Truth, lies and sustainability

Fresh from some research on AI, robots and sustainability, the health of the planet has become a consistent theme that weighs heavy on my mind. Technology vs Nature.

Various news media pump out the stories. We see-saw between a celebration of the latest advancement or ingenuity, to serious lament over the newest crisis, another step closer to robot dystopia or planetary destruction.

While comforted rather than threatened by technology, fully appreciative of its ability to accommodate society’s ever-changing needs, I sometimes plunge into a darkness when, as a 21st century consumer, I contemplate my own complicity in the earth’s destruction.

Post-truth trust

As a researcher, I migrate to science or evidence-based journalism for the truth. Yet, I have become perplexed to the increasing paucity of online fact-based reporting, and particularly so, the amount of deceit, lack of clarity or plain omission of fact behind the ‘sustainability’ headlines and environmental plaudits.

Back in 2014, the World Economic Forum highlighted the “rapid spread of misinformation online one of the ten most critical issues for our societies”. Just to put this in context, Domo, in 2018 calculated 2.5 quintillion new bytes of data were created online every day. This is in addition to the continued growth of print, television and radio media. That’s a big needle-stack to go digging for the truth. A dangerous situation indeed when, what we read or hear about on ‘sustainable practice’ or environmental research shapes our judgement on environmental action, living habits and consumption behaviour.

Complacent or Misinformed?

Despite the number of reports published or broadcast about what is deemed to be the most urgent crisis faced by humanity, the level or breadth of reparation or preventative action does not match the scale of the impending catastrophe (Peebles, 2019). I consider whether we [society] are just desensitized to the issues now faced, overly optimistic to the end outcome, or plainly duped by those who have most to lose from a higher sustainability commitment.  The odds on the latter proposition are worryingly high.  For example, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University recently produced a research paper which highlighted the extent of infiltration of industry influence on AI ‘news’ (Brennen et al., 2018). Following a systematic examination of 760 articles published in Jan-Aug 2018 by six mainstream UK news outlets, the researchers revealed:

·      Nearly 60% of news articles were indexed to industry products, initiatives, or announcements

·      33% of unique sources across all articles were affiliated with industry, almost twice as many as those from academia, and six times as many as those from government.

The researchers concluded that AI is being politicised through the topics that the news outlets emphasize in their coverage. Whilst there isn’t a duplicate study on media reporting on sustainability, many evidence-based research papers highlight a similar pattern of dominance of self-interested assertions or positions on environmental issues. Luedecke & Boykof’s paper on Environment and the media is well worth the read, detailing the more recent political economic impacts resulting in informationally-deficient environmental reporting.

Dirty Batteries Undermine a Cleaner Conscious

Last year Bloomberg NEF and Berylls Strategy Advisors published data that electric cars were not the clean emission-free alternative portrayed. “An electric vehicle in Germany would take more than 10 years to break even with an efficient combustion engine’s emissions.” Taking the full production process in to account, the lithium-ion battery for an electric car can create up to 74% more carbon-dioxide emission when compared to building a conventional car. Arguably it is as much about where and how the electricity is produced, and where the lithium-ion is mined from, but it is still an example of how confusing the fact terrain has become for the layperson to navigate. So how do we get honest discussion going, that’s not based on marketing, rumours, half-truths and outright lies?

Chilling Challenges

A lack of accountability, particularly on online platforms enables anyone to claim whatever they like with little reproach (Charlton, 2019). And, as Michael Gross reports, if rational arguments and proven facts cannot compete against demagoguery and scapegoating, how can we establish evidence-based policies to avert catastrophic climate change and other environmental disasters?

As much as I decry the profiteering of the elite who own the large-scale companies which create the most pollution and waste, or the weak governments that fail to compel big industry to act more sustainably, there is recognition of the less often challenged culpability at the individual or local level.

“and it often happens, that if a lie be believed only for an hour, it hath done its work, and there is no farther occasion for it. Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it, so that when men come to be undeceived, it is too late; the jest is over, and the tale hath had its effect – Jonathan Swift, 1710

Nature in my Backyard

Summer is a particularly good time to re-immerse oneself back into nature: a mix of purposeful detachment from the plate-spinning as soon as schools break, kids’ innate attraction to dirt and the outdoors, and the kinder weather patterns.

In the last couple of weeks alone my three young ones have been lost in the majestic giant sunflower fields that look out on to the dramatic panoramic views over Rhossili’s rugged cliffs, they’ve tumbled down high dunes wielding kites on to breath-taking unbroken sands, and climbed innumerable trees in a rich selection of parks, forests and countryside. We traveled by car, picnicked from produce from the supermarkets, and yes, no technophobes, recorded key moments using a lithium-ion powered device.

Protected from the truth

It’s true – there’s an incomparable ‘delicious tiredness’ that results from a day in nature, which not only influences our circadian rhythms (Duffy & Czeisler, 2009; Norton, 2017) but boosts well-being. Feet up for the evening. Life is good. Then BBC news smashes the dream, dropping the bombshell an increased level of plastic particulates are now found in the Arctic, raising concerns about the impact on marine life and human health (Harrabin, 2019).

Sheltered by the relatively protected landscapes of Wales that I call home, I’m subliminally and directly protected from the damage inflicted by a number of my deadly consumer habits – technological and otherwise. My own comfortable life and individual actions, in terms of my own personal ecological footprint, are far divorced from the threat of macro-environmental demise.

More fact please

Baba Dioum, the well-known environmentalist in 1968 once said “we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Unfortunately commercial marketing and communications has aggressively infiltrated our ‘knowledge’ stores, polluting the waters, so we find it hard to distinguish fact from near-fiction.

Just as smokers are forced to read graphic warnings of the dangers of smoking, may be we should pressure governments to force ‘industry’ to move up a gear from labeling whether their plastic bottles are recyclable, and be mandated to inform the consumer of the ecological footprint value of each and every product or service consumed/purchased. Initiatives that help share ‘responsibility’ and promote conscious decision making must be a step in the right direction. Education is also key, from heightened exposure to sustainable business models or commitment to a circular economy, to more deliberate ethical discussion and debate across all ages. And also the development of the critical mind; tooling citizens to mine for the truth.

Critical thinking for post-truth & environmental action

In my mind, true sustainability will be achieved through education. One that not only instills a wholehearted commitment to the environment, but one that engenders critical thinking in all aspects of global citizenry. Maybe then we can start to move towards a true sustainable society, no matter how protected we are from the visible damage already caused.

A true sustainable society is after all, one that is not only far-seeing enough, flexible enough, and wise enough not to undermine either its physical or its social systems of support” (Meadows, 1992) but one that has the “critical inquiry that facilitates people  to question the ideologies and narratives , and to look beyond the parochial explanations or solutions tendered by the dominant stakeholders” ( Kaur, 2018).

References

Brennen, J. S., Howard, P, N. & Nielsen, R.K. (2018)An Industry-Led Debate: How UK Media Cover Artificial Intelligence’, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Fact Sheet December 2018 [online]. Available: https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/sites/default/files/2018-12/Brennen_UK_Media_Coverage_of_AI_FINAL.pdf [Accessed 19th August 2019].

Charlton, E. (2019) ‘Fake news: What it is, and how to spot it’ [online]. Available: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/03/fake-news-what-it-is-and-how-to-spot-it/ [Accessed 19th August 2019].

Dioum, B. (1968) ‘Public address to the General Assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’, New DelhiIndia [online]. Available: http://en.microcosmaquariumexplorer.com/wiki/Baba_Dioum [Accessed 17th August 2019].

Domo (2018) ‘Data never sleeps 6’ [online]. Available: https://www.domo.com/learn/data-never-sleeps-6 [Accessed 17th August 2019].

Duffy, J. F. & Czeisler, C.A. (2009)  ‘Effect of Light on Human Circadian Physiology’, Sleep medicine clinics, 4 (2), pp.165-177. doi:10.1016/j.jsmc.2009.01.004

Gross, M. (2017)  ‘The dangers of a post-truth world’, Current Biology, 27 (1), pp.R1-R4 https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2016.12.034 .

Harrabin, R. (2019) ‘Plastic particles falling out of sky with snow in Arctic’, BBC News, 14th [online]. Available: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49295051 [Accessed 19th August 2019].

Kaur, K. (2018) ‘Critical Thinking for Global Peace: A key for Sustainable Development’, International Journal of Trend in Scientific Research and Development, 2(3), pp.1498-1501.

Luedecke, G.  & Boykoff, M.T. (2017) ‘Environment and the Media’, The International Encyclopedia of Geography, Ed. D. Richardson, N. Castree, M. F. Goodchild, A. Kobayashi, W. Liu, and R. A. Marston, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd., doi: 10.1002/9781118786352.wbieg0464.

Peebles, G. (2019) ‘Complacency and the Environmental Catastrophe’ [blog]. Available: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/28/complacency-and-the-environmental-catastrophe/ [Accessed 19th August 2019].

Meadows, L. (2009) ‘The missing link: an inquiry approach to teaching all students about evolution‘, Heinemann: New Hampshire.

Norton, A. (2017) ‘Time Outdoors May Deliver Better Sleep’ [online]. Available: https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/news/20170202/time-outdoors-may-deliver-better-sleep#1 [Accessed 19th August 2019].

Swift, J. (1710) ‘The Examiner’, No. 14 [online]. Available: https://www.ourcivilisation.com/smartboard/shop/swift/examiner/chap14.htm [Accessed 17th August 2019].

Peebles, G. (2019) ‘Complacency and the Environmental Catastrophe’ [blog]. Available: https://www.counterpunch.org/2019/01/28/complacency-and-the-environmental-catastrophe/ [Accessed 19th August 2019].

World Economic Forum (2014) ‘Top 10 trends facing the world in 2014’ [online]. Available: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2013/11/top-10-trends-facing-the-world-in-2014/ [Accessed 19th August 2019].

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