future, implored us to embrace values that encourage levels of consumption which respect ecological limits and “to which all can reasonably aspire”. It was published nearly 30 years ago!

However, none of the major newspapers embraced this key sustainability message in their coverage of the IPCC report. They also made the same oversight with the Fourth Assessment Report in 2007.

In fact, growth has become the proverbial elephant in the pressroom when it comes to sustainability reporting. Our newspapers simply don’t want to touch it.

When you’re browsing the local paper over your morning coffee tomorrow, take note of what is being said about sustainability. You are likely to find an optimistic story among the pages about a breakthrough in the efficiency of solar panels, the water and energy savings associated with green-rated buildings, or the ever-increasing share of South Australia’s electricity being produced by wind farms.

You may even be invited to celebrate corporate and national commitments to carbon reductions and ‘green growth’, or to lament the latest anti-environment crusade by the Abbott government (and there are many to lament).

But you’ll be hard pressed to find calls to reflect on our own desire for material pursuits. You’ll struggle in your search for reporting on the copious amounts of research suggesting that ‘green growth’ is closer to a comforting myth than an economic reality, and that ‘de-growth’ and cultivating an ethic of sufficiency over efficiency may instead be necessary to avoid potential ecological calamity. Nor will you see a special Sunday edition revealing how corporate and political interests in many ways lock us into a culture of consumption and reinforce patterns of global inequality.

You certainly won’t come across a front-page exposé taking the ruling powers to task over a political and economic system that prioritises growth in production over improvements to our wellbeing and environment.

The media’s apprehension on this issue at first seems perplexing. After all, this is an institution with a self-proclaimed responsibility to accurately inform the public about issues that matter to us, and which routinely takes pride in scrutinising government actions.

But when the majority of sustainable development stories in the newspapers over the last decade can be linked to corporate and political sources, as my analysis found, it’s hard not to wonder whose interests are actually being served.

The picture becomes clearer when you recall that the very organisations producing our news are themselves corporate entities; part and parcel of the same system, with the same economic pressures and incentives, and the same desire for growth. They also remain heavily reliant on advertising revenue to survive, and clearly do not want to bite the hand that feeds.

So maintaining the status quo of consumerism, intentional or not, appears to be just as much in the interests of our major newspapers as it is for our political and corporate elites. With the most powerful and influential news organisations in the country painting only the half the picture of sustainable development, how can the public be kept honestly informed about securing a sustainable future for our grandchildren, and those who come after?

As we usher in the new year, perhaps it’s already time to resurrect the DESD from its still warm ashes. But this time around, the responsibility lies with us, as independent journalists, communicators, teachers, community members and friends, to ensure the whole story of sustainability is told. Let’s start that conversation.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.