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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Pictures of Peril
distributed 4/19/13 - ©2013

The old saying is quite specific: a picture is worth 1,000 words. But with Earth Day coming around on Monday (this will be number 44), I'm reminded that some pictures have a power far beyond any number of words.

In April of 1970 -- back before email, twitter, or even desktop publishing, and when long-distance phone calls were really expensive -- millions of people gathered on campuses and in other public settings for "teach in" sessions on environmental issues. I am astounded at the combination of effective community organizing and a public hunger for engagement that brought this movement to life.

As I recall (I was in high school at the time), and as I've studied the history of Earth Day, a few pictures were extraordinarily powerful in creating the context that allowed such a massive populist movement to spring forth. Those images didn't just convey information in a concise way, they triggered a shift in perspective.

Two of those old photos provide insights about transformational "pictures of peril" that can mobilize and focus today's environmental movement.

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Let's start with the simple one. On June 23, 1969, the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, caught fire, damaging a railroad bridge. It wasn't the first time that stuff floating on that river's surface had burned, but in 1969, the story made Time Magazine. The news article, with its pictures of flames on the water, caught the public attention as a vivid example of pollution that had gone too far.

The old sensibilities, running through hundreds of years of US history, looked at pollution as a necessary evil. Smokestacks might belch nasty fumes, dumps might be smelly and ugly, and rivers might carry all sorts of unpleasant waste, but those were the signs of jobs and progress. The economic benefit of mines and factories and slaughterhouses was generally seen as more important than their "ick factor."

But a river catching fire isn't just icky. Burning water crosses an emotional and cognitive boundary. This goes beyond unpleasant and enters the realm of dangerous and unacceptable. The Cuyahoga became the icon for out-of-control pollution. One waterway in Ohio represented other fouled rivers and lakes, and provided a focal point for outrage. The result of that gathered awareness and passion was the Clean Water Act of 1972. Some other disgusting stream might have been able to play that role, but the burning Cuyahoga served as a vivid emblem in the campaign for healthy water.

I'm wondering if an image from Arkansas this month might play a similar role in a turning away from fossil fuels. The spilled tar-sands gunk in Mayflower, Arkansas, has the potential to stand as an icon of oil risks that have gone too far.

What strikes me as the classic image of this spring's event shows a wide black stain emerging from a stand of trees, flowing between two tidy suburban homes, across the base of a basketball hoop, and pooling in the gutters of the nicely paved street. This isn't what we used to picture when we'd think "oil spill". Those incidents, we've thought, happen in an industrial area or out in the countryside, and if that is how it works, well, it is messy and ugly but those are the costs of our convenience and progress. But if tar sands are blowing out pipes and flooding through the 'burbs, that's just not right.

A photo of oil on tidy lawns does not lead us into careful environmental ethics, which will stress the disproportionate impacts of pollution on people of color and the poor. But the pictures from Mayflower can change hearts -- and that's probably why media access to the community was limited quickly after the spill.

In a year or two, will images from suburban Arkansas be named as a tipping point in the public's tolerance for the risks of a fossil-fueled society? I don't know if Mayflower will be the icon for a social transformation, but I'm pretty sure that a rejection of pipelines or fracking will take some sort of gut-level image that provides a compelling focus.

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The other transformational photo from the late 1960s is known as "Earthrise" -- that picture of our planet hanging is space with the barren surface of the moon in the foreground. The view from Apollo 8 allowed folk to grasp the reality of "spaceship Earth" as a finite, fragile orb. That 1968 picture planted the mental image that defined "Earth" as a single thing, and allowed the label of "Earth Day" to make sense. The little blue and white marble allowed people to grasp -- in their hearts -- the truth of a single planet. It allowed us to fall in love with what has been an abstraction.

The environmental movement has been struggling to find images with a comparable impact and an expansive message that is appropriate for today. A polar bear on a small ice floe, or powerful hurricanes slamming into urban waterfronts, or the "hockey stick" graph of spiking CO2 levels -- those have been powerful, but haven't re-shaped worldviews.

There's a relatively new image that may have a transformational potential. It is a graphic, not a photo, and it does take some explanation, but it does convey the sort of dramatic truth that changes thinking. I've seen several variations on the graphic, and the one published in The Solutions Journal expresses it well. The picture does not illustrate a specific issue. Rather, it speaks to humanity's overwhelming impacts on the planet.

The chart draws on information about nine "planetary boundaries", and it tells us that we have dramatically passed three of those boundaries. (Climate change is the least severe of the three.) Four others are in danger zones. Color and shape layered over and beyond a familiar globe capture a concept that many people haven't been able to grasp. The planetary boundaries image is an icon for the reality that we are in overshoot, that we've pushed far past what the world can sustain.

The emotional and philosophical impact comes from the picture as a whole. The labels and details are important, but the image -- on a billboard or a flag -- can work without the words. The "nine boundaries" picture speaks to our hearts as well as our minds, and it speaks about our broken way of living in relationship with this planet.

Earthrise caught the global imagination, and -- in today's language -- it went viral. The nine boundaries chart would have to be pushed more assertively, but once the core meaning is known, it is an image that goes beyond words.

A photo of one disaster can't encompass our global crisis. A chart of a single data set apparently can't speak to the multitudes about our dire situation. A bold yet simple graphic which shows how we have crossed inherent boundaries speaks to us on a foundational level about the need to respect and preserve limits.

Some pictures are worth a thousand words. Other pictures are world-changing and have an impact that goes beyond words. Those rare and powerful transformational images need to be spread far and wide.

Conversion -- a profound change of our hearts and relationships -- needs pictures of peril that are immediately recognizable and emotionally compelling. I urge you to use these images as a basis for conversation, reflection and prayer. Use them personally, spread them in your church and community, help them "go viral" as agents of profound change.

REMINDER: Next Monday -- Earth Day -- is the deadline for filing official comments about the Keystone XL pipeline. There are several links on ways to comment at the end of last week's Eco-Justice Notes.

NEWS: We've received word that the award-winning film "Mother: Caring for 7 Billion" will be streaming free on the internet from today through the end of May. View it at (Watch for my brief cameo appearance toward the start!)


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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