Transformational media: changing the way the media reports on environmental issues

Duane Elgin + Maddy Harland
Wednesday, 27th July 2011

Duane Elgin takes a look at the three main ways the media is currently perceiving sustainable living. Plus Maddy Harland outlines an alternative, transformational media

It is ironic that green ways of living that emphasize voluntary simplicity -- a life-way that can take us into an opportunity-filled future -- are often portrayed in the mass media as regressive ways of life that turn away from progress. Here are three portrayals of green lifestyles and simplicity common in today's popular media:

1. Crude or Regressive Simplicity

The mainstream media often shows simplicity as a path of regress instead of progress. Simplicity is frequently presented as anti-technology and anti-innovation, a backward-looking way of life that seeks a romantic return to a bygone era. Profiles often depict a utopian, back-to-nature movement with families leaving the stresses of an urban life in favor of living in the woods, or on a farm, or in a recreational vehicle, or on a boat. Often it is a stereotypical view of a crudely simple lifestyle -- a throwback to an earlier time and more primitive condition -- with no indoor toilet, no phone, no computer, no television, and no car. No thanks! Seen in this way, simplicity is a cartoon lifestyle that seems naive, disconnected, and irrelevant -- an approach to living that can be easily dismissed as impractical and unworkable. Regarding simplicity as regressive and primitive makes it easier to embrace a "business as usual" approach to living in the world.

2. Cosmetic or Superficial Simplicity

In recent years, a different view of simplicity has begun to appear: a cosmetic simplicity that attempts to cover over deep defects in our modern ways of living by giving the appearance of meaningful change. Shallow simplicity assumes that green technologies -- such as fuel-efficient cars, fluorescent light bulbs, and recycling -- will fix our problems, give us breathing room, and allow us to continue pretty much as we have in the past without requiring that we make fundamental changes in how we live and work. Cosmetic simplicity puts green lipstick on our unsustainable lives to give them the outward appearance of health and happiness. A superficial simplicity gives a false sense of security by implying that small measures will solve great difficulties. A cosmetic simplicity perpetuates the status quo by assuming that, with use of green technologies we can moderate our impact and continue along our current path of growth for another half century or more.

3. Deep or Conscious Simplicity

Occasionally presented in the mass media and poorly understood by the general public is a conscious simplicity that represents a deep, graceful, and sophisticated transformation in our ways of living -- the work that we do, the transportation that we use, the homes and neighborhoods in which we live, the food that we eat, the clothes that we wear, and much more. A sophisticated and graceful simplicity seeks to heal our relationship with the earth, with one another, and with the sacred universe. Conscious simplicity is not simple. This life way is growing and flowering with a garden of expressions. Deep simplicity fits aesthetically and sustainably into the real world of the 21st century.

Few people would voluntarily go through the difficulty of fundamentally restructuring their manner of living and working if they thought they could tighten their belts and wait for things to return to "normal." A majority of people will shift their ways of living only when it is unmistakably clear that we must make dramatic and lasting changes. Has the world reached a point of no return and crossed a threshold where a shift toward the simple prosperity of green lifestyles is the new "normal"? 

Maddy Harland on Transformational Media

Media has become a dirty word lately, especially in relation to news gatherers, but if we are to return to our mercurial roots as winged messengers of the gods what is our role? I believe the true purpose of media, like art, is to communicate new ideas that deepen our understanding of humanity and our capacity to live in a more creative and gentle way on the planet. We are here to learn how to make peace with our fellow human beings and to nurture and steward the Earth and all its wonderful myriad of species. I do recognise that this model of transformational media is a million miles away from Rupert Murdoch and the News International group. That is why it is so important to discriminate what media we consume.

Permanent Publications' mission (publishers of Permaculture magazine and related books) is to publish information which encourages people to find more healthy, self-reliant and ecologically sound ways of living.

How Permanent Publications is connected to its wider environment. Click to enlarge

Our intention has always been to change the way people think about the world and thereby change the world.

The most important change that people can make is to change their way of looking at the world. We can change studies, jobs, neighbourhoods, even countries and ontinents and still remain much as we always were. But change our fundamental angle of vision and everything changes – our priorities, our values, our judgements, our pursuits. Again and again ... this total upheaval in the imagination has marked the beginning of a new life ... a turning of the heart by which [human beings] see with new eyes and understand with new minds and turn their energies to new ways of living.

Barbara Ward, Writer and economist, in a paper on global governance

Transformational media is:

  • creative
  • uses mixed platforms
  • puts social and environmental responsibility centre stage
  • promotes practices, strategies, ideas, technologies that are life-enhancing and sustainable.

Maddy Harland, editor & co-founder of Permaculture magazine & Permanent Publications

Useful Resources

Duane Elgin's Website

Huffington Post Blog

Duane's Book: Voluntary Simplicity - Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich 

Permanent Publications

Jim Thomas |
Thu, 28/07/2011 - 08:53
Sharing good common ground inspires excitement and provides reassurance for those of us who have embraced the concept and aspire to the lifestyle, and P.M helps do just that. The more ambitious target of influencing change in mainstream perspective is a traditionally head-banging and ball-breaking job of casting light on illusions. The world is round, we are related to monkeys and America can hardly be the land of the free when it doesn't even guarantee vacations. Permanent Publications is making a very graceful job of it on this level too, effecting influence in a friendly and attractive way. There would not be a backlash from mainstream media if there was not a groundswell of presence in the mainstream mind and slowly and subtly, or maybe faster in response to necessity, illusions will fade and the truth will out.
Maddy Harland |
Thu, 28/07/2011 - 12:48
Hi Jim, Behind the scenes we speak at events like the London International Book Fair. Max Lindegger, friend and experience permaculture teacher and designer, once said he'd talk to anyone who would listen about the state of the world. He's even spoken to the World Bank. You would be amused by how many people we know whose jaws dropped when we won The Queens Award for Enterprise in 2008. This was a deliberate strategy to take our message into another realm, i.e. Whitehall and Buckingham Palace. I am not claiming that we have made any difference to policy or the attitudes of the upper classes but you would be surprised by the support and understanding that we have encountered there. Most people want positive change but are mired by a lack of imagination and the fear of what may happen rather than crazed by power. I prefer to influence with love rather than rage but I understand why activists lose patience. We are destroying our planet at a terrifying rate and are running out of time.
Jim Thomas |
Sat, 30/07/2011 - 09:07
Hi Maddy Yes that last bit is quite important. At the risk of broadcasting a mass insult i would say that unfortunately it would seem as if people are not enjoying themselves very much. The rich and powerful, the poor and impoverished, the short, in fact any class i can conjour seem to be bound by the same common bond of monotony. The same job day in and day out for ever, t.v, put on the same old face for the same old friends. No wonder the planet is dying, we are boring it to death. The best thing we could do for biodiversity is introduce a bit of diversity into our lives. A little challenge, a touch of the unfamiliar, some grounds for surprise, a taste for inocence. I think that is what Duane Elgin means when he says 'conscious simplicity is not simple'. It is actually complex and engaging enough to keep one awake and on the ball and makes for a rewarding type of good humour, especialy infectious when shared. I suggest the rich and the poor team up and go looking for a more interesting lifestyle, they will probably find a lot in common and a great deal they can share.
Marc Perry |
Thu, 12/04/2012 - 10:58
The mainstream media is clearly flawed. Yet, like sun and the economic system, it gets up for work every morning. There is little we can do about changing 'the media beast' but we can present alternate views; and in this we are more empowered than ever before!! Here is my blog-critique of current media reporting, gathered from research at Bournemouth University: beyond.