Political Cartooning: Making the Invisible ‘Visible’

Political Cartooning - Making the Invisible 'Visible' - Rosa - Angus

 

Rosa de Rijk, Angus Smith

In this practical assignment we will discuss the visual dimension to climate change, and the role of political cartoons in influencing the current visual discourse.

The threat climate change poses is very distinct in regard to other current threats. One of the main distinctions is its invisibility. In a visually-dominated world, how do you visibly portray the existence of a largely invisible threat? To date the usual icons associated with climate change have been dripping glaciers and lone polar bears among others. Although these images have generated awareness about the threat of climate change, they are disconnected from humanity and the everyday life.[1] This is a problem because we are saturated with an array of threats on a day to day basis, and due to our “finite pool of worry” we cannot attend to all of these threats.[2] The threats that are thus given the most attention are normally found to be the most visually representable, such as the iconographic twin towers and its link to terrorism. So far, visual mediums have failed to capture the complex reality of climate change, where there is no exact cause and effect and where the damage is not always visible.

One of the difficulties of visually representing climate change is the temporal dimension of the threat. It is difficult to visually depict threats that will only become visible in years to come. As mentioned earlier, this is one of the reasons why people find it hard to connect the threat of climate change with the everyday and take action. The mainstream visual regime of climate change has relied on photographic images such as the polar bear and the melting ice cap, and this is an example of the limitations of photography; it is often thought of as reflective, unbiased and undisputed reality, but it can only ever capture a single, isolated segment of a visually present stimulus at one point in time. It is not able to capture invisible or future phenomena that are just as much reality as some of the more visible phenomena.

This is where the visual medium of political cartooning can complement the problems in representing climate change. Principally, cartoons can help make the invisible ‘visible’.[3] One of the ways they can do this is through the “metaphorical combination of the real and the imaginary.”[4] As discussed earlier, one of the reasons climate change is ignored is due to the temporal expectancy of the threat, with consequences being projected to occur in times like 2050 and later. The ability of the cartoon to be a metaphorical combination of the real and the imaginary allowed us to create a hypothetical scene in 2050 between a grandfather and his granddaughter. Representing time with family generations instead of hypothetical dates like 2050 suddenly brings the threat of climate change into the ‘everyday’, and this is when threats could be taken more seriously. Although the scenario of the grandfather and granddaughter is still hypothetical, it taps into present dreams as people generally plan to have families and so this future threat then becomes very present. While photography can only ever focus on one single shot, cartoons like this allow us to make combinations of themes like human activities and their consequences, family relations and love.

Another aim of our cartoon concept was to learn from the shortcomings of previous climate change campaigns. Climate change is often represented with single shots of nature with the absence of humans, and this can lead to a lack of connectivity with human activity. Furthermore, when represented in the absence of human activity, the threat of climate change can incite feelings of helplessness and fear. For humans to take action, fear alone rarely inspires change, and very often creates feelings of denial and dismissal as a defence mechanism. For climate change campaigns to be effective it is vital to promote perceived sense of action effectiveness and encourage individual’s perceived sense of self-efficacy.[5] This is why the theme of our cartoon is human actions and human responsibility. Drawing a hypothetical (although possible) atlas of 2050 where some countries have been completely eradicated would be fatalistic and ineffective in creating change if used alone. However, providing our alternative plot whereby humans eventually came together for collective action helps instil a sense of perceived action effectiveness and perceived self-efficacy.

In conclusion, political cartoons can be very powerful due to their ability to combine the real with the imaginary. The fictional aspect allows possible scenarios to be presented that would not be possible with visual media such as photography, and the fictional imagery can have a greater effect on audiences than fiction in writing. However, cartoons certainly have their limitations. While their simplification of phenomena can be advantageous, it can also lead to adverse effects when trying to illustrate a complex phenomenon like climate change.[6] The scope of cartoons is also a drawback. Due to the nature of mass media and their grabbing headlines, iconographic images still tend to dominate while cartoons take a back seat. Nonetheless, political cartoons undoubtedly have a role in promoting alternative visual discourses like our cartoon tried to achieve. This is through its ability to combine the real with the imaginary to help make the invisible visible.

Image 1, Man Chopping Tree, Cartoon Contest on Climate Change. From: Daily News, http://archives.dailynews.lk/2009/12/01/fea28.asp

[1] Brigitte Nerlich, and Rusi Jaspal, “Images of extreme weather: symbolising human responses to climate change.” Science as Culture 23, no. 2 (2014): 255.

[2] Saffron O’Neill, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, ““Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 362.

[3] Kate Manzo, “Earthworks: the geopolitical visions of climate change cartoons,” Political Geography 31, no. 8 (2012): 483.

[4] Ibiden

[5] Saffron O’Neill, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole, ““Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations,” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 361.

[6] Kate Manzo, “Earthworks: the geopolitical visions of climate change cartoons,” Political Geography 31, no. 8 (2012): 483.

Bibliography

Manzo, Kate. “Earthworks: the geopolitical visions of climate change cartoons.” Political Geography 31, no. 8 (2012): 481-494.

Nerlich, Brigitte, and Rusi Jaspal. “Images of extreme weather: symbolising human responses to climate change.” Science as Culture 23, no. 2 (2014): 253-276.

O’Neill, Saffron, and Sophie Nicholson-Cole. ““Fear Won’t Do It” Promoting Positive Engagement With Climate Change Through Visual and Iconic Representations.” Science Communication 30, no. 3 (2009): 355-379.