Splendor, Destruction, and the Shift from Awe to Action in Environmental Documentary
Speaker: Jeanne Marie Kusina, Bowling Green State University. Moderator: Madeleine Clare Elish, MIT. Abstract: This presentation discusses the role of digital media in the field of environmental ethics. There is a long, rich tradition of wildlife and natural history filmmaking devoted to documenting fact while dramatizing the content in a way that frequently inspires awe, respect, or reverence for nature. Whereas environmental ethicists often share these sentiments, for many their discourse resides primarily in academic forums of rigorous philosophical analysis and rational thought. Yet in his Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume argues that reason alone is an insufficient motivator of ethical action. According to Hume, unless there is already a moral sense and inclination toward benevolence in place, a disconnect remains between education and virtuous action. I argue that new media present one possibility for attempting to bridge this lacuna. In recent years, exponential growth in the accessibility of digital content through a variety of dissemination channels as well as marked increases in the availability of digital recording devices and editing software has helped to democratize what was once a fairly narrow niche of environment-oriented filmmaking. Moreover, in addition to a surge in popularity, environmental video documentaries have demonstrated a gradual shift from more conventional aims of observation toward direct efforts to invoke an ethical sensibility in the audience. This content, I will demonstrate, is less concerned with exhibiting natural splendor than with placing an ethical demand upon the viewer by presenting compelling visual representations of destruction, disappearance, and loss.