Founded in 1888 by an elite group of American explorers and cartographers, National Geographic is one of the most enduring and widely read magazines of all time. Today, browsing the catalogue of this institution of environmental photojournalism, which promised the awe and mystery of a wider world of uncorrupted nature, doesn’t come without complications—uncovering layers of colonial thinking and greenwashing tactics.
Scans by @geoarchive
“The history of mankind is a history of becoming reactive.”—R.D. Laing.
Environmentalism is one of a few grand myths left alive in America today. It’s a guiding fiction that people adopt in light of the death of overarching narratives such as God or modernism, and a lifestyle choice, like referring to yourself as a liberal or a furry. Through the scepter of climate marches, recycling, Greenpeace, wearing outdoors gear to your downtown office, disaster movies, spreads in glossy magazines, and even acts of ecological terrorism, people use environmentalism and the climate to create an identity for themselves that has little relevance to the actual environment or nature. These and other commodity bubbles and the minutiae that they create are so all-encompassing that even something as corporeal and drastic as the actual destruction of the said world around us is unable to penetrate them. Our inability to actually comprehend the environment, and climate change in any meaningful way exemplifies the limited capabilities of human thought and how both nature, and its destruction, are radically unthinkable.
Though it’s difficult to tell when humans have ever actually been connected to nature in the past few thousand years, the late-industrialist enlightenment and its promotion in magazines like National Geographic helped further the idea that nature is simply a commodity. NatGeo and similar media offered many people their first view of a wider world, though one that was watered down and overlain with near-constant colonial, hierarchical thinking. The magazine was the epitome of the fact that observation is a form of destruction; they would print a spread of an Aboriginal Southern Australian tribe, detailing and measuring them as though they were for sale, before encouraging their readership to visit the country, in essence destroying it. In this way, the magazine created a sense of simultaneous escapism and destruction; the real is what any reality must repress. And though there is no doubt that National Geographic has had a number of good initiatives and philanthropic efforts, it's when taken into account with the overall psychological impact when the magazine's true effect can be seen.
“Administrative man recognizes that the world he perceives is a drastically simplified model of the buzzing, blooming confusion that constitutes the real world. He is content with the gross simplification because he believes that the real world is mostly empty—that most of the facts of the real world have no great relevance to any particular situation he is facing and that most significant chains and consequences are short and simple.”—Herbert Simon.
“Our inability to comprehend the environment in any meaningful way exemplifies the limited capabilities of human thought—both nature and its destruction are radically unthinkable.”
National Geographic was founded in 1888 as an outgrowth of the National Geographic Society, which had been founded a couple of years earlier by a group of thirty-eight men that included explorers, naval veterans, officers, cartographers, typographers, and inventors. Like all positivists, the founders envisioned a new type of utopia, of which National Geographic Society would be the main institution, and the magazine would be its mouthpiece. It would be the still fairly new mediums of photography and photojournalism that they would impose over nature to create this stripped-down effect, as cartographers had done for geography, or linguists for language. Gilbert Grosvenor, the magazine's second president, championed photography as being able to create a “window on the world,” and capable of conveying reality from afar, as if uncorrupted. Through their money, hubris, and meritocratic thinking, the men who founded National Geographic can be looked back on as something akin to the Silicon Valley elite of their day.
But how do you purchase the commodified nature that NatGeo promoted? Through tourism, which is an act that has literally become an epidemic in many places. For instance, in Machu Picchu and Kyoto, fines have been imposed for tourists who sit on steps or take pictures of geishas, and physical barriers and extra police are used to control the number of humans that are allowed to go to these places. It is telling of humanity that protective layers of governance need to be overlaid on top of actual reality in order to protect an imagined historical idea of reality that no longer exists. Not only do humans destroy the natural habitat, but they destroy the habitat that they built on top of that one, causing simultaneous environments to collapse at once under the sheer force of numbers.
Perhaps the magazine’s most famous cover is from a 1984 issue that features the so-called “Afghan Girl” Sharbat Gula, staring into the lens with piercing green eyes. Gula at the time was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan, and putting aside the grim poverty and death ridden reality she lived in, what people were captivated by was her stare and her garb, which were unavoidably compared to the other glossy magazines next to National Geographic, that featured models and stars. In presenting what they thought was a form of reality, they were perpetuating an “exotic” fiction, a fact made all the more real when Gula was tracked down years later, and lacking the youth that had propelled her to fame, was mocked online for not looking as she did as a teenager.
“But how do you purchase the commodified nature that NatGeo promoted? Through tourism, which is an act that has literally become an epidemic in many places.”
By the late ‘70s, NatGeo had positioned itself as the mainstream voice of environmentalism alongside groups and institutions like The Sierra Club, or the Environmental Protection Agency. But given how rapidly the actual environment was deteriorating, without any meaningful action from these groups, an entirely separate style of environmentalism took shape, one based on misanthropy and ecocentrism. But like NatGeo, it was also based on fiction. For Earth First!, and later The Earth Liberation Front, many of their acts of “ecotage,” like tree-spiking, were literally taken from a book, The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey. Which makes sense considering that many from the radical class of environmentalists were white, middle-class, or upper-middle-class young people from the east coast, who had emigrated west (as their boomer parents had done a generation before them), in an attempt at rebellion that saw them engage in class warfare with the poor rural loggers on the west coast. To them, such class dynamics didn’t matter, so long as misanthropy was a guiding principle.
Almost more so than actions, it was with the paraphernalia surrounding their cause that these groups made their positions known. Through magazines like Species Traitor, Green Anarchist, and Green Anarchy, the radical’s misanthropic ideas about how humanity needs to be culled in order to save our environment were plainly described in long-form essays that featured alongside images of metropolis in ruins, or buildings on fire with the ELF’s trademark “If you build it we will burn it” written overtop. Writing in Issue 1 of Species Traitor from 2001, a writer named Tatonka aka Ms. Anne Thrope summed up hers, and seemingly the magazine’s position as, “It’s simple, if humans are going to disregard all other life since it’s not in the sphere of their God’s concern (or just the primary concern for the lefties), then human life should be disregarded as well. This isn’t to say go kill humans or fuck ‘em, let ‘em rot. But it’s basically saying that the primary goal here isn’t to save the humans, it’s to keep them from taking everything else with them.”
But instead of actually radicalizing the population, what these radical groups did was offer mainstream environmentalism a fall-guy to use in order to push their aggressively moderate climate agendas. For The Sierra Club, or even Greenpeace, who had difficulty gaining a political foothold in the ‘90s, having a group of misanthropic arsonist climate extremists to show as an alternative to their meekness, was an advantage. As environmentalism became more mainstream, brands started using it as a marketing narrative used in order to sell products, whether via the outdoor apparel industry (which grew by 3.9 billion dollars in 2020 alone), or even movies like An Inconvenient Truth. Mainstream “greenwashing” tactics furthered the late-capitalist ideology that we can buy ourselves out of any problem. More than saving the environment, all this did was create another niche marketing campaign for a person whose garage is filled with carbon fiber tents and a Subaru.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.” —Lady Chatterley’s Lover, D.H. Lawrence
It’s tempting to say that almost every indicator from our history points to the fact that humans were not designed to live on Earth. As victims of hubris, we know this in our hearts; we know it’s over. And having accepted this fact, instead of thinking that we can solve the problem, we crave true destruction. Not only do we destroy, but we fetishize destruction. We pay to see simulations of fake climate disasters, to watch our lives get destroyed digitally, as the real disaster happens outside. We have brought real climate destruction to fruition not only literally, but also through magical thinking. This Summer, when the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) released their third official report on climate change, we all knew what it said even before we’d read it––that it’s too late, we’re doomed; that we’ve had decades to act and have done nothing. But our performative shock and actions continue, even though the same information has been available for decades.
The fiction continues, and it's a fiction that plays itself out over every platform now, where boredom has crossed over into presenting us life at its most simulative. Pictures of food, influencers, or plaintive memes blend in with the latest slew of natural disasters and political upheaval—all that is solid melts into an overarching fiction. And so too with NatGeo, which like other mass media channels such as History, or Discovery, has basically turned itself into a reality TV show, airing programs like, Is My Dog A Genius, or Doomsday Preppers. There is a subtle irony in how overly simplified the channel has become, just like the simplistic positivist ideals that pushed the magazine forward all those years, positing that everything is measurable deductible. It’s a view that endures, and leads us to think that we can somehow use this thinking to get ahead of climate change, that it’s still possible—that we can eek our way out of catastrophe through calculation.