What do Greenpeace campaign banners, television news stories about climate change and advertisement for a ‘green’ bathroom cleaner have in common? All form part of environmental communication. In this blog post, Mark Meisner, chief executive of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) explains why environmental communication and its research are now more important than ever and what to look for when chosing a university program in environmental communication.
What is environmental communication?
Mark: At its simplest, environmental communication is any form of communication related to environmental issues, problems, and their solutions. In other words, it is everything that gets said about environmental affairs. That includes both verbal and visual communication.
So, for example, think of a scientific report on rainforest biodiversity loss. Think of a television news story about a protest by Friends of the Earth. Think of campaign banners hung by Greenpeace. Think of advocacy advertisements from WWF. Think of viral videos like The Story of Stuff by Annie Leonard. Think of the Academy Award winning movie The Cove. Think of the global warming denial books from the Cato Institute. Think of the little kids TV show DirtGirlWorld. Think of Peter Garrett’s speeches. Think of public hearings on siting environmental waste facilities. And think of a promotion for a “green” bathroom cleaner. It’s all of these and more.
Why is environmental communication becoming more and more important?
M: Environmental communication matters for two reasons. The first is practical. The more effectively we can communicate about environmental affairs — whether it’s telling a powerful story or conveying some important scientific information — the better our chances of getting actions to address environmental issues. In this way, communication can influence people to change their own behaviours and/or to support certain policies.
All of our communication shapes our understanding of the world. And communication about nature and environmental affairs is no different.
The second reason has to do with meanings and values. All of our communication shapes our understanding of the world. And communication about nature and environmental affairs is no different. That’s true for individuals and also for societies and cultures. At the heart of this is how human cultures see themselves in relation to the other aspects of the natural world. Is everything besides us simply “natural resources,” for example? Are humans “stewards of creation” or the pilots of “spaceship earth”? Or are we, to paraphrase Aldo Leopold, plain members and citizens of the land-community? How we view and value nature matters because it shapes our whole approach to the world.
What is the current state of environmental communication research?
M: Besides being defined as a set of activities, environmental communication is also a field of academic study. I have been part of that endeavor for over 20 years. During that time, I have seen tremendous growth in environmental communication research and publications. But to put that in perspective, it is still a minuscule field compared to something like conservation biology. I have also seen it shift from something primarily conducted by scholars in communication departments to something being done by a much broader range of scholars. This includes colleagues in psychology, sociology, administration, cultural studies, philosophy, economics, and, of course, environmental studies.
By far, the greatest focus of environmental communication research has been on climate change communication. And leading the way on this are George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication and Yale University’s Project on Climate Change Communication. A lot of their work focuses on understanding the ways the public think about the issues.
How is environmental communication taught at universities?
M: Environmental communication still being an emerging field of study, specialized university programmes are rare, often basic environmental communication courses or, in some cases, programs on the media and environment. And then we also occasionally find situations where there are multiple environmental communication courses being taught. In such cases, you might also see courses on popular culture and the environment, environmental campaigning, public participation, and collaboration, for example. Very little work has been done to describe an environmental communication curriculum. That’s something we are planning to work on in the context of The IECA.
What advice can you give to people interested in environmental communication programs or research?
M: The first bit of advice I would give is to understand that you do not have to be in an environmental communication program per se in order to learn a lot about the field. A good communication department with two or three faculty members who work in this area can be enough. Since there are so few programs in environmental communication compared to the number of people working in the field, the potential choices of where to study are greater than they appear at first.
I also think it is important to find the right supervisor to work with. Is there someone whose work you admire? What is their reputation? Is there a line of research you know you want to focus on? What do you want to come out of the program with? In other words, what do you want to do after school? Answering these questions can help one to identify potential programs. Then, talk to as many potential faculty supervisors as you can.
When I was considering graduate schools, I chose the program I wanted to go to because of two faculty members there that I wanted to work with. The first, John A. Livingston, had co-written a television series titled A Planet for the Taking that had opened my eyes wide to the historical and cultural depth and complexity of the environmental crisis. The second person, Neil Evernden, had written a book called The Natural Alien that I didn’t really understand, but knew was important. I had to go and study with him so I could understand his book.
M: IECA’s mission is to foster effective and inspiring communication that alleviates environmental issues and conflicts, and solves the problems that cause them. We do this by bringing together and supporting practitioners, teachers, scholars, students, artists and organizations that share these goals. What we are aiming for with this is an overall objective that both academics and practitioners can get behind. It has room for many scholarly and practical perspectives, so long as people are ultimately after the same thing.
The IECA is both for academics and students researching and studying in the field, for whom it operates as scholarly association, and for people working in environmental communication in the real world, e.g. communications directors, government officials, NGO’s and business – the folks on the front lines who practice environmental communication for a living. For all these people we also need to provide networking, as well as access to the latest research in an accessible format. Basically, we want to support their work in whatever ways we can. Most importantly, IECA aims to bring these groups together so they can collaborate and benefit from each other’s knowledge and experience.
“IECA’s vision is to be a thriving, well-supported, and collaborative professional nexus of people and organizations whose environmental communication teaching, research, projects, campaigns, creations, and other activities are helping to achieve environmental health and justice.”
In the future, I would like to see IECA host not just academic but also more practitioner-oriented conferences, and to publish research summaries and take-away lessons or actionable knowledge for practitioners. I would like to see us directly funding some research in order to support the needs of our community members. I would like to see us offering training courses. I also want to see us networking and collaborating with other organizations more and bringing the expertise of the environmental communication community into play where it can make a difference.
The focus of the upcoming environmental communication conference in Uppsala, Sweden (6-9 June) is going to be on public participation, which is a really important aspect of environmental communication. But there will also be many sessions on other aspects of environmental communication, including the media. Our keynote speaker is John Dryzek, Professor of Political Science at Australian National University. And there are many exciting papers and posters being presented. Much of the conference will be streamed for free and is available to anyone interested via http://theieca.org/coce2013.
About Mark Meisner:
Originally from Montréal, Mark – currently IECA chief executive – developed an appreciation for the natural world when he was a kid and, after finishing an undergraduate degree in commerce, felt that he was not really interested in a career in business. Following a growing interest in environmental issues, he got a masters degree and then a PhD in environmental studies at York University in Toronto.
It was during that time that he developed his interest in environmental communication. “First it was an interest in the words we use to talk about nature and environmental issues, particularly metaphors. For my Ph.D. I turned to consider the role of the media and developed my interest further into visual environmental communication.”
More about Mark’s research at meisner.ca.
- Dialogues on the Environment: Q&A with Edward Norton (nature.org)