Putting the "eco" in media ecosystems

Ecomedia Literacy

From: Antonio López, “Ecomedia Literacy,” The International Encyclopaedia of Media Literacy, Wiley (2019)

Ecomedia literacy is an emerging area of media literacy that teaches the integrated relationship between media and living systems. It is a holistic framework that explores the ecological “footprint” and “mindprint” of media as drivers of environmental problems and solutions. It involves critically examining the impact of media and communications technology on the physical environment, and explores the various ways in which media systems propagate beliefs about the relationship between humans and the living systems that sustain them. It also recognizes the positive contributions of the media to solving the environmental crisis; and it achieves this by advocating youth media, civic engagement, alternative media, and global citizenship to promote sustainability.

Ecomedia literacy bridges environmental issues and sustainability with media literacy. It is a framework that affirms the intrinsic relationship between media and the environment by highlighting the various ways in which the media affect the Earth’s physical environment. Generally, an ecomedia literacy approach has two broad areas of inquiry: the ecological “footprint” of media technologies and the ecological “mindprint” of the knowledge and culture produced by media systems. This field includes the impact of communications technology on regional and global ecosystems, for example the environmental and human effects of “conflict minerals” mined in Africa; the environmental and human impact of gadget manufacturing; carbon emissions from coal-powered electricity generated to process data (especially server “farms” running the “cloud”); and toxicity from electronic waste (E-waste) that results from discarded and recycled media technologies, and from their planned obsolescence. It also explores media’s impact on how humans understand their relationship with the ecosystems that sustain them. Finally, ecomedia literacy addresses pedagogy by developing ways for educators to incorporate environmental themes and concepts that also encourage sustainable cultural behaviors.

Ecomedia literacy (also referred to as “green” media education) is an emerging area of media literacy education, driven by a need to address the ecological crises of climate disruption, biodiversity loss, degraded food systems, clean water, deforestation, pollution, and ocean acidification (among many other environmental issues). Although the number of scholars concerned with sustainability in media, communications, and film studies increases every year, in 2018 the literature on media literacy education concerned with environmental issues was limited (see López, 2014 for a comprehensive study). This is not to say that individual media literacy practitioners have not taken up environmental themes in their work, but historically there has been no clearly defined movement within media literacy education devoted entirely to promoting environmental approaches. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify major dimensions of the topic that have developed in previous years. Project Look Sharp developed several curricula around environmental themes, authoring some that were based on constructivist pedagogy (i.e., Sperry, 2011). Educators and scholars working in the area of critical media literacy connect a variety of social concerns—such as sexism, racism, gender identity, violence, and war—with environmental issues (Beach, Share, & Webb, 2017). Rauch (2019) promotes “slow media” literacy and “unplugging” as a way to encourage environmental awareness. Hadl (2016) penned a Japanese textbook on ecomedia literacy. López (2015) links ecomedia literacy and global citizenship with the Global Alliance for Partnerships on Media and Information Literacy Plan for Action and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Though not explicitly identified as ecomedia literacy, Milstein, Pileggi, and Morgan’s (2017) study bridges environmental communication with pedagogy, thereby proposing methods for combining the teaching of media and communications with environmental concerns.

Photo by Joan Myers

One obstacle to greening media education is the confusion related to the use of environmental metaphors in media studies and media literacy. In the case of media ecology, which comes from medium studies, scholars use the ecology metaphor to describe media technologies as themselves a medium that produces deterministic “medium environments.” Within the media ecology tradition, views range from “soft” to “hard” technological determinism; many of its scholars are neutral about the impact of media technology on society. In a different example, George Gerbner and Susan Sontag argued that mass media-produced image environments require a kind of “environmentalism”; and from this they inferred that the “media environment” is visually polluted and therefore requires intervention from activists, scholars, government regulators, and media educators. Currently the ecosystem metaphor is often used to describe particular operating systems, platforms, medium types, and gadgets (such as the Facebook ecosystem, the iPhone ecosystem, the Android ecosystem, or the newspaper ecosystem). What is common to all these metaphorical uses is that they eschew the actual environmental impact of media technologies on physical ecosystems. Moreover, they do not imply or explore environmental ideologies that influence how people believe they should act in relation to living systems. Consequently, ecomedia literacy not only reappraises the use of environmental metaphors but seeks to redress the absence of environmental concerns by repurposing the ecology metaphor to make it signify actually living, complex ecosystems embedded in physical environments.

Ecomedia literacy is coevolving with other emerging disciplines concerned with making the environment a broader subject of media and education scholarship. These fields can be divided into two broad categories. First is the area of media and communications studies that address the ecological dimension of media. Second is the group of pedagogical methods that promote environmental awareness. With regard to the first group, ecomedia studies is an interdisciplinary field examining the materiality, representation, and communication of media from an environmental perspective. Environmental communication (EC) combines ecocriticism with linguistic discourse analysis, rhetorical studies, political economy, and media studies to problematize the term “environment” when it is used to reinforce a separation between humans and living ecosystems. EC argues that environmental beliefs are culturally constructed and often reinforces a common conception that human activity is free from any consequences on physical health or environmental sustainability. EC contends that the concept of “nature” in literature and in the media often excludes humans, constructing the environment as something outside the realm of human activity. Like ecomedia studies, EC promotes the understanding that humans are also a part of living systems and are inherently ecological beings that depend on fresh air, water, and food to survive. EC positions itself as a “crisis discipline,” and therefore promotes intervention into the status quo in order to promote sustainability and healthy living systems. Other fields that inform ecomedia literacy include media ecology, green media studies, ecocriticism, environmental humanities, ecological economics, ecopsychology, technoliteracy, ecocinema studies, and environmental studies.

For a pedagogy of environmental change, ecomedia literacy draws on concepts and methods developed by ecoliteracy, critical ecopedagogy, and education for sustainability. These methodologies start from the premise that environmental problems cannot be solved with the same kind of thinking (mental model, paradigm, or worldview) that created them. This entails a critique of the Euro-American epistemology based on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century paradigm of technological progress, positivism, and mechanism that views humans as separate from their physical environment and assumes that the world operates like a machine with interchangeable parts. It is argued that these beliefs have created short-term benefits, but at the expense of environmental health. Consequently, ecologically oriented educational disciplines propose that unquestioned faith in positivism and the industrial and scientific revolutions are the root cause of the environmental crisis and therefore must be critically engaged. But, more importantly, they call for alternative forms of education, which do not reinforce the kind of mental models that drive environmental destruction. Thus, an ecologically oriented education promotes an alternative paradigm, which is based on systems thinking and on a belief in the interconnectedness of life, humans, technology, and economics grounded in ecological ethics. Some methods include self-reflective practices (media “fasting,” journaling, and mindfulness training); the use of a backward curriculum design based on problem-solving and solutions-generating outcomes (e.g., building a lesson or courses around answering essential questions, such as, “What characterizes a healthy media ecosystem?”); scenario and world building to envision different futures; problematizing human–nature binaries; moving away from abstract knowledge to an experiential learning grounded in local ecosystems; transitioning to a model of political economy based on ecological economics; and “remediating” ecology metaphors to encourage learners to see media as embedded within living systems. These approaches seek to promote mental models that are “ecocentric” (Earth-centered) as opposed to “anthropocentric” (human-centered).

Like critical pedagogy, ecomedia literacy is not neutral or agenda-free: it actively acknowledges that our global ecosystems are in jeopardy and calls for intervention into media literacy practices in order to promote environmental sustainability. Consequently, ecomedia literacy requires an environmental critique (also called “ecocriticism”) of the media from several different perspectives, including those of materials economy, political economy, media systems, culture, and worldview. Borrowing from the tradition of media ecology and technoliteracy, ecomedia literacy demands a critical stance toward communications technology. It recognizes the way in which media technology and gadgets (cell phones, tablets, TV sets, computers, digital media tools, etc.) are products of the global system’s political economy, in which costs are typically externalized, that is, sent to workers in developing countries and to their environment, while also producing a subjectivity that normalizes consumerism and displaces people’s awareness of their living habitats. In particular, mobile media, the Internet, and television are believed to fracture time and space, thereby causing a loss of a “sense of place” (something valued by environmentalists), which leads to a broader sense of “placelessness.”

Unlike digital literacy practices that often engage the material conditions of media gadgets uncritically, an ecomedia literacy framework considers how media gadgets are made and what their subsequent environmental footprint is. An ecomedia literacy analysis involves tracing the production chain of media gadgets—from the mining of “conflict minerals” in countries like the Congo to their manufacture and assembly in countries like China, then to distribution, consumption, and disposal. It also incorporates a discussion of the impact of carbon-powered server farms on climate change, and how renewable energy and “green IT” can be used to mitigate carbon emissions. This also necessitates an exploration of how energy policy is represented and promoted in the media. It also entails a critique of built-in obsolescence and consumerism as a driver of the ecological crisis. Data clouds are considered from the point of view of carbon extraction and pollution, but also from that surveillance and privacy. Finally, the way in which communication technologies are promoted as empowering invites an ecocritical analysis of gadget marketing. In sum, all these approaches involve a holistic, intersectional analysis that is in alignment with the environmental and media justice framework that connects environmental destruction to income inequality, racism, sexism, violence, and militarism.

Following the tradition of environmental communication, ecomedia literacy also recognizes that the media entail symbolic action that can hinder or promote environmental sustainability. Symbolic action is the way in which discourses (visual, verbal, and textual) construct environmental problems and solutions. In studying how environmental discourses are constructed in the media, students actively participate in and engage with the public sphere. Youth media programs, service learning, and community engagement projects are important venues for bringing environmental issues to public attention (e.g., by engaging the media produced by indigenous groups engaged in land struggles with energy companies and governments). Thus, ecomedia literacy recognizes the generative power of media as a means of education and of raising awareness about environmental problems and solutions.

A number of areas already covered by media literacy practitioners can be tweaked so as to incorporate environmental themes. Such areas include critically analyzing news coverage of climate change and environmental justice movements; studying climate change disinformation; applying critical thinking and deconstruction techniques to advertising that specifically identifies environmental discourses; applying critical information literacy to determine the validity of environmental claims made in the media; learning to identify false environmental claims (i.e., greenwashing) in packaging and advertising; studying the role of social media in promoting and obfuscating climate change discourses; engaging in media-making practices that reflect real-world environmental problems and solutions; extending ethics and discussions of rights and responsibilities to biotic communities and workers; connecting the concept of the digital commons to environmental commons (air, water, etc.); applying alternative media practices to environmental change; analyzing media corporations and their sustainability policies; designing healthy media ecosystems; mapmaking of local environments and digital storytelling; and encouraging outdoor education by reducing screen time.

In terms of future directions in research, theory, and methodology for ecomedia literacy, there are a variety of opportunities for the framework to grow and evolve. To begin with, professional development and teacher training programs can start to incorporate an environmental studies component. Debates concerning education policy, common core standards, and testing can shift to recognize the economic and cultural dimension of environmental education, so that it is not just “siloed off” as science education. Media literacy educators can work toward advancing intercultural communication and respect for nonwestern epistemologies to incorporate an awareness of the environmental sensibilities of different cultures. In addition, media literacy organizations can promote environmental themes in curriculum development and during professional conferences. These approaches will necessitate more research and collaboration across disciplines, especially with practitioners of education for sustainability. Finally, with increased attention from media literacy practitioners to environmental themes, there needs to be research and resource sharing, inorder to develop and refine curricula. As it is generally acknowledged that media are integral to environmental issues and the global ecological crisis intensifies, ecomedia literacy will likely become an integrated subject of media literacy.

Share this


Beach, R., Share, J., & Webb, A. (2017). Teaching climate change to adolescents: Reading, writing, and making a difference. New York, NY: Routledge.

Hadl, G. (2016). Kankyou media riterashii [Ecomedia literacy]. Nishinomiya, Japan: Kwansei Gakuin U. Press.

López, A. (2014). Greening media education: Bridging media literacy with green cultural citizenship. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

López, A. (2015). Ecomedia literacy for environmental sustainability. In J. Singh, A. Grizzle, S. J. Yee & S. H. Culver (Eds.), Media and information literacy for the Sustainable Development Goals (pp. 00–00). Göteborg, Germany: Nordicom.

Milstein, T., Pileggi, M., & Morgan, E. (Eds.). (2017). Environmental communication and pedagogy. New York, NY: Routledge.

Rauch, J. (2019). Slow media: Toward a sustainable future. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.

Sperry, S. (2011). Media constructions of sustainability: Food, water and agriculture. Ithaca, NY: Project Look Sharp.

Further reading

Corbett, J. B. (2006). Communicating nature: How we create and understand environmental messages. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books.

Maxwell, R., Lager Vestberg, N., & Raundalen, J. (Eds.). (2015). Media and the ecological crisis. New York, NY: Routledge.

Maxwell, R., & Miller, T. (2012). Greening the media. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Rust, S., Monani, S., & Cubitt, S. (Eds.). (2016). Ecomedia: Key issues. London, England: Routledge.

Walker, J., & Starosielski, N. (Eds.). (2016). Sustainable media: Critical approaches to media and environment. London, England: Routledge.

Share this