Greening the screen

John D. Liu describes the extraordinary potential of television in mobilizing people in developing countries for sustainable development.

Imagine the ability to communicate with everyone on Earth, simultaneously and instantaneously. Imagine the ability to connect the foremost medical authorities with sufferers of debilitating and treatable diseases on the other side of the planet. Imagine the ability to explore in conditions where no human being can survive. Imagine the ability to speak to the hearts and souls of those who, from ignorance and fear, have been enemies for generations. Imagine the ability to ensure that everyone can understand and participate in conservation measures vital to the future of humanity.

Now imagine this. The camera plays over anxious faces of victims. Matt black high-calibre weapons exude professional menace matched by the discipline of the perpetrators. Tension rises by degrees as skilled cinematographers manipulate the scene and the viewers. Fear is palpable, but if you are not sufficiently terrified, the soundtrack reinforces it. Then an orgy of violence so well choreographed that the trajectory of bullets, the splattering of blood and bone, are elevated to a ballet of motion and colour.

Scenes like that are played out each day on television around the world. This is not an epic morality play. The creators are not seeking to identify and reinforce cultural values. This is entertainment. Around the world, millions of viewers are being desensitized.

Violence, vacuity, voyeurism
Other than the rare isolated exception, or the deeply thoughtful who reject TV, it is possible to reach virtually every human being on the planet with a television signal. But what kind of programming is being delivered to this massive global audience? All too often it gets a steady stream of violence, sexual innuendo or vacuous quiz shows. Even the news concentrates on disasters, sometimes replacing what should be a public service with a kind of morbid voyeurism. We are shown technically proficient but increasingly brutal professional sports. All punctuated with advertisements aimed at selling an unsustainable lifestyle.

Excellent programmes and the amazing potential of television are obscured. Hundreds of millions of viewers in the developing world are being conditioned to violence and seduced by images of affluence and excess they cannot share.

At the same time as we are being ‘entertained’, climate change threatens to exact an almost unthinkable toll, chemicals are destroying the protective ozone layer, the Earth is losing its forests, persistent organic pollutants find their way to the farthest reaches of the planet, the world’s oceans degrade, and countless species disappear forever.
Barriers to understanding and sharing are being reduced as nations and individuals grasp the advantages of communicating
We need television to communicate the extreme dangers that the Earth and humanity face from environmental degradation; to communicate new scientific and technical breakthroughs that may help us build a sustainable future; to multiply the efforts of thoughtful and concerned citizens everywhere striving to envision and build sustainable systems; to invite and encourage everyone to reduce their own ‘ecological footprint’. The purpose of this wonderful capability should not be to anaesthetize an institutionalized underclass, to deliver government propaganda or to enrich media barons.

Over the past few years the power of television has helped transform environmental awareness in China. Once virtually unknown, environmental issues have become of foremost concern to ordinary citizens.

The Environmental Education Television Project for China (EETPC) – a civil society, participatory project – is having a profound effect on how the Chinese view the natural and human environments. This international non-profit effort links Chinese academic, government and non-government organizations – including the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China, the State Environmental Protection Administration, the Friends of Nature and the Global Village – and is supported internationally by the Television Trust for the Environment (TVE International), UNEP, the World Wide Fund For Nature, the European Commission, the United Nations Development Programme, the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNAIDS, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the Jane Goodall Institute and many others.

Since it started operation less than five years ago, EETPC has brought to China hundreds of the best environmental films from all over the world, and dubbed them into Chinese; some have also been dubbed into Tibetan, Mongolian and Uighur. Hundreds of millions of people have been reached by daily and weekly environmental series including: Earth Report, Earthscan, Our Home, Centuries Alarm and Anima Mundi – The Soul of Life, together broadcast by EETPC with such partners as China Central Television, China Radio International Television Department, and provincial and local stations throughout China.

There is also tremendous interest in China in using audiovisual materials for environmental education. Wide participation has ensured that thousands of people and hundreds of institutions have been able to use them to reach millions of viewers. Partners including the Institute of Science and Technical Information of China, the China Youth Development Foundation and the Beijing Education Bureau have helped to manufacture and distribute videos and video CDs, empowering others to learn and teach.

Encouragement for innovation
In 1998, a retired engineer called Li Guang Yu visited the EETPC and saw a film showing how a village in India converted to biogas for lighting and cooking. Armed with a copy of the programme, and a small grant from the Canadian International Development Agency, he then built a biogas digester in his home village, Long Jia Tian in Guizhou Province. It was so successful that everyone in the village copied it, and county officials promoted it in other villages. Local people are no longer using wood for cooking where the biogas systems are in use. This is allowing trees and undergrowth to return, protecting the soil, lessening the threat of flooding and freeing people, particularly women and children, from backbreaking, destructive labour. District officials in An Shun, after studying Mr. Li’s digester, now plan to build 100,000 biogas systems.

The results of Mr. Li’s viewing are dramatic, but not unique. Every day, in every province of China, similar film screenings are being held. EETPC and its many partners are using television to help to educate one fifth of the world’s people about why and how to protect the environment for themselves and for future generations. This is proving that television can do a great deal more to address global environmental issues and that environmental education television is especially applicable in developing countries.

The Internet is often touted as the tool for reaching the world’s poor with development messages. It does indeed have tremendous potential, but it will be years, perhaps decades, before it can reach everyone. The Earth’s environmental problems just will not wait.

Ordinary people can achieve excellent results when they choose to participate in educating themselves and their communities about the environment. But we need the powerful tool of television to reach everyone. Then the only limit is our imagination

John D. Liu is Director of the Environmental Education Television Project for China.

PHOTOGRAPH: Xun Wang/UNEP/Still Pictures

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Driving change | Clearing the bottlenecks | Commuting sustainably (Singapore) | Transported to the future (Curitiba, Brazil) | Bucking the trend (Freiburg, Germany) | Message from the UN Secretary-General | Message from Cuba | Message from Turin | Competition | Breaking free | Calling for change | Reaching the unreached | Greening the screen | Taking the lead | Wanted: more good reporters | On the dot | The city century

Complementary articles in other issues:
Chee Yoke Ling: No sleeping after Seattle (Beyond 2000) 2000
David Nostbakken: The future is not what it used to be (The Way Ahead) 1997