How green was my media

review by David Zeglen

Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, Greening the Media (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012). 256 pp.

One of the introductory epigrams to Greening the Media is Walt Kelly’s famous “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us,” but the modification “We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Capitalism,”[1][open endnotes in new window] better captures the overall tone of Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller’s readable book. While many of the issues that Maxwell and Miller raise will be familiar to those already initiated by other well-known environmental advocacy works, Greening the Media recycles these continually relevant environmental problems and refreshingly links them together within the structure of the capitalist global production circuit. Greening the Media will no doubt appeal to the public’s growing interest in the environmental and human costs of the global production of commodities, as evidenced by the success of National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” online series on the making of a t-shirt in the global economy[2] as well as the popularity of Annie Leonard’s online video project “The Story of Stuff.”[3]

For Maxwell and Miller, it is the material production, consumption, and disposal of information and communications technology (ICT) in specific that poses the greatest threat to the environment and human beings. Throughout the book, the authors argue their case by carefully looking at each stage in the globally dispersed ICT production circuit. In the process, they uncover abominable and toxic working conditions as well as despoiled landscapes, imperiled skies, and poisoned waters. Although the authors give a clear sense of how ICT production has always had environmental consequences, they also frequently refer to the various facets of neoliberal globalization that have exacerbated the problem. For instance, the advertising-induced consumer obsession with newness, deregulated labor markets, bureaucratic corruption, and corporate greenwashing[4] are just some of the features that Maxwell and Miller describe to illustrate what drives the modern ICT production circuit.

Due in part to the efforts of anti-pollution and labor activists, corporations like Apple and Wal-Mart have sought to make their global supply chains more transparent to the public.

Maxwell and Miller also evaluate current efforts to green the media. Finding contemporary approaches such as consumer activism via online video mash-ups and advertising parodies, corporate social responsibility strategies as represented by Apple’s 2011 supply-chain auditing of its Chinese suppliers, and government policy initiatives like the “smart-grid” electricity distribution system too deeply entrenched in capitalist growth models, the authors propose their own alternatives based on institutional reconfigurations and a renewal of civic duty. Although their proposal has several shortcomings, Maxwell and Miller nevertheless argue that their “green citizenship” and “green governance” will green the global ICT production circuit more effectively than previous strategies have.

Given the habitual failure of policymakers to get corporations to significantly change their environmental and labor practices, as extensively outlined in Chapter Five, Maxwell and Miller first analyze individual strategies for greening the media. Surprisingly, they are not outright dismissive of personal strategies like green consumption. Instead, they carefully consider its gains and limitations before proposing some modifications to the practice. While green consumption has prompted companies to adopt corporate social responsibility, a business trend that Maxwell and Miller rightly criticize for contradictorily promoting “the magical fusion of environmentalism with growth, profits, and pleasure” (p. 25), they also acknowledge that

“persistent consumer demand for corporations… to take greater responsibility for environmental harm has forced self-described green businesses to generate a steady stream of documentation on supply chains” (Ibid).

For instance, Maxwell and Miller note that due to mounting public opposition to Wal-Mart’s labor and environmental record, in 2007 the retail giant began their “going-green” policy by developing a publically accessible database for ethical consumers that tracks its suppliers’ environmental and workplace records (p. 123).

Building on this virtuous cycle of consumer knowledge and green consumption, Maxwell and Miller incorporate environmental science terms and ecological ethics paradigms with thought experiments to help the reader apply an elevated model of green consumption more deeply tied to the environment. In the section “The Wondrous Cell Phone” (p. 36-40), Maxwell and Miller draw upon earlier defined concepts such as source function (the environment’s ability to provide resources) and sink function (the environment’s ability to absorb wastes) to outline how a green consumer might evaluate the eco-ethical dilemmas associated with cellphones. To guide the would-be green consumer, three ethical positions are considered:

  1. eco-centrism, which demands that cellphone manufacturing be immediately terminated to protect the Earth;
  2. intermediate eco-ethics, which argues that cellphone manufacturing can be improved upon to find a balance between human and environmental needs; and
  3. anthropocentric eco-ethics, the notion that cellphones first serve the instrumental needs of humans, but that their manufacture could be improved upon because of its impact on human well-being.

As a result, the book successfully draws in the reader/consumer by providing a conceptual bridge between the popular approaches to green consumption and more comprehensive ethical positions that can lead to “green citizenship.” Chapter Four also proposes the need for international solidarity since Maxwell and Miller note that “low levels of unionization in the global supply chain of media technology severely hamper research that could empower labor organizers, environmental activists, and industry audits aiming to oversee and improve working conditions and eliminate environmental hazards” (p. 96). They therefore implicitly promise that green citizenship will include a framework to unite a variety of global actors to improve the global ICT production circuit.

Maxwell and Miller also vividly illustrate the cumulative impact ICT has had on the environment and human labor by laying out a detailed history of its material changes starting in the feudal period and ending in the capitalist present. As the book’s historical narrative moves through each technological moment, the ICT production circuit grows more complex while also becoming more hazardous and destructive. Indeed, one of the book’s most admirable features is its Benjaminian conceptualization of the history of the ICT production circuit. In “On The Concept of History” Walter Benjamin critiques the Enlightenment version of human history based on an exponentially progressive sequence of human achievements. Instead, Benjamin argues that history is akin to artist Paul Klee’s print Angelus Novus:

“his face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet… That which we call progress, is this storm.” [5]

Similarly, Maxwell and Miller depict the material history of ICT as a constellation of human and environmental injustices that continue to blindly move forward, leaving only destruction in its wake.

While Maxwell and Miller’s historical narrative ought to make it difficult for people to ignore all the environmental damage and human suffering ICT manufacturing has caused so that these issues weigh “like a nightmare on the brains of the living,”[6] many will still remain convinced that contemporary ICT technologies like e-readers have finally liberated them from the guilt of environmental destruction and labor exploitation that has long accompanied ICT production. But as Maxwell and Miller remind us, the Angelus Novus of ICT History continues to wreak havoc into the modern age, since “the environmental costs of production for one e-reader… far outweigh those of one book printed on recycled paper” (63).

Although one e-reader ends up being the equivalent of hundreds, and possibly thousands of books, magazines, and newspapers over the long term, the usage of such e-readers also consumes high volumes of electricity (generated predominately by coal in the United States) such that a half hour of e-reading is equivalent to the printing of one newspaper (Ibid). E-readers also require rare earth elements, which, unlike trees, cannot be easily replenished. The mining and eventual disposal of these rare earth elements, especially when exacerbated by consumer demand for newness, is also highly toxic both to the environment and to the health of laborers and communities near the supply stream or waste disposal facilities. Thus Maxwell and Miller illustrate some the complexities involved in calculating the overall environmental impact of contemporary ICT.

While Maxwell and Miller show the unique historical moment we live in right now, as the damage ICT production circuits causes has never been so severe and the burden for change never more necessary, the book doesn’t explain what motivates changes in technology from the fifteenth century to the present. Simple production circuits for paper in the feudal period are shown to have contributed to mass deforestation and water contamination, and early inks and paper chemicals frequently poisoned workers, yet there is no sense of any countervailing forces working to improve these problems as history moves forward. Although it is not fatal to Maxwell and Miller’s argument that they exclude a more dialectical unfolding of ICT production, as there is still some sense that it is ultimately a history of capitalism’s expansion of markets, it still leaves open the suggestion that ICT is inherently destructive to the environment and human beings. If this is the case, then it raises the question of exactly how much environmental damage and human suffering is acceptable, if it is inevitable, for ICT production circuits to operate—a question that becomes more central as the book begins to develop its own solutions to greening the media.

Although Maxwell and Miller never propose a deep ecology position that calls for a return to some earlier age in human history, they do suggest that a return to the public sphere, particularly public libraries (Ibid) could lessen the environmental impact of contemporary ICT production and usage; a move that anticipates the direction of the authors’ main intervention into greening the media in the book’s final chapter. Maxwell and Miller elaborate on their strategy on their Greening the Media blog:

“If we focus our attention on public libraries, debates about electronic versus paper distribution are transformed. These technologies become mere tools to support a model that is a proven facilitator of reading, thinking, research, conversation, and social mobility.”[7]

In short, providing e-readers in public libraries is supposed to offset the environmental impact of their production since the public will use them frequently enough to make them more viable than traditional paperbound books.

Given their polemic in Chapter Five about the collusion between government bureaucracies and corporations that renders any public policy initiative relatively ineffective, Maxwell and Miller’s public library proposal belies their earlier argument. Indeed, as Maxwell and Miller acknowledge on their blog, public libraries are already being hollowed out. Municipal governments across the United States have increasingly conspired with businesses to segregate neighborhoods along race and class lines in many cities making it all the more difficult to publicly fund libraries. In her study of the gradual gentrification of New Haven due to the collusion of the mayor’s urban renewal projects and community development block grants with big business, Micaela Di Leonardo writes of the impact on the city’s main public library:

“On Mondays at noon, within ten minutes of its opening, a line of at least a dozen eager New Haveners, most of them of color, is waiting to check out books, and every computer terminal is immediately taken, with hardly a white face to be seen. The visitor, looking down, would realize that this public space, like the streets outside the highly gentrified, privatized core, is rarely cleaned.”[8]

Even if public libraries that hadn’t already been privatized were burdened with the task of mitigating a portion of the environmental costs of ICT, Leonardo shows that the alignment of state and corporate interests has already contributed to deep-seated social inequalities related to limited public library access. If Maxwell and Miller, invoking Stuart Hall’s claim of the poor’s “legitimate materialism, born out of centuries of physical deprivation and want” (23) would like to lessen ICT’s burden on the environment and humanity while supplying it to everyone, then individuals should be encouraged to generate an intersectional mass movement to overwhelm the capitalist state, rather than look to it for green solutions.