By Richard Telford
“You can’t leave things like that around for me to see.”
My seven-year-old daughter told me this when I left a copy of SE Journal on the bathroom counter. SE Journal is a publication of the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the issue in question featured an image of a dusty savanna strewn with bloody elephant bones—the aftermath of a March 2013 massacre by poachers of 90 savanna elephants in the central African country of Chad. I felt badly, of course, and flipped the journal over to its innocuous back cover as we spoke, but I did briefly explain the image in simple terms. I thought, and still think, the context mattered. Afterward, I reflected many times on this exchange, as it raised questions for me, both as a parent and as an environmental journalist. Even as I write this now, those questions persist.
Growing up in the late 1970s and early 1980s, one image of human barbarism against the natural world defined the call for environmental policy change more than any other, at least in my memory—the clubbing of baby seals on Canada’s northern ice floes during that nation’s annual, government-regulated seal harvest. Magazine covers and documentary films featured images of seal pups (the primary target of the harvest, then and now) with large, dark eyes staring innocently at the camera. Then, there were the images of slicker-clad sealers wielding hakapiks, the traditional club with a curved or angled pick blade used to drag the dead and dying seals across the ice. The contrast of these two images, the first of moving beauty, the second of appalling barbarism, is reflective of the quandary within which environmental writers, and environmental advocates more broadly, often must work. Too much coverage of the benign and beautiful, and we ignore the realities of the environmental crisis with which we are confronted. We risk luring the reader or viewer into complacency, inaction. Too much coverage of the brutal and the jarring, and we cause the reader or viewer to turn away, out of disgust or hopelessness or both. The greatest danger in that case is that their gaze does not turn our way again. There, too, we end at inaction, and inaction can be deadly. These are two poles of response that we, as environmental journalists, may elicit, and there are many gradients between them, all of which demand our attention and careful navigation.
In 1984, Canadian naturalist-writer Farley Mowat published Sea of Slaughter, in which he wrote of the plight of native North American bird, fish, and mammal species after the arrival of European settlers. While the 1984 first Canadian edition, published by McClelland and Stewart Limited, featured a rather generic photograph of a raging sea, the first American edition, published by The Atlantic Monthly Press in 1985, featured a photograph of an arctic landscape, presumably Canadian, with basking seals and a sealer approaching from the foreground, hakapik or rifle in hand—the photograph is not fully clear. Of Mowat’s book, Kirkus Reviews offered the following assessment in 1985:
Mowat’s repeated accounts of slaughter are necessarily monotonous, and it’s not his habit to ponder shifting cultural attitudes or suggest practical middle ground between commercial and conservationist courses. What he has produced is one single-minded and savage howl of outrage, ultimately convincing by the very repetitiveness of the evidence.
The necessary monotony referenced by the reviewer above reflects another challenge of environmental journalism. While evidence rooted in example after example can build a case that is ultimately convincing, how long can that case truly resonate? Probably never long enough. Anyone who engages in even the most cursory examination of the patterns of journalistic coverage in the present time, environmental or otherwise, can see readily how stories, even ones of tremendous importance, cycle out of the public sphere of interest with frightening speed. This is especially true in a time when, as a society, we are largely fixated on and addicted to devices that hand us the world, albeit a terribly simplified and narrow version of it, as quickly as we can work those devices. There is a growing body of research that suggests that our attention spans have diminished as a direct consequence of greater social networking of all types. This pattern seems unlikely to abate in our lifetimes.
Last year, Microsoft, in a widely reported study, announced that, since 2000, the human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 8 seconds, below the average attention span of a goldfish, which is estimated to be 9 seconds. While the Microsoft study and others like it are certainly subject to scrutiny and qualification, one hardly needs to look far in day to day life to see a public that is single-mindedly attached to its devices to the detriment of meaningful connections both to other people and to the natural world. Species are vanishing. Our landscape is becoming irrevocably fragmented. Polar ice is vanishing. Global temperatures are rising. Our factory food system is poisoning us. But who is paying attention? And for how long? How many of you, while reading this post, have made it this far without turning momentarily to another screen or device at least once? We are in sore need of a paradigm shift that can realign our attention to what matters, but the prospect of making that shift in a long-term and sustainable way seems dubious. This affects the practice of environmental journalism in profound ways.
The truth is that even the most shocking image, be it the clubbing of baby seals or an anthropogenic elephant graveyard at the hands of poachers, has a short shelf-life in the general public’s consciousness. So too does the outrage such an image can generate. The same pattern holds true for optimistic stories, of which—make no mistake about it—there are plenty worth telling. So, how do we as environmental journalists—or as parents, or teachers, or good global citizens for that matter—fight the apathy and the inattention which are as detrimental to the natural world as are the direct forces that drive species loss, climate change, and unsustainable living? Only with a monotony of argument and evidence, with a persistence that acknowledges but looks beyond the low odds of our success, and with an approach that aims to foster in generations to follow the willingness to take the same necessarily dogged and monotonous course, be they our readers or our students or our own children. The stakes are high and the odds are long, but are we ready to accept the alternative? I, for one, am not.