The media can be a highly effective tool to shape cultures—painting pictures of how people live, broadcasting social norms, modeling behaviors, acting as a vehicle of marketing, and distributing news and information. These important roles can be used to spread either a cultural pattern of consumerism or one that questions consumerism and promotes sustainability. Although the vast majority of media today reinforce the former—through advertising, product placement, and much of the content—there are efforts worldwide to tap media’s vast reach and power to promote sustainable cultures, as described in this section.
Considering the commanding role that marketing plays in stimulating consumerism, redirecting it to promote sustainable behaviors will be essential. Jonah Sachs and Susan Finkelpearl of Free Range Studios describe “social marketing”—marketing to encourage socially positive behaviors like avoiding smoking, wearing seatbelts, practicing safe sex, or consuming less stuff—which can play an important role in redirecting how people live. Granted, at the moment just a tiny percentage of marketing budgets promotes such social goods.
While social marketing is encouraged, governments will need to limit or tax overall marketing pressures. A few governments are working to tackle advertising directly, such as the Spanish government, which voted to ban commercials on its public television stations starting in 2010. Yet with advertisers’ influence over policymakers, these efforts have been few and far between. Robin Andersen and Pamela Miller of Fordham University point out that media literacy can help limit the effectiveness of the romantic visions of consumption created by marketing—and unlike regulation, it can be easier to introduce across societies.
Beyond the mass media, the arts also play an important part in inspiring people to better understand the effects of consumerism and to live sustainably. For example, the cover of State of the World 2010 by artist Chris Jordan is a recreation of a famous woodprint by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai—except Jordan’s version is made out of 1.2 million bits of plastic trash. This vast number, representing the pounds of plastic that enter the world’s oceans every hour, has a visual power that can represent the destructive nature of consumerism far better than yet another statistic would. Music, as Amy Han of Worldwatch describes, can also be a useful educational tool, inspiring people to live more sustainably and mobilizing them to join political efforts to help drive change.
Two Boxes in this section expand on the role of the arts: one describes the power of film and the other considers the potential for all individuals to become artists rather than consumers. Finally, a Box on the importance of journalism in effectively educating people about the environment and their role in it rounds out the section.
People spend significant portions of their lives interacting with media. Today they have the potential to create their own programming, music, art, films, and news and to distribute these farther than ever before—not just through formal channels but through YouTube, Facebook, local radio broadcasts, Web sites, even posters and self-published books. The more that this content can promote sustainability and redirect people away from consumerism, the more likely it is that humanity will avoid a future conjured up by movies like Soylent Green orWALL-E and instead create a future of high-quality lives for all.