PRINT October 1992


Andrew Ross

In the months before the Rio Earth Summit darkened his foreign-policy horizon, George Bush was fooling around with one of the ideas that passes for environmental policy in his America. The proposal—to ban new billboards along rural highways—was intended to beef up the Highway Beautification Act of 1965, when drivers of automobiles averaging 12 miles to the lead-filled gallon considered billboards a major source of “visual pollution.” One frustrated response to the slow rate of removal under the act came from the executive director of Scenic America, Sally Oldham: “Trying to clean up visual pollution at the rate of 226 billboards a year is like trying to clean up the Exxon Valdez oil spill with a teaspoon.”

As bagheaded in its own way as Bush’s environmentalism, this analogy is testimony to the way ecological concerns have entered our public life as ways of talking about specifically cultural experience. This development follows from the extensive growth of environmental consciousness. But in what context other than the purely figurative does it make sense to talk about culture through the language of ecology? Critics have been slow to ask such questions. The scientific temper of ecological thought surely has something to do with their belatedness: here, after all, is one social movement that seems to say nature is not all culture, but for the most part really is nature. This kept the sophisticates at bay for a while, but no one was fooled for long, least of all the committed antiessentialists.

The physicality of the natural world cannot be denied, but the task of assigning it an identity—nature is this, does that, knows best—is problematic. Consider the outcome of the Rio summit: a blueprint for a world environmental market in the form of free-market solutions to the problems of absorbing and distributing environmental costs. This formula depended upon exploiting a centuries-old set of identity metaphors: the free market is a “natural” economy, while nature is a “free” (costly) economy. Wasn’t this an example of how economic metaphors might have a decidedly non-metaphoric impact on the physical world: first, to bring it to the brink of ecological collapse, and then to offer a plan for its salvation?

Everywhere we look, something or another is being justified in green rhetoric. The problem is that environmental principles often mean something different in the realm of culture than in the physical world. Terms like “renewability” and “recycling,” for example, can be loosely applied to the Hollywood chemistry of risk-free image-making in which every film and TV show recombines tried-and-true formulas. In the image industry, however, such processes are more likely to promote cultural uniformity than the cultural equivalent of biodiversity.

A more dangerous example is the extension of the ecological discourse of “limits” to civil society, where it is increasingly employed to persuade us to abandon rights, claims, and liberties in the interests of social sustainability. Cultural freedoms, it is argued, have to be brought into line with the new wisdom that the world is governed by limits. Very soon, our civil liberties may be viewed as costly luxuries, and tied to the same cost-benefits analysis that has overtaken environmentalism.

Before this goes much farther, we have to clarify an important distinction: limiting the exploitive use of the natural world is quite different from limiting our cultural and political freedoms. The choices are not subject to the same wisdom.

Nevertheless, I often see my counterparts in cultural criticism invoke analogies from ecology. A recent draft prospectus for a new “Cultural Environment Movement” was indeed addressed “Dear Friend of the Cultural Environment.” It spoke of culture through fast and loose applications of the rhetorics of pollution (“Giant industries discharge mass-produced messages into the mainstream of common consciousness”) and of species erosion (“Media coalesce in a seamless integrated structure that transcends boundaries and constrains life’s choices as profoundly as the natural environment defines life’s chances”). Overall, as it happened, the proposal presented a responsible critique of the media industries, and an admirable call for democratic participation in them. More perplexing was the suggestion that we might reform communications through scenarios culled from environmental science, and thus from knowledge about the nonhuman, physical world.

Such analogies, of course, are equally appropriable by the Friends of the Cultural Industries, in whose mouths they can have reverse effects. A case in point is Mark Fowler, Reagan’s deregulation czar at the Federal Communications Commission, here balancing his remorse over environmental degradation with sunny McLuhanite optimism about the ecology of free information flows: “As the ecological system has deteriorated, I think the man-made information ecology—the ebb and flow of words, voice, data—has vastly improved, so that we now live in a world more tightly bound, more in touch one part with another, than at any moment in its history.”

It’s when nature writers comment on culture that you see how far things can go in the other direction. The Age of Missing Information, the latest middlebrow bestseller by Bill McKibben—a modern, Adirondack-dwelling Thoreau, and author of the much cited The End of Nature—is about two days the writer spent in 1990. The first day passed in camping, hiking, swimming, and solitary meditation in the mountains. On the second—which, through assiduous use of VCRs, lasted well over a thousand hours—McKibben watched all the TV that the cable company of Fairfax, Virginia (an “edge city” claiming the largest cable system in the country), broadcast over its 93 channels in a single 24-hour stretch that same spring.

McKibben’s aim in The Age of Missing Information is to find out how much “information” can be garnered from each of the two days. But his search rests on vague, shifting criteria, mostly linked to something called “fundamental knowledge” or “rightness,” which can only be acquired by hanging out among trees, rivers, and mountains. The odds, you guessed it, are pretty much stacked against the couch potato, tawdry symptom of the recline of Western civ., and in favor of the nature nerd, groping for wisdoms all but lost to denizens of the info glut. As sympathetic readers, we are supposed to embrace the sanity of the hiker, far from the madding crowd of televangelists speaking in tongues, of hucksters dealing-a-meal to the obese or hawking bottles of cleaning powder to home shoppers, while sleek men in Rollses politely lust after Grey Poupon.

Too bad that in his literary passion for the green world, McKibben is no John McPhee. Living in a mountain-rimmed valley without TV, most evenings Bill and his wife “tune in to All Things Considered on the radio,” trusting that “its familiar theme music helps order the day.” Yikes! For a 32-year-old, McKibben often sounds like gramps on lithium. This is a man who prefers the mating dance of cranes to semi-naked club kids shaking their Lycra-clad booties on MTV. McKibben understands that learning about nature from Wild Kingdom is as unlikely as learning about life from Dynasty, but it’s no surprise that he can’t see where the pleasure of these shows lies, given that his idea of good television is restricted to the lean diet of 60 Minutes, Nightline, and Ken Burns’ Civil War.

What’s of interest in McKibben’s commentary is the way he utilizes the current popular wisdom of environmentalism. First, there’s the straight choice between the natural world and the manmade world of information. To choose the former is to get back to authentic knowledge, to rediscover human scale, community, and nonanthropocentric time, and to understand that the world has limits. No need to grow crops, however, or revert to hunter-gatherer mode: all you need do is take more trips to the countryside—it’s “subversive”—which is exactly what the well-heeled urban or suburban buyers of this book are likely to do anyway. Less easy to shrug off are McKibben’s analogies between ecosystems and information systems. He uses these analogies to indict the loss of species diversity in TV programming, and to prove that the recycling of shows and genres produces a monoculture. In this respect, McKibben shares ground with the Cultural Environment Movement. Unlike those critics of the media monopolies, however, he doesn’t “much care if television is manipulated by giant corporations, the military-industrial complex,” or the “pressure of ratings.” He doesn’t want to combat censorship or involve communities in cultural policy-making, doesn’t want to democratize the media. It’s enough that his readers leave their TVs and invade what’s left of the Adirondacks.

Of course, many more people will respond to McKibben’s message about the great outdoors than to the Cultural Environment Movement. But that only makes things easier for the media industries, which can acknowledge nature, the non-media Other, with far less sweat than it takes them to confront a competitive challenge to their existing arrangements.

What McKibben and the movement people share, however, is a willingness to carry ecological principles into the sphere of media culture. There’s actually a world of difference between tuning into a TV signal and listening for the signal of global warming. It may be an important difference to keep in mind in the coming years.

Andrew Ross books include Strange Weather and No Respect. He contributes this column regularly to Artforum.