Ocean life given lite treatment

Spectacular Nature

October 30, 1998

This is a scholarly but approachable work that repays careful reading. It is unexpectedly rich and interesting, and it addresses issues that are more far-reaching than the bland title suggests. Susan Davis has a direct and persuasive style and, such is her clarity of view, that I have found myself quoting her extensively in writing this review.

She has undertaken a uniquely detailed analysis of the Sea World Theme Park in San Diego, which she describes rather unattractively as "corporately produced space where entertainment and retail sales can be creatively combined around a core attraction, in this case the performing whales and dolphins". She follows the history of the Sea World venture in the first two chapters, tracing its evolution from a "complex spatial machine for extracting profits from its customers" through to its entry into the expanding and reassuringly respectable market of environmental and scientific education. In those chapters and in the third chapter on the detailed social engineering that creates the "Sea World experience", Davis provides an incisive, and somewhat chilling picture of the careful manipulation and constant monitoring that is used to purvey the corporate message at every step.

Davis suggests that by "selectively interpreting reality to and for their customers the park's producers try to discover and respond to what they think their customers want". This ensures that the customers' experiences will secure both their eagerness to spend and their willingness to return at a later date. This first section of the book is interesting in itself, and provides a nicely written critique of the theme park phenomenon. The section on the presentation of the animals and the invocation of their world ("making the invisible visible") is essential reading for all those who are involved with, or concerned about, zoos, aquaria or other animal-based facilities. Always the accent is on the commodification of nature and, as the narrative unfolds, the author herself seems to be pulled deeper into the fundamental contradictions arising from this private and commercial use of nature.

The second half explores the wider implications of the wildlife theme park, and the more fundamental message shines through. The fourth chapter (accurately titled "Enlightenment lite") traces Sea World's metamorphosis from a Disneyesque show into an educational experience. But the educational message purveyed has a distinctly corporate bias. "Most important, in Sea World's stories about itself and the marine world, the oceans' vast resources are infinitely 'manageable' by corporate capital and, at the same time, protected from abuse and pollution."

The wish to pursue the corporate good and the need to provide a reassuring and non-confrontational message provides not just a bland experience but a distorted one. For example the staff are instructed not to use the word "evolve" in their presentations "because evolution is a controversial theory" - rather, they are requested to use the word "adapt". More dangerously, Davis says, the Sea World experience seeks to perpetuate the myth that somehow the natural world is separate from the human world and can be manipulated with impunity and even reconstructed in a safer and more sustainable form in the theme park. "At Sea World, nature and the human world are finally, firmly separate. 'Nature' is 'out there' - distant, deep, far away, and frozen until research steps in." "Sea World is a material argument for private business solutions to environmental problems that, though unequal in their origins and effects, are of course not private but collective and social in their most profound sense."

In the second quote lies the nub of her argument. The Sea World experience, as presented by Davis, side-steps difficult environmental issues, shies away from controversy and avoids critical views of the corporate approach. It encourages a comfortable, detached view of nature as something quaint and "out there". It does not challenge the public to rethink its attitudes and to act to ensure a sustainable and responsive approach to environmental problems.

However, not all presentations of the natural world to the general public fall into this corporate mould. In the United States, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, was founded primarily as an educational institution and provides a challenging and demanding experience for its millions of visitors.

In the United Kingdom, the National Marine Aquarium, opened in Plymouth in May, is a charitable, non-corporate organisation. Education is at the heart of its activities and is not brought in just as an additional marketing tool to exploit the selling power of the animals displayed. This approach - which informs the public that they are dependent upon this otherwise hidden world and engages them in understanding and protecting its inhabitants - is surely the way forward.

Michael Whitfield is director, Marine Biological Association.

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience

Author - Susan G. Davis
ISBN - 0 520 20031 4 and 20981 8
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £40.00 and £14.95
Pages - 336

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