CUNEO, Italy - In a "call to arms" in this northern Italian town, environmentalists are urging the international media to help disseminate ideas and solutions that could reduce carbon emissions, stop land-grabbing by wealthy countries and stem the tide of environmental refugees.
"(Environmental damage) is an on-going slow crisis that has the capacity to bring civilisation to its knees unless people are better informed and conscious of the effect that this is going to have on our future," said William Rees, professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada and creator of the "ecological footprint" concept.
Rees was one of 15 high-profile environmentalists, sociologists and economists speaking at a ‘Media, Democracy and Sustainability’ conference organised Oct. 19-22 here by the international group Greenaccord.
A spokesperson for group, headquartered in Rome, told IPS that the focus was to bring journalists and environmentalists together to discuss "tools and methods to place citizens at the centre of the response to the global crisis."
Addressing about 100 journalists, Rees said that the "bio-capacity" of the planet is shrinking even as "the human impact increases steadily."
He stressed that this situation could not continue. "We have a choice to make and we haven’t got the population sufficiently engaged, sufficiently understanding of the problem to realise how dire it is," he said. "That’s where popular journalism comes into it."
Ecologists painted a gloomy picture of the harm being done to the environment by oil exploration, huge monoculture plantations and carbon emissions (with rising sea levels in certain areas).
"There doesn’t seem to be right now the prospect for a really effective international government mechanism that would actively bring down emissions dramatically," said Robert Engelman, executive director of the U.S.-based Worldwatch Institute.
"For me to speak to you as an American in Italy about the failure of international governments to reduce emissions may sound a bit hypocritical because we didn’t even sign the (Kyoto) protocol and Italy did, and it has made a difference, but not to the level that’s needed," Engelman told journalists.
He said that many environmentalists were disappointed by the actions of the U.S. government, which has an "embarrassing" record on dealing with global environmental issues.
"We have a president who came into office convincing the people who voted for him that he was very serious about climate change, but quite frankly he hasn’t shown as much evidence of that as most environmentalists would like to see," Engelman said.
Engelman and other participants in the conference proposed radical measures for improving the lives of those affected by climate change as well as by the global economic crisis.
"Capitalism isn’t preventing millions of people from dying of hunger," said Euclides Mance, a Brazilian philosopher and founder of the World Social Forum – civil society’s alternative to the World Economic Forum's yearly meeting in Davos, Switzerland.
Mance told IPS that one of the solutions was a "solidarity economy" - where everyone has equal rights to the benefits of economic activity, with no difference between "bosses and the employed."
He said that journalists needed to understand this model of "horizontal" relationships in which each person shares in the decision-making process and participates in self-management for the "good of the community".
"People need information to make the proper decisions, and journalists can provide this as well as give intellectual interpretation to mobilise people," Mance said. "The media can work in an ethical manner to help expand liberty."
"This is important for the good of humanity," he told IPS, after an impassioned address about the millions of people suffering from hunger around the world while the international community goes about its business.
Journalists, for their part, spoke of the challenges they face in covering environmental and human rights issues - constraints that can range from shortage of financing to intimidation and even physical harm.
A broadcaster from the Philippines said her nightly environmental programme was cut because the government thought the funds for it could be used elsewhere. An Ethiopian journalist spoke of government crackdown on protestors who defied the official policy on the environment.
Indian journalists decried their country’s land-grabbing in Africa – a growing problem where governments lease or sell land to other nations, often resulting in the displacement of local populations.
They said that journalists working in alternative sectors often do not have the means for reporting adequately on these problems.
Mainstream corporate media, meanwhile, are often confused about political activism that "does not seek to work the normal levers of power," the press monitoring group Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) said.
It said that corporate mainstream media have a "history of marginalising or belittling progressive protest movements" and that such media depend on advertising and profits to continue functioning and prefer not to rock the boat.
But Engelman, of the Worldwatch Institute, said that journalists had a responsibility to analyse problems and suggest concrete ideas, so that people can receive encouragement that solutions are available.
"We’re turning up to high the burners that will potentially fry the planet, and despite the warnings of 98 percent of the climate scientific community, we’re taking very few significant steps to shift the burners to low or to off," he said. "So it’s a little bit frightening where we are right now."