Saying it with pictures

  • 29/06/1996

My friend Paul Wapner, assistant professor of environmental politics at the American University in Washington, Dc, has just published a book, Environmental Activism and World Politics. He argues that international relations is no longer the domain of governments, as most scholars in the field continue to believe. Civil society, aided by the growing web of international communications, is increasingly exerting an influence on international relations. He cites what is, indeed, the most dramatic case in this field, namely, that of environmental activism, which has resulted in numerous international treaties over the last few years.

I enjoyed reading the book because of the detailed description Wapner provides of the strategies that Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and the World Wide Fund for Nature have adopted to influence international action. Greenpeace, of course, is the most widely known, and its strategy is probably the most focussed: the media impact it can create on the issue it is pushing for. Every journalist knows the simple maxim that a picture is worth a thousand words. And Greenpeace has internalised this lesson so well that it has turned it into an art. It organises action in such a way that the media gets not just words but pictures full of drama. Not surprisingly, when Greenpeace gets going, everybody sits up. Even the staid Economist has admitted that corporate PR managers should learn a thing or two about public relations from this doyen of Western green organisations. Wapner's book, thus, is engrossing, to say the least.

I hadn't quite finished reading it, however, when two friends from England turned up in Paris to talk to me about a film they wanted to make. In it, they wanted me to present my views on the environmental concerns affecting the Third World, and how the Western media has neglected to convey them to people in the North. We started talking, and soon agreed that the media, especially the powerful visual variety liked simple messages because they were so much easier and effective to get across.

I too pointed out how I had once been deeply moved by a BBc documentary in which a huge rainforest tree was being hacked down. It came across like murder in paradise, and I immediately wanted to join the movement to protect rainforests. But within a few minutes, my mind started working, and I began asking questions: who was this man who was cutting the tree? Why was he doing it? Was it his economic desperation to get a piece a land to eke out a survival, or was he simply being paid by a corporation to meet the consumer demands of the rich? And then, no longer was the tree important in itself, but ,the rest of the world, its economy, politics, rich-poor divide, issues of equity and justice, all became intertwined and important. But there was precious little of that in the film.

I felt disappointed. Yet, it was clearly a very moving film, and had successfully motivated millions to join the movement, albeit in a very naive manner. But if, indeed, it had tried to deal with all these complex issues, it could have ended up being a very confused and ineffective film. Probably that is why it tried nothing of the sort. The media is the victim of its own limitations.

Probably that is why organisations like Greenpeace have failed to educate the Western public about complex issues. Unfortunately, most Third World issues are complex. For instance, the West can't just say that the Third World should not develop further because there is the threat of global warming.

I remember having a public debate with a Greenpeace spokesperson at a press conference in London in 1991. The gentleman said India and China were also responsible for global warming and must begin to cap their greenhouse-gas emissions. I asked him for the basis of this assertion. just the quantum of the two countries' emissions? But what about the sizes of their populations, their needs? And to factor all that into the equation, Greenpeace had to talk of how we share the benefits of the atmosphere, bring in issues of equity and justice on a mindboggling global scale, and so on. That was a bit too complicated for an organisation like Greenpeace to tell the rest of the world. So, all that I could end up concluding publicly was that his planetary politics was partisan and that he had no right to be the spokesperson for the world.

But as I talked to my friends about the film they wanted to make, 1, ironically, had to confront the same problem that Greenpeace has handled with such aplomb. My message was that the Third World must have development, but it must have it in a way that protects the enviropment and its people from harm, a large majority of whom are poor, which in turn raises questions about entitlements to nature's myriad benefits, 10'c'al democracy, equity, justice, transparency, and what have you. But all that was too complicated for a television documentary.

Immediately, we had to ask ourselves: how do we simplify this message so that it can be captured in a few, sharp images? We talked for hours. My friends almost missed their train back to England. They are still pondering over the problem. The television company is still interested. I do hope they can crack the problem and find those dramatic images, because I'd love to work on this film with them. The media, after all, is the creator of global consciousness, and we are all its victims.

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