About half way through Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s film Home (2009) the narrator describes the fall of the Rapa Nui, the indigenous people of the Easter Islands. The narrator posits that the Rapa Nui culture collapsed due to extensive environmental degradation brought about by large-scale deforestation. The Rapa Nui cut down their massive native forests to clear spaces for agriculture, to heat their dwellings, to build canoes and, most importantly, to move their enormous rock sculptures—the Moai. The disappearance of their forests led to island-wide soil erosion and the gradual disappearance of arable land. Caught in the vice of overpopulation but with rapidly dwindling basic resources and no trees to build canoes, they were trapped on the island and watched helplessly as their society fell into disarray. The sequence ends with the narrator’s biting remark: “The real mystery of the Easter Islands is not how its strange statues got there, we know now; it's why the Rapa Nui didn't react in time.” In their unrelenting desire for development, the Rapa Nui appear to have overlooked the role the environment plays in maintaining a society. The island’s Moai accompanying the sequence appear as memento mori, a lesson in the mortality of human cultures brought about by their own misguided and short-sighted practices.
Arthus-Bertrand’s Home, a film composed almost entirely of aerial photographs, bears witness to present-day environmental degradation and climate change, constructing society as a fragile structure built upon and sustained by the environment. Home is a call to recognise how contemporary practices of post-industrial societies have come to shape the environment and how they may impact the habitability of Earth in the near future. Through reflexivity and a ritualised structure the text invites spectators to look at themselves in a new light and remake their self-image in the wake of global environmental risk by embracing new, alternative core practices based on balance and interconnectedness. Arthus-Bertrand frames climate change not as a burden, but as a moment of profound realisation of the potential for change and humans ability to create a desirable future through hope and our innate capacity for renewal. This article examines how Arthus-Bertrand’s ritualised construction of climate change aims to remake viewers’ perception of present-day environmental degradation and investigates Home’s place in contemporary climate change communication discourse.
Climate change, in its capacity to affect us globally, is considered a world risk. The most recent peer-reviewed Synthesis Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases has increased markedly since human industrialisation in the 18th century. Moreover, human activities, such as fossil fuel burning and agricultural practices, are “very likely” responsible for the resulting increase in temperature rise (IPPC 37). The increased global temperatures and the subsequent changing weather patterns have a direct and profound impact on the physical and biological systems of our planet, including shrinking glaciers, melting permafrost, coastal erosion, and changes in species distribution and reproduction patterns (Rosenzweig et al. 353). Studies of global security assert that these physiological changes are expected to increase the likelihood of humanitarian disasters, food and water supply shortages, and competition for resources thus resulting in a destabilisation of global safety (Boston et al. 1–2). Human behaviour and dominant practices of modernity are now on a path to materially impact the future habitability of our home, Earth.
In contemporary post-industrial societies, however, climate change remains an elusive, intangible threat. Here, the Arctic-bound species forced to adapt to milder climates or the inhabitants of low-lying Pacific islands seeking refuge in mainland cities are removed from the everyday experience of the controlled and regulated environments of homes, offices, and shopping malls. Diverse research into the mediated and mediatised nature of the environment suggests that rather than from first-hand experiences and observations, the majority of our knowledge concerning the environment now comes from its representation in the mass media (Hamilton 4; Stamm et al. 220; Cox 2). Consequently the threat of climate change is communicated and constructed through the news media, entertainment and lifestyle programming, and various documentaries and fiction films. It is therefore the construction (the representation of the risk in various discourses) that shapes people’s perception and experience of the phenomenon, and ultimately influences behaviour and instigates social response (Beck 213).
By drawing on and negotiating society’s dominant discourses, environmental mediation defines spectators’ perceptions of the human-nature relationship and subsequently their roles and responsibilities in the face of environmental risks. Maxwell Boykoff asserts that contemporary modern society’s mediatised representations of environmental degradation and climate change depict the phenomena as external to society’s primary social and economic concerns (449). Julia Corbett argues that this is partly because environmental protection and sustainable behaviour are often at odds with the dominant social paradigms of consumerism, economic growth, and materialism (175). Similarly, Rowan Howard-Williams suggests that most media texts, especially news, do not emphasise the link between social practices, such as consumerist behaviour, and their environmental consequences because they contradict dominant social paradigms (41). The demands contemporary post-industrial societies make on the environment to sustain economic growth, consumer culture, and citizens’ comfortable lives in air-conditioned homes and offices are often left unarticulated.
While the media coverage of environmental risks may indeed have contributed to “critical misperceptions, misleading debates, and divergent understandings” (Boykoff 450) climate change possesses innate characteristics that amplify its perception in present-day post-industrial societies as a distant and impersonal threat. Climate change is characterised by temporal and spatial de-localisation. The gradual increase in global temperature and its physical and biological consequences are much less prominent than seasonal changes and hence difficult to observe on human time-scales. Moreover, while research points to the increased probability of extreme climatic events such as droughts, wild fires, and changes in weather patterns (IPCC 48), they take place over a wide range of geographical locations and no single event can be ultimately said to be the result of climate change (Maibach and Roser-Renouf 145). In addition to these observational obstacles, political partisanship, vested interests in the current status quo, and general resistance to profound change all play a part in keeping us one step removed from the phenomenon of climate change. The distant and impersonal nature of climate change coupled with the “uncertainty over consequences, diverse and multiple engaged interests, conflicting knowledge claims, and high stakes” (Lorenzoni et al. 65) often result in repression, rejection, and denial, removing the individual’s responsibility to act.
Research suggests that, due to its unique observational obstacles in contemporary post-industrial societies, climate change is considered a psychologically distant event (Pawlik 559), one that is not personally salient due to the “perceived distance and remoteness [...] from one’s everyday experience” (O’Neill and Nicholson-Cole 370). In an examination of the barriers to behaviour change in the face of psychologically distant events, Robert Gifford argues that changing individuals’ perceptions of the issue-domain is one of the challenges of countering environmental inertia—the lack of initiative for environmentally sustainable social action (5).
To challenge the status quo a radically different construction of the environment and the human-nature relationship is required to transform our perception of global environmental risks and ultimately result in environmentally consequential social action. Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s Home is a ritualised construction of contemporary environmental degradation and climate change which takes spectators on a rite of passage to a newfound understanding of the human-nature relationship.
Transformation through re-imagining individuals’ roles, responsibilities, and practices is an intrinsic quality of rituals. A ritual charts a subjects path from one state of consciousness to the next, resulting in a meaningful change of attitudes (Deflem 8). Through a lifelong study of African rituals British cultural ethnographer Victor Turner refined his concept of rituals in a modern social context. Turner observed that rituals conform to a three-phased processural form (The Ritual Process 13–14). First, in the separation stage, the subjects are selected and removed from their fixed position in the social structure. Second, they enter an in-between and ambiguous liminal stage, characterised by a “partial or complete separation of the subject from everyday existence” (Deflem 8). Finally, imbued with a new perspective of the outside world borne out of the experience of reflexivity, liminality, and a cathartic cleansing, subjects are reintegrated into the social reality in a new, stable state. The three distinct stages make the ritual an emotionally charged, highly personal experience that “demarcates the passage from one phase to another in the individual’s life-cycle” (Turner, “Symbols” 488) and actively shapes human attitudes and behaviour.
Adhering to the three-staged processural form of the ritual, Arthus-Bertrand guides spectators towards a newfound understanding of their roles and responsibilities in creating a desirable future. In the first stage—the separation—aerial photography of Home alienates viewers from their anthropocentric perspectives of the outside world. This establishes Earth as a body, and unearths spectators’ guilt and shame in relation to contemporary world risks.
Aerial photography strips landscapes of their conventional qualities of horizon, scale, and human reference. As fine art photographer Emmet Gowin observes, “when one really sees an awesome, vast place, our sense of wholeness is reorganised [...] and the body seems always to diminish” (qtd. in Reynolds 4). Confronted with a seemingly infinite sublime landscape from above, the spectator’s “body diminishes” as they witness Earth’s body gradually taking shape. Home’s rushing rivers of Indonesia are akin to blood flowing through the veins and the Siberian permafrost seems like the texture of skin in extreme close-up.
Arthus-Bertrand establishes a geocentric embodiment to force spectators to perceive and experience the environmental degradation brought about by the dominant social practices of contemporary post-industrial modernity. The film-maker visualises the maltreatment of the environment through suggested abuse of the Earth’s body. Images of industrial agricultural practices in the United States appear to leave scratches and scars on the landscape, and as a ship crosses the Arctic ice sheets of the Northwest Passage the boat glides like the surgeon’s knife cutting through the uppermost layer of the skin. But the deep blue water that’s revealed in the wake of the craft suggests a flesh and body now devoid of life, a suffering Earth in the wake of global climatic change. Arthus-Bertrand’s images become the sublime evidence of human intervention in the environment and the reflection of present-day industrialisation materially altering the face of Earth.
The film-maker exploits spectators’ geocentric perspective and sensibility to prompt reflexivity, provide revelations about the self, and unearth the forgotten shame and guilt in having inadvertently caused excessive environmental degradation. Following the sequences establishing Earth as the body of the text Arthus-Bertrand returns spectators to their everyday “natural” environment—the city. Having witnessed and endured the pain and suffering of Earth, spectators now gaze at the skyscrapers standing bold and tall in the cityscape with disillusionment. The pinnacles of modern urban development become symbols of arrogance and exploitation: structures forced upon the landscape.
Moreover, the images of contemporary cityscapes in Home serve as triggers for ritual reflexivity, allowing the spectator to “perceive the self [...] as a distanced ‘other’ and hence achieve a partial ‘self-transcendence’” (Beck, Comments 491). Arthus-Bertrand’s aerial photographs of Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo fold these distinct urban environments into one uniform fusion of glass, metal, and concrete devoid of life. The uniformity of these cultural landscapes prompts spectators to add the missing element: the human. Suddenly, the homes and offices of desolate cityscapes are populated by none other than us, looking at ourselves from a unique vantage point. The geocentric sensibility the film-maker invoked with the images of the suffering Earth now prompt a revelation about the self as spectators see their everyday urban environments in a new light. Their homes and offices become blemishes on the face of the Earth: its inhabitants, including the spectators themselves, complicit in the excessive mistreatment of the planet.
The second stage of the ritual allows Arthus-Bertrand to challenge dominant social paradigms of present day post-industrial societies and introduce new, alternative moral directives to govern our habits and attitudes. Following the separation, ritual subjects enter an in-between, threshold stage, one unencumbered by the spatial, temporal, and social boundaries of everyday existence. Turner posits that a subjects passage through this liminal stage is necessary to attain psychic maturation and successful transition to a new, stable state at the end of the ritual (The Ritual Process 97). While this “betwixt and between” (Turner, The Ritual Process 95) state may be a fleeting moment of transition, it makes for a “lived experience [that] transforms human beings cognitively, emotionally, and morally.” (Horvath et al. 3) Through a change of perceptions liminality paves the way toward meaningful social action.
Home places spectators in a state of liminality to contrast geocentric and anthropocentric views. Arthus-Bertrand contrasts natural and human-made environments in terms of diversity. The narrator’s description of the “miracle of life” is followed by images of trees seemingly defying gravity, snow-covered summits among mountain ranges, and a whale in the ocean. Grandeur and variety appear to be inherent qualities of biodiversity on Earth, qualities contrasted with images of the endless, uniform rectangular greenhouses of Almeria, Spain. This contrast emphasises the loss of variety in human achievements and the monotony mass-production brings to the landscape.
With the image of a fire burning atop a factory chimney, Arthus-Bertrand critiques the change of pace and distortion of time inherent in anthropocentric views, and specifically in contemporary modernity. Here, the flames appear to instantly eat away at resources that have taken millions of years to form, bringing anthropocentric and geocentric temporality into sharp contrast. A sequence showing a night time metropolis underscores this distinction. The glittering cityscape is lit by hundreds of lights in skyscrapers in an effort, it appears, to mimic and surpass daylight and thus upturn the natural rhythm of life. As the narrator remarks, in our present-day environments, “days are now the pale reflections of nights.”
Arthus-Bertrand also uses ritual liminality to mark the present as a transitory, threshold moment in human civilisation. The film-maker contrasts the spectre of our past with possible visions of the future to mark the moment of now as a time when humanity is on the threshold of two distinct states of mind. The narrator’s descriptions of contemporary post-industrial society’s reliance on non-renewable resources and lack of environmentally sustainable agricultural practices condemn the past and warn viewers of the consequences of continuing such practices into the future. Exploring the liminal present Arthus-Bertrand proposes distinctive futurescapes for humankind. On the one hand, the narrator’s description of California’s “concentration camp style cattle farming” suggests that humankind will live in a future that feeds from the past, falling back on frames of horrors and past mistakes. On the other hand, the example of Costa Rica, a nation that abolished its military and dedicated the budget to environmental conservation, is recognition of our ability to re-imagine our future in the face of global risk.
Home introduces myths to imbue liminality with the alternative dominant social paradigm of ecology. By calling upon deep-seated structures myths “touch the heart of society’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual consciousness” (Killingsworth and Palmer 176) and help us understand and come to terms with complex social, economic, and scientific phenomena. With the capacity to “pattern thought, beliefs and practices,” (Maier 166) myths are ideal tools in communicating ritual liminality and challenging contemporary post-industrial society’s dominant social paradigms.
The opening sequence of Home, where the crescent Earth is slowly revealed in the darkness of space, is an allusion to creation: the genesis myth. Accompanied only by a gentle hum our home emerges in brilliant blue, white, and green-brown encompassing most of the screen. It is as if darkness and chaos disintegrated and order, life, and the elements were created right before our eyes. Akin to the Earthrise image taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8, Home’s opening sequence underscores the notion that our home is a unique spot in the blackness of space and is defined and circumscribed by the elements. With the opening sequence Arthus-Bertrand wishes to impart the message of interdependence and reliance on elements—core concepts of ecology.
Balance, another key theme in ecology, is introduced with an allusion to the Icarus myth in a sequence depicting Dubai. The story of Icarus’s fall from the sky after flying too close to the sun is a symbolic retelling of hubris—a violent pride and arrogance punishable by nemesis—destruction, which ultimately restores balance by forcing the individual back within the limits transgressed (Littleton 712). In Arthus-Bertrand’s portrayal of Dubai, the camera slowly tilts upwards on the Burj Khalifa tower, the tallest human-made structure ever built. The construction works on the tower explicitly frame humans against the bright blue sky in their attempt to reach ever further, transgressing their limitations much like the ill-fated Icarus. Arthus-Bertrand warns that contemporary modernity does not strive for balance or moderation, and with climate change we may have brought our nemesis upon ourselves. By suggesting new dominant paradigms and providing a critique of current maxims, Home’s retelling of myths ultimately sees spectators through to the final stage of the ritual.
The last phase in the rite of passage “celebrates and commemorates transcendent powers,” (Deflem 8) marking subjects’ rebirth to a new status and distinctive perception of the outside world. It is at this stage that Arthus-Bertrand resolves the emotional distress uncovered in the separation phase. The film-maker uses humanity’s innate capacity for creation and renewal as a cathartic cleansing aimed at reconciling spectators’ guilt and shame in having inadvertently exacerbated global environmental degradation.
Arthus-Bertrand identifies renewable resources as the key to redeeming technology, human intervention in the landscape, and finally humanity itself. Until now, the film-maker pictured modernity and technology, evidenced in his portrayal of Dubai, as synonymous with excess and disrespect for the interconnectedness and balance of elements on Earth. The final sequence shows a very different face of technology. Here, we see a mechanical sea-snake generating electricity by riding the waves off the coast of Scotland and solar panels turning towards the sun in the Sahara desert. Technology’s redemption is evidenced in its ability to imitate nature—a move towards geocentric consciousness (a lesson learned from the ritual’s liminal stage). Moreover, these human-made structures, unlike the skyscrapers earlier in the film, appear a lot less invasive in the landscape and speak of moderation and union with nature.
With the above examples Arthus-Bertrand suggests that humanity can shed the greed that drove it to dig deeper and deeper into the Earth to acquire non-renewable resources such as oil and coal, what the narrator describes as “treasures buried deep.” The incorporation of principles of ecology, such as balance and interconnectedness, into humanity’s behaviour ushers in reconciliation and ritual cleansing in Home. Following the description of the move toward renewable resources, the narrator reveals that “worldwide four children out of five attend school, never has learning been given to so many human beings” marking education, innovation, and creativity as the true inexhaustible resources on Earth.
Lastly, the description of Antarctica in Home is the essence of Arthus-Bertrand’s argument for our innate capacity to create, not simply exploit and destroy. Here, the narrator describes the continent as possessing “immense natural resources that no country can claim for itself, a natural reserve devoted to peace and science, a treaty signed by 49 nations has made it a treasure shared by all humanity.” Innovation appears to fuel humankind’s transcendence to a state where it is capable of compassion, unification, sharing, and finally creating treasures. With these examples Arthus-Bertrand suggests that humanity has an innate capacity for creative energy that awaits authentic expression and can turn humankind from destroyer to creator.
In recent years various risk communication texts have explicitly addressed climate change, endeavouring to instigate environmentally consequential social action. Home breaks discursive ground among them through its ritualistic construction which seeks to transform spectators’ perception, and in turn roles and responsibilities, in the face of global environmental risks. Unlike recent climate change media texts such as An Inconvenient Truth (2006), The 11th Hour (2007), The Age of Stupid (2009), Carbon Nation (2010) and Earth: The Operator’s Manual (2011), Home eludes simple genre classification. On the threshold of photography and film, documentary and fiction, Arthus-Bertrand’s work is best classified as an advocacy film promoting public debate and engagement with a universal concern—the state of the environment. The film’s website, available in multiple languages, contains educational material, resources to organise public screenings, and a link to GoodPlanet.info: a website dedicated to environmentalism, including legal tools and initiatives to take action. The film-maker’s approach to using Home as a basis for education and raising awareness corresponds to Antonio Lopez’s critique of contemporary mass-media communications of global risks. Lopez rebukes traditional forms of mediatised communication that place emphasis on the imparting of knowledge and instead calls for a participatory, discussion-driven, organic media approach, akin to a communion or a ritual (106).
Moreover, while texts often place a great emphasis on the messenger, for instance Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth, Leonardo DiCaprio in The 11th Hour, or geologist Dr. Richard Alley in Earth: The Operator’s Manual, Home’s messenger remains unseen—the narrator is only identified at the very end of the film among the credits. The film-maker’s decision to forego a central human character helps dissociate the message from the personality of the messenger which aids in establishing and maintaining the geocentric sensibility of the text.
Finally, the ritual’s invocation and cathartic cleansing of emotional distress enables Home to at once acknowledge our environmentally destructive past habits and point to a hopeful, environmentally sustainable future. While The Age of Stupid mostly focuses on humanity’s present and past failures to respond to an imminent environmental catastrophe, Carbon Nation, with the tagline “A climate change solutions movie that doesn’t even care if you believe in climate change,” only explores the potential future business opportunities in turning towards renewable resources and environmentally sustainable practices. The three-phased processural form of the ritual allows for a balance of backward and forward-looking, establishing the possibility of change and renewal in the face of world risk.
The ritual is a transformative experience. As Turner states, rituals “interrupt the flow of social life and force a group to take cognizance of its behaviour in relation to its own values, and even question at times the value of those values” (“Dramatic Ritual” 82). Home, a ritualised media text, is an invitation to look at our world, its dominant social paradigms, and the key element within that world—ourselves—with new eyes. It makes explicit contemporary post-industrial society’s dependence on the environment, highlights our impact on Earth, and reveals our complicity in bringing about a contemporary world risk. The ritual structure and the self-reflexivity allow Arthus-Bertrand to transform climate change into a personally salient issue. This bestows upon the spectator the responsibility to act and to reconcile the spectre of the past with the vision of the future.
The author would like to thank Dr. Angi Buettner whose support, guidance, and supervision has been invaluable in preparing this article.
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