Introduction: Reading the Environment
in Popular Cinema


riting about nature in Los Angeles, Jenny Price  not only seeks to redefine nature writing but also argues it has lost its relevance.  “The core trouble is that nature writers have given us endless paeans to wildness since Thoreau fled to Walden Pond, but they need to tell us far more about our everyday lives in the places we live,” she argues. “Perhaps you’re not worrying about the failures of this literary genre as a serious problem. But in my own arm-waving manifesto about L.A. and America, I will proclaim that the crisis in nature writing is one of our most pressing national cultural catastrophes” (Price). She believes nature writing has failed because it ignores the urban world in which most of us live, especially the urban world of Los Angeles, and because it disregards the products of our everyday lives now seen as necessary: from concrete to electricity.

          This same problem permeates eco-films and the film industry that produces them. Films blatantly seen as environmental — documentaries and fictional films that tackle ecological issues — are discussed as “nature writing” or, as David Ingram  calls them, “film vert.”  Examples are Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth  (2006) and Leonardo DiCaprio’s The 11th Hour  (2007). Films with more hidden environmental messages, however, receive short shrift in ecological film festivals or award contests. And discussions about the film industry itself and its impact on the environment are all but erased in explorations of environmental films. Onscreen, eco-films articulate environmental messages as powerful as the anti-global warming manifesto, An Inconvenient Truth; yet the environmental impact of the film industry and its Los Angeles setting is all but ignored.

For example, in spite of Al Gore  and Leonardo DiCaprio’s announcement at the Oscars “that ecologically intelligent practices had been integrated into the planning and execution of the Oscar presentation and several related events” (Academy Statement), the film and television industry “is responsible for a significant amount of both air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions” (Corbett and Turco  5). Charles J. Corbett and Richard P. Turco’s November 2006 UCLA Institute of the Environment  study found that the film and television industry in greater Los Angeles “make[s] a larger contribution to conventional air pollution than four of the other sectors” they studied (8). The film and television industry contributed less than petroleum refining but more than aerospace manufacturing, apparel, hotels, and semiconductor manufacturing in the five-county Los Angeles region. Coming in second among these six sectors rated the film and television industry a grade of “A” for environmental best practices (based on isolated cases), and a grade of “C” for industry-wide actions, even in California where control of emissions is the tightest in the United States.

The UCLA Institute report called for both a monitoring of progress toward “more environmentally sustainable operations” (Nichols quoted in Southern California Environmental Report Card 2006) and action within the film and television industry to “foster environmentally friendly approaches” (Corbett and Turco  9). Corbett and Turco note challenges within the industry: “work is controlled by short lived production companies rather than by long-lived firms in stable supply chains, making it difficult to institutionalize best practices” (9) and “‘stop-and-go’ practices impede “consider[ing] and implement[ing] environmental mitigation policies” (9). These challenges, according to Corbett and Turco, should be and can be addressed to overcome the “environmental impacts of filmmaking.” The environmental destruction is rather massive and amounts to emissions of about eight million metric tons of carbon dioxide due to energy consumption, as well as waste, air pollution, and greenhouse gas generation (Corbett and Turco 7-8). Transportation on and off the set uses fuel, and explosions for special effects emit toxic chemicals as they erupt in polluting clouds of black smoke.

Still, some film studios and projects integrate environmental best practices into the process in effective ways. Corbett and Turco  note recycling programs for both waste and set materials implemented by a few studios and television series, as well as attempts to implement “energy efficiency and green building practices” (9). For example, both The Day After Tomorrow  (2004) and Syriana (2005) were carbon-neutral productions, in which carbon dioxide generated by machinery and vehicles during production is offset by the planting of trees or investing in climate-friendly technologies. The sets from both The Matrix 2 (2003) and The Matrix 3 (2003) were recycled, as well (9). In spite of these isolated cases, Corbett and Turco admit that “policies to mitigate environmental impacts remain to be implemented in a more systematic and transparent manner” (40).

Yet, progress has been made, even in publications like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, where there has been an increase in stories centered on the environmental content of productions (11). The Environmental Media Association Awards (EMA) now not only include categories related to content of films and television shows with environmental messages, but also (since 2004) include “a separate category for environmental ‘process’ improvements based on EMA’s Green Seal checklist” (11). In 2006, Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006) and An Inconvenient Truth  (2006) won awards for environmental content. Productions from 10,000 BC (2006) to The Dukes of Hazzard (2006) won Green Seal Awards for best environmental practices, and corporate offices like Dualstar and United Talent Agency (UTA) won Green Seal Awards for Industry Corporate Offices.  

The UCLA Institute Report notes that the number of environmental messages highlighted in films and film industry publications has increased significantly from 2002 to the present (Corbett and Turco  40), an increase we see as a hopeful reason to explore films in relation to the environmental messages they present. The film and television industry continues to contribute to environmental degradation, not only in Los Angeles but around the world. For example, Corbett and Turco note the “environmental impacts of filmmaking, which involve energy consumption, waste generation, air pollution, greenhouse gas emission, and physical disruptions on location” (5). Yet some of the films produced in Hollywood embrace a powerful environmental rhetoric that moves audience members to action.  

Other films merely reflect changes in our culture, but we see these films as indicators of real changes in worldview and, as in the case of earlier films, a change at least in our own views as audience members. Contemporary popular environmentalist films like Happy Feet (2006), Ice Age: The Meltdown, and The Day After Tomorrow  (2004) provide obvious ecological messages couched in comedy or melodrama. These films indicate a move in Hollywood toward “film vert,” as David Ingram  explains in his “Preface” (vii), toward a greening of Hollywood. In his Green Screen, Ingram “seeks to identify the complex ways in which both nonhuman nature and the built environment have been conceptualized in American culture, and to analyse [sic] the interplay of environmental ideologies at work in Hollywood movies, while ultimately keeping the debate over environmental politics open and provisional” (x). In other words, Ingram concentrates on overt environmental ideologies presented in the content of Hollywood movies, a focus we seek to build on in On the Edge.

Readings of recent ecological films, including The Day After Tomorrow, have emphasized their ecological messages, as Ingram  does in Green Screen. Instead, our text attempts to illuminate ecological themes underpinning more obvious surface readings. The Day After Tomorrow, for example, argues vehemently that we need to combat global warming as quickly as possible to avoid the apocalyptic consequences on display in the film. But the film conveys this message in ways that many find so hyperbolized it becomes nearly laughable, because in the story, consequences some scientists argue might result from global warming arise almost instantaneously rather than over the course of decades or even centuries.

Critiques of The Day After Tomorrow  point to its exaggerated claims regarding global warming not as a way to highlight the film’s environmental ideologies but to highlight one of its biggest weaknesses. In fact, the environmental message is all but lost because it rests on such a poor interpretation of climatology. Instead, critics valorize the film’s spectacular effects and faithful execution of the eco-disaster formula. A surface reading of the environmental politics on display in the film, then, deconstructs the film’s environmental leanings. 

For example, in an IMDB review of The Day After Tomorrow, Roger Ebert calls the film “silly” but “scary” and enjoys the adherence to formula while noting the lack of scientific grounding for the cataclysm on display:

Of the science in this movie I have no opinion. I am sure global warming is real, and I regret that the Bush administration rejected the Kyoto Treaty, but I doubt that the cataclysm, if it comes, will come like this. It makes for a fun movie, though. Especially the parts where Americans become illegal immigrants in Mexico, and the vice president addresses the world via the Weather Channel. The Day After Tomorrow  is ridiculous, yes, but sublimely ridiculous — and the special effects are stupendous.

Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian agrees, in another IMDB review of the film, asserting that:

There are some great special effects showing New York under the waves, with hints of Spielberg's AI and, of course, Planet of the Apes. You have to get through an awful lot of terrible dialogue and acting, however, plus a lot of fantastically insincere waffle about the environment, to get to those spectacular scenes. I felt the waters of silliness and boredom close over my head.

These critiques of the bad science driving the ecological disasters in the film are supported by the multiple plot holes and revealing mistakes in the film, including an impossible yet heroic journey led by father and climatologist, Jack Hall (Dennis Quaid), in which Jack and two colleagues tramp through seventy miles of sub-zero blizzards in less than two days’ time.

Frederick and Mary Ann Brussat give a different reading, one that may resonate with the wide range of viewers captivated by the film. In a review in Spirituality and Practice Magazine, they assert, “Whatever you think of the scientific explanations given for the phenomenon, the movie deserves praise for making one thing very clear: humans, especially in the industrialized countries, are the evil-doers who are responsible for the destruction of the good earth.” For the Brussats, ecological messages, no matter how ineffectively they are presented, serve to educate the public, showing viewers that humans have contributed to environmental devastation. Yet the Brussats use a religious envelope for couching their critique and invoke evil and apocalyptic visions that, again, veil the environmental politics of the film. They, like The Day After Tomorrow, hyperbolize their assertions and, therefore, may invalidate them because they rest on irrational emotional arguments rather than rational and logical evidence.

 Director Roland Emmerich’s assertion that the film’s climate-change exaggerations were intended as a way to add to its dramatic appeal points to another consequence of the “sublimely ridiculous” ecological disasters: large box office sales. All of the 258 reviews on the Internet Movie Database admit that the environmental catastrophes on display in the film are spectacularly powerful, drawing audiences who crave the entertainment value that a highly special effects-driven disaster movie provides. The special effects paid off: The Day After Tomorrow  grossed $528 million worldwide and earned a stunning $85.8 million during its opening weekend.

For us, more appealing are ecological themes beyond the surface meaning, themes that help us answer questions like, how is this eco-disaster? And how is this eco-disaster film different from those that have come before it? In ecological disaster films from the 1970s (for example, Soylent Green  [1973]) and eco-comic disaster films from the 1980s forward (such as Eight Legged Freaks  [2002]), disaster plots are driven by two different kinds of heroes: tragic pioneers and comic community builders. The Day After Tomorrow, on the other hand, relies on a different kind of hero, one that arguably combines both tragic and comic characteristics. Our reading of The Day After Tomorrow attempts to make the idea of the new ecological (eco)-hero more transparent rather than rearticulating the obvious ecological messages on display in the film. 

Both The Day After Tomorrow  and Children of Men  (2006) illustrate similar visions of the new eco-hero. In both films, heroic roles are filled not by tragic pioneers or even bumbling comic heroes, but by fathers seeking to save their own children or children they adopt as their own from an environment that humanity has made toxic in multiple ways. In The Day After Tomorrow Jack Hall attempts not only to save the world from global warming but to save his son Sam (Jake Gyllenhaal) from a flooded and frozen New York City library. In Children of Men, Theo Faron (Clive Owen) agrees to help an activist group transport Kee (Claire-Hope Ashite) and her soon-to-be-born child to a group of benevolent scientists on the coast, saving the only surviving baby in a dying world. In fact, in the film’s opening, crowds of people mourn the loss of the youngest living person, a teenager murdered by a fan.

This new breed of eco-hero fails to fit in categories of tragic or comic heroes as defined by either Aristotle or Joseph W. Meeker . Meeker expands Aristotle’s categories to include the natural world in his eco-critical approach to Classic literature. Meeker’s tragic heroes in the natural world are the ecological pioneers, “the loners of the natural world, the tragic heroes who sacrifice themselves in satisfaction of mysterious inner commands which they alone can hear” (“The Comic Mode” 161). His comic heroes build community. Meeker argues that once ecosystems mature, heroic solitary pioneers become not only unnecessary but also subordinate to the group. In a mature or climax ecosystem, “it is the community itself that really matters, and it is likely to be an extremely durable community so long as balance is maintained among its many elements” (Meeker “The Comic Mode” 163). Comic heroes emerge from these climax ecosystems. 

Jack Hall and Theo Faron serve the community while maintaining solitary quests, however. These two new eco-heroes combine the best qualities of the tragic and comic heroes to build a better world community while also saving children who are closest to them. Our first view of Jack Hall highlights his more traditionally heroic features. We first see him working as a climatologist at the North Pole, cutting samples out of the ice to study the impact of greenhouse gases on the environment. One of his colleagues continues to drill until the ice collapses, leaving a giant canyon into which he and a large vehicle fall, but Jack saves him and then jumps the canyon to retrieve the equipment on the other side. Jack leaps back, makes it to the edge and hands his equipment to another colleague, but he too falls into the ice canyon and this time saves himself, grabbing the wall of ice with an ice pick.

This physically challenging feat allows Jack to serve as another kind of hero, one who is intellectually driven and seeks to save the world from the consequences of climate change he endured at the North Pole. Jack, looking like Al Gore  in An Inconvenient Truth, explains global warming to a world delegation considering the Kyoto Accord and encourages all nations, including the United States, to approve it. In spite of these two daring acts — one physical and the other intellectual — Jack’s many weaknesses are also on display in the film. When he returns from his latest Arctic trip, his house plants have nearly died, his son has failed calculus, and his ex-wife has lost faith in his ability even to pick up his son in time to get him to the airport for a scholastic bowl tournament. 

These everyday events, however, are juxtaposed with images of worldwide eco-disaster. Professor Terry Rapson (Ian Holm), an oceanographer, discusses the possibility of a new Ice Age, and reports of its oncoming effects soon come in from all over the world. Pieces of ice fall from the sky in Tokyo, destroying cars and killing any people they strike. Snowstorms drift into New Delhi. Storms hit Jack’s son Sam’s flight, on its way to New York. And when Sam and his friend Laura (Emmy Rossum) reach the city, they watch from their taxi as flocks of birds migrate away from the city, seemingly disturbed by climate change.

More storms, golf ball-sized hail, and tornadoes hit Los Angeles. The LA tornadoes blow across highways, knocking over cars and rolling them down the road in a spectacular effect. A weather station building is cut in half vertically, so a reporter falls to his death when his office collapses, and only a janitor survives, opening a door to empty space left by the crashed rooms. All of these spectacular events are explained by Professor Rapson, who reveals that the delicate balance between fresh and salt waters has been destroyed, dramatically changing the North Atlantic current. When Jack enters Professor Rapson’s data into his climate model, the results are devastating. According to their conclusions, the Earth will be in a full-scale ice age in six to eight weeks.

More disastrous events point to this upcoming ice age: frozen helicopter pilots in Scotland, and massive flooding in New York City with tidal waves catapulting down its broad avenues. Sam and the rest of his scholastic bowl friends make their way into the New York Public Library, and the father/son narrative takes center stage. Sam finds a water-logged pay phone in the library, calls his father, and hears his father’s promise: “wait it out and burn what you can. I will come for you. I will come for you.”

The rest of the film revolves around Jack’s quest to save his son, and his son’s evolution into a new eco-hero like his father. Jack makes one more attempt to sway the government machinery into action and finally succeeds, packing up his arctic gear and taking off to save his son, with two colleagues, Jason Evans (Dash Mihok) and Frank Harris (Jay O. Sanders), tagging along. The way is treacherous, and their long walk from a crashed car near Philadelphia parallels the escape attempt made by a police officer and some followers from the library, with the freezing deaths of two followers aligning with the death of one of Jack’s friends, Frank, when he falls through the glass ceiling of a mall.

Jack’s ex-wife Lucy’s (Sela Ward) heroism is highlighted after Frank’s death, when an ambulance arrives to save her and a young patient, Peter, whom she has refused to leave alone. The family melodrama becomes the main focus until the film’s end, even though it is occasionally broken with more global concerns, like the death of the President and the fate of American refugees in Mexico. So after Lucy’s heroic act, it comes as no surprise that Sam too might act heroically. He has shown some signs of heroism when he grabs Laura and drags her into the library and away from the tidal wave, but he gains cunning when a cut on Laura’s leg festers and penicillin is needed. With some ingenuity, Sam makes snowshoes out of chair seats and makes his way toward a Russian ship that has somehow drifted up the street in front of the library. He and two friends, Brian (Arjay Smith) and J.D. (Austin Nichols), fight off wolves, the cold, and an oncoming vortex to gather penicillin and food, which they drag back to the library in spite of J.D.’s wounds.

Then, in a blatant link between father and son, Sam and his father, Jack, escape the vortex into the door of their shelters at the same time, closing the doors behind them with an almost simultaneous slam. Jack has found warmth with fires in a Wendy’s restaurant; Sam in a library reading room. Jack explains, as he tramps back out into the cold, “I made my son a promise. I’m going to keep it,” and the storm dissipates over North America, just in time for Jack and Jason to find the library and the heated inner room where Sam and a few stragglers remain. “Who is that?” Laura asks. And Sam tells them, “My father. You found us.” “Of course I did,” Jack replies, and a helicopter saves them and other New York survivors waving their arms wildly on the roofs of high rises. The film ends with images of the Earth from a space station — “I’ve never seen the air so clear,” one of the astronauts exclaims.

And the eco-drama ends, with father and son reunited (and possibly husband and wife). The eco-disaster looks like most disaster films in every way other than the way the image of the hero is constructed. In The Day After Tomorrow, the hero is a true eco-hero, attempting to save the world from environmental disaster, but his most heroic act is localized and less than self-sacrificial. Jack makes his heroic journey not to save the world — as we might expect an eco-hero and a climatologist to do — but to save his son. And both Lucy and Sam act heroically for similar reasons — to save the individuals they love, not the world, the nation, or even the community.

In Children of Men, Theo transports Kee to a haven at sea to save her child and, ultimately, the world. But Theo chooses to act because his ex-wife, Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore ), reminds him of the loving family life they shared when his own son lived. In Children of Men, both mother (Julian) and father (Theo) die during the undertaking, but our last glimpse of life in the movie shows us Kee and her baby floating in a boat while a ship in the distance comes closer to save her. The focus is local rather than global in this well-shot film, with long-takes emphasizing the individualized perspective of the hero and his acts. 

None of these heroes act like pioneers attempting to conquer an opponent, even if that opponent is the environment or an ecological disaster. They don’t fight against the disaster but against the forces that caused it. And they fight most intensely not for all those affected by the disaster — as do most eco-heroes — but only for sons, friends, and a helpless child. The new eco-hero is not a tragic pioneer, who sacrifices him or herself for a species. Nor is this hero a comic hero, who bumbles and succeeds only communally. This hero acts alone, but only at a local level, not seeking control of a landscape or species but seeking to save new and renewed relationships. This local view corresponds to the eco-critical approach we take with other environmental themes represented in films from 1896 to the present.  Representatives of what David Ingram  calls film vert, with blatantly environmental messages, are only a small sample of films with possible ecological themes.

In On the Edge: Ecology  and Popular Film we look at narrative films organized around a variety of themes but all driven by either intentional or unintentional environmental messages as products of a complex cultural context that includes ecology. Popular narrative movies respond to the culture in which they are embedded — they also contribute to that same culture, even in relation to the environment. To reveal representations of environmentalist issues sometimes obscured by spectacle, filmic technology, and conflicting messages, we read a selection of films in relation to a variety of what we call “eco-critical” readings. Our selection is limited and opens up opportunities for further readings of multimedia, including television and advertising. Here, however, as a way to demonstrate the possible scope of eco-critical film studies, we focus our readings on popular films that correspond with the following wide-ranging environmental themes: the spectacular, environmental politics, eco-terrorism, reconstructing underground space, ecology and home, tragic eco-heroes, comic eco-heroes, urban street-racing culture, film ecology, and evolutionary narratives, themes we see as not only far-reaching but ongoing.

Our eco-critical lens responds to analyses of eco-criticism Lawrence Buell  outlines in his The Future of Environmental Criticism. This approach aligns most closely with what Buell defines as second-wave inquiry in eco-criticism:

the exegesis of environmental subtexts through historical and critical analyses that employ ready-to-hand analytical tools of the trade together with less familiar ones eclectically derived from other disciplinary bailiwicks and … the identification or reinterpretation of such thematic configurations as pastoral, eco-apocalypticism, and environmental racism. (130)

This project examines representations of nature in mainstream film, broadens definitions of nature writing to include film, and reads a selection of films embracing a variety of themes. Our work is far from exhaustive. The films we have chosen primarily illustrate the broad range of themes available for such a reading. Our eco-critical approach reads movies in relation to themes, but it also examines each film’s context in a localized and aesthetic way.

Most eco-critics valorize an essential view of nature and the natural world, a view that excludes a situated post-modern view of nature. “Postmodern Natures,” views of nature that suggest its representation is relative, are often seen as problematic. In Reinventing Nature?, for example, the majority of the articles suggest that we should fear the consequences of viewing nature through a postmodern lens. Gary Lease ’s introduction asserts that “Postmodern answers, to date, have ignored certain actors and obscured certain questions” (vii). Donald Worster’s “Nature and the Disorder of History,” argues that postmodern historians are excessively relativistic and that they distort reality. N. Katherine Hayles’ “Searching for Common Ground” insists that the “deconstructionist paradigm, if accepted broadly, would…destroy environmentalism, since the environment is just a social construction” (viii). And Stephen R. Kellert’s “Concepts of Nature East and West” asserts that “The deconstructionist notion that all cultural perspectives of nature possess equal values is both biologically misguided and socially dangerous” (103).

Eco-critics suggest that immersing perceptions of nature in their historical context would “distort reality.”  In fact, any form of relativism — viewing nature relative to history, culture, or individual perceptions — is seen as problematic by many eco-critics. For these eco-critics, the consequences of viewing nature and the natural through a postmodern lens become frightening because such a perspective paralyzes the viewer, eradicating any possibility of socially or environmentally conscious activism. These eco-critics, then, take an ahistorical view of nature.

Eco-critics like Patrick Murphy  and Dana Phillips  argue that relative views of nature and its representations need not silence nature. By empowering nature at the local, culturally and historically situated, level its essential value can be valorized. Dana Phillips describes a movement from modernist dualistic thought to a postmodern world of representation (205, 6). Patrick Murphy contends in a 1999 PMLA Forum that in a postmodern eco-criticism, “Environments … are seen instead as a fundamental feature of the ideological horizons of literary works” (1099). Dana Phillips’ view of postmodernism, unlike that espoused in either the Western Literary Association discussion or the Reinventing Nature? anthology, does not lead to a lack of agency or inability to take an activist stance toward the environment. Instead, Phillips concludes in his “Is Nature Necessary?” that postmodern thought offers a way to “green our society” from a local level. Our approach looks to both Buell  and Phillips for a way to reveal environmental themes and aesthetics obscured by the technology presenting them.

A brief reading of a Warner Brothers short, Goofy Gophers and the Lumber Jerks  (1955), demonstrates how we might apply such a localized postmodern approach to less blatantly ecological media. This seven-minute cartoon lacks the obvious environmental melodrama found in The Day After Tomorrow  or An Inconvenient Truth. Yet it gains resonance as an eco-cartoon when it and its production are historicized and culturally situated. Lumber Jerks may stem from an attitude in 1950s America that Norman M. Klein  calls “Consumer Cubism” (210), “an obsession with the efficient, angular plan.” The faster a consumer could gain access to goods, the better. Klein asserts that “individualism and democracy were being redefined in terms of consumer desire. The homogeneous surface, open and ‘free,’ came to stand in for America’s imperium” (210).  These attitudes were reflected in both narrative and aesthetics of some cartoons after 1954.

Lumber Jerks first focuses on saving one tree in a forest. Two cheerful gophers, Mac and Tosh, scurry toward their home, but when they go up into the hollow of their tree, they find it has been cut down and carried away. The two gophers take steps to retrieve their tree — what they call their property — tracking it to a river and then picking it out of the hundreds of logs floating on the water. They climb on their tree and row away but cannot fight the current and nearly go over a waterfall. Once they escape, one gopher exclaims, “I’m bushed,” and the two fall asleep, waking up only after entering a lumber mill and living through a saw blade cutting their tree trunk in two.

After seeing the devastation around them, the gophers state the obvious about the repercussions of consumerism. One of the gophers explains, “It looks like they are bent on the destruction of our forests,” and the scene shifts to the mill’s workings. One “shot” shows trees ground into sawdust being made into artificial fireplace logs. Another shows an entire tree being “sharpened” to produce one toothpick. Then the gophers discover what had happened to their own tree: “They’re going to make furniture out of our tree,” states one of the gophers.

But the idea of ownership of consumer goods extends to the gophers and their tree home. They wish to reclaim their property, their own possession, so the other gopher exclaims, “That is definitely our property. We must think of a way to repossess it.” The gophers siphon the gas out of the furniture truck and, when it breaks down, “steal” their tree’s furniture from the truck. They build a tree house with the furniture, adding branches for good measure and topping the tree off with a television set. The cartoon ends with one of the gophers telling the other, “Isn’t our home much better than it was before …. [we have] Television… and just think how much better it will be with electricity!” Because the gophers view their tree home as a possession not unlike the furniture produced from its wood, they seem pleased with their “repossession.” But the enviro-toon leaves viewers feeling ambivalent about the price of progress.

Lumber Jerks  combines a critique of consumerism with a statement about its source — natural wilderness — but it also endorses interdependence between humans and the natural world (and between progress and conservation), at least to the extent that furniture built from a tree trunk can return to the forest as the Goofy Gophers’ home. With its overt focus on consumerism, however, the ‘toon goes further. It leaves viewers questioning the Goofy Gophers’ conclusion: “Isn’t our house much better than it was before?”

As Klein  suggests in his discussion of Tex Avery’s The House of Tomorrow (1949), The Car of Tomorrow (1951), and Farm of Tomorrow (1954), consumers may become “victimized by the very machines that promise an easier, more extravagant life” (211). After all, the consumer goods that make up the trunk of one tree were built from the trees of an entire forest. Lumber Jerks, especially, reflects an increasing ambivalence toward technology and post-World War II progress in an increasingly more complex (and anxiety-ridden) nuclear age. Here the Goofy Gophers successfully negotiate between the wonders of modernism and its impact on both natural and human worlds. But it’s a negotiation that’s impossible in the world outside cartoons. Still, Klein’s argument that “cartoons [are] ever the barometer of changes in entertainment” (211) may also include changes in mainstream American culture. Unlike cartoons that maintain the nature/culture binary or those that seek to reconcile it through the intervention of a controller, classic shorts that critique our treatment of the natural world respond explicitly to changes in the American cultural context and illustrate an ambivalence toward Modernism and its ramifications.  

The period during and after WWII is commonly associated with a drive for technological advancement, from constructing needed military equipment during the war to building highways and freeways and entering the space race after it ended (See Rothman, Saving the Planet and Shabecoff, Fierce Green Fire). There were noteworthy inclinations toward conservation prior to WWII, like Teddy Roosevelt’s creation of the National Park System and Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. And noteworthy exceptions after WWII like William Vogt’s best-selling conservation book Road to Survival and Fairfield Osborn’s Our Plundered Planet, which came out in 1948. Aldo Leopold ’s Sand County Almanac was published a year later and proved to be one of the most influential eco-works ever written. Leopold’s work had a positive influence on both Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas and Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. Douglas began protesting what he saw as exploitation of nature as early as 1954, when he successfully opposed the building of a proposed highway that would have destroyed the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal and its towpath. Babbitt, who served under President Clinton, is still a tireless advocate of environmental issues, but he traces the origin of his stances to Leopold’s Sand County Almanac in the preface to the 2000 edition he wrote in memory of Leopold and in honor of Leopold’s work for the conservation movement.

After World War II, Americans gained enough economic stability to not only purchase cars in record numbers but also use them for traveling across the United States on cross-country highways like Routes 40 and 66. According to Rothman, Americans increasingly vacationed in national parks and forests after 1945. And, “as more of them vacationed, exemplified by record numbers of visitors at Grand Canyon National Park each month after August 1945, they had an impact on the natural world that soon caused them to take notice” (85-6). Rothman asserts that “what Americans found in many of their national parks and forests shocked them: decrepit and outdated campgrounds, garbage piled high, and a lack of facilities and staff to manage them” (86). Americans took to the road, towing trailers behind them, so they could experience some of the nature they had left behind when they moved to the cities and concrete suburbs surrounding them.

Vacationing Americans noticed the devastation in national parks and forests, but the Wilderness Act that served to protect and preserve them wasn’t passed until 1964, almost 20 years after the end of the war. Alexander Wilson  argues that Americans in the late 1940s and 1950s saw “the open road [as] a metaphor for progress in the U.S. and for the cultural taming of the American Wilderness” (34). Wilson even suggests that “What we saw out the window of a speeding car… was the future itself” (34). These views of nature through the window of a car — or even the window of a camper in a national park — skewed Americans’ vision of the natural world. Such confusion between seeking pristine nature and embracing progress at any cost complicated ideological views of the environment and environmentalism. In “Conservation Esthetic [sic],” a section of his Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold  describes late 1940s’ views of nature and wildlife recreation as a destructive search for meaning in an altered “natural” world:

The automobile … has made scarce in the hinterlands something once abundant on the back forty. But that something must nevertheless be found. Like ions shot from the sun, the week-enders radiate from every town, generating heat and friction as they go.…Advertisements on rock and rill confide to all and sundry the whereabouts of new retreats, landscapes, hunting-grounds, fishing-lakes just beyond those recently overrun. Bureaus build roads into new hinterlands, then buy more hinterlands to absorb the exodus accelerated by the roads. A gadget industry pads the bumps against nature-in-the-raw…. And now, to cap the pyramid of banalities, the trailer. To him who seeks in the woods and mountains only those things obtainable from travel or golf, the present situation is tolerable. But to him who seeks something more, recreation has become a self-destructive process of seeking but never quite finding, a major frustration of mechanized society. (165-6).

The Lumber Jerks  illustrates the consequences of rampant consumerism that serves as a sign of progress — devastation of the natural world. Instead of looking at nature from the skewed perspective of a speeding car, this cartoon shows us what’s wrong with what Wilson  calls “the cultural taming of the American Wilderness” (34) and provides real reasons for embracing Aldo Leopold ’s conservation esthetic [sic]. Post-World War II optimism faded quickly because of similar binaries — this time between those that strengthened the Cold War and fostered a skepticism toward “progress” that diminished the power of individuals. These changing attitudes in the United States had an impact on cartoons after WWII, as well as on the cartoon industry itself. In 1948, according to Klein , the studio system changed. Studios were no longer allowed to maintain vertical monopolies, so their theater chains were sold out, and film (and cartoon) distribution was transferred to “independent jobbers” (206).

By 1953, Jack Warner “ordered the animation units [temporarily] to close down, to make way for 3D movies” (Klein  206). Television became a new medium, and fewer movie screens were available for audiences. All of these factors led to what Klein calls a “stripped-down” version of cartoons. Klein argues that a “mixture of ebullience and paranoia can be seen very clearly in fifties cartoons, in the stories and the graphics” (207). According to Klein, this mixture “is particularly evident in cartoons about consumer life” (207).

A rich reading of Lumber Jerks  must take into account all of these elements, structural and aesthetic, historical, ideological, and technological. The environmentalist message in the cartoon, however, gains strength for us because it is not explicitly environmentalist. In fact, a straight reading of the cartoon might suggest that modernism has improved the lives of these goofy gophers.

This multi-faceted approach also gains strength when juxtaposed with the film industry itself. The technology necessary to produce films — even those with an environmental bent — conflicts with the environmental messages sometimes on display. Such a contradiction exists even in film productions of blatantly environmentalist films like An Inconvenient Truth  or Happy Feet. Instead of erasing or obscuring the technology behind all the films discussed here, this text rests on the belief that, like humanity itself, the film industry both uses and critiques technologies that potentially abuse nature. In a sense, this text offers a space to explore what happens when nature serves as the center of an analysis of a medium (film) that has traditionally been aligned with nature’s opposite, technology. Such contradictions hold true in relation to many of the binaries critiqued in film — sexuality, race, gender, class, among others. Instead of denying this conflict, we suggest it calls for further exploration.

This book examines films foregrounding multiple environmental themes. Chapter 1, “Ecology  and Spectacle  in Oil Wells of Baku: Close View: The First Eco-Disaster Film?,” explores how the spectacular fires on display in oil well fire films from as early as 1896 sometimes obscure the environmental disaster on the screen. Chapter 2, “Environmental Politics: Pare Lorentz’s The River  and the Tennessee Valley Authority,” offers a reading of the environmental politics surrounding New Deal Tennessee Valley Authority dam projects along the Tennessee River as they are valorized in The River (1936) and Wild River  (1960). Chapter 3, “Reconstructing Underground Urban Space in Dark Days,” explores the complex structure of a narrative documentary built on a new idea of progress, this time in New York City’s Amtrak tunnels where homeless people have established and constructed homes. Chapter 4, “Ecology, Place, and Home in Dark City: Is It Our Nature to Live in the Dark?” provides a space in which to explore a multi-genre film that seeks to determine the best ecology for human and nonhuman life.

Chapter 5, “Environmental Nostalgia  and The Tragic Eco-Hero: The Case of Soylent Green  and the 1970s Eco-Disaster  Film,” highlights the tragic eco-hero in a blatantly environmental film whose rhetoric rests on nostalgia. Chapter 6,The Comic Eco-Hero: Spoofing Eco-Disaster in Eight Legged Freaks,” explores how images of the eco-hero have changed as our cultural context has evolved to allow us to laugh at the results of toxic waste dumping meant to both satirize and spoof serious science fiction films like Them!

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Chapter 7,Eco-Terrorism in Film: Pale Rider  and the Revenge Cycle,” discusses the effectiveness of eco-terrorist techniques as a way to combat corporate hydraulic mining practices. Chapter 8, “Car Culture and the Transformation of the American Landscape in The Fast and the Furious,” highlights transformations of already de-naturalized urban landscapes in contemporary inner-city car-racing films. Chapter 9, “Film Ecology : Simulated Construction and Destruction in Hooper,” looks at both filmic representations of nature and environmental effects of film production itself. And Chapter 10, “Apocalypse as a “Return to Normality” in 28 Days Later  and 28 Weeks Later,” expands on notions of the eco-hero and examines two different evolutionary narratives, one tragic and the other comic.  We conclude our book with a reading of An Inconvenient Truth  as a film not unlike Soylent Green, since its rhetoric is also driven by differing versions of nostalgia. Together, these chapters offer multiple thematic readings of potentially environmental films.

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