Monday, September 12, 2011

Susan G. Davis, Spectacular Nature

I read Susan Davis’ Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience

a couple of months ago, and it seems useful to write a bit about it now in light of the Morgan case. The book is from 1997 – I may have attended one of the Shamu shows she writes about in the early ‘90s – though it doesn’t feel dated. It covers a range of aspects of SeaWorld, from working conditions and marketing research to the context of urbanizing San Diego, but one of the most important themes is the corporate vision of nature and conservation promoted by the parks, “one of the most popular and available versions of the wild that contemporary American and international tourists can encounter” (p. 9).

As Davis notes,
Sea World's versions of nature - carefully produced, manufactured, and coordinated from a mega-corporate point of view - are, of course, not the only ones available. But never before have images of nature had such a direct and powerful link to corporate capitalism or such wide dissemination through the mass media. The same forces involved in the biosphere's exploitation have an important stake in nature's definition and representation (p. 18).
So SeaWorld and its displays are key sites of corporate political management. In a model founded on individual consumption, nature is represented to SeaWorld’s largely white, wealthier audience as “a commodity for sale in its own right, in order to sell other things and to help people feel good about larger social projects and arrangements, including the high-consumption economy typified by the theme park itself” (p. 30). Indeed, “in the late twentieth century, American business has worked hard to define consumption as a form of concern, political action, and participation,” leading many people to regard the act of visiting the park itself as an “act of caring” (p. 39).

The orcas, referred to by management as the parks’ “core product” (p. 28), are the main attraction. The animal shows grow out of a “genteel history of nature appreciation,” imperial conquest and its representation, and the tawdry world of circuses and side shows. While other marine mammals have a longer history of performance, killer whales have only been performing since Shamu*’s arrival in 1965. There has long been protest of SeaWorld’s capture and display of animals. The passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 – “[t]he park bitterly resisted the National Marine Fisheries Service's interpretation of the Act and other animal protection legislation as "anti-zoo," "irrational," and "needless over-regulation" (p. 68) - made matters more difficult for SeaWorld, particularly after they lost important legal battles in 1985. “The whaling issue,” Davis argues, “forced Sea World to undertake a public relations offensive to convince their regional and national audience that they had the orcas' best interests at heart” (p. 69).

Their response to public protest and legislation was to put a scientific veneer on their activities: “The managers hoped that a more rational image of study and science would help counter the activists' assertions that keeping whales in captivity was simply commercialism pushed to its cruelest limit” (p. 69). Sea World beefed up the research institute, spinning its purpose as scientific and educational. Davis calls it largely “a new kind of theme park performance. Frequent mention of the institute in theme park exhibits constructs Sea World as a place of responsible scientific investigation and unfolding knowledge, and emphatically not a site of animal exploitation” (p. 70). As she notes, research is conducted there – often funded by corporations and government – but much is applied research seeking to serve both clients’ needs and SeaWorld’s own (e.g., research on captive animals).

SeaWorld also became very active in education and “outreach,” both in the media and through programs for students in public education. These programs have been closely tied (in fact subservient) to company PR, are generally unrelated to any research conducted, and present – as the parks do in general – a corporate-endorsed vision of science and conservation. SeaWorld’s materials
show or tell very little about the complex patterns of animal life and society in the wild. To do so might emphasize how far from the wild the animals are at Sea World. To see some version of real "wildness," the audience would have to see something potentially complex and confusing, something perhaps not transparently visible or harmonious or colorful at all (p. 116).
The view is far from comprehensive or ecological:
The audience's good feelings about animals, then, support judicious stewardship and ratify the dominant managerial role of humanity. But Sea World's explicit educational philosophy doesn't extend much beyond fact delivery and cultivation of feeling, since very little time or energy are spent actually explaining complex ecosystemic relations (or even what an ecosystem is), or exploring relations between humans and the nonhuman living world outside the theme park (p. 146).
Disturbingly, at the time of Davis’ writing, virtually no mention was made of evolution, and these references had actually declined over time. As she writes of the Shamu shows:
Some slight mentions of evolutionary history could be found in past scripts. For instance, one show mentioned the fact that whales developed from an archaic land mammal and so retain the nub of a digit in the pectoral fin. By the time of "Shamu New Visions," these vestigial mentions had been selected out, since Sea World now scrupulously avoids any mention of evolutionary theory in its education or entertainment programs (p. 221).
Davis quotes from a 1991 training manual obtained by the Orlando Sentinel and quoted in Harper’s magazine in 1992**, which advised: "Evolve: because evolution is a controversial theory, use the word `adapt."' As Davis argues, “This is one measure of how serious Sea World's science education is, so exquisitely sensitive is it to market pressures. Sea World may be sensitive not only to antievolutionists among its commercial audience, but to the growing number of private Christian schools in its education market” (pp. 298-299). As she makes clear, this is but an illustration of the broader problems with corporate influenced science education: they seek, of course, not primarily to convey scientific knowledge but to market the company to a target population.

In general, through these efforts the corporation seeks to present itself as a responsible environmental steward: “Research puts a gentle face on the human penetration and control of nature, and conversely, human penetration of the natural world and environment can be seen only as rational investigation” (p. 230). As with scientific research, so with conservation. SeaWorld presents itself through all of these activities as a force for meaningful conservation. In keeping with the corporate message, environmental destruction is shown divorced from corporate action (at the time Davis wrote and until 2009, SeaWorld was owned by Anheuser-Busch) or government policy and presented as simply a matter of individual habits. SeaWorld, itself a generator of massive amounts of waste, “educates”*** children and adults that their primary means of marine environmental action is better personal habits. “Of course,” Davis notes,
a careful outlining of the issues involved with marine pollution would mean discussing agricultural and industrial runoff, toxic waste dumping, the trash explosion, oil spills, and undersea nuclear testing, to name a few controversial issues. As the entertainment arm of a huge corporation with extensive agribusiness operations, Sea World can appear environmental but it can't point fingers or even name issues. It can, however, suggest to its audience that corporate America has the best interests of animals and the environment at heart (p. 150).
And we can see even more clearly now that marine pollution of this sort is only one factor, added to ocean acidification, corporate industrial fishing, and numerous forms of habitat destruction. Davis concludes:
Not least among the things missing is a broad understanding that environmental problems are problems of whole economies and ways of life, and that solutions must go far beyond "don't litter" lectures and beach cleanups (p. 243).
In sum, then, SeaWorld shares the problems associated with theme parks in general, and adds to them both the capture and exploitation of marine animals and the propagation of a vision of nature and the human and corporate role within it that obscures the real problems and leads people to accept corporate claims to environmental stewardship and to misunderstand what needs to done.

*There have been and continue to be several whales, male and female, playing the “Shamu” role.

**The article’s title, appropriately, was “Chickens of the Sea.”

***I use the past tense aware that the book was published several years ago. Although the rhetoric of “corporate social responsibility” has become more sophisticated over the past decade, including giving lip service to some of the issues raised by Davis and others, there have been no significant changes in basic corporate practices or their preferred model of environmental (in)action.

No comments:

Post a Comment