Environmental Communication: Brulle’s Rhetoric of Change (Part One)

From Environmental Campaigns to Advancing the Public Dialog: Environmental Communication for Civic Engagement, Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture, 4(1), 82-98.

Brulle’s Rhetoric of Change: A Rhetoric of Civic Engagement 

“An effective rhetoric of change critiques the current situation and offers Utopian vision of where society needs to go …

Brulle’s rhetoric of civic engagement contrasts the ideology of environmental identity campaigns, which he explains are campaigns based on the idea that more effective environmental messages are developed through the application of cognitive science by professional communications experts; under the assumption that such message-delivery can favorably influence public opinion and ultimately support legislative action in favor of, for instance, climate change science* policy. He cites two prominent users of environmental identity campaigns – ecoAmerica and Lakoff – arguing that problematic messaging strategies (four in particular, listed/explained below) on which ecoAmerica/Lakoff’s campaigns are founded imply that even though their environmental identity ideology may offer short-term advantages, such campaigns are incapable of sustaining long-term and widespread support and mobilization that an environmental problem like global warming** necessitates. Brulle leverages his perspective by proffering theoretical evidence: “research that shows that democratic civic engagement is core to successful social change efforts” (82).

A Quick Note on the Rhetorical Distinction between Climate Science and Global Warming:

  • Global warming: Brulle’s consistent use of climate change science in terms of “global warming” emphasizes a singular problem of climate change science; the heating of the Earth, rise in Earth’s temperature, and the implications for public policy, etc. that seeks to address this particular problem
  • Climate change science: often used by climate change experts/scientists etc. to allude to the broader implications (one of which is global warming) of climate change.
  • Therefore, Brulle’s consistent use of “global warming” focuses his perspective on the communicative dynamics – the rhetoric – of this particular environmental problem.

Environmental Identity Campaign

A few words on Brulle’s perception of ecoAmerica’s/Lakoff’s messaging strategies:

  • Brulle criticizes ecoAmerica/Lakoff for adhering to messaging strategies that promote a marketing-based approach, one that is based on appeals to self-interest and “core progressive” values … essentially, one that “sells” a pre-packaged policy (versus a policy that involves stakeholders; one that involves civic engagement)
  • He suggests that because their strategy aims to fit within current political and economic institutions, it is subsequently constrained by key imperatives (like the necessity to maximize ROI, provide security, economic growth, and maintain political legitimacy) and because it is constrained within these directives, even positive, well-intended environmental actions that impinge on any of those imperatives will not be carried out … because of the way in which they could potentially jeopardize the imperatives of the system.

A few words on field frames:

  • “frames are collectively shared worldviews that define a field of interaction” (Bourdieu)
  • “Social order is made up of multiple discursive frames, each which defines a unique field of practice (Benson, 2000, p. 13; Laclau & Mouffe, 1985 cited in Brulle 85) … embedded discursive frames take the form of field frames, or political constructions that define appropriate/inappropriate practices in a given area” (Brulle 85)
  • Brulle suggests that environmental identity campaigns like ecoAmerica/Lakoff’s work within (and therefore maintain) the hegemonic frame via managerial rhetoric
    • Managerial rhetoric: “those rhetorical acts which by their form uphold and reinforce the established order or system” (Cathcart, 1978, p. 237 cited in Brulle 86)
    • Therefore, if environmental identity campaigns consist of messaging strategies that reinforce the current political/economic imperatives, and reinforcement of those imperatives precludes any long-term/sustainable change in behavior that – in this instance – seeks to counteract choices in favor of widespread support and mobilization for global warming policy – then, despite any short-term successes/support, such strategies will ultimately dissipate because of the ideology that global warming policy necessitates doesn’t match the frame within which it is being communicated/practiced
  • Furthermore, a managerial rhetoric is a “… rhetoric of piety, a system builder, a desire to round things out, to fit experiences together as a unified whole” meaning that such a rhetoric reinforces frames of social order/the world as an orderly system, potentially reinforcing an ideology of doubt, where uncertainty works as a deterrent – and even a preventative – for responding to global warming and climate change science more broadly. If managerial rhetoric is the rhetoric of environmental identity campaigns, and such campaigns seek (short-term) influence of individuals’ self-interest and “core progressive” values, then such a rhetoric disallows the type of scientific experimentation that is necessary for the development of responses to global warming, but also one that neglects to enable the engagement of non-managerial actors …


Part Two (coming soon) will detail Brulle’s articulation of the specific problems of an environmental identity campaign and the dimensions of the type of campaign Brulle advocates: an environmental communication campaign as a civic engagement agenda …

Part Two will conclude with an analysis of climate change rhetoric, especially as it is articulated through a rhetoric of crisis, fear, and will offer specific insight into how Brulle sees the rhetoric of fear as threat messaging versus challenge appraisals …  


About klangbehn

Doctoral Candidate: Rhetoric of Science University of South Florida 4202 E. Fowler Avenue Tampa, FL 33620-5550 View all posts by klangbehn

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