MARK MADISON: Good morning. Today is June 30th, 2010, and we are at the Sc3 Conference doing a Podcast with Finis Dunaway. He's an Associate Professor of History at Trent University in Canada, and he came down here to speak to about 100 high school kids who are interested in the conservation movement and a career, hopefully, in the environmental movement.
Finis is an environmental historian, an American historian, an expert on visual culture, and he gave a wonderful talk on the imagery used in "Global Climate Change."
So, Finis, welcome. It's good to have you here.
We also have Emily Jenkins with us, who is helping out with this Podcast.
And, Finis, I guess the first question to ask you is: How did you end up being an environmental historian?
FINIS DUNAWAY: It was a long, strange trip, I suppose, that brought me into that. I suppose at some level it started from having an interest in environmental issues as I graduated from high school in 1989 and the Exxon Valdez spill was certainly a major media story, and I think that together with other factors led me to get very involved in a student environmental group. I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and there was actually a national coalition of student groups that was forming then, and that was really a formative experience for me because we had a huge conference that fall that brought in David Brower and Barry Commoner and all of these major figures in the environmental movement. And I went ahead to study history, but I didn't know there was such a field as environmental history. And when I went to graduate school, that was not my plan, because I didn't know that there was such a field out there. And when I was in graduate school studying American history, I got very interested in cultural history, in particular the history of photography and film and visual culture.
And then sort of randomly stumbled into some books by environmental historians and some other classes and was really quite taken by their approach. It seemed a fundamentally different way to think about the past. And also a number of them happened to be great writers, people like William Cronin and Donald Worster and others, and I was very much-- really captured my imagination.
And so the idea of taking environmental history and thinking about how it was related to the history of visual culture and images, since I know in my own life, and I suspected in many other people's, that images played a very important role in how they understood the natural world and maybe how they understood environmental issues. So that sort of led me in that direction.
MARK MADISON: How have images shaped how we understand global climate change?
FINIS DUNAWAY: Well, I think they've played a very important role, particularly recently. Global warming has been in the media, in the mainstream media, for well over 20 years now, but there was-- partly because of the issue of people saying that there was scientific uncertainty whether or not there was a real problem, which, of course, some of that uncertainty was manufactured by particular right-wing interest groups that brought along suspect scientists to say things that were not, in fact, in the peer-reviewed scientific literature. But in terms of global warming being a popular issue that many people understand and feel some concern about, I think it's just been in the last few years, and I would have to say that Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" has to be seen as the most fundamental text in making people aware of the problem and making them really feel like this is something they should have some concern about.
You cannot now talk about global warming, in most events I go to, anyway, without hearing Al Gore's name mentioned at some point, which I think is a sign of just how significant that film was. Very unexpectedly, given the way he was portrayed in the 2000 election as a person without any charisma to come across and make a Powerpoint movie about a very kind of wonkish topic and yet gain as much popular attention. That, together with these iconic polar bear pictures that are circulating, those everyone has seen of the polar bear on melting ice, seems to give us a sense of the significance of the problem and a sense that there is a tangible visual symbol that we can look at and understand the issues.
So I would definitely say it's in the last few years the visual media have played an absolutely crucial role in making that into a popular concern.
MARK MADISON: Are there things we should be aware of as consumers of this visual media?
FINIS DUNAWAY: Absolutely. One of the things I mentioned in the talk today was that the polar bear image, for all its importance and for all of its ability to raise concern, and for all of its circulation in various media today, we need to be-- we need to ask what it is that the polar bear shows us, but also what it is that's excluded, what's hidden from the frame. And among other issues I wanted to talk to the students today about, human communities that are being affected by global warming, as well as places closer to home, that this is not just a problem affecting the Poles. It's, of course, most visible there and most dramatic there at the moment, but will have lots of ramifications on all kinds of landscapes all over the world, and I think that if we too much focus on the polar bear it may make it hard to understand how much climate change is going to permeate so many landscapes and so many ecosystems, is already in fact doing that and will more so in the future.
EMILY JENKINS: Why were you so excited about coming the Student Climate and Conservation Congress? How did you hope to influence the kids that are attending?
FINIS DUNAWAY: Well, I thought it was an absolutely excellent opportunity, I was really excited when I got the invitation, partly because I feel myself having to admit that I'm now middle-aged since I just turned 39, and that seems to be somehow-- I'm close enough to 40 that I'm middle-aged-- and thinking back to when I was their age and when environmentalism started to become something that I think had a bit more popular resonance, largely because of the media coverage of certain issues, and I think there is a certain degree of hope and idealism and passion that younger people can bring to issues that we don't always see among people, unfortunately, I might say of my age and older, and so I really wanted to be a part of that conversation and hope that I could say something that they would find meaningful and that it would some way connect with their own experience and with how they imagine their own futures. So I was hoping to give them a sense of how visual artists are perhaps giving us a different way of thinking about global warming in ways that are both critical and important but also at times inspiring and hopeful, and I thought that somehow combining those emotions, those feelings that you see in some of this art with their own sense of growing up in a world that must seem rather scary at times but also that they do have certain degree of capacity and power and hope to make a contribution to be involved in these issues in whatever form it takes, that for me that was an opportunity I did not want to pass up. So I was delighted to be here and to be able to speak to them.
MARK MADISON: Well, Finis, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for coming all the way from Canada down here to Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We really appreciate it. We've been talking about Finis Dunaway. He's a professor at Trent University in Canada. His book is called "Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform," and he has a forthcoming book title yet unknown, or do you have --
FINIS DUNAWAY: Yeah, there's a very tentative title "From the Atomic Bomb to Global Warming: The Environmental Crisis In American Visual Culture," which will be a while before it's out, but hopefully not too long.
MARK MADISON: The first book is very good, and Finis actually has some excellent articles, too. So thanks again.
FINIS DUNAWAY: Thanks so much for having me. It was a real privilege and treat to be here.
MARK MADISON: And thanks to all of you who took the time to listen in.
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