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Climate change – How awareness is prevented through media sanitation

Updated Saturday, 27 April 2019
The supermarket chain Iceland was the first supermarket to remove palm oil from its product ranges, a decision that was applauded yet quickly gathered controversy. 

Disclaimer: This is an opinion article. Please note the views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the view or position of the faculty the author is associated with, or of The Open University.


Cartoon graphic of a girls face expressing surprise. She has brown complexion with dark hair tied up and brown eyes. Link to video from Greenpeace UK

Iceland produced a Christmas advert in collaboration with Greenpeace which drew attention to the plight of orangutans and was promptly banned.

The explanation given by Clearcast (the body overseeing and vetting advertising in the UK) was that it broke advertising standards by apparently ‘being directed to a political end’ because of Greenpeace involvement.


Why we shouldn’t use palm oil but will struggle to avoid it.

Palm oil is in our food and in cosmetics, having replaced soya in terms of usage.
To produce palm oil, rainforest is cleared and the habitat of orangutans and other species are destroyed, the rainforest shrinks irreversibly and biodiversity is lost, including the rainforest's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. The loss of this carbon sink adds to the increasing carbon emissions that lead to climate change.

Palm oil is also an issue of social justice affecting the livelihoods of local indigenous people, and their cultures that are destroyed through deforestation. When they protest against the continued practice of unsustainable farming, they are thrown in jail rather than heard, because palm oil businesses are protected by local law enforcers and government officials. 

An additional problem with palm oil is that it's very difficult to avoid without meticulously checking the list of ingredients. An additional issue is that if palm oil was replaced, something else would take its place. Because of the scale of palm oil use, any replacement would likely lead to similar problems of monocultures, deforestation and unsustainable land-use that are problematic for any food oils that could potentially replace palm oil.  

However, the answer to problems of overconsumption is to consume less – not maintain existing levels of consumption. And this is where there is a big problem: most people do not want to consume less, thereby maintaining demand which is met by continued palm oil production or other unsustainable farming practices. While orangutans are certainly under threat and likely to become extinct within the next 10 years, the problems of palm oil are not an isolated case of environmental destruction but expose a complex and coordinated system of ecological exploitation leading to a multitude of environmental effects ranging from species extinction to loss of biodiversity and climate change.

Why banning the ad was political.

Whilst Greenpeace often engages with politics, its primary aim is environmental and not political. The advert ban highlights the perception of the political nature of environmental protection and sadly reflects the reality that awareness of environmental problems and climate change is so politicised, that it makes resolving them more complex, even when the natural world is dying.   

We live in an age where it is necessary to increase awareness and act on issues rapidly. Yet it is deemed inappropriate to generate awareness of fundamental problems in production because to do so would be deemed too political.
It is difficult to see what makes raising awareness of scandalous production models political, other than seeing that politics has so far failed to prevent the destruction of rainforest habitats and that there is little political will or commitment to do much about it.

It is this system, and its dysfunctionality that becomes the big obstacle in alerting and educating the public about environmental issues. While Iceland certainly has other practices that are environmentally unsound (for example selling meat products and using refrigeration requiring energy that produces carbon dioxide), their advert ought to be commended for drawing attention to the catastrophe that is unfolding.

By squashing the Iceland advert, Clearcast is playing into the political agenda of palm oil producers. Their businesses are thereby shielded from scrutiny and from public awareness preventing the public to choose alternative products.

Trump poster

Distracted by celebrities, Trump and Brexit.

People must be educated about the reality of climate change and the fact that environmental destruction concerns them, as our consumption is a major cause of the problem. Yet there is little discussion of this in mainstream media, who much rather concern themselves with Brexit, Trump and other distractions.

The evidence of climate change suggests that earth is undergoing a 6th extinction event in which the majority of living organisms will become extinct. So-called tipping points caused by melting permafrost and deglaciation will likely lead to profound changes to the agricultural productivity of current croplands, running the risk of water shortages and failed harvests that are likely to lead to starvation, migration, and civil wars that will put excessive strain on human societies.

Instead of sounding the alert, our advertising and media standards support a system that preaches consumption, pretends the world is not dying and that gives us the daily diet of celebrity news and entertainment, distracting us from our dependency on earth and the looming climate emergency.

The dots have not been connected in such a way that it becomes clear, that human economic activity is detrimental to our own and earth’s future. While there have been recent wildlife programmes (notably David Attenborough’s BBC programme ‘Climate change the facts’) the back catalogue of our wildlife programs on TV are often sanitised versions of the problems humans are creating. When there are problems mentioned, they are so far away that people watching them can justify their own inaction through rationalising that these problems as not of their making, or that it does not seem relevant to them personally.

Instead, one often sees the clichés of anthropomorphic representation of animals, the all too familiar struggle for survival, and cutesy animals dramatically surviving being eaten by snakes and birds of prey. The real story is of course that the subjects of these media representations, animals and plants are threatened in their existence by humans through the exploitation of natural and geological resources. And they stand no chance against humans. 

Help others see the truth.

The system is stacked in favour of corporations continuing in their exploitation of environmental resources and our politicians do not seem to be taking any action to massively curtail the problem of global overcompensation.   

Without generating massive awareness of the problems caused by environmental degradation and climate change there can be no meaningful effort of developing the type of environment adaptations needed to prevent a global catastrophe from unfolding. It is for all of us awake enough to spread the message and help others to see the truth.

If you want to know more about Orangutans being decimated by palm oil production check out the Orangutan Foundation  

Note: This article is an adapted version for OpenLearn. The original article can be found here


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