Eco Porn vs Eco Ruin Porn: Are We Desensitized?

December 6, 2012

By Matt Palmer

Have we become desensitized to beautiful pictures of nature, or blasé about too many pictures of ecological devastation? It is an interesting question to consider because if that is true it has tremendous impact on visual storytellers like myself. How can we can continue to tell stories or make movies, if people eventually lose their emotional connections because they have seen too much of the same thing?

These questions arose after reading an interesting article from Outside Online called “Energy Literacy Part 1: Green Power’s Dark Side and Eco Ruin Porn“, about a new book by the Post Carbon Institute called “Energy: Overdevelopment and The Delusion of Endless Growth.” I am looking forward to reading the book because one of the agendas is energy literacy and looking at systems. There is a large component of photography in the book, so that interests me as well.

One of the compelling parts of this book is that it looks at impacts not just from fossil fuel exploitation, but also alternatives.

We want to show that every form of energy has impacts. Industrial wind and solar do not get a pass. Our goal was to show the current energy terrain, then we have to look forthrightly at all the things in the energy mix and what are the impacts and the tradeoffs. There is a tendency among green-oriented NGOs to not talk about the impacts of large-scale renewables.

In the interview,  the question is asked of the author of the book if the beautiful images of nature or graphic environmental devastation used by environmental groups, or for that matter oil companies (i.e. stunning pictures of energy industry activities), have become problematic because we have seen too much of the same thing. They use the terms eco porn or eco ruin porn to describe the photographs.

I think the problem lies not with the intended audience becoming terrified or desensitized, but with the presentation of photographs, representing a story for example of oil sands or a solar project in the desert, lacking the proper context. One can become overwhelmed emotionally when looking at photographs of industrial sites and only see the disruption of natural land. When we look at pictures of cities, towns, or villages, do we consider the vast ecosystems that were permanently extinguished for human habitation? Or farmlands that might have once housed vast forests, now used for food production?

Here is a photograph I took on safari in Kenya that I often use as an example when I teach kids.

Wildebeest on the run

I ask the students what is happening in the picture. The responses include suggestions that the wildebeest is running towards food, his friends, or running away from a lion or other predator. They make up a story about things that are not represented in the photograph. We all do this, bring our own insights, biases and interpretations to visual media every day. Understanding why and when we do this allows steeping back, and thinking more critically about what is being presented, and consider the agenda of the presenter. Media literacy and energy literacy go hand in hand.

I do not believe in general that we become desensitized to images, good images will always have emotional impact. If this were not true, Hollywood would have gone out of business decades ago. Watching the same movie over and over can still elicit strong emotions. I can watch the deathbed scene from “Tears of Endearment” many times and still cry. Hollywood has built an industry based on presenting the same stories over and over, in different ways and different formats, and people still line up.

We can become complacent or lazy in our thinking or presentation around stories. Stories are easy to manipulate, just by leaving out details or purposely skewing the facts of the story to fit an agenda.

The best way to inoculate ourselves from spin, particularly in the arena of the future of energy, is to embrace a systems perspective. Constant critical thinking on the issues. As the author of “Energy: Overdevelopment and the Delusion of Endless Growth” says in the interview:

First of all, I think the concept of energy literacy is fundamental. Every responsible citizen should have a basic grounding of where the energy that supports their society comes from—and what are the characteristics of that system? What are the values and the things that it promotes? Anyone who wants a meaningful opinion on energy policy needs to be energy literate. I think embodied energy, energy density, and energy sprawl are all important concepts, but net energy is perhaps the most fundamental.

The issue of eco porn or eco ruin porn then is not one of the images themselves, but of the intent of the presentation of the images. Are they intended to exploit a subject or story to engender political action? In this case, would it be more accurate to label the images as propaganda than porn?

Success using energy literacy and system thinking approaches, to me,  requires letting go of the need to be right, employing cognitive empathy, and seeing the world as abundant.

 

About Unintended Consequences Documentary Project

I'm Producing and directing a multi-platform documentary project on global energy called "Unintended Consequences".
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4 Responses to Eco Porn vs Eco Ruin Porn: Are We Desensitized?

  1. Kali Taylor says:

    Interesting post, Matt. I am en route back from COP18 in Doha, Qatar and have to say that even having seen much industrial development in my life, I was absolutely astounded by seeing the LNG projects there. The development is massive and to relate it back to your post has signs everywhere forbidding photography. I like your thoughts around systems thinking approach but I think there would also be some merit in having photos of these developments be spatially compared so that people can get the true scale.

    • Great comments Kali. I agree, and I am going to write more about this, because it is very important. What is so important is showing the scale of developments, but doing it in a way that provides the perspective and context necessary for the audience to make better evaluations. Look forward to hearing how COP 18 was for you. I saw part of your panel discussion, was really interesting.

  2. Bob Mitchell says:

    I like your post, Matt. I agree that we need to engage civil society in the ongoing dialogue on energy systems. We need to get beyond this era where the extreme views and misleading photos on either side rule the headlines. Improving energy literacy of societal leaders and knowledge mavens is extremely important as a start, then enhance the energy literacy of broader society.

    I think much of society is tired/immunized to extreme views on energy. I believe that they would very willing to consider less extreme and more balanced views but in these polarizing times, they rave a really hard time determining credible information and sources.

    For example, does Darryl Hannah know that the pipeline she has been protesting against is intended to carry heavy oil (bitumen to US markets) and no oil sands mine in Canada, which are the emotive photos she/they use in their campaign, produces heavy oil/bitumen? Every Canadian oil sands MINE upgrades their production into light, sweet (i.e., extremely low sulphur) crude oil and that oil is expected to continue to be shipped in existing pipelines. The bitumen/heavy oil that would be shipped in the proposed pipelines is produced by oil wells, not open pit mines. But photos of oil wells, alongside steam injection wells, are just not that evocative.

    Does Darryl Hannah know that heavy oil is produced in many parts of the world, including the US?
    Bakersfield Heavy is produced right in California. The difference between heavy oil and oil sands is a line on a map that was approved by the Alberta Government about 40 years ago to differentiate the part of the heavy oil resource that would not be produced in the absence of special fiscal treatment from the heavy oil resource that did not need special treatment to make it economic. There are crudes in the Alberta oil sands region that are lighter than Bakersfield heavy but most are at least as heavy.

    Do you think she is aware that the life cycle CO2 emissions of fuel derived from the Bakken field in the northern US is higher than from fuel derived from the oil sands? The difference is that oil sands products are shipped in pipelines while most of the oil from the Bakken is shipped by rail. Public resistance to the construction of a pipeline from the Bakken to the US Gulf Coast is expected to be very high, even though it building it would reduce the life cycle fuel CO2 intensity of the fuel.

    It is time for reason and progress in energy dialogues and decision making (by regulators and consumers). Before we can expect that, we need to raise the energy literacy of the society.

    Good blog post, Matt. Thanks

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