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

I want to organize Part Two by answering the following questions:

  1. How is Brulle’s rhetoric of environmental communication a rhetoric that enables civic engagement in environmental problems like global warming? Because Brulle has positioned himself in opposition to environmental identity campaigns (“short-term fixes”) like ecoAmerica’s/Lakoff’s, the theoretical/practical facets of his perspective deserve serious attention as a potentially feasible alternative to ineffective climate science policy
  2. What are the problems of the messaging strategies of environmental identity campaigns like ecoAmerica’s/Lakoff’s? Brulle maps four specific issues, detailing the theoretical, systemic, and hegemonic problematics …
  3. What does environmental communication as civic engagement entail?
  4. How is a rhetoric of civic engagement a rhetoric of fear as challenge appraisals versus a rhetoric of fear as threat messaging?
  5. How does Brulle’s perspective concerning environmental communication rhetoric – especially pertaining to a rhetoric of fear as challenge appraisals – inform and complicate my own perceptions of a rhetoric of resiliency* as a rhetoric of fear?

*resiliency: in terms of climate change, resiliency pertains to our responses to the effects of climate change … at a very basic level, resiliency can be defined as humans’ ability to adapt to, prepare for, and prevent the effects of global warming/climate change (like sea level rise, storm surge, and urban flooding). The goal of Resilient Tampa Bay, the subject of my case study, was to “… exchange ideas on developing resiliency plans for the Tampa Bay region. The challenge was to consider plans that would protect vital infrastructure, improve conditions for economic development, and minimize the impact of hurricanes and other natural disasters …” (resilienttampabay.com). Throughout the sessions I participated in, a rhetoric of fear – a rhetoric of crisis – was discussed as a potential solution for civic engagement in climate science policy … although after reading Brulle’s perspective on a rhetoric of fear as necessitating challenge appraisals, it’s clear that the rhetoric of fear, the rhetoric of crisis that was discussed at Resilient Tampa Bay was a rhetoric of crisis consisting of threat messaging … which, as Brulle explains, is ineffective.

Environmental Communication to Enable Civic Engagement

For Brulle, civil society* is at the center of the renewal and transformation of social institutions (citing Habermas, 1996, p. 365).

*civil society: voluntary institutions that exist outside of control of market or state; theoretical and empirical research suggest that the institutions of civil society = the key site for the origination of social change; the participatory structure of civil society = key to large-scale social change efforts because they are based on communicative action, and are unhindered by limitations of market or state

Within the institutions of civil society, as within any group/social order, are frames which constitute the group’s ideologies, etc. Brulle refers to these frames specifically as “field frames,” which he defines as “… political constructions that define appropriate and inappropriate practices in a given area” (Brulle 85). What’s significant about field frames as they pertain to civil society is that the institutions of civil society allow for alternatives to traditional frames (traditional frames= frames that facilitate political and economic imperatives (like the necessity to maximize ROI, provide security, economic growth, and maintain political legitimacy)). In effect, these civil societies are critical communities, in which alternative, non-traditional ideologies – frames – develop. Such non-traditional ideologies begin within the institutions of civil society, but eventually permeate their borders, inciting widespread understanding – and collective behavior to address – societal problems like the environmental problem of global warming.

The alternative frames developed/disseminated by civil societies are important in that they affect the larger society because they force more widespread awareness of social problems. As Brulle explains, collective perception of a social problem – via an alternative mapping of the social world by the institutions of civil society – is necessary for individuals to collectively mobilize and act critically, often in ways that don’t agree with the current system, in response to environmental problems, for instance. On an even deeper level, frames are incredibly important because, as Bourdieu writes, “… knowledge of the social world and, more precisely, the categories that make it possible, are the stakes … of political struggle, the inextricably theoretical and practical struggle for the power to conserve or transform the social world by conserving or transforming the categories through which it is perceived” (Bourdieu 1985, p. 729 cited in Brulle 86).

Brulle is explicitly clear in explaining his positioning on environmental communication: ecoAmerica/Lakoff advocate messaging strategies that “… take the form of communications aimed at influencing public opinion in a particular direction …” implying that such strategies don’t allow for civic engagement (87). Because such strategies aren’t founded on a theory of civic engagement, they disallow the potential for long-term, sustainable social change. As Brulle articulates, “research shows that democratic civic engagement is core to successful social change efforts” (82). If ecoAmerica/Lakoff’s messaging strategies aren’t founded in methodologies that enable civic engagement, Brulle suggests that they disallow opportunities for real, long-term, sustainable change- the only type of change that will prove efficacious in accelerating the pace and scope of politically productive responses to global warming.

Environmental Identity Campaigns: Four Problems

Brulle maps four specific problems with environmental identity campaigns (87-91)

1. Questionable link between environmentalism and core progressive values

No existing theoretical support for progressivism and environmentalism à centering environmental communications campaign on notion of core progressive values = problematic

2. Ecological modernization* and cooptation of environmentalism

both messaging strategies are based on appeals to the imperatives of the existing system … suggesting, for instance, that new technologies can be developed and utilized to enhance economic growth while curtailing waste BUT the net conclusion of hundreds of studies is that this approach does not work – long-term, sustainably – to reduce most pollutants, especially greenhouse gases

*ecological modernization: Brulle explains that ecological modernization “… is appealing because it eliminates the need for zero-sum solutions” (88) and “In this view, capitalism can be modified to be ecologically sustainable without any changes to lifestyle or consumption patterns …” (Buttel, 2000; Schlosberg & Rinfret, 2008, p. 256 cited in Brulle 88)

3. Elite directed social change and public disempowerment:

“experts in cognitive science and psychology identify core progressive values and develop messaging campaigns based on those values … this is message delivery which treats citizens as consumers of ideas”

4. Framing without mobilization

“ … pouring new rhetoric into the same system of structural relations will accomplish little … political mobilization campaigns are more effective if they engage citizens in a sustained dialogue rather than treating them as a mass opinion to be manipulated …”

Envrironmental Communication as Civic Engagement: What’s Entailed?

1. Identity campaigns versus challenge campaigns: what’s the difference?

The difference lies in the rhetorical implications of fear, as it is either expressed as threat messaging or as challenge appeals:

Fear: assumption of identity campaign is that fear appeals are (universally) counterproductive; “… it is commonly assumed that fear leads to the opposite of the desired response (denial, paralysis, apathy, or actions that can create greater risks than the one being mitigated) HOWEVER – academic literature portrays a different point of view: reassuring messages (i.e. ecoAmerica) have the least salience … and a number of empirical studies show that apocalyptic messages show that individuals respond to threat appeals with an increased focus on collective action (Brulle 92) …

Threat messaging versus challenge messaging: there’s a difference between THREAT messaging (i.e. ecoAmerica/Lakoff’s fear appeals) and CHALLENGE appraisals (i.e. Brulle’s challenge campaigns).

Threat messaging: those in which the perception of danger exceeds the perception or abilities to cope

Challenge appraisals: perception of danger does not exceed the perception of the resources/ability to cope (theorists like Brulle and Meadows, Meadows, and Randers, who are realistically positive about the potential for bringing “… the throughputs that support human activities down to sustainable levels through human choice, human technology, and human organization …” (13) despite the certainty that we have overshot our limits) (see Meadows, Meadows, and Randers 223 for an extended explanation of “ability to cope”)

Fear (alone) à maladaptive behavior, but fear + information about effective actions (challenge messaging) à strongly motivating

2. Shifting the process from one-way communications to civic engagement:

Rather than just informing the public of and eliciting support for various policy positions, environmental communication ought to develop messaging procedures that involve citizens directly in the policy development process

Cohen, Meadows, Meadows & Randers, and Meyer (see previous posts) agree that environmental problems must involve the participation of stakeholders, as stakeholders are eminently important to the management of environmental problems (Cohen) the systems perspective modeling, which seeks to convince society to act in accordance with an opportunity to become more sustainable, functional, and equitable (Meadows, Meadows, & Randers) and the development of the capacity to apply/use the plethora of scientific knowledge on climate change science (Meyer)   

Brulle’s solution regarding how to integrate scientific analysis and community deliberation into a comprehensive strategy for environmental decision-making = analytic deliberation, a democratic method for development of government policies that recognizes the link between social rationality and public involvement; Brulle believes it can help inform the creation of democratic environmental communication that builds civic engagement …

3. Envisioning an ecologically sustainable society: “effective rhetoric critiques the current situation and offers a Utopian vision of where society needs to go” (93);

threats + opportunities, nightmares + dreams = social movement mobilization + social change

The Rhetoric of Resiliency as a Rhetoric of Crisis

As mentioned above, I’ve been developing a rhetorical analysis of Resilient Tampa Bay, the “knowledge exchange” with Dutch water management experts and University of South Florida students/professors, and local, regional, and state entities. In my analysis, I interpret the conflicting perspectives of two major stakeholders in the knowledge exchange as representative of a rhetoric of crisis and a rhetoric of democracy. Brulle’s perspective informs my analysis of one of the perspectives on resiliency; resiliency as a rhetoric of crisis. Most importantly, whereas I had been thinking about the fear-factor inherent in a rhetoric of crisis as problematic – if not detrimental – to the productive efforts of resiliency, given Brulle’s differentiation between fear as threat messaging and challenge appraisals, my analysis of fear as a fundamental tactic of the rhetoric of crisis has become complicated by the rhetorical implications of the two. In the end, though, despite the differences between a rhetoric of fear interpreted as threat messaging versus a rhetoric of fear interpreted as challenge appraisals, the rhetoric of resiliency as a rhetoric of crisis (one of the perspectives I observed at Resilient Tampa Bay) is still, ultimately, a rhetoric of fear in the form of threat messaging. What’s important, though, is Brulle’s articulation of fear as useful if/when it is accompanied with effective actions/solutions for productive behavior in deference to environmental problems/global warming. Can resiliency be communicated using a rhetoric of democracy that balances fear with opportunities, dreams, positive and productive actions as a means of long-term, sustainable response – the only type of response, per Brulle – to global warming? Can resiliency be accomplished via a rhetoric of democracy articulated through 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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