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ECOPIETY: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue by Sarah McFarland Taylor book review

  • Written by  Chris Fitch
  • Published in Books
ECOPIETY: Green Media and the Dilemma of Environmental Virtue by Sarah McFarland Taylor book review
27 May
2020
by Sarah McFarland Taylor • NYU Press • £20.00 (hardback)

Ecopiety is in vogue. 'Helping the environment', 'Going green', and other bland expressions serve to refer to the act of changing one's own behaviour – diets, shopping habits, travel plans, among other things – to something more virtuous, with climate change and other environmental crises in mind. Not only that, but the absence of ecopiety has become a stick with which to beat anyone who vocally advocates on behalf of a habitable planet. See the claims of 'hypocrisy' thrown at private jet-utilising celebrities, or, alternatively, the power of Greta Thunberg's whiter-than-white personal brand, seemingly granting her a more 'credible' platform upon which to campaign.

These are my examples, but they exhibit the powerful argument that repeatedly surfaces throughout Sarah McFarland Taylor's book – that while these acts of ecopiety, whatever they happen to be, are often nice and microscopically positive, they are essentially meaningless when faced with the global scale problem they seek to combat. 'This book argues that fundamentally individualised, free-market, privatised, voluntary approaches – promoted as addressing the monumental environmental challenges facing us,' she writes, 'are not simply inadequate to the task but in some cases are counterproductive in the worst possible ways.' Often, when turned into a new form of consumerism, they can even be negative. Despite best intentions, thanks to the power of the 'rebound effect', people often reward themselves for one act of ecopiety by bingeing on another, ultimately creating a net negative outcome.

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Consumption is the big, bad villain here, forever lurking in the shadows. 'The trick is simply for the consumer to buy the right things, the eco-piously green things – to engage in individual simple acts to save the earth – and all will be well,' she writes of the trap many fall into. The fact that positive intentions so often manifest as acts of consumption – from electric cars to reusable coffee cups – tends to lead towards, at best, a neutral outcome, and, at worse, further escalation of the problems with which we're so familiar. And, as the author points out, even attempts to make one's own death more environmentally conscious often result in the necessary purchase of specific products, often involving shiny, highly technological gadgets of some kind. In other words, ecopiety as expressed through consumption is almost impossible to avoid, and rarely as altruistic as consumers might envisage.

Therefore, we're led to see ecopiety alone as highly insufficient to solve the environmental issues of the modern world. Real change — this is key — comes through enacting 'government policy initiatives, broad-based legislation, political solutions, regulatory changes, or other measures to implement significant structural shifts on a scale that would make a substantive dent in addressing the environmental problems we face'.

This brings us to the particular method highlighted in the book, viewing media (particularly mass media) as an effective tool to tell the new stories that are necessary to change the debate and consequentially the trajectory of these crises. For example, how does Fifty Shades of Grey, and the narrative greenwashing of Christian Grey (who, without his mitigating ecopious activities, might be best thought as a violent and controlling misogynist) compare with the way the world's energy companies operate in the modern world? Grey uses his ecopiety to convince women he isn't the villain some suspect him of being. Can BP et al do the same? Do 'green' investments sufficiently counter negative, greenhouse gas-spewing actions?

Using examples from Twilight to Black Panther to America's Next Top Model, Taylor discusses how the popularity of these programmes can influence attitudes and behaviours among their fans and viewers, such as introducing more acts of ecopiety into their lives. And yet, the frequent criticism she deploys is how rarely the message in these shows is something that would actually have a wide-ranging impact, such as voting for environmentally-minded candidates, or encouraging the redesigning of cities to make them more cycle-friendly, for example. Ecopiety, the idea of that the world can change individual-by-individual, without involving any uncomfortable political conversations, is forever heralded as the cause to champion. Furthermore, it's an ecopiety that is confusing, often contradictory, and biased in favour of those with the capital that enables them to actually consume with the planet in mind, instead of being restrained by a limited household budget.

This message isn't always clear, but it's a strong one once we eventually get there. The book is unfortunately a little dry and academically written, and consequentially more alienating to the potentially-broad audience who could be receptive to such an argument. Ironically, this might simply be the wrong medium to communicate this message. But the central argument is robust, well researched, and close to irrefutable. In whatever way we each choose (or not) to act upon our ecopiety, the valuable discussions and conclusions reached here are worth keeping in the mind.

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