Die, baby harp seal! It's time for environmentalism to get ugly
by Lydia Millet
I’m gazing wistfully at a towering red-rock butte bathed in gentle sunset light, shades of brown to violet framed against a meek background of sky. It’s massive but tame, brooding but well-mannered, broad-shouldered but shy. Its silence is nothing short of submissive.
It’s the January pinup in The Nature Conservancy’s calendar. Environmental organizations and independent entrepreneurs yearly churn out glossy wall charts and engagement books for the consumption of nature-loving citizens like myself — grizzly cubs from TNC are on the menu, for instance; spotted dolphins and two albatrosses with their beaks interlocked from the Sierra Club; and, from Audubon, a polar bear perched with all four paws together like a performing bear in a circus, as well as a mother-and-baby baboon and mother-and-baby koala, perfectly groomed, hugging each other cutely and looking straight at the camera, with big, dark, inviting pools of eyes.
As I flip through these adorable menageries, I’m reminded of nothing so much as my 20-something days working for slaves’ wages as a copy editor at Hustler Magazine. I’m reminded of models named Tammi and Lynda, buck-naked and intertwined, long tresses artfully arranged to frame obscenely augmented breasts, who also hugged each other — although not so cutely — and looked straight at the camera with big, dark, inviting pools of eyes.
At first glance, a girl-girl spread in Hustler has little in common with a twin-albatross picture in an Audubon engagement calendar. But both are clearly porn. They offer comfort to the viewer: They will always be there, ideal, unblemished, available. They offer gratification without social cost; they satiate by providing objects for fantasy without making uncomfortable demands on the subject.
The landscape photographs featured in the calendars may not play quite as facilely on the heartstrings of the average American wildlife consumer as baby animals, but they too are blatantly pornographic. We see the Grand Canyon, cliffs lit orange, with snow in the foreground; we see a fuchsia fog unrolling endlessly over the Northern Cascades under a golden sky; we see an emerald-green pool surrounded by red rock in Havasu Canyon.
This is picture-book nature, scenic and sublime, praiseworthy but not battleworthy. Tarted up into perfectly circumscribed simulations of the wild, these props of mainstream environmentalism serve as surrogates for real engagement with wilderness, the way porn models serve as surrogates for real women. They are placebos substituting for triage.
And they don’t even get us off. Nature calendars rely on a hackneyed canon of evocations that no longer serves a purpose. Their girlish good looks have aged poorly. At best they elicit a regretful nostalgia for a never-known past of unspoiled landscapes; at worst, they reassure us disingenuously that the last great places are safe and sound.
They go largely unnoticed, and yet they reveal a broad truth about the environmental movement: It has failed to generate a compelling language for itself. Its propaganda falls flat, its style is outdated, its rhetoric is stale. It needs to be reborn.
So what’s next? Next is all or nothing — either a critical facelift for environmentalism or a long slow slide into obsolescence. A soft aesthetic produces soft results. So-called "radical" environmentalists and little-read deep ecologists hark to our "duty" to preserve and caretake nature, poignantly calling for a profound paradigm shift that will allow the human race to see beyond its own wants, needs and foibles to a Higher Love — quite a tall order for people who can’t decide whether to use paper or plastic.
To survive, the environmental movement needs to do what the Far Right has done so well since the advent of Reagan: find base and selfish selling points for our product. Make people afraid not to buy. Wilderness and biodiversity conservation in the 21st century will mean national security, food security, atmospheric security — in short, survival. Environmentalists have a powerful product and the onus is on them to use powerful tools for the sale.
Doomsaying alone is not the ticket. Environmental advertising has to define a new style for itself, a style with unapologetic momentum, a hardball-playing, fast-moving engagement with the realities of anthropogenic devastation. It can no longer shrink from the rude, the vicious or the unsightly. Think of Richard Misrach’s stunning photography book, Violent Legacies, which features desecrated toxic landscapes rendered lovely by tragedy and good composition. Consider the gentler and colder work of Lee Friedlander in The Desert Seen, which sacrifices touristic prettiness for a near-clinical complexity, or the work of Lynn Davis in Wonders of the African World, the companion book to the Henry Louis Gates PBS series, which shows us that landscape and pre-industrial architecture, the natural and the contrived, may be similarly formal expressions of a dignity elicited by the desert’s rigors.
If it wants to hold off the end of nature, environmentalism is going to have to stop relying on the static prettiness of landscapes and the staged cuteness of animals to gather new recruits. What it needs is not a well-meaning posse of smiling grannies handing out Hallmark cards in the mall, but the guts to assault us with the ugly impacts of our own appetites.