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We don't have time left to delay: an interview about media and climate action with Noam Chomsky

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Image: Tom Ipri/Flickr

The following interview is the the second part of a of a two-part interview with Noam Chomsky. The first half of the interview can be found here.

Is it mainly in alternative independent media where you see coverage of climate crisis as a crisis?

You get it in the alternative media, but it doesn't reach enough of the general public. And not just this crisis, but others as well. A comparable crisis is the threat of nuclear war. On January 24, it would be a good idea to look at the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, that's the day when they're supposed to come out with the next setting of the doomsday clock.* It's already two minutes to midnight; I don't know what they're going to do next time, maybe put it past midnight! It's basically two things, nuclear war and global warming, both of which are increasingly dire. But there's more. Take the threat of a pandemic. Industrial meat production is first of all inhumane, but secondly, it's a major contributor to global warming; and it's also destroying the effectiveness of antibiotics. They have wild overuse of antibiotics, and it's creating mutant bacteria that are resistant to any antibiotics, showing up in hospitals that could lead to a huge pandemic, like the flu pandemic a century ago which killed tens of millions of people. People talk about a migrant crisis, what's it going to be like when Bangladesh is flooded, hundreds of millions of people have to flee? South Asia is running out of water, already there are hundreds of millions of people that barely have water; with the glaciers melting and so on, they may lose their water supply.

What happens to the world then? It's just going to be colossal problems. They're not far off.

Are there particular media outlets that you yourself find useful, in the alternative or independent sector or elsewhere, where you get your own information?

I read the major media, but it's really the science journals that keep you up to date. Of course, that's technical stuff which you wouldn't normally read, but they have very good reports of it in the Washington Post, the New York Times and of course a lot of the alternative media.

Do you think that in the U.S. or other notionally democratic societies, is it possible to reform the media system in some ways that would better facilitate this kind of survival journalism?

One way would be for them to become democratic societies. They're very far from it. Take elections -- there's very convincing work in mainstream political science which shows that elections in the United States are basically bought. You can predict the outcome of an election for Congress or Executive with remarkable precision just by looking at the single variable of campaign spending. That's why when somebody's elected to the House of Representatives, the first day in office, she or he has to start gaining donor support for the next election. Meanwhile, legislation is being written by the staff with the lobbyists from the corporations, who are actually often just writing the legislation. It's a kind of democracy, but a very limited one.

Do you see a possibility for media reform apart from broader social and political transformations? Because there is a movement, as you know, specifically for media reform, with Robert McChesney and many others.

There's lots that can be done. The system has to be significantly modified in many ways, even radically modified. Media reform is one of them. Bob McChesney's important work is a model. There are things that can be done. The increased monopolization of the major media is a serious matter, as you know well, but if you look at Ben Bagdikian's book on the media monopoly back around 1980, there were maybe 50 sources of news, now it's down to half a dozen. The advertising-profit model for media has just undermined journalism. You go back to the early days even of the United States -- the government recognized the significance of having a free and independent press, and simply subsidized things like free postal rates, which were devices to try to create an independent press. I just recently read a very interesting book, The Framers' Coup by Michael Klarman. It's now the gold standard on the formation of the constitution; it goes into tremendous detail on the discussions that were going on, and they're pretty impressive. There was a pamphlet literature, there was an independent press literature, people were contributing and farmers and craftsmen and everybody getting their two cents in, a model of discussion. Back in the mid-19th century, there was a very lively labour and ethnic press which was doing very interesting things. It pretty much collapsed under the concentration of capital and the advertising model, and the same in England, though in England it lasted even longer, until the 1960s.

Do you see much hope for an alternative on the internet and social media?

There's hope, but social media have been very much a two-edged sword. They are clearly creating a kind of echo chamber, a bubble system. We all do it, people gravitate to the things you believe in and don't hear other views -- your own just get reinforced. It's leading to almost an impossibility of interaction. Some of this is pretty shocking. I was reading some statistics recently, and it turns out according to some recent polls, that the number of Americans who use the major media as their prime information source is single digits, it's about six per cent. Most of them are going to social media which don't produce the news, they filter it, they don't have reporters out in the field.

And then of course you have innovations like talk radio and Fox, which are new. They are just really vicious propaganda systems, barely pretending to be anything else.

That's the dark side. The good side is that (social media is) the way organizing goes on. That's the way you reach out to people, get together, and it's a very effective tool. Practically all organizing works this way. I mean even teaching, teachers often communicate with the students through social media. That's all anybody is doing. If you walk around campus, everybody's got one of these things. One university, I think Duke University, started putting on the pavements things that say, Look up!, because they're all walking around looking down.

Definitely what the effects are is hard to say. You see teenage kids sitting in a McDonalds, let's say, sitting around a table and there are two conversations going on -- one in the group, and one that each person is having with whoever's talking to them on their phone. It just breaks down meaningful social relations.

It could perhaps be a potential resource, at least -- alternative media using the internet for climate communication.

Blogs, Truthout, Truthdig, Common Dreams, Democracy Now!, many others, including al Jazeera and some other foreign sources on social media, are producing all kinds of information which you can't get on television.

So it's potentially extraordinarily useful, but it has this negative aspect which is being pressed hard by the Silicon Valley giants on the advertising model, so it's being forced on you all the time. You search for something on Google and you're inundated by things you're supposed to want, and that's the impact of the big advertisers.

What conditions need to be met to enable an effective response to climate crisis?

I think there just has to be an energetic mass popular movement, which is going to compel the media to address the crises that we're facing by constant pressure, or else simply create alternatives which will dominate the information market. And we don't have a lot of time to waste. So, things like subsidizing independent media which is not a utopian idea, it was done in the United States in its early days; or the kinds of grassroots media movements that, say, Bob McChesney and others are pressing to develop.

And it's an urgent requirement. I start my classes these last couple of years by simply pointing out to the students that they have to make a choice that no one in human history has ever made. They have to decide whether organized human society is going to survive. Even when the Nazis were on the rampage, you didn't have to face that question. Now you do.

Beyond the media, are there other general conditions that have to be met to get out of climate crisis?

There are several groups organizing large-scale activism, like Earth Strike, which is planning a series of actions; they already had the first one, big demonstrations in many cities, trying to build up to a mass general strike. The Extinction Rebellion from England has moved here, trying to do the same thing. But these dramatic actions, like demonstrations generally, they're not of any effect if they're isolated events. They have to be a stimulus for the constant organizing and education that has to go on day-to-day. 

And again, just take what we talked about before -- Tucson, solar panels. People have to come to understand that they've just got to do this, and fast; and it doesn't harm them, it improves their lives. For example, it even saves money. But just the psychological barrier that says that I can't look at this, that I have to keep to the common beliefs, and that this is somehow a radical thing that we have to be scared of, is a block that has to be overcome by constant educational organizational activity. The way every other popular movement developed -- the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, the feminist movement -- just constant, often very small groups, growing into bigger groups for activism. Occasionally they have a dramatic action like a demonstration, but mainly to stimulate ongoing activity. 

And it can't be delayed.

*On January 24, the scientists maintained the doomsday clock at two minutes to midnight, warning humanity not to become complacent about the "new abnormal".

Robert Hackett is Professor Emeritus of Communication at Simon Fraser University. He has published eight (mostly collaborative) academic books on media and politics, most recently Journalism and Climate Crisis (2017). A co-founder of NewsWatch Canada (1993), Media Democracy Days (2001), and Openmedia.ca (2007), Bob has been one of the thousands of people campaigning to defend the community, the coast and the planet from the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, notably the Trans Mountain pipeline. He received SFU’s Warren Gill award for community impact in 2018. This interview was conducted on January 22, 2019 and originally published in the National Observer

Image: Tom Ipri/Flickr

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