Chapter 4 of O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics (2018) book, “Climate Change & Security”, demonstrates that narratives about the ‘environment’ can be used to stabilize and secure a power holders position, desired resources, or agenda. However, Chapter 5 of Environmental Geopolitics (2018), “Science, Imagery & Understanding the Environment”, builds on the idea that these narratives are supported by their selective use of data and emotionally persuasive imagery; they can influence how our understanding of the ‘environment’ is formed.
The main argument of the chapter is that much of what (we think) we know about the world is influenced by selective representations of information. Dr. O’Lear states in her book that “in our society, there is a tendency to assume that the right science, and enough of it, will lead to the best policy” (135). The catch here is that even science itself is specialized within particular fields of study, and the use and promotion of particular scientific work is selective. No single form of science nor any amount of data can fully encompass all dimensions of a particular issue or circumstance. That is why our three questions of Environmental Geopolitics bring a helpfully critical perspective to claims about environmental value, risk, and security. To refresh, when presented with a claim about the environment that identifies some form of risk or security, we must ask:
- How is the environment defined and specified?
- What is humans’ role or agency?
- What is the spatial focus?
This section will help show how narratives influenced by certain forms of science and perspectives support arguments of security and risk, thereby shaping how we understand and operate within the world around us. Because science and the imagery that aims to explain it shape how we understand and treat the environment, a co- constructive feedback loop is created. This loop shows us that society, science, policy, and technology are deeply interwoven and dependent on each other. Science influences society, and society influences science. This idea helps us see that the information presented to us is actively social and intentional. While this feedback loop dominates our societies and policies, O’Lear points to what Donna Haraway calls the “god trick” (Haraway 1988) of scientific objectivity.
The “god trick” presents science and scientific findings as somehow universal, natural, and obvious. Instead, in reality, we are looking at an interpretation of the world through a selective lens of science. Since there are many forms of science and potential ways of looking at things, there can be no single, universal, objective view.
When we see media coverage on environmental issues, they often cast these issues with a tone of “doom and gloom.” However, Environmental Geopolitics helps us ask how and why these reports are shown in such a way. Is it to distract us from larger issues? To make us consume and participate in society in a certain way? In the same way, “positive” images of environmental issues can also be used to influence our understanding and actions. While we see politicians and policies that give us hope and even empower us, they still might not encompass the full story.
Scientific information, and the imagery generated to communicate that information, is inherently selective. It can be helpful and informative, but it is limited and can be manipulated to influence us and our actions and perspectives.
Brynna Darley’s podcast, “How to Ruin the Party” is a perfect introduction to our discussion of Science, Imagery & Understanding the Environment. She really does crash the party by giving us a reality check on how we make sense of the world around us. She goes after the big guy: Disney. Oh no! Not the Mouse! The Mouse always wins, as they say. Disney is a master manipulator. Most importantly – according to our host – Disney controls our emotions. She says that “we often understand the world around us by creating a patchwork of external influences.” That statement summarizes a central idea of this section: that much of what we know about the world comes from the selective representation of information presented to us.
Disney specializes in creating a world of imagination that encourages us to see what the company wants us to see while obscuring what they don’t want us to see. While Disney reports on their new “eco-friendly” toys and maintains a virtuous façade, stories leak of poor or even inhumane working conditions in Disney’s factories, yet we tend to remain blind to these inequalities.
Brynna calls this method of distraction the “halo effect”: by leaving us enchanted with their eco-friendly promises, we may ignore worse situations behind the halo.
Lee Tim’s podcast discusses how imagery may be used to influence our emotions and decision making with a recent trend: concern over plastic straws. He introduces this topic with a discussion of a popular image of a sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose. This image circled the internet and took it by storm in recent years. Poor guy! Straws must be evil! They’re harming our wildlife and ecosystems! We must eliminate them! Right? Images like this can be seen in news, on media, or promoted by interest groups. The power in this image of the sea turtle is in it’s partial ambiguity: we don’t know where this turtle is or where the straw came from, but we see it here and now on TV or Facebook. It must be important and we must take action!
Taking a step back, Lee asks: why are we focusing on plastic straws when there are much larger contributors to ocean pollution such as “energy and water usage, food waste, and the many other consumable goods like plastic bags and beverage containers.” He argues that while the elimination of plastic straws and plastic waste is indeed a noble cause to promote, such a limited focus on something small like straws distracts us from more important issues and actors.
Lee’s podcast highlights how images are used to shape our understanding of the environment and what goes on within it. He points out that the image of a hurt sea turtle has dominated plastic waste discourse and shaped the public’s perception of ocean pollution. He argues that the sea turtle image was specifically chosen and published to divert public attention away from the practices of the fishing and service industries that contribute the most pollution and towards consumption habits.
An important concept of imagery and understanding the environment is the manipulation of imagery and information to shift the responsibility of environmental issues onto average citizens and off of the most powerful actors at play.
Jenna Barackman discusses plastic straws, too, but from a slightly wider angle. The claim made by the World Wildlife Fund that she analyzes is “if consumers boycott plastic straws, then they can change the future of our oceans.” Claims like this one, encouraging a change in consumer behavior, are commonly seen in “eco-friendly” campaigns.
She argues that this view is narrow and vague in its implications of banning plastic straws. It is misleading to suggest that passing legislation to ban plastic straws “will fix all our issues.” She notes that banning plastic straws appears to be used as a distraction for all plastic pollution issues as a way to reduce consumer guilt. In her analysis, Jenna makes the point that while we (the “average” consumer) are given a false sense of hope in making positive environmental impacts, this individualization of a global issue blames consumers for outcomes that are truly beyond our personal control.
By shifting the perception of responsibility, the impacts of plastic pollution are wrongfully shifted from producers to consumers.
Jenna quotes the Lonely Whale, a non-governmental group whose mission is simply to “prevent plastic waste from entering the ocean”, stating “the straw campaign was never really about straws. Instead the goal was to raise awareness specifically about straws to shed light on how single use plastics are damaging and far too prevalent in the consumer world, and hoping that companies alike would take some sort of accountability.”
Jenna’s analysis of the attempt to raise genuine awareness of oceanic plastic pollution suggests that the campaign to ban plastic straws has mostly served to shift perspective in a way that ultimately favors and protects unethical and unsustainable practices of plastic producers.
Haraway, Donna. 1988. “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.” Feminist Studies 14 (3): 575-599. https://doi.org/10.2307/3178066.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.