A Conversation with our Guest Editors:
Antonio Lopez, Theresa Redmond, Jeff Share
Answer Questions from Karen Ambrosh & Marieli Rowe
How did your interest in Ecomedia Literacy evolve?
Jeff: I have always been passionate about the environment and environmentalism, from annual backpacking in the Sierras to photographing for the TreePeople, a local environmental organization. However, it was not until I read Naomi Klein’s (2014) book, This Changes Everything, that I realized just how important Climate Change is and how interconnected it is with critical media literacy. After that book I became obsessed with reading everything I could find about environmental justice and media education. That is when I discovered Antonio’s amazing book, Greening Media Education, that directly connects the two. His work was inspirational and encouraged me to dive deeper into this issue. I connected with Richard Beach and Allen Webb (2017) to write Teaching Climate Change to Adolescents and then started incorporating environmental justice into all my work. Recently, I created a new class on Environmental Justice for Education undergraduate students at UCLA. This has been exciting to teach and to see students’ enthusiasm about the importance of embracing the environmental crisis in education.
[caption] Jeff Share backpacking with his son in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California
Theresa: My parents were impacted by the energy crisis of the 1970’s and immersed themselves in a “back to the land” movement in order to curb personal impact. Growing up on a small, family-style farm nurtured within me a nature-focused, ecocentric paradigm. My early development was infused with an ecocentric discourse that positioned humankind as part of a network of interconnected living systems.
[caption] The “back to the land” movement with my family circa 1980
When I began teaching an undergraduate Media Literacy class in 2014, it was apparent that some big pieces were missing and connections between the climate crisis and media literacy was a clear gap. I had taught about planned and perceived obsolescence, and how these aspects are intertwined in a hyper-consumerist culture, but something was missing still. I had some prior knowledge of issues and impacts surrounding the mining of conflict minerals for media devices in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But, it wasn’t until I learned of Antonio’s work through Greening Media Education that the connections clicked into place and I began incorporating a new ecomedia literacy unit in my Media Literacy class. Like Jeff, I was inspired by Antonio’s work connecting disparate areas of media and communications studies.
Following the release of his book, our university hosted Tim Swinehart, co-author of A People’s Curriculum for the Earth (2014). His interactive role play workshop inspired me to develop not only the unit, but also an immersive and social-constructivist teaching approach for ecomedia literacy in the class. I have written and published about my action research in this area. I have found students are interested in this area of study and anxious to develop solutions. They want to become “hands on” in addressing the issue and engaging in action.
[caption] Student work from Media Literacy Course, Spring 2019
As I explain in my article, “To live in a constructed media environment requires that we be continually vigilant to our role in co-creating our media ecosystems and mindful of how our increasingly digital environment imprints and impacts both our ideological and physical worlds.” To further provide opportunities for undergraduate students to study ecomedia literacy, I am proposing a new first year seminar course at my university called Media Literacy and the Environment. Largely inspired by Antonio’s work, I am currently teaching this course for the first time.
Antonio: My journey to ecomedia literacy is a fairly long odyssey that begins with my childhood of splitting time between Los Angeles and New Mexico (my parents were divorced, so I traveled back and forth). As the center of global entertainment, LA was my school for media, with cable TV, Disneyland, Universal Studios and the film business ever present in my immediate environment. By contrast, I would travel to rural New Mexico (Taos and Santa Fe) where I’d spend summers trekking around the mountains and camping. I also was exposed to the “old way” of living that is part of my family history--sustainable, bioregional farming that Spanish colonial and Native American farmers engaged in for centuries.
As a teen I had several formative experiences that informed my current work. First was being part of the LA punk scene, which was very politically active in anti-nuclear/anti-racism/anti-war activism and DIY media production (including the production of a zine called Ink Disease). Second was my experience living with a Hopi family as part of my high school program. Third, in college at UC Berkeley I was a Peace and Conflict Studies major where I was able to combine my passion for politics and media. My exposure to environmental politics and Hopi cosmology ultimately set the stage for ecomedia literacy.
[caption] Antonio Lopez’ DIY Zine “Ink Disease”
After college I worked as a journalist covering arts and culture for a local newspaper in Santa Fe. My “ah-ha” moment came in my mid-thirties when I had a life-threatening illness that forced me to stop working in the media. The illness made me rethink my priorities, which led me to pursue teaching. All my grandparents had been teachers and I realized that I had a similar passion for education, so I decided to mentor young people about DIY media. In 2000 I got involved in the media literacy movement in New Mexico by taking as many trainings and workshops as possible with the New Mexico Media Literacy Project (NMMLP) and by teaching at a teen arts center in Santa Fe. NMMLP was part of the more critical and politically engaged wing of the national media literacy movement, which “politicized” me in the sense that I saw the power of media literacy education to help young people navigate difficult social and political challenges.
Then I began working as a writing and media production mentor at the Santa Fe Indian School (SFIS). With a foot in two different worlds (so-to-speak), I was negotiating different epistemologies, one coming from the realm of the Euro-American media education tradition and the other from the cosmology of Native Americans. Surprisingly, these realities conflicted quite a bit. The majority of the projects I worked on at SFIS were grounded in the community-based education model that centered ecology-themed projects designated by the different tribes that employed me. It was difficult to shoehorn standard media literacy into the community work we were doing, so I found it necessary to deepen my understanding of media by going to graduate school, earning a Master’s degree in media studies from the New School. But I was still dissatisfied because as much as I loved studying media theory, I still found it too Euro-American centric. Moreover, there was almost nothing about ecology in the canon of media literacy or media studies that I could work with. Just as importantly, an indigenous cosmology was completely absent in media studies. So, when I went to pursue a PhD in Sustainability Education, I made it my project to solve this problem and to focus all my research on connecting media literacy with the environment. Even though I already knew that an ecological perspective was lacking in media literacy, I wanted to understand why. I performed an intensive document analysis of North American media literacy organizations and I interviewed a core group of media literacy practitioners to figure out what the barriers and opportunities were. The results of that research are in Greening Media Education (2014).
After completing the book I was hired as a full-time undergraduate professor, which enabled me to implement ideas that came out of my research into the classroom. During this process, I still felt pretty isolated, because as I was going out to “evangelize” green media literacy, very few people were interested. In 2011, when I made my first ecomedia literacy presentation at a major international media literacy conference, only three people came (next door there was a presentation about the emergence of Facebook that attracted almost the entire conference). Meanwhile, a whole new realm of scholarship opened up that was bridging media studies and the environment: ecomedia studies and ecocinema studies. With increased publishing and research in this area, there is now substantial theory and case studies to legitimately claim an ecological space in media studies. And now media literacy seems to be catching on. Jeff and Theresa have become important proponents of the environmental perspective, adding their own particular insights and expertise to the mix. Karen, Marieli and Clare recognized the importance of collaborating to advance ecomedia across disciplines, fulfilling a dream I‘ve harbored to bridge media literacy with sustainability education.
Of course, the stakes have been raised. International scientific reports are now calling for the urgent decarbonization of the economy. The youth, represented by the Fridays for Future movement, are speaking up. Now it’s time to follow their lead. It’s all hands on deck, and for ecomedia literacy, our time has come.
What connections do you see between Ecomedia Literacy and Marieli’s “Ecology of Childhood”?
Theresa: Recently my children have started to engage in imaginative play together. It is enjoyable to watch their unstructured time unfold with creative performances and story-telling. Yet, when one needs to get a sip of water or use the bathroom, he will say “pause game.” While my children do not have access to video games, this language of “pause game” emerges from gaming culture. It provides an extension of Marieli’s thoughts regarding the power of media culture as a dominant cultural experience. Even though they are not yet gamers, the language is part of how they express themselves. In terms of my work as a media and communications scholar, I encourage and provide for long stretches of unstructured outdoor and indoor play. For me, this is the very best education I could offer and one that builds creativity, problem-solving, empathy, and identity with the earth.
Like the robin’s egg held gently in my child’s hand, unstructured play outdoors is a fragile aspect of children’s experiences in the digital world.
Antonio: I was kind of a latchkey kid, so I watched a lot of TV when I was young. And growing up in LA, along with ample pollution, media were part of the air we breathed. But I was also exposed to lots of art (my mother and grandfather were artists) and was lucky enough to go to numerous art workshops at local museums and to be exposed to a vibrant community of creative people and artists. All of this contributed to my fascination with media, and probably influenced why I became a DIY mediamaker.
I often reflect on this experience when I worry about kids watching too much media; however, what differentiates my own childhood with the environment that kids are growing up in now is that media from my childhood era seem fairly tame and innocent compared to what is produced today. I think kids are targeted far more precisely with various psychological tricks that are well-researched and refined. If I pop in a DVD of vintage Sesame Street episodes, the level of stimulation feels very mild compared to current media.
I’m shocked by the ads that are made to target children these days, but my kids go to a Montessori school, so they are encouraged to use their hands and explore their autonomy. I feel like the Montessori method has been a good “defense” against the onslaught of screens around us. Their teachers tell the parents, though, that kids have shorter attention and they can’t focus. I’ve noticed the same change in my undergraduate classroom over the past ten years. I find it harder to assign long, difficult readings.
I’m not in the protectionist or anti-media camp. I feel like my kids can get pleasure from media and also engage in creative projects like drawing, dancing and playing music. I think part of that is because of the cultural capital they get from being in a creative household and having a Montessori education. Some of their friends are already severely addicted to media and phones, which scares the hell out of me. I also get upset when I see families in restaurants all staring at their phones without interacting, or toddlers getting babysat by screens on buses or while shopping in the store. I fear a loss of the in-between spaces, the bored moments when nothing happens, and the constant need for stimulus.
Jeff: I agree with what others have described as the influence of new media in ways I did not experience growing up. The ubiquity of cell phones and the attraction of social media is creating new challenges and new opportunities. My twenty-year-old son reminds me often that my generation doesn’t get it, and instead fears media in a way that his generation does not. This reminds me of how every time a new technology emerges, older folks often react out of fear like they did 500 years ago when the development of the printing press and the popularity of reading caused people to fear that we would lose our ability to remember information. Oral culture was threatened by print literacy and it did change for better and for worse. I think we are currently going through a similar moment of significant change in which we need to be critical of the dangers and open to the benefits.
Is there space for Ecomedia Activism Under the “Big Tent” of Media Literacy?
Theresa: I have long believed that media literacy is not something you have, but rather something you do. Inherent in this definition is the very idea of activism, advocacy, criticism, and production…. And, might I add, expression. Human beings have always engaged in story-telling and, through media literacy, we might prepare students to not only decode stories in their myriad forms, but also invite them to express their own stories. Often, their stories are tales of personal struggle or community changes. In terms of territorial difference, our education system broadly is entrenched in silo-ed ways of thinking and doing. Media literacy, in this way, falls into a common trap amongst the literacies. Increasingly, for students, it is in the spaces of overlap across the traditional content areas and experiences where the most sense and meaning is found.
Jeff: The problem with the “big tent” idea is that in the attempt to please everyone, you limit the possibility of transformation. The big tent supports the status quo by promoting the myth that education is neutral and that teachers should be “objective.” Education has never been neutral and no person can ever be objective. We all have biases, assumptions, and blindspots that shape our thoughts and actions. In the US, education has and continues to be used to discriminate against non-white students, to destroy Native American cultures, and to perpetuate myths of meritocracy, American exceptionalism, and environmental exploitation. When the most important goal is to include as many people as possible, then you weaken the potential to build a progressive movement that can promote social and environmental change. The intention of including everyone sounds nice, but the reality is that there are people, organizations, and businesses that have goals and practices that do not support progressive ideals. I think it is imperative that we align media literacy with democratic pedagogy and critical theory so that all our work starts from the understanding that education is political, therefore social and environmental justice should be our primary goals. We live in a world in which dominant ideologies of patriarchy, white supremacy, heteronormativity, classism, consumerism, and neoliberalism have become so “normalized” that most people do not recognize the harmful systems and structures that support them. Media literacy should not just be about using new types of texts to do the same things we have always done, it should be about guiding people to think critically in order to challenge those oppressive forces and create a more humane and sustainable world.
Antonio: Once I was co-presenting with Jennifer Rausch (2018) at the National Association of Media Literacy Education conference about ecomedia literacy. In the course of the panel, Jennifer was discussing media fasting as one technique to encourage reflection on media use. During the Q and A portion, an important figure in the media literacy movement asserted that media fasting wasn’t any different than protectionism. In media literacy circles, protectionism is a disposition that sees media as harmful, and therefore demands some kind of approach that reduces harm. The term has taken on a negative, pejorative connotation equated with bad pedagogy. Moral panics about media are attributed to the protectionist stance. It has been criticized for disempowering students from making their own choices and decisions about media. There is also a version of protectionism that comes from some environmentalists that share a neo-Luddite view that technology is inherently damaging and should be eschewed entirely. Thus, we found it troubling that what we were proposing was associated with something that neither of us promote or believe in. But since protectionism is often levied against those who take a more radical or reformist approach to media, it is necessary to address the debate, because ecomedia literacy should not be dismissed as protectionist.
In his Media Education Manifesto, David Buckingham (2019) points out that protectionism is when media literacy becomes a substitute for media regulation: It’s defensive in nature. It should not serve as “counter-propaganda.” Furthermore, we should guard against the conservative (from both Left and Right perspectives) stance that media pleasure is delusional, self-deceptive, or false consciousness. The concern that teaching about the ecological crisis doesn’t pass the media literacy “smell test” is the worry that environmentally concerned teachers are teaching persuasion rather than inquiry-based approaches.
The flipside of media panics is the utopian view that media technology is inherently positive, leading to increased connectivity, collaboration, participation, and democracy. Both views (harm vs. good) are forms of technological determinism and either position tends to say more about hopes, fears, and social anxieties about change than media itself. What is true is that risks and benefits are not evenly distributed: those who use media the most enjoy more benefits but experience more risks. So, any effort to minimize risk also minimizes benefit. Thus, media usage has to be considered diverse and contextual. Rather than be a tool to manage the risks and benefits of media technology, Buckingham argues that a healthy democracy “requires well-informed, discriminating media users: it needs active citizens, who will participate in civil society; and needs skilled, creative workers. In this context, media literacy is a fundamental life skill: we cannot function without it” (Buckingham, p. 30).
It’s worth noting that technology companies have adapted their own kind of neoliberal protectionist tactics in response to social concerns about their power. Rather than take responsibility for their business model or the content on their platforms, they pass on the responsibility to the individual and call for media literacy, but reduce it to a form of “internet safety.” This strategy is meant to delay government regulation or challenges to their business models, a form of “responsibilization” urged by neoliberalism that argues the marketplace is the best way to solve social issues. Advocating for individual responsibility has its benefits, but it shouldn’t disregard larger debates about the social good or ecomedia commons.
If our media literacy philosophy is to teach students how to think, not what to think, how do we balance bias, neutrality, and objectivity?
Theresa: When I was in college, one of my education classes required that we attend a research presentation by a faculty candidate. The presentation focused on ethics in the secondary classroom. The candidate discussed issues related to sharing or not sharing one’s beliefs, be they political, religious, or otherwise. The general take-away was that the risk was not that students who think or not think whatever the professor believed, but rather that students would not come to possess any reflective or metacognitive capacities to ground their beliefs. This presentation has always stayed with me, especially as the topic was largely missing from my undergraduate education and subsequent degree programs. As a teacher, my primary goal is to invite engagement and conversation from all students so as to actively generate meaningful learning related to media issues and ideas. To do this well, I employ a key tenant of media literacy education that “audiences negotiate meaning,” reminding my students that their perspectives are valuable to our learning community. To create space for the natural sharing of perspectives, I engage in arts-based teaching and learning methods. I find that strategies, such as expressive inquiry facilitate a comfortable venue for sharing diverse perspectives and ideas.
Jeff: Democratic pedagogy means moving to make our classrooms more horizontal and student-centered while still owning our role as guides and facilitators to oversee the process of critical engagement. This does not mean hands-off and anything goes. We are not post-truth, living in a world where everything is relative and there are no facts or real consequences. We live in a climate crisis in which the majority of humans are struggling to survive while a very small number of people have immense power to control the majority, often using media as their tools. As critical media literacy educators, our job is to engage students where they are when they enter our classrooms and guide them to deeper levels of reflection through questioning the often unseen structures, systems, and ideologies that are creating an unequal world of environmental crisis and social injustice. This is not a negative project, in fact it is an empowering movement to celebrate the positive and challenge the problems through engaging in actions with our students. My work is influenced significantly by the writing of Paulo Freire and his ideas of problem-posing transformative pedagogy. Freire argued that education is always political and can be antidialogical and alienating or dialogical and liberating.
Antonio: Ultimately this begs the larger question. If scientists are telling us we have ten years to decarbonize our economy or face imminent climate catastrophe, shouldn’t we teach media to match the ambition of transforming our system’s carbon footprint to one where our students can thrive and live fruitful lives? This would require a form of deep ecomedia literacy that parallels the goals of deep ecology, which goes to the root causes of the climate crisis, recognizing all the various ways media not only reinforce environmental problems, but are also part of the solution.
Ecomedia literacy presumes an extended ethical framework that goes beyond instrumental uses of nature to expand the ethical community to the more-than-human world. By ethics, I mean seeking to understand how to live and act in the world. Patrick Curry defines ecological ethics in this way. “An ecological intervention is normative: it’s a call to empower students to address environmental challenges that will greatly impact their future. As such, “to ‘know’ or ‘assess’ or ‘consider’ is not possible without participating in a relationship with what is being known, assessed or considered. These do not precede acting: they are already actions, and an ethical dimension is therefore present from the start.”
Teaching ecomedia demands a level of action and participation that goes beyond instrumental media education practices (“drilling and skilling”; “package, chunk, sequence”) which seeks to make technology and the economic system more effective and efficient. Invariably this raises a contentious discussion that has dominated media literacy debates since the beginning: How do you balance empowered learning and critical thinking without promoting some kind of political agenda that simply demands students conform to a set of predefined views? It goes without saying that ecomedia literacy pedagogy cannot be dogmatic or authoritarian.
Ecomedia literacy necessitates reframing media as ecomedia and introducing new information; one cannot properly study or analyze something if they don’t have baseline definitions or basic scientific knowledge. Such is the case with teaching about the commons: how can students make a case for something if they don’t even know it exists? Framing media literacy from an ecocritical perspective necessitates inquiry-based learning. This means engaging an iterative process that starts with asking questions, investigating solutions, creating knowledge, and reflecting on results (and then starting over again). It’s about bridging environmental literacy with media and also productive modes of eco-citizenship.
Discuss the relationship between media literacy and education reform. How do you see media literacy effecting change in education?
Theresa: Yes! I know this is a how question and, in this, a yes doesn’t fit as a response. But, still, yes! To respond, I’ll pull two quotes from a recent study on media literacy inquiry published in JMLE with my colleague, Dr. Evelien Schilder. In the first quote, from our abstract, we explain the research:
...we studied the changes in critical questioning habits for college-aged students enrolled in media literacy courses. To measure students’ media literacy inquiry, we evaluated the questions they posed in response to viewing an advertisement. We analyzed questions by media literacy concept and by level of complexity before and after their participation in the media literacy courses. Findings revealed that after the media literacy courses, students’ inquiries were more complex and involved more attention to key concepts related to production techniques and representations. Our study is significant as it reflects an innovative approach to media literacy assessment and a fresh perspective for examining the impact of media literacy on cultivating complex, critical thinking skills that could be applied with learners of all ages. (Schilder & Redmond, 2019, p. 95).
From this point, we suggest inquiry via media literacy education is critical for effecting change in education. Specifically, we cited Deluty (2010) in a piece about action in education:
...we need to regenerate the roots of learning. The mere assemblage of facts, no matter how great, is of no worth without the habit of reflective inquiry to judge them. Inquiry is liberating. It empowers the learner and grants one dignity as a human being. The ability to ask a reflective question is the root of all change and progress. It formulates our perspective on the world and transforms one in the process. Reflective judgment is the core skill that initiates participants into the democratic process and revitalizes our democracy. (Deluty, 2010, p. 8)
Asking questions requires insight and interest into phenomena that are outside of your own self and experiences. This phenomena might be ideas, events, or people, but through asking questions and inquiring into otherness, we might more fully move toward a more empathetic and caring world.
Deluty, E. W. (2010). Asking questions: Cultivating the habit of inquiry. Thought & Action, 135-138.
Schilder, E. and Redmond, T. (2019) Measuring media literacy inquiry in higher education: Innovation in assessment. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 11(2), 95-121.
Jeff: Media literacy should be part of educational reform that promotes democratic pedagogy. This can be a challenge to traditional educational institutions that are structured around competition, memorization, and obedience. Authentic learning experiences build upon intrinsic motivations, not extrinsic rewards, they are connected to real-world experiences, and they are meaningful to the students.
Media literacy education should follow John Dewey’s constructivist problem-solving approach. Dewey believed that students should be actively solving problems rather than passively memorizing isolated facts. According to Dewey, two requirements are necessary for education to be meaningful and relevant: “First, that the problem grows out of the conditions of the experience being had in the present, and that it is within the range of capacity of students; and secondly, that it is such that it arouses in the learner an active quest for information and for production of new ideas” (Dewey, 1963, p. 79). Education should be a continuous spiral in which growth is determined not by efficiency in a specific field but rather by continued growth in many fields.
Dewey insisted that all learning, whether math or history, “must be derived from materials which at the outset fall within the scope of ordinary life-experience” (p. 73). This student-centered approach is a major departure from the traditional system, where instruction begins with stated “truths” that are outside the student’s range of experience. The experiences with media that most children bring to school create the perfect opportunity for media literacy to be a principal connection between students’ life experiences and all subject matter, it can make learning more culturally relevant and developmentally appropriate. Through engaging the politics of representation about the media messages of our natural world, students can explore many problems with media that touch their daily lives. The climate crisis affects everyone, but not equally, making everyone responsible, but not equally responsible. Therefore, media literacy can be an ideal pedagogy to guide students to question the dominant narratives and use media tools to act upon their findings.
Dewey, J. (1963). Experience and education. New York, NY: Macmillan Publishing.
Antonio: Clearly the climate emergency is a cultural and political crisis—it’s an extension of personal ethical concerns to the public sphere (and vice versa), calling for collective action and policies. And it’s an education crisis, because, to be blunt and simplistic, what is the point of education when the environment becomes uninhabitable? As the editors of Rethinking Schools (2011) write:
If the purpose of education is to serve humanity, then this climate emergency should be accompanied by widespread rethinking and revision of the curriculum—a massive undertaking to equip children to understand the causes of the climate crisis and the enormity of its potential consequences. But this is not happening. We detect little sense of urgency among educators—even among many who consider ourselves “social justice” educators—to address the climate crisis.
So, just as the field of environmental communication self-identifies as a crisis discipline, the starting point of ecomedia literacy is that we are in the midst of a global ecological emergency that obliges educators across disciplines to incorporate the issue into their work. It is an epic crisis that touches all aspects of life, including the future well-being of the students we are serving. To reiterate, “Literacy and the imagination are critical tools for comprehending and addressing climate change. In contrast, by not teaching about climate change, we are allowing our silence to normalize unsustainable systems and ideologies with disastrous consequences for everyone and everything” (Beach et al., 2017, p. vii, emphasis original).
Beach, R., Share, J., & Webb, A. (2017). Teaching climate change to adolescents: Reading, writing, and making a difference. New York, NY: Routledge & NCTE.
Editors of Rethinking Schools. (2011). Our Climate Crisis Is an Education Crisis. Retrieved October 30, 2019, from https://www.rethinkingschools.org/articles/editorial-our-climate-