Contradictory environmental messages in the media commons

An excerpt from the new book The Media Commons: Globalization and Environmental Discourses, by Patrick D. Murphy.

….Integrated media systems promote the pursuit of wasteful cultural practices and ecologically unsustainable lifestyles by presenting an imaginistic and informational confluence of codes of excess and disposability. In recognizing this core global pattern, however, it is also necessary to understand that messages about the environment within the global media landscape are by no means monolithic and are often quite contradictory. For instance, what prominent environmental studies scholar Chet A. Bowers has called “the myth of endless technological progress and equally endless advances in the capacity to consume” has been confronted in some interesting ways through environmentally progressive themes emerging in media fare around the world. This practice is adduced in everything from its presence as a subtext in Brazilian telenovelas and Japanese anime to the central theme of Australian eco-makeover reality shows and Al-Jazeera’s “Fragile Planet” series. These themes also emerged with force in a range of internationally distributed animated films like Spirited Away, Happy Feet, and the global 3D blockbuster, Avatar. In 2006 even MTV, the global champion of youth consumer culture, went temporarily “green,” inviting Noble Prize winner and environmental guru Al Gore to give the “keynote address” at its annual video awards. And of course the internet has become home to a wealth of eco-driven fare; some of it, like The Meatrix, has reached international audiences with paradigm-shifting messages. In 2010 DC Comics even had Superman quoting Thoreau while walking—not flying—across America to reconnect to the earth.

murphyThough encouraging, such eco-friendly trends and attempts at environmental consciousness raising are nevertheless part of globally interlaced media spheres dominated by a broader corporate model of information and entertainment designed to normalize commodity hunger. Even the family film Wall-E, Pixar’s scathing critique of consumer excess and environmental abuse, served as a launching point for the cross-media marketing of merchandise that will end up in dumps. More troubling yet are the implications of an environment merely commoditized through “branding” campaigns, media events, and multiplatform messaging, elaborated increasingly under the banner of “corporate responsibility” designed to cultivate positive public perception, not necessarily eco-consciousness (for example, Exxon’s distribution of “sponsored educational materials” to public schools after the Valdez oil spill; Forbes magazine’s naming ExxonMobile “green company of the year” for 2009; Coca-Cola’s iconic polar bear Christmas advertising campaign developed in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund).

Yet the problem with making sense of environmental issues is not just tied to the networked yet oddly contradictory media spheres that audiences inevitably find themselves trying to negotiate to get a better purchase on the state of the global commons. Rather, it is the fact that what to actually do is itself a point of contention, as the range of competing and in many cases co-evolving ideas have a rich and global history. Long before the Lorax spoke for the trees or Wall-E went about cleaning up a post-tipping-point Earth—or, for that matter, before Rachel Carson stopped hearing singing birds or the ecotage antics of Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang inspired Earth First!—voices ranging from eco-political interlocutors of the sublime to Malthusian guardians of the planet’s limits have argued, in quite different ways, for a defense of the natural world and its resources. Indeed, imagining human relationships with nature can be traced back to the books of Genesis and Revelation in the Bible, which produced both pastoral and apocalyptic environmental narratives, and elements of “conservationism” can be found from the eleventh to fifteenth centuries in societies ranging from Islamic Egypt, the Venetians, and Germanic states, to India, China, and Japan, as well as the Incas and Aztecs in the Americas.

Meanwhile, even in the shadow of global climate change, some contemporary thinkers continue to be committed to advancing the cornucopian notion that for humans on planet Earth, things are actually getting better despite what the media (viewed as today’s public myth tellers) are reporting to audiences. For instance, in The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World, Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg famously argued that our general view of the environment is shaped by “The Litany” of our ever-deteriorating environment delivered through entertainment and news media, helping to make the catastrophic familiar. According to Lomborg, The Litany goes something like this:

Our resources are running out. The population is ever growing, leaving less and less to eat. The air and the water are becoming ever more polluted. The planet’s species are becoming extinct in vast numbers—we kill off more than 40,000 each year. The forests are disappearing, fish stocks are collapsing and coral reefs are dying.

We are defiling our Earth, fertile topsoil is disappearing, we are paving over nature, destroying the wilderness, decimating the biosphere, and will end up killing ourselves in the process. The world’s ecosystem is breaking down. We are fast approaching the absolute limit of viability, and the limits of growth are becoming apparent.

The persuasive power of The Litany, Lomborg asserts, rests on its omnipresence to the point that it has almost become “reassuring.” But, he warns, there is just one problem: “this conception is simply not keeping with reality,” as things are actually getting better, not worse for most of the planet’s inhabitants as life expectancy, human welfare, and prosperity are on the rise.

As these disparate lines of thought underscore, human history has not produced an agreed-upon understanding of what noted American ecologist Garrett Hardin metaphorically labeled “the commons,” since ideas about the earth’s care and treatment are linked to a range of moral, aesthetic, and political questions that are further complicated by the fact that the terms of particular debates are shifting and contested, often reframed by contextual circumstances and recast in relation to emerging technologies. Is preserving a rainforest from loggers or protecting a mountaintop from miners as important to communities or citizens when the economy is suffering and people are searching for ways to make ends meet? Should native peoples be permitted to continue hunt, fish, and harvest materials from protected lands because of cultural rights and traditions while others are bound to follow restrictive conservation laws? Are genetically modified seeds an innovative response to climate change and population growth by increasing crop yields while requiring fewer pesticides and fertilizers and less water, or are they, as GM critics assert, the stuff of an agricultural biotechnology industry engaged in biopiracy and peddling a Pandora’s box of enviro-hazards capable of stripping ecosystems of their biodiversity?

Such tensions and antagonisms are found at the heart of almost any environmental debate, and looking at how we define and talk about them typically has considerably more to do with how citizens respond to them than the actual underlying science of any given issue. Understanding the political, cultural, and institutional dimensions of this dynamic is therefore crucial because, as communications scholar and former Sierra Club president Robert Cox succinctly puts it, ideas about the environment have consequences since they “actively shape our understanding, create meaning, and orient us to a wider world.” As with other subjects negotiated within the public sphere, people draw from symbolic constructions about the environment to create meaning and guide social practice. Thus, ideas privileged by knowledge systems chart the direction through which this interplay between culture and politics unfolds. Eco-critic Greg Garrard provides a useful illustration of this dynamic, arguing, “A ‘weed’ is not a kind of plant, only the wrong kind in the wrong place. Eliminating weeds is obviously a ‘problem in gardening,’ but defining weeds in the first place requires a cultural, not horticultural, analysis.”