Thursday, July 3, 2008

Ecological Ethics and Media Technology

International Journal of Communication 2 (2008), Feature 331-353

Copyright © 2008 (Richard Maxwell,; Toby Miller,
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives (by-nc-nd). Available at

Ecological Ethics and Media Technology
Queens College-CUNY
University of California, Riverside
After seeing electricity, I lost interest in nature. Not up to date enough.
~ Vladimir Mayakovsky1
Brought along some gadgets for you to see
Here’s a crazy little thing we call TV
Do you have electricity?
We're humans from earth
We're humans from earth
You have nothing at all to fear
I think we're gonna like it here
~ T-Bone Burnett, “Humans from Earth.”
Ecological ethics barely figures into the way media and communication researchers think about
media technology. By ecological ethics, we mean the subset of ethics concerned with “how human beings
ought to behave in relation to non-human nature” (Curry, 2006, p. 47). The environmental impact of
electronic waste (e-waste) is just now starting to gain traction in media and communication studies
(Sterne, 2007; Parks, 2007; Ellis, 2007, pp. 217-219; Maxwell & Miller, in press; Miller, 2007b). Here the
ethical response focuses on the environmental (including human-bodily) harms associated with disposal,
dismantling, and recycling of media technologies. However piecemeal, this interest in e-waste is a salutary
advance toward an eco-ethics in media studies; it is one among many environmental issues that pertains
to the study of media technologies. The essay aims to alert media and communication scholars and
students to the ecological context of the technologies that the field has expertly studied during its halfcentury
But why should media studies develop an eco-ethics at all? The answer is hammering hard from
outside the academy. We inhabit an ecological crisis that demands rethinking of first principles, research
frameworks, methods, activism, and policy work. Among other interconnected problems, this crisis
consists of climate change (global warming) caused by: 1) overproduction of carbon dioxide (CO2); 2)
1 Quoted in Macauley, 1996, p. 114.
332 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
pollution in the over-developed world; 3) industrial dumping in less-developed regions (disrupting the
biological development and immune, endocrine, and hormone systems of “virtually all organisms”); 4)
rapidly diminishing biodiversity, the Earth’s “sixth great extinction,” unique for being caused by one
species (guess who?); and, 5) the rapid decline of habitat (50% of the Earth’s forests are gone, as are
25% of sea habitats) (Curry, 2006, pp. 10-13). The public response to this crisis in the U.S. has seen a
doubling in membership of environmental groups between 1980 and 2000, with numbers rivaling
membership in political parties (Dalton, 2005). Meanwhile, calls for interdisciplinary efforts to confront the
eco-crisis have grown within the academy (Rose & Robin, 2004).
There is a spectrum of relevant ecological concerns that the field of media studies could confront
as ethical challenges in the near future. Note these examples: Media owners are numbers 1, 3, 16, 22,
and 39 among the top 100 polluters in the U.S. (Political Economy Research Institute, 2004). An
estimated 2% of all carbon dioxide emissions come from the global information and communication
industry, or about the same as the aviation industry (Gartner Estimates, 2007; cf. Corbett & Turco).
Approximately 1.5% of the U.S. electrical supply (about US$4.5 billion worth) is consumed by server
“farms” powering our network society (Wald, 2007). High-end magazine publishing in the U.S. needs
about 35 million trees annually to produce 18 million titles, 90% of which are trashed within a year of
publication (Independent Press Association et al., 2001, pp. 5-10). Communication towers and wires kill
up to 50 million birds annually in the U.S. alone (in the past, the FCC required annual reports on this
problem) (“Avian/Communication Tower Collisions,” 2004).
In addition, we should be confronting other imposed health effects such as the following
phenomena: wildlife gradually being poisoned by toxic emissions; a rising body burden of toxins caused by
discarded electronics (Grossman, 2006; Rydh, 2003); radiation exposure from TVs, computer monitors,
cell phones, laptops, telecommunication and electrical towers, power lines, etc. (Cox, 2007; Lean, 2008);
space junk from communication satellites (more than 330 million pieces orbiting earth) with messy
discharges of toxic chemicals and compounds, as well as nuclear waste (Broad, 2007); and now mediarelated
nanotechnology, whose toxic byproducts and waste are not well understood at the atomic scale
(Center for Responsible Nanotechnology ; Schoenfeld, 2007).
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 333
Generic electronics supply chain in an ecological context
Source: Modified from Linden et al., 2007: 3.2
Understanding the ecological context adds a new level of complexity to the study of media and
society. The sheer materiality of the technology begs the question about the neglect of its environmental
impact in the key writings of our discipline. In 30 years of growing awareness of a global ecological crisis,
where has the environment figured in the histories of media technology, in our industrial and institutional
research/political-economic work? We have analyses of symbolic environments in the metaphors of
McLuhanites and media ecologists and in notions of “new” media-environs (cyberspace, interface, etc.).
We have analyses of environmental policy as an information and cultural phenomenon (Felleman, 1997).
And we have some valuable engagement with media coverage of the environment (see an account in
Miller, 2007a, chaps. 3 - 4), and critical writing on environmental themes in popular culture (Carmichael,
2006; Cubitt, 2005; Hochman, 1998; Ingram, 2000). But none of these reach into the material
environmental impact of media technologies.
2 This table was modified to correct the impression that this value chain exists outside a real, material
ecosystem. The authors called the iPod the latest triumph of Apple’s “thriving ecosystem”—i.e., the New
International Division of Cultural Labor—by assemblage across Korea, Japan, China, Singapore, Taiwan,
and the U.S., in keeping with a US$8 billion corporation that has half its liquid assets held by overseas
subsidiaries from Ireland to Singapore (Linden et al., 2007, pp. 2, 6; Schaefer & Durham, 2007, p. 49;
for an approach to the New International Division of Cultural Labor cf. Miller et al., 2005).
334 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
What would happen to game studies if, rather than rehearsing debates about ludological,
narratological, and effects approaches, it confronted the fact that millions of cartridges of Atari’s game
adaptation of E.T. The Extraterrestrial (Steven Spielberg, 1981) were buried in a New Mexico landfill,
broken up by a heavy roller, and covered in concrete to consign them to history; or that cables in Sony’s
PlayStation 1 consoles were found to contain deadly levels of cadmium, a fiasco that cost Sony US$85
million to fix (Engardio, 2007)? What would it mean if film studies were required as an ordinary part of its
work to evaluate motion picture production ecologically?3 What would it make, for example, of The Beach
(Danny Boyle, 2000)? Thai environmental and pro-democracy activists publicized the arrogant
despoliation they experienced when Fox was making this movie in Maya Bay, part of Phi Phi Islands
National Park. Natural scenery was bulldozed in late 1998 because it did not fit the fantasy of a tropical
idyll. Sand dunes were relocated, flora rearranged, and a “new” strip of coconut palms planted. The
producers paid off the government with a donation to the Royal Forestry Department and a campaign with
the Tourism Authority of Thailand to twin the film as a promotion for the country. Meanwhile, the next
monsoon saw the damaged sand dunes of the region collapse. Natural defenses against erosion had been
destroyed by Hollywood bulldozers. All the while, director Boyle claimed the film was “raising
environmental consciousness” among a local population that was allegedly “behind” U.S. levels of
“awareness” (Miller et al., 2005). Is this question on our agenda when we examine the film industry? If
not, why not?
Rather than glibly respond that It’s the Hardware, Stupid! we recognize that media and
communication scholars have had no problem in the past dealing with a range of critical insights to other
ethical problems, including those related to social harms (violence), cultural harms (prejudicial
stereotypes), economic harms (ownership), or political harms (propaganda). Surely we can extend these
ethical commitments to environmental concerns and at least provide an additional chapter to such
otherwise useful recent titles as Media, Risk and Science (Allan, 2002) or Media Technology: Critical
Perspectives (van Loon, 2008)? The eco-crisis presents media studies with an eco-ethical choice: either
continue to document and assess the growing consumption of media technologies without understanding
their ecological context, or advocate policies and influence polities to reduce the consumption of media
technologies—not an easy choice for a field hooked on iPodpeople and PCers. We think it’s time to assume
intellectual responsibility for the ecological dimension of the media, and deal with difficult ethical
challenges posed by the eco-crisis.
A point of departure could be the equation used in environmental ethics. It explains the eco-crisis
as the product of four inter-related factors: Population, Lifestyle, Organization of Society, and Technology
(Impact=P x L x O x T). While none of the factors can be extricated from the complex interdependence
causing the crisis (Curry, 2006, pp.13-18), they point to distinct ethical challenges in media research and
analysis. Media and communication researchers might be mindful of population size as a factor
contributing to the eco-crisis, but the field’s strengths are probably best directed at questions of lifestyle,
social organization, and technology. Lifestyle in this ecological context refers to (over-)consumption of
3 Though focused on waste-management issues related to Los Angeles-based film production, Corbett and
Turco (2006) illustrate the complexity of such research and provide examples of greenish production
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 335
resources and material goods as well as the global infrastructure of consumption, characterized by
stratification that pits the overindulgent rich—the 5% producing the largest amount of greenhouse gasses
and consuming 40% of the Earth’s resources—against have-not regions, with gaps increasing annually.
Consider that it would take three planet Earths for the current global population to enjoy an “American
lifestyle” (Curry, 2006 p. 15). The factor of social organization refers to the way differently organized
societies (social democratic, capitalist, and socialist) respond to the eco-crisis, and here media policy and
political economic approaches to the media could contribute. Again, this area would have difficult choices
regarding our ethical and political commitments: can an ecological ethics wedge its way into research and
advocacy that now focuses on ownership policy, content diversity, and democratic media reform?
The technology factor of the eco-crisis poses the clearest ethical challenge (or set of challenges) to
media studies, a field of great depth in historical and critical work on media technology (for examples, see
among others, Barnouw, 1990; Douglas, 1989; Noble, 1977; Schiller, 2007; Starr, 2004; Sterling &
Kittross, 2002; Winston, 1998; Castells, 1996-1998). Edging this research into environmental problems
means it will have to address the ecological context of media technology: 1) the environmental burdens of
energy generation and consumption throughout a medium’s life cycle, from production to consumption
and disposal, including transportation throughout this cycle; 2) a medium’s chemical and heavy metal
composition; 3) prior inputs from the earth (extracted via mining, drilling, logging, etc.)—the source
function of the eco-system; and 4) subsequent outputs into the earth (deposits into air, land, and
water)—the sink function (Korten, 1996, p. 23; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition). The effects of these inputs
and outputs outlive the medium’s existence, in some cases for generations, through deforestation, CO2
emissions, and bio-accumulative poisons like PCBs, dioxin, and so on. The ecological dimension of media
technology points to ethical questions that the field must not shy away from. The most challenging will be
how much communication and entertainment media is enough to attain a system that serves everyone on
the planet fairly without contributing to “ecological suicide.”
Media studies could draw on three schools of ecological ethics to develop an ethical orientation to
the study of media technology: at two extremes are anthropocentric (“light-green”) ethics and ecocentric
(“dark-green”) ethics, with an intermediate (“mid-green”) ethics combining elements of the others (Curry,
2006). These schools of eco-ethics can be distinguished by their answers to questions of value (what is
valued, what entities qualify for moral consideration, and what matters most), rights (duties and rules that
protect individual and collective entities that are valued), and consequences (utilitarian considerations of
actions and motives that affect the well-being or happiness of those with moral standing). The lines
separating these are often blurry (like all ethics, there are no iron-clad rules of operation), but each in its
own way has virtues (and limitations) that can inform an eco-ethics in media studies.
For anthropocentric eco-ethics, non-human nature has no moral standing (hence no rights)
except in relation to how humans are affected by changes in nature. Humans rule the Earth by virtue of
their intrinsic value, but they need not rule out an ecological ethics that helps them flourish, for example,
by finding instrumental value in nature as a means to human happiness (in its utilitarian/consequentialist
versions). A communication philosopher might argue that all eco-ethics are unavoidably anthropocentric
because questions of value, meaning, and interpretation are always centered on human experience,
perception, and language. Good point, but the eco-ethical response asks whether “the privileging of
336 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
human beings . . . at the expense of all other forms of life” is justified (Curry, 2006, p. 45). There are
other aspects of anthropocentrism, foremost among these that it has provided the most politically
expedient form of ethical discourse shaping environmental policy (at least in capitalist societies), namely,
self-interest. But even this is a complex matter, for the narrow confines of self-interest can allow for a
virtuous ethics oriented to non-human nature, i.e., living an ecologically sound life that accumulates
ethical substance to one’s character.
In contrast to human-centered ethics, ecocentric ethics holds that nature (subsuming humanity
in some versions) is the “ultimate source” of all value and attempts to specify right/wrong and good/bad
human action in relation to this particular interpretation of value. Ecocentrists are convinced that “some or
all natural beings, in the broadest sense, have independent moral status” (Curry, 2006, p. 64). Human
domination of nature is fundamentally wrong/bad, and there is a right/good way to live an ecologically
healthy life by putting the Earth’s well-being first. For some, this is a matter of an ethical regard for the
integrity and ineffability of nature (think of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethical” wonder at the sleepy skunk
stirring during a mid-winter thaw [1949] or William Connolly’s “affinity of affect” for an unruly Australian
cockroach [2005, p. 90]). For others, as in Gaia theory, ecocentric ethics reside in the notion of Earth as
the one-big-organism. It also informs eco-political critiques of class, race, and gender oppression that Left
biocentrists and ecofeminists have argued is inextricably tied to capitalist/masculinist subjugation of
nature under the sign of growth (Callicott, 1994, pp. 36-41; Curry, 2006, pp.63-100).
An intermediate form of ecological ethics accords some intrinsic value to non-human nature but
not as completely as ecocentrism does. Mid-green ethics is not fully anthropocentric, though it rests on
the principle that humans’ “moral considerability” can be extended to other (sentient) beings, primarily
non-human animals. Proponents of mid-green ethics can be found among advocates of animal liberation
(Peter Singer) and animal rights (Tom Regan) as well as in biocentrism or life-centered ethics (Paul
Taylor). However, when there is a conflict between humans and other life forms, this intermediate ethics
tends to privilege human interests (Curry, 2006, pp. 55-62).
How would these apply to media studies? Anthropocentric ethics is fundamentally individualist
but relies rhetorically on collectivist political discourse. Most environmental policy debates make sense via
anthropocentric eco-ethics by pointing out the cost of environmental degradation to collective human life.
This characterizes the consequentialist assumptions of research on e-waste, global warming, alternative
energy, air and water pollution, greening of industry, and so on, where humanity is seen as the ultimate
loser of bad ecological action (Curry, 2006, chap. 6). In this eco-ethics, media technologies carry both
promise and peril for the environment. Media technologies are tolerable and good because they enhance
people’s ability to act and communicate as green consumers and concerned eco-citizens; they work
against our well-being when they pose hazards and deposit toxins into the eco-system or diminish our
enjoyment of nature (those ugly towers and cables) or otherwise foul the lives of creatures sharing the
Earth with us. While the ultimate source of value resides in our species, this ethical orientation has the
potential to sustain enough empathy for non-human nature to introduce important qualitative concerns
into research and discussions of media technology (within limits discussed below). This could entail
revisionist work on everything from media technology’s environmental impact on habitats and biodiversity
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 337
to how the environmental movement itself uses polluting media technologies as tools of activism (cf.
Castells, 1997, chap. 3).
Likewise, there is room for an intermediate eco-ethics in media studies to influence research on
the development and deployment of media technologies, for example, in order to attenuate harm to nonhuman
animals that share the Earth with numero uno. There are limitations to this “mid- green” ecoethics
that the field would have to confront, including the problem of moral extensionism (which has
difficulty perceiving the collective interdependence of non-human nature in its assumption that rights can
be extended to individual species other than humans under certain circumstances) or the way that the
replacement of human chauvinism with animal chauvinism (animal rights) can preempt debate (Curry,
2006, pp. 55-62).
But media studies would be profoundly disrupted were it to install an ecocentric ethics into its
thinking on media technology. Basically, an ecocentric media studies cannot embrace a technology that
degrades non-human nature in order to flourish within it. That’s a real deal breaker. But let’s think about
how media studies would have to change its take on media technology from an ecocentric ethical position,
if it could. There are possibilities and limits to this happening. The possibilities will depend on whether
media studies can make a fundamental shift in first principles to give the Earth’s well-being preeminence
in the study of media technology. For the ecocentrist, the eco-crisis makes this necessary. This shift
requires an absence of moral self-righteousness about the value of media technology, a conviction that
“everything on this Earth depends on it and its vital constituent parts,” and the resolve to accept that
when “human good, values and interests clearly conflict with the well-being of the Earth, the former must
give way.” This last “realization cannot ever be taken for granted—as much as possible and wherever and
whenever possible, it must be argued, publicized, fought for and lived” (Curry, 2006, p. 112; emphasis in
original). At this point in time, this particular ecocentric ethics can only advance by acting pragmatically in
a pluralist world in which it must live and work, with agonistic respect, alongside both light- and midgreen
eco-ethics; it must be ready to forge alliances, but not at the expense of ecocentric principles
(Curry, 2006,p. 113). With this reservation in hand, an ecocentric ethics in media studies would still
require a paradigm shift far more radical than either anthropocentric or intermediate eco-ethics demands.
In short, it would entail a disenchantment of technology and a reenchantment of non-human nature
(McLaughlin, 1993).
The enchantment of technology is entwined with the transcendence of non-human nature as key
indices of modernity (in both capitalist and socialist versions). The domination of nature by science and
industry blends chemical magic with rationality, reason with machinery, to transform the Earth into an
instrument without intrinsic value or meaning (McLaughlin, 1993). The genealogy of “millenarianism,
rationalism, and Christian redemption” profited from this disenchantment of non-human nature, gaining
dominion and stewardship over the Earth as its rewards (Callicott, 1994, pp. 14-21; Dinerstein, 2006, p.
569; Nye, 2006, p. 598; Curry, 2006, pp. 26-27; & McLaughlin, 1993, p. 99). Enchantment attached itself
to technological invention to the same degree that non-human nature was dislodged from pre-modern
ways of seeing which, along with nature, became ridiculous, inert, a spectacle to adorn nation-building
and an object of domination and exploitation (cf. Callicott, 1994). Frederick Engels was one of the first to
suggest otherwise when he perceived and documented in vivid detail the environmental ugliness of
338 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
industrialism, albeit in anthropocentric terms as a shameful blight on English workers’ lives (Engels,
Since the 19th century, labor has been thought of as something to be controlled long-distance,
connected to transnational textual and military domination but also set against itself via an ever-grander
division of itself. Similarly, geographical enlargement of the division of labor driven by capitalist expansion
changed our relation to the global environment, as resources supplying industry were increasingly drawn
from outside local ecosystems. This global system thus brought about a dislocation of experience of
environmental conditions that transformed “ecosystem people” into “biosphere people” (McLaughlin, 1993,
p. 21)—marking the parallel alienation of intrinsic value from both labor and non-human nature. Ned Lud
and his followers recognized that capitalists who did not do productive work controlled machinery, which
controlled the lives of those who did work; what they couldn’t yet perceive was the growing
interdependence between their exploitation, the enchantment of technology, and the degradation and
disenchantment of non-human nature. (A propos, Lord Byron sought the death penalty for opponents of
machines in his maiden speech in the Lords, just months after summering with the Shelleys, even as the
first Luddite piece of science fiction [Frankenstein] was being created by Mary) (Pynchon, 1984).
Media and communication technology inherited their own enchanted life from these antecedents
(Mosco, 2004). The advent of the train, the telegraph, and the photograph was “a victory over time and
space” (quoted in Briggs & Burke, 2003, p. 104). By the 1890s, even as vast a country as the United
States could see space and time “enclosed . . . running on the same clock of awareness and existing
within a homogeneous national space.” National networks were designed to homogenize conduct, both
governmentally and commercially (Carey, 2003, p. 186). The rhetoric about electricity promised that it
would be possible to “talk in our voices hundreds of miles away” and record votes and the latest popular
melodies (quoted in Briggs & Burke, 2003, p. 147). Debates over the possibility of a new world order,
brought on by the spread of media to the people, foretold an end to the chauvinism of sovereign-states
(Marvin, 1988, pp. 192-193). This combination of domineering overreach and utopian imagination by state
and capital were as typical then as in our own time—just substitute “Internet” for “telegraph,” “radio,” or
With each binding and unbinding of time and space, the visibility and audibility of signs from
elsewhere stimulated discussion of the sublime qualities of media technology (both utopic and dystopic)
but further obscured the ecological context (here and elsewhere) of such marvels. As capital and capitol
alike continued to press communication technology into service for social and commercial dominion in the
20th century, a new boosterism placed media at the center of economic innovation by asserting that they
encompass corporate and governmental information technology (which is where even more money is
made and yet greater power exercised) (Garnham, 2005). By the 21st century, a former Chair of the U.S.
Federal Communications Commission, Reed Hundt, and one of his offsiders, claimed that the principal goal
of communications policy was to increase productivity through “decreases in the price of transmission and
increases in the amount of information that can be cheaply and rapidly moved from place to place” (Hundt
& Rosston, 2006, p. 2). The enchantment of media technology achieved a new luster with the promotion
of information networks alongside water and power as the bedrock of this new world economy (Bar with
Simard, 2006). At the same time, consumers embraced the new “information” technologies, encouraged
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 339
no doubt by pervasive marketing and advertising of digital gadgetry. By the early 21st century, the
Environmental Protection Agency estimated that U.S. residents owned approximately three billion
electronic devices (2007, p. 1) with well over half these purchases made by women (Twist, 2005). The
Consumer Electronics Association said that US$145 billion was expended in the sector in 2006 in the U.S.
alone, up 13% on the previous year, referring joyously to “the consumer love affair with technology
continuing at a healthy clip” (“CEA,” 2007).
Meanwhile, media and communication research on technology surged to comprise over one-fifth
of the field’s book titles available in the U.S. (Aslama et al., 2007, pp. 59, 82). But it seems that none of
them thoroughly investigate the ecological context of media technology, not to mention ethical concerns
with lifestyle and societal organization as factors of the eco-crisis (please prove us wrong). Still, it is not
necessary for media studies to make a wholesale conversion to ecocentric ethics, even if it could, in order
to develop an ethical regard for non-human nature. But it is vital to recognize that the enchantment of
technology that grips even the most critical work in the field cannot be sustained in the face of the
worsening eco-crisis. In our time, the political role for ecocentric ethics will have to be modest (contra
unhelpful dogmatic versions), hoping at best “to acquire sufficient influence in the world to check
anthropocentrism, instrumentalism and utilitarianism” (Curry, 2006, p. 67; emphasis in original). With this
in mind, a “light-green” eco-ethics might begin the disenchantment of technology in media studies, to
nudge research seeking a balance that lightens environmental burdens while allowing us to “enjoy, invent
and be free in the modern world” (Robins & Webster, 1999, p. 62). Let’s see how that goes.
In anthropocentric eco-ethics, we can find seriously divergent interpretations of the value of
humanity, because not all anthropocentric eco-ethics accords equal value to all populations. In the U.S.,
for example, environmental policy is based entirely on cost-benefit analysis (CBA), a risk-management
technique that lies at one extreme of anthropocentric eco-ethics. CBA is used to determine whether a
particular regulation justifies its cost (this can influence decisions about whether mandated recycling is an
efficient use of resources, or if losses to the logging economy outweigh benefits of protecting endangered
wildlife, etc.). CBA works by monetizing human and non-human life through various methods, such as
“hedonic pricing,” which would determine the market value of a forest, for example, by correlating housing
prices with proximity to undeveloped land. In this case, the benefit of not developing all the forestland
would justify mandated conservation of part of it. Critiques of this approach include the arbitrariness of
assigning monetary value to human life and other non-market goods, the failure to account for
intergenerational equity, and elevation of technocratic decision-making at the expense of public input and
participation (Clowney, 2006). CBA also practices a spatial politics that fails to address inter-territorial
equity. Its eco-ethics, such as they are, stick to the kind of concentric thinking that presumes the zones of
the biosphere in which it is applied have merely relative connections to zones beyond the boundaries of
the analysis. This concentric view of the earth allows for a number of other cultural assumptions about the
relative value of communities living across multiple lines of difference, territorial or otherwise (Connolly,
2005, pp. 41-42).
Media studies has had to deal with CBA in almost all matters associated with policy and
regulation, so this might be one area where the field’s potential “light-green” eco-ethics could get a
foothold. Consider the concentric logic at work in e-waste recycling, keeping in mind the way it relativizes
340 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
cultural norms across different societies. Most electronics recycling is done in the Third World by pre-teen
Chinese, Nigerian, and Indian girls, picking away without protection of any kind at discarded First World
electronics in order to find precious metals, then dumping the remains in landfills. Dust laden with harmful
heavy metals from circuit boards and other components settles in workshops and blows onto roads and
other public places, while the recovered metals are gathered and sold to recyclers, who do not use landfills
or labor in the First World because of environmental and industrial legislation contra the destruction to
soil, water, and workers (Basel Action Network & Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, 2002; Lee, 2002; Leung
et al., 2008; Pelta-Heller, 2007; Shabi, 2002; Tong & Wang, 2004; Wong et al., 2007, pp. 435, 441).
Here, pollution in the Global North is culturally intolerable (if politically tolerated), while being treated as
culturally and politically acceptable in poorer regions of the world, a move that exports environmental
risks as per the notorious prescription of former World Bank econocrat and Treasury Secretary Lawrence
Summers (to wit: “Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of
the dirty industries to the LDCs (lesser developed countries?”).
Underlying the tensions between “bean counters” and “tree huggers” (Clowney, 2006, p. 109) is
a techno-scientific ideology that determines how environmental risk is distributed. The discourse of risk
management masks the fact that decisions are actually made to define the number habitats and creatures
that will die or be sickened by environmental harms. Science (or more narrowly, techno-science) plays a
role in this moral detachment by providing legitimacy via measurement of “safe amounts” of exposure to
toxins and pollutants (science’s role is paradoxical and deserving of a longer discussion, but it should be
noted that scientific research is also the primary source of important quantitative measures of the ecocrisis,
along with providing a language of critique and an array of expert-activists). The language of risk
management puts ethical considerations in an apolitical frame of technocracy, as compared to language
that denotes more precisely the politics of what institutions like the Environmental Protection Agency do:
they determine how a particular harm will be allocated (Michaelson, 1996, p. 1907). If we press this
ethico-political point into our studies of the global flows of harms, that is without the pretensions of risk
managerialism, we can provide a critical framework for understanding the politics of recycling, hazardous
waste disposal, and the like. Routine environmental despoliation, global labor competition, cyclical
recession, declining life-long employment, massive international migration, developments in
communication technology, and the rolling back of the welfare state . . . alongside income redistribution
toward the wealthy have left denizens of post-industrial societies factoring costs and benefits into
everyday life as never before—while their sense of being able to determine their future through choice is
diminished (Latour with Kastrissianakis, 2007; Rikagos & Hadden, 2001; O’Malley, 2001). This is why
some have called managerialism one of the ecological “curses of our time,” for its “belief that human
beings have not only the ‘right’ but the ability, even if only potentially, to successfully manage the world”
(Curry, 2006, p. 28).
Anthropocentric eco-ethics contains alternatives to environmental CBA and risk management,
including the precautionary principle, absolute prescriptions, sustainable development, and cost-benefit
shortcuts (Clowney, 2006, p. 125). The precautionary principle holds that “our knowledge of the effects of
our actions is always exceeded by our ignorance” (Curry, 2006, p. 48). This standard lays the burden of
proof on those who would introduce potentially harmful substances or practices into the environment in
circumstances where there is no scientific consensus about such actions’ consequences. This “better safe
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 341
than sorry” environmental principle is very strong in international agreements and offers the most serious
challenge to CBA “bean counters.” Absolute prescriptions are unconditional bans on known pollutants and
toxins; this was the standard that informed much of 1970s’ environmental law. Sustainable development
refers to efficient use and equitable distribution of natural resources for long-term socio-economic
development. CBA short-cuts include technological fixes that offer qualitative improvements without strict
adherence to quantitative factors of regulation (Clowney, 2006, pp. 125-130).
Of all these alternatives, sustainable development has been rendered the most controversial
through its casual overuse by actors across the political spectrum, from free marketers to left ecocentrists.
Ideally, the term denotes a standard that “rules out all practices except those that are indefinitely
sustainable” by the Earth’s ecosystem (Curry, 2006, p. 48). Sustainability is more commonly deployed as
meaning a balance struck between economic development and environmental protection, though this
tends to mean qualitative development rather than pure quantitative growth. As environmental
economists point out, there is no such thing as sustainable growth: it’s “a bad oxymoron—self
contradictory as prose and unevocative as poetry” (Daly, 1996, p. 193). The virtues of sustainable
development are that: it accounts for intra- and intergenerational equity; it allows for open participation, if
not by affected communities at least by their representatives; and it is recognized in international
agreements to assure a scale of inter-territorial equity, even when the parties disagree on its meaning. It
thus offers a more equitable alternative to CBA’s concentric comprehension of the world.
The disadvantages of sustainable development concentrate at the point at which the question of
quantitative economic development overtakes other concerns. In its weakest form, sustainable
development becomes “little more than ‘sustainable’ capitalism” (Pepper, 2000, p. 451; Deutsch, 2007, p.
C1). Economic self-interest pushes eco-ethical self-interest into a little corner of sustainability. Herein lies
a key vulnerability of anthropocentric eco-ethics. Self-interest that does not perceive the intimate relation
between human and non-human beings will tilt the balance towards satisfying human needs.
A new direction in anthropocentric eco-ethics could derive from “green citizenship.” According to
political theorist Hartley Dean (2001), environmentalism has affected citizenship in three ways:
• Claims to rights have expanded to include clean air and water (this was suggested at
least as early as 1739 when Benjamin Franklin argued that “public rights” over
Philadelphia’s air and water should supersede private rights of industry).
• National boundaries and interests have been brought into question by the bordercrossing
impact of despoliation (multi-lateral agreements were sought throughout the
20th century, but it was the 1967 United Nations conference on the environment that
inaugurated international environmental policy (Hopgood, 1998, p. 2).
• Corporate economic citizenship has been rearticulated beyond gleeful receipt of welfare.
More than an addition to the rights and responsibilities of territorially-based citizenship, this
amounts to a critique of them within the sustainability framework of anthropocentric ethics. While still
essentially human-centered, this ethico-political corrective is focused on saving infrastructure and heritage
342 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
from unsustainable capitalist expansion, and thus dowses the global public sphere with green intentions
that must necessarily confront challenges posed by the eco-crisis. Rather than looking to the next
generation to carry on, forecasts must look centuries ahead in order to guide policy today, so elemental
are the risks created by industry (Dobson, 2003).
This is the kind of inter-generational thinking that must pervade our field if we are to confront our
logo-centric interdependence on the technology we engage, criticize and promote. We conclude with two
examples of eco-ethical challenges that face media studies. One case is relatively uncomplicated, the
other complex and difficult. We offer these illustrations as primitive attempts to think with eco-ethics
about media technologies.
By the end of the 20th century, “the pulp and paper industry was the second largest consumer of
energy” in the U.S. (Independent Press Association et al., 2001, p. 6). The Southern states comprised the
“largest paper-producing region in the world” (Wear & Greis, 2001). The pulp and paper industry became
“the single largest consumer of water used in industrial activities in the wealth democracies of the
[Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development] OECD and the third largest greenhouse gas
emitter, after the chemical and steel industries” (OECD, 2001, p. 218). Per capita paper consumption
declined somewhat between 2000 and 2005, especially in the European Union, causing some paperlesssociety
boosters to predict the ultimate passing of paper-based media — a vision that discounts the rapid
growth of paper consumption in China and other developing countries and ignores the problems of
increased energy consumption from the technologies replacing paper (scanners, charging cameras and
laptops, etc.) (Fairfield, 2008). Moreover, claims that vital or cherished content can be permanently stored
on hard drives and other media are proving to be fragile. According to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts
and Sciences study, “The Digital Dilemma,” there are good grounds both to doubt the long-term viability
of storage media (they disintegrate or become obsolete faster than older media of paper and film) and to
raise significantly the cost estimates of transferring content from one generation of storage media to the
next, as well as the long-term energy commitments to support electronic storage model (Cieply, 2007).
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 343
Paper Production in Selected Nations 1998
Source: Hassan et al., 2005, p. 435
Paper consumption will continue to pose a core eco-ethical challenge to media studies. At least
one paper-based medium offers a clear case of needless over-consumption: high-end commercial
magazines. Since 2000, magazine publishing has been eating up forests at a rate higher than any other
print medium—the glossier the magazine, the more new, or virgin wood is needed. By that year, 18,000
magazine titles were published annually in the U.S., which added up to an estimated annual print run of
12 billion copies, the equivalent of more than 35 million trees. Two-thirds of all copies are not purchased,
leaving 90% to be trashed within a year of publication, of which just 19% are recycled. The rest, about
two million tons, ends up in landfills or incinerators. This wasteful business is perpetuated by wholesale
distributors, market research firms, and retail sellers who have no incentives for comprehending the
meaning of sustainable publishing (Independent Press Association et al., 2001, pp. 5-10).
344 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
Annual Environmental Impact of the Production of 12 Billion Magazines
Annual Amount
Annual Equivalent
Wood Use
5,110,398 tons
Amount of copy paper used by 109
million people (39% of U.S. population)
Energy Use
72,220,086 million British Thermal Units
Enough to power 694,000 households
Gases (CO2
13,408,395,941 pounds
As much as the emissions produced by
1.2 million cars
Solid Waste
4,917,979,277 pounds
As much as the garbage produced by
1.2 million households
34,241,543,545 gallons
As much as the sewage produced by
352,000 households
23,572,856 pounds
Source: Alliance for Environmental Innovation/Environmental Defense, cited in Independent Press
Association et al., 2001, p. 6.
The economic context of magazine publishing shows that the business model—overproduction—
fails to address the limits of growth of publishing. With annual revenue increases of 1 to 2% in this sector
(Wheaton, 2007, p. 14), advertisers get squeamish at any fluctuations in magazine circulation and
threaten to abandon magazines altogether—though this is not unheard of as a ploy to hammer advertising
rates down, especially when the money is really still being made in print ad spending, not on-line (“Out of
Vogue,” 2007).
For ecocentric and intermediate eco-ethics, little time would be spent weighing the Earth’s wellbeing
against a human-centered value derived from the “pleasing characteristics of magazines—their
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 345
portability and glossiness” (“Out of Vogue,” 2007). This glossy medium in its current form would have to
yield to the Earth. And our contribution? Media studies could introduce research on lifestyle and social
organization to deepen the case against profligate deforestation, but the pressure must really come from
the eco-crisis itself, which necessitates an immediate end to the existing papermaking process and
disposal problem underpinning high-end commercial magazine publishing. Even “light-green” eco-ethics
could find common ground for action here, but once drawn into the risk managerialism of CBA,
environmentalists might find themselves compromising for an ecologically unsound outcome. Alternative
sources of pulp could replace virgin forests (recycling, hemp, etc.), but would not provide the quality of
paper currently used by the magazine industry. And as we’ve pointed out, electronic alternatives are not
problem-free. The point of this illustration is to introduce an eco-ethical challenge that media studies could
help resolve given its knowledge base and resources for research and analysis of this medium and its
markets. From our point of view, gloss may be desirable, but it must be dispensable; forests transcend
that calculus.
Cell Phones
The cell phone is a very compelling media technology. As Castells et al., (2007, pp. 246-258)
argue, it is used by hundreds of millions of people worldwide. It’s the technology of choice for developing
countries trying to overcome internal “connectivity gaps.” Mobiles outnumber landline phones, and they
provide tools for youth culture and social networks. Their uses are malleable, multimedia, and multimodal.
They broaden channels of communication within a realm of personal safety, coordinate fragmented
family life, improve individuals’ experience (“choice”) of peer groups, speed up rendezvous, and make
users feel important. Moreover, there are additional features: users produce content, create their own
language, and draw important meanings from the exterior design.
On the downside, however, there are many drawbacks: cell phones cause a new form of
inequality (lack of access to the new sociality), are biased toward young eyes and dexterous fingers, can
spread rumors quickly, are vulnerable to viruses, distract drivers and pedestrians, cause interpersonal
conflicts between callers, and so on. Dan Schiller (2007, pp. 162-173) offers a contrasting view of mobile
telephony, from a political-economic perspective. He challenges cell phone enthusiasts to query the way
social stresses are not merely fueling new consumer needs, but are exploited at the expense of consumers
who rush to buy inferior services at high cost. This is particularly the case in the U.S., where the decline in
government oversight of telecommunication industries since World War II has resulted in increasing
privatization, with diminishing emphasis on quality guarantees, standards, and regulation of competition.
Schiller argues that poor-quality service in the U.S. is a function of these companies’ abilities to exploit a
social need for connectedness in times of social fragmentation. He draws on Raymond Williams’ analysis of
TV in the 1970s to describe the experience of displacement and deracination in modern life that settled
into a mode of sociality in which individualization (separateness and privacy) combined with mobility
(transportation and widening access to the world). Williams suggested the term "mobile privatization" to
capture the paradoxical feelings of being at once more separated from others and more capable of
connecting with them. Whereas broadcast technology, in Williams’ view, was a social product of this
industrial form of sociality (1975, p. 26), much like Castells et al.’s suggestion that mobile technology fits
an analogous structure of feeling in the network society (timeless time, space of flows), Schiller argues
346 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
that political-economic arrangements allowed mobile telephony to emerge in a form befitting divided
societies. In the U.S., telecommunications and postal services responded to this vulnerability under the
guidance of public policy shaped in the public interest. The Internet and mobile telephony, by contrast,
arrived in the U.S. under market criteria that privileged mobile privatization, and the fragmented forms of
sociality from which it originated. They were exploited for profit, and their technical basis was inferior to
Asian and European counterparts.
These two studies offer substantive analyses of lifestyle and organizational factors that have
fueled the growth of mobile phone technology. Eco-ethics shifts the scholastic perspective to the reality of
the eco-crisis and redirects analysis first to the ecological context of the cell phone: the production chain,
life-cycle energy requirements, raw materials (source functions), environmental outputs (sink functions),
or post-consumer existence (spent batteries, disposal, recycling, and so on). We can fill in certain
airbrushed absences from this picture.
The source materials used in cell phones vary among manufacturers—but all contain lead and
other heavy metals (circuit boards), frequently at levels that exceed U.S. toxicity standards (keep in mind
the allocation of risk behind the notion of “safe amounts”). All involve chemical processing associated with
chip production, including many toxic detergents and etchants; most contain mercury (screens) and flame
retardants made of polybrominated diphenyl ethers (bioaccumulative synthetic chemical compounds are
persistent organic pollutants known to cause neurological problems, though they are still not wellunderstood);
all contain tantalum, the mining of which has caused “disastrous” social and environmental
harm in Africa; and all contain batteries (Grossman, 2006, pp. 18-20, 44-45, and chap. 5). Compounds in
batteries are toxic (among the substances they house are nickel-cadmium, lead-acid, nickel metalhydride,
lithium-ion, and lithium-polymer components). Like generators, batteries are not primary-energy
sources, but instead require energy inputs prior to production and distribution and during recharging
(including the “no-load” burden of plugged, but empty chargers) (Rydh, 2003). And additionally, results of
recent research on long-term handset usage have confirmed links between brain tumors and radiation
from mobile phones, causing the European Environment Agency to call for design changes (Lean, 2008).
Cell phones do dread post-consumption work: about 130 million cell phones are trashed each year in the
U.S. alone (with an estimated half billion old phones sitting in drawers), and Americans now purchase
replacements every 12 months on average (Crosby, 2007; Mooallem, 2008, pp. 40-41). As one
environmental health scientist warned: “In a phone that you hold in the palm of your hand, you now have
more than 200 chemical compounds. To try to separate them out and study what health effects may be
associated with burning or sinking it in water—that’s a lifetime of work for a toxicologist” (quoted in
Mooallem, 2008, p. 42).
Clearly, manufacturers could help reduce environmental burdens by looking for non-toxic source
materials, while manufacturers and distributors could help with buyback or recycling programs to keep
spent phones and batteries out of landfills, as per 2006 legislation in California—not merely
consumer/user refunctioning outlined in Castells et al. (2007). Nevertheless, progress in this policy area
has been hampered by cost-benefit-analysis rigmarole (the current impasse in New York City government
provides a good case study on the limits of “light green” approaches to the eco-crises) (“One Small Step
International Journal of Communication 1 (2008) Ecological Ethics and Media Technology 347
for Electronic Waste,” 2008). Policy matters aside, what might media studies say about this very complex
ethical challenge?
Ecocentrists would have us remember that the eco-crisis demands immediate termination of all
unsound ecological practices associated with the cell phone, letting the Earth’s well-being take precedence
over the human good. Intermediate eco-ethics would press into this argument calls for action to stem the
body and environmental burden of cell phone manufacturing, use, and disposal—studies of persistent
organic pollutants in land, air and water would accompany epidemiological research to help guide
solutions. And anthropocentric ecoethicists would have a range of responses, from calls for immediate
application of the precautionary principle to applications of CBA that would settle for compromises and
slow reforms to ensure greater technological efficiency in the manufacture and disposal of the cell-phones
(with risks distributed along existing lines of stratification). The dilemma here is clear and the issues are
daunting, but it’s time for media and communication studies to intervene in this ecological challenge,
interrogating our own investments in the technological sublime then deploying our critical skills to
reassess the role of the media in shaping the environment. We believe that eco-ethics is a good point of
departure for this endeavor, especially when it is linked to domains of knowledge and activism that are
already important to our field, such as feminism, which can be articulated to environmental feminism, and
critical race theory, articulated to environmental justice (Pellow & Park, 2002).
We have introduced the possibility of an eco-ethics in the field. Our ideas are raw and
contestable. We recognize that media and communication studies do not suffer from complete
“technological somnambulism” (Winner, 1986); but the field contributes to the enchantment of media
technologies and the disenchantment of non-human nature. To that extent, we either do nothing about
the eco-crisis, or even enable it. We think this has to end.
348 Richard Maxwell & Toby Miller International Journal of Communication 2 (2008)
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