| by Kathryn Milun
Last Sunday night at the Academy Awards, An Inconvenient Truth won best documentary film. The film widely distributes former Vice President Al Gore’s studied vision about global warming. And the award demonstrates that Hollywood recognizes the importance of helping Americans collectively visualize scientific information about global warming. Americans make up only 5 percent of the world’s population but they are responsible for one-quarter of the annual greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to the earth’s warming. To move this audience you need to create a strong visual representation of the problem and the solution. People need to see the science dramatized. In a culture where all communication is dominated by visual media, even the atmosphere must be given a visible form. Once represented, it can be more easily connected to a story about belonging and fair governance. Citizens need a visual representation of the unimaginable vastness of the earth. If the earth is to become their global commons, it must appear as their global region.
Cultural geographers have often told us that humans create a sense of the region they belong to by organizing their spatial thinking around key metaphors. Generally, when Americans enlarge their sense of belonging, they take a step from the local to a national level. To visualize the national region, we can use a flag or Uncle Sam peering over his pointed finger, some metaphor to hold a sense of territory extending beyond our experiential being. To visualize global belonging we face a new representational challenge. What can be the key images or metaphors of our global commons?
The recurring image that opens and closes An Inconvenient Truth comes from a series of spectacular photographs of the earth taken from the Apollo spaceships. While the photo of the full earth has become, Gore tells us, “the most commonly published photograph in all of history,” it remains a virtual experience of our reality. The material earth is not a distant globe. It is mountainous, hilly or flat, with urban neighborhoods, rural villages, watersheds or coastlines organizing our primary geographical sense of belonging. The producers of An Inconvenient Truth understood the complexity of our need to feel at home in global space and so they brought us slowly to this metaphor of a global commons. They opened the documentary with a shot of the Caney Fork River near Carthage, Tennessee, a region where three generations of the Gore family belonged. But the next shot was of a half-shadowed earth in outer space, first as it appears virtually on Al Gore’s computer screen, then zooming in and losing the frame of the laptop to become that photograph famously known as Earth Rise. The next image is the familiar photo of the whole earth. From the local region to the global as an emergent region; from the image of the river commons to the image of the global commons, first rising with the internet (visualized as a computer screen) mediating our experiential recognition of where we are going.
Hollywood and popular culture more generally will be allies in creating the visual metaphors that help us see and recognize that our earth is a global commons.
Popular culture is perhaps the most powerful way in which key metaphors are assigned to unimaginably vast domains to make them recognizable and their use eventually governable as global commons. Law also uses metaphors from popular culture to describe global regions. In international law there is one regional metaphor that seems to have dominated legal thinking about the global commons. This is the image of the open seas. Indeed, the modern global commons begins in international law with the high seas. It was the first domain that international law sought to govern as a commons and it has affected every subsequent domain of global commons ever since. From outer space to the internet to the gene pool and the CO2 clogged atmosphere, the law of the seas has been extended vertically and virtually as the template of the global commons.
As we appreciate Al Gore’s labor in linking the image of Earth Rising to the most recent scientific data on global warming, as we join the Academy of Motion Pictures in recognizing the work of this documentary to make intuitive sense of the unimaginable vastness of the earth, it is worth considering the first modern (European) attempt to describe the governing structure of a global commons some four hundred years ago. In my next blog I will consider the first modern description of the high seas as a global commons and reflect on how its persistent imagery and residual mythic notions shape our thinking of globally shared domains to this day.