The Anthropocene in Global Media: Neutralizing the Risk: The Project and the Book

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March 8, 2021

Leslie Sklair is Professor Emeritus in Sociology, London School of Economics 

Although there is an impressive amount of research on how media all over the world report on climate change and global warming, there is very little research on media coverage of the Anthropocene. 

Select groups of academics, environment professionals, social scientists, humanities scholars, and creative artists engage actively with issues of the Anthropocene, but it is likely that most people have either never heard of it or, if they have, they do not have a clear idea about it.

Climate change seems to have become a metonym for the Anthropocene, substituting a part for the whole. This development matters because everyone knows that the climate (usually understood in terms of the weather) changes and unless you study the science, the implications of this may be vague. Neither climate change nor global warming in themselves as phrases imply anything about human agency. If we explain the Anthropocene as the 'Age of Humans (or Man)' the issue of human agency is also blurred. However, the term 'Anthropocene’ (and the adjective ‘anthropogenic’) specifically implicate human behaviours. I argue in the new book, The Anthropocene in Global Media: Neutralizing the Risk, that it is important to ask questions about whose interests are served by such apparently innocuous linguistic choices.

The Anthropocene Media Project (AMP) started in late 2016, when we began to collect data from online searches of newspapers, magazines, and news websites from around the world (excluding media behind paywalls). Eventually, our team carried out searches in the media of over 140 countries for mentions of the Anthropocene (only in 29 were there no results). All the researchers were volunteers (around 45 in total), mostly graduate students plus a few professors and others, who were contacted via personal networks in and around the rapidly growing Anthropocene scholarly community. The 4,000+ items we found included long and short articles that mention the concept, as well as passing references to it, such as notifications of cultural events containing the word ‘Anthropocene’. Non-English language sources were mainly accessed by volunteer researchers in their mother tongues, the rest with the aid of translation software, often incorporated within online sources.

The book poses three main research questions.

1.   How likely is it that ordinary readers with no special interest in the topic would come across references to the Anthropocene while browsing online for the daily news and, if they did find such information, what would it be telling them?

2.   How do different types of media (national/regional, big city papers, small local papers, general and special-interest magazines, news sites) report the Anthropocene to their readers?

3.   To what extent are media in different parts of the world ‘provincializing’ the Anthropocene by creating their own national, regional and/or ethnic narratives in contrast to uncritically replicating Western (Eurocentric and US-centric) narratives, and what are the implications of this for global inequalities in the Anthropocene?

Strictly speaking, none of these research questions addresses the Earth System Science (ESS) from which the Anthropocene idea emerged. They are questions that social scientists and environmental humanities scholars ask. Sociologists, anthropologists, historians, and philosophers do not normally go into the field with geological hammers, or measure ocean acidification, deforestation, the death of coral reefs or other material consequences of anthropogenic eco-system change. Those we can label “Anthropo-scene” scholars do not usually do ESS research themselves. They more or less accept the ESS research and try to work out what it means for their own disciplines and for human (and non-human) life on Earth in general. The Anthropocene is widely seen to represent a crisis for the human sciences, suggesting that provincializing the Anthropocene and critiques of its Eurocentric roots could not be separated from the experience of colonialism and imperialism—past, present, and future. While these issues are rarely discussed directly in the media, our research uncovered many indirect references in the media of both colonising and colonised countries.

The Anthropocene in Global Media analyzes media coverage in nine geographical regions, finding common themes and differences summarised in the chapter titles: Africa’s Anthropocene: A Kaleidoscope of Contradictions; The Anthropocene in North America: The Pursuit of the ‘Good’ Anthropocene; Challenges and Ideas of Representation of the Anthropocene in Latin American and Caribbean Media; The Anthropocene in the Media of North Asia; South Asia: The ‘Provincializing’ Dilemma; East and Central Europe: Latecomers to Capitalism, Latecomers to the Risks of the Anthropocene; Western Europe: Planetary Eurocentrism; The Anthropocene in Middle East Media: Invisible Oil?; Oceania: Big Islands, Small Islands, and the Anthropocene. All regions had regular media coverage of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG), particularly its efforts to establish the term “Anthropocene” at a geology conference in Cape Town in 2016, as well as reporting on the activities and publications of two Anthropocene notables (Nobel prize-winner Paul Crutzen and Jan Zalasiewicz, chair of the AWG).

The book’s final section, “From the Anthropocene to the Anthropo-scene” contrasts the relatively sparse media coverage of social sciences and environmental humanities with the relatively dense media coverage of Anthropocene-related creative arts. This latter topic produced one of the most surprising discoveries of the project, namely the significant amount of Anthropocene media coverage from all over the world in relationship to almost all arts genres (exhibitions, painting, photography, music, opera, literature, sculpture, dance, theatre, film, and multimedia). Representations of the Anthropocene range from major exhibitions in major museums to works of all sorts in small local venues. Some of these images are reproduced in the book.

Three main narratives were constructed from a random sample of about half of the 4,000 mentions of the Anthropocene we found. These were labelled “neutralizing”, “good Anthropocene”, and “radical change,” signifying respectively that the stories or mentions indicated no need for alarm; or that while it does present problems we can turn the Anthropocene to our advantage; or that the Anthropocene presents a genuine existential threat to human life on the planet. The first two narratives from all regions (compounded into one “reassurance narrative") dominated coverage with about 99%. Central to many of these stories was the conviction that, despite difficulties,  renewable sources of energy could be developed quickly and efficiently enough to ensure that radical change to the capitalist system would not be necessary, as encapsulated in the slogans “business as usual” and “sustainable development” (this latter having all its original radical content squeezed out). These research findings therefore substantiate the subtitle of the book “Neutralizing the Risk”.

To learn more about the book, the table of contents and the editor's introduction are available.

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