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Why the Smartphone Became the Lightsaber of the Environmental Justice Movement

From West Virginia to the Gulf Coast, residents of communities facing environmental problems are discovering that visual storytelling brings results. Their number-one tool is the humble smartphone.

(Photo via Shutterstock)

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From West Virginia to the Gulf Coast, residents of communities facing environmental problems are discovering that visual storytelling brings results. Their number-one tool is the humble smartphone.

A week after the chemical spill that poisoned the drinking water for 300,000 West Virginians on January 9, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin announced that water was again safe for consumption. The emergency crews packed up, taking their supplies with them. Now, new tests confirm what West Virginians knew all along: their water is far from clean, and the crisis is far from over.

In the absence of government aid, a citizen network has sprung into action, collecting donations, recruiting volunteers, delivering water, and getting the human story of the crisis to an international audience. From the beginning, their smartphones were an essential tool—to coordinate water deliveries, post emergency updates, and also to share photos of neighbors helping one another.

Now, the “WV Clean Water Hub” Facebook page is the best place to go for aid information, more comprehensive even than the website set up by state government to provide information about the emergency. And it was those smartphone snapshots that made the difference, says Joe Solomon, a volunteer in West Virginia who has been working on the digital front of the crisis from the beginning.

“You can’t change the world with a statistic,” he says, but “photos…may be the secret to just how big the climate movement has grown in the last couple years.”

“There’s tremendous power to be had by leveraging this new media,” says Shadia Fayne Wood, director of Project Survival Media, which trains young people in countries across the world to tell stories about local climate solutions using visual media like photography and video.

While visual media is no substitute for on-the-ground organizing, activists are increasingly using it in strategic ways: by documenting evidence of pollution and abuse of power, connecting once-isolated groups, and helping to raise funds and resources. Perhaps more importantly, though, Wood says that images can “change the dominant narratives around solutions”; that is, allow people who have been excluded from media-making to tell their own stories of community power, and in so doing build a new story of climate change—one of hope rather than fear.

Climate activists are still experimenting with mobile technology as it morphs and changes their work in unpredictable ways. Since mobile devices can also be used by governments and corporations to monitor people’s activities, communications, and movements, the jury’s still out on whether their benefits will ultimately outweigh the costs.

One thing, however, is certain: smartphones have the power to create and disseminate compelling visual stories. And in the hands of people on the front lines of climate change, they are a powerful tool.

Getting the Shot

This is particularly true when mainstream media won’t—or can’t—cover a story. In March of 2013, the Pegasus pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., spilling 210,000 gallons of tar sands crude into a residential neighborhood. The spill caused serious health problems and destroyed property and fragile ecosystems. At the time, ExxonMobil was restricting journalistic access to the spill, and information was tightly controlled. Residents began documenting the damage and sharing their information with activists to create a network similar to the one operating today in West Virginia.

Eric Moll was one of the few to go behind police lines and document the full extent of the damage. Moll is a volunteer with Tar Sands Blockade, a group that uses direct action to oppose tar sands pipeline projects. When a Mayflower resident showed Moll and his colleagues a way to access the wetland where much of the oil had been collected, they streamed their footage on the website Ustream. Moll’s video would later be picked up by major news networks and provided some of the most striking evidence of corporate malfeasance in the Mayflower case.

As Moll streamed his footage, he says, viewers around the world messaged the film crew with suggestions and support—one viewer even offered to send bail money if they were arrested. Moll says they felt safer knowing that so many were watching.

Fear of police intimidation is a major part of why Tar Sands Blockade relies heavily on video even during routine interactions with law enforcement. “If police have a camera on them,” Moll says, “it’s a lot less likely that they’re going to resort to brutality.”

Reports of civilians with cameras being harassed by police at industrial sites are not unusual. When a journalist was detained last December for (legally) filming an oil refinery in Salt Lake City, Utah, activists responded with a mass “film-in” at the same spot.

Taking video, in this case, was itself a political act, a statement of free speech and solidarity.

Not Just Any Pictures

In West Virginia, the photos and videos have a immediate practical use: when someone writes on the WV Clean Water Hub saying they need water, Solomon and his fellow volunteers find a good photo of them on Facebook, pair it with the person’s request in their own words, and post it online.

“Almost every time, within a few hours, those people get water,” he says—and the help comes not from government officials, but from neighbors.

Social media has helped many to survive the crisis. But in order for the story to take on a life beyond West Virginia’s borders—and to perhaps prevent a similar spill from happening again—Solomon says they still need one thing: a really, really good photo.

That’s where organizations like Project Survival Media come in. The young people it trains as media-makers show not only how climate change is affecting them, but what people in their countries are doing to solve it: Indian villages powered by solar energy or drought-plagued Kenyans harvesting water. Shadia Fayne Wood believes that strong visual imagery is crucial to both humanize the issue of climate change and to communicate its complexity.

Wood says that having a smartphone can be helpful but it’s not enough. “What keeps these communities from really leveraging the power of social media is that they are so underfunded,” she says. The frontline communities that need these tools the most—to monitor authorities, to document environmental abuses, or to simply tell their own stories—still need resources, training, and support.

“You have to create something that breaks through the noise,” in order to have an impact, Wood says, referring to the barrage of images that most people in the United States see every day. Project Survival Media’s strategy for doing that is to make high-quality photos—which is why the project doesn’t just provide equipment, but trains young people in how to create compelling images that elicit a visceral response.

She’s inspired by platforms like the Bridge the Gulf Project, which provides a space for residents of Gulf Coast neighborhoods to upload their own videos, photos, and written stories about everything from the BP oil spill to community development projects. Residents have stories to tell and also possess the basic tools to tell them; by providing a public forum, Bridge the Gulf weaves those stories together into a larger, crowdsourced narrative that’s more powerful than the sum of its parts.

Which is why, in addition to the online chorus of requests for water, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, and money, Joe Solomon has added a call for more images—of things like candlelight vigils and volunteers driving through snow to deliver water to the remote corners of West Virginia.

The perfect photo won’t make the water any safer to drink, but if it can manage to push through the noise, it might help prevent disasters like the one in West Virginia from happening again.

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