Ecomedia as performance/
ecomedia as carbon giant

review by Joseph K. Heumann and Robin L. Murray

The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies, edited and introduced by Antonio López, Adrian Ivakhiv, Stephen Rust, Miriam Tola, Alenda Y. Chang, and Kiu-wai Chu. Routledge

In a September 30, 2023, edition of Elements, Selin Oğuz lays out the world’s most carbon-intensive sectors, not only to illuminate these industries’ negative environmental externalities, but also to propose a close look at each industry that offers a more nuanced reading of their emissions. The rankings Oğuz provides highlight the world’s most carbon-intensive sectors. And as Americans, we contribute more individually on average than anyone else in the world. As the Nature Conservancy notes, “The average carbon footprint for a person in the United States is 16 tons, one of the highest rates in the world. Globally, the average carbon footprint is closer to 4 tons.” These numbers raise alarms especially since, as the Nature Conservancy asserts “to have the best chance of avoiding a 2℃ rise in global temperatures, the average global carbon footprint per year needs to drop to under 2 tons by 2050.”

The lifecycle of a smart phone comes to life in this graphic, highlighting its role as everyday eco-disaster. Image based on data from Rizos Vasileios-Bryhn and Julie Alessi (Dance).

According to the rankings of carbon giants, our eco-trauma is quite justified, since many of these sectors embody what have come to be everyday necessities like heat, housing, and food (areas of what we call everyday eco-disasters). Not surprisingly, utilities serves as the highest emitter with 2634 tons of CO2 per one million dollars of revenue. Based on the EPA’s 2023 ranking, Ecomedia seem to hit 8th and 10th on the list: Information technology emits 24 tons of CO2 per million dollars of revenue, and communication services (Telecommunication, media, and entertainment) emit 9 tons per million.

The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies highlights these media-central sectors’ emissions more specifically, sometimes offering solutions that might move us close to a 1 to 1 ratio (one ton of CO2 for each million dollars of revenue—the ultimate environmental goal).

As individuals who, like us, live in the Global North, we can each address our own carbon footprints, adjusting our thermostats, cutting nonessential travel, and eating (affordably) plant-based food. But as How to Boil a Frog director Jon Cooksey exclaims; we also need to “make trouble” to move corporations toward our carbon-neutral goals.

Some of the chapters in The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies begin to move that needle and “make trouble” for information technology and communication services industries whose carbon emissions need a haircut.

Editors’ Introduction

The Introduction to The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies lays out its aims and provides detailed overviews of the sections and their chapters while also contextualizing the handbook in relation to other Routledge Press volumes. Edited and introduced by Antonio López, Adrian Ivakhiv, Stephen Rust, Miriam Tola, Alenda Y. Chang, and Kiu-wai Chu, the handbook seeks to provide structure for the multiple approaches to eco-media studies for current and new ecomedia scholars.

As an open-access handbook, The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies is an enormous volume with thirty-six chapters organized around five sections: Section I: Ecomedia Theory, Section II: Ecomateriality, Section III: Political Ecology, Section IV: Ecocultures, and Section V: Eco-Affects, all of which draw on the definition of ecomedia postulated in the first chapter of the work by Ivakhiv and López. Instead of a genre or mode of media that communicates particular environmental messages, then, for the scholars contributing to this volume, ecomedia is defined in relation to its material impact on the physical environment. Based on this definition, all media is ecomedia because it produces carbon and denigrates our ecology.

Eschewing content and rhetorical message, the handbook primarily showcases ecomedia as an approach or performance that “registers the interrelationship and materiality of media with the physical environment inhabited by humans and nonhumans alike” (Ivakhiv and López 22). For these scholars, all media is environmentally disastrous and contributes to Anthropocentric climate change, so all media is ecomedia.

Section I, Ecomedia Theory

Section and chapter overviews that form the main part of this introduction lead smoothly to the opening section, Ecomedia Theory. This first and longest section of the handbook highlights ecomedia theories drawn from philosophy, especially epistemology and materialism. The chapters in this section will most readily resonate with other ecomedia scholars.

Chapter 1: “When Do Media Become Ecomedia?” by Adrian Ivakhiv and Antonio López provides the definition of ecomedia underpinning the handbook, as they emphasize the need to prioritize media’s environmental consequences (the material negative environmental externalities associated with media’s production and performance) rather than media’s content. The other chapters in this section offer a variety of theoretical approaches applicable to ecomedia as defined in this first chapter.

Chapter 2 “Three Ecologies: Ecomediality as Ontology” by Adrian Ivakhiv proffers “an account of the world as relational process,” a world to which we respond aesthetically (perceptually), ethically (socially), and logically (both scientifically and politically) (Ivakhiv 41). 

Chapter 3: “Meaning, Matter, Ecomedia” by Christy Tidwell applies materialist thought to two documentaries that represent trans-corporeality: Becoming Animal (2018) and My Octopus Teacher (2020). For Tidwell, these documentaries illustrate a way to acknowledge and address media’s environmental impact. By connecting with the more-than-human “and the networks that produce ecomedia”(49), Tidwell suggests we might build relations that inspire us to counter media’s carbon footprint.

Chapter 4: “Blue Media Ecologies: Swimming through the Mediascape with Sir David Attenborough” by Stephen Rust and Verena Wurth critiques David “Attenborough’s aquatic oeuvre” (51) by applying “three aspects of blueness” and mapping Attenborough’s evolution as environmental activist. For Rust and Wurth, over time Attenborough has shifted from viewing and revealing the aquatic as an outsider to further emphasizing our interconnected relations with the sea and all that lives there.

Chapter 5: “Political and Apolitical Ecologies of Digital Media” by Sy Taffel applies useful definitions of ecology and environment to political, apolitical, and metaphorical digital ecologies and media. For Taffel, definitions of ecology rest on visions of our Earthly home, or “with relationships within our planetary household” (60), but those of environment highlight our surroundings, the “external nature which surrounds human society” (60). Based on these definitions, Taffel is more invested in political ecologies of digital media, since they connect us with our “planetary household” rather than leaving us on the outside looking in (as with Taffel’s take on environment). So, for example, examining political ecologies of digital media might mean critiquing what some call the means of production for, say, a smartphone, highlighting power relations and disastrous impacts on humans and their natural environments caused by exploitative mining for rare earth elements in war zones like the Democratic Republic of the Congo.   

Chapter 6: Centering Africa In Ecomedia Studies: Interview with Cajetan Iheka” builds on the work showcased in Taffel’s chapter with an interview with Cajetan Iheka’s about Iheka’s book African Ecomedia: Network Forms, Planetary Politics. According to the interview, the book highlights political ecologies surrounding ecomedia that is produced, consumed, and disposed of in various regions of Africa, illuminating how extraction of minerals and oil and exploitation of labor are reinforced by politics and power relations.

Chapter 7: “Ecomedia And Empire in the US–Mexico Borderlands, 1880–1912” by Carlos Alonso Nugent first shows how New Mexico Bureau of Immigration media helped move the control of the region from “Natives and Nuevomexicanas/os” (75) to Anglos and facilitated the kind of extraction and corporate farming that stripped the land. The chapter also reveals how “imperfect media” like rules, ledgers, poems, paintings, and performances were missed by the New Mexico Bureau of Immigration and “have preserved resilient subsistence ecologies at the heart of an extractive capitalist economy”(81).  These imperfect media could lead to productive study of counter, anti-imperial narratives in the US-Mexico borderlands.

The cry of defiance in the art of environmental activism.

Chapter 8: “Spatial Documentary Studies, El Mar La Mar, and Elemental Media Remediated” by Janet Walker views the documentary El Mar La Mar from a critical environmental justice studies perspective in conjunction with a spatial documentary studies method which “involves the identification and shot mapping of specific locations where the camera was set up and shots taken, for the purpose of revealing the co-constitution of film and place (Gray, Petermon, and Walker 2011, Walker 2013)(85). Walker implements “shot mapping” of the documentary to propose a counter-map of the Sonoran Desert that “is more fully humane” (94) and, as such, much less racist.

The last chapter in this section, “Ecomedia Literacy: Bringing Ecomedia Studies into the Classroom” by Antonio López takes a pragmatic approach to ecomedia literacy. It illuminates two ways students might approach the analysis of ecomedia: an “ecomediasphere” that looks at ecomedia objects from varied perspectives and the “iceberg model,” which helps students look below the tip of the iceberg of an ecomedia object (100). This chapter, unlike the others in this section, is accessible for a broader audience, including undergraduate students in film and media classes.

Section II: Ecomateriality

Comprised of seven chapters interrogating diverse material consequences of media, Section II looks specifically at ecomedia through the lens of materialism, which rests on a philosophical belief that everything (including media) results from matter. Media from this perspective is manifested from environmentally and ecologically destructive matter, including both indirect infrastructure like “cables, satellites, electromagnetic energy, server farms” and also more direct matter, including “mining, manufacturing, energy consumption, waste production and disposal” (6). The chapters in this section will also resonate with other ecomedia scholars.

Chapter 10, “Disaggragated Footprints: An Infrastructural Literacy Approach to the Sustainable Internet” by Nicole Starosielski, Hunter Vaughan, Anne Pasek, and Nicholas R. Silcox, explains the environmental externalities associated with the Internet and highlights one way to identify and address the material consequences of media like “data centers, subsea, cables, and Internet of Things devices” (111). They call this kind of understanding infrastructural literacy. Using infrastructural literacy, for example, media scholars might analyze the impacts of digital streaming and determine which “model of connection” has the lowest impact (116).

While chapter 11, “Collapse Informatics and the Environmental Impact of Information and Communication Technologies” by Laura U. Marks, does expand on the environmental impacts of information and communication technologies (ICT), it also offers a solution. For Marks, lowering expectations and accepting slower “computing” (119) are the best ways to combat these impacts because they produce less electricity and other negative impacts. Such an approach may produce a lower bandwidth and less Internet access, but it will also lessen ICT’s carbon footprint.

Chapter 12, “Electronic Environmentalism: Monitoring and Making Ecological Crises” by Jennifer Gabrys, includes a two-part analysis of the conflicting roles of digital media, highlighting “how digital technologies enable energy efficiency while creating further environmental and material problems” (130). Gabrys suggests that recognizing these conflicting aspects might empower scholars to propose alternative approaches with fewer material impacts.

Chapter 13, “Radiant Energy and Media Infrastructures of the South” by Rahul Mukherjee, explores the impact of radiant energy and media infrastructures such as “nuclear reactors, cell antennas, and solar panels” (137) on labor and physical environments in the Global South.

Chapter 14, “Micro/Climates of Play: On the Thermal Contexts of Games” by Alenda Y. Chang, examines videogames through a materialist lens, replacing typical videogame content analyses with a study of various environmental impacts of digital gaming, including rare earth mineral extraction and electronic waste (145).

By looking at the shellac disc as historical media artefact, Chapter 15, “Relational Ecologies of the Gramophone Disc” by Elodie A. Roy, constructs a method of “eco-material thinking” (154) that regards the disc in its cultural and material context. For Roy, the gramophone disc cannot be separated from the shellac trade that produced it, which began in the seventeenth century with the East India Company and its economic imperialism.   

The last chapter of this section, “Core Dump: The Global Aesthetics and Politics of E-Waste” by Mehita Iqani, reveals the impacts of e-waste through an analysis of South African artist Francis Knoetze’s performative project Core Dump (https://francoisknoetze.com/ core-dump-2018/)” (160).

Section III: Political Ecology

The thirds section of this handbook looks at ecomedia through a political lens to highlight how negative environmental externalities associated with “media production, consumption, and disposal” (7) are intertwined with exploitative environmental injustices and racism. This section meets the needs of ecomedia scholars, but it is also more accessible for undergraduate and graduate students in the field.

With references to how the recent pandemic functioned as an accelerator for our reliance on technology, chapter 17, “Carbon Capitalism, Communication, and Artificial Intelligence: Placing the Climate Emergency Center Stage” by Benedetta Brevini and Daisy Doctor, connects “rapid expansion of communication and computational systems” (171) with human-caused climate change and dramatically increased “consumption of raw materials and energy” (171). Brevini and Doctor argue that making these negative environmental externalities transparent might be a first step toward addressing them, both at the corporate and individual levels.

Chapter 18, “Environmental Media Management:  Overcoming the Responsibility Deficit” by Pietari Kääpä and Hunter Vaughan, also highlights the need for transparency regarding industrial and corporate environmental toxic waste emissions, not only to maintain these guilty industries’ accountability, but also to showcase sustainable success stories like the collaborative approach taken by Cine-Regio that encourages European film and television companies to lower their carbon footprint.

Chapter 19, “Property Rights Control in the Data-Driven Economy: the Media Ecology of Blockchain Registries” by Jannice Käll, also offers solutions to digital media’s environmental impact. Käll specifically llooks at non-fungible tokens (NFTs), blockchain-based tokens that each represent a unique asset like a piece of art, digital content, or media, as property. According to the chapter, NFTs should be treated as if they were land rights, the traditional and material view of property.By making this connection, Käll asserts, it becomes clearer that “property rights also can be understood as an ecology of control” (188). Looking at NFTs as property in this manner might also help “limit capitalist exploitation of everything from the environment to knowledge (Cubitt 2016)” (188), according to Käll.

Chapter 20, “Common Pool Resources, Communication, and the Global Media Commons” by Patrick D. Murphy and E. Septime Sessou, examines common pooled resources, better known as natural resources like forests and rivers individuals and corporations might exploit or sustain. Murphy and Sessou look at how powerful corporations and politicians may deliberately silence the less powerful, especially indigenous, voices when discussing what to do with these natural resources. The chapter illustrates this perspective with readings of the conflicts surrounding the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project and the construction of the Dakota Oil Access Pipeline protested by the Standing Rock Sioux.

Through an interview with Indigenous environmental justice leader April Bean, chapter 21, “#NOLNG253! Media Use In Modern Environmental Justice Movements” by Ellen E. Moore and Anna Bean, addresses “the benefits and challenges of using social media for modern, Indigenous-led environmental justice movements” (203). For Moore and Bean, social media needs to include the knowledge of indigenous people when discussing environmental issues, including climate change. And as Moore and Bean conclude, “it should not be up to leaders of environmental justice movements to justify why they feel they need to use social media” (209). If indigenous voices were included in environmental conversations, moves to renewable and sustainable approaches would be hastened.

Chapter 22, “Contesting Digital Colonial Power: Indigenous Australian Sovereignty and Self-Determination in Digital Worlds” by Corrinne Sullivan and Jessica McLean, also examines a lack of inclusion of indigenous voices, this time in settler-colonial Australia. Sullivan and McLean argue specifically that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are already creating their own “digital worlds” that, as the title of the chapter suggests, rest on sovereignty and self-determination. But they also still must call out non-indigenous owners and creators of digital platforms who violate their sovereignty. According to Sullivan and McLean, if the exploitative digital world makers are condemned, “it is likely time to leave!” (218).

The final chapter in this section, “Who Makes Our Smartphones? Four Moments In Their Lifecycle” by Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, draws on the expertise of eco-materialist scholars whose work underpins this handbook’s perspective on ecomedia. The chapter examines parts of a smartphone’s lifecycle, “mining, manufacture, subcontracting, and e-waste,” to highlight more sustainable practices, including keeping smartphones longer and pushing at all levels for improved working conditions.

Section IV: Ecocultures

In this fourth section, chapters interrogate the multiple ways “ecomedia shape culture(s) and different cultural responses to the environmental crisis” (9). Like section III, this section will appeal to ecomedia scholars and undergraduate and graduate students.

Through close readings of four international case studies, Chapter 24, “Media and Ecocultural Identity” by Tema Milstein, Gabi Mocatta, and José Castro-Sotomayor, looks at how media might shape viewers’ perspectives on ecocultural identifications as either environmentally destructive or sustaining. The authors illuminate these conflicting approaches by analyzing various media: these include “visitor online reviews of a United States marine mammal sanctuary dependent upon a coal-burning power plant,” the documentary My Octopus Teacher (2021), “Indigenous uses of community-based media for transition discourses in Latin American borderlands, and mediatized environmental conflict in Chile leading to widespread pro-test and emancipatory catastrophism around environmental injustice and inequality” (231).

Chapter 25, “Eco-Territorial Media Practices: Defending Bodies, Territories, and Life Itself in Latin America” by Diana Coryat explores “the intersection of social movements and media activism” (245) in Ecuador to highlight how films like Los dueños de la selva preocupada/Guardians of the forest are worried (2012) have united indigenous and mestizo filmmakers and viewers to address the environmental atrocities showcased on the screen.

Chapter 26, “Mapping for Accountability: Decolonizing Land Acknowledgment Initiatives” by Salma Monani and Sarah Gilsoul, highlights ecomedia projects like Indigenous Pennsylvania, an interactive Website that restores the indigenous origin and continuing presence by decolonizing maps that erase them.

In chapter 27, “Black Media Philosophy and Visual Ecologies: a Conversation between Armond Towns and Jeremy Kamal” by Armond Towns and Jeremy Kamal, Towns highlights the work of multi-media artist Jeremy Kamal and its environmental justice approach to visual ecologies. Short films like Mojo: Da Floods (2019) combat environmental racism as they add Black visions, voices, and cultural perspectives to ecomedia conversations.

Chapter 28, “On the Ecological Futurabilities of Experimental Film Labs” by Noélie Martin and Jacopo Rasmi, highlights the environmental potential of independent experimental film labs.

With a focus on the musical work of Ani DiFranco, chapter 29, “Popular Music: Folk and Folk Rock as Green Cultural Production” by John Parham, suggests that hybrid forms of popular music might “address diverse and complex ecological issues, from how we treat the physical environment or other animals to questions of plastic use, pollution, and climate change” (278). As a folk/pop hybrid composer and musician, DiFranco continues to share her environmental message and what she calls “green popular music” (283) with a broader international audience in releases like “Simultaneously,” which attacks big oil, according to Parham.

Chapter 30, “Women In the Global Pandemic Media Imagination: Mimetic Desire, Scapegoating, Buddhist Hermeneutic, and Beyond” by Chia-ju Chang, reads three pandemic films through eco-feminist lenses: Hong Kong: A Winner (Stephen Chow, Hong Kong, 2003), Contagion (Steven Soderbergh, USA, 2011), and The Che Brother (Anysay Keola, Laos, 2020). Chang’s analyses highlights how these pandemic films both reveal how women are exploited “in patriarchal, imperialist and capitalist systems” (286) and offer a space to “think[].. [omit brackets but use dots to indicate ellipses] about how bodies of women/Other” (286) might also participate in these systems.

Section V: Eco-Affects

With more emphasis on content than previous sections, “Eco-Affects” asks the question: How do media users and audiences “feel and experience being part of our environments in and through the use of media” (10)? Because it focuses on application, the section also will be accessible for a more general scholarly audience.

Chapter 31, “Ecomentia, From Televised Catastrophe to Performative Assembly: Collapsonaut Attention in a House on Fire” by Yves Citton addresses how we might combat the inertia and eco-trauma (or what Citton calls ecomentia) that paralyzes us when confronted with environmental disasters—an ecological house on fire. Citton first defines ecomentia as “a collective state of mind resulting from the attentional ecology of our mediated relations to our collapsing ecological milieus”(297) and delineates its possible sources. She then offers collapsonaut attention as a solution to ecomentia. Hers is a Black studies and counter-ecomedial activist approach, “[which] urges us to shift our focus from the figures (GDP) to the background (the environment), from growth to maintenance, and from the networks to the common forms of cooperation that look after them” (303).

Chapter 32, “Feeling Wild: the Mediation of Embodied Experience” by Alexa Weik von Mossner, applies affective theory to film and exhibition broadly and Jean-Marc Vallée’s biopic Wild (2014) more specifically. The chapter highlights ways “film production and exhibition take into account the affective and embodied nature of human perception and cognition” (305) through its focused reading of Wild. It “demonstrate[s] how cinematic techniques enable viewers to viscerally experience a character’s experience of a natural environment through processes of “embodied simulation” (Gallese & Guerra 2012) (305). By connecting with the film’s main character, Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), viewers might also connect with the natural “story world” she inhabits on the screen.

Looking at the social realist documentary Dark River through the lens of “affordances,”Chapter 33, “Social Realism and Environmental Crisis: Clio Barnard’s Dark River” by David Ingram, showcases “a more positive way of considering” ecomedia as postulated by ecological psychologist James J. Gibson. Gibson defined the “’affordance’ of an environment or an object as “what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (Gibson 1979, 129)(312). This chapter explores affordances (what it provides the animal) illuminated in social realist films, especially Dark River.

Chapter 34, “Ecopolitical Satire In the Global North” by Nicole Seymour and Anthony Lioi, examines Sarah Cooper: Everything's Fine and Don’t Look Up as ecopolitical satires. For Seymour and Lioi, these films are “notable works insofar as they engage, to varying degrees, with multiple issues in addition to environmental ones – including racism and misogyny – thereby encouraging an intersectional approach to politics” (320). Seymour and Lioi, then, laud the less insular approach to environmentalism found in these two films and their more intersectional approach to the movement.

Chapter 35, “Fear and Loathing in Ecomedia: Channeling Fear through Horror Tropes in Invasive Species Outreach” by Katrina Maggiulli examines how the mascot “Vin Vasive” (328), an image used by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, employs tropes of the monster movie genre to attack invasive species. The chapter then calls out this anti-invasive species campaign’s use of racist and xenophobic stereotypes.

Chapter 36, “Slow Media, Eco-Mindfulness, and the Lifeworld” by Jennifer Rauch, first defines lifeworld as “one’s subjective perception of reality” (338). She then asserts,

“Slow Media offers strategies for resisting the attention economy, for pursuing digital minimalism, and for reconnecting our lifeworlds with physical environments in ways that bolster environmental attitudes and behaviors” (338).

For consumers, for example, slow media means going local, choosing analog, and reducing screen time. Choosing slow media might, according to Rauch, allow |human habits and the natural environment to adapt in tandem” (343).

The handbook ends with Seán Cubitt’s “Afterword: Posthumous Ecomedia” which offers a way out of a world “dominated by economic, political and technical systems prepared to sacrifice the planet and its human inhabitants” (345). Such an approach would hopefully lead to a “future … not based on the privations consequent on private property but on the commons” (348). For Cubitt, we should stop looking at air, water, and other natural elements of landscape as resources we should own and exploit. Instead, they should be shared sustainably.

A future based on the commons may mitigate harming our warming world and perhaps limit the number of places around the world deemed “unlivable” because of human-caused climate change. As Scott Dance notes in an October 2023 Washington Post article, “if warming was limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, a target global leaders agreed upon in Paris in 2015,” some of the hottest places on earth could experience fewer hours of unlivable heat and humidity. Data from a study by a Penn State University team led by Daniel Vecellio “shows the planet can save countless lives by taking efforts to limit global warming.” Dance cites Vecellio who asserts, “we can stave off some of the worst impacts” by limiting global warming. Ecomedia disseminates this warning and offers an argument about the commons that also offers hope.

Our review of The Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies is meant only as an introduction to the visions of ecomedia interrogated and addressed in each of the handbook’s section. We invite readers to explore the handbook and come to their own conclusions, through the Open Access content link available on the Routledge website.