Boardwalk Empire: ‘G’ isn’t just for Gangsters

January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment

Did the title confuse you already? What could a TV show about 1920’s gangsters and mobsters have to do with sustainability? Bare with me for a few moments and you’ll understand.

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First, for those of you who may not know what Boardwalk Empire is, it’s an HBO series that follows gangsters in the illegal liquor trade, based in Atlantic City on the Boardwalk during the era of Prohibition in the early 20th century. Though many major characters are fictional or loosely based on real people, most of the supporting cast is composed of fairly accurate portrayals of real people from the time period – from gangsters, to politicians, to athletes, etc., from the Atlantic City area, and across the country and the world. Furthermore, the sets and costumes, but more importantly the depictions of everyday life paint a vibrant picture of what the twenties were like.

But what does this have to do with sustainability? First, some definitions:

John Fiske and Stuart Hall, famed media scholars, discuss various aspects of popular culture. Fiske talks about the dominant-hegemonic ideology, which basically just refers to the generally-held, status-quo beliefs held by the diegetic society of the film, TV show, play, etc. Hall (and to an extent, Fiske) explains the concept of  reading positions and polysemy, which in layman’s terms means that there are multiple ways of reading or interpreting the meaning of a work, none of which are wrong and can coexist or conflict.

So finally, here’s how it relates to sustainability:

Boardwalk Empire is usually taken to be about gangsters in the 1920’s – their rise and fall, their private lives, etc. – but I think it can be read differently. Many can and likely do read it as a love story, or as a crime drama, or as all sorts of different genres and plot focuses. I find that if you look at it closely however, it takes us right into the roots of our problems with the environment today. Throughout both seasons of the show, the characters constantly exhibit over-the-top lifestyles – giant feasts where food gets wasted, drunken merriment, etc., and what you see is just a whole bunch of waste and excess. And I think that really is one of the main things the show gets across – the 1920s are the beginning of America‘s, and the world’s problem with excessive living. Though many scholars claim that the industrial revolution started our environment on its perilous path, after seeing things like burning down part of a forest to clear out a rival’s distillery, or the massive amount of things that get discarded without even so much of a thought about it, it is clear to me that this is truly where our environment took a turn for the worse. Before, people lived within their means, using industry to get only what they need. In the twenties, however, people got and wasted as much as they could, without care for the environment.

Speaking of caring for the environment, the show shows people who care about plenty of things – suffragettes, prohibitionists, those calling for equal rights for all, many religious people, etc. – but not one person mentions a thing about the environment. That right there is exactly how this is related to sustainability – in a time of great societal change and upheaval, not one person seemed to care. Perhaps if we had started caring earlier as a nation, we’d be in a better environmental position right now. The least we can do now is to learn from our past. Now that we have a more widespread understanding of how things worked in the past, (yes, it’s a TV show, but the ideas and backing themes come straight from history) we need to take action and try to reverse what has happened.

On a slightly different track, the show also shows a lot of political corruption. Politicians would rig votes to stay in power, and would work on government projects that would benefit their own personal needs and wants, rather than benefiting society as a whole. Now, government is not even close to being that corrupt today, and even the corruption that does exist is of a quite different fashion. But what used to be politicians making decisions to benefit their financial desires, politicians make decisions to keep themselves in office instead of what may be best for the country. Basically what happens, is that in today’s transparent political society, politicians like to talk only about the issues that they think will impress voters, because it gets them more publicity, to help themselves get re-elected. What ends up happening is that many sustainability and environmental issues, which many people are unfortunately less passionate about, get put on the back burner, just like many important issues did back in the 1920’s. When politicians do address these issues, it’s often done with little enthusiasm, basically just to appease a few voters, rather than to final fix things.

We need to learn from our mistakes. In some aspects, we’ve started to change and improve, but in others, only the details have changed, but the idea stays the same.


Addendum: Don’t get me wrong. Like everyone else, I love the show for its well developed characters, intense plot lines, the blood and guts, and the general awesomeness that surrounds the the concept. Just trying to make a point here.


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