1. Introduction and objectives

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1. INTRODUCTION AND OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY

In contrast to the past, the contemporary world is characterised both by an information overload and by an acceleration of the pace, scale, and intensity of environmental problems. The increase in information in the last few decades has not been able to stop environmental degradation, and in many ways it can be argued that it has even contributed to its increase. Information, per se, does not prevent the deterioration of the environment. Only when information is transformed into meaningful knowledge which can then be channelled effectively through integrated social action networks can it become a resource to improve sustainability and environmental quality.

A decade ago, the World Commission on Environment and Development stressed in the widely publicised report "Our Common Future", the striking dual process that the growth of current human societies is undergoing. On the one hand, technological and social developments have led to previously unforeseeable improvements in aspects such as global food production and life expectancy. But on the other hand, the number of hungry people in the World is greater now than ever before and "there are also environmental trends that threaten to radically alter the planet, that threaten the lives of many species upon it, including the human species". The follow-up to the Rio Conference of 1992 five years later has shown us that, despite the warnings of the Commission, the World today is not better off, but on the contrary, those unwanted negative trends have been strengthened, intensified, and extended. In the European Union, basic trends in the consumption of non-renewable resources and in the standards of environmental quality have remained relatively unchanged and, in some respects, have even worsened in recent years. Individual preferences and public policies are still too grounded in unsustainable routines to allow for the promotion of substantial changes in both current lifestyles and production practices.

In this situation, current mass media face the challenge of communicating properly the increasing knowledge of and dilemmas related to the environment. The lack of awareness and understanding both of the problems and of the possible options for dealing with them, limit the chances for individuals, organised interests, and governments to take substantial and decisive actions towards effective socio-ecological adaptation.

There is a growing recognition that effective environmental information is decisive not only in the public identification and definition of the most urgent problems, but also in the building of the social, economic and political action networks, which are needed to reverse present unsustainable and negative environmental trends. In increasing numbers, social and natural science researchers realise the urgency of current global environmental problems and the need to find imaginative ways to combat them within tight time constraints that the present rate of environmental degradation imposes. Some of these people believe that it can often be useful to set aside, for a while, the necessary but never ending descriptions and analysis about "what the reality is" and proceed to provide concrete opinions about "how reality ought to be". Within the research community, the jump from one to the other causes unease and can even stigmatise "the heretic" forever. Nevertheless, one cautious way to proceed in that direction is by stating opinions through the use of "models". Models can be used either to explain a certain segment of reality or to express the virtues or weaknesses of a present situation in relation to a hypothetical one. They can also attempt to fulfil both functions. Thus the criticisms and policy directions provided in this report should not be understood only as a collection of reflections and other opinions coming from environmental journalists and audiences. Its final aim is to provide a heuristic tool or organised set of ideas, towards which present mass environmental information in Europe could be oriented.

But the challenge of designing an ideal model that would help to improve mass environmental information in Europe is gigantic. In recognising it as such, the ambitions of the present document cannot be too high. For the present purposes, a "model' is understood as a set of interrelated concepts and ideas which are based on several assumptions and conditions. They are thought to be relevant, not only for the description of the current state of affairs within the field of mass environmental information, but also for stimulating new reflections about a portion of reality which might be modified positively only if certain conditions are achieved and resources are invested.

Currently, two models of environmental information exchange could be said to be in conflict. The first one – the traditional model – is characterised by its partiality, sensationalism, and by its inability to transform information into decisive, meaningful and rational action. Communication processes linked to this model have a non-specialised, general character, and are defined by production routines of daily news and by generation and transmission of information (knowledge) in a fragmented and linear way. At the same time, the criteria adopted for selection of the news are directly related to the impact value.

The second model – understood in this study as the alternative model - seeks the integration and context-setting of environmental problems, the final objective being the transformation of consumption information into information for use, for decision-making, for the increase of knowledge. This requires going beyond the one-linear relation between active processors of environmental information (mass media and institutional sources of information) and passive receivers, to achieve a multilateral and interactive dialogue between them. The resulting communication process is characterised by its complexity, its ambiguity, and by a less-schematic scenario, where interactivity is a powerful tool.

The new information technologies provide the best tools available to open the above mentioned dialogue, by conferring to communication processes a horizontal, hyper-medial, and hyper-textual capacity, while increasing levels of diversity of sources and empowering social stakeholders in the informative dynamics.
Advancing towards a new model of environmental information in Europe will involve going beyond the traditional division between supply/demand among expert communicators. It will imply linking information to options, and contexts to action by involving a greater number of actors - decision makers, public and communicators - and including a broader number of topics without losing track of the needs of the different audiences.

In this respect, the study seeks to demonstrate, as its first objective, that there is no need to increase the amount of information generated and transmitted to society. On the contrary, efforts should be made towards social innovation, that is to say, towards the creation of new systems and platforms that provide information of real value which can be used and in turn stimulates discussion and actions.

Through the study of existing research work and the results of surveys carried out, this project will explore the following question: how can a new and efficient model be implemented in order to ensure the integration of the needs of a broader set of actors who increasingly demand and supply environmental information, with the flow of useful and quality data from reported environmental events and processes?

As a second objective, specific initiatives will be analysed as case studies, to prove the need for incorporating three basic elements in the alternative model of environmental information exchange, namely:

  • the use of the new technological supports;
  • a new and different representation of knowledge; and
  • a review of the topics put forward for society’s consumption.

Figure 1: Information for Decision-Making

Information for Decision-Making


"There is already a wealth of information that could be used for the management of sustainable development, but people have trouble finding the information they need when they need it.

In many countries, information that exists is not adequately managed due to shortages of technology and trained specialists, lack of awareness of the value and availability of such information and to the demands of other immediate problems...

Sustainable development information needs to be provided to people who need it, when they need it, and in forms they can understand. Countries should ensure that local communities and resource users get the information and skills needed to manage their environment and resources sustainably ...

Countries and international organisations should provide environment, resource and development data needed for the management of sustainable development to people at all levels, and in forms that are understandable".


"There is already a wealth of information that could be used for the management of sustainable development, but people have trouble finding the information they need when they need it.

In many countries, information that exists is not adequately managed due to shortages of technology and trained specialists, lack of awareness of the value and availability of such information and to the demands of other immediate problems...

Sustainable development information needs to be provided to people who need it, when they need it, and in forms they can understand. Countries should ensure that local communities and resource users get the information and skills needed to manage their environment and resources sustainably ...

Countries and international organisations should provide environment, resource and development data needed for the management of sustainable development to people at all levels, and in forms that are understandable".

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