Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In: Decarbonising Community Media

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This week at the Community Media Makers Zoom Drop-In, we’ll be chatting about how the need to decarbonise our society and economy can be facilitated and supported through community media. How can we encourage, foster and share our stories and experiences about practical change using community radio, newspapers, videos, blogs, and all the many platforms that we have at our disposal to tell local stories, encourage local conversations, and bring about change within our neighbourhoods, towns and cities. We don’t expect our national governments, local authorities, or commercial companies to run our community gardens, parks and green spaces, so why do we expect them to be in control of so much of our media? To reconect with nature, we need to be able to tell and share our own stories about how and why our natural experiences are so important to us.

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The urgent need to decarbonise our society and economy feels pressing because of the dry summer we are having. We are witnessing a series of heatwaves around the world that point towards increased extreme conditions, and the damaging impact these dramatic climate conditions are having on both human life and the animals and plants that we share our world with. The urgency of climate change is also exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, with the need to decouple European energy from Russian supply chains. The impact on rising fuel costs is having a knock-on effect on inflation, which itself is contributing to a cost-of-living crisis.

What brought these issues to my mind was a recent podcast recording event that I helped with. Based on the idea of decarbonising businesses and society by introducing alternatives to the high-carbon and high-energy practices that we’ve taken for granted for to long in the Western world. The discussions were detailed and thoughtful, and focussed on how purposeful change can be achieved, one step at a time.

Sometimes, in the discussion around climate crisis, a pragmatic approach can be forgotten. Between protesters calling for an immediate cessation of all carbon-releasing energy technologies, and cautious businesses worried that untested measures will impact their way of working, it is no wonder that there is a sense of uncertainty about actions and changes we can make now to alleviate our reliance on carbon-releasing energy supplies. We are in a liminal moment, it seems, where we are at a threshold of change. We are running scared of the impact of climate disruption, but we are not sure where we are heading and want to arrive in order to establish a new low-carbon normal.

There are good arguments on both sides, but it’s clear that we won’t find out what those arguments are if we don’t establish routine and widespread opportunities for dialogue and civic discussion. This is where, in my experience, community media can play a supportive role in bringing about positive and purposeful social change. In decarbonising our lives we need to establish a mechanism by which our concerns, experiences and achievements can be aired and heard in a mutual exchange of informed discussion.

The poet W.B. Yeates talked about how the polarity of ‘discord’ and ‘concord’, and how, as the “gyre of ‘concord’ diminishes, so that of ‘discord’ increases – with the reverse being true also (Yeats, 2015, p. 50). The physicist David Bohm felt that investment in ‘concord’ was of fundamental importance in attempts to facilitate and manage change in sustainable and enduring ways. As Bohm states, “the collective thought is more powerful than the individual thought” (Bohm, 1996, p. 15). The question of what mechanisms we have at hand, that we can use that will support concord over discord, and collective thinking over isolated thinking, is even more important. Particularly, if we are to note Zygmunt Bauman’s warning that the

“Responsibility for resolving the quandaries generated by vexingly volatile and constantly changing circumstances [has been] shifted onto the shoulders of individuals – who are now expected to be ‘free choosers’ and to bear in full the consequence of their choices” (Bauman, 2007, p. 4).

Climate crisis can’t be resolved by individuals acting in isolation. The climate knows no boundaries.

So, what’s the role for community media in fostering and supporting changes in attitude, behaviour and purpose in dealing with the climate crisis. How can community media be developed as a platform for effective discussion that supports social change in the way we use energy and emit carbon into the atmosphere? How can community media support this communications challenge in inclusive, decentralised and accountable ways?

The first thing that comes to my mind, is the way that community radio can foster and support civic discussion and deliberation which is broadcast and invites everyone who is typically overlooked to take part in these conversations. Ensuring that our airwaves stay open to people with different views and experiences is an essential democratic imperative. It can’t just be the rich and entitled – or those who are paid by the rich and entitled – who dominate the discussion about how we implement a decarbonised economy and society. Everyone will be affected; therefore everyone must have the opportunity to speak their mind and take part in discussions about climate change.

The challenge, of course, is that there is very little support for a decentralised media here in the UK. We are dominated by the state-organised BBC, and we are increasingly dominated by the international commercial conglomerates. Each serves a function in our democracy, but both are failing to reach into civic society to enable and empower people to speak for themselves and to listen and learn from the experiences of others. If we leave this process to the social media platforms, then decisions get taken in distant places, by technocrats who don’t even know who we are, and who regard our data as their resource to make their massive profits.

Opening up the airwaves, then, to more people with different views is essential, and can be effective if done in an accountable and responsible manner, that counters misinformation and the fuelling of indignation and discord. It was great to hear how Jamie Quince-Starkey, from Down To Earth Derby is going about the process of inspiring people to take a different view of nature, particularly as it is experienced in urban towns and cities in the UK. To bring about effective and meaningful change, Jamie suggests that we all have to reconnect with nature in some way, and that we have to become attuned to the role that the natural world plays in our lives, from a practical point of view that promotes self-realisation rather than urban alienation.

Jamie shares the view that telling people that they need to change is not sufficient, and that it is better to show people how environmental stewardship can be readily incorporated into our daily life practices. This might be as simple as picking up litter, or growing a bucket of potatoes. Though Jamie hopes that these small steps can lead to greater changes in expectation that our neighbourhoods can be places natural joy.

Jamies’ approach to community gardening mirrors much of what community media seeks to achieve. Here in Leicester, Evington in Bloom does a similar job, fostering a sense of ownership and empowerment as people take responsibility for their environment, and demonstrate accountability to how we use and develop resources to support community life. Social change doesn’t have to wait for approval from the local council, but is dependent on community power and mutual self-interests, based on running things for ourselves, and recognising that our self-interest is bound with the collective interest.

We’ve had over forty years of running society on the basis of individual gain, and we’ve reached the point whereby we can’t respond to the mess that’s been made as we’ve consumed without responsibility, sought efficiency without accountability, and used financial calculation as the only yardstick of evaluation to answer ethical questions about who pays for the damage the rich have caused, which is now being inflicted on the least able to respond. Climate crisis might be something we all have to face, but not everyone has the same access to resources to mitigate it’s damage and harm in the same way.

The community garden is a good analogy for our media. Does the government direct public and private gardens to do things in a certain way? Would we event contemplate state managed gardens in the way that we contemplate state sanctioned media? Why is it that only certain so-called ‘professionals’ get to work at media companies? You don’t need a qualification or a licence from a local authority to garden. How would we feel if all our gardens had to pass a commercial viability test? Would we want our public parks and gardens to be restricted only to fee-paying users?

The same logic applies to our media. We’ve become dominated by the industrial managers of platforms and the producers of content, in the same way that international agrobusinesses seek to control food production and agriculture. Our supermarkets are full of products with little nutritional value, and yet they make significant profits for the globalised food-like manufacturers. Ann Vileisis puts it succinctly

“First-hand knowledge of gardening and cooking has once connected cooks and eaters to the nature of particular places, but the new knowledge of foods proffered by advertisements would connect shoppers to only a surreal web of commerce and fancy” (Vileisis, 2008, p. 149).

I wouldn’t want to be overly romantic about the harsh reality of pre-industrial food production. Subsistence living was brutal. That doesn’t mean, however, that the industrial manufacturing process, and the industrial modes of urban life are unchangeable, and the reinvention of them, to suit a low-carbon future, can’t draw it’s inspiration from nature. Indeed it must. The way that we tell our community stories, and discuss the important issues that affect our lives, has to change as well. We have to facilitate more meaningful ways for people to commune and engage in concord. We can do this using the media tools that we have available to us, such as radio, podcasting, online video, blogs, photography, and in so doing we can create a shared resource that can help others to learn from our mistakes as well as our successes.

Decarbonisation, as the IPCC states, is going to call on many things to be done differently. If we are to successfully reduce the need for carbon-based energy, then we also need to decouple from many of the social expectations that we can only benefit from technology and innovation by mastering nature in a way that is destructive and serves the needs of only a few. Reconnecting with nature through community engagement in gardens and local shared food production and distribution will contribute to the imaginative change that we need. Learning to share different stories and experiences, while facilitating inclusive and mindful conversations through our media will serve a similar purpose.

Rather than focussing on the commodification of our experience, which the industrial media producers repackage and sell back to us, we need to invest in our capacity to tell and share our own stories, and to engage in our own conversations. As Amitai Etzioni points out

“Citizens cannot just retreat to their own communities. They have to cultivate the virtue of solidarity. This means engaging other communities and voluntary institutions to create common ground to deal with common problems” (Etzioni, 1995, p. 8).

And, as Kevin Howley points out

“Thus, community media serve as a mechanism for people the world over to speak as well as listen, to realise the strategic value of cooperation and reciprocity, and, finally, to seek out commonalities while also respecting differences. In short, with its commitment to participatory communication and social change, community media is unequally suited to construct alliances between different communities working together in the pursuit of a range of common interests” (Howley, 2010, p. 344).

Bauman, Z. (2007). Liquid Times – Living in an Age of Uncertainty. Polity Press.

Bohm, D. (1996). On Dialogue. Routledge.

Howley, K. (Ed.). (2010). Understanding Community Media. Sage.

Vileisis, A. (2008). Kitchen Literacy. Island Press.

Yeats, W. B. (2015). A Vision – The Revised 1937 Edition (M. M. Harper & C. E. Paul, Eds.). Scribner.