Among the many effects of the recent pandemic and social distancing practices is that most of us find ourselves spending more and more time with screens and smart devices as our daily lives move even further online. The stories we consume through these screens and the material production of our devices have complex, interwoven histories that reveal the limits of global capitalism as well as the ethical, ecological, and political importance of thinking critically about media technologies. If the relationship between media, science, and tech ever seemed abstract, our current moment has revealed how deeply corporeal and concrete it really is.
In episode 109 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews environmental media scholar Hunter Vaughan about the role the Hollywood film industry has played in climate change and environmental degradation, the vital importance of interdisciplinary science communication in an era of uncertainty, and why building a media industry with more transparency, accountability, and intersectionality is how Hunter imagines otherwise.
Guest: Hunter Vaughan
Hunter Vaughan’s research, service, and teaching focus on the relationship between media, social power, and the environment.
Hunter’s most recent book, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies (Columbia University Press, 2019), is an ecocritical and materialist counter-narrative to Hollywood history, merging industry and archive study, production culture studies, textual analysis, sociological approaches to epistemology and power, and environmental studies to analyze the environmental ramifications of film practices.
With Pietari Kääpä, Hunter is building the Global Green Media Production Network, which facilitates green film production initiatives in conjunction with local media professionals, policy makers, and environmental experts.
Hunter is the author of Where Film Meets Philosophy (Columbia University Press, 2013), founding editor of the Journal of Environmental Media, and co-editor of the Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory (Anthem Press, 2018).
Hunter’s current work focuses on bridges between environmental humanities, media studies, and social sciences, including a study of digital media in heritage sites and cultural institutions, a reception study of the efficacy of short-form environmental messaging, and a research and outreach project on interactive media, storytelling, and visions of climate futures in education.
We chatted about
► Science in the public sphere (04:37)
► The Journal of Environmental Media and interdisciplinary research (07:40)
► Hunter’s book Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies (10:10)
► The film industry’s environmental impact (13:14)
► Titanic, globalization, and the altar of spectacle (16:00)
► Gone with the Wind, destruction, and symbolic excess (17:52)
► Imagining otherwise (20:19)
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It’s a huge challenge to find ways to bridge different audiences….Science communication used to rely on the deficit model: the notion that if we give people new information, they will change their behaviors, values, and outlooks on the world. But that actually isn’t true. People have too many built in mechanisms of resistance. It’s really not even a scientific debate as much as it is a cultural debate today. So we need to find new ways of communicating across social and cultural borders.
Hunter’s book Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret
It is an environmental counter-narrative to Hollywood history that goes back through some of the major screen icons and masterpieces of American film legends from Gone With The Wind to Singin’ in the Rain all the way up to Avatar. It uses these case studies as a window to open a much wider tapestry of inquiry regarding the natural resource dependency, energy dependency, greenhouse gas emissions, and ecosystem interruptions that have been part and parcel of the great Hollywood experiments.
The link between storytelling and environment
Hollywood itself was created just after the creation of Los Angeles….LA was created as the product of water wars, urban and political manipulation, and subversion of agricultural concerns in farming communities….So the whole creation of Los Angeles as a city, and then the possibility and potential of Hollywood as an industry and as a community that rose up within that, was already entangled and enmeshed in this deep history of environmental politics and destruction and theft of the commons. This is an endemic logic and endemic set of cultural values that arises over the next century as we see Hollywood reach out and start to make movies in other places
Environmental destruction as spectacle in Gone with the Wind
The burning of Atlanta sequence was the first scene that was shot in the film, and David O. Selznick actually used it to lure Vivien Leigh to agree to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She had not agreed and he brought Leigh to the set. They brought in all seven Technicolor cameras they could get in Hollywood, they brought out all of the old sets from Selznick’s production house, and they just lit everything on fire. They piped in a bunch of gas, lit everything on fire, and kept it burning until they ran out of film to shoot—to the point where there were citizens in Los Angeles calling the fire department and the police station because they thought there was a massive wildfire that had broken out in the middle of the city.
This better world would be a world where we have more transparency and accountability on the side of the production, manufacturing, and benefits and profits of technology and mainstream culture, but also where we work toward modes of collaboration and cross-cultural communication and exchange that lift everyone up—not in ways that are imposed from the outside but in ways that champion and value the uniqueness of cultural diversity, the ways in which different communities both use culture, and also the environmental challenges that they face and will continue to face.
More from Hunter Vaughan
► Hunter’s website
► Hunter on Twitter
► Hunter on Instagram
People and projects discussed
► Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring
About Imagine Otherwise
Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds.
Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.
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Cathy Hannabach (00:03):
Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach.
Cathy Hannabach (00:23):
Among the many effects of the recent pandemic and social distancing practices, is that most of us find ourselves spending more and more time with screens and smart devices as our daily lives move even further online. Both the stories we consume through these screens and the material production of our devices have complex interwoven histories that reveal the limits of global capitalism as well as the ethical, ecological, and political importance of thinking critically about media technologies. If the relationship between media science and tech ever seemed abstract, our current moment has revealed how deeply corporeal and concrete it really is.
Cathy Hannabach (01:01):
My guest today is Hunter Vaughan, whose work explores how media, social power and the environment intertwine. Hunter’s most recent book, Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies, offers an ecocritical and materialist counter-narrative to Hollywood history and reveals the often devastating ecological impact of the film and media industry.
Cathy Hannabach (01:23):
With Pietari Kääpä, Hunter is building the global Green Media Production Network, which facilitates green film production initiatives in conjunction with local media professionals, policymakers, and environmental experts.
Cathy Hannabach (01:36):
Hunter is also the author of Where Film Meets Philosophy, a founding editor of the Journal of Environmental Media, and co-editor of the Anthem Handbook of Screen Theory.
Cathy Hannabach (01:46):
In our conversation, Hunter and I discuss the role the Hollywood film industry has played in climate change and environmental degradation, the vital importance of interdisciplinary science communication in an era of uncertainty, and why building a media industry with more transparency, accountability, and intersectionality is how Hunter imagines otherwise.
Cathy Hannabach (02:08):
Thank you so much for being with us, Hunter.
Hunter Vaughan (02:10):
Thank you so much for inviting me, Cathy. I’m happy to be here.
Cathy Hannabach (02:13):
So all of your varied projects explore the environmental impact of media production, and you show how both analog and digital media practices shape our material world in some really concrete ways. What got you interested in studying media from an environmental perspective?
Hunter Vaughan (02:31):
That’s a great question, and I guess it has sort of two different parallel histories or histories that were long parallel. I think that I’ve long been fascinated and felt very intimately connected with nature and was raised with a connection to it. But I was never, I guess the polite way to say it, I was not prone to the sciences, and so most of my education and studies focused on the arts, history, and the ethics of visual culture.
Hunter Vaughan (03:06):
It wasn’t really until I was finishing my PhD that I was walking home one night in Oxford from the pubs. I walked past a film shoot that was going on inside one of the colleges. I was just really shocked by this artificial glow emanating from the quad internal to the college. I went inside to find out what it was and saw this, you know, large scale film production with all of the apparatus of the metal scaffolding and all of the power cables snaking around and the generators. I mean, it was all just very eerie. I asked one of the crew members what they were doing, he said they were doing a run through for the next day’s shoot, which just blew my mind suddenly.
Hunter Vaughan (03:52):
I went to USC [the University of Southern California] for my undergrad. I worked at 20th Century Fox. I was not enamored or awestruck with the glamour and glory of this, of a film shoot or a film production, but I was really shocked by the amount of waste and excess.
Hunter Vaughan (04:08):
From that moment on, that was probably a little over 10 years now, I’ve really been focused on the relationship between the natural environment, natural resource use, waste production, things like that, climate change and film and media production.
Cathy Hannabach (04:26):
[inaudible] I think your work is a really good example of this. When we’re talking about environmental issues, we’re often talking to such diverse audiences.
Hunter Vaughan (04:36):
Cathy Hannabach (04:37):
Just given the ethical, the political, the economic, and the cultural impact of these topics, in order to get our points across, we often have to code switch or figure out how to speak to multiple audiences, often conflicting audiences, at once. I would love to hear how you’ve learned to adapt a writing style or maybe even your writing practice to reach those kinds of divergent audiences.
Hunter Vaughan (05:04):
It’s a huge challenge actually to find ways to bridge different audiences. This is the case in so many different ways, whether you’re talking about reaching audiences of friends and family or strangers in communities or students, they always fall along different lines of their environmental values and their feelings and thoughts about climate change, but also their socioeconomic status and their psychological modes of resistance to new information. You know, all of these are programmed differently in different people.
Hunter Vaughan (05:40):
In terms of just straight up science communication, I think I found a really, really useful tool in a book that Alan Alda wrote, the actor who is also a big proponent of science communication and launched I think the nation’s first science communications center. But his entire approach to it is all about empathy and trying to put yourself in the shoes of the people that you’re talking to and understand both where they come from and what they might be going through, and try to develop a philosophy of minds that can allow you to engage people, not just with where you’re coming from, but with where they’re coming from.
Hunter Vaughan (06:22):
So that I think is big challenge for environmental communication today, and in general, environmental scientists and environmental advocates are struggling a lot with the realization that what science communication used to rely on, just the deficit model notion that if we give people new information, then they will actually change their behaviors and their values and their outlooks on the world, and that actually isn’t true, that people have too many built in mechanisms of resistance.
Hunter Vaughan (06:52):
It’s really not even a scientific debate as much as it is a cultural debate today. And so we really need to find new ways of communicating across social and cultural borders and build those types of communicative bridges.
Hunter Vaughan (07:09):
From a disciplinary standpoint, this is definitely something that I had to work really hard at because I don’t come from environmental studies and I don’t come from social sciences, and yet I think that those fields are invaluable and absolutely necessary to embrace and to connect to more humanities-oriented approaches to cultural studies, issues of identity politics, issues of intersectionality, and social justice.
Hunter Vaughan (07:40):
For me, and you can see this, I think hopefully this comes across and is articulated pretty clearly in my recent book, but also in the Journal of Environmental Media, which I founded with Meryl Shriver Rice last year and we had our first issue come out this past January. The mission of that journal is really to find innovative ways to build connections and to build bridges between the humanities, environmental humanities, visual culture and media studies, to build bridges between those and the social sciences, anthropology, sociology, but also environmental sciences.
Hunter Vaughan (08:29):
And part of that is really just like… It’s not even herding cats, it’s like herding one cat and then herding an aardvark with the cat, and then like a blimp or something that’s not even an animal, and finding ways to get them to communicate about the same issues and to realize the mutual value in that interaction and in that collaboration.
Hunter Vaughan (08:55):
It’s really been challenging, but also incredibly rewarding, at times exasperating, and at times, you know, somewhat desperate because everyone learns a certain vocabulary and a certain terminology in a certain set of methods and lines of inquiry from disciplines, and if you follow through sort of an academic career trajectory, it’s really hard to transcend that or to break outside of that and to really try to embrace other fields in a way that sometimes requires giving up a degree of authority or giving up a degree of expertise or a feeling of strong footing that you’ve worked a long time to establish.
Cathy Hannabach (09:48):
You brought up your book, and I think in many ways your book is a really good example of this, where you’re trying to talk to multiple audiences at once. And I love your metaphor of trying to herd a cat, an aardvark, and a blimp. I think that’s the best description of science communication I’ve ever heard.
Hunter Vaughan (10:05):
Cathy Hannabach (10:07):
And so very relevant in our world right now.
Hunter Vaughan (10:09):
Cathy Hannabach (10:10):
I think your book does it really well and I’d love to kind of dive more deeply into how you did that and why that was important for the particular topic that you’re writing about in the book, and maybe how you are using that book to kind of springboard into some of your new projects. But before, for those folks who are new to your book or learning about it for the first time, it’s called Hollywood’s Dirtiest Secret: The Hidden Environmental Costs of the Movies. Can you just give our listeners a little bit of an overview of what’s that book all about?
Hunter Vaughan (10:43):
Absolutely. It is an environmental counter-narrative to Hollywood history that goes back through some of the major screen icons and masterpieces of American film legend from Gone with the Wind to Singin’ in the Rain all the way up to Avatar. And it uses these case studies as a window to open, I suppose, a much wider tapestry of inquiry regarding the natural resource dependency and the energy dependency and the greenhouse gas emissions and the ecosystem interruptions that have been part and parcel of the greats Hollywood experiments.
Hunter Vaughan (11:41):
And with Hollywood sort of seen as this perfect pinnacle of American capitalism and also as, at least throughout the 20th century, the popular culture mechanism that both reflected and generated so many popular American social values and cultural norms, it becomes sort of I guess a mirror into which we can look to understand why we find ourselves in 2020, or in 2019 when the book came out, still willing to sacrifice the stability of a global environment and a series of ecosystems in exchange for the luxuries and pleasures and excesses of spectacle.
Cathy Hannabach (12:33):
What are some of, you mentioned some of the particular films and their production histories that you were looking at, what are some of the kind of interesting things that you found in doing your research that maybe surprised you? Maybe you were like, “Oh, I had no idea that that happened with that movie or that that movie used that much energy.”
Hunter Vaughan (12:50):
Yeah. There’s a really long list of anecdotes, and most of them are just jaw-dropping and shocking, but it also goes beyond just the anecdotes of particular film productions to the very like material base of the industry’s infrastructure itself.
Hunter Vaughan (13:14):
For example, the raw film stock that all films were made on for decades was generated from the codec plants in Rochester, New York. And so from about the 1920s to really the 1990s, this plant, which was placed just off of Lake Ontario, was siphoning, at times, up to 12 million gallons of water per day off of Lake Ontario, and then filtering it through the process of producing the rinsing, the washing of chemicals to produce the film stock, and then just jettisoning it out into the Genesee River, which ran through Rochester and eventually rendered Rochester, New York the most carcinogenic city in the US.
Hunter Vaughan (14:07):
To me, that’s just like a criminal level impact of an industry into a social community, upon an ecosystem, upon a natural resource that we all view as an aspect of the commons that all human beings should have a right to, and yet it was just going on in plain sight for decades and literally was the raw material from which movie magic could be made.
Hunter Vaughan (14:42):
Then the movie magic itself has a long and complex history, especially when you look at films that are shot outside of Hollywood. You know, Hollywood itself was created largely with the creation, or just after the creation of Los Angeles. And so if you’re familiar with the movie Chinatown, basically LA was created as the product of water wars and sort of urban and political manipulation and subversion of agricultural concerns in farming communities in [inaudible 00:15:20] and outside of Los Angeles.
Hunter Vaughan (15:23):
So the whole like creation of Los Angeles as a city, and then the possibility and potential of Hollywood as an industry and as a community that rose up within that, was already entangled and enmeshed in this deep history of environmental politics and destruction and theft of the commons. And this is, I think, like an endemic logic and endemic set of cultural values that arises over the next century as we see Hollywood reach out and start to make movies in other places.
Hunter Vaughan (16:00):
A really good example is James Cameron’s Titanic. For Titanic, Cameron took advantage [inaudible 00:16:11] like this perfect manifestation of NAFTA trade logic, of free market logic. The Mexican film industry was lagging, and Cameron and Fox took advantage of this and they built what they called the “hundred-day set” down in Mexico in a small village, a fishing village. And over the next hundred days, they shot this film with these two massive pool tankers where they built a miniature Titanic right off the Pacific and things like that. It was so disruptive to the local water flow and ecosystem, that it decimated an entire sea urchin population and horribly crippled a local fishing community that relied on the waterways that it was obstructing and then polluting.
Hunter Vaughan (17:04):
Now, this was never, of course, mentioned in the great legend and lore surrounding Titanic. All that was really discussed in Titanic was how excessive the budget was, how big the spectacle was. And James Cameron was given the Order of the Aztec Eagle by the Mexican president for having employed so many Mexican media professionals who were otherwise out of work.
Hunter Vaughan (17:26):
So that’s another really good example, I think, that demonstrates ways in which politically economy and globalization are also tied to this, if not substitution, this willing sacrifice of environmental stability and local relational values with the natural world, all on the altar of spectacle.
Hunter Vaughan (17:52):
And this goes back all the way, and that’s why the book kind of started, with Gone with the Wind because it acted as a new prototype for the importance of spectacle and the discursive use of notions of excess and spectacle and destruction that were connected to the burning of Atlanta sequence, which was the first scene that was shot in the film, which David O. Selznick actually used to lure Vivien Leigh to agree to play the role of Scarlett O’Hara.
Hunter Vaughan (18:25):
She had not agreed yet and he brought her to the set, and they brought in all seven Technicolor cameras they could get in Hollywood, and they brought out all of the old sets from Selznick’s production house and they just lit everything on fire. They piped in a bunch of gas and lit everything on fire and just kept it burning until they ran out of film to shoot, to the point where there were citizens in Los Angeles that were calling the fire department and the police station because they thought there was a massive wildfire that had broken out in the middle of the city.
Hunter Vaughan (19:00):
It’s one of these weird stories where it’s actually like sort of an early case of recycling because they recycled these old film sets, but it was also this very environmentally unsound way of producing visual spectacle. In the end, what is left is a marketing stunt based upon the destruction of the real, the incineration of real materials, of ontological reality for the sake of this three and a half hour symbolic rewriting of history.
Cathy Hannabach (19:38):
That is a really intense story.
Hunter Vaughan (19:42):
It was a really intense shoot. And Selznick was all hopped up on [inaudible 00:19:50] and narcissism and just, you know, set fire to the world. Even the critical version, I think, of the [inaudible 00:20:01] is somewhat romantic, or at least-
Cathy Hannabach (20:04):
Or at least spectacular, right? [crosstalk 00:20:06]
Hunter Vaughan (20:06):
Cathy Hannabach (20:07):
That’s kind of the point, right? It’s like how spectacle is built into material destruction, and [crosstalk 00:20:13]
Hunter Vaughan (20:12):
Exactly. And also how the spectacle diverts our attention from the actual costs of it.
Cathy Hannabach (20:19):
Absolutely. Well, this brings me to my last question and I think it’s kind of an interesting way to continue this. So obviously this model of film production and media production broadly is not the ideal one, is not the one that you were probably working towards in your own projects nor the one that we would like to see continue in the future. So I’ll ask you my favorite question that I get to talk with folks about on this show, which is their version of a better world, that world that you’re working towards when you write books revealing this history, critiquing this history, talking about the continual damage of this history. So maybe on the flip side, if this is a history we don’t want to see repeated, what is the one that you want to see in that future? What kind of world do you want?
Hunter Vaughan (21:10):
Oh wow. What an interesting hypothetical to ponder amidst a global pandemic.
Cathy Hannabach (21:17):
Absolutely. I know I find this question takes on a completely new meaning.
Hunter Vaughan (21:23):
Cathy Hannabach (21:23):
Hunter Vaughan (21:24):
A global pandemic that’s being met with such incompetent leadership.
Hunter Vaughan (21:30):
One thing that I discovered in the process of the research, and I had never researched Hollywood before, I’d never done archive research. It was really fun. It was like a detective story, very investigatory, and one thing that I found shocking and troubling was just how little transparency there was.
Hunter Vaughan (21:48):
Something like Singin’ in the Rain was made in 1952. That’s 10 years before Rachel Carson published Silent Spring. Environmentalism wasn’t really a thing. It was not, you know, part of public debates, it wasn’t part of common understanding or conversation. So on the one hand you can’t really fault a lack of conscientiousness when it was very much the status quo. On the other hand, you can fault it as an underlying socio-cultural logic or set of values.
Hunter Vaughan (22:22):
As we became more aware of things like global warming, of large scale environmental problems, there is no upswing in terms of conscientious practice or transparency. And I struggled a lot to get any sort of transparency from the studios who are trying to rebrand themselves as green.
Hunter Vaughan (22:45):
So for me, a better world of media practice and its connection to things like the smart technology sector, these companies like Apple and Dell that have been manufacturing smart technologies built from the precious metals that were mined largely using child labor in connection with paramilitary groups in the Congo helping to finance surrounding guerilla civil wars, that type of story is buried in the marketing and the ideological control that’s practiced by people like Mark Zuckerberg, by companies like Apple who benefit off of this notion that actually our smart technology is immaterial. It exists on the cloud. So update to the newest thing as soon as you can and use all of the digital warehouse information data you need to use.
Hunter Vaughan (23:48):
It’s all on the cloud, but it’s not on the cloud, right? The precious metals come out of the ground, usually in very environmentally unsound ways. The data is in a server farm that runs on energy and uses all kinds of like water and coolants to cool itself down and operate, and then all of our e-waste is outsourced to villages in India and China and Ghana where they’re sifted through in these horribly unsafe cancer-causing ways, melted down to be recycled mostly by women and children who are left out of the economic mainstream of those countries, which themselves are largely excluded from the economic benefits of global capitalism.
Hunter Vaughan (24:41):
All of this is mainly coming back to this issue of transparency. There needs to be far more transparency as to how our screen texts are made, how our movies and our TV shows are made, but also how they’re distributed and how the products are made that we watch them on.
Hunter Vaughan (25:01):
And this isn’t a wholesale indictment of these things. I watch movies. I love movies. I watch them on smart devices. I give my talks, you know, with presentations that are made on smart devices. So I don’t think we’re going to stop using these things or put an end to popular screen culture, it’s just a matter of having more transparency and conscientiousness and accountability, accountability placed on the people who benefit most from these industries.
Hunter Vaughan (25:34):
In terms of some of my projects, you know, whether they are using reception studies to find more efficient ways to engage conservative evangelical groups regarding issues of climate change or trying to put environmental policymakers and media industry professionals in touch in Hong Kong or India or Mexico in order to help facilitate the generation and development of green media practices based on local climate challenges, local cultural values, the local media infrastructures, all of this has so much to do just with modes of communication and with understanding that we can’t just force the employment of one view of environmental values or one set of environmental or green practices. You can’t just generate something in Hollywood that makes the PGA [Producers Guild of America] look good and then print that out and send it all over the world and tell everyone to use it.
Hunter Vaughan (26:52):
Instead, I think that we have to realize that while it’s a global issue that is impacting global climate problems or climate systems and ecosystems, it’s also very localized, and the suffering and the challenges of climate change are felt very differently in different places. And they’re felt, you know, usually disproportionately, the suffering is felt in the places that benefit the least from the industrialization that has helped on the anthropogenic acceleration of climate change and global warming.
Hunter Vaughan (27:30):
And so, this better world would be a world where we have more transparency and accountability on the side of the production, manufacturing, and benefits and profits of technology and mainstream culture, but also where we worked towards modes of collaboration and cross-cultural communication and exchange that helped to lift everyone up, not in ways that are just imposed from the outside, but in ways that really champion and value the uniqueness of cultural diversity and ways in which different communities both use culture, but also the environmental challenges that they face and will continue to face.
Cathy Hannabach (28:33):
Well, thank you so much for being with us today and sharing all the ways that you imagine otherwise.
Hunter Vaughan (28:40):
Thank you. I really appreciate the opportunity.
Cathy Hannabach (28:48):
Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire. This episode was created by Christopher Persaud and myself, Cathy Hannabach. Audio editing was provided by the awesome folks at Pro Podcast Solutions. You can check out the show notes and transcript for this episode on our website ideasonfire.net, where you can also read about our fabulous guests and find links to the people and projects we discussed on the show.