- Race and the New Green Media:Lessons from Environmental History
In a recent issue of Mother Jones, the country's premier left-wing investigative journal, Jacques Leslie led readers on an environmental catastrophe tour of China. From deforestation to desertification, Leslie deftly chronicled the country's myriad environmental challenges. Toward the end of the article appeared a strategically placed advertisement presumably likely to appeal to a reader who had invested the time to read thirteen pages about another country's environmental woes. The tagline for GreenSingles.com was straight-forward: "Find Love & Save the Planet!" The ad's breezy supposition that a website could help environmentally minded singles achieve two of their weightier life goals seemed unremarkable; products change, but grandiose claims have been a staple of American capitalism since the nineteenth century. What caught my eye was the photo of the late-thirties white couple that graced the ad.1 The inter-play between environmentally themed advertisements and news coverage exemplifies the enthusiastic embrace of "green" issues by both the media and the businesses whose advertisements support the media.
Nonetheless, the disconnect between this health-oozing couple and the dynamics described in Leslie's article was a bit jarring. Surely these two were tap water–drinking, recycling fanatics who worked in LEED2-certified buildings and eschewed cheap Chinese-made goods in favor of handmade American products. As if to confirm [End Page 260] this, my eye wandered up the page to an inscrutable advertisement for buyolympia.com. The 1950s-style graphic depicted a white woman with an infant strapped to her back and read simply, "I love public transportation." Just below this, forming the third side of the white environmental triangle, was a plug for earthtones.com, a cellular phone service that invests 100 percent of profits in environmental causes. A fit-looking white man perched on a precipice gabbed away.
These white people were doing all they could to save the environment. Visit a few websites and I could be just like them. Where were the racially balanced ads that we have come to expect from American companies? Were these progressive businesses beyond such transparent pandering? The answer to these questions is disarmingly simple: environmentalism, or at least the cutting edge, entrepreneurial slice of it, is not green, but lily white. Changing this perception is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for environmental restoration.
If anything can bridge racial divides, concern for the well-being of the planet, the air we breathe, and the water we drink would seem to be a prime candidate. Unfortunately, the tendency of the main-stream media to treat the environment as a discrete topic rather than as the meeting place where virtually all other realms of human existence—economy, health, government policy, weather—converge, reinforces familiar racial barriers. By subtly and not so subtly coding environmental issues, particularly green consumption and business, as white, America's newspapers, magazines, and television stations undermine the development of the broad, multiracial constituency required for progressive environmental action. In doing so, they unwittingly mimic the narrow approach that, until fairly recently, dominated the mainstream environmental movement itself.
The messages proffered by the media, environmental organizations, and America's businesses inspire a paradoxical combination of halfhearted individual action and communal despair. All hands on board the environmental deck now promote the notion that consumers, through their buying habits and consumption patterns, can improve the earth, or at least minimize consumers' negative impact. While a useful component of a green agenda, environmentally responsible consumerism suggests that the primary solution to our resource and pollution problems lies in individual, rather than collective action—a dangerous and misleading assumption. The green ads abutting Leslie's article capture the problem quite vividly: China's headlong embrace of economic growth is severely damaging public health and ecosystems, not to mention intensifying global warming, but you can make a marginal [End Page 261] difference by buying product X. In this green new world, the media must assume the straightforward but challenging task of educating its readers and viewers without inducing despair or over-weening pride in their green purchases.
Why assign the media the task of raising our collective...