Environmental Disaster, Environmental Justice, and Media

Increasingly environmental disasters are evaluated to see:

  • To what degree they are caused or worsened by climate change.
  • Whether vulnerable populations are disproportionately impacted by them.

This week we consider these questions and use Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke as a model for media that addresses them.

Environmental Disasters and Climate Change.

  • Hurricanes: rising surface ocean temperatures caused by global warming increase the frequency and intensity of hurricanes. Very brief Information about hurricanes at the top of the page here.
  • Wild Fires: studies suggest wild fires in both the US and Australia have worsened in part because of climate change. The bi-partisan environmentalist group Climate Uprising started after the 2018 burning of the town of Paradise in California.
  • Floods: global warming is causing sea level rise and more extreme weather events that cause inland flooding.
  • Food Insecurity – you can interact with a version of the map above at this link.
  • Water Shortages – this link states: “As early as 2025, the World Health Organization estimates that half of the world’s population will be living in water-stressed areas.”
  • Pandemics – there is a connection between the spread of crop pests and global warming, but I see no evidence of a connection between pandemics like Covid 19, MERS, SARS and Ebola and climate change.

Environmental Justice

Who is being impacted by climate change? As the links above show, a great number and variety of people are already being directly harmed. However, who you are and where you are matters. People from richer nations have more social and economic resources – unless it is their house in the flood or fire – they can feel the problems are pretty distant. Even if it is their house, they may have insurance. Within richer nations race and poverty make a difference. What role do concepts like justice, fairness, culpability play in this?

When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts

When the Levees Broke” by Spike Lee shows that in US some were more vulnerable than others in the face of the environmental disaster, Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

  • African Americans, the poor, the sick and the elderly were disproportionately affected.
  • FEMA and other government organizations were not ready – critics suggested that because many of the victims were African American resources were mobilized slowly. Kanye West said famously on national TV, “George Bush Doesn’t Care about Black People.
  • Planning and hurricane simulations showed that people without cars would find it hard to evacuate and that the flood defenses were not strong enough, Hurricane Pam simulation min ~29. Those without cars were in this same demographic.
  • The Film makes a strong connection between the inadequacy of the flood defenses and political ideology.
    • public spending is seen as big government.
    • big government was and is a no-no for the Republican Party.
  • Lee makes the case that Hurricane Katrina was not just a natural disaster but an injustice perpetrated against groups that have historically suffered incredible injustices in the US.

Spike Lee is an African American Movie Director ( Do the Right Thing (1989), Malcolm X (1992) etc) – one of a number of influential African American Directors who started making and distributing major motion pictures in the last decades of the twentieth century. The 4 hour long documentaries that comprise “When the Levees Broke” reflect a radical approach to media-making which resonates with Donna Haraway’s thinking.

Situated Knowledge: When the Levees Broke can be seen as an example of situated knowledge. It comes from the point of view of an African American whose work deals with issues of race. It reflects his ability to connect with victims as part of the same racial minority but also demonstrates the power he has in the media industry. Reputable news media outlets have a code, they strive for objectivity and balance in their reporting. Thinkers like Haraway believe that there is no such thing as objectivity and balance – a news story or a film always reflects the particular situation of the entity making it. They suggest that it is more honest and transparent to acknowledge that situation and the point of view and assumptions that come with it. When we assess media we should always take into account who is making it.

Objectivity and Modeling: Working from the premise that your knowledge is inevitably situated does not preclude trying to be as objective and give as complete an account of the situation as possible. This brings us back to the idea of a model, check back to week 4 . Like scientific models, documentaries abstract and select what the maker considers most important for the understanding of a complex situation. Therefore like models they are always wrong but might be useful. For Spike Lee what is important is getting a kaleidoscopic impression from many voices in order to represent who the victims of Hurricane Katrina were, what happened to them, whether their government failed them, whether racism was a contributing factor. Lee refuses to rely on only a few experts or key witnesses, but he cannot talk to everyone. He selects and abstracts.

Voice of Authority: – in week two, I talked about the use of a neutral narrative voice-over in documentary and news reporting. This is the voice that assumes an objective, balanced position: the voice of authority; the voice that tells the truth. For many years the use of this voice has been criticized by documentary makers, partly because it reduces a multitude of voices to one voice that makes the final definitive judgment, partly because it does not acknowledge the situated knowledge of the media makers. The way Spike Lee handles the voice of authority in When the Levees Broke is very interesting.

  • There is no voice of authority, no narrator, summarizing, framing, and judging the issues.
  • Instead there are many voices competing and contradicting each other.
  • Each speaker is situated, they tell the story from their own point of view and we know enough about their circumstances to be able to understand that point of view – nobody has THE SIMPLE TRUTH
  • BUT – Lee has chosen and juxtaposed these voices to make his points, he uses the different people tactically – thoughts about how?, look for instance at ~min 56:40.
  • NOTE: people in authority (Blanco, Nagin) do speak to Lee (they didn’t speak to Josh Fox maker of Gasland)
    • Lee does not accord them any special status or give them more time than his other voices.
    • Lee gets access because his own social status as a world famous director gives him much more leverage than a small independent producer like Josh Fox.

String Figures – again and again Haraway insists that tracing complex webs of relationships is a vital tool in confronting current environmental issues. To be truly responsible to the trouble we need to know the specifics of how things – people, corporations, cells, animals – are connected. Her term string figures sums up the idea of finding these kinds of patterns, making patterns, and passing them back and forth. When the Levees Broke can be understood in relation to the idea of string figures, stories and themes are passed back and forth by the different voices, adding agreement, contradiction, embellishment. Here are a few of the issues:

  • The question of who stayed in New Orleans and why.
  • The question of the levees. Were they built to a sufficiently high standard? Were they were blown up to protect some at the expense of others?
  • The question of the relationship between the emergency response and racism.

Content and Form – During the semester, I have talked about the ways meaning can be communicated by both content and form. Note how the form of When the Levees Broke is like the hurricane itself circling around the different people, places and stories; disrupting and entangling them in unique ways.

Context – During the semester I have also talked about the way context creates meaning. When the Levees Broke does not deal with Hurricane Katrina as a environmental event isolated from a wider social and political context, but embeds the disaster in the history of African Americans in the US and in media representations of African Americans. The notes below refer to part 1 and the first 8 minutes of part 2, so please WATCH those additional 8 minutes: HBO, Amazon, Hulu, Vudu $1.99.

  • Spike Lee deals very boldly with stereotypes of African Americans in all his films and in this film we see:
    • images of African-Americans reminiscent of third world/refugee misery – images that Americans expect to consume on TV not to live through (~min 38:19)
      • this makes the point that African Americans were not treated as US citizens, pointing back to their history as non-citizens.
      • some talking heads in the film are angered at being labelled refugees which has connotations of people without a country.
      • but this footage also brings the plight of war torn “others” closer, they are just like us.
    • African Americans as helpless victims
      • this refers back to the helplessness of slavery days, a reference that is extremely painful, (several of the talking heads make the connection explicitly.)
      • but Lee shows that  the white people left in this situation were co-equal victims, it was not something that anyone could rise above
    • African Americans as looters/criminals  – Lee includes footage unapologetically – but returns swiftly to the story of the misery of those surviving in New Orleans: on rooftops; wading through filthy water; in the Super Dome. (~min 61)
    • African Americans as care-takers – The criminal stories are contrasted with stories of people taking care of family members; of trying to help others; and of claiming their human rights/rights as citizens to have their government give aid in a disaster. (~min 48)
    • Racist Fear. The police in surrounding white parishes refused to let people escape the disaster, preventing them from getting out of New Orleans at gun-point. Their fears are stoked by news reports of chaos, looting, stolen guns, raped babies (~min 67) in New Orleans. Such news reporting was based on exaggeration, rumor and racist stereotypes.
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