Stuart Allan Barbara Adam and Cynthia Carter

The environment story is one of the most complicated and pressing stories of our time. It involves abstract and probabilistic science, labyrinthine laws, grandstanding politicians, speculative economics, and the complex interplay of individuals and societies. Most agree that it concerns the very future of life as we know it on the planet. Perhaps more than most stories, it needs careful, longer-than-bite-sized reporting and analysis, now.

(Stocking and Leonard 1990:42)

...there is a big difference between those who take risks and those who are victimised by risks others take.

(Beck 1998a:10)

In choosing the title Environmental Risks and the Media for this book, we wanted to signal from the outset our commitment to establishing a fresh analytical basis for rethinking some of the more familiar assumptions associated with research in this area of inquiry. We recognise, of course, that each of the component terms conjoined by our title, namely 'environment', 'risk' and 'media', exists in a state of conceptual tension. That is to say, the boundaries which delimit their respective meanings are the subject of intense discursive conflict, and as such are constantly being drawn and redrawn in relation to the social hierarchies of time, space and place.

It is our sense that academic debates over precisely what constitutes 'the environment' have never been more openly contested than they are today. Configurations of the environment as a purely natural realm, one existing outside of the social dynamics of human activity, are increasingly being subjected to challenges from across the breadth of the humanities and social sciences. Recurrently called into question is the very definition of the 'natural' as being somehow reducible to the observable 'raw materials' of the world. Indeed, at a time when growing numbers of public commentators are engaged in disputes over the potential dissolution of 'the actual' into 'the virtual', the language of environmentalism—in the eyes of many researchers—is fast becoming anachronistic in its appeal to 'nature' to sustain its convictions. A

range of contradictory characteristics typically projected upon 'nature' are aptly described by Soper (1995) in her book What is Naturewhere she observes that in popular imagery:

Nature is both machine and organism, passive matter and vitalist agency. It is represented as both savage and noble, polluted and wholesome, lewd and innocent, carnal and pure, chaotic and ordered. Conceived as a feminine principle, nature is equally lover, mother and virago: a source of sensual delight, a nurturing bosom, a site of treacherous and vindictive forces bent on retribution for her human violation. Sublime and pastoral, indifferent to human purposes and willing servant of them, nature awes as she consoles, strikes terror as she pacifies, presents herself as both the best of friends and the worst of foes.

(Soper 1995:71)

Of particular significance for our purposes here, however, are the ways in which these ideological tensions around 'nature' are negotiated across the field of the mass media. Nature, as Alexander Wilson (1992:12) writes, 'is filmed, pictured, written, and talked about everywhere', leading him to maintain that there are in fact many different natures being re-articulated via media discourses. Here, though, he makes the crucial point that the current crisis around 'the natural' is not only 'out there in the environment'. Rather, he argues, it is also a 'crisis of culture', one which 'suffuses our households, our conversations, our economies' (A.Wilson 1992:12).

This insight throws into sharp relief a series of questions about the extent to which media representations of nature serve to reaffirm as 'common-sense' references to 'the environment' as a stable, totalised entity against which 'the human' is to be measured. Accordingly, we begin by highlighting the emergence and ensuing development of a number of analytical approaches committed to examining how the mass media portray the environment as a social problem. In appraising the formative influence of these early investigations, we attempt to show that much of this work succeeded in securing a range of vital insights into how media accounts construct certain preferred definitions of environmental realities.1 The broad lines of this discussion are then developed further through an assessment of the conceptual turn to issues of 'risk', especially as envisaged in the work of Ulrich Beck. This focus on risk, we suggest, has helped to initiate an important break from these earlier approaches in several decisive ways. Identified as being particularly consequential, for example, are the 'relations of definition' underpinning media discourses which condition what can and should be said about environmental risks, threats and hazards by 'experts' and 'counter-experts', as well as by members of the 'lay public'. Following this sketch of several of the more prominent contours of the research terrain, then, the last section of this chapter echoes the larger structure of the book by offering an overview of the respective contributions.

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