Earth Day @ 40: A Modest Proposal

EarthDay 2010Let’s assume that National Geographic’s mission really is to inspire people to care about the planet. Let’s also assume that the Society’s great photography and videos are the means to that end, but not the end itself. In other words: A picture of a cheetah pales in significance to the cheetah itself. If you agree, then consider this…

Imagine if our Society spearheaded a new, and very inexpensive, global initiative that would culiminate on April 22, 2010 — the 40th anniversary of Earth Day. We call it Media Blackout. It’s a campaign to recruit millions of people to set aside one day when all of us, in unison, will turn off the relentless media feed that consumes us. One day when we’ll shut off our computers, Blackberries, cell phones, iPods, TVs, Slingboxes, and any other electronic devices that mediate our world. One small step for you… one giant leap off the media grid for mankind. (Why check your email if no one is online to send you any?)

For NGS, that would mean the Society’s cable channel and web sites would go dark. If you stopped by, all you’d see is a one-line message that for 24 hours would say:

Seize the day… and see you tomorrow.

Yes, the Society would lose one day of advertising revenue from TV and the web. But consider the payback: While every other cable channel and web site kept churning out the same old stuff, National Geographic would be sending a quiet, yet powerful message: On Earth Day, go see the Earth — because even we’ll admit that our photographs and videos are a pale representation of the real thing.

Reality_letdown_popoutWhy do this? Because although some people claim that technology helps connect us to the real world, it often encourages us to disengage instead. Think of how we often retreat into our own iGizmo-enabled bubbles when we’re out in public. Or of massive time-sucks like Facebook. Or online gaming. Or consider this magazine advertisement for a high-definition TV (at right). Reality: What a letdown. … A letdown? Really??

While Media Blackout would culminate with all of us joining a mass media exodus for a day, the project would begin months earlier on National Geographic’s web site. We’d put up a blog… interviews and guest essays… resources… a discussion forum… and, most important, tools to help people connect, face to face, with other folks in their communities to coordinate whatever activities they might choose to pursue together during the blackout. The Society could become the on-line umbrella under which people would gather to coordinate the day’s events.

At a time when media companies are panicked because they have no viable business model “going forward,” what better way for National Geographic to say: In the end, we’re not a media company, but a Society instead.

A few years ago, Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation wrote:

We’re moving from a time when the paradigm of journalism was, you shine the light, and people will see, to a time when we’re living in a world that’s just full of bright light all the time. Now we have to get people’s attention by giving them some kind of sunglasses so they can see.

For more than a century, National Geographic has provided the magic glasses to help people see the world and all that is in it. But now, overwhelmed by that “bright light all the time,” National Geographic’s Media Blackout would provide the magic (sun)glasses to help people get out and appreciate the world — rather than encouraging them to sit at home in their Barcaloungers and ogle pictures of the world.

Because as we’ve discussed before: This isn’t a woman — it’s just a collection of colored pixels on your computer screen.

womaninbikini


  • Lisa Moore

    Yo Alan.
    Ever provocative, you caught me with the gorgeous girl. Then this: “If the mission of National Geographic really is to inspire people to care about the planet, then why does our Society expend 99 percent of its resources trying to inspire people to look at pictures of the planet?” Hummm…I’d argue that looking at pictures is exactly what people need to begin to learn and to care, to launch them outward from their lounge chairs (if they’re able-bodied and have the cash) to visit mountain tops and tribal villages. If they’re not blessed with health and money, then they can view pictures, and read powerful stories, and perhaps come to care. Isn’t that why all ethical journalism exists? To inform, and inspire action?
    __________

    • Lisa Joan Moore! Wonderful to read your voice again. Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      Your point is a good one, and photographs may well be that springboard you describe — the visual force that propels folks out of their Barcaloungers and off to Borneo. But in my years (our years) at NGM, I began to think of photographs less as that proverbial window on a world that beckons you to come visit, and more of a wall, an endpoint. Less of a pointer to the real world, and more of a celebration of the image itself.

      For instance: What did we marvel at years ago when we saw the photos of the topless women in [name of remote tropical region here]? Did we marvel at the fact that in some places in the world, women walk around bare-breasted? Or did we marvel at the quality of the photograph — the composition, the color, the clarity, the expression? I’d argue that what made the photo special was what it told us about the world, not what it said about the skill of the photographer or the photograph itself. The picture was an illustration, a pointer to people and places far beyond our lives here in Maryland; it wasn’t an object in and of itself.

      If you agree, then here’s what’s puzzling: Why did Chris Johns change the name of the Illustrations Division to “Photographic”? The old name (which I liked) suggested the images illustrated something else; Photographic says “Behold the image.” Big mistake.

      While driving home from work tonight, I heard a fascinating interview with author Zadie Smith. She was talking about her process of writing, and one of her observations made me think of your comment:

      “… It’s also a betrayal to write about someone who’s died. What remains is what you’ve written, and it begins to replace your memory the way photographs replace real things. So I think it’s a dangerous act. I don’t think I’ll write a full memoir for that reason. It seems to overslip reality with something else.”

      Beautifully put, and exactly right.

      If National Geographic is about inspiring people to care about the planet, then it can’t be about photographs which “overslip reality with something else.” Which is one reason why a photographer at the helm of the Society’s journal cannot take National Geographic to the heights it could still potentially go.

      Thanks again for stopping by, Lisa. And for stepping up to the mic.

      Best to you, J & the kids…. – A

  • Lisa Moore

    Yo Alan.
    Ever provocative, you caught me with the gorgeous girl. Then this: “If the mission of National Geographic really is to inspire people to care about the planet, then why does our Society expend 99 percent of its resources trying to inspire people to look at pictures of the planet?” Hummm…I’d argue that looking at pictures is exactly what people need to begin to learn and to care, to launch them outward from their lounge chairs (if they’re able-bodied and have the cash) to visit mountain tops and tribal villages. If they’re not blessed with health and money, then they can view pictures, and read powerful stories, and perhaps come to care. Isn’t that why all ethical journalism exists? To inform, and inspire action?
    __________

    • Lisa Joan Moore! Wonderful to read your voice again. Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment.

      Your point is a good one, and photographs may well be that springboard you describe — the visual force that propels folks out of their Barcaloungers and off to Borneo. But in my years (our years) at NGM, I began to think of photographs less as that proverbial window on a world that beckons you to come visit, and more of a wall, an endpoint. Less of a pointer to the real world, and more of a celebration of the image itself.

      For instance: What did we marvel at years ago when we saw the photos of the topless women in [name of remote tropical region here]? Did we marvel at the fact that in some places in the world, women walk around bare-breasted? Or did we marvel at the quality of the photograph — the composition, the color, the clarity, the expression? I’d argue that what made the photo special was what it told us about the world, not what it said about the skill of the photographer or the photograph itself. The picture was an illustration, a pointer to people and places far beyond our lives here in Maryland; it wasn’t an object in and of itself.

      If you agree, then here’s what’s puzzling: Why did Chris Johns change the name of the Illustrations Division to “Photographic”? The old name (which I liked) suggested the images illustrated something else; Photographic says “Behold the image.” Big mistake.

      While driving home from work tonight, I heard a fascinating interview with author Zadie Smith. She was talking about her process of writing, and one of her observations made me think of your comment:

      “… It’s also a betrayal to write about someone who’s died. What remains is what you’ve written, and it begins to replace your memory the way photographs replace real things. So I think it’s a dangerous act. I don’t think I’ll write a full memoir for that reason. It seems to overslip reality with something else.”

      Beautifully put, and exactly right.

      If National Geographic is about inspiring people to care about the planet, then it can’t be about photographs which “overslip reality with something else.” Which is one reason why a photographer at the helm of the Society’s journal cannot take National Geographic to the heights it could still potentially go.

      Thanks again for stopping by, Lisa. And for stepping up to the mic.

      Best to you, J & the kids…. – A

  • David Jeffery

    “…It’s also a betrayal to write about someone who’s died…” Although the context of that comment is missing, standing alone it is exactly wrong. That way is a dive into the void of erasing the past. Out memoir, gone biography, black hole history.

    Part of a larger context is Zadie Smith’s essay about her father’s love of certain kinds of comedy and how when he was dying, daughter and father watched several episodes of “Fawlty Towers” together in bleak surroundings. So is that a betrayal as she would have it in an interview or an expression of her love through craft?

    Too deep for me, but I’m on Lisa’s train on this one.

    • Lisa… now Dave… hey, if I can get Sandra, Cliff, and a few more folks in here, may we call a staff meeting?

      Thanks for your comment, DJ. I agree that the quote alone — “… a betrayal to write about someone who died...” doesn’t fully capture Zadie Smith’s thoughts about writing, death, and remembrance. And the Fawlty Towers essay is, to me, an expression of love through her craft, as I’m sure it is to you. But I still think there’s merit to her notion of “overslipping reality.”

      Think of a song or a piece of music you love. Think of the people & places that come to mind when you hear that song — a trip you once took to Venice, say, or a hike with your daughter, or an especially annoying conversation you might have had years ago with a Legends staffer who just wouldn’t shut up about the photos for the Beauty story. Got the song & memories in mind? Good. Now, get on YouTube & watch the music video for that same song. Watch it again. And again. Soak in all the images that some producer paired with your favorite song — all pictures and associations that are not yours.

      What happens? The song no longer works its magic because the video has erased those powerful associations with Venice, or hiking, or that annoying Legendeer. Other people’s pictures “overslip reality” — and maybe even become preferable to reality. Which is why when I first visited the Everglades, I was overcome with disappointment. Where are all the manatees? where’s the grapefruit sun setting behind the tangle of mangrove trees? where are all the egrets and herons and snapping alligators? The photos I’d seen prior to visiting the region were so much better than the vast silence & relative emptiness of the real thing.

      That, I think, is what Zadie Smith was trying to say. Pictures don’t become the means to an end, but an end in themselves. They can get in the way of really seeing and remembering.

      Okay, now on to the staff meeting: Who is going to be the first person to guest post here at Society Matters? (I promise I won’t edit your POV, Dave. But I will be sure you maintain your own high standards of brevity, clarity, and bite.)

      Hope all is well…. -A

  • David Jeffery

    “…It’s also a betrayal to write about someone who’s died…” Although the context of that comment is missing, standing alone it is exactly wrong. That way is a dive into the void of erasing the past. Out memoir, gone biography, black hole history.

    Part of a larger context is Zadie Smith’s essay about her father’s love of certain kinds of comedy and how when he was dying, daughter and father watched several episodes of “Fawlty Towers” together in bleak surroundings. So is that a betrayal as she would have it in an interview or an expression of her love through craft?

    Too deep for me, but I’m on Lisa’s train on this one.

    • Lisa… now Dave… hey, if I can get Sandra, Cliff, and a few more folks in here, may we call a staff meeting?

      Thanks for your comment, DJ. I agree that the quote alone — “… a betrayal to write about someone who died...” doesn’t fully capture Zadie Smith’s thoughts about writing, death, and remembrance. And the Fawlty Towers essay is, to me, an expression of love through her craft, as I’m sure it is to you. But I still think there’s merit to her notion of “overslipping reality.”

      Think of a song or a piece of music you love. Think of the people & places that come to mind when you hear that song — a trip you once took to Venice, say, or a hike with your daughter, or an especially annoying conversation you might have had years ago with a Legends staffer who just wouldn’t shut up about the photos for the Beauty story. Got the song & memories in mind? Good. Now, get on YouTube & watch the music video for that same song. Watch it again. And again. Soak in all the images that some producer paired with your favorite song — all pictures and associations that are not yours.

      What happens? The song no longer works its magic because the video has erased those powerful associations with Venice, or hiking, or that annoying Legendeer. Other people’s pictures “overslip reality” — and maybe even become preferable to reality. Which is why when I first visited the Everglades, I was overcome with disappointment. Where are all the manatees? where’s the grapefruit sun setting behind the tangle of mangrove trees? where are all the egrets and herons and snapping alligators? The photos I’d seen prior to visiting the region were so much better than the vast silence & relative emptiness of the real thing.

      That, I think, is what Zadie Smith was trying to say. Pictures don’t become the means to an end, but an end in themselves. They can get in the way of really seeing and remembering.

      Okay, now on to the staff meeting: Who is going to be the first person to guest post here at Society Matters? (I promise I won’t edit your POV, Dave. But I will be sure you maintain your own high standards of brevity, clarity, and bite.)

      Hope all is well…. -A

  • Pingback: Earth Day @ 40: A Modest Proposal (redux) | Society Matters()

  • Pingback: Our Susan Sontag Reader | Society Matters()

  • Pingback: Why didn't NGS lead this charge? | Society Matters()

  • Pingback: Earth Day: A Modest Proposal (re-redux) | Society Matters()

  • Danbloom

    yes, and this idea is perfect following the SOPA brouhaha and how Wiki went off air for a full day…GREAT IDEA to promote awareness of the REAL planet, yes facing cliamte chaos in 400 years or less see my POLAR CITIES work at Nytimes dot earth blog or go to ”pcillu101” at blogpsot

  • Pingback: Earth Day @ 40: A Modest Proposal (re-re-redux) | Society Matters()

NO NEW POSTS will be published here after February 6, 2014. THIS IS WHY.