Sunday, March 1, 2009

A PoMo Approach to Environmentalism

Like most children growing up in the 1990s, my first exposure to the idea of environmentalism and conservation came in the form of the cartoon, Captain Planet. The cartoon seems to be the result of a push during that time to educate the public about how they could do their part to save the Earth, primarily by reducing, reusing and recycling. The above clip is the first episode of Captain Planet; it stands as a good example of how we approached environmentalism then—the environment is shown as pristine, with features like natural features like the forest and ocean being prominent and larger animals such as dolphins highlighted. The danger comes in the form of manmade machines that clear trees and rip into the very core of the Earth, disturbing Gaia, the spirit/physical embodiment of nature. Captain Planet shows the environment as a pristine ‘thing’ to be saved and points to unregulated corporations (that cause oil tanker spills and pollution of the skies through their factories) as being the main problem to be solved by the Planeteers.

The cartoon’s model of preservation mirrors the second wave or modern form of environmentalism that authors Michael Schellenberger and Ted Nordhaus argue is no longer effective in the contemporary world in their essay “The Death of Environmentalism.” From this essay I gathered that Schellenberger and Nordhaus are wanting a more Post Modern approach to environmentalism—they want us to question our assumptions about environmentalism, to call for the examination of the underlying structure of the movement and to do away with a narrow definition of issues and to move towards a more inclusive model. Unfortunately a majority of the article is spent pointing out the evils of the old system and their new vision of environmentalism, as seen through the Apollo Project, is only briefly introduced and expanded upon. Their need to hammer their points into us makes sense when I understand their audience—a public generally satisfied with the way things stand and is able to easily grasp “technical solutions”, like buying a more fuel-efficient car. The public may also be rather jaded, thinking we already won this fight, the whales were saved, the parklands preserved. It also would initially be difficult to understand why environmentalists are now concerned with labor and industry rather than dealing with what traditionally has been labeled an “environmental” issue—the most difficult aspect of Schellenberger and Nordhaus’ vision is the reframing and relabeling the issues.

So how dated is this article? In the four or so years since it was published, the new green movement has been firmly established in the U.S. Out of this movement has come hybrid cars and the banning of plastic bags (which the authors would most likely see as only ‘technical’ solutions) and a renewed emphasis on organic food and sustainable farming. More people carpool, bike or take public transportation to work; our government buildings, offices and even homes are being built with more eco-friendly features that reduce energy consumption feature elements like solar panels. While I find all of this encouraging and progressive, it becomes problematic when going green starts being a trend rather than a solution to a complex problem.

The photograph above demonstrates how part of the public reacted to the banning of plastic bags in major cities that started in San Francisco in 2007. The women hold I'm Not a Plastic Bag by British designer Anya Hindmarch sold at Fred Segal in LA. This designer bag sold out within an hour in LA and NYC and spawned lines that went on for blocks. What happens when environmentalism becomes the must-have accessory of the season? While some may argue that it at least gives publicity to an issue and targets a new audience, it also undermines the gravity of the larger problem and falsely leads the public to think that our pollution problem can be solved with the purchase of a green accessory.

In 2008, when countries like China banned free plastic bags, the international artist community took notice. In London, a collective project featured photographs submitted by members of the public of plastic bags in the environment, whose goal mainly seemed to be bringing attention to the issue rather than offering a solution or a clear point of view.

Chris Jordan’s “Toothpicks” 2008: Depicts one hundred million toothpicks, equal to the number of trees cut in the U.S. yearly to make the paper for junk mail. Original size 60” x 96”

American artist Chris Jordan produces large-scale photo collages of disposable items that we use everyday and think little about—packing peanuts, plastic and paper cups and yes, plastic bags. Included with each pieces are stats like the following: “Depicts 320,000 light bulbs, equal to the number of kilowatt hours of electricity wasted in the United States every minute from inefficient residential electricity usage (inefficient wiring, computers in sleep mode, etc.).” and “Depicts 166,000 packing peanuts, equal to the number of overnight packages shipped by air in the U.S. every hour.”

Chris Jordan, “Plastic Bottles” 2007. Depicts two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes. (Below is a detail shot)

Jordan’s work is intriguing because it visualizes statistics that otherwise would be vague and abstract; the images also astound due to the sheer volume of stuff that we consume on a daily/monthly/yearly basis. A problem I have with the work is that it aestheticizes the problem and it doesn’t go beyond the presentation of the facts—are we really called to action after seeing the volume of our refuse? Doesn’t it bring us full circle back to the “reduce” part of the popular “reduce, reuse, recycle” slogan?

In the summer of 2008, the media production group Squint/Opera presented its vision of a post-global warming London. “Flooded London” depicts the city in the year 2090 as a tranquil utopia set in a once-familiar landscape that was flooded when seas rose during global warming. The designer of the multi-media installation (that combined photography, 3d modeling and digital manipulation) sees the images as predicting how humans will adapt to a changed landscape: “the images are optimistic and reveal that far from being a tragedy, the floods have brought about a much-improved way of life to the capital city.” While many contemporary artists are guilty of aestheticizing environmental issues (which sometimes is an effective way to explore the topic), “Flooded London” goes too far—they see utopia as a result of global warming, which might be worse than those who still deny the existence of global warming.

As we as a society move toward a more broad understanding of environmentalism and conservation, so too will artists. With the moving away from one-issue politics, artists will began to re-define what is seen as environmental and will offer a new vision of our roles within nature.

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