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Comment: Effective altruism and an optimistic vision - the creation of a “Good News Network

Global Goals & Global Society
Comment: Effective Altruism and an Optimistic Vision: The Creation of a “Good News Network"

The significance of the media in structuring the narrative around climate change cannot be underestimated. Audiences across the globe rely heavily on effective coverage in order to gain an insight into how this crisis is unfolding and, as with a plethora of other issues, the kind of network we watch tends to mould our opinion and shape our attitude toward the possibility of progress.

It is often not what is said, but left unsaid by news anchors and pundits that subconsciously blinkers our thoughts in one direction or the other. Partisan outlets select the stories they cover very carefully and then, using a wide range of methods; including tonality of voice, facial expressions, and the choice of interviewees, indicate to the viewer the “correct” mindset to adopt with regard to a particular topic.

We live in a time when most people, who are too preoccupied with surviving day to day to conduct independent research, judge what they see and hear according to how it makes them feel. Unfortunately, anger and outrage seem to be the easiest and strongest emotions to rouse in an individual and that is why most of the media rely on the dissemination of a heavy onslaught of negative images, ideas and words to engage their target demographic. So-called “doomscrolling” has thus become a very real and problematic phenomenon. When a viewer has come to form an opinion, say that a situation is hopeless, they will develop a theoretical bias and search for evidence to back this up. Algorithms are, of course, more than happy to help and work by feeding us a steady diet of whatever it is we already believe. There is thus very little nuance to our media intake.

EU and US lawmakers have, in recent years, begun to combat algorithmic bias, recognizing its inherent dangers, and have gained some small successes. Companies like Facebook and Youtube, who have become notorious for predisposing users to certain narrative streams, have begun to be held accountable for actions that previously went unacknowledged and unregulated. Legalisation tends to lag behind curbing the worst effects of relatively new technologies, however, and there is still a long way to go, but at least the issue is increasingly entering the public’s consciousness.

Good News: Reshaping the Narrative

Algorithms aside, media coverage of the climate crisis appears to naturally gravitate toward dramatic gloom and doom, inspiring little more in the viewer than abject terror and hopelessness. Even the most independent outlets, like Democracy Now, who extensively discuss climate issues, usually focus on the failures of the climate movement, the myriad of challenges we face and the catastrophes that are already taking place as a consequence of rising temperatures. As effective as this approach may be in captivating the audience, and as important as it is knowing the effects of global warming, I fear it does little in the way of inspiring hope or promoting active engagement.

In this epoch of ubiquitous pessimism, it has occurred to me that there are actually very few outlets where one can go to view the vast number of efforts and triumphs being made around the world in relation to the climate crisis. Never, in all my years of following this issue, have I stumbled across even one independent outlet which focused solely on the positive/hopeful angle. Most people already know we are in serious trouble, yet what is needed now is a growing awareness of the proactive and creative tactics individuals and communities have been making; a channel that offers a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life in a time of serious fear and apathy.

It appears clear that filling the philosophical vacuum that many of us feel these days with trepidation and dread is not leading to progress or affecting the status quo. There is therefore now ample space in the public sphere, and in the individual consciousness, for fostering a new kind of morality. In France, in 2019, an experiment was conducted to assess how a random group of 150 people would reduce carbon emissions by 40% by the year 2030. Within 8 weeks, the group produced a fantastic array of resolutions such as cutting domestic flights less than four hours, ending planned obsolescence, transitioning away from the use of trucks as a means of transporting goods and introducing high taxes for polluting industries. [1]The experiment showed that, in spite of how apathetic and lethargy the public is made out to be towards the climate crisis, tackling the challenge together fomented a great sense of community and many were enthusiastic to make drastic changes to economic and social spheres in order to reduce emissions.

As opposed to succumbing to misery and “doomscrolling”, there is a deep desire growing amongst the masses for effective action, so instead of forever complaining about how negative things have become and all the problems we cannot solve, I believe the time is ripe to introduce a new kind of moralism and focus on the difference individuals can make in alleviating this crisis, however small or seemingly insignificant that difference might be.

Effective Altruism and Positive Media

While we have established that keeping individuals in a state of nervous dismay and unabashed rage is the mainstay of social media and mainstream media, it is my opinion that the actual change people can make is downplayed and undermined, rendering many would-be activists unmotivated and docile. A media channel which focuses on small successes and promoted concepts such as effective altruism would therefore have an enormous impact in reconfiguring the way people think about, feel about and approach climate change. William MacAskill, an Oxford philosopher credited with founding the term, explains that it is focuses on how a person can do as much good as possible within the brief time and resources that they have and questioning whether life has been made better or worse for the planet and its inhabitants by your existence. He also makes a case for “longtermism”: ‘the idea that positively influencing the distant future is a key moral priority of our time. From this perspective, it’s not enough to reverse climate change or avert the next pandemic. We must ensure that civilisation would rebound if it collapsed.’[2] Climate change is thus an ethical issue: we have a responsibility toward the coming generations, yet rather that making that a heavy burden, people can be made to realize that, like the butterfly effect, even the smallest change can make pivotal developments around the world.

Taking YouTube as one of the most popular hosting platforms, there are already a number of channels which have enjoyed great success primarily addressing climate issues in a sort of fun, entertaining way. For example, there is one called “Climate Adam” which discusses topics ‘from how we can do better when we talk about climate change, to whether we should adapt or fight climate change, and even the psychology behind why we don’t act to avoid even more catastrophic impacts and weather events.’[3]There is also another called “Shelbizleee” who has 319 thousand subscribers and describes her mission for the channel as ‘a community where the average person can come and feel like they can make a difference.’[4] On it, she explains methods of sustainable, eco-friendly living.

As admirable and necessary as these kinds of programs are, however, they generally only provide information on the current status of the climate crisis or tell you how you should be living. Very few shows focus on this concept of effective altruism or demonstrate clearly progress already being made in this global struggle, such as how with soaring energy costs, many people around the world are opting for renewable sources, or how ‘The Humbo forestry project, a community-managed reforestation initiative in southwest of Ethiopia, has regenerated 2,728 hectares of degraded land’[5] or how volunteers in India are teaching children and the elderly what climate change is and how to keep themselves safe in extreme heat.

We need some kind of media outlet that promotes optimism and encourages viewers to ask, with respect to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), can I have any impact whatsoever in those fields? What are the aims and objectives of the climate movement and how can I, in my own way, contribute to what we need to achieve? Is life a bit better after my existence? How can I use personal optimization as an effective strategy, not towards profitability, but contributing to community? How can I reconnect with the planet and its animals in ways that would provide meaning and purpose? As opposed to creating panic, we need a channel that demonstrates all the reasons to be optimistic about the future, such as the fact that people are more aware than ever of the impact of climate change; we have the resources to combat it; we have the ability to grow a global society, we can use effective charitable giving; we have a multitude of strategies at our disposal and it’s time to start using them.

In the next few years, the battle against the bias of algorithms is bound to ramp up; fighting for fair, objective and scientific coverage of the climate crisis is crucial. The creation and production of new channels which disseminate positive news and demonstrate proactive community and individual initiatives is also imperative. People must be able to see, and feel, that this is a challenge we can, and should, overcome.

To all journalists, writers, content creators, influencers and media makers: Lets make the creation of courage our goal!


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