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The detrimental environmental impact of the media

By Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller


We’ve seen Earth Day pictures of our planet that highlight its symmetry, its chaos, and its beauty. We’ve learnt about the pollution and environmental decay that threaten us all.

Image created by Reto Stockli with the help of Alan Nelson, under the leadership of Fritz Hasler. Source: NASA.

Media coverage of the environment over the last five decades has shown how natural beauty and human and animal health have been affected by mining and manufacturing, and the increasing danger of climate change. In this context, the media have generally been regarded as sources of information. Their role has been to examine and explain scientific issues, political-economic struggles, policy options, and interest-group activities.

But in 2008, the proportion of the world’s metals going into media technologies, from televisions to telephones, was 36% of tin, 25% of cobalt, 15% of palladium, 15% of silver, 9% of gold, 2% of copper, and 1% of aluminum. The best estimates suggest that media technologies and production accounted for 3% of greenhouse gases emitted around the world in 2007. Those numbers propel us to think about the media and the environment in a different way. The media aren’t just sources of information about the environment. They participate in it.

So rather than focusing on how well the media explain the environment, we need to ask what they do to it. The answer is that they pollute, endanger occupational health and safety, and produce electronic or e-waste.

Ever since the development of print, the media have drawn upon, created, and emitted dangerous substances, producing multi-generational risks for ecosystems and workers. For example, poisonous solvents, inks, fumes, dust, and wastewater have been byproducts of printing newspapers for two centuries. Similar conditions have affected workers in film-stock manufacture, where cotton dust adds the additional risk of contracting brown lung.

Manufacturing and installing batteries exposes employees to lead and other pathogens, fatally damaging the skin, lungs, and nervous system. Such illnesses have made battery workers the group most at risk of lead poisoning in the United States. The use of plastics to create media and communication technologies can cause brain, liver, kidney, and stomach cancer, while disposing of them releases carcinogenic dioxin and hydrochloric acid into the environment. And the habitats, flight paths, and lives of the world’s original and most able globalizers — birds — are endangered by telecommunications towers.

We love watching TV on our Apple tablets and phones. But as everyone now knows, Apple’s subcontractor Foxconn uses military-style discipline on the factory floor. Worker suicides have produced sustained critiques and investigations of both companies.

What happens to the iPads and iPhones those workers make after they have been used by consumers? Wealthy people regularly throw these gadgets out in favor of replacements as they chase the dream of the next, tantalizing upgrade. Consider that great shift from fat-screen analogic TV sets to sleek flat-screen digital ones. Cool stuff indeed. But the e-waste from yesterday’s not-so-cool stuff is between twenty and fifty million tons annually. And a thousand different, often deadly, materials are in each computer.

In the past, such e-waste mostly emanated from Australasia, Western Europe, Japan, and the US. Disposal through landfills in these nations is generally illegal because of the risks to soil, water, residents, and workers posed by the dozens of poisonous chemicals and gases in these machines. So vast amounts of e-waste was dumped in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa, and Asia. Today, many of those economies are booming, so these regions are generating immense levels of their own e-waste. This media plenitude is creating a crisis of global dimensions.

It goes without saying that the role of the media in shedding light on our environment is important. But the media are not green; far from it. We must weigh the cost of their environmental impact alongside their contribution to our culture and democracy.

Richard Maxwell is Professor and Chair of Media Studies at Queens College, City University of New York. Toby Miller is Distinguished Professor of Media & Cultural Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Together, they are the authors of Greening the Media. Join them on Facebook and listen to their podcast for more information on the media and the environment.

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