PRINT April 1991


Blue Planet, Green Dollars

SOMEDAY, THE HYMNS TO environmental “friendliness” sponsored by corporate polluters will be greeted with the ridicule they deserve. Like an ad in the personals from a serial killer (“dedicated, likes children and animals, quiet places”), these “green” puff jobs sound OK unless you know who wrote them. But they should be received with the same alarm that greeted the U.S. military claim that in Vietnam “we had to destroy the village in order to save it.”

Key to understanding the grim illogic of the military in the Vietnam War was that “it,” the thing to be saved, was not the village but the system of values that, in the name of democracy, allowed the use of napalm on children. In the case of eco-public relations, the logic works this way: “we” are the corporate producers of toxic wastes, the “village” is the earth, and “it” is the profit margin. Reason takes a greater beating still in this marriage of hazardous waste and high-priced hot air, because the propaganda is so often packaged in a quasi-educational, public-service format.

Du Pont, for example—a company once charged by the government with adding lead to gasoline, thereby releasing thousands of tons of the lethal pollutant into the atmosphere; a company that, in 1988, had to be persuaded not to dump its industrial waste in the middle of the ocean—is the proud sponsor of a radio show called Pulse of the Planet that airs on WNYC and 214 other radio stations. This two-minute non-ad is produced by Jim Metzner, the capable creator of an earlier program called Sounds of Science, and spotlights issues like acid rain and rain-forest burn offs. Each show ends with the proclamation that “Pulse of the Planet is produced by Du Pont to ensure respect for the planet.” The fact sheet for the show explains that the series “is funded by Du Pont, which receives a self-contained five second mention,” as though Du Pont were to be congratulated for not chanting its name in undertones throughout. No matter how good the show itself may be (and you can be sure that it will never take up Du Pont’s assault on the ozone layer as a topic), the idea that any such promotion could be truly self-contained is disingenuous. The tag line clearly associates Du Pont with the values expressed in the show (earnestly concerned, but not activist) in an effort to buy the confidence of an anxious public. The company’s decision to produce an educational sound-byte series, rather than some more obvious act of self-promotion, is also highly calculated.

But the richest, most engrossing corporate paean to strategy-over-substance is Blue Planet, a cinematic spectacle about the forces—natural and man-made—affecting Earth created by Imax Systems Corporation, Lockheed Corporation, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Filmed by astronauts in the huge IMAX® format (ten times the size of standard 35-mm. film), with additional footage shot on earth and a complex animated sequence from NASA’S Digital Image Animation Lab, Blue Planet is showing at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and a host of other wide-screen facilities across the country. By distributing the film to institutions with educational pretensions, its creators have assured themselves of the right reception for their slick orbit around the earth.

The film opens with a standard-sized image of Apollo rockets in flight, and then shifts to the vast, engrossing, high-resolution IMAX® format for an earthrise as seen from space. In the next 42 minutes viewers are shown the contours of the continents, evidence of drought and meteor showers, the effects of hurricanes and earthquakes, the massive expansion of human populations, and the brown air of cities like Los Angeles. The final portion of the film describes the loss of ozone and the dangers of pollution on the atmosphere and, boldly proclaiming that “we can undo the damage we have caused,” emphasizes that the planet is “home to the people of Greece and Turkey; it is home to the Israelis and Arabs. . . . It is home to all of us, and it is our only home.” This voice-over concludes the spectacle portion of the film and is followed by a huge, printed announcement (which also precedes the film), “Presented as a Public Service by Lockheed Corporation and NASA.” The credits follow.

The strategies of the film go well beyond the simple association of Lockheed and NASA with environmental education. There is also a curious, passive portrayal of human relationships—to the planet Earth, to science, to other humans. The voice-over deadens any sense of agency or differential responsibility through its use of the inclusive pronoun “we,” and much is left unsaid.

Ordinary people of the sort who walk and talk on Earth don’t play a big part in Blue Planet, but it is worth noting some of those who do. An early sequence cuts from an eerie view of the Straits of Gibraltar from hundreds of miles high, the European continent stretching to the left and the African continent to the right, to a lake in Tanzania thick with red algae. The algae represents life, and is followed by a broad panorama of wild animals on the Serengeti Plain. Then, as the narrator, a woman who speaks in a slow and deliberate manner, says, “Of all the creatures that evolved in Africa, only one stood upright,” a shepherd appears with his flock. The equation of the black African shepherd in traditional dress with an earlier evolutionary stage is made explicit by the following shot, of a busy village marketplace, also apparently in Tanzania, meant to signify the origins of complex civilization. This is followed by a scene of an astronaut in a space suit floating next to a NASA spacecraft—the apex of civilization. The white American men and women inside the craft, and the busy astronauts who appear throughout the film, are “Man.”

If culture, as a determinant of life-style and relationship to the environment, is absent in the film, or archaically represented as a step on an evolutionary ladder, science is omnipresent. Without saying, in so many words, that science will solve all of our problems, Blue Planet never misses a chance to plug the sophisticated hardware necessary to the space program (and to the well-being of weapons manufacturers in the post–cold war era), or to hold out high-tech research as the best response to questions about the health of Earth. The voice-over is thick with statements such as “in order to learn more we’re returning to space”; “dozens of spacecraft. . . study ocean currents, others monitor the health of crops; they also warn us when storms develop”; and, most reassuringly, “one day, almost certainly, we’ll be able to predict earthquakes.”

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand Lockheed’s stake in all of this. The positive references to space gadgets and space-based research fly fast and furious. And Lockheed, the second-largest NASA contractor and the eighth-largest U.S. Department of Defense contractor, is part of the “we” who narrate the film. Corporate efforts at green propaganda, as Susan G. Davis has pointed out in her writing about Seaworld in San Diego, have often “argued that answers to environmental problems are best addressed by scientists and experts,” and use “a vaguely defined ‘we’ [that] joins the public to corporate interests.” Thus “without help from satellites we could not prepare ourselves for the onslaught [of hurricanes]”; “to search for [rifts on the ocean floor] we need vehicles similar to spaceships”; and, “now, a new force, as threatening as any in nature, has begun to change the Earth—we are that force.”

If, when Lockheed and NASA say “we” are threatening the earth, they mean themselves, science can certainly back it up. Lockheed was investigated and fined more than $1.5 million for violations of health-and-safety regulations at their top-secret Stealth Bomber plant. They have been fined more than $1 million by air-quality regulators. And they have been named as a “potentially responsible party” by the notoriously reluctant Environmental Protection Agency at ten toxic dump sites throughout the West.

Lockheed is not alone in this: 16 children in Denver died apparently as a result of drinking water contaminated by the Martin Marietta Corporation, cancer has run rampant near the Hughes missile plant in Tucson, and other major defense contractors have been named in a variety of hazardous-waste and worker-safety suits. Furthermore, the launching of rockets themselves, not to mention their manufacture and testing, or the disposal of waste fuel, is profoundly destructive. According to No Free Launch: The Toxic Impact of America’s Space Programs, a report prepared by Lenny Siegel of the Military Toxics Network of the National Toxics Campaign Fund, “Each launch of the Space Shuttle or the Air Force’s Titan IV does more to deplete the fragile ozone layer. . . than the annual ground-level emissions of chlorofludrocarbons, CFC’s from most individual industrial plants.” Although it was NASA that discovered the gaping hole in the ozone over Antarctica, both they and the military have contributed disproportionately to atmospheric degradation. Launches are not regulated by air-quality authorities, and tons of hydrogen chloride and other damaging chemicals are released directly into the stratosphere. Stationary tests of solid rockets, and the common open-pit burning of waste fuel, contribute further to acid raid and fog formation.

Yet Blue Planet says that “we have created the hole [in the ozone] with chemicals we use in our everyday lives,” and blames “cars and factories” for air pollution. Although no one in my admittedly nonscientific circle of friends has a missile-test site in their home, it is true that cars and factories pollute, and that most of us participate in a consumer and leisure culture that wastes limited resources and produces damaging chemicals. But individual waste is negligible next to that of commercial and corporate abusers. To link them is to mask the fact that much waste and pollution stemming from consumer culture is the direct result of corporate decisions about how to manufacture and package, and how to encourage repeat sales with “disposable” products.

High-priced infotainment may be considered free speech of a sort. Nonetheless, accountability for misleading messages is at a low ebb, judging from recent political campaigns and standards of wartime journalism. Although Blue Planet boasted a ten-member scientific advisory committee, seven of its members directly represented NASA, Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, or Imax. Nor is there much hope for environmental accountability from regulatory agencies. In 1989, for example, Lockheed answered an EPA inquiry with a $52-million offer, according to the New York Times, “to help remove contaminants from groundwater in Burbank, Calif., site of the company’s aeronautical systems division.” Lockheed was one of 31 companies named in the case. But in a footnote to the Consolidated Financial Statement in their 1990 annual report, Lockheed stated that “the company may be able to recover certain costs [relating to environmental matters] in accordance with the terms of its contracts with the U.S. government.” In other words, if the EPA or any other agency fines Lockheed, the tab may well be picked up by the Department of Defense or NASA—that is, American taxpayers—as a line item on their missile, aircraft, or Strategic Defense Initiative contracts.

Back in the theater, the viewer is lulled by the beauty of the planet as seen from space, and the gently spoken reassurance that the earth “can again be a garden, beautiful and bountiful; everything we need for life is here.” The director of the Air and Space Museum explains in a press release that Blue Planet shows that “it’s time to think.” Not to act? At Seaworld, according to Davis, visitors to the 1990 whale show were told, “Just by being here, you’re showing that you care!” And an ad for Canon cameras, on the back cover of National Geographic, recommends saving endangered species by taking their pictures.

This kind of expensive manipulation of the corporate image and of social issues is not, of course, limited to environmental affairs. Beer companies pour large sums into amateur athletics. Telephone and communications companies underwrite public-televison programming. Tobacco giant Philip Morris, which is very concerned with the rights of smokers, has sent an original copy of the Bill of Rights on tour. Educational philanthropy has become big business, you might say. And it would be a mistake to take these corporate games, shows, and exhibitions at face value. Every spectacle tells a story. The question to ask is, what is the story worth?

David Sternbach is a free-lance critic and writer who lives in New York.