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Lewis, T 2012, ''There grows the neighbourhood': Green citizenship, creativity and life
politics on eco-TV', International Journal of Cultural Studies, vol. 15, no. 3, pp. 315-326.
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PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE THIS PAGETania Lewis ‘There grows the neighbourhood’: Green citizenship, creativity and life politics on eco-TV.
The title of this article is drawn from the tag line of an American reality show Living with Ed, which first aired in the US in 2007. In the opening scenes of the show, we are introduced to life in an apparently typical home in suburban Los Angeles.
Compact and unassuming, complete with a white picket fence, this, however, is a suburban home with a difference. Inhabited by long term greenie, actor Ed Begley junior, and his not so green wife, Rachelle Carson, the house and lifestyle on display in Living with Ed is in fact a model of sustainable living—the apparently wooden picket fence, for instance, is made of a durable white plastic that will never need to be replaced or painted. A techno-romanticist at heart, Begley has, in a very Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance kind of way, also turned the house into a veritable experiment in domestic power generation with its own wind turbine and extensive array of solar panels, while we are frequently treated to images of Ed cycling furiously on his electric bike in order to make enough power to cook his morning toast.
As the editors of this special issue have noted, contemporary representations of Anglo-American suburbia—particularly in the face of growing anxieties around the global impact of ‘affluenza’ in the global north—have increasingly come to caricature suburban lifestyles as spaces of turbo-consumerism and rampant McMansionism.
Such representations easily slide into broader assumptions about the dire state of civil society and citizenship in suburban communities, shored up by Putnamesque visions of alienation, political apathy, and selfish individualism. When it comes to environmental concerns—the focus of this article—suburbia is not surprisingly overwhelmingly positioned as a central part of the problem rather than the solution.
As my opening example from Living with Ed suggests, though, this article is concerned with popular media representations that complicate these rather moralising caricatures of suburban life. Instead I am interested in understanding eco-lifestyle TV shows like Living with Ed as representing forms of social experimentation around green living and citizenship (Marres, 2009), that in turn often reflect a complex negotiation of what it means to live ‘the good life’.
In adopting the term ‘green citizenship’ here the article aims to speak to broader trends in contemporary lifestyle culture and, in particular, the shift towards what Swedish political scientist Michele Micheletti terms ‘a post-political’ environment (2003). For Micheletti, such a shift marks not so much the decline of political culture as its diffusion into every aspect of people’s daily lives, from their domestic lifestyles to their everyday practices and choices around consumption. In the following discussion of eco-lifestyle TV, I use two Australian shows, Guerilla Gardeners and Eco House Challenge, to foreground some of the different, and at times contradictory, ways in which everyday forms of green citizenship are being played out in suburbia.
On the one hand, Eco House Challenge illustrates a trend in contemporary late liberal societies towards the weight of global and governmental concerns and responsibilities around environmental issues being increasingly shifted on to individual citizens through a focus on lifestyle and consumption (Miller, 2007). Guerilla Gardeners, on the other hand, offers a somewhat different perspective on ‘lifestyle politics’ (Bennett, 1998), framing it not just in terms of privatised rational choices and forms of selfregulation and self-governance but rather linking green citizenship to creativity, community-building and romantic concerns about the art and aesthetics of everyday living. Both shows, I argue, speak to broader trends in late modern suburban nations like Australia where a range of forms of environmentally-oriented consumer and lifestyle-based ‘activism’—from community gardening to organic food co-ops—are currently reshaping the nature and meaning of citizenship.
Eco-creativity on the small screen?
Why look for signs of creative suburbia and green lifestyle practices on television, a medium not usually associated with innovation or sustainability? Television of course is in many ways the most suburban and domesticated of media forms—forming the veritable ‘electronic hearth’ of the suburban home (Tichi, 1991). Historically it developed—both in terms of technology and content—alongside and in dialogue with suburban modernity, in Anglo-American settings at least (Hartley, 1996; Spigel, 2001). Like suburbia itself, television is associated with the banality of everyday life, with (over)consumption and social reproduction, with repetition and seriality rather than creative innovation (Ellis, 1982).
If television typically connotes banality and unoriginality, then lifestyle programming has often traditionally been seen as little more than schedule filling television, or as one Australian TV producer described the genre to me, ‘white bread for the masses’.
Against this conventional understanding, I want to suggest that so-called ‘realitybased’ lifestyle programmes, from home renovation to cooking and eco-lifestyle shows, are intensified sites of social ‘play’ and experimentation. A recent Masterfoods advertisement airing in 2010 alongside the Australian version of Junior Masterchef has the tagline ‘why cook when you can create’ reflecting a growing trend on lifestyle TV and lifestyle culture more broadly towards re-enchanting and aestheticising everyday life practices through a focus on creativity and the art of everyday life.
A useful text here for contextualising this trend is Colin Campbell’s The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism (1987). Rather than viewing modern consumer capitalism purely as a site of disenchantment and alienation, Campbell argues that romanticism was and continues to be a central force within consumer culture, and that the romantic emphasis on developing one’s moral character through creative hedonism and aestheticism continues to function in the contemporary consumer world with its emphasis on imaginative desires, beauty and endless novelty.
Such romantic concerns, I would argue, are particularly prevalent on contemporary lifestyle shows where we often see a focus on re-enchanting modernity through creative identity-shaping practices, such as craft, design and the culinary arts.
Alongside this concern with creative play, these are also spaces that increasingly function as important sites of popular pedagogy, via lifestyle gurus, such as Jamie Oliver, who can be seen to model and promote certain kinds of lifestyles, forms of consumer-citizenship and ethical conduct (Lewis, 2008a). In doing so, they put the spotlight on and raise questions about ways of living and being (as evidenced by reality-style cooking shows, such as Jamie’s Fowl Dinners, aimed at educating the public around the health and ethical issues behind globalised and industrialised food production). This pedagogical dimension of lifestyle and reality TV has been read by a range of scholars as reflecting a broader focus within what has been loosely termed ‘neoliberal’ societies on discourses of self-governance and personal responsibility (Miller, 2007; Palmer, 2003). In a post-welfare setting, as the state passes on responsibility for ‘public health’ concerns like obesity (or global issues such as climate change) onto individuals and communities, lifestyle-oriented reality shows like The Biggest Loser, for example, come to function, in part, as ‘how-to’ guides for the self-regulating consumer-citizen (Ouellette and Hay, 2008).
While I would argue with the assumption that such popular pedagogies inevitably serve the logics of neo- or late liberalism (whatever those logics might be), in noting this overtly educational dimension of lifestyle TV, though, I think it is also important to emphasise the way in which lifestyle advice television functions not just in terms of the transparent transmission of particular ideologies of selfhood but is also rather more subtly implicated in and productive of the social. The green-oriented domestic antics of Ed Begley Junior on Living with Ed (from his daily composting routine to his somewhat hazardous approach to cleaning his solar roof panels), can be read as symbolically laden social rituals, which in this case involve enacting and rehearsing alternative forms of sociality. If social rituals are about symbolism and play, then, as Nick Couldry suggests, writing about Big Brother, ‘television “deepens the play” (Dayan and Katz cited in Couldry, 2002), where “play” […] has the serious sense of a process, framed apart from the normal flow of everyday life, in which society can reflect upon itself’ (Couldry, 2002: 284).
As I will discuss in relation to the two eco-lifestyle shows under examination here, however, such questions of play and social experimentation are enacted in a variety of ways across the lifestyle genre. What these televisual experiments all speak to is the broader way in which ‘lifestyle’ has become both a fundamental and problematic category today, a situation we might sum up in terms of a turn to life politics. As I will suggest, however, the lifestyle ‘turn’ is not necessarily marked by a coherent set of shared politics or values. While critics tend to see lifestyle politics as inevitably tied to technologies of neoliberal individualism, my interest here is with reading life politics ‘as a field of action, experience and affect that is both constraining and productive in terms of enabling new forms of political governance and agency’ (Lewis and Potter, 2010b: 21).
Situating the eco-lifestyle turn on TV Before I go on to discuss the two green lifestyle shows in question, I want to briefly contextualise the rise of this somewhat unlikely format. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the recent eco turn on lifestyle TV has arrived off the back of a broader set of critiques emerging out of popular culture concerned with the impacts and risks of capitalist modernity (Lewis, 2008b). On the small screen, anxieties about the risks of modern living have seen a concern not only with documenting these risks but also with offering transformational ‘solutions’. Borrowing from the popular trope of the makeover, primetime schedules around the world have been populated by a range of popular factual programmes that document and dramatise the transformation of the lifestyle practices and everyday conduct of ‘ordinary’ people, where such ordinary citizens stand in for the over-consuming ‘global north’ as a whole. A number of recent reality-style formats, for instance, have focused on making over the lifestyle and consumption habits of families and individuals, from behavioural makeover shows like Honey We’re Killing the Kids to competitive weight loss shows like The Biggest Loser.
This concern with lifestyle transformation has also manifested itself in a growing number of popular factual shows that see ordinary people swapping the pressures of modernity for an alternate lifestyle. New Zealand’s award winning show Off The Radar, for instance, documents the experiences of comedian Te Radar when he decides to ‘ditch the city and consumer luxuries in an experiment to see if he can live sustainably, for 10 months on a remote patch of land west of Auckland.’ Similarly in the UK, lifestyle-oriented ‘back to nature’ popular documentaries like the River Cottage series and It’s Not Easy Being Green—the latter featuring a suburban family uprooting their comfortable middle class lives to live sustainably on a farm—tap into a growing interest in escaping the pressures of modernity through ‘downshifting’ and adopting slow modes of living.
Here my interest, however, is in those shows whose narratives of transformation are routed in everyday suburban existence rather than escapism. And that, in so doing, offer up an ethic of experimentation and play, but within the very real constraints of modern suburban contexts and lives. Various forms of green lifestyle TV—based in suburbia and often drawing on the familiar genre of the domestic makeover show— have recently begun to make inroads into primetime schedules around the world, from the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s competitive eco-renovation show Code Green Canada (aired in 2006) to New Zealand’s eco-lifestyle format Wasted (first shown in 2007).
Australian TV has also been something of an early adopter in relation to green lifestyle formats (with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation airing the lifestyleadvice/enviro-science show Carbon Cops on primetime in 2007). The two shows that I want to discuss here, Guerilla Gardeners and Eco-house Challenge, were also produced for Australian free-to-air television but were aired on commercial and public television respectively. Both shows speak, albeit in rather different ways, to the notion of suburbia as a space of experimentation and creativity, in the process foregrounding notions of green citizenship and a growing relationship between largescale global environmental concerns and questions of lifestyle.