On 5 September last year I was part of the Extinction Rebellion group that blockaded Rupert Murdoch’s printing press. We knew we were going up against a powerful group of men who own the Sun, The Times, the Telegraph and the Daily Mail, all of which are printed at Rupert Murdoch’s printing press in Hertfordshire. Our action was necessary. The media is the pillar of power that needs to change first. When the media starts to tell the truth we will see significant action follow, from which our culture may yet survive. 69 per cent of the newspapers that we read every day are owned by a handful of billionaires and they hold the key to changing our social permission.
What is social permission?
Social permission is what happens when the number of people aligned behind an idea grows to such a point that it makes the wholesale approval or disapproval of the idea acceptable or unacceptable to mainstream society.
Slavery was acceptable until the social permission behind owning people changed. Mainstream racism was acceptable until enough people decided it was unacceptable to be racist. Smoking in pubs, drink-driving, wearing seatbelts, smacking children, homophobia and votes for women are other examples of how social permissions have changed over the centuries.
As a live example: we are watching the acceptance of plant-based diets change extremely rapidly. Orders of vegan food are now the UK’s fastest-growing takeaway choice. The number of UK vegans almost doubled to 600,000 in 2018 and 22 million – one in three Brits – have now reduced their meat intake. The social permission behind eating vegan food is changing before our very eyes.
Currently, low-carbon living is regarded as being outside the norm and high-carbon living is regarded as normal. What we really need is for the social permissions around living low-carbon and high-carbon lifestyles to be reversed – and quickly.
We have pumped a frightening amount of carbon into our atmosphere. The last time CO2 was at 412 parts per million was 3 million years ago and the planet was 3°– 4° hotter. An increase on this scale is coming with a massive cost that could be counted in billions of lives lost.
It’s crucial that people understand that one of the most important forces determining our social permissions is our media: the newspapers we read, the radio stations we listen to, the TV channels we watch. Newspapers are particularly influential in fostering and influencing opinion. We have witnessed firsthand how they influence the electorate’s choices of government over the last forty years. They have one of the most powerful keys to changing the social permissions around carbon lifestyles: their choice of subject matter and how they portray that subject is crucial.
However, even with the editors’ best efforts, there is a problem that is often beyond their control. The adverts that sit opposite their articles are often selling high-carbon options – flights and cruises in travel supplements, for example. Even if the publication only reviews low-carbon holidays, the public is going to receive mixed messages if the travel supplement is filled with adverts selling high-carbon holidays. What is required across the media is regulation to remove adverts selling lifestyle options that exacerbate the climate emergency.
We need the press to celebrate low-carbon living and to be critical of high-carbon lifestyles wherever possible. If the corporate media that reaches the vast majority of the press-reading public were to make this switch, social permissions would change rapidly. The weight of public opinion moving from supporting aspirational high-carbon living to supporting the socially responsible and environmentally sound choice of positive low-carbon lifestyles would mean that what is currently politically impossible would, excitingly, become politically possible very quickly.
If we can succeed in getting the vast majority of the popular press onside, our fight for the paradigm shift we so desperately need is going to be exponentially easier and will put our goal of saving the planet within our grasp.