Seeing GreenThe Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

Seeing GreenThe Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images

Finis Dunaway

Print publication date: 2015

ISBN: 9780226169903

Publisher: University of Chicago Press


Certain images stand out as icons of American environmentalism: a 1971 public service announcement featuring the “Crying Indian,” who sheds a tear in response to litter and pollution; the cooling towers of Three Mile Island, site of a notorious nuclear power accident in 1979; the sorrowful spectacle of oil-soaked wildlife following the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill; and, more recently, Al Gore delivering his global-warming slideshow 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. This book looks at a wide array of visual texts—including pictures in popular magazines, television news, advertisements, cartoons, films, and political posters—to show how popular environmentalism has been entwined with mass media spectacles of crisis. Yet, even as media images have made the environmental crisis visible to a mass public, they often have masked systemic causes. Deflecting attention from corporate and government responsibility, popular images have instead emphasized the idea that individual Americans are personally culpable for pollution and other environmental problems. The visual media have thus offered environmentalists a double-edged sword: Images have helped them popularize their cause, but also distorted their ideas by portraying their movement as a moralistic crusade to absolve the nation of its guilt. Ultimately, this dual focus on spectacles of crisis and individual moral choices has hidden underlying causes and structural solutions behind a veil of inattention.