Media and the Environment Syllabus Guide
This course introduces students to the many relationships between media and the environment, including not only the representation of nature in traditional media such as film and television but also the material entanglements of media technologies with surrounding built and natural environments.
The syllabus is designed to encourage comparative thinking across four axes: history, media technology, modes of environmentalism, and disciplinary approach. After beginning with debates about climate change that have dominated environmentalism over the last decade, the course moves back through history to the origins of landscape photography in nineteenth century. It then proceeds chronologically to track the development of environmental media, introducing students to the early cinematic representations of nature, the expansion of the environmental movement with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the emergence of apocalyptic predictions about overpopulation in the 1970s, and the toxic discourse and environmental justice actions of the 1980s. In each of these cases, I locate historical and contemporary material in conversation. During week 3 I pair readings on traditional landscape photography with Edward Burtynsky’s recent Manufactured Landscapes. During week 12 I connect colonial-era biopiracy with more recent circulations of biomatter. In teaching this class, I have found that such transhistorical connections help students relate the history of environmental media to their analysis of contemporary forms.
As the course moves from past to present, it intersects a broad spectrum [End Page 171] of environmental issues and movements. Each week we focus on a different ecological problem, which helps students to see how the framing of environmental concerns shifts both over time and across geographic contexts. Topics include industrialization, species extinction, the production of pesticides and petrochemicals, oil drilling and fracking, overpopulation, toxicity, consumerism and waste, overfishing, biopiracy and food systems, deforestation, and interspecies relationships.
In addition, the course covers a range of media forms. I have assigned texts that help generate discussion about the specificity of different modes of communication, including print (Murphy, Buell, Nixon), photography (Lewis, Sontag, Bright), cinema (Ivakhiv, MacDonald, Hughes), television (Bousé, Parks), digital media (Wolfe, Gabrys, Chang, Houser), and the arts (Jevbratt). Students are also asked to experiment with media production using these technologies. In previous courses, they have developed a wide range of projects: tactical media interventions, advocacy campaigns, radio shows, music videos, documentaries, animated films, web series, digital maps, installation art, and plans for environmental exhibits and museums.
Lastly, the syllabus includes texts oriented to the fields of ecocriticism (Buell, Chang, Yaeger, Nixon), ecocinema studies (Ivakhiv, Bousé, MacDonald), environmental communication (Cammaer, Lakoff, Wolfe), and art history (Bright). Understanding these disciplinary perspectives assists students in their critical assessment of arguments about environmental media and communication. We pay particular attention to scholars’ research methodologies, the assumptions they make about knowledge production, and the texts and contexts they consider.
Embedded in this syllabus is a thesis that argues, despite the longstanding mediation of the environment, that new forms of media are required to catalyze environmental change. I have found that the emphasis on comparative thinking has helped students to understand the critical and contextual approaches needed to innovate in environmental media production: to conceptualize it as taking place within a specific historical moment, to position it in relation to particular audiences and publics, and to account for the specificities of existing environments and technologies. By foregrounding this perspective throughout the course and pairing it with project-based work, the course attempts to reorient students as ethical media producers, rather than simply consumers of media. [End Page 172]
Media and the Environment
This interdisciplinary course will introduce you to the ways that environments, both natural and human, have been shaped by media representations and technologies. It will cover a variety of media forms, including newspapers, photography, literature, film, television, the internet, and video games, and identify their unique contributions to the representation and engagement of environmental issues. The course will look at the specific roles of media both in shaping modern environmental advocacy movements and in setting broader conditions for the perception of the environment.
We will assess environmental media from diverse disciplinary perspectives—including communication, film and media studies, and English—which will help you to identify and utilize a range of methodologies and critical frameworks. The course will also introduce you to the development of environmental media in different historical periods, extending from the tradition of landscape photography in the late nineteenth century to video art, animation, and video games, and to the interactive affordances and “salvage aesthetics” that accompany them. We’ll also look specifically at how genres of environmental discourse have evolved during the late twentieth century, including apocalypse and disaster narratives, ecocomedies, toxic discourse, environmental melodrama, and the documentary image-event. While the course will survey a range of different media forms, it will retain a focus on cinema, television, and digital media. During the semester, we will screen a number of films, including An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The Island President (2011), Manufactured Landscapes (2006), Grizzly Man (2005), Oil for Aladdin’s Lamp (1949), Gasland (2010), Soylent Green (1973), The Gleaners and I (2000), Safe (1995), The Cove (2009), and The Lorax (1972).
In this class, we will also experiment with media production, using diverse platforms and technologies. Assignments will require that you draw on the histories and concepts from course readings in order to develop original media projects. You will be challenged not simply to reproduce existing models of environmental communication but to innovate in the representation of the environment and to connect to emerging cultural formations. [End Page 173]
Nicole Starosielski is an assistant professor in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University. Her research focuses on the global distribution of digital media and on the relationships between technology, society, and the aquatic environment. Her first book project, The Undersea Network (Durham nc: Duke University Press, 2015), charts the cultural and environmental dimensions of transoceanic cable systems, beginning with the telegraph cables of the first global communications network and extending to the fiber-optic infrastructure supporting international Internet traffic.
Week 1: Introduction to Media and the Environment
Screening : An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
week 2: ecocentric, anthropocentric, and mediacentric approaches
Case study : Climate change
Screening : The Island President (2011)
week 3: photography, landscape, industrialization
Case study : Industrialization
Screening : Manufactured Landscapes (2006)
week 4: cinema, nature, wildlife
Case study : Endangered species
Screening : Grizzly Man (2005)
week 5: news, framing, and environmental coverage
Case study : Pesticides and petrochemicals
Screening : Oil for Aladdin’s Lamp (1949), Gasland (2010)
week 7: environmental blockbusters and apocalyptic discourse
Case study : Overpopulation
Screening : Soylent Green (1973) [End Page 175]
weeks 8–9: toxicity and melodrama
Case study : Toxicity
Screening : Safe (1995)
week 10: media ecologies, recycling, and salvage aesthetics
Case study : Consumerism and waste
Screening : The Gleaners and I (2000)
week 11: global environmental activism and the documentary image-event
Case study : Overfishing
Screening : The Cove (2009) and selections from Darwin’s Nightmare (2003)
week 12: virality, eco-comedy, and (food) systems
Case study : Biopiracy and food systems
Screening : The Meatrix (2003) and “Whale Whores,” South Park (2009)
week 13: artificial ecologies: animation, games, and data visualization
Case study : Deforestation
Screening : The Lorax (1972)
Play : Flower (2009), Shelter (2012), and Forest Defenders (2014)
View : “The Timber Trade” and “Wind Map” [End Page 177]
week 14: programs and protocol: collaborations with the nonhuman
Case Study : Interspecies relationships
Interact : Feral Robotic Dogs (2003), Cockroach Controlled Mobile Robot (2006), Bear 71 (2012), ZooMorph (2013), and #saltNsea (2014) [End Page 178]