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There are four popular image brands for “the environment:” The Happy Field, the Environmental Apocalypse, the Graph and the Logo. The "Happy Field" images are usually beautiful, peaceful, humanless landscapes that place nature “over there,” away from humans, cities, and pipelines.
In North American environmentalism, most images, campaigns and programs align with either Conservationism or Preservationism.
Conservationism’s goal is sustainability. It is a use-based approach that focuses on over-development and scarcity as the main problems facing the environment and the resources it provides. Technology and governmental policies are promoted as a means to regulate natural resources so they can be used by future generations. The main criticism of Conservationism is that ecological issues are not seen as the result of industrialization, neocolonial debts or economic structural adjustment policies, but are attributed to unchecked technological progress and patterns of misuse in general; it does not connect “patterns of misuse” with the economic and social structures that cause them. This would not be in the main interest of Conservationists, whose goal is to ensure continued consumer resources. Not surprisingly, this is the narrative upon which former US vice-president Al Gore structures his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Preservationism, on the other hand, focuses on wilderness as a realm of spiritual and aesthetic contemplation, separate from resource-use. It is based on the idea that without human interference, nature tends towards a state of balance, beauty and goodness, and that humans are separate from, rather than part of, the environment.
There are four popular image brands for “the environment”: The Happy Field, the Environmental Apocalypse, the Graph and the Logo.
If it falls into a Preservationist framework, the Happy Field is usually a photograph of “wilderness.” These beautiful, peaceful, humanless landscapes are based in the Romantic tradition of the sublime, which proposed that God could be seen in, or through, nature. This puts nature “over there,” away from humans, cities and pipelines, and does not account for urban nature, local communities, or toxic-nature anomalies (such as the use of genetic engineering to increase an endangered native population of animals).
When the Happy Field leans in the Conservationist direction, “the environment” may look like a child smiling at a tree, instead of a landscape without humans. Conservationism does not put nature “elsewhere” because humans are an integral part of environmental degradation and its solution. Humans are also seen as one of the reasons to overcome environmental problems; the mantra “save the Earth for our children” reinforces the objective that natural settings and resources be sustained for the next generation, so that their offspring can continue patterns of use and consumption similar to their own.
The Happy Field in either ecological narrative is usually an Edenic narrative because of the underlying motivation to “return” to a balanced, more sustainable nature, whose existence and possibility is hinted at in the image. It implies that long ago, things were serene; things were pure and clean. This surmises that at one time, probably before humans or at least before white humans, there was no conflict, no change, and by extension, no environmental history. This is, in fact, a very popular view.
At the other end of the visual spectrum is the Environmental Apocalypse, which frequently doubles as Climate Porn. Spewing volcanoes, billowing smoke, chunks of icebergs as big as cathedrals crashing into the ocean and trees being felled – never saplings, always redwoods – provide the Old Testament version of the sublime. Awe and terror with a hint of guilt are evoked by over-the-top, beautiful, devastating and gratuitous scenes of ecological “ravaging.” Gorgeous, slick images of environmental degradation may seem decadent and even unethical, but David Ingram, an expert in environmental imagery in cinema, notes that, “by presenting ‘worse-case scenarios’ as foregone conclusions, these images constitute a radical attack on the notions of progress held by big business, big government and big science.” Critique notwithstanding, one problem with Environmental Apocalyptic images is the promotion of the message that “we” are terrible and are to blame for climate change or pollution. "We" includes every human equally, when in fact the majority of global pollution is caused by a very specific segment of the human population: Western developed nations. Images of Climate Porn and Apocalypse also frequently depend on the pre-porn, pre-apocalyptic Virgin Earth as a necessary contrast.
Conservationists usually use the Graph, perhaps because the funding for graph-making scientists comes from organizations tied up in resource management, thus having a partisan interest in sustaining resources within current institutional frameworks. In displays like those in An Inconvenient Truth, time-lapse images and points on a graph become more than justrepresentations of a glacier in 1970 and again in 2000; they are images of global warming itself, unavailable to the naked eye. Graphs create visible relationships that implicate humans, time and the physical world in their trajectories, basically making them anti-Preservationist.
The Logo is usually an iconic, graphic representation of Preservationism. Swooping leaves, blue skies, white wind and hands holding tiny Earths all evoke the fragile environmental harmony, serenity and balance that the institution to which the Logo belongs is striving to provide for its clients. Similar Logos may be used for activist groups and international financial institutions, despite mutually exclusive environmental goals, values and programs. This is not to say that “nature” is intrinsically objective and provides common ground, but that “the environment” has become cinematically iconic and inert. It is a buzzword to rally behind and an unspecific anxiety of great import.
This is not to say that the environment is an illegitimate or vague fabrication, but that more critical and nuanced accounts and images of nature and our relationship to it are necessary for a workable model of sustainability.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.