I'm gazing wistfully at a towering red-rock butte bathed in
gentle sunset light, shades of brown to violet framed against a
meek background of sky. It's massive but tame, brooding but
well-mannered, broad-shouldered but shy. Its silence is nothing
short of submissive.
It's the January pinup in the Nature Conservancy's calendar.
Environmental organizations and independent entrepreneurs yearly
churn out glossy wall charts and engagement books for the
consumption of nature-loving citizens like myself -- grizzly cubs
from the Nature Conservancy are on the menu, for instance; spotted
dolphins and two albatrosses with their beaks interlocked from the
Sierra Club; and, from Audubon, a polar bear perched with all four
paws together like a performing bear in a circus, as well as a
mother-and-baby baboon and mother-and-baby koala, perfectly
groomed, hugging each other cutely and looking straight at the
camera, with big, dark, inviting pools of eyes.
As I flip through these adorable menageries, I'm reminded of
nothing so much as my twentysomething days working for slaves'
wages as a copy editor at Hustler Magazine. I'm reminded
of models named Tammi and Lynda, buck naked and intertwined, long
tresses artfully arranged to frame obscenely augmented breasts, who
also hugged each other -- although not so cutely -- and looked
straight at the camera with big, dark, inviting pools of eyes.
At first glance, a girl-girl spread in Hustler has
little in common with a twin-albatross picture in an Audubon
engagement calendar. But both are clearly porn. They offer comfort
to the viewer: They will always be there, ideal, unblemished,
available. They offer gratification without social cost; they
satiate by providing objects for fantasy without making
uncomfortable demands on the subject.
The landscape photographs featured in the calendars may not play
quite as facilely on the heartstrings of the average American
wildlife consumer as baby animals, but they too are blatantly
pornographic. We see the Grand Canyon, cliffs lit orange, with snow
in the foreground; we see a fuchsia fog unrolling endlessly over
the Northern Cascades under a golden sky; we see an emerald-green
pool surrounded by red rock in Havasu Canyon.
This is picture-book nature, scenic and sublime, praiseworthy
but not battle-worthy. Tarted up into perfectly circumscribed
simulations of the wild, these props of mainstream environmentalism
serve as surrogates for real engagement with wilderness, the way
porn models serve as surrogates for real women. They are placebos
substituting for triage.
And they don't even get us off. Nature calendars rely on a
hackneyed canon of evocations that no longer serves a purpose.
Their girlish good looks have aged poorly. At best, they elicit a
regretful nostalgia for a never-known past of unspoiled landscapes;
at worst, they reassure us disingenuously that the last great
places are safe and sound.
They go largely unnoticed, and yet they reveal a broad truth
about the environmental movement: It has failed to generate a
compelling language for itself. Its propaganda falls flat, its
style is outdated, its rhetoric is stale. It needs to be
So what's next? Next is all or nothing -- either a critical
facelift for environmentalism or a long slow slide into
obsolescence. A soft aesthetic produces soft results. So-called
'radical' environmentalists and little-read deep ecologists hark to
our 'duty' to preserve and care for nature, poignantly calling for
a profound paradigm shift that will allow the human race to see
beyond its own wants, needs, and foibles to a Higher Love -- a tall
order for people who can't decide whether to use paper or
To survive, the environmental movement needs to do what the far
right has done so well since the advent of Ronald Reagan: find base
and selfish selling points for our product. Make people afraid not
to buy. Wilderness and biodiversity conservation in the 21st
century will mean national security, food security, atmospheric
security -- in short, survival. Environmentalists have a powerful
product, and the onus is on them to use powerful tools for the
Doomsaying alone is not the ticket. Environmental advertising
has to define a new style for itself, a style with unapologetic
momentum, a hardball-playing, fast-moving engagement with the
realities of anthropogenic devastation. It can no longer shrink
from the rude, the vicious, or the unsightly. Think of Richard
Misrach's stunning photography book Violent Legacies,
which features desecrated toxic landscapes rendered lovely by
tragedy and good composition. Consider the gentler and colder work
of Lee Friedlander in The Desert Seen, which sacrifices
touristic prettiness for a near-clinical complexity, or the work of
Lynn Davis in Wonders of the African World, the companion
book to the Henry Louis Gates public television series, which shows
us that landscape and preindustrial architecture, the natural and
the contrived, may be similarly formal expressions of a dignity
elicited by the desert's rigors.
If environmentalism wants to hold off the end of nature, it is
going to have to stop relying on the static prettiness of
landscapes and the staged cuteness of animals to gather new
recruits. What it needs is not a well-meaning posse of smiling
grannies handing out Hallmark cards in the mall, but the guts to
assault us with the ugly effects of our own appetites.
Reprinted from High Country News (April 2004).
Subscriptions: $32/yr. (24 issues) from 119 Grand Ave, Paonia, CO
81428; www.hcn.org A longer
version of this essay originally appeared in Naked: Writers
Uncover the Way We Live on Earth (Four Walls Eight Windows,
2004), edited by Susan Zakin.