Remixing Environmental Icons for a Better Future
Symbols of environmental precarity have long circulated in the U.S. media landscape. Before images of cooling towers came to represent nuclear danger and starving polar bears global warming, two of the most famous icons of early mainstream environmentalism were the Innocent Child and Ecological Indian. These allegorical figures derived from older, cultural stereotypes—repurposed to shame and educate Americans about waste disposal practices.
In honor of Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, it is worthwhile to look back at its early days and examine these influential media references. Doing so allows us to see how these symbols have been deployed, trace how they continue to shape public perceptions of environmentalism, and ask why they have such a hold over our collective imagination.
Keep America Beautiful
In 1969, Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson hired a team of young activists to organize events nationwide intended to spark a larger, more diverse environmental movement. On April 22, 1970, they launched the first Earth Day with the hopes of fostering a broad-based coalition for environmental change where an array of problems from “the hungry child in a land of affluence” to issues of inadequate housing might be addressed through an overarching environmental lens.
Earth Day’s popularity was also attended by institutional and corporate framing. As Finnis Dunaway points out, prominent imagery (often deployed through advertising) helped narrow political imagination and constrain environmental action in part through an emphasis on individual behavior such that reusable bags and “tree-planting children” became icons of model environmental citizenship.
The Innocent Child and Ecological Indian were key to redirecting environmental action away from production and toward personal responsibility.
A prime example of the corporatization and individualization of environmentalism is the Keep America Beautiful (KAB) campaign. KAB was directed by executives at Coca-Cola, Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch and other industry leaders in the 1950s to deflect environmental action from packaging producers to consumers. As environmentalists called for “bottle bills” to require reusable containers for soft drinks, the industry fought back by promoting litter cleanup.
Images of the Innocent Child and Ecological Indian were key to KAB’s strategy of redirecting environmental action away from production toward personal responsibility. Children have often been used to highlight the threat environmental dangers pose in campaigns ranging from nuclear fallout to water quality. As logical necessities to extend species survival, children serve as a symbol for futurity—an “anchoring point” which collects desires and holds potential for action. Likewise, the Ecological Indian has become an environmental icon, predicated on entrenched stereotypes of Native Americans as peaceful environmental stewards of the past. Drawing on these symbolic connections, KAB framed litter as a threat to the nation’s natural beauty and portrayed environmental degradation as a moral, not a structural, problem.
The Innocent Child
A prime example of Innocent Child iconography is Susan Spotless, a character created by KAB to recruit parents into their cleanup crusade. Susan Spotless tapped into idealizations of the nuclear family and good parenting: if viewers were not committed to litter cleanup for themselves, Susan Spotless urged them to do it for the children. She presented as cute and harmless and scolded grown-ups with a play on words (“little” and “litter”), mocking the speech patterns of young children.
Beyond their capacity for shaming adults, the Susan Spotless ads reveal KAB’s intention to advertise to white affluent citizens and promote the message that environmental problems need not be understood in relation to disparities based on place, race, or class. Whiteness pervades the ads—a white child in an all-white costume disposes of garbage against a white background—creating a nonspecific context that seems to signify universality. Yet, the idea that a young white girl could serve as a universal symbol is highly racialized. The white child, undergirded by ideologies of innocence, is seen as sacrosanct and requiring of protection. This stands in contrast to children of color who are often depicted as resilient, unruly, and in need of management. Such exclusionary messaging helped solidify the narrative that environmentalists were uninterested in diversity or systemic injustice. Further, the Innocent Child, as shorthand for morality, was used by KAB to make the claim that picking up litter was an act of virtue.
Litter cleanup is no longer the rallying cry of contemporary environmentalists but saving the earth for “our grandchildren” is still a common refrain. Yet, as Rob Nixon writes, “what the grandchild approach obscures is the role of transnational, often imperial economic practices whereby someone else’s grandchildren—in a distant land and a distant decade—will be inheriting the problems that affluent people in the here and now outsource.” KAB advanced visions of environmental actions as best practiced in the private sphere; taking care of the home and, by extension, the nation eclipsed a view that could account for geopolitical complexities of multinational corporate capitalism.
This sanitized version of environmentalism has continued to plague the movement; individual acts like biking or purchasing zero-emission vehicles have overshadowed systemic concerns such as underfunded public transit and an oil-driven military industrial complex. Instead of the overarching environmental lens Earth Day hoped to inspire, Susan Spotless depicted litter cleanup as a sufficient way to protect the environment for future generations. But she didn’t do it alone.
The Ecological Indian
KAB’s 1971 Crying Indian commercial has become a cultural icon, well-known enough to parody on South Park and the Simpsons. The actor, Iron Eyes Cody, dressed in mid-19th-century Plains regalia (beads, buckskins, and braids), travels by canoe to a littered shoreline and sheds a single tear. Uncontaminated by modernity, he appears as a specter of precolonial America, emerging from the past to impart ecological wisdom on the present. Unlike Susan, the Crying Indian is nameless; removed from historical, geographical, and cultural context, he is confined to romantic nostalgia without any visible present or future.
KAB used the Crying Indian as a symbol of national identity to create associative bonds between critiques of overconsumption and litter cleanup. In an emerging Euro-American nation-state, projecting historical myths through an imagined Indian helped create a distinctly Euro-American identity, defined in opposition to a racialized “Other.” This colonialist fantasy is still embedded in contemporary U.S. culture: the widespread tradition of “Playing Indian” is at work in the Washington football team’s logo and Ke$ha’s costumes.
As Shepard Kerch III details, premised on oversimplified narratives of Europeans destroying unspoiled nature, the Ecological Indian came to represent a time gone by when people lived in harmony with land. Viewing Native Americans as representative of wilderness worked in tandem with perceptions that they impeded progress and didn’t participate in modernity. By the 1920s, this imagined Indian was reinvested with ethical and aesthetic values in opposition to rapid industrialization and spiritual decline.
In the era surrounding the first Earth Day, the Red Power movement took action to enact and envision decolonial, sustainable futures. This widespread youth-driven Indigenous resistance contradicted mistaken perceptions that Native Americans were at odds with modernity, showing how Indigenous movements are key players in the present and future of North America. Yet, the Ecological Indian gained a foothold in the mainstream U.S. cultural imagination through the Crying Indian commercial.
These preformed perceptions became particularly valuable for 20th-century environmentalism’s countercultural critique of industrialization. Susan Spotless and the Crying Indian stand together, two sides of the same coin. On one side, a young white girl is tied to futurity, her innocence premised on the idea that she is free of a past. On the other, a lone Native American serves as the emblem of imperialist nostalgia, a ghost of the past reminding industrialized society what it’s lost.
This dyad has been adapted toward a wide array of sentiments communicating what is “good” and “normal.” Fused with notions of innocence, as Barbara Baird argues, the child’s best interest becomes “a discursive category with which one cannot disagree.” Likewise, the Ecological Indian presents a view of Indigeneity as antithetical to modernity and affirms the myth that settler colonialism is settled. And in certain strains of contemporary environmentalism, the Innocent Child and Ecological Indian continue to naturalize a host of problematic ideologies that depoliticize colonization, promote white futurity, and reduce children and Native Americans to blank slates that can be projected upon.
Beyond the Frame
Despite the persistence of these imagined characters, there have been continual efforts to reconceptualize their legacy. This past October, Tokata Iron Eyes, an activist best known for her role in Standing Rock’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline, invited her contemporary, Greta Thunberg, to share the stage at a Climate Forum in the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. During the event, a Sioux leader honored Thunberg with the Lakota name: “maphiyata echiyatan hin win” or “woman who came from the heavens.” After, Shane Balkowitsch photographed Thunberg using a collodion wet plate process—a popular technique of 19th-century photography. The photo has since been preserved at the Library of Congress.
Thunberg’s portrait contains traces of the Innocent Child and Ecological Indian. In it, a young girl stares into the distance toward a better future, one void of the colonialist corruption fueling the climate crisis. But the photo also gestures toward a static past. The photographer, whose business is called Nostalgic Glass, wanted to “immortalize” her visit, depicting her as a singular force frozen in time. Reading Thunberg’s portrait through stereotypes of the Ecological Indian, the items she wears from the ceremony seem symbolic of a conferred moral authority. She has been given the stamp of approval from those presumed to be most attuned to the environment. This presumption can tap into a tendency to look at Indigenous relations with the non-human world in an ahistorical or metaphysical way, what Nick Estes identifies as a form of ethno-othering, where Indigenous populations are collapsed into a spiritual connection land and water.
Celebrity has the potential to fuel power, but it can also defuse and contain it as its status is usually bestowed upon legible figures. Since her rise to fame, there have been widespread critiques regarding Thunberg’s celebrity that question why less attention has been paid to youth activists of color. Yet, the visual legacy of the Innocent Child answers this swiftly: of course, the figurehead of youth climate futures looks like Thunberg. And yet, unlike her predecessors Susan Spotless and Crying Indian, Thunberg is both an icon and an actual person. She has agency to radically reclaim and remix these tropes.
Thunberg’s iconic status must also be contextualized within the larger youth climate movement, which demonstrates great media-savvy in its ability to play on the child’s assumed role. The premise of School Strikes for Climate prompted slogans like “If you don’t act like adults, we will” and “This can’t wait ‘til I’m bigger.” Thunberg’s own ability to perform and subvert the assumed role of the Innocent Child is key to the spectacle and the politicization of this movement. By both reinforcing and challenging this role, she complicates the simplified ethical codes of childhood innocence. And unlike the Crying Indian, who is silent, Thunberg has a megaphone with which she attempts to rewrite mainstream narratives. She is not harmlessly scolding but threatening when she says, “The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you.” Speaking for youth using “we” instead of “I” undermines her depiction as a singular leader rather than a member of a movement, and she tries to turn the media toward activists other than herself.
At Earth Day 1970 and 2020, environmental justice is highly visible. To maintain this focus, we need to be wary of the deployment of symbols that can be easily manipulated towards problematic ends. The Innocent Child and the Ecological Indian trap Native Americans in static pasts and children in distant futures. But, today, Native Americans and children practice many forms of activism, ceremony, and solidarity that are anything but fixed and remote. These dynamic practices connect past histories, present actions, and future consequences. By resisting the mechanisms that confine both children and Native Americans to narratives premised on colonialist desires, these movements have a vital role in dismantling stereotypes that constrain political imaginations.
Featured image: Climate activist Greta Thunberg poses for a photo during a visit to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Photo courtesy of Chad Nodland, 2019.
Alexandra Lakind is a Ph.D. candidate in the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies and the School of Education at University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her current work spans environmental humanities, childhood studies, and arts programming. Her past contributions to Edge Effects include “Indigenous Art as Creative Resistance: A Conversation with Dylan Miner” (April 2018) and “Zozobra & Me: Performance and Place at the Santa Fe Fiesta” (August 2017). Contact.