Stop trying to think outside the square: a presentation for young journalists

Stop trying to think outside the square: a presentation for young journalists

IN 2005 I was invited by my union, the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, to give a presentation to young journalists on “thinking outside the square”. I suspect the attendees may have been rather bemused by what I offered them. Reading it again, 15 years later, there isn’t much I’d change, however.

“Thinking outside the square”: it’s a piece of jargon from those awful new-age management seminars of the 80s and 90s where they used a pat routine of clever tricks and illustrations to show people that their thinking was constrained. It’s become a cliché. Inside the square is the normal, routine way of looking at things which we think is the only way. Outside the square are refreshing, clever and innovative angles.

That’s all very well and good, and I wouldn’t want to discourage any journalist from looking for a fresh view of things. Personally though, I often suspect the best stories are the ones that are right under our noses. Actually inside the square but so much a part of the architecture of our world view that we’ve forgotten to see them. The sorts of stories that, once they are pointed out to you, you might comment: “I couldn’t see the forest because the trees were in the way”.

To borrow another idea, Douglas Adams, in his Hitchhiker series, had the sci-fi concept of a sort of force field called a “Somebody Else’s Problem field” that a special machine could throw around anything so people wouldn’t see it. From memory I think it might have been a whale at Wembley stadium, but don’t quote me. They could hide anything with this. People would look, but see nothing. When asked what they were looking at all they could say was “somebody else’s problem”.

Massive coalmine expansion: what I saw in 2005

In my own recent experience I took a drive to Tamworth along the New England Highway and was astounded by the advance of the coalmines. They’ve been there for years, of course, but it had been a while since I’d seen them. It occurred to me that they’d been hidden from my view by some kind of SEP field.

Here in the Hunter Valley we are at the pointy end of a huge world-scale story. The global energy crisis. Oil is getting scarce enough for its price to rise quite alarmingly. Demand is going through the roof, thanks largely to the industrial expansion and modernisation of places like China and India. So, suddenly, people who are priced out of the oil market are turning back to coal. The people who used to buy coal from China are having to find new suppliers because China needs all it can mine. The port of Newcastle, already a huge handler of bulk materials, can’t keep up. The rail system can’t keep up. So here’s a massive global and national story on our doorstep.

Once you take away the somebody else’s problem field that is telling you: “Ho hum, more boring old coalmines, when do we get to Tamworth?” – here’s as big a story as you’d care to find. So, newly aware of the story and its dimensions you start to ask yourself: How many tonnes a year come out of here? Who is mining it? Where do the profits go? Who is buying it and what for? What impact is it having on people and the environment? Who is gaining the advantages and who is suffering the disadvantage?

Here’s another one, although it’s related. The Hunter Valley is one of the major electricity generating areas in Australia, thanks to the coal. Bayswater and Eraring are the equal biggest power stations in the country. Add in Liddell, Munmorah, Vales Point and Redbank and you’ve got a colossal contribution to Australia’s greenhouse gas production. Right under our noses. Again, lots of implications to pursue and again, a local handle on a very big, world-scale story.

Define the square as planet Earth

So maybe, and I know this is just a semantic exercise, instead of beating ourselves up with trying to get outside the square, all we have to do is take better stock of what’s actually inside it. First, I suppose, you have to define the square and to save ourselves the trouble of having to leave it at all, let’s make it a really big one. And instead of square, let’s make it a ball. For the sake of convenience, let’s call it a planet. Earth is a nice name.

It’s convenient for us, in some ways, that we get to take stock of this square – I mean, planet – at such an opportune time in human and planetary history. There are really big things happening. And surprisingly, a lot of them fall into the category of the monster open-cut coalmines sitting under the nose of a provincial journalist: we are more or less aware of them, but we don’t think about them very much.

In biological terms the story for us boils down to the trials and tribulations of a total human biomass of about 300million tonnes. The population of our species has exploded over the past few hundred years and our impact on the planet is beyond all proportion. Not only do we appropriate a huge chunk of the solar energy that is trapped and stored by plants on the world’s land masses, we supplement this by spending the energy stored in the past in the form of coal, oil and gas.

We make such immense demands on the planet’s resources that the only way we can satisfy them is by getting rid of the competition. This is something we are very good at, and as a result, we are now living through one of the greatest periods of mass extinctions of living species in the history of geological time.

Everybody has heard of the cataclysm that marked the end of the age of reptiles on earth and the extinctions that occurred then. We are now living through a disaster of a similar scale. Conservative scientific estimates suggest that 74 species a day are becoming extinct in the world today. That’s thousands of times greater than the background rate of extinctions we can deduce is “normal” by studying the fossil record.

We’re putting 10 billion tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere by burning and deforestation. The permafrost in Alaska and elsewhere is melting, potentially releasing unimaginable reserves of methane that will help warm the planet even faster. The polar ice caps are shrinking. Sea ice is disappearing. Records from the last years of legal whaling, from 1972 to 1987, show the loss of 5 million sq km in Antarctica. Glaciers are vanishing. Snow lines are receding everywhere from Kilimanjaro to Kosciusko.

Reefs are dying, forests are burning

Reefs are dying, forests are burning, the sea is being stripped and killed by over-fishing, pollution and even changes to the thermal layers in the oceans are wiping out the plankton that is the basic building block of many ecosystems (and a valuable carbon sink).

Between 1977 and 1997 world demand for fresh water tripled, thanks to population growth, irrigation and new-generation, high-yield food crops. All over the world people are starting to panic about water.

Here in the Hunter we are doing OK for water, perhaps largely because we haven’t yet found a profitable reason to clear-fell and strip mine the Barringtons wilderness. But elsewhere the picture is grim. Big prosperous cities and towns like Perth and Goulburn are running dry. I visited Burrendong Dam last year and it was enough to make you weep to see how little water was in it. The Central Coast is importing water from the Hunter. Sydney is talking about a desalination plant. [Since built. GR.]

In Uzbekistan the Aral Sea, once the fourth-largest inland body of water, has shrunk to half its former size. It used to produce 50,000 tonnes of fish a year. The last one died in 1983. Its former fishing ports are now high and dry and what’s left of the water has been poisoned by years of cotton farming.

The world’s population is growing by about 75 million a year, most of its arable land is already in use and the per capita grain harvest is shrinking. Farmland is being lost at the rate of about 6 million ha a decade thanks to bad practices, salination, erosion, waterlogging and other avoidable stupidities.

Global business has seen its chance

Global business has seen its chance and is positioning itself to dominate food supplies and in the process is creating a world in which billions of people will depend on a small and vulnerable range of privately patented plants.

In 1993 the United Nations estimated that global food production was sufficient to provide every person on earth with 2500 calories a day, 200 calories above the recommended minimum. That’s based on a vegetarian diet. If you wanted everybody to have a typical Aussie diet, you’d have to get rid of half the world’s population.

The brutal truth is that we can enjoy the diet we do only because so many starve. More than a billion people live in absolute poverty, which the World Bank defines as “a condition of life so limited by malnutrition, illiteracy, disease, squalid surroundings, high infant mortality and low life expectancy as to be beneath any reasonable definition of human decency.” In the west, we feed between ¼ and ½ of our grain crop to livestock, losing more than 90% of the solar energy stored in that food in the process.

I mentioned our energy crisis. It’s a crisis because we insist on using so much, but since I can’t imagine us easing off, it’s a real enough problem.

It’s already obvious what’s going to happen as resources of all kinds get short. What do you do if you are a superpower with an economy that depends on cheap oil and most of the world’s supply is a long way away and vulnerable to exploitation by other economies that might become hostile to you and threaten your position? I guess we’ll have to wait and see if any circumstances like that ever arise. [Written with Iraq in mind. GR.]

Politically and economically world events are fascinating and maybe ominous. I don’t know whether this makes sense, but the position of the US today reminds me of Great Britain at the start of last century, when it still looked militarily and economically invincible but was really on the brink of its demise.

New cold war, or just a war?

How will the US and China sort things out in the future? China is clearly the place with the greatest scope for economic growth and already it is holding massive reserves of US dollars. The US, by contrast is in debt to a mind-blowing degree and is exporting jobs and wealth offshore so fast that it’s hard to keep up with. Will there be a new cold war? Or just a war? Or will the two economies become so entwined that they’ll have to put up with one another?

And anyway, how much longer can we continue to rely on a system that depends on the dangerous idea of infinite economic growth in a finite system? No matter how hard we choose not to look at it, it’s going to end up being our problem.

Apart from all that, it seems apparent to me that the kinds of democracies that have flowered in the west for the past couple of hundred years or so are undergoing disturbing changes. To stay healthy these systems depend on a watchful population that will keep corruption at bay. The only thing most populations are watching these days is crap on TV, and you don’t have to be Einstein to notice the wealthy forces that are corrupting the legal and political systems in the “free world”.

Even here in our own backyards, decision-making is becoming increasingly centralised, even small-scale dissent is being bypassed or suppressed and government, which was supposed to be a tool of the people, is increasingly ignoring peoples’ needs.

There’s more, of course. I could rattle on all day. And I’m not sure whether many of you will consider any of this relevant to the practice of journalism.

My argument is that all these issues, big as they are, are manifested in all kinds of ways right under our noses, if we choose to see them and if we choose to have a decent look at what’s inside the square of our lives and the world around us.

On the other hand, I don’t blame anybody who, having listened to this quick survey the contents of the square wants to think outside of it instead. That’s where you’ll find Russell Crowe and his telephone, Paris bloody Hilton and Kylie Minogue’s bum.

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