Look at this image. What do you see?
Do you see familiar continents, oceans, and colored topography?
Do you see the Earth?
What you’re actually seeing is a combination of scientific and artistic interpretations of the Earth, not a real photo. Instead, it is the culmination of several satellite scans of Earth, interpretations from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) scientists, and several graphic designers.
What you’re actually seeing is a global environmental narrative that carefully manipulates science and imagery to influence the way we view and interact with the Earth, also known as our environment.
Here we enter the realm of Environmental Geopolitics. Through this approach, we critically analyze the environmental narratives, images, and claims presented to us by the government agencies, corporations, or other interest groups in order to gain a better perspective of what is really happening in our global and local environments: ecologically, socially, economically and spatially.
Broadly, Environmental Geopolitics addresses the question of how environmental narratives affect our perception of human-environment interactions and the way those interactions play into political narratives of what is at risk and subsequently what needs to be secured. Narratives about the environment shape what we understand about the environment and how we value—or devalue—it.
Specifically, Environmental Geopolitics (O’Lear 2018, 6-9) analyzes these narratives through three lenses or questions:
- How is the environment defined with each claim? What is its role?
- How do human actions and systems play into the narrative? What aspects of human activity are left out of the narrative?
- What are the spatial considerations of the narrative?
Through these lenses, we not only analyze what information the narrative includes but also what the claim deliberately leaves out. Through careful analysis of particular narratives about the environment, we can assemble a more complete picture of how environmental features are brought into political agendas.
Within this open educational resource (OER), you’ll find several analyses of environmental narratives across the globe from individuals who took Environmental Geopolitics as a class with Dr. Shannon O’Lear. Within the classroom, we each started with an idea: identify a simple environmental problem that we wanted to learn more about or felt particularly drawn to investigate. From there, we each picked a specific press release, marketing campaign, or governmental publication where our chosen narrative was promoted.
That document or website became the centerpiece of our analysis around which we could conduct lateral research. We built our research off of the individual claims that certain technologies or individual practices would be “good” or “bad” for the environment and set about finding how exactly the publishing group defined what was “good” or “bad”, who would likely benefit or suffer from a particular action, and what was captured in references to “environment”.
More often than not, the “good” from these claims is only good for certain populations, while others still have to bear the brunt of environmental effects or the aftermath of that certain practice. More often than not, the environment is not considered to be an all-encompassing image of the Earth and its communities but rather a very specific set of variables, systems, or processes aligned under scientific studies. It will become painfully clear to you throughout this OER, as it did for us, that there are no truly “good” or “bad” environmental narratives or geopolitical claims. Rather, these discourses are constructed to reflect specific political and spatial agendas from those in power from a very specific point in time.
Common Themes from Environmental Geopolitics
Several common themes arise from our individual analyses of these claims. Greenwashing refers to the efforts from governments and corporations to make their actions and products seem sustainable or “good” for the environment (O’Lear 2018, 60). In reality, greenwashing hides the harmful impacts of polluting practices by diverting the public’s gaze from active degradation towards the selective variables of the environment that the narrative authority presents within their claim. This practice is consistent through most of the environmental claims researched by our creators. Our research serves to gaze behind the curtain of greenwashing to determine a more holistic picture of the environment and unveil the more harmful themes that underlie those claims.
One of these more harmful themes is the concept of Malthusian narratives. Thomas Malthus was an 18th century political scholar who viewed overpopulation, or the exponential growth of human populations with a limited food supply, as cause for concern around the quality of human life in the future (O’Lear 2018, 32-36). Author Paul R. Ehrlich takes this idea one step further in The Population Bomb (1968), blaming environmental ills and social upheavals on overpopulation. These narratives shift the blame to individual populations rather than the corporations or governments creating or upholding damaging policies and practices.
However, narratives about overpopulation often lead to discussions of who deserves to live and who deserves to die when addressing the issue. Embedded in narratives about overpopulation, it is not uncommon to see that poorer, marginalized, and minoritized groups of people are separated out as having to face some form of inevitable suffering. However, these narratives often overlook and naturalize deeper contexts of social inequity and past injustices that cause marginalized communities to face the brunt of environmental ills like cancer, asthma, and death.
The environmental (and other forms of) harms consistently faced by these communities over time is known as slow violence, another common theme among the podcasts. Slow violence is much harder to detect than the immediate violence of a gun going off or a nuke being dropped. Rather, it reflects “violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space” (Nixon 2011, 2). This is seen through public health problems as a result of an environmental ill or through populations being kept in persistent downtrodden and disadvantageous situations.
Take for example redlining: a practice by the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation back in the ‘50s that took red ink to a map to mark out high risk neighborhoods for giving out housing loans. These high risk lending neighborhoods were, un-coincidentally, minority and low-income communities (Mitchell et al., 2018, 3). While this practice is illegal now, many of people of color are still relegated to these neighborhoods, neighborhoods that have quietly been rezoned as mixed industrial and residential areas like the famous Cancer Alley in Louisiana. Communities of color are kept in impoverished conditions by archaic practices and current harmful industrial production, yet there isn’t just one event or action to point our fingers at. Rather, these communities are suffering every day from a lack of social welfare, years of environmental degradation, and a system that keeps them disadvantaged.
This is an example of slow violence that is ingrained in the functioning of social, political, and economic systems for the local environment in Louisiana, as well as for the greater American environment as the chemicals cheaply produced there are distributed across the globe for American economic gain. The environment is then naturalized as disadvantaged to hide the actions of real political actors encouraging perpetual degradation of that environment and the human bodies that live within it.
Environmental Racism & Environmental Determinism
Following that discussion of slow violence, other similar terms to address would be environmental racism and environmental determinism. Environmental racism means the specific targeting of communities of color for land use by polluting industries, lax environmental regulations around these industries, and structural conditions that turn a blind eye to the suffering of marginalized populations. Environmental determinism plays into this mindset and Malthusian narratives. Environmental determinism is the belief that certain environments are naturally prone to environmental degradation or poor environmental conditions. Environmental determinism also assumes that environmental features—or the lack thereof—directly lead to particular social outcomes such as conflict or migration (O’Lear 2018, 10).
This is the assumption of political narratives made about communities in the Global South who have experienced the brunt of the environmental impacts from polluting industries like oil and mineral extraction. Environmental determinism in America and other colonial countries naturalizes the less developed structures of countries in the Global South, instead of acknowledging that less-economically developed countries are less developed because of international interference and militarized destabilization from countries with more power. Instead of doing something about the environmental degradation taking place in the Global South, Western politicians often advocate for polluting industries to be sourced there instead of within richer countries to keep pollution at a distance from these wealthier states. As Environmental Geopolitics will eventually teach you, nothing is ever naturally polluted.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 1968. The Population Bomb. New York: Ballantine Books.
Nixon, Robert. 2011. Slow Violence and Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mitchell, Bruce, Juan Franco, et al. 2018. HOLC “Redlining” Maps: The persistent structure of segregation and economic inequality. Washington, DC: National Community Reinvestment Coalition. https://ncrc.org/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2018/02/NCRC-Research-HOLC-10.pdf
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.