evolving ecological media culture(s)

Week 10: Greening the media


Media matters, and media matter also matters.

As shown in Richard Maxwell’s and Toby Miller’s book Greening the Media, information and communication technologies are not ecologically benign. They leave behind plenty of residues — mountains of waste, toxic by-products that affect workers and consumers, and much else — and rearrange the materiality of the world in so many ways.

The book examines these material ecologies in relation to the production (“Words,” “Workers”), distribution and transmission (“Screens”), consumption (“Consumers”), and management (“Bureaucrats,” “Citizens”) of information and communication and the technologies that mediate it.

Specifically, we will read the following parts of the book:

  • Introduction: pp. 1 to 9 (first section and “Greening the Media”)
  • Chapter 2: the entire chapter, with a particular focus on pp. 46-52 and 60-64 (“The Ecological Context of Words,” “Changing Business, Persistent Environmental Issues,” and “Conclusion”)
  • Chapter 6: the entire chapter, with a particular focus on pp. 147 to the end (“Imagining Green Citizenship for the Future”)
  • Conclusion (pp. 157-165)

For those outside the class who do not have the book and aren’t willing to buy it, there’s this podcast:

Questions and comments to come.




  1. Follow-up comments:

    1. Focus more on Chapter 6 than on Chapter 2.

    2. For those of you with a copy of the book, do the following:
    (1) Choose one of the other chapters (1- Consumers; 3- Screens; 4- Workers; 5- Bureaucrats).
    (2) Announce below that you have chosen that chapter, so that others know not to do it.
    (3) Read it instead of chapter 2.
    (4) Summarize 2 key insights from it (or be prepared to do that in class; you have a choice of doing that here or responding more generally here).

    Specifically recommended sections:
    Ch. 1 – pp. 30-31 (What can consumers do about it?) and 36-41 (The wondrous cell phone, Conclusion)
    Ch. 3 – pp. 75-85 (Electronic screens; The screen’s future; Conclusion)
    Ch. 4 – 90-97 (Media on the global assembly line); 101-108 (Ragpickers & electronic waste; Conclusion)
    Ch. 5 – 156-6, 128-133.


    Hollywood and the film industries have staked their fortunes in deception, movie magic. When we look through a screen at a movie or tv show, we are seeing an edited, manipulated product. We don’t see the bad takes or the man holding the microphone or the cameras, nor can we tell that the props are just props. When we look at that screen, rather than through it, we are similarly deceived. While we normally, if automatically, focus on the immaterial depicted on our screens, the physical components that made them possible often get left on the cutting room floor.
    The industry has a long history of environmental degradation. Film, from its earliest existence, was made from toxic materials, and though they have gotten better, the process and materials used in its manufacture were still major contributors to pollution as recently as 2007, with Rochester, NY (home of Kodak Park) the epicenter of film pollution. Though we are going digital and film is turned over to flat screen TVs, we see similarly toxic materials used in the production of these new TVs. While safely contained in their flat boxes, these toxins leach into the soil and water when the TVS are thrown away. The screen then, is perpetuating our need to extract and process these toxic materials, while giving us no recourse to deal with them when we’re done (especially because most are designed or meant to be replaced within a few years of purchase).
    To counter this, many companies in the industry, like News Corp, are flaunting “Greening” programs to offset their carbon emissions and make their efforts carbon- neutral, to try to screen us from their poisonous inner workings. However, they continue to perpetuate these toxic technologies. This is no surprise: they are after all in the business of deception. This is the industry that is explicitly about twisting images: do you really think that “Titanic” was filmed in the middle of the ocean?
    At the same time that film contributes to the degradation of Earth, it is hard to imagine it without the joy that film can provide. Though its name sake billows continuous clouds of black smoke, “The General” will continue to be hailed as a classic. Though it’s plot promotes the burning of fossil fuels, perhaps the film industry should take after its star, Buster Keaton, known for using few takes. Right now the industry seems to be more on track to become Charlie Chaplin, know for doing many takes of the same shot, and using excessive quantities of toxic film.

  3. One thing the author pointed out is that many of the small, routine changes people make in the name of being more environmentally friendly “are part-time commitments that do not cultivate a holistic understanding of the global scale of the eco-crisis and media and ICT/CE’s role in it.” I think it’s very important for people to understand the historical roots of our crisis, and how all-pervasive is. Ecology/environmentalism is seen as a single discipline or area, which is given varying levels of respect depending on who you ask. But our ecological crisis can only be understood through a holistic lens, one that takes into account politics, economics, history (of not just people but whole ecological communities and the earth itself), psychology, etc. We can and should use all these lenses to approach our ECO-logical crisis, ECO having its latin roots in the word “house”.

    Chapter 6 outlines a number of forms of environmental citizenship, from “sustainability citizenship” to “resistance citizenship”. The author calls green citizenship “corrective that looks to saving infrastructure, ecosystems, and heritage from capitalist growth”, and expresses a need for recognition of public rights over private rights of industry, and others such as the right to have a body free of biotoxins. I think it’s important here to keep an eye on the center, the people who probably do not agree with radical Marxism or Leftism and are instead rooted in different political/economic/cultural traditions. These people are not going to be swayed by our author’s argument and heavily leftist rhetoric, because they do not agree with the basic assumptions that the author goes off of. The author uses jargon and somewhat arbitrary classification of types of citizenship, citizen roles in greening, etc., to make his point, but the majority of people who read this would not understand, agree, or probably care.

  4. Even though chapter 6 was more broad and forward-thinking, I found chapter 2 (Words) to be really fascinating-mostly because there’s no clear answer on the comparative sustainability of digital readers and preying media. Once books, newspapers, and magazines are created, they require no further resource consumption-but the amount of trees used to supply the publishing industry is staggering. Digital readers require no trees, but a large amount of carbon & rare earth metals. Somewhere around 100 books downloaded, they begin to “pay back their environmental costs,” but the chapter also says that “current research indicates that reading online for half an hour equates to ninety minutes of watching television or the printing of a newspaper,” which seems like a really, really strange figure. There are a number of further factors that contribute to the environmental costs of both digital and print publishing, making the figures on both sides further obfuscated.
    It’s strange because digital readers, at first glance, seem less sustainable than print media simply because they require electricity, but the paper+shipping costs of print items really add up, it seems. Obviously, the problem is no matter how efficient digital readers are, they’re always going to require some form of energy consumption to work (which probably means coal is getting burned somewhere, perpetually), and they’re subject to malfunction & eventual obsolescence-a book, if taken care of, can last centuries.
    However, it’s probably an inevitability that print media will finally complete its slow demise sometime in the near future. If digital readers become truly ubiquitous, maybe the environmental returns will become more significant (especially if we start sourcing electricity renewably).

  5. In the podcast of Toby Miller he brings up one point in particular which I found very interesting to sum up I thought that I have been having about getting media information through new technological means such as computers, phones, television, etc., as compared to getting information through more traditional modes like newspapers or magazines which come on print. Is it better for the environment to just flick on the computer and look up the daily news or to get the newspaper and read it and recycle it? Miller brings up a great point by saying that when one reads a book they can relatively easily recycle it or it can be given away or left in a corner. That is its carbon footprint and once done it goes in a cycle. The problem he brings up with electronic media is that once it is read it is disposed of and we are left with the methods of getting them, such as an actual computer. These new modes of media are very hard to dispose of and can last for thousands of years. Most are not recycled in a proper way and when they are recycled, it is very dangerous. The recycling of these hazardous materials are usually done by third world countries because they can result in awful side effects and only those with serious need would do a job that puts the worker at so much risk. So in the end, the old way of print newspapers is definitely better than accessing news and media through the new mediums.

  6. I definitely want to encourage more people outside of this class to take a look at this Book and these chapters. Especially sharing the Soundcloud podcast could really open many people’s eyes on the overall impact of the media they consume. I knew that the effects of mining and producing rare earth metals found in China and in Africa, specifically the Congo, were very bad but I did not know to quite the extent explained by Maxwell and Miller. In another class of mine we are conducting a life cycle analysis of some product and doing something such as a computer, television, or smart phone would be a very eye opening subject.

    While initially I felt perhaps keeping and focusing media on digital platforms would be a better option than paper products, because many of us already have a medium for digital media, I now change my view. First of all, since digital and media technologies are often designed to become obsolete in a short period of time such as a few years or less, this means there is perpetual harvesting of limited rare earth metals and exploitation of children and poverty stricken workers in terrible working conditions. Besides this, the points offered in the reading saying that paper product based media was better such as how although the USA consumes the most paper we also replant the most trees which helps balance the impact (only to a degree but still more of an extent than harvesting REM in third world countries). Finally, I found the points made on recycling of materials to be troubling. It is bad enough that we cannot completely recycle these difficult materials and cannot just grow more but coupled with the inconsistencies and lack of proper follow through on recycling the materials and responsibly taking care of them is much worse.

    Furthering on the points brought up by Diego above, I feel that achieving a broader knowledge to the average consumer of the life cycle and unjust labor that goes into these digital media platforms could eventually garner a greater shift in environmental and especially social responsibility compared to the small routine changes in people’s life style’s advocated by the “environmentally responsible”. I often feel many people feel that are doing much better than others in terms of helping the earth by buying organic or recycling but I believe their reasoning is minimal (although still in the right direction) due to the widespread global impact of the production and political system. Educating people and gaining awareness can spark movements and hopefully build enough momentum to see changes or at least call these crises into the mainstream view and ears.

  7. Chapter 1-Consumer, What can the Consumer Do About It?

    In this section the authors highlight reasons why an entire paradigm shift is too large for an individual to cause on their own. If a major shift is going to happen quickly, it will most likely be caused by a top down approach. Thats not to say that individuals cannot come together and create a strong enough push to make a change, but it will probably not be large enough to cause a sweeping change in the media and technology realms.
    One hope that the authors shared is that society can move toward green citizenship (the rest of the book discusses ways in which this could be made possible). Green citizenship refers to “a shared commitment to confront the eco-crisis and press for greener governance through media policy”. Green citizenship takes green consumerism and pushes it further to explore the ethics of our current actions and the connectedness of living and non living beings.

    The discussion of cell phones later on in the chapter is an interesting one. It highlights many of the major health concerns that cell phones cause both during their use and after their disposal. It also highlights the conflicts within eco-centrism in regards to cell phone use. True eco-centrism would push for the discontinued use of cell phones as immediately as possible, the earth and its health is far more important than human interests. Less strict eco-centrism would explore other means of cell phone production that lessen the harms and more efficient/less harmful recycling or disposal procedures. I really enjoyed this section because I am in contact with my cell phone very frequently throughout every day and I have had many cell phones since high school. The end of this chapter brings up a very thought provoking and valid point. Even if the a new cell phone were able to satisfy a green consumers needs, do we want to live in the society it creates?…severed social interactions and segregated classes.

  8. I want to provide a corollary to this reading for those interested in a distraction (and a mind-blowing ending). The Last Question, a science fiction short story published by Isaac Asimov in 1956, explores the relationship between man’s obsession with the future even as he marvels at the technology available to him at the present. Without giving away too much, I will tell you that the story spans a much larger time-scale than most, and yet the human characters in each time period share in that “Cult of the Present” referred to in Maxwell’s text: they regularly relate their experiences to those of peoples past, positing on ancestors who are at once material in the sense that they existed, yet fictional in their hypothetical non-specificity.

    Asimov was very much a futurist and was considered a master of “hard science fiction”, i.e. sci-fi based strictly on speculation justified by its rooting in accepted scientific notions. Asimov has gone on record to say that The Last
    Question is favorite among his own works, as the pre-script of the text shows:

    “This is by far my favorite story of all those I have written.

    After all, I undertook to tell several trillion years of human history in the space of a short story and I leave it to you as to how well I succeeded. I also undertook another task, but I won’t tell you what that was lest l spoil the story for you.
    It is a curious fact that innumerable readers have asked me if I wrote this story. They seem never to remember the title of the story or (for sure) the author, except for the vague thought it might be me. But, of course, they never forget the story itself especially the ending. The idea seems to drown out everything — and I’m satisfied that it should.”

    Here is the link: http://filer.case.edu/dts8/thelastq.htm

    I encourage everyone to take a coffee break at some point when you are feeling stressed or looking for some focusing point to center your thoughts on; this story might do the trick.

  9. While reading chapter 6…

    I am astonished at the concept that was brought up early on titled “greening of hate.” Nazi Germany used the arguement that ethnic cleansing promites a “purenonhuman natural world.” The sheere fact that they backed up a genocidal campaign with consiervation efforts does indeed show that a natural nonhuman world is one to seek and strive for. The implications of war and murder immediately contradict this idea, but aside from that this is proof that using an idea such as healthy nature is something that can persuade people to do a certain thing, suggesting that many may indeed want this common goal.

    Green Governance is a concept that has been disreguarded and falsly promoted. Propaganda in this arena can be seen in many forms of media. The Canadian Oilsands are a prime example of this. The current environmental degridation of the project is tiny in comparison to what the Keystone XL pipeline will open up. The right to nature is being lost in its most obvious form which is simply no nature. The Oilsands leave nothing behind except tarfilled swamps. Shell is promoting the idea that the land will recover quickly and nature will not be lost but the EPA does not agree with this. In fact, the EPA says that in order to fulfill the Oilsand’s goals (5.2M bpd by 2020) environmental assessment must be lessened as it “burdens,” growth. Green Governance is lost here, and the climate implications of this will be seen for years to come.

    As the reading states Green Accountability will always battle with capitalism, as both can not co-exist on the scale we see today. Technology can become more efficient and user friendly but at the end of the day we need to look at the ideas being promoted through this technology. Cars burn less gas per mile, but still need gas, which needs oil, which needs tarsands. Technology that slows things down and lets people enjoy things outside of the screen is what will slow down this hunger for more, and to me this seems like quitting heroin.

  10. To start, there is a program called Conflict Free Campus. This initiative call upon student activists to raise awareness and bring about peace in Congo.


    “By encouraging university officials and stakeholders, both of whom are large purchasers of electronics and powerful spokespersons, to commit to measures that pressure electronics companies to responsibly invest in Congo’s minerals sector, students are voicing the demand for conflict-free products from Congo.”

    this group organizes events to encourage awareness but they also provide helpful resources. Through Conflict Free Campus, students can learn about which companies are best to support based on their resource extraction and how socially responsible they are.

    I have often learned about the dangers that come along with mass production of technological goods- especially the unsuitable working conditions inhabited all around the world. Never had I thought about the other end of the consumption chain, the waste.

    It amazes me how much more detrimental disposing of technological goods can be, as opposed to producing them. This is a spot on example of environmental injustice, yet it is something I have rarlely looked into in my academic studies. The idea of throwing things “away” should be altered. We must become aware of where “away” is, and if it is really the best place for these retired goods.

    To keep bouncing around ideas… I also like the idea that was presented regarding planned obsolescence. Once companies produce new software it is no longer as compatible with your old technology. As consumers we are expected to toss out the old, and go buy the new. What if producers were to include the software updates, and new technology in the upfront cost of their product? If you were to need an update, you could bring your old product to the manufacturer so they can responsibly dispose of them and then you can receive your rightful piece of modern technology.

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