J500 Media and the Environment

All Red-Eyed and Blue by vincemeserko
June 10, 2008, 6:04 pm
Filed under: Society + Media | Tags: , , , ,

Last December I helped present a strategic communications plan to representatives of CReSIS, the Center for the Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets, at the University of Kansas. CReSIS helps track and predict glacial ice melt and rising sea levels in Greenland and Antarctica. Part of the presentation involved a Q&A session where I was asked whether or not I thought CReSIS might be considered a leftist/liberal institution simply because of their association with the global warming debate. “Are we guilty by association” was the exact question from Steve Ingalls. I confidently replied that I thought that global climate change was becoming increasingly less toxic of an issue, that no longer was it a liberal v. conservative battle. Consensus was emerging I reasoned. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure I was absolutely wrong. Check out this poll conducted by National Journal Magazine. It shows that currently 95 percent of Democrats believe beyond a reasonable doubt that the earth is warming as a result of man-made pollution. Conversely, only 26 percent of republicans agreed with the statement. As with any poll, there is the chance of bias within the construction of the question itself. The words “beyond a reasonable doubt” combined with “warming earth” might scare people away, but it’s unlikely they scared only republicans. The results are too lopsided to attribute to a biased question.

Interestingly, this poll coincides with another, extremely unscientific study I’ve conducted myself. As part of my post-graduation what-the-hell-am-I-going-to-do-with-my-life summer I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time loitering in public libraries. One of my best summer book finds is Christopher Horner’s “The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism.” The book’s description “reveals the full anti-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-human agenda of today’s environmentalists.” Horner is routinely championed by commentator Sean Hannity whose own book, Let Freedom Ring, resolutely denies global warming. Hannity and other conservative commentators like Ann Coulter and Michael Savage have taken similar stances in their respective books as Horner. They seem completely incapable of breaking party lines to question the true meaning of environmentalism and liberals seem unwilling to meet them in the middle.

I think the real problem here are in the words “global warming” which is a terribly insufficient catch-all term for all topics related to environmentalism. Environmentalism IS global warming to many. Part of the struggle, as discussed at length in our class, involves the reframing of these topics so as not to obscure their complexity. Global warming, to conservatives, is an invention of the left to bring down capitalism and as Horner bizarrely asserts, a device that is inherently anti-human. I’m not sure what Horner means by “anti-human.” Are global warming skeptics suggesting carbon emission legislation and concerted environmental activism will annihilate humans and bring about the emergence of a new, distinctly inhuman race of people? Will this new species drive Priuses?

Horner’s anti-captialism assertion is the most misguided. As noted in books like Ethical Markets (co-written by Simran) and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, environmental issues have the ability to be profoundly pro-capitalism because they reward market innovation and support ethical practices. We can make money AND help the environment! I’m sure conservative global warming naysayers like Hannity, Savage, and Coulter would agree these are hallmarks of good capitalism yet none seem to want to view environmentalism from this perspective. It’s equally the fault of liberals for not presenting environmental issues in the context of human rights, national security and environmental conservation, but instead, offering over-the-top doomsday global warming scenarios which only fan the flames and reinforce red vs. blue state paradigms. The conversations between the two parties has to be reframed and reimagined and both parties have to be patient and openminded. In order to find consensus and reverse these troubling poll stats both liberals and conservatives have to be more cognizant of the nuance of environmentalism and the values we all share.


Environmental Media and Getting Back in the Box by vincemeserko

Since this week we’ll be looking at strategic communication in the context of environmental media and business, I thought I’d spend this post looking at these forces through the prism of a wonderful book called Get Back in the Box by noted writer, lecturer, theorist Douglas Rushkoff of NYU. The main premise of the book is that business is so obsessed with out-of-the-box thinking and increasingly interruptive marketing that they have become divorced from what Rushkoff calls their “core competencies.” In other words, they don’t actually do the thing they do. Instead of pouring money into research and development companies divert funds to strategic campaigns or hire outside consultants to reimagine their enterprise rather than actually trying to make something good and useful – something that has value and solves real needs. In terms of environmental media, treehugger seems to be a textbook example of an online mediaspace that embodies the power of what Rushkoff calls “social currency.” Treehugger has been wildly successful because it offers a place where passionately involved members can go to pursue a common interest. Treehugger content itself, to use Rushkoff’s words, is a “medium for interaction.” Treehugger marketing and strategic communication may have helped their awareness level, but it was Treehugger’s own competency as a marketplace for interaction, education, and subtle activism that made it valuable to people. Treehugger is a good website and that’s why people visit it. That seems naively simple, but it’s a surprisingly elusive concept for many in business to grasp. Rushkoff brings up Patagonia as an example of a business whose commitment to their own values as an organization of environmental stewardship and ethical business managed to build up a culture around their products and weave their own passions into the operation. They’ve managed to profitable without compromising their own scruples or neglecting their original interests.

One of the things that made my work last semester with CReSIS so valuable was that the core “get back in the box” elements were already in place. CReSIS researchers were deeply committed to science and genuinely passionate about their work. To have that sort of culture already in place was inspiring. It would have been irresponsible “out of the box” thinking to suggest they reinvent themselves through a superficial “rebranding” or an ill-fated attempt at positioning them for media celebrity status. They weren’t made for that and quite frankly they were not interested in the first place. We asked Dr. David Braaten, CReSIS geographer, what his goals for CReSIS were. I expected something like “to be on the front page of the New York Times or featured on the Discovery Channel.” Instead, Braaten said his main goal was for CReSIS to master their latest radar sensing technology to effectively map the undersides of polar ice sheets. CReSIS was already back in the box without any of us knowing it. For the first few months of our project I think my group, and probably the whole class, were preoccupied with reinvention. We had advertising consultants from Dallas come in and talk about corporate leveraging to attain media status and “brand awareness” nonsense, as if making the CReSIS’ logo bigger on the scientists’ lab coats would make them better scientists. It was preposterous. We had to tweak the way we thought about the entire project. Eventually, our team decided to go with the slogan “visionary science that inspires” because we finally realized that in order for CReSIS to be successful it must continue to innovate and research and that that alone had societal value irrespective of how much publicity it got or prestige it brought to the organization. We seemed to forget initially that prestige and acclaim come by actually being good at what you do and offering something categorically different than research findings that currently exist. In essence our campaign was telling CReSIS to “keep being good at science.” After months of trying desperately to strike gold outside of the box we realized it might be better just to climb back inside and let CReSIS be CReSIS.

Here’s Rushkoff explaining the Jeffersonian origins of “out of the box” thinking and our current “new” renaissance:

-Vince Meserko