Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

by Finis Dunaway

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Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images by Finis Dunaway

American environmentalism is defined by its icons: the “Crying Indian,” who shed a tear in response to litter and pollution; the cooling towers of Three Mile Island, site of a notorious nuclear accident; the sorrowful spectacle of oil-soaked wildlife following the ExxonValdez spill; and, more recently, Al Gore delivering his global warming slide show in An Inconvenient Truth. These images, and others like them, have helped make environmental consciousness central to American public culture. Yet most historical accounts ignore the crucial role images have played in the making of popular environmentalism, let alone the ways that they have obscured other environmental truths.
Finis Dunaway closes that gap with Seeing Green. Considering a wide array of images—including pictures in popular magazines, television news, advertisements, cartoons, films, and political posters—he shows how popular environmentalism has been entwined with mass media spectacles of crisis. Beginning with radioactive fallout and pesticides during the 1960s and ending with global warming today, he focuses on key moments in which media images provoked environmental anxiety but also prescribed limited forms of action. Moreover, he shows how the media have blamed individual consumers for environmental degradation and thus deflected attention from corporate and government responsibility. Ultimately, Dunaway argues, iconic images have impeded efforts to realize—or even imagine—sustainable visions of the future.
Generously illustrated, this innovative book will appeal to anyone interested in the history of environmentalism or in the power of the media to shape our politics and public life.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226169934
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/01/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 877,379
File size: 15 MB
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About the Author

Finis Dunaway is associate professor of history at Trent University, where he teaches courses in US history, visual culture, and environmental studies. He is the author of Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

Read an Excerpt

Seeing Green

The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

By Finis Dunaway

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-16993-4


Dr. Spock, Daisy Girl, and DDT: A Prehistory of Environmental Icons

Everything about him seems so serious: his stiff posture, his stern expression, his three- piece suit, taut necktie, and collar pin (fig. 1.1). With hands in pockets, his lips tightly pursed, he looks down at the child, who seems completely unaware of his presence. Below the photograph, a brief sentence in bold letters summarizes the scene: "Dr. Spock is worried."

Published as a full-page advertisement in the New York Times in 1962, reprinted in seven hundred newspapers and numerous magazines, and then appearing as a poster "in store windows, nurseries, doctors' offices, and even on baby carriages," the Dr. Spock ad became the most important visual text produced in the campaign against nuclear testing. As the nation's leading child expert and the author of Baby and Child Care, the best-selling parenting manual ever published, Dr. Benjamin Spock exerted tremendous influence in postwar America. His legendary book began with these words of reassurance: "Trust yourself.... What good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best." Although his manual tried to inspire parental confidence, now Spock evinced concern, indeed outright worry, about the dangers of bomb testing and radioactive fallout. He urged parents to protest nuclear testing by writing to their electedofficials and to contribute to SANE, the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.

Dr. Spock and other SANE ads challenged the sublime aesthetic of the mushroom cloud, the iconic rendering of the bomb blast that celebrated its technologically generated, awe-inspiring qualities. Often produced by government agencies and circulated by Life and other popular magazines, photographs of the Nevada Test Site aestheticized the blast and encouraged spectators not to worry about the dangers of radioactive particles released into the atmosphere. By moving beyond the mushroom cloud, leaving the spectacle of the blast to follow radioactivity as it contaminated the environment and entered people's bodies, SANE rejected the government and mass media's framing of the bomb to focus instead on its ominous afterlives. In particular, the organization sought to picture strontium 90 and other radioactive agents as posing a grave, long-term danger to innocent children. Combining empirical data with emotional concern, SANE used visual images to call for environmental citizenship: to demand that the state guarantee the safety of people's living conditions and the futurity of the nation's environment.

SANE ads would soon be joined by other popular images that depicted the temporality of the environmental crisis—that conveyed the long-term danger of radioactive fallout, pesticides, and other threats to the environment and the human body. This chapter will present three sets of images as together constituting a prehistory of environmental icons: SANE ads, the Daisy Girl and other TV commercials produced for the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson presidential campaign, and pesticide imagery that followed publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962) and culminated with the 1972 federal ban on DDT. Although these images are not usually viewed in relation to one another, they reveal similar representational strategies and provide new insight into the emergence of modern environmentalism. In these images, the materiality of environmental risk merged with the emotionality of environmental politics to popularize a way of seeing that placed human bodies and nonhuman nature in a shared, interlinked realm of escalating danger. We can think of this as seeing through an ecological lens.

The ecological lens differed from popular landscape photography, which tended to depict wild nature as a pristine realm, untouched and unspoiled by the presence of people. In their campaigns to save wild places, the Sierra Club and other leading wilderness groups used the photography of Ansel Adams and other artists to present nature as a pure, sacred space. Coffee table books, posters, and calendars all celebrated the wilderness as a landscape apart from human society. In contrast, the ecological lens enveloped both humans and nature in a common geography of long- term, incremental danger. SANE ads, LBJ commercials, and pesticide imagery warned of the risks to people and the nonhuman world in ecological systems increasingly burdened by pollution, toxicity, and other hazards. These images helped bring the ecological lens into the mainstream of American public culture.

The popular media sanctioning of environmental values depended upon an important shift in the emotional politics of Cold War America. In the post–World War II period, government officials and scientific experts sought to discredit fear and anxiety as illegitimate emotions, especially in relation to technology, the environment, and human health. They denied the vulnerability of permeable, ecological bodies and urged the public not to be afraid of bomb testing and the proliferation of pesticides and other toxic chemicals. This discourse came under attack, though, as antinuclear activists and ecological critics like Rachel Carson questioned the much-vaunted rationality of the experts and used scientific evidence to justify feelings of fear toward fallout and pesticides. Visual images played an active role in this struggle and ultimately helped to legitimate a new emotional style in American public culture. As fear and anxiety toward the environmental future became normalized, environmental citizenship rights could be more easily imagined, articulated, and realized. This change in emotional styles thus contributed to the emergence of popular environmentalism.

Seeing through the ecological lens abetted a transformation in popular thought, marking a shift from the idea of nature as a realm separate from human society to the notion of environment as an interconnected system that all beings—human and nonhuman—shared. Dr. Spock, the Daisy Girl, and DDT imagery all configured humans as part of nature by showing vulnerable bodies at risk and calling for an emotional response in viewing audiences. These texts fused fact and feeling to frame environmental danger as a slowly escalating crisis, and helped Americans see themselves as part of a living, but also threatened, body politic. In challenging the Cold War emotional style, this new form of popular environmentalism collapsed the boundaries between nature and culture to envision fragile bodies and ecosystems under siege.

By representing fear of fallout, Dr. Spock and other SANE ads sought to reposition iconic photographs of the Nevada Test Site, where the US government detonated approximately one hundred nuclear weapons into the atmosphere during the 1950s and early 1960s. Popular images of the nuclear testing program drew on the sublime tradition to generate a new category of representation: the atomic sublime, a way of seeing that emphasized the overwhelming power and beauty of the mushroom cloud. Rather than picturing vast mountains, towering waterfalls, and other monumental scenes of nature, the atomic sublime naturalized the mushroom cloud to celebrate the spectacle of the blast. As government scientists downplayed the dangers of fallout, the iconic mushroom cloud provided spectators with sublime pictures of US technological power. By encouraging audiences to see beauty but not destruction, to feel inspired but not terrified, to glimpse the mushroom cloud but not contemplate the lingering effects of fallout, the pictures excluded from the frame the threats that strontium 90 and other radioactive elements posed to the environment and human health.

This way of depicting the bomb denied human vulnerability to ecological risk. Indeed, government experts repeatedly claimed that the body was impervious to radioactive materials. One military film, screened for troops before a bomb test in Nevada, shows an animated cartoon of a human body being exposed to radioactive particles. The round objects simply bounce off the skin; unable to penetrate the flesh, they look like balls being thrown against a wall. Merging corporeal fortitude with emotional fortitude, the invincibility of the human body with the rejection of fear, Cold War imagery sought to control public feelings by disavowing environmental danger. Presenting themselves as the purveyors of fact and guardians of rationality, government experts sought to manage public fear by maintaining the boundaries between nature and culture and denying the reality of environmental risk.

This federal dismissal of fallout fear appeared across a diverse array of visual media. In one episode of The Big Picture, an Army-produced television show, audiences witnessed the fears of American troops, who worried that their proximity to nuclear tests and exposure to fallout might jeopardize their health. In one scene, supposedly filmed the night before a bomb test, two soldiers speak with a chaplain, who calmly tries to assuage their fears. He first explains how the Army's scientific experts have "taken all the necessary precautions to see that we're perfectly safe here." He then describes the aesthetic pleasure of the bomb blast. "First of all," he says, "one sees a very, very bright light.... And then you look up and you see the fireball as it ascends to the heavens. It contains all the rich colors of the rainbow. And then as it rises up into the atmosphere, it ... assembles into the mushroom. It is a wonderful sight to behold."

In this nationally televised conversation, the chaplain instructed soldiers to put their faith in the experts. Rather than succumbing to fear, they should instead surrender themselves to the intense feelings of awe and wonder summoned by the atomic sublime. By showing the American public how the Army addressed the fears of its troops, The Big Picture used TV as an instrument of emotional containment. In these and other examples, government officials and the mass media celebrated the sublime spectacle of the bomb blast but concealed the accretive dangers of radioactivity.

In 1957, SANE announced its founding via a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, an ad that looked strikingly different from the Dr. Spock ad that followed five years later (fig. 1.2). The statement began, in large, bold print, with a warning—"We Are Facing A Danger Unlike Any Danger That Has Ever Existed"—and emphasized the ongoing "contamination of air and water and food, and the injury to man himself" caused by nuclear testing. Hoping to build a national movement, but worried that this ad was not attracting enough attention, SANE leaders hired a communication consultant to evaluate its effectiveness. The consultant concluded that the ad was "'too long' and 'too wordy'" and argued "that a photo or graphic symbol would attract the attention of the general public." Indeed, SANE's first foray into the realm of mass communication was completely devoid of images, as lengthy text crowded the page. Even avid readers of the Times, the consultant explained, "had 'missed' the ad," not even noticing it was there.

SANE leaders soon followed the consultant's advice. In their initial use of images, they relied upon familiar pictures of the mushroom cloud, recasting the bomb blast as harbinger of doom rather than sublime spectacle. The first illustrated ad began with a warning above the picture: "NUCLEAR BOMBSCAN DESTROY ALL LIFE IN WAR." A second warning appeared below the photograph: "NUCLEAR TESTS ARE ENDANGERING OUR HEALTH RIGHTNOW." Through this fusion of text and image, SANE presented the potential devastation of nuclear war and the actual threat of radioactive fallout as conjoined hazards that both endangered the health of the citizenry.

SANE continued to use mushroom cloud imagery, but some activists urged the group to develop a different representational strategy focusing on childhood vulnerability. Two weeks after the first mushroom cloud ad appeared, one letter writer urged the group to place "ads ... that starkly present the problem," including, she suggested, "a picture of a child with the caption: THIS CHILD WILL DIE OR BE DEFORMED BY CONTINUING NUCLEARTESTS: WILL SHE BE YOURS?" This letter writer, along with others who wrote to SANE, believed that visual images, particularly pictures of children, would align emotion with dissent to foster political activism. "Perhaps these ... suggestions are too macabre," she concluded, "but I feel that public apathy must be met by the most dramatic presentation of this frightening subject." A vibrant democratic culture, along with the future health of Americans and their environment, depended upon, these letter writers believed, the infusion of emotions into politics.

People who recommended that SANE deploy images of children suggested that environmental citizenship could best be imagined through a strategy that depicted the child as the nation's most treasured citizen. These pictures of futurity would ask the presumed audience of adults to worry not so much about the potential risks to their own bodies, but rather to invest concern in the vulnerable bodies of children growing up in an increasingly degraded environment. This representational strategy can be compared with what the cultural critic Lauren Berlant has termed "infantile citizenship." Focusing on the 1980s, Berlant argues that public life and the image of citizenship became overwhelmingly fixated on future Americans, on "pictures ... circulating in the public sphere" of children, "persons that, paradoxically, cannot yet act as citizens." Yet while infantile citizenship denies adult agency and shifts attention from pressing social problems, SANE's emphasis upon vulnerable children contested the technocratic assumptions of government elites and visualized threats to permeable ecological bodies. By depicting bodies at risk, SANE tried to illustrate the long-term incremental danger of fallout and to challenge the spectacle of the bomb blast through the counterspectacle of innocent children.

In 1962, SANE finally adopted the strategy recommended by letter writers by producing "Dr. Spock is Worried" and other images that visualized the invisible danger of fallout. Hovering over the child, brooding over the dangers of fallout, Spock appears unsure how to protect the child. The text below specifically addresses parents: "If you've been raising a family on Dr. Spock's book, you know that he doesn't get worried easily." "I am worried," Spock explained. "As the tests multiply, so will the damage to children."

This ad bears the hallmarks of the agency that created it: Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach. Known for its distinctive and much-discussed campaigns, like the "Think Small" and "Lemon" ads for the Volkswagen Beetle, Doyle, Dane, and Bernbach departed from the layout style of other firms by using black-and-white photographs, minimalist design, and brief text, usually in the form of short, vertical columns at the bottom of the page. The Dr. Spock ad adopted this same approach, but, unlike other ads by the firm, did not employ humor to make its point.

Many people wrote letters to praise SANE for adopting this strategy which appealed to audience emotions. "The Dr. Spock advertisement is the greatest [SANE] has ever published," one writer announced. "It represents a sure-fire way of reaching people who would otherwise not be touched by even the most logical approach." Many believed that Spock's celebrity status and the respect that parents, especially mothers, accorded him would enable SANE to reach a larger public. "You know," one woman wrote, "the most faithful readers of advertisements are housewives looking for items for the home and family. For that reason, the Dr. Spock ad is by far the most effective ad SANE has ever sponsored." She also applauded the group for using a photograph and brief verbal appeal rather than relying too heavily on text. "The well-documented SANE ads with a couple of 1000 words of copy may be literary masterpieces," she continued, "—but the people who read ads as a rule aren't apt to read them!" Others described Spock as "practically a member of the family." "I was very moved by your statement," one explained. "Mothers have looked to you for advice regarding children for years. I sincerely hope they heed your voice at this time."

Jeanne Bagby, a cofounder of the antinuclear group Women Strike for Peace, also expressed her gratitude for the ad. "I wish to join with thousands of other mothers in heartfelt thanks for your recent public statement," Bagby wrote to Spock. "For months and years, we have implored our doctors, scientists and government officials for the truth about radiation effects, for a more public discussion of the hazards of testing, for protection of our children. Our efforts have been largely dismissed as the rantings of hysterical women." According to Bagby, women protesters were too often ignored or ridiculed on the basis of the misogynistic charge that they were overly emotional and thus unable to cope rationally with the arms race and the debate over fallout. For this reason, she suggested that a man could more easily convey emotional concern and not be dismissed.


Excerpted from Seeing Green by Finis Dunaway. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

13. Meryl Streep, the Alar Crisis, and the Rise of Green Consumerism 12. Environmental Spectacle in a Neoliberal Age Part Three. Green Goes Mainstream 11. Carter’s Crisis and the Road Not Taken 10. Here Comes the Sun? 9. Nuclear Meltdown II: Three Mile Island 8. Nuclear Meltdown I: The China Syndrome 7. Gas Lines and Power Struggles Part Two. Energy Crises and Emotional Politics 6. The Recycling Logo and the Aesthetics of Environmental Hope 5. The Crying Indian 4. Pogo: “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us” 3. Gas Masks: The Ecological Body under Assault 2. From Santa Barbara to Earth Day Part One. Earth Day and the Visual Politics of Environmental Crisis 1. Dr. Spock, Daisy Girl, and DDT: A Prehistory of Environmental Icons Introduction Contents 14. The Sudden Violence of the Exxon Valdez 15. Global Crisis, Green Consumers: The Media Packaging of Earth Day 1990 Conclusion: The Strange Career of An Inconvenient Truth Acknowledgments Notes Index

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