Community-centered media creating answers to environmental injustice Published

August 23, 2012

• Sun, Aug 12, 2012
By Victoria Goff

Each week, this column discusses the principles of different movements, including the environment, digital and food justice movements. This week, we’re discussing the 12th environmental justice principle, which “affirms the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources.”

Recently, I found myself watching old environmentalist public service announcements from the 1970s, including the “Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute” campaign and the “Crying Indian” campaign. I couldn’t help but laugh at the dated quality of the commercials. The “Give a Hoot” commercial featured a massive brown owl dancing around in nature singing with children. And the “Crying Indian” commercial (the one with the man dressed up like a Native American crying a single tear over littering) displayed its own special brand of ‘70s-based racism; according to this commercial, while the rest of the world bought cars and blue jeans, Native Americans were busy crying over people not throwing away their garbage.

But on a more disturbing level, not one of the “Give a Hoot” videos pointed to industrial pollution in any way. In fact, the “Give a Hoot” commercials relied on an all too common narrative that nature is a pristine glorious national park that we travel to for vacations. It’s not the air we breathe sitting in a bus on the way to school or the teeny plots of grass sitting outside our front doors. And it’s most certainly not the community that the oil refinery up the road is releasing heavy pollution into. 

The “Crying Indian” video showed a few brief shots of industrial pollution, but again, the greatest “injustice” in the commercial, in fact, the moment that makes the “Indian” cry, comes when a man in a car throws a bag of half eaten food at the “Indian.” The message of this commercial, like the “Give a Hoot” commercials, is clearly directed at individual action against individual pollution. Industrial pollution created by massive corporations went unaddressed in corporate media, even back then.

In the years since these commercials were made, things have not changed much. While there has been a push toward “green economies,” industrial pollution is still far off the mainstream radar. This has created an unprecedented opportunity for corporations most guilty of heavy pollution to create their own “green” media campaigns. For example, that beautiful green and yellow flower that is now the BP logo cost the corporation $7 million. According to the BBC News, BP is also expecting to invest an additional $25 million a quarter to maintain the branding. But it has become perhaps one of the most recognized logos of all the different oil corporations.

And of course, most of us are familiar by now of T. Boone Pickens’ famous commercials advocating for the switch in the United State’s energy strategy from dirty oil to “natural gas.” These calls have earned him respect from many in corporate media as an “unlikely environmentalist,” even as the horrific environmental dangers of fracking (which is how natural gas is removed from the ground) are being leaked out of communities with a terrifying frequency. 

That media campaigns around the environment are being largely controlled by corporations doing the worst polluting only makes sense if we go back to those old ‘70s commercials. In creating a divide between “nature” and cities and positioning cities as a place where nature doesn’t exist, oil corporations have an easy way to get people to not pay attention to what they are doing. Even worse, because so much of the industrial pollution in cities are located around communities of color, many people feel like if pollution does happen, it’s really not worth investing time and energy in cleaning up. Specifically, it’s better to fight to keep something from being lost (the National Park for vacations) than to fight for something that is already lost (heavily polluted urban areas).

The 12th environmental justice principle attempts to make visible and help repair that disconnect between how we understand what nature is and the actual pollution our communities are living with on a daily basis. By “affirming the need for urban and rural ecological policies to clean up and rebuild our cities and rural areas in balance with nature, honoring the cultural integrity of all our communities, and providing fair access for all to the full range of resources,” environmental justice advocates are very clearly refusing the traditional narratives around what “environment” needs to be “saved.” Nature is not something that rich people get to visit on vacations — it is something that exists in all communities, and all of those communities require resources (e.g., media campaigns) to “save” their environment.

An example of how this principle is put into action would be the work the 48217 community has done around the oil refinery pollution in their neighborhood. By collecting the stories of folks most directly affected by the pollution, organizers have not only used social media sources like websites and twitter to spread the word, but have also created a documentary about the situation, which they showed recently at a community gathering. This work not only highlights the very real needs of the community, it actively works to build a new narrative around pollution, one that suggests that pollution is more than just littering, and positions community organizing as a legitimate response to corporate violence.

In another example, the organization I work with, East Michigan Environmental Action Council, sponsors a yearly Green Screen event, where the films that young people from Detroit make about the environment are highlighted and supported. Last year’s Green Screen showed films featuring community gardening, the need for local grocery stores, industrial pollution and, yes, even classroom responses to littering.

What other ways can community-driven media continue to build on the work that environmental justice activists are already doing? While community media may never be able to fund a gimmicky campaign with a dancing owl or an actor with a single tear running down his face, I personally don’t think that’s a bad thing. What our communities need right now is a new way of thinking about our current problems and the ability to imagine new answers. We need each other — and community-centered media is just the way to start the conversation.

Victoria Goff is a communications coordinator at East Michigan Environmental Action Council.