Why is the media ignoring the biggest environmental catastrophe of the 21st century?

indonesia forest fire smoke

As we speak, the worst forest fire on record has engulfed over 5,000km of Indonesia, the fumes of which have spread across the entirety of Southeast Asia, blocking out the sun for over two months.

An area the size of Wales has been claimed, and a haze has shrouded the country, so thick that members of parliament have to wear face masks during debates, as they struggle to recognise each other through the smog.

Thousands of animals are being driven from their habitats, including leopards, rhinos and tigers. Among the children that haven’t choked to death, many are being evacuated in warships.

To put this disaster into perspective, as much CO2 is being emitted by these fires as the entire US economy produces daily, and in three weeks, more carbon dioxide has been released than in an entire year in Germany.

Fires of this kind are a yearly occurrence in Indonesia during the dry season, but this year’s are particularly bad due to the dry conditions.

It might come as no surprise that these fires are entirely man-made, caused predominantly by illegal deforestation, in which forests are literally torched to make way for timber and palm oil plantations – exports that many obliviously support whilst they merrily chomp on Doritos.

And if you find any of this this shocking, the worst is yet to come – the media have decided to completely ignore it.

children indonesia

Radio silence from the media

If you were to take a cursory glance at the front page of any news website today, you wouldn’t catch a trace of reportage on the worst environmental catastrophe of the 21st century.

No updates on casualties, evacuations or the efforts being made to prevent the fires. No mention of the fires’ impacts on our already threatened climate. No images of West Papua, it’s natural splendour reduced to ashes. No calls for international aid. In fact the most attention the fires have gotten is from a piece by George Monibot, a Guardian columnist.

In a sane world, anything being dubbed the eco-apocalypse would be at the top of every newspaper. But in our world, it makes it no further than the “Opinion” section of a left wing newspaper read mostly by middle class liberals.

It seems the British public are more interested in why Sienna Miller isn’t wearing a poppy this year, or how JK Rowling has omitted “muggle” from her latest Harry Potter instalment.

Why is this happening? There isn’t an easy answer. Often the media’s actions don’t come as a result of any individual action, but more as a collective decision. There are a million reasons why they might be ignoring it. Political allegiance and corporate pressure spring to mind, but ultimately, your guess is as good as ours.

It seems our media don’t like to focus on problems until they are literally on our doorstep. An ethos that has failed us beyond comprehension.

Take the on-going European refugee crisis, the horrifying extent of which was not common knowledge until they began coming to England, at which point it suddenly became important enough for our ears. Fancy that.

But even then, the media lead many to believe that the desperate actions of those displaced by war and poverty were merely contrived attempts to live lavishly at the taxpayer’s expense, as opposed to calling for us to stand in solidarity with them. The point? Don’t trust the media.

PALEMBANG, SOUTH SUMATRA, INDONESIA - OCTOBER 02: A firefighter holds a water pipe as they extinguish the fire on burned peatland and fields at Sungai Rambutan village, Ogan Ilir district on October 2, 2015 in Palembang, South Sumatra, Indonesia. The air pollution or haze has been an annual problem for the past 18 years in Indonesia. It's caused by the illegal burning of forest and peat fires on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo to clear new land for the production of pulp, paper and palm oil. Singapore and Malaysia have offered to help the Indonesian government to fight against the fires, as infants and their mothers are evacuated to escape the record pollution levels. (Photo by Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images)

It’s not news unless it’s an immediate threat  

Events outside of the UK are made to seem like secondary issues to those that our own country face, unless they have some kind of tangible and immediate effect on us as a society – usually ones that play on our fears and insecurities.

The problem is, environmental concerns don’t cater to our fears enough. Most haven’t had the same sense of fear instilled in them about climate change as they have about being attacked in a park. As such, any environmental disaster is usually the first to be excluded from the agenda, evident in what we’re seeing here. .

We will not feel tangible effects from the Indonesian forest fires immediately, in the same way that we won’t feel the impact if we drive to work instead of cycling, or continue to pay 5p for plastic bags instead of reusing old ones. But that doesn’t mean these things are having no impact.

In fact the impacts of environmental health are far more global, inclusive and terrifying than anything you will find on the front page of any newspaper, on any given day.

The problem is, most environmental problems are man-made, and the mainstream media would rather pretend they’re not happening than place blame on the responsible entitles. The repercussions are not worth the hassle.

It’s in our culture to focus on short-term benefits over long-term drawbacks. We’d rather buy the Starbucks now and worry about the ethics later. We haven’t been taught any other way.

It’s easy to blame society for being ignorant, misguided or unconscious. But they are only as unconscious as the media they consume. For better or for worse, it is now the media we consume that guides our thoughts.

Without any real reportage of the Indonesian fires, how will anyone know about them? Even the Government tend to overlook things that the media ignore, safe in the knowledge that there will be no real uproar without media hype.

It’s our responsibility to make sure that they are not allowed to get away with this.


So what can be done?

Well in terms of getting the media to talk up, not much. But it is our responsibility to spread news like this amongst ourselves and to those we meet.

Not only does it expose our media to be defining the importance of news on its own terms, it reminds people that not everything they’re told by the news is objective fact, but rather a subjective interpretation of events according to profitability, political persuasions and corporate pressure.

In terms of preventing forest fires from this taking place in the future; we can boycott the companies that continue to use palm oil that is sourced from plantations that endorse illegal deforestation, such as Pepsi, Starbucks and Heinz.

Believe it or not, we are more than the media we consume. Just because they are ignoring what is happening in Indonesia, we don’t have to.


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