Finis Dunaway. Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 344 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-16990-3.
Reviewed by Chris Wilhem (College of Coastal Georgia)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2015)
Commissioned by David T. Benac (Western Michigan University)
Finis Dunaway’s Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images examines the ways that images have been utilized in environmental causes from the 1960s to the 2006 release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Dunaway analyzes both how these images have built support for environmental issues and how they have obscured or hidden the systemic causes of environmental problems. This book makes an important contribution to our understanding of the modern environmental movement’s relationship with the American media. Dunaway examines how environmentalists, but also corporate interests and the media itself, attempted to use film, television, advertising, and print to communicate messages about environmental issues.
Images that Dunaway examines include a Walt Kelley’s Pogo strip, a photo of a 1970 Earth Day participant wearing a gas mask and smelling a magnolia blossom, the Crying Indian commercial featuring Iron Eyes Cody, the recycling logo, and the film The China Syndrome (1979). Dunaway also examines media-created imagery resulting from coverage of environmental crises. Oil-covered birds dominated coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and images of cooling towers came to symbolize the Three Mile Island disaster.
Three themes run throughout this chronologically organized history. First, many of these images tried to elicit an emotional response in the viewer, and many of them utilized vulnerable children to achieve this goal. Dunaway argues that the presentation of white children was an attempt to make these environmental problems “appear to transcend race and class divisions” (p. 3). Many of these problems, though, had a larger effect on racial minorities and on the poor; the use of white children hid the social dimensions of environmental issues.
Dunaway also uses these images to examine the “shifting meanings of environmental citizenship” (p. 2). The messages these images communicated emphasized individual action and the private sphere. Green consumerism was often seen as the solution to environmental problems like pollution and litter, and Dunaway is extremely critical of these neoliberal economic solutions. Many of these problems are caused by large corporate interests; these images serve to hide corporate culpability by emphasizing the personal and private dimensions of environmental citizenship. This argument is particularly persuasive when seen in the context of various corporate-sponsored ad campaigns. Dunaway examines the Ad Council’s conservation, anti-littering, and recycling campaigns and concludes that all of these efforts worked to hide the systemic causes of large-scale environmental issues like pollution and global warming. These images, and the ad campaigns they were a part of, suggested oversimplified and ineffective solutions to environmental problems. For example, the Ad Council responded to the OPEC oil embargo by admonishing individual Americans to use less gasoline. The “don’t be fuelish” campaign “emphasized individual responsibility but seemed to let corporations and governments off the hook” (p. 114).
The third element of Dunaway’s analytical framework examines the “limits of media representation,” as they relate to “environmental time, power relations,” and possible environmental solutions (pp. 2, 4). The media’s discussion of environmental issues typically focuses on crises and ignores what literary critic Rob Nixon calls the “slow violence” of environmental problems like global warming (Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor ). By focusing on crises and not long-term problems, the media emphasizes the roles of individuals and ignores the structural causes of environmental problems. Dunaway argues that this focus on crises has “masked systemic causes and ignored structural inequalities” (p. 2).
Seeing Green’s analyses are well grounded in the fields of visual culture, the public sphere, the rise of neoliberal economic ideas, and the history of American environmental politics. The individual stories about these images, like the recycling logo or the iconic images of nuclear-power plant cooling towers, are well told and these narratives do an excellent job in utilizing the relevant primary and secondary sources. The narratives themselves have a tremendous amount of value to scholars interested in the rise of modern environmentalism, and Dunaway does an excellent job telling these stories through the use of these images. Additionally, the author connects these individual stories to his primary arguments effectively, and these individual arguments are convincing in the context of these stories.
One minor problem with Seeing Green is that the book does not actually examine in detail how these images were received by the general populace. Rather, Dunaway examines how “self-defined environmentalists and conservative commentators” responded to these images and media campaigns (p. 6). It is praiseworthy that Dunaway tried at all to examine audience responses to these campaigns, yet it seems that Dunaway has examined the wrong audience. Pictures of oil-soaked birds, the Crying Indian, An Inconvenient Truth, and all the other imagery that Dunaway examines are not directed at environmentalists or conservative anti-environmentalists. Rather, these images attempted to educate and sway the general populace who are less informed, less engaged, and less invested in environmental issues than the groups that Dunaway examines. Perhaps it is too much to ask of one book to examine the actual impact of these images, but perhaps relevant polling data on these issues could have been used to bolster and strengthen Dunaway’s argument about the reception and effect of these images.
Another minor criticism of this work is that Dunaway eschews nuance in examining these media campaigns in favor of strong arguments regarding the media’s emphasis on individual action and green consumerism. Dunaway could have added complexity to his argument by examining the long history of consumer campaigns that created structural change in America. In fact, there is recent evidence that suggests that green consumerism and neoliberal policies can have a positive impact on these larger structural problems. Seeing Green concludes by criticizing both Gore and his film. Dunaway argues that Gore’s film falls short by failing “to address power relations and environmental inequities” (p. 269). The film ignores the plight of indigenous peoples in the Arctic, and Dunaway slams Gore for failing to offer any solutions to global warming other than Gore’s suggestion to use more efficient light bulbs. Dunaway likewise criticizes Gore for owning a home that uses large amounts of electricity and for clinging to “his faith in green consumerism and market-orientated environmentalism” (p. 270).
Dunaway’s criticisms seem salient and needed, yet to some extent they may miss the point. Gore’s film sought to bring the issue of global warming to a general audience, which it succeeded in doing. The documentary did not seek to propose solutions to global warming, and its desired audience did not consist of committed environmentalists and academics. This film, like many of the other media campaigns Dunaway examines, sought to bring attention to an environmental issue and sought to influence the general public.
Dunaway also ignores the possibility that these market-orientated neoliberal approaches championed by Gore may actually work. Dunaway upholds 305.org and the recent fight against the Keystone XL pipeline as models for activism that address inequality and the structural flaws in corporate capitalism and neoliberalism. Yet perhaps neoliberalism and corporate capitalism are responding in their own ways to the climate crisis. Gore, by leveraging his economic power, has worked within capitalism to create slow, incremental, technological changes that have improved Americans’ relationships with the environment. Dunaway argues that Gore presents “a consumerist fantasy of green salvation through carbon offsets” (p. 271), yet a recent New York Times article on Gore presents a very different picture. In this article, we learn that it is not carbon offsets that power the Gore mansion, but rather the very solar, geothermal, and wind energy in which Gore is heavily invested. In a chapter on solar energy, Dunaway mocks solar energy advocates of the 1970s who believed that change would occur as a result of “individuals making ‘choices about the right technologies,’ rather than from collective struggles over power and politics” (pp. 166-167). Dunaway approvingly quotes political theorist Langdon Winner who mocked the idea that “people would, in effect, vote on the shape of the future through their consumer/builder choices.... Radical social change would catch on like ... some other popular consumer item” (p. 167). Yet this may actually be happening right now.
Gore’s investments in alternative energy, the actions of entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, and the Barack Obama stimulus bill are currently creating needed environmental changes from within the system. While Dunaway’s tone at times seems pessimistic, some of the current atmosphere surrounding climate issues are colored by a newfound optimism. The reporting of Michael Grunwald on Obama’s climate record certainly reflects this sense that technology and the desires of consumers are creating positive change. The 2009 stimulus bill alone invested ninety billion dollars in clean energy initiatives, and soon American consumers may see the cost of solar and wind power equal that of natural gas. These neoliberal actions did not challenge the structure of industrial capitalism, but they are creating change.
These ideological criticisms of Seeing Green do not detract from the book’s contributions to our understanding of history. Dunaway’s arguments are convincing, the narratives are exciting, and most important, the book is extremely thought provoking. Dunaway’s overall conclusions certainly will provoke needed debate and further critical analyses of both causes of and solutions to environmental problems.
. John Schwartz, “The New Optimism of Al Gore,” New York Times, March 16, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/17/science/the-new-optimism-of-al-gore.html.
. Michael Grunwald, “Obama’s Climate Words Are Nice. His Climate Deeds Are Even Nicer,” Time, June 26, 2013, http://swampland.time.com/2013/06/26/obamas-climate-words-are-nice-his-climate-deeds-are-even-nicer/; Michael Grunwald, “Everything Is Awesome,” Politico Magazine, December 24, 2014, http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/12/everything-is-awesome-113801.html#.VXnacvlVhBe; and Michael Grunwald, “New Carbon Rules the Next Step in Obama’s War on Coal,” Time, June 1, 2014, http://time.com/2806697/obama-epa-coal-carbon/.
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Chris Wilhem. Review of Dunaway, Finis, Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images.
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