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Picture Perfect

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Issue: 43 Section: Arts Topics: climate change, public relations, photography

February 21, 2007

Picture Perfect

How images are used to create specific relationships between people and the physical environment

by Max Liboiron

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.

This oil fire in Kuwait is an example of an "Environmental Apocalypse" image. Awe and terror with a hint of guilt are evoked by over-the-top, beautiful, devastating and gratuitous scenes of ecological “ravaging.” Photo: the film, Baraka

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.

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Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment

The link between Mind and Social / Environmental-Issues.

The fast-paced, consumerist lifestyle of Industrial Society is causing exponential rise in psychological problems besides destroying the environment. All issues are interlinked. Our Minds cannot be peaceful when attention-spans are down to nanoseconds, microseconds and milliseconds. Our Minds cannot be peaceful if we destroy Nature.

Industrial Society Destroys Mind and Environment.

Subject : In a fast society slow emotions become extinct.
Subject : A thinking mind cannot feel.
Subject : Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys the planet.

Emotion is what we experience during gaps in our thinking.

If there are no gaps there is no emotion.

Today people are thinking all the time and are mistaking thought (words/ language) for emotion.

When society switches-over from physical work (agriculture) to mental work (scientific/ industrial/ financial/ fast visuals/ fast words ) the speed of thinking keeps on accelerating and the gaps between thinking go on decreasing.

There comes a time when there are almost no gaps.

People become incapable of experiencing/ tolerating gaps.

Emotion ends.

Man becomes machine.

A society that speeds up mentally experiences every mental slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A ( travelling )society that speeds up physically experiences every physical slowing-down as Depression / Anxiety.

A society that entertains itself daily experiences every non-entertaining moment as Depression / Anxiety.

Fast visuals/ words make slow emotions extinct.

Scientific/ Industrial/ Financial thinking destroys emotional circuits.

A fast (large) society cannot feel pain / remorse / empathy.

A fast (large) society will always be cruel to Animals/ Trees/ Air/ Water/ Land and to Itself.

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How to be an activist when Nature is bunk: A Response

The previous post provides the perfect opportunity to nuance and become literate in some of the rhetoric and language in different strands of environmentalism, which compliments the article focusing on the visual literacy of the same topic. I have limited my response to the use of particular words used in the posting that are common in certain environmental discourses, in this case, most notably Preservationism.

HUMANKIND and environmentalism

"Mankind," or humankind, or even "everyone" is more of an idea than a number of people. To find a commonality among every single human on earth is an attractive idea, but difficult to produce and certainly impossible to prove. One problem with homogenizing humans across differences of class, geography, nationality, gender, age, culture, sexuality, race, kinship groups, religions, (and the list goes on) is that it is an apolitical move. You are left talking about no one instead of everyone.

It is not in everyone's best interest to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, for example.

It is in the interest of many people but it is not in the short-term interests of George W. Bush.

There is a Preservationist tendency to blame an undifferentiated "we" for environmental degradation, when statistically it is clearly a tiny part of the population: Developed nations produce the most carbon dioxide emissions, the most toxic waste, and require the largest amount of natural resources. This is how they function as developed nations.

NATURE and environmentalism

"Nature" is just as nowhere as "humankind" in effective long-term environmental activism. Nature is usually equated with wilderness, and Preservationism puts great emphasis on saving the pristine, meditative qualities of an unpolluted Nature. Yet in practice, every spot on the planet is inextricably tied into climate change, soil contamination, UV radiation, and many other "global" problems (If you are interested problems of evoking "nature," William Cronnon has written an excellent article called "The Trouble with Wilderness, or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature"). The potentially more appropriate term "the Environment" includes urban areas, carbon dioxide, disease, etc, and locates a more productive place to begin acting.

MIND and environmentalism

While there is likely a link between an individual's local environment and community, and that person's mental health, readers should be aware that essentializing (or naturalizing) that link is also a traditional characteristic of Preservationism. Making people's minds (or bodies, or spirituality, or genders, or indigenous status) inherent in, or absolutely linked to, the environment is problematic because it doesn't allow for variation across groups and is reductionist in nature (your identity and an outside force are one and the same). It is more effective in activism to suggest a political rather than a biological or a psychological basis for alliance.

PEACE and the environment

As mentioned in "Picture Perfect," the idea of a serene, perfectly harmonious, Edenic state of the environment implies that the physical world is ahistorical, and that before industrialization there was no large scale, drastic, destructive changes within it. It does not recognize the cultural and political desires that attempt to impose "natural" states on environments characterized by long histories of human-environmental engagement.

The link between social and environmental issues is important, and is the basis for the entire ecofeminist movement, for example. Ecofeminism proposes that the oppression of women and oppression of the environment are a result of the same social structures of power and patriarchal interest. Social and environmental links are important in order to illuminate patterns and structures that keep large-scale environmental policies from being implemented, and to determine what kind of interventions are prioritized. Such investigations need to address issues at their source and must steer clear of romantic, reductive, and essentialist ideas of the environment, and particularly of the idea of Nature.

Joint Effort

However which way you look at it conservation is a joint effort. During the past Earth Hour I saw just one house on my street turn off their lights. All this depsite information dissemination. Everybody knows it was earth hour but only my neighbor and I joined in.

We all need to get invloved. We only have one earth to live in.

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