Dif­fer­ent colours of green

How me­dia has shaped peo­ple's un­der­stand­ing of en­vi­ron­ment

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - AR­CHANA PA­TEL

The me­dia plays a big role in shap­ing our un­der­stand­ing of en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity


Sage Pub­li­ca­tions | ` 995 “sus­tain­abil­ity” is a con­tested one. It can have dif­fer­ent and HE TERM of­ten op­pos­ing mean­ings when seen from dif­fer­ent so­cial, eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal per­spec­tives.In na­ture, for ex­am­ple, sus­tain­abil­ity is seen as re­gen­er­a­tion of na­ture’s pro­cesses and sub­servience to na­ture’s laws.Such sub­servience very of­ten pro­vides sus­te­nance to dif­fer­ent in­dige­nous peo­ple across the world.In con­trast, sus­tain­abil­ity in the mar­ket place is seen as a process that en­sures the con­tin­u­ous sup­ply of goods and ser­vices that keep an econ­omy run­ning.

Sim­i­larly, en­vi­ron­ment, too, has dif­fer­ent mean­ings. Green can mean many things to dif­fer­ent peo­ple. For most of us, en­vi­ron­ment rep­re­sents na­ture at its pris­tine best. For oth­ers, en­vi­ron­ment is sum of the ac­tions of all ac­tors— in­clud­ing hu­mans. En­vi­ron­ment is, thus, so­cially con­structed.

Like it or not, the me­dia to­day plays a big role in shap­ing our un­der­stand­ing of en­vi­ron­ment and sus­tain­abil­ity. Prithi Nam­biar’s Me­dia Con­struc­tion of En­vi­ron­ment and Sus­tain­abil­ity in In­dia tries to un­der­stand the ways in which the me­dia im­pacts our un­der­stand­ing of th­ese two as­pects.

In re­cent times, me­dia analy­ses have be­come a sig­nif­i­cant area of study.It is an in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary field in­volv­ing lin­guis­tic, cul­tural and me­dia stud­ies, so­ci­ol­ogy, psy­chol­ogy and other fields of so­cial sciences. Me­dia analy­ses work on the premise that the me­dia not only mir­rors so­ci­ety but also de­ter­mines its character in many ways.Me­dia in­flu­ence is,in fact,pow­er­ful and over­whelm­ing for it fur­nishes peo­ple with ideas and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of their re­al­ity. Nam­biar, too, op­er­ates with this un­der­stand­ing. “Sus­tain­abil­ity calls for rad­i­cal change in per­spec­tives at the in­di­vid­ual, com­mu­nity and or­gan­i­sa­tional level.But like any

other con­cept, it is also in­ter­preted through me­dia dis­course,”she ar­gues.

Nam­biar holds two de­vel­op­ments as crit­i­cal to the role of me­dia in shap­ing our un­der­stand­ing of the en­vi­ron­ment: the om­nipres­ence of in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy and the de­vel­op­ment of a healthy pub­lic sphere where dis­cus­sion may be con­ducted with­out the fear of reprisal or co­er­cion. Nam­biar also draws on ecol­o­gist Mad­hav Gadgil and so­cial sci­en­tist Ra­machan­dra Guha’s de­scrip­tion of In­dia “as a fan­tas­tic mo­saic of fish­ing boats and trawlers, of cowherds and milk-pro­cess­ing plants, of paddy fields and rub­ber es­tates,of hand­looms and nu­clear re­ac­tors”. Nam­biar uses this de­scrip­tion while talk­ing of the dis­cord be­tween tra­di­tional knowl­edge and that beamed to peo­ple by agri­cul­ture ex­ten­sion pro­grammes on na­tional tele­vi­sion. But Nam­biar tan­ta­lises. Her em­pha­sis on the­o­ris­ing does not take us too far.Were the com­mu­ni­ties pas­sive re­cip­i­ents of th­ese pro­grammes? She does not of­fer any an­swer—at a later stage in her anal­y­sis she does in­di­cate that th­ese pro­grammes in­tended their re­cip­i­ents to be pas­sive par­tic­i­pants. Nam­biar does not take her the­ory to the case-study level. Case stud­ies, this re­viewer be­lieves, would have helped un­der­stand the re­cep­tion of me­di­a­me­di­ated knowl­edge.

Nam­biar is on some­what stronger grounds when crit­i­cis­ing me­dia re­ports on en­vi­ron­men­tal risks. “News re­porters in­vari­ably turned to sci­en­tists for of­fi­cial and au­thor­i­ta­tive as­sess­ment of en­vi­ron­men­tal risk. Sci­en­tists were called on to present the pros and cons of a sit­u­a­tion and cred­i­bil­ity to the re­ports. Very of­ten jour­nal­ists who cov­ered en­vi­ron­men­tal re­ports were not spe­cial­ist re­porters and turned to the same es­tab­lished sci­en­tists who were quoted over and over on the same is­sue. This of­ten re­sulted in dis­torted re­port­ing where the com­pet­ing claims were ei­ther ex­ag­ger­ated or dis­missed based on a few im­prop­erly quoted sources and in­ad­e­quate re­search.”Point well taken. But Nam­biar is guilty of the same crime she ac­cuses the me­dia of. Her anal­y­sis on over re­liance on a cho­sen set of sci­en­tists draws from other stud­ies. A bet­ter course of ac­tion would have been to in­ter­view some news re­porters who have had to soil their hands on the en­vi­ron­ment beat.

In the past decade or so, the rise of new me­dia has been re­spon­si­ble for en­er­gis­ing lo­cal cul­tures and for pre­serv­ing and re-in­vig­o­rat­ing cul­tural iden­ti­ties.Dis­ad­van­taged com­mu­ni­ties of the South re­versed the ear­lier trend of not be­ing ad­dressed by the na­tional me­dia.New me­dia opened the door to a plu­ral­ity of voices and mes­sages.But how ex­actly has new me­dia come to the aid of tra­di­tional com­mu­ni­ties? In what way are they not the pas­sive re­cip­i­ents of yore? We keep long­ing for an­swers.

This cur­sory nod to new me­dia not­with­stand­ing, Nam­biar’s is by and large an anal­y­sis of main­stream me­dia. With re­spect to cov­er­age of en­vi­ron­men­tal and sus­tain­abil­ity is­sues by the print me­dia,most of Nam­biar’s re­spon­dents sin­gled out The Hindu pub­li­ca­tions group from the rest of the main­stream print me­dia for the qual­ity and con­sis­tency of its cov­er­age of en­vi­ron­men­tal and sus­tain­abil­ity is­sues. Her re­spon­dents noted that other pub­li­ca­tions tend to sen­sa­tion­alise the en­vi­ron­ment.

Nam­biar does not, how­ever, tell us how en­vi­ron­ment be­came main­stream in the In­dian me­dia. Her bi­b­li­og­ra­phy men­tions two pub­li­ca­tions of the Cen­tre for Sci­ence and En­vi­ron­ment. This mag­a­zine does not even find a men­tion.There is noth­ing on the score of doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers who braved a va­ri­ety of con­straints to high­light en­vi­ron­men­tal strug­gles in the coun­try.Ev­ery field of study has its pi­o­neers: in­sti­tu­tions, per­son­al­i­ties and pub­li­ca­tions which set the stan­dards. Nam­biar’s study does not ac­knowl­edge them. She does ac­knowl­edge a few sem­i­nal works like Rachel Car­son’s The Silent Spring and the Club of Rome’s The Lim­its to Growth. But there is very lit­tle by way of global his­tory of en­vi­ron­men­tal jour­nal­ism. She ends with plat­i­tudes about the need for com­mu­ni­ca­tion strate­gies to high­light na­tional and lo­cal con­cerns. She talks about the de­ploy­ment of “mul­ti­cul­tural frames through small me­dia”, but does not bother to high­light in­stances where such me­dia has ac­tu­ally be­come both a har­bin­ger and repos­i­tory of mul­ti­cul­tural ref­er­ences. Me­dia Con­struc­tion of En­vi­ron­ment and Sus­tain­abil­ity in In­dia prom­ises much. But it leaves us dis­ap­pointed.

Ar­chana Pa­tel is a Ben­galuru-based de­vel­op­ment com­mu­ni­ca­tion pro­fes­sional

Nam­biar does not tell us how en­vi­ron­ment be­came main­stream in the In­dian me­dia, nor does she talk about the doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers who have high­lighted en­vi­ron­men­tal strug­gles in the coun­try


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