Environmental Journalism and Advocacy

If people destroy something replaceable made by mankind, they are called vandals; if they destroy something irreplaceable made by God, they are called developers.
- Joseph Wood Krutch, American Naturalist

Our ecological world is under assault from global warming, toxic chemicals and threats to water resources, wildlife and biodiversity. This plight of earths ecosystem is intrinsically linked to global development policys assumption that economic growth and development are synonymous. Consistent environmental communication has underlined how environmental conservation is co-terminus with human security more than with national security. The former is concerned with reducing  and when possible  removing the insecurities that plague human lives and abrupt penury related to economic downturns.

Environment advocates pose stark questions and prophesy almost in an alarmist tone that people who remain silent and passive are exposed to toxic emissions and gases. If this is not true then, how does one love all the children and toxify their mothers milk? When we know something and do nothing about it, whats our liability? Did we intend to toxify the planet?

Be it blood contamination, congenital disorders, preventable but incurable cancer  or extinction of known and unknown living species on our planet, environmental journalism deals with them and creates a compelling logic to reexamine the premises of the Industrial Revolution and design a new one, respecting relations between spirit and matter.  One way was to eliminate the concept of waste.  Things should be designed to go either safely back to the soil or back to industry. There is design crisis. What else can explain that it took 5,000 years to put wheels on our luggage! It is not efficiency alone that can provide remedy. This entails changing the current model of development since even doing the wrong thing more efficiently can be more dangerous. Isnt an efficient Nazi more dangerous than an inefficient Nazi?

Even as the world is taking a journey towards becoming a global village, we have stopped being people with lives and have become consumers with lifestyles unworthy of inhabiting a community life. The fundamental perception of our own selves has shifted. The million-dollar question that stares the humanity in its face is: do we want an efficient and sustainable life or an efficient and sustainable lifestyle?. The former requires changing the present model of economic growth and the latter entails maintaining the status quo. In both the cases, governments and corporations can be taking the right steps but what distinguishes one from the other is the direction in which steps are taken. Public interest advocacy underlines this stark truth and articulates the compelling rationale for making governments, corporations and peoples choices accountable and liable for their acts of omission and commission. 
In the last few decades, awareness of industrial impact on ecosystem has grown to the point where ecological issues seem to be at the center of public discourse.

Besides nature and science writing, environmental movement that began in 1962 with the publication of Rachel Carsons Silent Spring provided a stimulus to environmental journalism. Especially since the UN conference On Environment in 1972, journalistic endeavours have advanced public understanding of environmental issues by highlighting adverse impact on public and environmental health.

Environmental Journalism & Corporate Accountability

As a result of the public interest advocacy and environmental reporting, the new UN Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations (RTC) that has emerged from UN Sub-Commission on Human Rights, which are mandatory. The United Nations Sub-Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights approved the Norms on the Responsibilities of Transnational Corporations and Other Business Enterprises with Regard to Human Rights in August 2003.  The Norms were considered by the UN Commission on Human Rights in at its 56th meeting in April 2004 and recommend it to UN Economic and Social Council and asked the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to submit the report to the UNCHR at its sixty-first session in order for it to identify options for strengthening standards on the responsibilities of transnational corporations and related business enterprises with regard to human rights and possible means of implementation.

Prof. David Weisbrodt, one of the main authors of the RTC Norms says, these UN norms essentially represent a restatement of existing international law on human rights, humanitarian law, international labour law, environmental law, anti-corruption law, consumer protection, etc. What they essentially say is that any company that wants to respect the law and be socially responsible would want to follow the norms. Weisbrodt adds, "The states have the primary responsibility to protect human rights, and that's what the norms say. But within their spheres of activity and influence, transnational corporations also have obligations. And this document really does help governments, because after all, when faced with the considerable power of transnationals, this document helps set a sort of international minimum standard that governments can refer to."  Clearly, environmental rights are human rights as well. At the 61st session in April 2005, the UNCHR requested the United Nations Secretary-General to appoint a Special Representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises to identify and clarify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability with regard to human rights.  Public interest advocacy led to the appointment of Prof. John Ruggie as the Special Representative on the issue of human rights and transnational corporations and other business enterprises in July 2005. His mandate included identifying and clarifying standards of corporate responsibility and accountability with regard to human rights.  In February 2007, Prof. Ruggie in his report to the UN Human Rights Council stated, even among the leaders, certain weaknesses of voluntarism are evident.
His mandate is: (a) To identify and clarify standards of corporate responsibility and accountability for transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights;
(b) To elaborate on the role of States in effectively regulating and adjudicating the role of transnational corporations and other business enterprises with regard to human rights, including through international cooperation;
(c) To research and clarify the implications for transnational corporations and other
business enterprises of concepts such as complicity and sphere of influence;
(d) To develop materials and methodologies for undertaking human rights impact assessments of the activities of transnational corporations and other business enterprises;
(e) To compile a compendium of best practices of States and transnational corporations and other business enterprises.

But there are limitations since the UNCHR has not established a special rapporteur or expert working group to receive complaints and urgent appeals, conduct field investigations, and report findings back to the relevant governments and the Commission itself. Many such mandates exist on other subjects. Prof. Ruggies is on a part time assignment that leaves a lot to be desired. There is a need to make efforts to operationalize the RTC Norms in its original form.
In a communication with this author, Prof. Wessibrodt cited provisions of the UN human rights norms for transnationals and other businesses: "Transnational corporations and other business enterprises shall respect the right to a clean and healthy environment in the light of the relationship between the environment and human rights; concerns for intergenerational equity; internationally recognised environmental standards, for example with regard to air pollution, water pollution, land use, biodiversity and hazardous wastes; and the wider goal of sustainable development, that is, development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Transnational corporations and other business enterprises shall be responsible for the environmental and human health impact of all of their activities, including any products or services they introduce into commerce, such as packaging, transportation and by-products of the manufacturing process. In decision-making processes and on a periodic basis (preferably annually or biannually), transnational corporations and other business enterprises shall assess the impact of their activities on the environment and human health including impacts from siting decisions, natural resource extraction activities, the production and sale of products or services, and the generation, storage, transport and disposal of hazardous and toxic substances. Transnational corporations and other business enterprises shall ensure that the burden of negative environmental consequences shall not fall on vulnerable racial, ethnic and socio-economic groups."

The critics of the norms adopted by the UN human rights sub- commission -almost exclusively business interests - say these norms contradict the voluntary approach of the UN Global Compact. Environment journalists and activists welcomed, the RTC norms adopted by the UN Human Rights sub-commission since it exposed the glaring loopholes of the non-binding and non-enforceable Global Compact for corporate code of conduct. Even Prof Ruggies desire to interpret (by) taking the victims perspective seriously does leave scope for hope but time seems to be running out to protect environment and human rights in right earnest.

Climate Crisis and Advocacy

Environmentalists including environmental journalists across the globe are seeking more radical measures to combat adverse climate change. By 2030, the cost of stablising greenhouse gases at levels that are considered the maximum for avoiding catastrophic climate change would cost 0.2 per cent to 0.6 per cent of global wealth, according to the recent report of the UNs Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The proposed technocentric solutions to the crisis give a sense of déjà vu. World Food Conference 1974 in Rome titled World Hunger: Causes and Remedies proposed technical solutions like Green Revolution, transfer of technology and population control for the food crisis which had proven failures over several decades. Now the proposal to mitigate possible adverse climate change includes solutions like a major expansion in nuclear power, the use of GM crops to boost biofuel production, and reliance on unproven technologies which has put the UN's climate group on a collision course with those who argue that simply replacing one set of technologies with another set of technologies won't work, especially when there are such big downsides with some of them. Nuclear reactors are dangerous and land clearance and chemical pesticides and fertilisers used to grow fuel crops can cause huge environmental damage.
Structural change to the economy and culture change is a must for decarbonisation, in a context where over 1 billion people live on less than $1 a day with nearly half the world's population (2.8 billion) living on less than $2 a day as per UNDP 2003 report. The adoption of United Nations Millennium Declaration by the General Assembly in 2000 is significant which resolved, To halve, by the year 2015, the proportion of the worlds people whose income is less than one dollar a day and the proportion of people who suffer from Hunger for it leaves one wondering as to whether UN would follow the same yardstick to mitigate the problem of global warming by half only and if so would it be really sane.
Public interest advocates argue, Climate change is a great deal about hard-headed corporate finance, and not just either academic concern over externalities or golden-hearted environmentalism. This is a message that comes through from what companies and consultants in the developed world are doing in relation to climate change. Indian companies and the Indian government cannot afford to ignore this message. There are considerable commercial opportunities as well as costs associated with efforts to contain climate change.

The emerging adverse climate condition is a result of modern economic development. Before the Industrial Revolution began in 1750, the concentration of CO2 in the earths atmosphere was about 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv). By 1994 it was 358 ppmv and rising by about 1.5 ppmv per year. If emissions continue at the 1994 rate, the concentration will be around 500 ppmv, nearly double the pre-industrial level, by the end of the 21st century. The effect of such CO2 concentration along with other green house gases is that the atmosphere retains more of the suns heat, warming the earths surface. It is likely that changes of this magnitude and rapidity could pose severe problems for many natural and managed ecosystems, as well as important economic sectors such as agriculture and water resources. Indeed, for many low-lying and deltaic areas and small islands, a sea level rise of one meter could threaten complete loss of land and extinction of habitation. Rapid economic development through Green Revolution in agriculture and production of chemical inputs required in India for instance was adopted because there was a need to feed the poor and hungry masses and as a preventive approach towards disease since the problem of undernutrition is more fundamentally linked to agricultural policy, pricing and the public distribution system. It soon became evident that these early development plans did not result in the well-being of the poor and doubts were expressed regarding such strategy because it did not yield the promised benefits but the pattern of development was not changed.

Toxic Legacy

In the West on the other hand the model of development was questioned because of environmental problems. The biggest growth in the world economy took place after World War II, the post-war economic boom but within 15 years, it was difficult to breathe in any big western city, be it Tokyo, London or Los Angeles. Rivers like the Thames or the Rhine became stinking sewers like the Yamuna today. This is precisely what is happening with economic growth in Asia. China is in a horribly polluted state, and Taiwan, Korea, Thailand are in a similar predicament. India, with its newfound liberalization in economic matters, faces the same kind of problem. A World Bank study indicated that when the Thai economy doubled, its pollution went up ten-fold. When the same model was used for India it was found that while between 1975 and 1995 the Indian economy grew 2.5 times, industrial pollution went up four-fold, and vehicular pollution went up eight-fold. This analysis seems factually correct but it has ended up internalizing the pollution and adopting a reductionist approach resulting in endorsement of technocentric view.

In such a context, health indicators of a deteriorating environmental is witnessed in terms of a double burden of disease. Although there is acknowledgement of pre-existing serious problems of vector-borne diseases, water-borne diseases and emergent non-communicable diseases like cancer, it ignores the social gradient and economic polarization inherent in it. There is acceptance that a few million people will die as a result of atmospheric and water pollution in the same way as so many have died of poverty but in doing so it appears to have ignored the contribution of instances such as adoption of Intensive Agricultural District Programme, which turned out to be unsustainable. Changes in climate, vegetation, and land use in any region impacts human health besides pollution related illnesses, change in climate as a result of massive land use change will also affect infectious diseases. These diseases are sensitive to temperature as well as land-use changes, which may interact in a complex manner. The distribution of vector-borne diseases is restricted by climatic tolerance and weather pattern. The visionless nature of the current political economy has encouraged techno-centric approach in the economic development, which has consistently ignored the environmental concerns of different sections of society. Therefore, it has adversely impacted the natural, physical and socio-economic components of environment.

Towards ecological thinking

Environment and development-related health effects have become an increasing concern in both developing and developed countries. Environmental communication has played a crucial role in hammering the frozen passivity of status quo advocates. Although it is difficult to develop core indicators that are both universally applicable and universally measurable as goal in itself but human healths dependence on the physical and biological environment is such that human health cannot be conceived in the absence of human environment. Therefore, any threat to the integrity of the natural systems is a threat to human heath. This underlines the need for maintaining a stable climate and the continued availability of environmental resources. The environmental crisis requires not only rhetoric or cosmetic solutions, but a death and rebirth of modern man and his worldview that acknowledges sacred.

While legislative safeguards for environmental protection do exist in almost all the countries, the role of environmental journalism in exposing and illustrating homicidal ecological lawlessness that has led to rampant industrial pollution, soil erosion, agricultural pollution, genetic erosion of plant resources is quite crucial and merits more acknowledgement. In their absence, one would never know the havoc wrecked by seemingly good intentions of developers, fundamentalism of omniscient planners and tyranny of technocrats that refuses to take note of what Mahbub-ul-Haq, Special Advisor to UNDP and author of Human Development Report 1993 forewarned saying, The concept of sustainability raises profound questions about distribution and character of future global growth, but it sets no physical or technological limits to such growth. Environmental communication has brought the cannibalistic propensities of illegitimately totalitarian scientism and its linear, piecemeal and closed technological thinking in public domain and has put in the mirror of holistic and open approach of ecological sciences that no unlimited development is possible in the nature of things. 

Gopal Krishna

The author is with www.toxicswatch.org


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