Sustainable Television

Mass communication via television is crucial to our survival

One of the articles in The Ecology Of Media (IC#23)
Originally published in Fall 1989 on page 26
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

If any part of the mass media qualifies as our "central nervous sytem," television – with its ability to communicate with a majority of humans simultaneously – is it. And as Duane Elgin argues here, the power of television must be enlisted in the cause of sustainability, and soon.

Duane is the author of Voluntary Simplicity and the director of Choosing Our Future, an organization that has been working for eight years to develop interactive Electronic Town Meetings that can help communities "know their own minds" and communicate with leaders. It’s an idea whose time must come, though the organization has recently had difficulty with less-than-farsighted funding sources. They are, however, developing a handbook for those who would like to duplicate the model locally; write them at PO Box 820, Menlo Park, CA 94025 for more information.

The human family confronts unprecedented challenges to its future, and whether we humans are soon overwhelmed or transformed will depend on our ability to communicate. Virtually all of today’s problems are, at their core, communications problems. Only a new level of shared communication will enable us to build a workable and meaningful future – but we cannot coordinate our actions in building that future without mass communication at a scale equal to the challenges we face.

We can act locally, but we must communicate regionally, nationally and globally. Alexis de Tocqueville said a century and a half ago that the power of a newspaper in a democracy is to put a single idea in 10,000 minds all at the same time. Electronic communication can introduce an idea to a hundred million or even several billion minds simultaneously. Communication is not, therefore, "just another issue." It is the basis for understanding and responding to all issues. Our choice is simple – communication or catastrophe.

In the developed nations, television dominates the social awareness. 98% of all U.S. homes have a TV set, the average person watches more than four hours per day, and most people get the majority of their information from the medium. We are a visual species; we tend to trust and believe what we can see ("Seeing is believing." "A picture is worth a thousand words."). This is one reason television defines our common frame of reference and view of the world: if an issue or concern does not appear on television, then, for all practical purposes, it does not exist in mass social consciousness. In short, television has become the "social brain" or "central nervous system" of developed nations.

But television is not neutral – it is strongly biased towards high levels of consumption. Television stations make their profits by delivering the largest possible audience of potential consumers to corporate advertisers. Mass entertainment captures a mass audience so that mass advertising can promote mass consumption. This approach deliberately ignores the views and values of those who have little to spend (the poor) and those who choose to spend little (frugal people who are more concerned with the quality of being than the quantity of having). And our television-dominated cultural consciousness suppresses understanding of the results of our high levels of consumption on the earth’s ecosystem.

Contemporary television thus puts us in an impossible double bind: it encourages us to judge our quality of life against the patterns portrayed in TV advertising or sit-coms, while those same consumption patterns are simultaneously devastating the environmental and resource base on which our life depends. It is imperative that we use this powerful medium much more consciously if we are to realize a sustainable future.


The cumulative effect of the roughly 40,000 commercial messages the average person sees on TV each year is enormous. A TV commercial is more than a potent pitch for a single product – it is an equally strong message in support of the lifestyles and values that surround consumption of the product. The same is true for entertainment programming: the house, clothing, car, utensils, and other material goods that set the context for the program send strong messages as to the standards of consumption that are the norm for society.

The point is not to condemn television advertising and entertainment; rather, it is to acknowledge the need for balance and perspective in our diet of images and information so we can maintain a healthy approach to consumption. Given the urgent challenges of population, resources, and the environment, we need balanced messages that foster sustainable consumption. We need to consume with our eyes open to the real environmental and social costs of our actions. We require a new level of maturity as consumers, and this requires a new level of responsibility in how we use television.

Four specific areas of action can help bring our use of television into harmony with sustainable development for the earth:

Ecologically Conscious Advertising * Ads could have a rating (like the movies) that indicates the impact of their product on the environment. Products and services that are "eco-friendly" (biodegradable, recyclable) could be rated differently than those that are highly polluting, and alternative "ecology ads" could encourage people to consume with an appreciation of the world’s resources and environment. Ads could also be clustered at the beginning of each hour to break the hypnotic spell of commercials intimately mingled with entertainment programs.

Sustainability in Entertainment * Embedded within the fabric of entertainment programming are countless messages about role models, sources of satisfaction, personal priorities and responsibilities, values and attitudes. Television also teaches by what it ignores as much as by what it addresses. If environmental concerns are missing from our entertainment on TV, they are likely to be missing from our cultural consciousness. We need to build ecologically sound lifestyles and role models into our entertainment programming, as well as a balanced regard for the larger world situation.

Expanded Documentaries and Investigative Reports * Less than 5% of prime-time TV is typically devoted to informational programming. We are entertainment rich and knowledge poor: at the very time our democracies face problems of marathon proportions, we’re preparing for that marathon with a diet of junk food. This diet trivializes our civilizational consciousness and is a recipe for disaster. We need a quantum increase in the level of socially relevant programming and a new commitment to strong investigative reports and documentaries to awaken public understanding and concern to the challenges facing our planet.

Vigorous Development of Interactive Television * We need to move beyond using television as a one-way, passive medium and begin experimenting with feedback forums. Non-partisan, "electronic town meetings" that give all sides a fair hearing and obtain feedback from a scientific sample of citizens can enable us to "know our own minds" as a community of citizens. We have the communication tools necesary to achieve an unprecedented leap forward in our self-understanding as civilizations – but we need to mobilize our social will to learn the skills of large-scale citizen dialogue and conflict resolution.

Given the awesome reach and power of television, the impact of these changes would be rapid and dramatic. An example from the history of advertising is instructive: In the 1940s and 1950s, it often took several years for print ads in major magazines to establish a new soap (or any other product) in national consumer awareness. Using television, the same level of product recognition can now be achieved in several weeks. Applying this enormously increased efficiency for social learning to the challenge of sustainable development (instead of selling soap) could rapidly achieve the shared understanding and consciousness needed to move toward a more workable and satisfying future.


It is not by accident that the last taboo topic on television is television itself. Every other imaginable issue has been raised repeatedly on television – except for the profound effect that television has in promoting mass consumption, and how this threatens the future of our species and planet. These proposals will certainly face opposition from TV stations and advertisers, who fear their short-term profits will be diminished.

Yet we are clearly more than consumers who want to be entertained – we are also citizens who want to be informed and involved in building a sustainable future. The cooperation and support of television is essential if we are to consciously and creatively evolve our lifestyles and consumption patterns in the direction of a conserving society.

It is therefore time to fundamentally reconsider how this immensely powerful technology can best serve the public interest. We require courageous journalists, advertisers, TV station managers, political leaders, and citizens who will call a halt to the "business-as-usual" approach to mass communication. We need to question the appropriateness of an avalanche of TV ads that promote a one-sided, materialistic view of life. We need to challenge the status quo in television that lulls people into a false sense of security and complacency.

Television can help us achieve the level of mass cooperation and coordination needed to adapt our lifestyles and patterns of consumption to the new global realities. It can help us develop a new consciousness and a new consensus among millions – even billions – of persons. It is communication that has enabled humans to get to the very edge of a planetary civilization. If we are to build a sustainable and meaningful future, a vital ingredient will be a dramatic leap forward in mass human communication through the immensely powerful vehicle of television.

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