Environmental Rhetoric: A Tool to Build a Better Future

Julia Covelli

To my parents, for being my biggest supporters in everything I do and raising me to believe that anything is possible. I wouldn’t be where I am in life without your constant love and encouragement. To my Trophy (Julia’s dog), for being my best friend and showing me the purest form of love. I’ll always make it back home for hugs, walks, and to give you all the belly rubs.

Keywords: Environment, Communication, Compassion, Future, Language

So many of us Millennials and Gen Zers grew up watching Bill Nye The Science Guy when learning all our basic scientific knowledge. We watched it because it was entertaining, right? Bill Nye’s creative tunes and scientific demonstrations captured the attention of our child selves and got us to really listen and learn about science. Well, then here’s one more piece of scientific advice to learn from Dr. Nye about the environment: “To leave the world better than you found it, sometimes you have to pick up other people’s trash” (Mellino 1). I’m here to discuss the importance of environmental rhetoric, including those simple words of Bill Nye, in how environmental risk messages can be crafted using environmental arguments. As I talk through environmental rhetoric, I aim to reach young adults interested in becoming more involved in environmental issues. Environmental rhetoric is meaningful to me because it is a type of rhetoric that encourages people to think critically about saving our planet and providing future generations with a better world. As someone who has taken a class that studies papers which use high levels of environmental rhetoric, I have seen first-hand just how valuable this concept is as a rhetorical term. According to Topic-Driven Environmental Rhetoric by Derek G. Ross:

As the emergence of environmental communication in the last twenty-five years attests, environmental rhetoric is everywhere and touches our lives every day. From the ongoing cultural and political struggle over climate change to the very local disputes over the health of individual communities, environmental rhetorics structure our relations with the human and non-human systems of which we are a part and on which we depend. (Ross xi)

Environmental Rhetoric teaches how individuals can prevent climate change, brings attention to an environmental issue or disaster, and can help leaders compose environmental risk and crisis communication messages for a community. Environmental Rhetoric is crucial in rhetoric regarding environmental issues as it is a tool to inspire critical thinking about bettering the environment through language and visual aids.

Environmental rhetoric can be a teaching tool for helping environmental risk communicators. I am using environmental rhetoric along with pathos to show images of environmental destruction in an emotional way to reach audiences. Based on the article, “Myth and Multiple Readings in Environmental Rhetoric: The Case of An Inconvenient Truth,” by Thomas Rosteck and Thomas S. Frentz, a key part of how environmental rhetoric has persuaded those in the past is through political jeremiad. Political jeremiad is “the pragmatic attempt to persuade that the environment is doomed without immediate action” (Rosteck and Frentz 1, 2).

This article discusses how the term was used first by the Puritans to encourage people to understand the severity of environmental issues and how it allowed people to be more strongly persuaded by appealing to their emotions. The research in this article about environmental rhetoric dating back to the Puritans provides further justification for the idea that the term holds significant weight in teaching individuals about environmental issues. From my own experience working as an intern on hydroponic gardens, I have seen firsthand how environmental rhetoric works as a teaching tool. I developed presentations and put together videos explaining the key components of how the hydroponic gardens conserve water and help preserve our planet’s resources. These visual aids also provided images of environmental destruction that can come

from wasting too much water. The graphics were highly successful to the point that I convinced my young adult audience to use hydroponics in their own garden and work towards conserving more water themselves. Additionally, I am able to use environmental rhetoric to analyze Severn Suzuki’s speech at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

Environmental rhetoric explains how Suzuki appeals to the compassion and empathy of the United Nations members. Similar to the way in which the Puritans used political jeremiad to invoke emotion in people, Aristotle’s pathos unravels how Suzuki appeals to the compassion of the United Nations Conference in their speech. Suzuki emphasizes:

I am here to speak for all generations to come. I am here to speak — speak on behalf of the starving children around the world whose cries go unheard. I am here to speak for the countless animals dying across this planet, because they have nowhere left to go. I am afraid to go out in the sun now, because of the holes in our ozone. I am afraid to breathe the air, because I don’t know what chemicals are in it (Suzuki).

Suzuki uses imagery such as “the starving children” and “the countless animals dying” to invoke this compassion in their audience. Suzuki is able to trigger these compassionate feelings in the U.N. members because of how the vivid language paints a mental picture of the devastation being discussed. I am able to see, by applying environmental rhetoric, how Suzuki pinpoints such emotional images of environmental issues to bring forth compassion in their audience.

Environmental rhetoric attracts attention to an environmental issue or disaster by using visual depictions of devastation and transparent language. Claire Ahn argues in, “Visual Rhetoric in Environmental Documentaries,” that visual tools of environmental rhetoric help people see how worried they should be about a given issue. The author mentions a specific anecdote on visual environmental rhetoric where they saw a video of “…a large sea turtle near Costa Rica that had a ten to twelve centimeter straw lodged up its nostril. This eight-minute video is excruciating to watch: as the team attempts to help the turtle, viewers can see the turtle squeezing its eyes, apparently in extreme pain as blood starts to drip down its nose” (Ahn 10). Ahn explains

that this video made them well up in tears and they will always remember “the visual of the turtle in pain because of a small piece of plastic that was not disposed of properly” (Ahn 10). Ahn’s response exhibits how this visual can enable people to have a deeper level of concern for the pollution to the ocean because they are able to picture exactly what damage is being done by the pollution. I understand that an argument could be made by especially sensitive individuals that someone seeing this video or reading about it in the article may be less inclined to have concern for the environment because it’s too hard to think about, so instead people will choose to ignore the issue further. However, based on Ahn’s own response, I argue that the graphic images evoke sympathy and appreciation for the environment. Ahn explains that even their own interpretation of seeing the video gave them a newfound appreciation for animals and a desire to protect them. Additionally, the team was successful in removing the straw which encourages viewers of this video to see that helping the environment is a real possibility if we as young adults learn to put in the proper effort. Therefore, I think generally visual tools of environmental rhetoric are a well-received option in weighing concern for environmental issues and disasters.

In their article, “New York Times Environmental Rhetoric: Constituting Artists of Living,” Betsy L. Verhoeven discusses how “Killingsworth and Palmer note that much environmental rhetoric ‘realistically mimics the experience of daily life without seriously challenging … the values of consumer mentality’” (Verhoeven 22). Environmental rhetoric attempts to resonate with an individual’s existing values by not greatly differing from the person’s natural decision making processes. One example of this in practice is how the parents of the little girl I babysat in high school chose to become more environmentally friendly after they saw a video using transparent language about the future of our planet if we do not work towards change. The parent’s natural mentality is to make the world safer for their daughter, and the environmental rhetoric in the video showed them what more they can do to ensure their daughter grows up in a healthy world.

Vivid language can be beneficial when putting together environmental risk and crisis communication messages for a community dealing with an environmental issue. For example, in the article “The Significance of Crisis and Risk Communication” by Heath and O’Hair in 2009, they discuss how Hurricane “Rita posed different risks than Katrina. One took on crisis proportion that in fact affected how people responded in risk management ways to the other— including a highly visible and eventually fairly dysfunctional evacuation of the Houston, Texas area” (Heath and O’Hair 6). This article explains how the risk communication was not effective because people only went by what they had “seen on television during Katrina” (Heath and O’Hair 6).

When I use environmental rhetoric as a tool to separate the responses to different natural disasters, I am able to see the more distinct separations between the events due to the clear language differences. Additionally, in the article “Tone at the Top: CEO Environmental Rhetoric and Environmental Performance,” Cong, Freedman, and Park argue that “corporations and their executives have contributed to both environmental degradation and in trying to reduce its impact. In a sense, corporations in environmentally sensitive industries can either be leaders or laggards in dealing with environmental issues” (Cong et al 322). This article helps to understand the significance of environmental rhetoric in risk messages because of how it discusses the part that leaders of corporations play in environmental risk communication. According to the article, “Disney World Is Officially Closing Due to Hurricane Irma,” published in 2017, The Walt Disney Company provides one example of corporate management using vivid language to formulate an environmental risk message to their community. The company released a statement on September 8, 2017, ahead of Hurricane Irma that “based on the latest forecasts for Hurricane Irma and keeping safety top of mind, Walt Disney World Resort will be closing…” (Bennett). The use of phrases from the management team such as “keeping safety top of mind” and “will be closing” allow the environmental risk message to be direct and clearer to the audience. These examples show how environmental rhetoric is a tool for those leaders and CEOs with power to share their knowledge with others.

Environmental rhetoric involves precise words and visuals to teach people to make a difference and save our environment. Everything from Bill Nye the Science Guy to Severn Suzuki’s speech support this idea by how these sources appeal to the audience with language, videos, and images. Now it’s up to you all as young adults with a passion for environmental science to decide your own stance on the term. The term Environmental Rhetoric is key in rhetoric dealing with environmental issues because it allows environmentalists to teach others about how to prevent climate change, directs attention towards an environmental issue or disaster, and can make a difference in forming environmental risk and crisis communication messages. Severn Suzuki says in their speech, “I’m only a child, yet I know we are all part of a family — five billion strong; in fact 30 million species strong — and borders and governments will never change that. I’m only a child, yet I know we are all in this together and should act as one single world towards one single goal” (Suzuki). So, if you as millennials and Gen Zers, the incoming leaders of our world, agree with this child who spoke fearlessly to the world in 1992 amidst her frustration, what is the next step? I’ve done my research and personally experienced the devastation of Hurricane Irma in 2017 from lack of environmental rhetoric by risk communicators. I leave you with this thought…what life do you want for future generations of your family? I argue that by continued understanding of environmental rhetoric, it can be better taught to help decrease environmental issues, and you can leave future generations with a much better chance at living in a healthy environment.

Works Cited

Ahn, C. (2018). Visual rhetoric in environmental documentaries (T). University of British Columbia. Retrieved from https://open.library.ubc.ca/collections/ubctheses/24/items/


Bennett, Bailey. “Disney World Is Officially Closing Due to Hurricane Irma.” Travel + Leisure, https://www.travelandleisure.com/travel-tips/travel-warnings/disney-world-closing- hurricane-irma.

Cong, Yu, et al. “Tone at the Top: CEO Environmental Rhetoric and Environmental Performance.” Advances in Accounting, vol. 30, no. 2, 2014, pp. 322–327., https:// doi.org/ 10.1016/j.adiac.2014.09.007.

Heath, Robert, et al. “The Significance of Crisis and Risk Communication.” Taylor & Francis, Taylor & Francis, 28 Sept. 2010, https://www.taylorfrancis.com/chapters/edit/ 10.4324/9780203891629-7/significance-crisis-risk-communication-robert-heath-dan-hair.

Mellino, Cole. “12 Must-Read Quotes by Bill Nye the Science Guy.” EcoWatch, EcoWatch, 27 June 2016, https://www.ecowatch.com/12-must-read-quotes-by-bill-nye-the-science- guy-1882001753.html.

Ross, Derek. Topic-Driven Environmental Rhetoric, Taylor & Francis Group, 2017. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=4813482. Created from wfu on 2021-09-30 22:36:10.

Rosteck, Thomas, et al. “Myth and Multiple Readings in Environmental Rhetoric: The Case Of an Inconvenient Truth.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 95, no. 1, 2009, pp. 1–19., https:// doi.org/10.1080/00335630802621086.

Suzuki, Severn. “Speech at U.N. Conference on Environment and Development.” American Rhetoric Online Speech Bank, 1992, https://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/ severnsuzukiunearthsummit.htm

Verhoeven, Betsy L. “‘New York Times’ Environmental Rhetoric: Constituting Artists of Living.” Rhetoric Review, vol. 30, no. 1, Taylor & Francis, Ltd., 2011, pp. 19–36, http:// www.jstor.org/stable/40997229.


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Feeling Rhetoric Copyright © 2022 by Julia Covelli is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book