CBC’s biased question: Why should we care?

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Writer, thinker, activist David Orton

When CBC Radio’s Halifax-based afternoon show Mainstreet featured an eight-and-a-half minute interview yesterday on the sad state of the world’s oceans, I thought immediately of David Orton. The “deep green” environmental activist, writer and thinker died on May 12 at his home in Pictou County, Nova Scotia.  After learning of his death, I rushed to my keyboard to pen an online obit for our local weekly the Coast lest I be scooped by the mainstream media.

I needn’t have worried.

To this day, the NS media have not mentioned Orton’s passing. I suspect it’s partly because he championed an environmental philosophy that condemns industrialism, capitalism and consumerism.  It is also sharply critical of what Orton  called “resourcism,” our habit of regarding the natural world as a repository of resources for human use.

Biased interview focus

I suspect Orton would not have been pleased by yesterday’s Mainstreet interview. It was pegged to a grim scientific report warning about a possible “mass extinction” of life in the world’s oceans.

Host Stephanie Domet talked to Jeff Hutchings, professor of marine biology at Dalhousie University who is chairing an expert scientific panel on the effects of climate change, overfishing and acquaculture on the diversity of life in the oceans. Hutchings is a passionate, articulate and extremely knowledgeable scientist who speaks out regularly against the rampant destruction of ocean life and the lack of political will to do enough to stop it.

But yesterday, he was caught trying to answer a biased question that was a large part of the interview’s focus: Why should Canadians care about the possibility of the mass extinction of ocean life? Such a question would be unthinkable if scientists had warned instead, for example, of a mass extinction of human life in faraway Africa. Yet, on-air interviews routinely focus on the “why should we care” question when it comes to environmental issues.

Biology professor Jeff Hutchings

“We’ve got an incredible diversity of life in the oceans,” Hutchings told Domet. “It’s something that’s worth caring about irrespective of whether you live close to the oceans or whether you live far away.” He added that it comes down to what society wants from the oceans:

“One reason why you might care if you live in downtown Toronto is that the oceans are the best source of wild protein in the world. So, at some point, you’re going to gain from that. If we lose our fisheries and other things, there are cost issues, there are availability issues. So maybe you’re interested in food security. Maybe you’re interested in the social and economic welfare of fellow Canadians. Maybe you’re interested in just things from a stewardship perspective.”

Who owns the oceans?

Before writing Orton’s obit and starting a Wikipedia entry on his life, ideas and activism, I would have been cheering Hutchings on. But Orton’s concept of “resourcism” is now stuck in my brain. And while it’s true that Hutchings mentioned stewardship and that he later referred to people who love the Arctic and seals even though they may never actually see either, his approach now comes across to me as disturbing.

“What people tend not to realize is that what’s in the ocean belongs to you and me and everybody else. The UN says so, the Supreme Court of Canada says so,” he added. “We have the geographical imperative to be leaders in oceans management and sustainable harvesting of resources.”

Orton, on the other hand, argued that resourcism is a disaster for life on the planet and that human beings should realize that they cannot “own” the natural world. “Social justice is only possible in a context of ecological justice,” he wrote. “We have to move from a shallow, human-centered ecology to a deeper all-species centered ecology.”

I suppose it’s nervy of me, but I would add, we also have to move to media interviews on environmental issues that are not focused on the shallow and biased question: Why should we care?

About Bruce Wark

Bruce Wark is a freelance journalist and retired journalism professor who lives in Sackville, New Brunswick, Canada. He taught the history and ethics of journalism at the University of King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia for 15 years. Before that, he worked for 19 years at CBC Radio news serving as a producer in charge of such network programs as World at Six, World Report and The House. He also produced Media File, a national program that looked critically at the performance of the news media. Along the way, Wark also worked as CBC Radio's legislative reporter in Ontario and as its National Reporter in Canada's Maritime provinces.
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