A new ad campaign from Conservation International features celebrities voicing different parts of the environment, and it’s been making quite the buzz on Twitter. Hewlett-Packard is even offering to donate a dollar to Conservation International for each use of the hashtag #NatureIsSpeaking.
The ads are laid out against gorgeous footage of the natural world and feature various natural systems – “The Rainforest” (Kevin Spacey), “Water” (Penélope Cruz), “The Soil” (Edward Norton), and so on – reciting blistering invectives on humanity’s negligence and destruction. They’re not subtle, and the overall message – Nature Doesn’t Need People – is printed out in the final seconds for those who are slow on the uptake.
There have already been a variety of commentaries on the campaign, most of which discuss the ads’ ecocentric message, a relative rarity not only in most mainstream environmental debates but also in environmental communications more generally. While it’s certainly true that such a biting depiction of our dependence on nature is unusual for an environmental conversation, a deeper reading of the ads reveals that they aren’t as radical as they appear at first blush.
When I first viewed the ads, I was struck by how they literally give nature a voice. Their narrative situates nature as an independent entity capable of exerting influence on humanity. Julia Roberts as Mother Nature warns, “My oceans, my soil, my flowing streams, my forests, they all can take you – or leave you.”
This personalization and recognition of the agency (however loosely defined) of ecosystems hints at what Julia Corbett calls “values-driven ideologies,” environmental philosophies that call for a “shift from humans-as-integral to humans-as-nonessential in the functioning of the natural world.” Many who ascribe to these ideologies argue for a reordering of the social world to recognize the inherent right of ecosystems and other creatures to exist – a significant change, indeed.
Closer examination, however, puts the ads within the mainstream American environmental dialogue, even if they flirt with a more radical ethic. As Corbett points out, most environmental efforts in the United States tend to take a conservationist or preservationist approach to dealing with environmental problems. Both of these environmental ideologies advocate regulating human behavior so that nature can be used and enjoyed in the future. Nature is protected because it’s better for humans in the long-term, and the emphasis is on the power of humans to influence the planet.
These themes are spoken outright in the Nature is Speaking campaign. It achieves the campaign’s goal of reversing the power dynamics typical of environmental campaigns, laying out how dependent humans are on the environment. This is no small feat, given that most of our conversations about nature tend to assume that we have the capabilities to technologically dominate the planet and simply argue for using this massive human power for benevolent rather than malevolent purposes. In this sense, then, Nature is Speaking is a breath of fresh air.
But ultimately the campaign is not arguing – at least not explicitly – for a radical reimagining of the relationship between humans and the environment that recognizes natural systems as having the inherent right to exist. Even though humans are placed in a dependent position relative to nature, the ultimate emphasis is on using nature wisely for our own sake.
This positioning of humans as both entirely dependent on and haplessly destructive to nature results in an odd tension that runs through the campaign. Although a major message within the ads is that nature has its own independent trajectory and is ultimately calling the shots, the ads literally use powerful humans to speak for the environment, inherently putting the humans in a position of authority. Speaking on behalf of someone or something is a powerful act, and in some ways this undermines the ultimate message of human powerlessness before nature.
Granted, getting an interview with the Pacific Ocean is a challenge that I personally wouldn’t want to undertake, but this subtext still changes the ads’ ultimate takeaway.
None of this is to say that the Nature is Speaking campaign misses its mark. I love the sense of awe and timelessness they evoke in the presence of the natural world. I personally found the ads very compelling, particularly in how they emphasize humility in the face of our utter dependency on the natural world. As I watched Harrison Ford’s “The Ocean” and Julia Roberts’ “Mother Nature,” I felt like a small child being scolded by my favorite teacher: angry at myself for screwing up, and very eager to do better next time. But while the campaign is doubtlessly more radical than its peers, it’s not revolutionary.