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Sierra Magazine
Last Words

Is television environmentally destructive?

Americans are consuming the world's resources at a faster rate than any other people on the globe. Unfortunately, television helps drive that consumption by being a constant merchandiser of the American Dream. But that's not the whole story. When a show such as Home Improvement introduces 20 million people to resource-saving items like low-flow toilets and energy-efficient double-glazed windows, then TV is actively supporting a healthy environment. So it's clearly a medium that can cut both ways, and it's up to us, the people who work within it, to make sure it does more of the latter than the former.

Jamie Tarses, president, ABC Entertainment

Our culture of rampant consumerism—where needs are socially and corporately defined, luxuries are necessities, and satisfaction is just out of reach—lies at the heart of our environmental plight. We're so steeped in TV's imagery that we barely notice how we try to meet our nonmaterial needs (happiness, well-being, and respect) by buying the right sport utility vehicle, microwave meal, or lawn-care product. And if this is what TV does, in addition to isolating us from direct experience of the natural world, then maybe "better programming" isn't the answer. Maybe we really do need simply to unplug.

Henry Labalme, executive director, TV-Free America

Television could be a great friend to our earth. After all, stories of environmental abuse that give rise to action and healing are perfect for TV: they're visual and emotional, with easily identified villains and victims. For instance, General Electric's contamination of the Hudson River with PCBs, if fully and dramatically told on TV, would grab a huge audience and spur action. But dramatic stories go untold because our country's major TV owners are often major polluters. GE, for example, owns NBC, plus two cable channels, CNBC and MSNBC ("More Sex—Not By Chance"?), that focus hundreds of times more coverage on Monica Lewinsky than on global warming or endangered species. Similarly, big polluters are usually big TV sponsors, even on PBS. Ever wonder about National Geographic specials sponsored by Chevron or "Forever Wild" underwritten by Georgia-Pacific? The airwaves, which are legally public property, have been surrendered to a handful of conglomerates. Washington politicians have taken even worse care of the public's airwaves than of the public's forests.

Jeff Cohen, director of FAIR, a media watchdog group, and coauthor of Wizards of Media Oz

We can either spend our time bemoaning Beverly Hills, 90210 or we can learn from its appeal. Seventy-five percent of adolescent kids in the United States watch an average of six hours of MTV a week. Compare that to the 27 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds who voted in the last federal election, and you can see where their attention is focused. We're either going to be on television or we're going to be irrelevant. If we're going to save the planet, we need this powerful communication tool as an arrow in our quiver. Most TV today is like cotton candy—tasty, but unfulfilling. Our job is to produce television that empowers the viewer to turn the TV off and go outside. Achieving this will be like climbing Mt. Everest, but I'm dedicated to it.

Adam Werbach, Sierra Club Board member and former president

Quick. Name the environment correspondent for ABC. NBC? CBS? The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer? The answer is the same for all of them. Nobody. And local television news? With a few exceptions, the dearth of information about environmental issues there is even worse. That from a medium that more people turn to for information than any other. The natural world needs our wisdom to solve a host of problems. But people don't know nearly enough, because the media aren't telling. Shame on us.

David Ropeik, board member Society of Environmental Journalists; reporter WCVB-Boston

To the extent that it pays too little attention to the environment in both news and entertainment, and doesn't see that as a responsibility, TV is destructive.

Norman Lear, chairman Act III Communications


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