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The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse - The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse

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The Collapse of Journalism/The Journalism of Collapse
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The response I often get to this view is the assertion that we need not worry about the physical limits of the planet because human ingenuity will invent increasingly clever ways of exploiting those resources. This technological fundamentalism -- the belief that the use of evermore sophisticated high-energy, advanced technology is always a good thing and that any problems caused by the unintended consequences of such technology eventually can be remedied by more technology -- is more prevalent, and more dangerous, than religious fundamentalism. History teaches that we should be more cautious and pay attention to the unintended effects of such technology with an eye on the long term.
 
The fundamentalists believe the future is always bright, apparently because they wish it to be so. But the desire to live in an endless expanding world of bounty -- a desire found both in those who currently have access to that bounty and those who don’t but crave it -- is not a guarantee of it. We certainly know this at the individual level, that “you can’t always get what you want,” as the song goes, and what holds for us as individuals is also true for us as a species.
 
Those of us who question such declarations are often said to be “anti-technology,” which is a meaningless insult designed to derail serious discussion. All human beings use technology of some kind, whether stone tools or computers. An anti-fundamentalist position is not that all technology is bad, but that the introduction of new technology should be evaluated carefully on the basis of its effects -- predictable and unpredictable -- on human communities and the non-human world, with an understanding of the limits of our knowledge to control the larger world.
 
So the first step in crafting a new narrative for journalists is to reject technological fundamentalism and deal with a harsh reality: In the future we will have to make due with far less energy, which means less high-technology and a need for more creative ways of coping. Journalists have to tell stories about what that kind of creativity looks like. They have to reject the gee-whizzery of much of the contemporary science and technology reporting and emphasize the activities of those with a deeper ecological worldview.
 
There also is a corresponding need to tell stories about redefining our concept of the good life. Again, the basics are in pop songs: “all you need is love,” and “money can’t buy you love.” We all agree, yet that narrative of progress/expansion is rooted in the belief that acquisition and consumption are consistent with a good life, or perhaps even required for it.
 
Central to that redefinition is accepting that collectively we have to learn to live with less. In a world with grotesque inequalities in the distribution of wealth, some of our sisters and brothers are already living with less -- less than what is required for a decent life, which reflects the unjust nature of our social systems. For those of us in the more affluent sectors, the question is not only whether we will work for a more just distribution within the human family, but how we respond when the world imposes stricter limits on us all.
 
Living with less is crucial not only to ecological survival but to long-term human fulfillment. People in the United States live with an abundance of most everything -- except meaning. The people who defend the existing system most aggressively are typically either in the deepest denial, refusing to acknowledge their culture’s spiritual emptiness, or else have been the privileged beneficiaries of the system. This is not to suggest that poverty produces virtue, but to recognize that affluence tends to erode it.
 
A world that steps back from high-energy, high-technology answers to all questions will no doubt be a harder world in some ways. But the way people cope without such technological “solutions” can help create and solidify human bonds. Indeed, the high-energy/high-technology world often contributes to impoverished relationships as well as the destruction of longstanding cultural practices and the information those practices transmit. Stepping back from this fundamentalism is not simply a sacrifice but an exchange of a certain kind of comfort and easy amusement for a different set of rewards. We need not romanticize community life or ignore the inequalities that structure our communities to recognize that human flourishing takes place in community and progressive social change doesn’t happen when people are isolated.
 
Telling this story is important in a world in which people have come to believe the good life is synonymous with consumption and the ability to acquire increasingly sophisticated technology. The specific stories told in the journalism of collapse will reject technological fundamentalism and aid people in the struggle to redefine the good life. Journalists need not merely speculate about these things; across the United States people are actively engaged in such projects. Though not yet a majority, these people are planning transition towns, developing permaculture systems, creating community gardens, reclaiming domestic arts that have atrophied, organizing worker-owned cooperative businesses. They are experimenting with alternatives to the dominant culture, and in doing so they are, implicitly or explicitly, rejecting technological fundamentalism and redefining the good life.
 
This journalism of collapse I am proposing would include stories about the problems we face, the harsh reality of a contracting world of less energy. But it also would include stories about people’s experiments with new definitions of progress and the good life. Such an approach to journalism would not only highlight the threats but also shine a light on the way people are coping with the threats.
 
Journalism in the prophetic voice
 
I would call this kind of storytelling “journalism in the prophetic voice,” borrowing a theological term for secular purposes. I prefer to speak about the prophetic voice rather than prophets because everyone is capable of speaking in the voice; the prophetic is not the exclusive property of particular people labeled as prophets. I also avoid the term prophecy, which is often used to describe a claim to be able to see the future. The complexity of these crises makes any claim to predict the details of what lies ahead absurd . All we can say is that, absent a radical change in our relationship to each other and the non-human world, we’re in for a rough ride in the coming decades. Though the consequences of that ride are likely to be more overwhelming than anything humans have faced, certainly people at other crucial historical moments have faced crises without clear paths or knowledge of the outcome. A twenty-five-year-old Karl Marx wrote about this in a letter to a friend in1843:

The internal difficulties seem to be almost greater than the external obstacles. … Not only has a state of general anarchy set in among the reformers, but everyone will have to admit to himself that he has no exact idea what the future ought to be. On the other hand, it is precisely the advantage of the new trend that we do not dogmatically anticipate the world, but only want to find the new world through criticism of the old one. 

We should understand the prophetic as the calling out of injustice, the willingness not only to confront the abuses of the powerful but to acknowledge our own complicity. To speak prophetically requires us first to see honestly -- both how our world is structured by illegitimate authority that causes suffering beyond the telling, and how we who live in the privileged parts of the world are implicated in that suffering. In that same letter, Marx went on to discuss the need for this kind of “ruthless criticism”:

But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.

To speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from what we discover about the injustice of the world. It is to name the wars of empire as unjust; to name an economic system that leaves half the world in abject poverty as unjust; to name the dominance of men, of heterosexuals, of white people as unjust. And it is to name the human destruction of Creation as our most profound failure. At the same time, to speak prophetically is to refuse to shrink from our own place in these systems. We must confront the powers that be, and ourselves. 
 
Another prominent historical figure put it this way in 1909: “One of the objects of a newspaper is to understand the popular feeling and to give expression to it; another is to arouse among the people certain desirable sentiments; and the third is fearlessly to expose popular defects.” That was Mohandas Gandhi, on the first page of Hind Swaraj.
 
Those tasks -- attempting to understand and give expression to what ordinary people feel, and then advocating progressive goals, while at the same time exposing problems in the culture -- are not likely to make one’s life easy. Journalists willing to take this position will find themselves in a tense place, between a ruling elite that is not interested in seriously changing the distribution of power and a general public that typically does not want to confront these difficult realities of collapse. To speak from a prophetic position is to guarantee that one will find little rest and small comfort. Such is the fate of a commitment to truth-telling in difficult times, and times have never been more difficult.
 
But others have faced similar challenges. Looking to the tradition in the Hebrew Bible, the prophets condemned corrupt leaders and also called out all those privileged people in society who had turned from the demands of justice, which the faith makes central to human life. In his analysis of these prophets, the scholar and activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel concluded:

Above all, the prophets remind us of the moral state of a people: Few are guilty, but all are responsible. If we admit that the individual is in some measure conditioned or affected by the spirit of society, an individual’s crime discloses society’s corruption. In a community not indifferent to suffering, uncompromisingly impatient with cruelty and falsehood, continually concerned for God and every man, crime would be infrequent rather than common.

That phrase, few are guilty but all are responsible, captures the challenge of the journalism of collapse. We can easily identify those powerful figures guilty of specific crimes. Who is guilty in perpetrating the illegal U.S. invasion of Iraq? That’s easy -- Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Powell, Rice. Who is guilty in the bailout of Wall Street and the big banks: That’s easy, too -- Bush and Obama, Paulsen and Geithner, Bernanke and the boys. One task of journalists is to pursue the guilty, perhaps with a bit more fervor than contemporary U.S. news media; our journalists are too polite in handling war criminals and servants of the wealthy.
 
But when we look at the fragile state of the world, in some sense our future depends on recognizing that we all are responsible, depending on our status in society and resources available to us. Those of us in affluent sectors of society have the most to answer for, and the task of journalists is to raise questions uncomfortable for us all. This will rarely make journalists popular, but that also is not new. In each of the four Gospels, Jesus reminds us: “A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4)
 
Since journalism has never really been an honorable profession, perhaps that makes us the perfect candidates for raising our voices prophetically.

[A version of this essay was delivered as the Lawrence Dana Pinkham Memorial Lecture, Asian College of Journalism, Chennai, India, March 18, 2010.]


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