The last months of 2022 have seen an escalation in the demonstrative actions by the younger generations aiming to combat the substantial indifference of national governments with respect to the growing degradation of the environment in which all beings (human and otherwise) try to live.
After years of debates on the unsustainability of the economic and social development models established in the world almost everywhere, thanks to the perverse effects caused by climate change we have come to verify with growing concern, day by day, the guilty weight of such indifference.
In fact, the damage we are causing to the biosphere – the complex ecosystem in which we live that represents in the Universe the only singular place best known to us, where life was born and developed – really denotes us as a troublesome and arrogant specie, capable of forgetting the singularity of his living conditions despite, as the astrophysicist Elisa Vaudo affirms, that Universe in which we are miraculously set is, at the moment, completely unknown to us (corriere.it, 2022).
Reflecting on the underappreciation of our place in the larger natural context and the tendency to find our mundane existence boring, media philosopher John Durham Peters recalled that «of the billions of solar systems, we know of only one so able to support life. An orbit slightly closer to the sun, a tilt of the earth’s axis by a few more degrees, or an errant comet all could have made life on earth impossible. Of the five billion years of earth’s existence, humanoids have existed for one thousandth of that time. Civilization as we know it (with its writing, war, patriarchy) has existed for one thousandth of that. We are, as the romantics all insisted, the great exception to the universe, the rare case, the completion of nature, the way that the universe comes to self-consciousness.» (1999).
The allure of the original gestures
Therefore, faced with the evidence of climate change – which could only be an appetizer given that all forms of existence, organic and inorganic, lived inextricably linked with each other, and with a change in environmental conditions there is a concrete risk of a general readaptation that is even more fatally indigestible for human beings – the younger generations, after years of marches (Fridays for future) and signature gathering, try with more original gestures to support both environmentalism and urgency for actions capable of minimize – if not reverse – the current course of events.
To get back on the agendas of media, the decision was thus made to smear the most famous paintings in museums – in truth, not irreparably -, to lay one’s bodies on the streets with heavy urban and extra-urban traffic – an invitation to block fossil hydrocarbons’ consumption harmful to the fight against the climate – or of throwing colored paint on the walls of buildings that symbolize politics powers – to ask for immediate signals such as the halt of new land drilling projects looking for gas and oil, or more huge investments to increase solar and wind energy, a way to create alternatives for new jobs in the field of renewable energy (Fanpage.it, 2023).
The role of media in the environmental debate
Faced with such a complex issue as the environmental one, the need and the conception of new forms of protests for communicative purposes allow us to glimpse the difficult context in which these propaganda actions arise and, at the same time, recall some more general questions as the relationship between media and public opinion, or the limits or power of the media to influence people’s beliefs.
The requests for attention and the debates on environmental issues started from the 1960s to the present day and have had an ups and downs trend in terms of grip on public opinion (Hansen, 2019). The role of the media and communication in the debate on environmental problems is obviously central given that – thinking of our reality as a social construction and thinking of ecology as a subject that does not speak for itself – it is in the media discursive context that such themes come to us, represented and conveyed with more or less objectivity and tendentiousness, as well as propagated in the various public arenas with particular settings, frames, rhetorical idioms, motifs or claiming styles.
The need to counter individualistic interests
From this point of view, it should be said that there is little that is natural about the formation of environmental “news” given that, being actively constructed, these news are shaped by the strategies and influences pushed by the various stakeholders connected to the various controversies: environmental pressure groups, government departments, scientific institutions, individual scientists/experts, businesses and industries – all seek to strategically manage and influence public communication on the environment, whether for economic interests or ideological creed or to lobby political decision-making.
Media operators, and journalists in particular, find themselves at a relational and ideal crossroads that are as delicate as well problematic, having to ensure the credibility of their work by applying objective and balanced journalistic criteria to mediate between the interested context and the scientific uncertainty/complexity that often characterizing most of the environmental debate.
Among other things, environmental issues as well as nature are treated ideologically, at the level of popular culture, also in other genres of media such as television and film entertainment, more particularly, in television programs and documentaries dedicated to wildlife and to natural environments, on the thread of narratives that play on changes in understanding the environment as an object of control and exploitation or as something to protect.
So, it appears clear to us that in societies where people are dominated by the extensive and now also ubiquitous use of media, being able to enter in the flow of news with relevance is essential – somehow beating the competition from other events, making oneself attractive for novelty/ clamor, and therefore more selectable by the various editorial broadcasters who have an interest in capturing the attention of the public.
Power and limits of media communication
In communication studies theories of agenda setting, and also of agenda building – centered on the power of the media to promote issues on which people can argue, form opinions and beliefs, and therefore fuel behaviors that can also create pressure on public institutions – illustrate these dynamics, and also their contextual limits (Bentivegna, Boccia Artieri, 2019).
In fact, the same theories warn that the receiving public enjoys broad interpretative freedom by mediating the importance of the news on the basis of their knowledge and experience, as well as their own personal interests. People, for example, have their own subjective thematic agenda which is influenced on several levels: intrapersonal with respect to their own priority scales, interpersonal on the basis of the topics discussed with friends and family, collective as it is linked to the perception of the more general opinion.
Legacies of the Age of Progress
But communication, as important as it is, nonetheless fits into a context in which it matters how the communities are materially organized – work, commute, livelihood. People are still, for the most part, rooted in life systems that are not sustainable in ecological terms. These systems have (inevitably) profoundly shaped behaviors and conveniences supported by ideologies tending to uncritically exalt the paths of almost infinite progress, predisposing us to a temporal and spatial orientation that has favored efficient making aimed at optimizing the expropriation, consumption and waste of natural resources.
The increase in the material affluence of societies at an ever-increasing rate has thus come at the expense of the depletion of nature itself. «Our personal temporal orientation and the temporal beat of our society folds around the efficiency imperative. It’s what has taken us to the commanding heights as the dominant species on Earth and now to the ruin of the natural world» (Rifkin, 2022).
The anti-ecological habitus
As the economist Jeremy Rifkin convincingly states, in the last 200 years we have grown imbued with theories – economic, philosophical, physical – which have not been able to explain how and how much human beings breathe and live in continuity and circularity with the same substances and forces of which all the other biosphere’s components are made up and to which they also respond.
The so-called Age of Progress has not favored, due to its anti-ecological nature, to quote the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, the right habitus – a cultivated disposition that becomes a practical guide that allows each agent to generate, starting from a small number of implicit principles, behavior in line (in our case) with respect for the ecological laws on which we depend.
In fact, we would have considered our actions differently – precisely, with an ecological habitus – if we had grown up in cultures that were more respectful of nature because «one could endlessly enumerate the values given body, made body, by the hidden persuasion of an implicit pedagogy which can instil a whole cosmology, through injunctions as insignificant as ‘sit up straight’ or ‘don’t hold your knife i n your left hand’, and inscribe the most fundamental principles of the arbitrary content of a culture in seemingly innocuous details of bearing or physical and verbal manners, so putting them beyond the reach of consciousness and explicit statement». (Bourdieu, 1972, p. 69).
Lentius, profundius, suavius, (slower, deeper, sweeter)
While waiting for the extension of the ecological habitus, and in such an intricate framework, Enzo Scandurra – university professor of Sustainable Development for the Environment and the Territory – warns that «there is no crank stroke that can open the way towards the ecological conversion of economy, the steps will have to be many, the work of persuasion to be done is enormous and patient. The decisive question is: how can an ecologically sustainable civilization be desirable? “Lentius, profundius, suavius” (slower, deeper, sweeter) is Langer’s formula, as opposed to “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger)» (Scandurra, Agostini, Attili, 2020).
Scandurra’s reference recall the theses of Alexander Langer – among other things, politician (founder of the green party in Italy and Europe), pacifist and environmentalist – who already, in the mid-nineties of the twentieth century, found himself having to deal with the disappointing results of decades of ecological battles. This is why he proposed going against the culture fueled by efficiencyist ideologies by focusing on more seductive factors to convince people to adhere to an environmental turn. His words echo the difficulties we still struggle with.
The decisive question therefore appears not so much as to what should or should not be done, but how to arouse motivations and impulses that make it possible to move towards a course correction. The fear of catastrophe, as we have seen, has not yet generated these impulses in a sufficient and effective way, the same can be said of laws and controls; and scientific analysis itself did not have sufficient persuasive power.
As it turns out, so far the desire for a global alternative – social, ecological, cultural – has not been enough, or the visions put forward not sufficiently convincing. It certainly cannot be said that today there is a majority of people willing to commit themselves to a conception of well-being that is as significantly different as it would be necessary.
Neither individual measures, nor a better “ministry of the environment” nor a more accurate environmental impact assessment nor stricter regulations on packaging or on speed limits – however necessary and sacrosanct they are – can really cause the course to be corrected, but only a decisive cultural and social refoundation of what is considered desirable in a society or community.
Until now we have acted under the banner of the Olympic motto “citius, altius, fortius” (faster, higher, stronger), which better than any other synthesis represents the quintessence of the spirit of our civilization, where agonism and competition are not the sporting ennoblement of festive occasions, but the daily and all-pervading norm. If an alternative conception does not take root, which we could perhaps summarize, on the contrary, in “lentius, profundius, suavius” (slower, deeper, gentler”), and if the new well-being is not sought from that perspective, no single provision, however rational, will be safe from being stubbornly opposed, eluded or simply disregarded (Langer, 1994).
Overcoming our limits to hyperobjects
Given the not exactly exciting history of the debate, as well as the attempts to place the ecological question among the most urgent problems to be dealt with, it’s not surprising the raising of a more radical positions which do not really believe in a media approach for this battle.
The point is that ecological matter has no possibility of being explained given that is a “hyperobject”, «we need to get out of the persuasion business and start getting into the magic business, or the catalysis business, or the magnetizing business, or whatever you want to call it. Using reason isn’t wrong. But with objects this huge, this massively distributed, this counterintuitive, this transdimensional, it’s not enough simply to use art as candy coating on top of facts. We can’t just be in the PR business» (Morton, 2013, p. 181, 182).
Communication around the environmental issue inevitably gets bogged down in an «information dump» which has the defect of demeaning and paralyzing people «ecological data is so complex, and is about such complex phenomena, that it’s difficult to make that data into facts, let alone to start living those facts, rather than repeating truthy factoids, which are the contents of the PTSD dream we keep indulging in. There is an exasperated “Can’t you see?!” about the way this truthiness works. But “seeing” is precisely what we don’t seem to do with this data» (Morton, 2018, p. xxviii, xxix).
The proposal, once again – to escape our «mass extinction» – is to abandon anthropocentric thinking and open ourselves up to other forms of life, to embrace philosophies that invite us to deepen our being in the world, to let ourselves go to realizing and being aware that our lives act and are fed back into a dense network of connections and interconnections with forces, organisms and substances present inside and outside our bodies – ultimately, we must not force ourselves to become ecological people but only accept that we are already (unquestionably) «ecological beings».
“Chi sono e cosa vogliono gli attivisti di Ultima Generazione: «Mettiamo in conto il carcere»”, Fanpage.it, 4/1/2023.
“Il 95% dell’universo ci è ignoto: vi spiego lo sconosciuto a cui serve lasciarsi andare con piacere”, corriere.it, 28/12/2022.
Bentivegna, S., Boccia Artieri, G., 2019, Le teorie delle comunicazioni di massa e la sfida digitale, Bari, Laterza.
Bourdieu, P., 1972, Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique précédé de Trois études d’ethnologie kabyle, Paris, Editions du Seuil; The Logic of Practice, Stanford, Stanford university press, 1992.
Hansen, A., 2019, Environment, Media and Communication , New York, Routledge.
Langer, A., 1994, Colloqui di Dobbiaco.
Morton, T., 2013, Hyperobjects. Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.
Morton, T., 2018, Being Ecological, London, Penguin Random House.
Peters, J. D., 1999, Speaking into the air. A History of the Idea of Communication, Chicago, The university of Chicago press.
Rifkin, J., 2022, The age of resiliance. Reimagining existence of a rewilding earth, New York, Macmillam.
Scandurra, E., Agostini, I., Attili, G., 2020, Biosfera, l’ambiente che abitiamo, Roma, DeriveApprodi.