Sustainability can mean different things to different people. One interesting medium that shapes our views and attitudes towards sustainability are political cartoons. To learn more about this, we reached out to Christianna Stavroudis, who teaches linguistics at the University of Bonn. She has supported Going Green since its start in 2014 and her article on this topic appeared in the American Studies Journal. (Also, check out part 1 and part 2 of our interview with her during the U.S. Embassy School Election Project.) Christianna was so kind as to answer some of our students' questions during the 2014 Going Green project.
Our participant Marc Bernhard submitted the following three questions:
"Is a completely sustainable world possible?"
"I believe that a more sustainable world is possible, but not a completely sustainable one. The use of resources and the increase in standard of living implies an unavoidable unsustainability. Through unsustainable development (past and present) there is damage and abuse that we have inflicted on the environment that is irreversible.
What I think is necessary is for citizens (not just politicians at big conferences) to take this problem seriously and discuss solutions together that will enhance quality of life for them and for their future generations. Take the example of the travel industry. With cheap flights and decreasing wages in this sector, more people have
been able to travel than ever before. This is a good thing, on the one hand, because it opens travel up to more people. "Seeing the world" is not just a middle class luxury anymore. However, the very natural
wonders and cultures that we leave our homes to see are at risk through our reckless environmental practices, both on a small and large scale. We need to remember that we are the ones who both put
politicians into office through our votes and make business run though our purchasing power. Only through putting pressure on both of these sectors can we affect change."
"How does a completely sustainable world look to you?"
“A sustainable world for me would be one that would exploit globalization for the purposes of making the world more sustainable on a micro level. This would include the ability for citizens to connect with one another (both nationally and internationally) to exchange knowledge and resources. Internet infrastructures such as forums and skyping can play a big role in this. One of the greatest problems I see with our societies is that they are divided by class. The rich and the poor are growing further and further apart but sustainability is a great equalizer. If we are true to our democratic ideals, we should be able to agree that everyone has the right to a healthy environ. So I would hope that global politics would make the following a priority: instituting policies that lend themselves to more egalitarian socio-economic structures as well as ones that prioritize access to
literacy, education, mobility, and connectivity.”
How is it that the American government is so slow in acting towards sustainability?
"As I am no expert on public policy, I can only answer this question as an American citizen. I believe the main problem here is a lack of political will. The US has a binary political system: you can basically pick either the Republicans or the Democrats. (On the municipal and, sometimes, state level there are more parties (such as
the libertarians or greens), but on the federal level it is basically either/or. I admire the diversity of parties that you have in the German Bundestag.) So it's no surprise that these two parties are
often at loggerheads with each other concerning a multitude of issues, one of the most exemplary being that of environmental policy. This is particularly problematic in these times of recession and the global economic crisis as the discussion of sustainability subsequently takes a back seat to the government creating jobs (or at least the discussion thereof).
There are two other points that might contribute to a less environmentally-aware populace (we would of course need numbers on this, but my subjective experience of living in both the US and Germany is that being "environmentally friendly" plays a bigger role in my daily life in Germany than it did in the States):
1) Americans are individualistic. "Freedom" for some people means that no one is going to tell them what to do. This can lead unfortunately to people being reckless with their resources. There are often no immediate consequences to unsustainable practices: there is neither punishment nor does one see the immediate effects of one's behavior. This is a big problem for making policies that encourage people on the micro and macro levels to practice sustainability. I recycle and I want others to, too, but do I really want to live in a society in which we're all checking each other's trash and pointing fingers? That would creep me out.
2) The States is geographically huge, is rich in natural resources, and has only two neighbors. This contributes to its view of being "exceptional," viewing itself as singular, and, subsequently, sometimes not cooperating with global protocol. The States is still the strongest economy in the world and much of the
world's economic success depends on that of the States. One of the biggest (if not the biggest) challenges for the 21st century will be making sustainability and economic development/success compatible. (Think of rising middle classes in developing countries like India, China, and Brazil.)"
Could you give me some tips for the cartoon?
Svetlana Ginter from Alsdorf (near Aachen) wanted to know: "I am working on a project about sustainability and my topic is traffic. Now I have to draft a cartoon which has to draw attention on the emissions on the way to school. My question to you is: Could you give me some tips for the cartoon and how can I represent the emission problem well?"
Christianna Stavroudis responded:
"Traffic cartoon: It is a little bit difficult for me to help you draft this cartoon as I don't understand what the concrete issue is that you'd like to draw attention to. But all cartoonists first make a point of making their issue very clear visually. Your reader must be able to within seconds recognize what issue about emissions you're referring to (is it traffic jams, lack of bicycle paths?). The humor component then comes in when you insert something like a pun, play on words, witty/ironic remark, or idiom into the image. Perhaps school
children are sitting on a school bus and commenting about the bottlenecked traffic scene they see outside the windows. Perhaps a child is being seen off to school by his/her parent and the child asks the parent a question that the parent can't answer about the environmental issue you wish to critique. Or perhaps you present the reader with a dramatic scene with a compelling caption. Spend some time brainstorming these "ingredients" and see how you can synthesize them together to create an effective one-panel image. Have a look at other cartoons on the web to get inspiration. Break them down into their component parts to see what makes them "work" (or what doesn't).
UN climate summit cartoon: this is my favorite, top of the page
(Photo credit: Joel Pett / USA Today, 12/07/2009. All rights reserved.)
Thanks again to Christianna Stavroudis for the time to answer all our students' questions. We appreciate your willingness to participate as an expert in the "Going Green" project!