Tools for the Anthropocene: Animation — but without the Nostalgia

Animation is a powerful tool communicators can use to enhance their messaging on climate change, but effective messaging can still be nullified by faulty transmission or bad reception.

The “State Shift“article in June 7th issue of Nature is but one of several recently published reminders that we live in a new age. Because humans are now leaving the most prominent marks on the planet, it is appropriate, these scientists and commentators argue, to start using a new geologic name for this — the Anthropocene.

In our daily lives, however, we think and act as if we were still in the Holocene. In our stories, on the news but especially in the movies, we still depict ourselves — individually or collectively — as isolated protagonists struggling against greater forces. To move beyond these stories, we need new tools to help us see the complex systems in which we and these greater forces are interconnected. For a new tool to be effective, however, three conditions must be met.

First, the tool must enable us to capture and re-present data in new, big-picture ways. Second, communicators must use the tool to tell new stories. And third, the critics and commentators who interpret the communicators’ efforts must be open to new stories. Lacking any of these conditions, efforts to present the new big picture will be painted over by our old habits.

Animation as a Tool for the Anthropocene

Global warming is one of the ways we humans are carving our names on the Earth. Anthropogenic climate change is a complex process in which diverse and otherwise disconnected actions and agents collectively produce effects — all over the globe — over medium- and long-term time scales. Because the lines between these causes and effects are myriad and indirect, climate change cannot be viewed directly, cannot be easily photographed.

But through different techniques of animation — time-lapse photography, computer-generated images, motion diagrams — climate change can be visualized. Animation also allows communicators to block out or omit what’s not immediately relevant in order to highlight elements they want to explain. And the inherent playfulness of cartoon animation lets communicators use visual metaphors to suggest the gravity or urgency of a problem without overwhelming their viewers. Deft uses of animation to communicate climate change can be seen in the cartoons, graphs, and diagrams of An Inconvenient Truth and in many of the short videos created by environmental activists. (See, for example, the “Stop Soot” piece included in this site’s 2010 roundup of “advocacy” videos.) Animation is a good tool for the Anthropocene.

Environmental Messages in American Animated Films

There is always the danger, however, that the need to tell a compelling story will distort the picture of the processes the new tool allows us to create. And this need grows with the scale of the project.

In That’s All Folks: Ecocritical Readings of American Animated Features (2011), Robin Murray and Joseph Heumann show how popular animated films, from Bambi (1942) to Avatar (2009), incorporated and refracted successive American views of ecology: Ellen Swallow Richard’s “human ecology,” Frederic Clement’s “organismic ecology,” Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” Eugene Odum’s “economic ecology,” and the “chaotic ecology” of the present.

The views of nature depicted in these films, they argue, also varied with attitudes toward technology and toward the city. Sometimes nature was portrayed as a realm apart from humans; at other times, the films promoted a cooperative relationship between humankind and the natural world. Over 10 chapters, Murray and Heumann track these changing depictions of nature through the early film studios of Disney, Rankin/Bass, UPA, and Warner Brothers to the state-of-the-art facilities of Amblin Entertainment, Pixar, and Lightstreet Entertainment.

‘Environmental Nostalgia’ — on Screen and in the Eye of the Beholder

That’s All Folks? is the second book on environment and the media by Murray and Heumann. (A third — Gunfight at the Eco-Corral: Western Cinema and the Environment — was released in April.) Their first book, Ecology and Popular Film (2009), grew out of a 2007 Jumpcut article, which was the first academic study of An Inconvenient Truth. In that article, Murray and Heumann introduced the concept of “environmental nostalgia,” the longing for an earlier, pristine, natural environment. In “environmental nostalgia,” our mixed feelings about growing up, growing old, or about change in general are transferred to nature; an emotional bond is created. But it’s a weak bond; it doesn’t fare well against “progress,” “need,” or “security.” When we are nostalgic for our lost youth or a bygone era, even we recognize the futility of the emotion. Nevertheless, “nostalgia” is a time-proven way to tell an evocative story.

And as Murray and Heumann point out, nostalgia is clearly the way Andrew Stanton chose to tell the animated story of Wall-E. The lone but still diligent robot treasures artifacts of popular culture as much as the last vestiges of nature. In Wall-E it is the director who wraps his environmental message in nostalgia. Viewers are touched by the tender feelings the film evokes in them, but when they leave the theater they return to the “real world.”

An Inconvenient Truth certainly does include moments of nostalgia; the bleached color footage of the Gore family farm fairly glistens with it. But the rest of the film, especially the advanced graphics and the animated sequences, focuses on the changes — on the “state shifts” — our actions are provoking in the complex natural systems of planet. And although they are artifacts from the 60s and 70s, the classic photographs of Earth from space evoke wonder more than “nostalgia.” Thus when they attribute the emotional power of AIT to “environmental nostalgia,” Murray and Heumann (and others) miss the Anthropocene forest for a few Holocene trees. Here the critics are the ones imposing an old story on the new message.

Challenge of Communicating the Anthropocene

In their three books, Murray and Heumann offer a comprehensive review of film and the environment. But in their own response to An Inconvenient Truth, they also illustrate the challenge of communicating a message aimed at changing our perspective in some fundamental way: That message is first interpreted from the perspective one wants to change.

Because it allows researchers to display other time-frames and viewpoints, animation can present new perspectives. But before it is considered by members of the public, any new perspective incorporated in an animated illustration must survive successive renderings by communicators and commentators. New messages about the Anthropocene will be revised and edited by people who still live mostly in the Holocene. Thus critics are right to be skeptical when artists and/or activists use environmental nostalgia to promote and direct concern for the environment. (The Nature Conservancy’s Peter Kareiva is the most recent “critic” to question this approach.) But they are wrong when they see only environmental nostalgia in calls to preserve a more stable climate.

Good tools do not come with guarantees they will be used well. That’s an inconvenient truth for every era.

Michael Svoboda

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University with a long interest in climate change communications. (E-mail: msvoboda@yaleclimateconnections.org)
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