Media literacy is currently hyped as a necessary salve for the proliferation of fake news, conspiracy theories, and propaganda. There is some truth to this, but as a veteran media educator working to address the climate crisis, I don’t believe conventional media literacy methods go far enough to tackle urgent problems like ecojustice and global heating. Media literacy practitioners tend not to question the ideology of technological progress, but under the current conditions of our global economic system, environmentally harmful technology and exploitation combine to form an anthropocentric system of media production and consumption. Our gadgets are produced by a neo-colonial system predicated on externalizing health and environmental costs to lower-income regions of the world, requiring resource extraction, disposable populations, and the enclosure of our global commons. Media normalize this system, making environmental risks acceptable to consumers as long as their effects are unevenly distributed and remain out of sight.
From this perspective, media are pedagogical: they teach us how to act upon and live within the world’s ecological systems. This corresponds with Orr’s (1994) proposition that all education is environmental education—regardless if it is anthropocentric or ecocentric. The anthropocentric worldview becomes the taken-for-granted knowledge system where education policy is formulated, as well as the background in which media literacy education is conceived. Media education entails an implicit environmental worldview that is often not acknowledged or reconciled. In response I propose ecomedia literacy, which starts with the proposition that all media are embedded within earth’s living systems, calling for an ethic of care that extends to all humans and nonhuman alike.
Ecomedia literacy highlights how on a daily basis we encounter the interrelationship between media and living systems. Our devices leave a scorched earth footprint through their manufacture and disposal, while all the data our gadgets access and store in the “cloud” requires a planetary infrastructure of server farms that produce as much CO2 as the airline industry. Major environmental problems associated with media include e-waste; contamination; loss of biodiverse habitats; damaged health of consumers and workers; EMF pollution; and excessive CO2 emissions (Gabrys, 2013; Lewis, 2013; Maxwell & Miller, 2012; Rust et al., 2016; Walker & Starosielski, 2016).
Ecomedia literacy also addresses media’s ecological mindprint, which is the way that media influence how we define and act upon living systems (Corbett, 2006). Media shape our experience of the world by propagating an ideology of unlimited growth; reinforcing the view that nature is separate from humans; marginalizing alternative ecological perspectives; and favoring industry discourses surrounding environmental policy. Not only has our mainstream media model co-evolved with the system of advertising, consumption, and the ideology of unlimited growth, but the rise of global mass media clearly parallels the increasing destruction of our biosphere. Mundane media (software, networks, databases, satellite data, etc.) facilitate finance, surveillance, commoditization, and the coordination of economic, military, and police activities that ensure the system works and is effectively reproduced. Artificial intelligence; social media; facial and voice recognition; video and music streaming; and cryptocurrency mining are all emerging technologies that expand resource extraction and fossil fuel energy use.
Another dimension of media’s mindprint is the phenomenological experience of how media impact our sense of place, space, and time. This area of inquiry has traditionally been the focus of media ecology, an academic field that views media as technological environments (Lum, 2006). Its practitioners often use the term “ecology” to mean a system of systems, as opposed to the conventional understanding of ecology as a system of biological communities. Though media ecologists do not explicitly discuss living systems, many of the celebrated scholars at the core of their tradition—such as Ellul, Mumford, and Postman—were quite critical of modernity. They argued that technology and media alter our cognitive environments: they shape not what we think, but how we think and experience the world. The most prominent example is the idea that the alphabet and print media have reconfigured perception in the West to favor abstractions over embodied experience.
Importantly, ecomedia literacy is not just about critically engaging media, but also actively making, communicating, and promoting eco-citizenship through media. Unlike the traditional media literacy approach that focuses on the study of texts, symbols, and messages as separate from living systems, to encourage eco-citizenship, ecomedia literacy supports learners to:
- Recognize how ecomedia are materially interconnected with living systems by how they affect biodiversity loss, water and soil contamination, global heating, and the health of workers.
- Analyze how ICTs are interdependent with the global economy and development models, and how the current model of globalization correlates with the history of colonialism and its impacts on livings systems and ecojustice.
- Analyze how media form symbolic associations, narratives, and myths that promote environmental ideologies and ethics, including learning to distinguish between anthropocentric and ecocentric discourses.
- Evaluate media’s phenomenological influence (affect) on the perception of time, space, and place.
- Identify and critically engage modernity’s epistemological bias.
- Cultivate an awareness of the ecomedia commons.
- Apply eco-ethics and eco-citizenship to actively respond to the climate crisis.
Research shows that students learn better when they study something that is personally relevant, so usually I have them analyze their personal gadget. Ecomedia literacy is based on complexity and systems thinking, so I have them perform a holistic analysis that explores four areas of inquiry: culture, political ecology, materiality, and lifeworld. Culture involves studying the discourses, symbols, and stories associated with the gadget, such as marketing, news reports, or general cultural beliefs about technology and progress. Political ecology relates to the ideological aspects of gadgets and how their production chain is facilitated by social structures. Materiality corresponds with how the gadget is actually made and what materials it’s composed of. Lifeworld is the phenological experience of the gadget and how it impacts sensory and emotional experience, such as feelings of addiction, alienation, or connection. Students write a research paper and also produce some kind of media that demonstrates their findings. For their concluding remarks, they are prompted to envision how ecojustice can be incorporated into the system of gadget production, consumption, and usage.
Ecomedia literacy advocates eco-citizenship, which means embodying ecologically resilient behaviors and cultural practices that shape and promote ecocentric values within the interconnected realms of society, economy, and environment. Unlike conventional media education, ecomedia literacy addresses the climate crisis and seeks to decolonize media by promoting ecojustice. When students become ecomedia literate, they are motivated to care more for the environment and to advocate for change.
Corbett, J. B. (2006). Communicating nature: How we create and understand environmental messages. Island Press.
Gabrys, J. (2013). Digital rubbish: A natural history of electronics. Univ. of Michigan Press.
Lewis, J. (2013). Beyond consumer capitalism: Media and the limits to imagination. Polity Press.
Lum, C. M. K. (2006). Notes toward an intellectual history of media ecology. In C. M. K. Lum (Ed.), Perspectives on Culture, Technology and Communication: The Media Ecology (pp. 1–60). Hampton Press.
Maxwell, R., & Miller, T. (2012). Greening the media. Oxford University Press.
Orr, D. W. (1994). Earth in mind: On education, environment, and the human prospect. Island Press.
Rust, S., Monani, S., & Cubitt, S. (Eds.). (2016). Ecomedia: Key issues. Routledge.
Walker, J., & Starosielski, N. (Eds.). (2016). Sustainable media: Critical approaches to media and environment. Routledge.