Last year was the warmest in recorded history. The graphic artists of the environmental movement tried to warn us. Their posters aimed to scare people straight with pictures of ecological ruin, or glorified nature, clean air and water, sunshine and verdure. Some offered earworm-y slogans and haunting visuals. Whatever their approach — bright, witty, somber, blunt, even sexy — they sought an image, a phrase, that could change enough minds to literally save the world.
Through Feb. 25, an exhibition at Poster House in Manhattan demonstrates these visual and rhetorical styles, and how they reflect the evolving movement’s shifting strategies. There are 33 posters on view, along with dozens of postage stamps and a pair of socks by Vivienne Westwood.
Environmentalism began honing its voice in the 1970s, with roots in the counterculture and protests against the Vietnam War. Robert Rauschenberg designed the official poster for the first Earth Day, in 1970. In a deadpan appeal to patriotism, grim scenes of spoiled ecologies frame a bald eagle. The earliest work in the show, a call for clean water from 1961 by Hans Erni, features a ghastly skull in a drinking glass. The choice, the artists argued, was between peace and poison.
This is the environmental movement as a marketing problem. First, people must know about your product; then you must persuade them that they need it. Maybe a healthy planet seems like a self-evident good. “Give Earth a Chance,” reads a 1970 poster by Milton Glaser; the big blue marble we all inhabit is drawn floating in a living room. As the Earth Days and global conclaves tick by on the posters, it starts to feel like consciousness-raising isn’t enough. The posters’ tones acidify. An austere illustration by Yen-chang Cheng & Hung-yu Chen from 2008 features a baby polar bear floating on its mother’s corpse.
Flashes of optimism and calls to rally around children and animals characterize several examples from the 1980s, including a pro-tree poster by Eric Carle of “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” fame. In Rauschenberg’s 1992 print for the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, an infant naps in a stroller. “I pledge to make the Earth a secure and hospitable home for present and future generations,” it reads.
You also start to suspect counterforces at work — what Vince Packard, a journalist critical of consumerism, called “hidden persuaders” in his 1957 book — who could sell an anvil to someone drowning.
All the materials on view stem from sincere convictions — or do they? On the back wall is a poster version of the famous “Crying Indian” TV spot, with a solitary tear spilling down the weathered cheek of Iron Eyes Cody. A wall label tells you something you may know — that this “Native American” is actually an Italian American actor — and something you may not: the Keep America Beautiful group behind the ad is a consortium of beverage companies.
This context puts the text in a different light. “People start pollution,” the poster reads. “People can stop it.” The campaign tried to shift the onus to litterbugs, and away from brands’ disposable packaging. Likewise, the idea of a “carbon footprint,” which makes individual consumers the problem rather than the fossil fuels they’re sold, is the invention of spin doctors (the megafirm Ogilvy & Mather), hired by BP in 2004.
Gradually, environmentalist artists got wise. The show features examples of the so-called culture jamming mode developed by activists in the ’90s. (Think Adbusters magazine or the Yes Men.)
A pitch-perfect parody of a Volkswagen ad by the British designer Barnbrook is one of several that were sneaked into Paris bus stops ahead of the COP21 climate conference. There is the usual car, and above it, Volkswagen’s familiar font. But the text reads, “We’re sorry that we got caught,” a reference to the carmaker’s emissions cheating scandal and a rebuke of its own sans-serif apology placed in newspapers just days earlier. The idea is less to draw hearts to green causes than to gird minds against greenwashing.
But ad firms are creative too. The most morally ambiguous poster is a 2017 spread showing a well-heeled woman posing with a megaphone on a luxury speedboat while, just behind her, a fishing vessel drags in a whale and bloodies the sea. “For those with environmental awareness,” goes the copy. “And 72,000 dollars.” A vicious sendup of greenwashed luxury? No, it’s an ad, created by Ogilvy & Mather, for a hybrid electric Lexus.
Perhaps realizing they can’t outspend corporate P.R., some contemporary poster makers forgo blue-skies thinking and bitter wit in order to tout specific policy. Gavin Snider’s 2019 earth-toned design depicts a lively scene centered on the giant globe fountain built in Flushing Meadows Corona Park for the 1964 World’s Fair. It states, simply: “The Green New Deal.” In 2023, Jan Martijn Burger’s poster urging divestment in fossil fuels took up the nostalgic style of W.P.A. printmakers. In the arc this show sketches, the mood of the environmental movement gradually drains of joy.
We Tried to Warn You! Environmental Crisis Posters, 1970-2020 Through Feb. 25 at Poster House, 119 West 23rd Street, Manhattan; 917-722-2439; posterhouse.org.