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Beware Cassandra’s Warning

Yet another dire warning was issued this past weekend by an international environmental office. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) says it will release its report which describes “nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history – and the rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”

Major news outlets are all picking it up. The New York Times, The Washington Post and overseas in Europe, India, and Africa. The UN has various initiatives looking at environmental issues which I presume they manage with an appropriate degree of professionalism. One might say that those entities should have delivered news of this magnitude long ago, and that might be true in a perfect world, but in this actual real-world, things work a little differently.

On one side of this equation are the international entities doing the jobs the international community has assigned them. On the other side of the equation are the governments and populations of the global community. They are the ones who need to act to address an impending crisis. The UN has done its part, indeed the basic situation has been known and understood for some time; the point of the UN report is to make it definitive and authoritative so that appropriate action can be taken.

“Appropriate” is a tricky concept in this case with two possible interpretations. In the first instance, it is the actions that would address the issues to the degree that they would not cause the biosphere (remember humanity is part of that sphere) irredeemable harm. The second interpretation would be the actions that are politically feasible in the present social, and or economic circumstances.

So the UN is warning its constituents, humanity, that modern society is destroying its own environment to the extent that will render our planet unrecognizable: the natural world, the oceans, the wilderness the other species, the weather. It will all mutate into something unknowable. Unfortunately, society hears that warning through its new, self-formatting, relationship with the media. There have always been lies in the news, even before there was an actual news media. But those were traditional lies. They existed in a binary universe. True or untrue. The modern situation is different. Something might be true but there is no longer a measure by which you can judge it so it becomes a matter of argument.

And the media is the territory where that argument takes place.

Of course, it is easy to argue that the media is now a free territory where anyone can listen or speak. But that’s not the whole truth. The truth is that the media is in the hands of corporate power. Yes, we can all have a small say but it is very small. There is a power play going on behind the scenes where “the will of the people” is still trying to have a say. The United States takes a central place in this changing balance and the focus of the American people and legislators is on their immediate concerns such as health care or immigration.

The legend of Cassandra from ancient Greece tells the story of a woman cursed to utter prophecies that were true but that no one believed. It does seem like the UN is uttering an important prophesy that is crucially central for us as individuals and as a species. But believing that prophecy is difficult in a world ruled and understood through a captured media. The news is there every day telling us what is important. Arguing and fighting over whether to view events from a left or right perspective. It seems a terrifying scenario that we would hear the warning but ignore the message.

Let’s not do as the Greeks. The threat is real even though the effects are still marginal. Once we see and understand the whole environment is changing as a result of our choices a commitment can be made and a solution found.

With our future, and the planet’s future in question we should perhaps pay some attention to the news the UN brought to us today.