I remember my senior year of high school when my AP Language teacher first introduced me to Rachel Carson. They emphasized how incredibly effective Carson’s rhetoric was and continues to be. There’s very many reasons for Carson’s writing having such a permeable effect, however I think the most influential reasoning being the timing of her work. As a wildlife biologist, Carson realized the detrimental effects of DTD much earlier than the general public. However when she first submitted her work of Silent Spring, the first publisher denied her a publication, as they said “this isn’t something the housewife would want to read.” However the New York Times published Silent Spring in 1962, and it was exactly what Americans needed to hear. This apocalyptic rhetoric was able to reach audiences in a way that something more subtle would not have been able to. The effects of DTD were becoming more drastic and thus apparent to more and more people as birds began to drop dead in front of them. Therefore when the Times published it, it came at the perfect time when people were largely ready to receive it.
One of the main obstacles to getting people to understand and accept climate change is that it so little often disrupts their daily lives. If it’s not affecting them, then it’s usually hard for them to care and even hard for them to believe in. To effectively communicate about climate change I think more of what Carson did needs to be incorporated. While it’s difficult to reach the magnitude of her impact, utilizing the rhetorical strategy of the locus of the irreparable could be applicable. The locus of the irreparable is similar to apocalyptic rhetoric but is more hyper specific, focusing on the effects of a certain situation or problem, but not something that will heavily alter the entire world. If writers with enough popularity would focus on certain climate disasters such as the increasing summer wildfires, or the decreasing winter storms then there could be hope of tackling public apathy. While these disasters can hurt people's’ entire livelihoods such as farmers or tourist industries, mostly they are just inconveniencing people. Hence it is easier for people to move on and not notice the escalation of these disasters. The way these events are reported is mainly as “event-orentiated” and not as an ongoing problem caused by climate change is largely problematic. This doesn’t incite change or address the cause of the disaster.
Another issue of environmental rhetoric lies in how incredibly polarizing it can be. When one side is made to be completely right, and the other completely wrong it eliminates room for growth. Things are never as black and white as they are made to seem. The environmental movement has become such a politicized argument that neither side has any wiggle room. I had a conversation with one of my friends a couple weeks ago that amplified this. The TV in our spring break AirBnb had been left on after we had all left the house. I had been the last one to leave and hence turned it off. I made a comment as soon as I walked out about how wasteful it was to leave the TV on while no one was watching it. My friend refuted the statement and said there is endless amounts of electricity, and thus it was fine. I tried to explain to him that everything comes from somewhere, and it was generally wasteful. He argued that leaving the TV on was creating jobs for people, and I argued that people could spend their time doing more useful things if the TV wasn’t left on. After this we agreed to disagree, but this short discourse began to make me think. While I didn’t agree with him, I could see where he was coming from and caused me to look at the problem more holistically.
The radical environmental groups of the twentieth century such as Earth First! and Earth Liberation Front created an incredibly polarizing rhetoric that went as far as committing acts of ecotage, where they would damage property in acts of “eco defence.” These bold and oftentimes destructive acts certainly got a point across, but I’m not sure it was one that the public could get behind. While I do think that radical change is necessary, acting out in extreme forms is a difficult way to gain a following. Radical environmentalists are incredibly inspiring to those already behind the environmental movement, but can be extremely intimidating to the general public. Julia “Butterfly” Hill lived in a redwood tree for 738 days in protest of the redwood forest being destroyed. This act indeed saved the redwood tree. However I think when looking at extreme acts such as this, it can be very difficult for the general public to relate at all. If environmental rhetoric began to tackle all perspectives of an issue, it could reach more people and therefore widen its following.
Hendry, J. (2020) Communication and the natural world (2nd Ed). State College, PA: Strata Publishing.