Interview with Susan Davis
author of Spectacular Nature - Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience. Her book focuses on the theme parks of Sea World and examines the role of commercial entertainment in shaing public understandings of theenvironment and  environmental issues.



WHAT WAS YOUR IMPRESSION OF SEA WORLD? YOU SPENT TWO YEARS RESEARCHING IN THERE....

I thought it was overwhelmingly commercial. I watched it over a lot of years and every year I thought it became more like a shopping mall. I mean there really is an incredible clustering of all kinds of stores, souvenir stores, food concession stores, photo concession stores, because concession sales are really, really important to their profit. So I found it very commercial, very intensely managed, very carefully planned landscape.

HOW DO THEY WORK? HOW DO THEY REACH PEOPLE?

Well they study people behaviour. They do a tremendous amount of market research, they know an awful lot about their audience and they're continually researching their audience. They interview people in the park. They have very sophisticated and intelligent landscape designers and exhibit designers and you know they're always refreshing and refurbishing the landscape and the planting. And they're thinking about do people like to walk on concrete or would they rather walk on asphalt. And they think about these details, as all theme park designers do, down to the tiniest details, to the extent that their budget allows them to think those things through.

As far as the animals go, they study, as far as I can tell, they study their animals very carefully and keep enormous track of information about all their biological aspects, and especially the killer whales because those are the most - those are the most valuable, expensive and hard to maintain animals.

HOW WOULD YOU SUMMARIZE THE BALANCE BETWEEN EDUCATION, SCIENTIFIC WORK AND ENTERTAINMENT AT SEA WORLD?

This is first and foremost an amusement project. Its first job is to return revenue to the parent company, Anheuser Busch. The killer whales especially are the central spectacle in this amusement project. They are its Mickey Mouse, okay? So they have to be healthy. They have to be trainable. They have to look good. Ideally, they should be reproducing, okay, and while there is some other kinds of scientific research done at Sea World, I think most of the research and most of the effort at Sea World is put into keeping these whales healthy and performing, able to perform in captivity. I think that's what the science is largely directed toward.

SEA WORLD EMPHASIZES ITS EDUCATIONAL MISSION - YOU KNOW, WE BRING MOTHERS AND THEIR CHILDREN HERE AND WE SEND THEM OUT INTO THE WORLD INFORMED AND CONCERNED ABOUT OTHER MAMMALIAN SPECIES.

Well, it's true - that it is amazing to see those whales live and up close. They are incredibly beautiful, even in sort of strange performance that they appear in. They make a great deal of their educational mandate. I think you can get about the same level of education from a reasonably good library book aimed at a third grader at your public library, okay. I think the kinds of amount of information and the sophistication of the information maybe even is not as good as that third grade level library book.

YOU'RE A MOM. WHAT LESSONS DO YOU THINK YOUR CHILDREN WOULD TAKE AWAYS FROM SEA WORLD?

I would worry that they would think that by attending an entertainment performance that they are committing political activism, okay. That this is an environmentally activist thing to do, to give your money to this corporation so that these whales can perform for people. I would - I want my children to know that political activism is more than paying admission. So I think that's kind of a spectacular version of what politics is.

I think there's another message that Sea World communicates very powerfully that I'm concerned by, and that is that the environment is in good hands. It's in good hands, it's in the hands of these big companies, whether it's Anheiser Busch or some other, you know, big company, really have the best of intentions for the biosphere. I think environmental change and progress is going to come from people's activism. I don't think it's going to come from big corporate programs.

BRAD ANDREWS OF SEA WORLD SAYS THAT THE ONLY HOPE FOR PRESERVING SPECIES, FOR MAINTAINING SOME PUBLIC CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE FRAGILITY OF THE WILD LIES IN THEME PARKS SUPPORTED BY LARGE CORPORATIONS, THAT THE GOVERNMENT IS OUT OF IT, THAT THE PUBLIC SECTOR IS OUT OF IT.

What's the polite word? Hogwash. Look, I mean I think that the entertainment media, they - they are a powerful force for interesting people, they're a powerful force for informing people, even if the education about the environment that Sea World is delivering wasn't pretty superficial, the entertainment media by themselves would never be enough. We need you know committed, popular activism and we, and I think we need governments and I think we need laws to protect the environment. I wouldn't hand it over to the theme park industry.

BUT WHAT KIND OF ACTIVISM? FOR EXAMPLE, WHAT ABOUT THE FREE WILLY FOUNDATION?

Well, I don't see the Free Willy Foundation as environmental activism. It's some kind of a weird spectacle that's built around a celebrity animal, okay. But let's look at it another way. Let's say that you know, what's the company that is promoting Free Willy Foundation? Is it Universal or is it Warner Brothers? Warner Brothers, okay. Let's say Warner Brothers, who's going to go big time into environmental activism. You know, they could be educating people about what's happening in the fisheries off the Pacific coast. They could be educating people about overfishing, they could be educating people about serious toxic pollution problems in the oceans. They could be educating people about the loss of watershed in the Pacific north-west that's profoundly affecting the fisheries. Is the Free Willy Foundation doing that?

NOT TO MY KNOWLEDGE.

Not to mine either. I think it's really kind of interesting in a circular kind of way. I mean outfits like Sea World have created the celebrity for these animals. They've created a tremendous interest in them, they've probably created some compassion for them and they've created actually their political and public visibility. But one of the things that that means is that we now have a celebrity animal that's also you know a licensed image and a registered trademark. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be concerned about the health of an individual animal, but saving that animal is not the same as making environmental progress.

HOW BIG A COMMERCIAL VENTURE IS SEA WORLD?

Well, it's nearly - nearly four million people a year visit the Sea World in San Diego, which is the one that I studied. And the Anheuser Busch theme parks probably have, if I recall correctly, about 18 million people attending them in a year. Maybe those figures are a little dated, but that's roughly the idea. They're expensive to go to. The average - well say the full price adult admission is probably $35 now, so you know, multiply four million people by $35 and maybe discount it 10% to think about discounting. And that's a lot of money. I mean theme parks are money makers. That's why there's been a theme park building boom in this country for the past couple of decades. They produce a tremendous amount of cash.

WHY DOES ANHEUSER BUSCH NEED THIS?

Well, You know, every big corporation is smart to diversify. Theme parks are kind of a licence to print money, once you get them up and running. You know, they're very stable and unless there's a huge gasoline crisis or complete collapse in tourism, they just keep sort of putting the cash out, okay. So it's just a good, it could be a good investment and it was a good investment for Anheuser Busch. But I think that there's another pay-off, maybe two other pay-offs. One is this is a company that wants very much to be seen as a green corporation, so having this association with nature, animals. Some of their other parks are very zoo-like, okay. So this is very, very positive for them.

The second part of the pay-off I think is more diffuse, but just as important. I think it's possible that we're entering a new kind of spirit of prohibition or spirit of temperance. I think that there's a lot of concern about the social and health effects of alcohol. It's very important that beer be seen as healthy and family friendly and not antagonistic to families. You have these wonderful theme parks that seem to do these great things for nature. It's family entertainment. It looks like a kind of green activism to go there. And you have the positioning of the company name and in some places the beer name, Budweiser, in these venues. And it's not, you know, some people accuse Anheuser Busch of using their theme parks to market beer to children. I think that's extreme. I think it's more subtle than that. I think what they're doing is creating powerful positive feeling about the company and the product among a very important audience, families with children, okay. The last thing these people want to have happen to them is what happened to the tobacco industry, for people to say yes, it's legal, but it's dangerous.

ON A PERSONAL LEVEL, HOW DID THIS EXPERIENCE AFFECT YOU?

Well, I developed a tremendous admiration for all the kinds of labor and skills that go into building this theme park. I developed a lot of admiration for the sophistication of thought that's gone into it. And I found it, you know, with each trip it got harder to go back because I found it more and more oppressive and more and more sort of closed and controlling. So I was very thrilled one day when I was there with my daughter and who was at the time six, and she said this is boring, let's leave.

YOU SAY OPPRESSIVE. THAT'S A STRONG WORD. WHAT WAS SO OPPRESSIVE?

Well you know what I think is oppressive is again - a kind of unacknowledged contradiction. There is this incredible imagery all through the park in the exhibits, in the aquariums, in the landscaping of a kind of freedom of nature, a kind of lushness and abundance of beauty and it's been very carefully sculpted to appear most of the time unrestrained. People don't like to see restrained animals. But even the plants try to give off this unrestrained feeling. And yet you know, you look at it and it is manufactured, it is restrained, okay. It is a product.

I think that nature is a profound concept in Western culture and I think that we think of nature as being what is most free, what is most unmanipulated and what is essentially not possible to manufacture or simulate. When you're at Sea World you see this incredible detailed abundance, see life teeming everywhere and plants growing freely. You see it as simulated nature that's a product.

YOU'RE DESCRIBING AN ALMOST KIND OF NARCOTIC EFFECT - THAT INSTEAD OF RAISING CONSCIOUSNESS ABOUT NATURE THAT IT'S A KIND OF A FALSE REASSURANCE?

I think so. I think that the American public is really profoundly concerned about the environment and locally, nationally and globally. And I think this world really does appeal to and market to this concern. You could even call it anxiety about the health of the planet. But the answer that they're giving is come here, look what we can do, it's all going to all right.

I mean if you want to consider it an educational institution then you have to ask what are they effectively educating about. Are they teaching people about the sources of problems and the solution to problems? I don't think they are. I think they're saying nature is in good hands, it keeps coming back.

AGAIN, WHAT IS YOUR PRINCIPAL CONCERN ABOUT THE LESSON TAKEN AWAY BY YOUR CHILDREN, OTHER CHILDREN THAT COME AND GO FROM SEA WORLD?

I think I'm concerned about a confusion of the distinction between real environmental activism and consumption as environmental activism. It's not just that Sea World is a kind of machine for getting people to spend money which it is. It is that it also offers the lesson - this is a concern and this is action. And I want my children and I really want other people's children too to understand that paying admission is not the same as being environmentally active.

WHAT KIND OF ACTIVISM ARE YOU PRESCRIBING?

I don't think there's one but I think, you know really serious education about the causes of pollution, okay, and the causes of environmental degradation and the causes of habitat loss is a form of activism.

ALSO OF POLITICS.

It's a form of politics sure and you know, voting, informing yourself, informing other people, grass roots campaigns, local campaigns, national level campaigns, efforts to change laws, efforts to understand how laws work. Activism actually is kind of boring. It's showing up at meeting after meeting after meeting after meeting. Again people can choose their own kinds of activism but we do have a powerful model in American culture that says buying things is the way you get things done. I think that, you know, we need to modify that more than a little bit.

SEA WORLD TAKES A GREAT DEAL OF PRIDE IN THEIR OUTREACH TO THE SCHOOL SYSTEM AMONG OTHER INSITUTIONS. HOW IS THAT IN YOUR VIEW?

Well we're talking about the California public schools which was really what I was writing about. We're talking about school systems that are really hurting. They're really hurting for money, okay, and for resources. What Sea World does is it makes its educational products available to these school systems for free. My problem with these products besides the fact that again I think the education in them is really very thin is that they are marketing devices. They are set up to appeal to school aged children, that the park is a beautiful, wonderful, colourful place and there's one in many parts of the country and you can go there. And the people at Sea World are not really embarrassed about this at all. They think that this blend of education and what is really advertising is perfectly reasonable.

AND IS IT?

And by the way they're not the only large corporation that does this. No, I don't think it's reasonable. I think that they are using the need of California public school teachers for teaching materials to get their advertising into the classroom and I don't like that.

YOU'RE DESCRIBING A CONDITION OF OUR CONTEMPORARY EXISTENCE ALL OVER THE PLACE --

Yes, I am, and actually --

WHERE THE PUBLIC SECTOR IS BEING SUPPLANTED BY THE CORPORATE SECTOR.

Yes, and that's really why I wrote this book. It seems like I have a big beef with Sea World with Anheuser Busch. Really, what I'm very concerned with is the privatization of public culture and the injection of commercial values into our culture where they haven't been there before.

ARE YOU NOT A VOICE CRYING IN THE WILDERNESS?

Well don't we need voices in the wilderness? I mean to answer your question seriously, there are some very serious social activists around this issue, I mean the Center for the Study of Commercialism cover this stuff and so does a group of scholars called the Cultural Environmental Movement. So I'm not the only person that thinks this.




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