Pillen on Dunaway, 'Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images'

Finis Dunaway
Cory J. Pillen

Finis Dunaway. Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015. 344 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-226-16990-3.

Reviewed by Cory J. Pillen (Fort Lewis College Department of Art and Design) Published on Jhistory (July, 2017) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

Many of us are familiar with the recycling logo that adorns packaging and waste containers in the United States. Fewer, however, know the history of that logo or have considered the broader implications of its design, which suggests that our individual commitment to recycling will provide a much-needed solution to environmental crisis. Finis Dunaway’s Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images investigates the role this recycling logo and other iconic environmental images played in the “making of popular environmentalism” in the United States (p. 1). Organized both thematically and chronologically, the book’s fifteen chapters address a wide range of visual material produced since the 1960s, from Pogo comic strips and Hollywood movies like the China Syndrome (1979) to news coverage of Three Mile Island and Earth Day.

Seeing Green offers important insights into various ways these images worked to prioritize specific environmental narratives and forms of activism. As Dunaway explains, these works successfully expanded the public’s awareness of particular issues and generated concern by appealing to viewers’ emotions and visualizing scientific knowledge. At the same time, they failed to address important causes of our environmental troubles or present a full range of potential solutions. For Dunaway, these omissions point to the limitations of the appeals, as well as mainstream approaches to environmental reform more broadly.

Many of the images Dunaway addresses, for example, place the responsibility for environmental reform and stewardship on the individual, ignoring broader, systemic causes of our environmental problems. They urge individuals to recycle or conserve energy, for instance, but rarely address company packaging practices or critique the government for inadequate regulation of industry. Likewise, by focusing on individual responsibility, these images disregard some of the more far-reaching solutions offered by activists and others. They present, in essence, a limited vision of environmental responsibility and citizenship, one shaped by unequal power relationships and structural inequities. 

In the last section of his book, Dunaway considers the increasing prevalence of neoliberal, consumerist approaches to environmental problems that perpetuate this belief in individual responsibility. As he explains, these campaigns suggest individuals can address environmental issues through green consumerism, by buying organic foods for example, or boycotting products like canned tuna that have been associated with fishing practices that kill dolphins. These appeals, however, disregard the fact that some “green” consumer choices are too expensive for all but the wealthy or upper middle class. They also prioritize immediate reform efforts over long-term solutions, particularly those that challenge the basic structures of capitalism or dominant national narratives.

Throughout Seeing Green, Dunaway pays attention to the various ways these environmental images intersect with social justice issues like race and class. As Dunaway notes, a number of the images under discussion use white, middle-class children and adults to suggest “universal vulnerability”- that all humans will suffer the consequences of environmental degradation. In doing so, they disregard the disproportionate effect environmental problems have on poor communities, minority groups, and specific laborers. Dunaway offers a number of examples, including gas mask imagery, posters warning of pesticides in breast milk, and media campaigns focused on the danger of Alar on apples. As he explains, these appeals ignore the inequities of environmental risk, like the greater exposure to pesticides some farmworkers experience, in stressing the fact that all viewers are susceptible to environmental harm.

Contextualizing his analysis of these images, Dunaway addresses broader debates concerning environmentalism and some of the responses these appeals engendered. Discussing toxic waste, for instance, he explains that some media sources suggested the state had a responsibility to protect its citizenry, offering appeals operating “in tension with other depictions of environmentalism that imagined the political world in an individualist frame and thereby reinforced neoliberal models of citizenship” (p. 195). Dunaway’s acknowledgement of these tensions is enticing and hints at the rich intertextual discourse surrounding environmental images. It also opens the door for a discussion of these alternative campaigns, some of which might address the systemic causes of our environmental problems. These other appeals are not the primary focus of Dunaway’s project, however. Rather, he concentrates on the meaning and limitations of the iconic images under discussion, which were widely circulated and mark important trends related to the visual culture of environmentalism.

Some of the broader issues raised in Seeing Green have been discussed in earlier publications dealing with popular conceptions of environmentalism. Noël Sturgeon’s 2009 book, Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender Race, Sexuality and the Politics of the Natural, for instance, addresses similar limitations of popular environmental images, interrogating the promotion of individualistic and consumer solutions to environmental problems, as well as the connection between social inequity and environmentalism. Likewise, her text considers some of the same visual campaigns, including Al Gore’s 2006 documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and the 1970s Keep American Beautiful campaign featuring Iron Eyes Cody as the “Crying Indian.” Adding to this literature, Dunaway provides a nuanced discussion of the shifting meanings of environmental citizenship and the emotional politics surrounding these iconic images, which he sees as central to the emergence of popular environmentalism  In doing so, his work makes an important contribution to our understanding of the way images have shaped debates about environmentalism and the power relations that structure reform efforts. Moreover, his writing is engaging and accessible, making Seeing Green an excellent choice for a graduate or upper-level undergraduate course.



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Citation: Cory J. Pillen. Review of Dunaway, Finis, Seeing Green: The Use and Abuse of American Environmental Images. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. July, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45272

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