Racism, cultural politics and the environment @NatGeo

It is 2018 and every single tabloid is publishing and republishing a confession of the chief editor of National Geographic that the coverage of the magazine in the past was racist. Right. We know it. Yes, in the United State and many other parts of the world, people of different ethnic groups have been misrepresented and frankly speaking appallingly treated. This is why ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ by Harriet Beecher Stowe became the second best-selling volume in the US after the Bible.

Many journalists in the Telegraph, New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian, Le Monde, National Geographic or the BBC published stories about the acknowledgement issued by National Geographic editor, Susan Goldberg.

The journal acknowledged that the people of different ethnic groups were exoticized and portrayed as savages and of lower intellectual abilities. This very much reflects the unfortunate prevalent thinking in the USA throughout the journal’s early history, when even in 1930s and 1940s Afro-americans were not even allowed to become members of National Geographic society. Grundberg was early to attract the attention of the audience of New York Times to the bias inherent in National Geographic portrayal of other cultures. (Grundberg, 1988).

Jared Diamond famously wrote that the cultures we sometimes think of as ‘primitive’ are in fact highly sophisticated societies that evolved in unison with the natural world, noting and respecting various important principles of ecosystem management, including regulation of hunting and fishing. Diamond points out that non-competitive but collaborative practices of some indigenous cultures are indeed highly interesting and instead of playing western ‘the winner takes it all’ types of games their children are engaged in games focused on acquiring as many new friends as possible, which goes against the current western cultural doctrines (Diamond, 2005, 2012). Diamond points out that the fact that some traditional societies we can find now have not collapsed is due to the fact that they indeed evolved in harmony with their natural surroundings and were able to successfully and sustainably manage their natural resources, what some other cultures like that of the Easter island have not been able to do.

But does that mean that discrimination experienced in the world is only against people of African origin and only in the United States? Of course not, my own supervisor at Oxford University, while I was working there as a Senior Researcher, pointed a finger at me and addressed his colleagues with a phrase: ‘look at him, is he a threat?’. How was I supposed to feel?

One word in defense of National Geographic still needs to be said. Where else would the mass-audience learn about the fact that there are oceans and seas, forests and grassland, the arctic is melting? How can we possibly attack a magazine for presenting a view of the world with a distinct ‘pictorial’ aesthetic that is bringing far away corners of the world closer to us, informing us of the existence of other civilizations, their unique customs and traditions?

Among the National Geographic photographers are James Balog, who for the first time ever recorded the process of melting ice-sheets photographically; Steve McCurry, the author of highly poetic photographs of India, Afghanistan and other countries.

Yes, it is perhaps true that National Geographic has been recently bought by Rupert Murdock, a climate denier, and it could possibly be a great tragedy. Yes, it is perhaps not devoting enough attention to the destructive effects of the GM crops pushed by certain corporations, the islands of plastic rubbish polluting our oceans and getting into our blood streams, or the half of the world’s biodiversity that we lost in the last forty years according to WWF.

National Geographic published unique images of Jupiter’s moons when they were first obtained by NASA, it runs stories focused on evolution (otherwise the poorly educated creationists would take over), explains climate change to a general public, shares images from the depth of our oceans and the exotic animals in the forest jungle.

In the absence of such representation the world would be absolutely happy to get rid of the other half of the world’s biodiversity, how would they know? Who would care?

The civilization is exerting sever pressure on the ecosystems and the so called ‘developing’ countries. They are being shown destructive consumerist role models and Kuala Lumpur now is one big shopping mall. In reality, recycling is very rarely in place, renewable energy is not use, people are using motorcycles and combustion engine cars instead of bicycles and electric vehicles. Please see my recently published article in the Resurgence magazine: On the Beach

We need to change course before it is too late.


James Balog (2009) Extreme Ice Now: Progress Report: Vanishing Glaciers and Changing Climate. National Geographic

Diamond, J. (2012) The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?, Viking Press

Diamond, J. (2005) Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Viking Press

Molloy, M. (2018) National Geographic acknowledges decades-long coverage was racist, Telegraph, 13/03/2018 https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/03/13/national-geographic-acknowledges-decades-long-coverage-racist/

Victor, D. (2018) National Geographic Acknowledges Its Racist Past Coverage, New York Times, 13/03/2018 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/13/business/media/national-geographic-race.html

Greenfield, P. (2018) National Geographic: for decades, our coverage was racist, Guardian, 13/03/2013 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/mar/13/national-geographic-magazine-coverage-racist

Ray, V. (2018) National Geographic acknowledges its racist past, then steps on its message with a cover photo, Washington Post, 16/03/2018 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2018/03/16/national-geographic-acknowledged-its-racist-past-then-steps-on-its-message-with-a-cover-photo

BBC (2018) National Geographic: ‘Our coverage was racist’, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-43384747

 Goldberg, S. (2018) Pendant des décennies, nos reportages étaient racistes. Pour nous en détacher, il nous faut le reconnaître. http://www.nationalgeographic.fr/photographie/2018/03/pendant-des-decennies-nos-reportages-etaient-racistes-pour-nous-en-detacher-il

Le Monde (2018) Racisme : « National Geographic » fait son mea culpa

Grundberg (1988) PHOTOGRAPHY VIEW; A Quintessentially American View of the World, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/1988/09/18/arts/photography-view-a-quintessentially-american-view-of-the-world.html



Photograph (c) Steve McCurry

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