Last week the Guardian announced that it was expanding its environment desk, adding three heavyweight reporters to its continent-spanning, award-winning team. Here Jonathan Watts, who will take up the new role of global environment editor in a few months’ time, explains why he believes this is the most important story on the planet right now.
The environment has always been a subject close to my heart and it has become an increasing focus of my work over two decades with the Guardian. That is no doubt because the problems of climate change, biodiversity loss, pollution and over-consumption have become bigger and more apparent.
When I started out as a cub reporter in Japan in the mid-1990s, I learned a lot collaborating with Paul Brown, then the environment correspondent, on articles about the Tokaimura nuclear accident and Kyoto climate protocol. After moving to China in 2003, I increasingly found myself writing about smog, cancer villages, species extinction and carbon emissions. The ramping up of environmental stories was not a deliberate strategy. China’s crisis was so bad that it was impossible to ignore. This made for grim news, but it also made me hopeful that it might be a fulcrum for change.
After the Olympics in 2008, I switched jobs to become Asia environment correspondent. In this post, I covered the Copenhagen Climate Conference with John Vidal and Suzanne Goldenberg; the Nagoya biodiversity conference; the Fukushima tsunami and nuclear disaster; and the rapid growth of wind and solar power in the deserts of China. For the past five years, I have been the Guardian’s Latin America correspondent, writing on a broader range of subjects but still putting a priority on environment and development, including Amazon deforestation, killings of conservation activists, the role of indigenous communities in forest protection and the disturbing frequency of forest fires, floods and other extreme weather events.
So why am I going back into full-time, specialised environmental reporting? Because it is the most important story of our age. China led me to suspect that global economic growth had run into an ecological wall, which is the underlying source of stress and conflict in the world. When I moved to Latin America, I hoped to find alternative, less destructive paths of development, but there was a part of me that also felt I was running away from my own conclusions. The new post will take me back.
The responsibility is huge. The timing is crucial. Brexit was a vote against globalisation. Trump is waging war on the environment. To counter these trends, the Guardian has devoted more resources to its environment coverage. I am looking forward to being a part of an expanded team, but we have a tough act to follow. Brown, Vidal, George Monbiot, Damian Carrington and other present and former colleagues have been pioneers in this field with agenda-setting coverage and comment. Trying to maintain that quality, ambition and influence – while looking for new approaches to changing situations – will be a hard but worthwhile task.
As to the task that humanity faces, I think the problem and the solution are environmental. The world’s current concerns – rising nationalism, swelling migration, financial instability, worsening inequality and lack of confidence in governance systems – are to varying degrees caused by insecurity and fear about the future. Underlying that is an awareness (conscious or unconscious) that our current path of capital-and-carbon-driven development is wrecking our home planet, running down resources, devastating other species and building up environmental costs that are increasingly difficult to offload on distant countries and coming generations. We have to pay a bill that has been run up over centuries and it feels as if we are broke. But that is misleading. There is still plenty left if we manage it well and share it more fairly.
We need to reconsider what is important, what is worth paying for and how decisions are being made. At a national level, why are we devoting so much public money to subsidise fossil fuels that are destroying the climate? Why are most politics determined by four-, five- or six-year electoral cycles that suit the markets but not the long-term interests of voters? Why do our economic systems make it cheaper to dump plastic in the oceans than recycle? Why do traditional beliefs of some countries encourage the slaughter of endangered animals or denial of climate science? Why are forests worth less than cropland? Why do we continue to prioritise material growth when it increasingly leads to obesity, cancer, conflict and instability?
The key, I think, is to realise that, contrary to what Bill Clinton once said – it’s not “the economy, stupid!” – it is in fact the environment that is shaping everything. Which is to say that we must put our home in order before we can consider anything else. That is tough. Currently, political systems are skewed against the environment and the subject is hidden away in a media ghetto. It is a depressing page on a news website or an unpopular slot on TV channels. Most of us would prefer to pretend it didn’t exist. Yet, for me the environment is not a subject, it is the prism through which everything else must be seen. It is the basis for the economy, for science, for society, for politics. Adam Smith, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx and Mao Zedong never understood this. Nor did the founders of the great religions. They didn’t need to. They did not live in the Anthropocene.
So, how to put the environment front and centre is the big challenge. Following my predecessors, I will continue to visit the frontline of humankind’s impact on the natural world – the oceans, forests, mountains, deserts, poles, science labs, conference halls and affected communities – where I will continue to bear witness and record testimonies of change. But they are just symptoms. I hope I can also work with and encourage my colleagues on other news desks to consider the environment in their coverage of politics, social change, economics, psychology, art, religion and education. Those areas, close to home, perhaps inside our heads, are where we will find the cause and the cure. It’s time to colonise the colonisers.
We are all entering disconcerting new territory. Given demographic, economic and consumerist trends, the next 30 years will be difficult. But there is more than enough new knowledge and technology, as well as old philosophy and religion to make things much better. It is all about choices and action.