Earth Day @ 40: A Modest Proposal (redux)

Earth Day turns 40 this Thursday.
But something tells us that NGS hasn’t embraced the following initiative,
which we originally posted here on November 10, 2009.

EarthDay 2010

Let’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 for 24 hours is a one-line message:

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.


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