VIDEO: ‘Voracious consumerism’ at the heart of climate change, says Brock prof

This year, the COP 26 United Nations Climate Change Conference is taking place from Friday, Oct. 31 to Friday, Nov. 12 in Glasgow, U.K. The annual conference brings together parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, an environmental treaty to combat “dangerous human interference with the climate system” by stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere among other measures. The COP examines the effectiveness of measures taken by the parties in achieving objectives and targets. In this series, The Brock News highlights climate change research taking place at Brock University.

Jennifer Good is Associate Professor of Communication, Popular Culture and Film. She researches the role communication plays in how people understand their relationship with the “natural environment,” exploring such topics as the communication of climate change, materialism, earth-based spirituality, electronic waste, the psychology of media effects and media literacy. She is currently researching people’s spiritual experiences related to “nature” and if and how those experiences are shared. 

In a speech climate change activist Greta Thunberg delivered to the United Nations two years ago, one sentence in particular made Jennifer Good sit up and take notice.

It was a reference to the “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” in the midst of mass extinction, an image with which Good instantly resonated.

She says what makes Thunberg’s mention of it so remarkable is that she actually talked about economics, which almost never happens in mainstream media coverage of the environment and climate change.

Good, Associate Professor of Communications, Popular Culture and Film researches how media communication shape the way people relate to the natural environment.

Among her many research activities, Good analyzes how climate change stories are told in “big media.” The point is not just academic, as these reports shape the way society understands climate change and how to address the problem.

In an early communication of climate change study published more than 20 years ago, Good and her then PhD advisor published an article exploring the phenomenon of unusual temperatures — extremely hot or cold — leading to climate change coverage in major newspapers.

In 2008, Good’s research showed a hesitancy for newspapers in Canada, the U.S. and around the world to frame or tell stories about climate change with either extreme weather consequences or oil reduction solutions.

It is only recently, Good’s research finds, that stories about extreme weather — hurricanes, fires, floods, droughts — have included or been framed with climate change, while the links between climate change and refugees continue to be largely missing in media stories.

“But there is one vitally important climate change story that continues to be profoundly absent: these are stories that link our economic model and voracious consumption to climate change,” says Good.

In the year leading up to Thunberg’s 2019 speech, Good conducted a content analysis on the Canadian Major Dailies database. She found 850 newspaper articles, including opinion editorials and letters, with “climate change” in the headline.

Of these articles, 44 per cent were related to the economy. Almost all of these were articles about the “health” of the economy generally with the overarching theme of positive stories about economic growth and negative stories of obstacles to economic growth for industries or national economies.

“Of those hundreds of articles, letters and op-eds, there was one letter to the editor — one voice — expressing concerns about economic growth in the era of climate change,” Good wrote in a recent editorial in The Conversation.

Fuelling economic growth are materialistic values that drive “voracious consumerism,” says Good. For example, the launching of new or next-generation technologies is given great fanfare, yet there are almost no stories in mainstream media about the carbon footprint of manufacturing and using the technologies and what happens to the older technologies.

Electronic waste is a huge problem. In her 2016 study, “Creating iPhone Dreams: Annihilating E-waste Nightmares” Good discussed the tremendous e-waste that is generated. For example, more than 142,000 computers and 416,000 mobile devices are discarded every day in the U.S., according to a 2012 report; “that number has only increased over the years,” she says.

In her study, Good analyzed content from Canadian, U.S. and international newspapers and broadcasters. Her findings clearly indicate that while newspapers and broadcasters in Canada, the U.S. and around the world tell stories about the iPhone at a tremendous rate, there are almost no stories discussing the iPhone and e-waste.

For example, in the Lexis Nexis “Major World Publications” database, from July 1, 2014 to July 1, 2015, there were close to 22,000 newspaper articles with “iPhone” anywhere in the article, and more than 300 per cent increase from the iPhone’s launch in 2007.

Good found that of those articles, only six also contained mention of “electronic waste” or “e-waste.”

Good refers to a concept called “symbolic annihilation” in discussing the media’s lack of coverage on iPhones and electronic waste. The idea is that, if something is not discussed in the media, then it is not important — it does not exist.

“But it is not only the absence of stories that link our consumption of electronics with waste, it is also the absence of stories that discuss the climate change implication for the lifecycle — from mining component metals to our use to disposing of the waste – of those electronics,” she says.

“Stories matter,” says Good. “Our economic stories, stories of endless economic growth based on voracious consumption, are the absolute foundation of climate change; these stories are almost never told.”

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