Book Review: Environmentalism in Popular Culture

Published online 7 May 2009.

This is a review of Noel Sturgeon’s (2009) Environmentalism in Popular Culture, an interesting book of feminist cultural criticism.  Environmentalism in Popular Culture offers the most readily-accessible critique of an American mythology of the environment that I’ve read yet.  Though it makes some rather quick connections between its identity politics categories and environmental analysis, it maintains the reader’s interest throughout.

(crossposted at Docudharma)

When I was a university student in the ’80s and ’90s, I got to observe firsthand the growth in popularity of a field loosely known as “cultural studies,” with its promotion of a “new” field of political inquiry which it called “identity politics.”  As a prospective graduate student, I was accepted into a department which advertised its practice of what it called “critical/cultural studies.”  So I was at least familiar with cultural studies as an academic trend.  Later in life, I became more focused upon environmental topics.

Noel Sturgeon’s Environmentalism in Popular Culture has combined the “cultural studies” and environmentalist interests in an interesting, politically-committed book.  This book is subtitled “Gender, Race, Sexuality, and the Politics of the Natural,” which should tell you a good amount about its proclaimed method: “global feminist environmental justice analysis.”  Sturgeon’s central idea is that

US environmentalists use popular narrative tropes to get their message across in ways that they think will be widely effective.  But they do not often critically examine what relationship these stories have to the long-standing use of arguments from the natural that have promoted inequality and supported conquest throughout US political and social history.  It is crucial, therefore, to examine the negative implications and effects of environmentalist deployment of certain narratives about nature, given that some of these narratives are simultaneously used to uphold troubling ideas about US power, heterosexist and sexist concepts of families and sexuality, and racist ideas about indigenous and Global South peoples.  (7)

Thus what follows in the rest of this book is a sort of mythography of these “popular narrative tropes.”  In constructing this mythography, Sturgeon examines a wide variety of different media presentations: from advertising pitches (which employ “environmental” tropes) to films (King Kong, Dances With Wolves, Hidalgo) to science fiction (2001: A Space Odyssey, The Day After Tomorrow) to Disney movies for children to specifically environmentalist nonfiction such as An Inconvenient Truth.

The tropes that Sturgeon selects for her analysis are probably the most important part of this book.  Sturgeon reveals the American “frontier” myth as persisting past the close of the actual physical frontier, and two iconic figures stand out as emblems of this “frontier” myth.  The first is the trope of the Ecological Indian, who is both Pocahontas (Disney version) and Iron Eyes Cody in the famous “Keep America Beautiful” antilittering ad campaign in the ’70s.  The Ecological Indian is a symbol of pristine purity, untainted by the ugly realities of imperialism but still standing (in a symbolic, unreal sense) against the imperialists.  The other “frontier” myth is that of space exploration as a benign form of colonialism, as reflected in space opera.  There are, of course, plenty of examples of each of these “frontier” myths.

The “frontier myth,” here, is of course a justification of the imperialist conquest of the Old West, though in the modern era such a myth is given an environmentalist twist as the “Ecological Indian,” the myth of Native American purity, now presumably deceased, which is ostensibly re-dramatized in order to sponsor the preservation of nature without really getting the “White Man” to substantially change his ways.

The space exploration myth is here used to explore the connection between the “frontier” attitude of science fiction writers, and Reagan’s “Strategic Defense Initiative” for the militarization of space, which contributes to the population of near-Earth orbit with lots of “space junk,” dangerous debris moving quickly in high-Earth orbit.  Militarized “wastelands” in space are said to be analogues of previous militarized wastelands on Earth.

When Sturgeon reflects upon children’s movies (and other texts), she considers “superhero” narratives of “saving the Earth” which do not consider the corporate/ government “business as usual” context in which the Earth (really, ecosystem complexity) is in fact endangered.

An interlude in this book about polar environments, both North and South, dramatizes the extent to which penguins are (in movie narratives in The March of the Penguins and Happy Feet), depicted as “popular symbols that conflate heterosexist family values and the need to resist environmental threats” (136), and another movie, about northern polar locals, which examines the real relations between abrupt climate change and the disappearance of sophisticated ways of “living off the land” among indigenous people living in the Arctic Circle area.

Ultimately Sturgeon wishes to transition readers from social critiques of media images to a systematic critique of “the metabolism of man and nature” (to borrow Marx’s phrase).  She hopes that environmentalism will —

move beyond individual modifications of ways of living to address the systematic, institutionalized structures that maintain inequality and promote environmental devastation.  (182)

But these structures are not really addressed here, not to the extent to which we can understand the hypertrophy in “the metabolism of man and nature.”  Sturgeon is too busy trying to bring identity politics into the conversation, and in doing so, she critiques media participation in mythic structures which have contributed to environmental devastation (e.g. the suburban nuclear family, the colonial frontier).  Indeed, we would do well to reject such mythic structures, and to know them when we see them in the mass media.

Mass media hopes that we might “save the Earth,” however, were never anything but a fiction.  Sturgeon is in a bit of a rush to proclaim that the critiques of racism, sexism, and heterosexism have a contribution to make to the critique of “the metabolism of man and nature” under capitalist, industrial conditions, without specifying too carefully what that latter critique really is.  Perhaps we are intended to find out about metabolic critique by reading other books.  Many of my previous diaries here are about the metabolic critique of capitalism, incl. book reviews.  Certainly Sturgeon has been reading titles on much of that list — she’s got Joan Martinez-Alier prominently on her reading list, for instance.

Even so, books such as Sturgeon’s are fun to read.  Previous books on “green” criticism have gotten bogged down in lengthy lists of categories: this one moves carefully from cultural reference to cultural reference in ways which really entertain the reader while inviting her to think carefully about her exposure to entertainment industry messages.  Recommended.

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