In August 2019, then environment minister Sussan Ley formally announced Australia’s intention to close the domestic trade in elephant ivory and rhino horn. You would assume that by now, three years later, the domestic market has been closed and the trade ban is being enforced. You would be wrong. In fact, nothing has happened beyond ‘consultations with the states’.
Governments and businesses love ‘announceables’, the positive-sounding statements of ‘new’ policies or initiatives eagerly embraced by the media. The problem is all too often the commitment made in the announceable doesn’t translate into real action and the media have no intention to follow up. Once the 15-minute news cycle has served its purpose to boost the announcer’s image and moved on, any actions promised are quietly ignored. So, what is the purpose of an announceable?
Apart from personal image boosting, announceables mean that governments and businesses can be seen to be doing something about matters of concern to voters/consumers. They keep the media engaged and they fill TV-news minutes, copy and social media feeds. They are also very useful to distract from what is really going on, where government policies are far too often determined by highly paid lobbyists with privileged access.
Research published in 2020 into the market value of sustainable practices in the luxury industry provides some interesting insights and how little real action is being taken on sustainability. Investigating 80 luxury goods manufacturers, listed on the New York Stock Exchange, the researchers looked at the companies’ announcements about their sustainable practice covered in the Wall Street Journal. Of the total number of 656 announcement made, 56% were discarded because they were simply a discussion on sustainability, but not linked to the company actually adopting any new sustainable practice.
But the distraction business isn’t the end of the problem, which is clear when you add echo chambers to announceables. Once a soundbite has been published on one news site, it echoes around a country and the world. In the US, 6 media companies own 96% of all US media (all channels), which means that if the companies’ owners or leadership are aligned with the announceable message, they don’t question it and it proliferates. And the reverse is also the case, when the channel owners are not aligned with the message it gets no exposure.
This can only work because journalists and the media companies they work for are complicit in creating entertainment instead of analysis, and propaganda instead of reporting. Journalists are measured on clicks and TV ratings, which means that stories which don’t gain an audience instantly will be dropped or not ever see the light of day. Investigations are only of interest if they can pinpoint individuals, not systemic issues. Social media run on disgust and naming and shaming has plenty of potential to generate disgust.
The result is a loss of accountability of those in power, which suits politicians and corporations just fine. If power goes unquestioned, abuse becomes rife. We are seeing this more and more in the corruption and self-enrichment of the elites.
But the problem of pointless announceables goes beyond unchecked power and poor elite behaviour. It translates into life-threatening ignorance for the distant but existential risks we are facing from climate change and biodiversity loss.
Because they are still seen as ‘distant’ (read: not right here, right now), they are not a real priority for the population at large in the sense that they don’t exert much influence over current behaviour. This fact is ruthlessly exploited by politicians and businesses who are fully invested in maintaining the status quo of economic growth and making the rich richer.
Announceables in this area range from small promises to protect one species or other to pie-in-the-sky schemes like the ‘hydrogen economy’. Every effort is made to keep the ‘solutions’ standalone and as far away from what is really needed – degrowth – as possible. Announceables are like a constant stream of small silver bullets, every one hitting a ‘problem’ and making it go away.
As the problems multiply, so do the announceables. Yesterday we had assistance for flood victims in New South Wales, today we are setting aside a few hectares to save koalas, tomorrow we tackle the illegal export of reptiles by scanning outgoing parcels and the day after we ‘solve’ global warming by allowing offshore wind farms in Australia. Nothing is ever connected to the underlying causes and no ‘solution’ is ever scale-tested against the actual problem.
This is of course ingenious – the problems don’t go away, so more announceables can follow! Those in power and in the media rely on the limited working memory of human beings – the average human has no hope of keeping track of all the issues and their supposed solutions. People may wonder why everything is getting worse, but they do not question the way the system works. They no longer trust politicians or the media, but that has not translated into existential fear just yet. So the strategy of slicing and dicing the problems of climate change and overexploitation of biodiversity is still working and announceables are still enough to keep everyone in their place (of quiet despair, maybe, but still compliant).
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Lynn Johnson is a physicist by education and has worked as an executive coach and a strategy consultant for over 20 years. In her work she pushes for systemic change, not piecemeal solutions, this includes campaigning for modernising the legal trade in endangered species, to help tackle the illegal wildlife trade.