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Seeing the Environmental Problem

This past Sunday was World Environment Day (WED).  Unless you are especially attuned to such matters you probably did not know that. And it is little surprise since the day seemed to be missed almost entirely by the mainstream media despite.  Indeed, the only reference I found to it in the major national media  was in the caption to this photograph in the WSJ of June 6, which read: “SIFTING THROUGH GARBAGE: A boy who collects items to earn a living for his family searched through dirty water in Karachi, Pakistan on Sunday, World Environment Day.”

I find it difficult to understand why WED would slip by with barely any notice.  It’s not as if there have been major breaking stories in the past week that would eclipse all other news, unless, of course, your count concern for Congressman Weiner’s problems with his twitter account.  Nor is WED an insignificant event.  Sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme since 1972, it is an annual affair designed to stimulate global awareness of the environment and to promote “positive environmental action.”  Hosted this year by India, the particular theme is “Forests; Nature at Your Service,”  and given the impact of deforestation and forest degradation on climate change, water quality and supply, and general biodiversity—not to mention the fact that over 300 million people worldwide live in forested areas and that millions of acres of forests are lost each year—one would think that the day and its particular theme would warrant a couple of column inches and a few photographs.  But alas, no.

Part of the problem, I suppose, is the difficulty we have in visualizing the degradation of the environment—or at least the difficulty that the mainstream media has in doing so in ways that don’t mitigate prominent corporate, national, and multi-national agendas.  And so we come to the photograph above.  It is all but certain that this unnamed boy seeks to “earn a living for his family” by searching through these dirty waters on more than one day in the year, but the image takes its significance here from the fact that here he does it on World Environment Day.  The question is, why?  The cynical answer, of course, is to take the implication that the serious environmental problems, the places that most need attention, are not in the industrialized and corporatized west, but elsewhere, places like Pakistan, where “earning a living” by “sifting through garbage” in polluted waters is a matter of survival that displaces concerns for environmental sustainability.  By this read the “real” problem of environmental degradation is localized and fragmented rather than global, and the caption to the photograph underscores the irony of WED.  It is a day of little interest because it doesn’t identify a problem that is of real interest to the west.

But there may be another, more productive reading, one that resists seing the image in an ironic register and instead sees it as a synecdoche—a part-whole relationship—for the sense in which the problem of the environment is truly global.  From this perspective the photograph invites us to see the world (the whole) in the particularities (the parts) of a young boy reduced to sifting garbage in polluted waters.  Yes, this is Pakistan, but it could also be anywhere else in the world, if not actually today, then someday, and maybe even soon.  If we can bring ourselves to embody this optic it is hard to understand why WED passed without barely a mention in the western press. And whether we choose to honor this day in the future or not, we ignore the global problems of environmental degradation at our peril.

Photo Credit: PPI/Zuma Press

Note:  The relationship between visuality and  environmental concerns is of no small significance.  The editors of Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture have just announced a special issue on “Visual Environmental Communication.”  For more information you should contact Anders Hansen at the University of Leicester.  The due date for manuscripts on a wide array of topics is 30 November 2011.



Seeing the Environmental Problem


5 Responses

  1. Antanarive says

    I would argue on the contrary that if the event has been missed by the mainstream media, it is because pictures of environmental issues are published almost everyday or week, and articles are regularly published as well. Who cares about a dedicated day when those issues are shown (if not discussed) so often. And by saying that, I don’t mean we should not continue, but it may have the perverse effect of saturating the “audience” and lowering the impact of any further communication. Who cares about the next oil spill? Same old, same old.

  2. lucaites says

    Antanarive: With all due respect, I think you are incorrect here. We don’t see problems with the environment everyday. What we do see are pictures of disasters when they happen. But by the time a disaster occurs its already too late … And that is really the point here. Failing to acknowledge WED is not so much the problem as the symptom. The problem is that we are almost always on the verge of catastrophe and that is what doesn’t get acknowledged … or acted upon in any significant way. To reduce the matter to some version of “compassion fatigue” ignores the ways in which we have been socialized to “see” the environment. I think your comment is symptomatic of that. My concern — and admittedly it is not nearly as clear in the post as I’d hoped it would be — is that we think of ways to reorient that optic by coaching a different and more productive way of seeing the environment. And that means taking account of what we see, what we don’t see (or recognize), and what is not shown … it may also implicate what can or cannot be seen, i.e., how do you show an environment “on the verge” of catastrophe?

    In any case, thanks for commenting.

  3. Phaedra says

    Great post, John. Thanks for raising such an important topic. Most photographs of environmental catastrophes do seem to be beyond “the verge”, as you so aptly note (thinking here of the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon images–prolific after the disaster–not so much before) or striving to find an image that resonates with audiences to signify a disaster, but isn’t actually the disaster (thinking here of polar bears becoming an icon of climate change). My own research reflects the dilemma you raise, because I study toxic pollution, which usually cannot be seen or, when seen, may not resonate with everyday audiences.
    The image you share with this post suggests the scale of a polluted landscape, but it doesn’t show the “boy”‘s body in a way that illustrates the health impacts we are expected to assume. Is that enough? Does the anonymity of the “boy” or the producers of the waste move us? Is the impact on the land and water apparent? From an environmental justice perspective, most likely, this place of land/water and community have been imagined by dominant culture as disposable and, therefore “appropriately polluted”–does visualizing them so intertwined with garbage help trouble that linkage?

  4. Richard Doherty says

    I was reading an article on news framing the other day and it talked about how the news media often frames stories as an individual problem, not as a generic/global big problem, which lets readers/viewers approach the problem as “well it’s only one person” and not think much about it. This image and caption do just that and maybe that contributes to the un-noticed WED? Photojournalists have many options for how they “frame” images and news processes, production, and values contribute to the choices made about which image to use. I’ll stop there…

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