AH, THE NEW YEAR. Time to change the wall calendar. By October, our household had already acquired Greenpeace’s latest offering, a Group of Seven issue, and one of those generic versions that hardware stores and real estate agents give out for free. All of them feature beautiful scenes of pristine landscapes, robust ecosystems and healthy wildlife. I used to like these sorts of images for predictable reasons: they celebrate the beauty, wonder and sacredness of nature. They’re nice to look at and calming reminders of days spent outdoors.

Organizations such as the Sierra Club have successfully used such imagery as an advocacy tool for decades. In Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, Finis Dunaway tells the story of how David Brower used large-format coffee-table books featuring­ sublime American landscapes in the successful campaign that resulted in the Wilderness Act being passed by the US Congress in 1964. In the 1980s, the sumptuous Islands at the Edge helped build support for protecting the Queen Charlotte Islands/Haida Gwaii in BC.

Maybe I have been exposed to these pretty pictures for too long, because they don’t move me as they once did. Like photos in an “adult” magazine, they stimulate desire but misrepresent reality and fail to reflect real-world relationships. No wonder these images are sometimes referred to as “ecoporn.” They don’t show the abuse that humans are heaping upon most other species, not to mention ecosystems, and the Earth as a whole. The natural world is not pristine. Landscapes are not devoid of human influence. Animals are not all healthy and fit. Now when I look at these Sierra Club moments, I just think we’re deceiving ourselves.

And it’s not just still images. Film too, especially top-shelf efforts such as the popular Planet Earth series, offers glorious streams of magnificent places and remarkable animals. It’s also not only environmentalists who promulgate these images; commercial advertising is rife with spectacular nature, and I’m not just referring to green marketing and greenwashing. As real nature recedes from our experience, we fill the gap by consuming ever more ecoporn.

Maybe because of their ubiquity or simply their banality, these images have lost their power to move me. But what’s to take their place? Lately, I have been intrigued by Edward Burtynsky, whose work was featured in the film Manufactured Landscapes and appeared in Alternatives a little over a year ago. But Burtynsky’s beautiful pictures of industrial landscapes such as open pit mines, the tar sands and Chinese manufacturing, while startling, leave me cold.

The artist whose work has moved me more than anything I have seen or read in recent years is Chris Jordan. His series Midway: Message from the Gyre is a collection of photos of dead albatross chicks from the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in the North Pacific Ocean. It’s not the number of dead birds (tens of thousands by some counts) that gets me; it’s how they died.

As Jordan’s pictures make clear, the birds succumbed because they ingested all manner of plastic debris that their parents had scooped up in good faith from the ocean surface, mistaking it for food. Bottle caps, cigarette lighters, fishing gear and trinkets are recognizable amidst the flotsam at the core of the carcasses. This is what we are doing to our fellow creatures. This is today’s reality. It’s enough to make me cry. 

Mark Meisner teaches environmental studies at SUNY-ESF. He directs the Environmental Communication Network, and blogs about environmental communication and culture at indications.wordpress.com.

 

 

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