Balanced News: Adding Depth and Complexity

by Ray Grigg

News is never just news. Because it must always be a narrow slice of the world’s unfolding events, it distorts by selecting from a spectrum of other news. This is why balanced news is a higher order of news than simple news. By adding perspective to simplicity, balanced news infuses news with some of the depth and complexity that is closer to reality. Consider, for example, Scott Gilmore’s uplifting article in Maclean’s, Life is Good (Jan. 12/15).

As Gilmore notes, “By almost every objective measure, 2014 was the safest, healthiest, happiest year in human history.” He cites numerous statistics to support his case:

Fewer wars are killing fewer people. Since 1950, each civil war killed an average of 86,000 people; it’s now about 3,000. The number of such wars has dropped 40% since 1990.

Global poverty is down about 40% in 30 years. The same for hunger.

Child labourers have dropped by 78 million in 14 years, a reduction of about 33%.

Democracies are replacing dictatorships. Of the more than 80 in 1976, only 22 remain.

Crime rates are down dramatically, by as much as 70% since the 1970s.

Human health is improving. The global average life expectancy is now 70, up by decades from a century ago. Child mortality has fallen 50% since 1990, as has maternal mortality. The number of malnourished children is down 25% over the same period.

Generally, people are eating better and living longer. They are healthier, more literate, better informed and happier than ever before in human history. Our very intolerance of wars, starvation, poverty, unfairness, cruelty and injustice is an indication that our expectations are lifting the condition of humanity in almost every region of the world. Our visceral response to acts of terrorism is a measure of our rising moral character; our pained reaction to images of disasters, crimes and misfortunes is an indication that we have an expanding empathetic connection to others. Sensational news items are disturbing precisely because they are the exception that offend our sense of caring and compassion — if we were truly indifferent to the plight of others, we would register no response to their individual or collective suffering.

The impression to be derived from all this positive news is that our modern civilization is succeeding in its quest to provide fulfilling lives to all humanity. However unequal, slow or awkward the process, a common morality is spreading across the global village as the human character expresses its most commendable traits. We are motivated by the belief that, given enough time, we could eliminate want and suffering. Rising spirits and hopes are providing an inspiring mood of optimism for “a brave new world, that hath such people in ‘t.”

Unfortunately, this good news story is counterbalanced by the amount of energy, resources and space required to lift the prosperity, health and happiness of 7.3 billion people — recently predicted to reach 9 billion by 2042 and 11 billion by 2100. The biophysical systems that govern the smooth functioning of the Holocene — the approximately 11,000 years of climate stability we have experienced since the end of the last Ice Age — are under unprecedented pressure. Four of these nine crucial systems have been damaged beyond their safe boundaries: the extinction rate; deforestation; the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide; and the flow of nitrogen and phosphorous from fertilizer into the ocean. Four more are seriously stressed: freshwater use, ocean acidification, atmospheric aerosol pollution, and the introduction of exotic chemicals and modified organisms. The only one under successful control is ozone depletion.

Many scientists are calling this a planetary crisis. The world has lost 50% of its wildlife populations in the last 40 years as human activity kills or displaces fish, birds and animals in unprecedented numbers. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have risen to 400 ppm, the highest in at least the last 800,000 years. 2014 has just been declared the hottest year in human history: 0.04°C higher than the two previous records set in 2005 and 2010, and 0.69°C higher than the 20th century average — all without the help of the warming currents of an El Niño year.

This sobering news is the dark obverse of Gilmore’s good news story, the debits that balance the credit column on the ledger of reality. Our humanitarian accomplishments, for all the praise they deserve, are incurring a terrible ecological cost. And the more of us there are to feed and clothe, and the more consumer goods we need and want, the greater is the strain on the limited capabilities of our supporting natural systems. Earth scientists, from all their various disciplines, are profoundly concerned about how much longer the integrity of our planet’s biosphere can bear such a burden. The effects of our demands on multiple ecosystems are now sufficiently large that the Holocene epoch may be renamed the Anthropocene, a dubious honour considering the full implications of such a title.

The environmental damage we are inflicting on our planet and the prosperity we are experiencing for humanity offer two different perspectives of the one complex reality in which we live. We care, as we must, for the wellbeing of our fellow humans; so, too, must we care for the natural world on which we are wholly dependent. The two are inextricably connected. But keeping them in balance is becoming increasingly difficult. At this moment in our history, we seem to be poised on the precipice of a dilemma in which we are risking grievous injury to not just one or the other, but to both. In the great and implacable design of things, this is what is meant by balanced news.