Ros Coward: Look back on dangers or living dangerously?

January 6, 2006

The new year newspapers

"Reviews of the Year" are the great new year newspaper rituals.

Lists and quizzes such as The Daily Telegraph's "2005: The Good, the Bad and the Quirky" are increasingly giving way to visually led supplements.

These are part of a strategy to offer more magazines to a dwindling press readership, something for them to linger over, less fleeting than the seductive world of the net and rolling news.

Picture editors have been spoilt for choice of gruesome images in a year where disaster followed disaster. There was the bombing of the London Underground, Hurricane Katrina, the flooding of New Orleans, the earthquake in Pakistan and bloodbaths in Iraq so numerous that they ceased to be newsworthy, leaving reviewers to ponder the question of "disaster hierarchies". As The Independent pointed out, the year started with the biggest one of all: "The tsunami dwarfed the routine disasters the year was to bring."

The tsunami actually struck in 2004, but the timing of images reaching our screens allowed it a place in 2005's preferred narrative theme of "disaster". 2005 was "a turbulent year", according to The Daily Telegraph ; "a year of devastating tragedies" for the Daily Mirror and a "year of catastrophe" for The Guardian .

The impulse to revisit is understandable, but the desire to impose themes and narrative coherence is not unproblematic. It imposes a tidiness - a causality even - when none may exist. The year 2005 is an arbitrary chunk of time, but "reviews" give it a beginning, a middle and an end as if it were fiction. Often, the search for themes is a search for meaning, for a narrative explanation. The Guardian described 2005 as the year "when the planet seemed to shrink" - and this was typical. The favoured grand narrative was climate change - 2005 was a year in which "nature's assaults have shaped a new reality for mankind" ( The Independent ) and when the world woke up.

Such narratives run the risk of being plain wrong - after all, 2005 may have been less a year of disasters than one of disasters recorded, brought to our screen in continuous rolling news. But such grand narratives hold dangers. As someone involved in environmental politics, I welcome interest in the issue but I am sceptical about some of the enthusiasm for simplistic explanations. Already erstwhile Marxists are substituting climate change for their old dream of the imminent end of capitalism. For others, it is the new terror, filling the Cold War vacuum with visions of a cataclysmic end. Both tend to make people feel helpless and passive.

If even George W. Bush began to recognise climate change, 2005 may yet turn out to be the year when the world woke up to the environment. But anyone looking back from a more distant point in history, rather than from the arbitrary moment of December 31, 2005, may be struck by something else.

Alongside annual reviews proclaiming new environmental awareness are advertisements for exotic holiday destinations, gas-guzzling cars and newly built homes on greenfield sites - all those incremental steps by which we contribute to environmental degradation. That person might see an era when no one changed their lifestyles. Looking back, they might ask whether 2005 was a year when the world woke up or a period of time when it slumbered on.

Ros Coward is a journalist, senior research fellow in the department of journalism at City University and a member of the board of directors of Greenpeace.

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