Posters are Potent: A brief history of graphic art in service of Gaia

Recently I visited the Poster House in Manhattan—a little museum that my New York friend was impressed I had heard of. Truth is, I hadn’t, but I had stumbled on a New York Times article of one of the current exhibits—a history of environmental posters since the first Earth Day in 1970—that caught my attention.

The exhibit was moving, organized by the four elements, Earth, Air, Fire, and Water, and inclusive of works from many countries (not just the U.S.). It was also complemented by some really powerful quotations, like this doozy by Xenophon (c. 362 BC): “The Earth willingly teaches righteousness to those who can learn; for the better she is treated, the more good she gives in return.” Most importantly, the exhibit included many different styles of posters, and revealed to me what makes a powerful poster and what doesn’t.

Those that were most effective were those that forced you to stop and reflect. Not the blasé sunflower sticking out of a skyscraper or the Earth floating in a room reading “Give Earth a Chance,” but the challenging make-you-look-twice images and the ones that co-opt popular cultural icons to draw you in and question the unsustainability of modern culture.

Two examples of the latter are Porky Pig in a Gas Mask, saying “That’s All Folks!” from 1971. To me, having grown up with Looney Tunes (and never having seen that poster), this was probably my favorite (especially as the pollution is made with special paint that glows in black light). The subtle bits, like the Acme factory belting out pollution added to its cleverness as did its ultimate simplicity and reminder that we better make changes quick or face the end.

A similar, more recent effort (from 2022) co-opts the Count from Sesame Street to “Count down to Mass Extinction,” showcasing 2° (a dangerous level of climate change the world vaguely agreed not to transcend) as the numeric celebrity.

“1, 2, 3 degrees to death. Bwa ha ha!” (Count poster by Winston Tseng, 2022, and Porky poster by Unknown, 1971. All photos by Erik Assadourian unless otherwise noted).

Though sometimes, edgy, too, can be co-opted, like this poster advertisement by Lexus conveying that you can save nature (and the whales) by buying a luxury hybrid car (and look chic doing so). While just six years old, this poster seems far more dated than some from the 70s—in its sheer inappropriate tone.

2017 poster by the advertising behemoth Ogilvy & Mather (now Ogilvy), proudly finding new ways to sell us more stuff.

“Gas Masks and Honeybees”

Of course, when seeing many posters all at once, one does start seeing certain tropes. And as the curators note in the introductory panel, too many of these posters “relied heavily on clear visual culture…what one critic labeled “gas masks and honeybees”—creating a graphic sameness regardless of country or issue.”

Thinking… on a cloudy morning. (Posters by Ray Osrin, 1970, and Seymour Chwast, 1995, respectively.)

One reminder I had as I walked through the collection is that negative imagery can go too far, shifting the viewer from engaging to shutting down. I didn’t find that with the skull floating in a glass of polluted water, or all the dire textual warnings, but I did with this clever image of a baby polar bear looking for her mother. On first glance, the cub is on an iceberg, but look again and it’s horrific. I actually physically recoiled when I saw it.

Fortunately, the famous kid’s book “Are You My Mother?” did not take inspiration from this poster! (Poster by Yen-Change Cheng and Hung-Yu Chen.)

And yes, there were many positive messages, like a UNEP “For Every Child a Tree” poster by kids’ book writer Eric Carle (of Hungry Caterpillar fame). But these just didn’t have the same power.

One interesting juxtaposition: an educational poster from 1973 explaining to car customers that dealers will not dismantle emission controls, because it’s illegal and polluting. Compare that to the fake Volkswagen ad not apologizing for skirting emissions controls but for “getting caught” (in the famous VW ad style). In many ways we’ve gone backwards in the past 50 years, a continuing source of frustration to the many who have devoted their lives to this fight for sustainability and sanity.

But ironically, the biggest gem of the exhibit was not a poster at all, but a symbol included in a pin and T-shirt in the exhibit (and on Porky’s lapel pin). The symbol is that of an e (for environment) and an O for organism, which combine to make θ, the Greek letter theta, which is an ancient symbol for death (resembling, kinda, sorta, a human skull and being the first letter of death in Greek (Thanatos)).

All that is powerfully wrapped into one elegant symbol: all organisms live and die, and our Gaian home is the aggregation of all that life and death converging into something more than the simple sum of parts. I’m amazed that this symbol has been lost to time and definitely deserves a renaissance. But it also reminds me of the value of looking back at the struggles we’ve faced and what lessons earlier activists, artists, and environmentalists have learned, and applying them to our current struggles.

I wouldn’t mind wearing this T-shirt! (Design based on cartoonist Ron Cobb’s icon.)

The other lesson I took from this exhibit is the value of a good poster. Done well they can engage, provoke, excite, educate, and mobilize. In truth, that’s what I was hoping to find, as the Gaian Way is just a few weeks from starting to distribute its own eco-educational poster.

Inspired by a similar effort in Puerto Rico, the Cycles of Gaia poster tracks the progression of a year through the seasons, putting Gaia and nature’s cycles at the center, not human events and holidays. The hope is to deepen people’s awareness and respect for the living Earth and for the ecosystems they live their lives in—specifically Southern New England (or the Northeast Coastal Zone) as data is drawn from the Harvard Forest. I won’t say more than that as the artist, Jon Schroth, is writing a beautiful reflection that details the poster in more depth.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one more poster. When reading how too many posters lean on gas masks and honeybees, I couldn’t help but think, what we really need is an environmental poster of a honeybee wearing a gas mask. So, with a bit of help from DALL-E, voila!

Not in the poster exhibit, but here is a honeybee wearing a gas mask! (Image from DALL-E with modifications by Erik Assadourian)
Share this Reflection:

5 Responses

    • Erik Assadourian

      Sludge Surfer–nice! But I was surprised it’s from 2005–looks more in the 70s style! (Complete with gas mask!)

  1. Katharine

    Thanks for this! I was at the Earth Day gathering on April 22, 1970 at my university with my baby strapped to my back, even then worried about her future on Earth. She has now passed 50, and the situation is worse than ever. I still have my Earth Day decal, like the one on the T-shirt…..saved it all these years.

  2. Venkataraman Amarnath

    In Conservation there is a series called Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss with several cartoons from all over the world.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *