At Staten Island Landfill. Carts heaped with garbage brought by barge from Manhattan. National Archives at College Park - Still Pictures (RD-DC-S), RG412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944 - 2006; ARC Identifier 549794 / Local Identifier 412-DA-7309.

Popular Visions of Environmental Anxiety

At Staten Island Landfill. Carts heaped with garbage brought by barge from Manhattan. National Archives at College Park - Still Pictures (RD-DC-S), RG412: Records of the Environmental Protection Agency, 1944 - 2006; ARC Identifier 549794 / Local Identifier 412-DA-7309.

Andrew Watson, Finis Dunaway, and Mark McLaughlin

For Earth Day 2013, The Otter posts a reflection on eco-comics, zombies, and environmental popular culture.

Organizing academic conference panels over pints of beer is a practice as old as conference panels themselves. Is there a better way to do it? I think not.

This is exactly the way Mark McLaughlin and I came up with a panel for the American Society for Environmental History (ASEH) annual conference held this past April in Toronto. One year earlier, Mark and I were enjoying a couple of barley pops with a few other people at the ASEH in Madison when we hit upon a shared interest: environmental imagery in comic books. Mark had recently come across a unique example of early eco-consciousness in New Brunswick, while I had been mulling over the veiled environmentalism of zombies. We decided this would be excellent fodder for the following year’s conference; when else would we have an opportunity to present papers on comic books!?

Now, grand ideas borne of beer often don’t pan out, so we knew we needed to lend our panel an air of legitimacy. Mark immediately thought of Finis, and we agreed that his research on the intersection between environmentalism and visual culture was the perfect way to make our idea seem like something more than just a couple of grad students keen on comic books. After a few conversations and several emails between the three of us, we agreed to broaden the scope of the panel to ‘Popular Visions of Environmental Anxiety’. And, thanks to the hard work that Mark put into organizing the abstracts and submitting our proposal, the panel was accepted for ASEH 2013!

Below you will find a brief synopsis of each of our presentations and a video link to each of the actual talks (the batteries on the camera ran out before the end of my talk, so I created a separate video based on my presentation after the conference).

“Captain Enviro Battles the Pollutians: A Visual Cultural Analysis of the World’s First Eco-Superhero” – Mark J. McLaughlin, University of New Brunswick


The emergence of modern environmental values in Canadian comic books, or as I have termed them, “eco-comics,” was part of a larger transition in how the state responded to growing concerns about the environment in the 1960s and 1970s. Citizens demanded that governments pay attention to the environmental consequences of unchecked resource development and economic growth, and governments responded by strengthening environmental regulatory frameworks, creating environmental departments and divisions within state bureaucracies, and distributing environmental literature, including eco-comics. Governments in Canada, though, used eco-comics to advance their own environmental agenda, one intended to counter what they considered to be the radical views of some elements of the North American environmental movement.

This paper analyzes the contexts surrounding the rise of eco-comics in Canada, and examines the visuals and the text that constitute the message of one such publication, the comic book Captain Enviro. The governments of the Maritime Provinces wanted to address public concerns about the environment, but not at the expense of the region’s resource-based economies. The Maritime environment ministers thus commissioned Halifax-based Comic Book World to produce an anti-pollution comic for kids in the early 1970s. In response, the comic book company’s owner, Owen McCarron, along with his occasional creative partner Robin Edmiston, developed what was most likely the world’s first environmentally-themed superhero, or “eco-superhero,” in 1972. With at least five main interrelated components, the environmental message of the eco-comic Captain Enviro focuses on individual actions and avoids critical discussions about the possible root causes of environmental problems. This messaging strategy fit perfectly with the more conservative form of environmental values advocated by the Maritime governments.

“Green Goes Mainstream: The Visual Politics of American Environmentalism, circa 1990” – Finis Dunaway, Trent University


As Earth Day 1990 approached, green went mainstream in the United States. A wide array of visual media all seemed to align with the environmental movement, to disseminate disturbing images of crisis and to promote a new era of ecological responsibility. This paper looks at a few prominent examples—including portrayals of the garbage crisis, the danger of Alar-laced apples, and signs of global ecological collapse—to show how media images mobilized feelings of environmental anxiety, but also played a crucial role in codifying neoliberal templates of environmental citizenship. Placing these images within the larger contexts of the end of the Cold War, the triumph of neoliberal values, and the rise of recycling programs, I explain how the visual media lunged between the global and the personal to create a contradictory politics of scale. The macro-notion of planetary crisis would be joined by a relentless focus on the micro, on the individual as the agent of change, the virtuous consumer who can redirect markets to ensure sustainability.

I argue that the period surrounding Earth Day 1990 constitutes not only a crucial environmental moment, but also a pivotal phase in the emotional history of capitalism. Capitalism and emotional politics became enmeshed in new and complicated ways during this period: while corporations sometimes seemed responsible for the environmental crisis, the market, spurred on by enlightened consumers, also seemed to offer the most promising path out of the abyss. Ultimately, media packaging of environmental hope presented the movement itself as a form of therapy, a way for individuals to cope with the distressing imagery of environmental crisis. My paper seeks to explain why this particular vision of environmentalism—as an individualized form of therapeutic politics—become so widely represented and enshrined during this particular historical moment.

“Zombies, Environmental Declensionism, and the Fate of Humanity: Symbolism in the Zombie Metaphor, 1968-2013” – Andrew Watson, York University


Zombies have come to occupy a very prominent spot in North American popular culture. This popularity has spilled over into other aspects of everyday life, making zombies a reoccurring metaphor. As a sub-genre of post-apocalyptic stories, zombies reflect society’s concern with crises such as political conflict, social and cultural change, and economic decline. Yet, since the crystallization of the modern zombie in George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), zombies have also contained an under-current of environmental anxiety in addition to political, social and economic anxieties. This presentation traces the rise in the popularity of zombies by correlating the growth in the number of zombie movies produced since 1950 with certain moments or trends of environmental anxiety since WWII. In doing so, it becomes apparent that zombies are historically contingent, and stand-in for specific types of environmental anxieties that shift and evolve to reflect the times. In the 1970s for example, zombies were representative of over-consumption and critiques of consumerism, while in the 1980s they came to embody a growing fear of incurable disease. After 9/11, however, zombies become proxies for a growing anxiety about urban environments, including over-crowding, collapse of the inner core, and disillusionment with the suburban dream. By examining the imagery contained in Romero’s zombie films, as well as several twenty-first century zombie films, this presentation suggests that the popularity of zombies tells us a great deal about how we have coped with environmental anxiety in the past.

Andrew Watson (York University), Finis Dunaway (Trent University), and Mark McLaughlin (University of New Brunswick) presented at ASEH 2013 in Toronto.

 

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Andrew Watson

Postdoctoral Fellow at University of Saskatchewan
Andrew is a Postdoctoral Fellow working on the Sustainable Farm Systems project in the Department of History and the Historical GIS Laboratory at the University of Saskatchewan. Andrew is also a collaborator with Jim Clifford and the London's Ghost Acres project. His doctoral research explored the history of sustainability and rural household economies on the Canadian Shield in the Muskoka region of Ontario. His current research includes the environmental and economic history of coal in Canada, sustainable agricultural in Kansas, global leather tanning commodities in the British Empire, and zombies.

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