Rhetoric of Empowering Environmentalism

Aaron Nataline

To those who share a love for the natural world and recognize the intrinsic value of nature

To the Cranford High School Writing Center, its students and teachers who have developed my love for writing and will continue to develop others’

To my parents who taught me to read with passion and speak with confidence

Keywords: Identity, Ideology, Environmentalism, Confrontation, Responsibility

Confrontation in everyday life can seem petrifying, anxiety-inducing, and even nauseating. It carries the declaration of conflict, whether the conflict appears simple to mend or treacherous to manage. I know that I even feel reluctant to approach the confrontation that is addressing a grading error with an understanding professor. However, the effectiveness of discourse, within the context of a debate, depends on confrontation. And confrontation necessitates a specific audience. Edwin Black explains in “Second Persona” that a discourse always acknowledges an implied audience, one complete with beliefs and potential for action, so the creator of the discourse can mold their persuasion around the traits of this persona (4). In this chapter, I examine how this concept can grant a speech a tone, directed toward world leaders and their influence on environmental policy, that exults urgency and initiative through confrontation.

Last year, I dedicated a paper to how formations of bias in media are reliant on the construction of an intended audience, while my own intended audience was my peers in the class that had discussed frustration with the muddled slants of news outlets throughout the year. Now, I want to trade the cynicism of media for a speech’s potential to change the world. Sensational speeches demand attention, and to demand attention, they must identify their collective target for agency and utilize the subsequent identity to craft specialized arguments. Two years ago, a then 16-year-old environmental activist ensured she delivered a sensational speech by targeting the global leaders that have ignored demands, from both the youth and scientists, for progress regarding environment-friendly policies. In her speech at the 2019 United Nations Climate-Action Summit, Greta Thunberg’s insinuations that political leaders were at fault for the worsening effects of global warming exemplify how Edwin Black’s “second persona” allows speakers to demand agency from listeners of specific identity and ideology. While I first identify her demands as being directed towards political leaders and their capitalist ideologies, I extend Thunberg’s implied audience to a younger generation of activists she hopes to inspire an ideology of socio-ecological progressivism within.

Thunberg’s passionate speech first focuses on the identity of her literal audience, world leaders, and accentuates the generational gap between them and her own youthful generation, which I believe can be analyzed as an implied audience. She contrasts the latter’s advocacy for awareness of climate change with the leaders’ political ignorance towards the issue. The young activist wishes to coax those at the Climate-Action Summit into dropping their mostly obsolete views on global warming, but first, she must confront them by forcefully identifying their generation as the enablers of the worsening environmental crisis. She presents word choice that brings those global leaders with the power to steer positive climate change to the forefront of her audience. They become the target of her powerful message. I believe the effects of such concentrate the launching point of her speech with criticism of this identity in relation to the identity of a secondary audience; this is my identified “implied audience”, composed of adolescents who want to ignite substantial political consideration of environmental dilemmas. She asserts her vexation regarding the context of this Climate-Action Summit: “This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to us young people for hope. How dare you!” (Thunberg).

The context for her and other youthful activists’ presence at this event served as an official complaint, through the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, toward representatives of countries who had failed to meet carbon emission reduction targets previously set by the Paris Agreement (Thompson). Grunberg unabashedly critiques the generation that the political leaders belong to in this statement through language that sets this generation apart from her own. Edwin Black writes that the second persona can be signaled through “stylistic tokens” (4). I view Thunberg’s usage of words like “school” and “young people” as stylistic tokens that signal differentiation between the identity of her literal audience, the more senior members of society who wield the power to combat climate change, and a secondary audience. This word choice that alludes to a younger and more progressive generation leads me to identify the youth who want to enact positive environmental change as the implied audience, the second persona. The direct confrontation of global leaders benefits Thunberg’s speech in that her expectations for change gain a public target. Furthermore, her subtle implication of the younger generation’s essential role to play in halting global warming also gives force to her speech, for I assert that such an empowering call to action compounds the urgency of her message.

Additionally, I find that Thunberg utilizes the identity of youthful activists to justify her insistence that the older generation of world leaders begin assuming responsibility and taking necessarily consequent action to combat climate change. She calls attention to the concerning state of the global warming issue that leaders are leaving her younger generation to deal with in the urgent future, so Thunberg simultaneously confronts leaders’ inadequate actions and sets the stage for the youth to begin using their voices. I believe this network of agencies can be examined through ideas presented by works that build on Black’s “Second Persona”. In “Doing Diversity: Text–Audience Agency and Rhetorical Alternatives”, the authors, Sine N. Just and Tanja J. Christiansen, add to Black’s concept as they note an implied audience fosters a “circuit of recognition” that ensures “the subject is called into being, identified by the interpellation, and told how to act, invited to perform in recognizable ways” (Just and Christiansen). I find this circuit to be synonymous with the relationship of agency a speaker like Thunberg emphasizes she has with her implied audience. In the lens of the rhetorical purpose of Black’s second persona, I recognize the benefits of identifying an auditor in this declaration from the speech at the Climate-Action Summit: “You are failing us. But the young people are starting to understand your betrayal. The eyes of all future generations are upon you. And if you choose to fail us, I say: We will never forgive you” (Thunberg). The activist directs attention to the action she hopes the generation in power can take with the recognition that their responsibility stems from their identity. I argue that this circuit of recognition, in Just and Christiansen’s view, also allows for environmental agency to be extrapolated to the youth Thunberg references by saying “we” while emphasizing her frustration. This group that I consider an implied audience becomes affiliated with Thunberg’s progressive perspective. Country representatives at this event thus absorb the reality that her generation will have to inherit the status of the climate change issue that the older generation leaves them.

Greta Thunberg’s speech also targets the audience’s capitalist ideology that inherently antagonizes the goal of combating climate change. I find that Thunberg positions bookends to her speech; these come in the forms of an identification of an older generation as her primary audience. These bookends manifest faith in the progressive attitudes of a secondary audience, those part of her youthful generation, which I have referred to as her implied audience. Her speech looks to attribute an ideology to this secondary audience, but first, she must highlight the environmental shortcomings of capitalist thinking. The organization of her speech allows her to not only call out the ignorant, yet powerful generation, but Thunberg also suggests that the capitalist element of this generation is precisely what hinders initiative to properly address climate change.

In the book Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers, Jodi R. Cohen insists that the second persona of a discourse can reveal its conditions through structure (161). The author references Black’s claim that the ideology of the second persona warrants dissection, for she accentuates a discourse’s method of presenting clues that point toward a significant ideology. Applying this thinking to Thunberg’s speech, I believe her structure allows for an impactful critique of the ideology that opposes what she hopes to foster within the youth, her implied audience. Between her commentary on generational differences pertaining to attitudes toward climate change, she implies that it is her literal audience’s capitalist ideology that prevents decisive action from being taken. She exclaims, “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you!” (Thunberg). The activist further expresses disapproval by indicating that greed steers them in a direction that avoids the warnings of environmental sciences. I have an infinite appreciation for her attention to structure when it comes to her phrase “fairy tales of eternal economic growth”, for she began the essay identifying the age and life-experience gap between her and the political leaders she speaks to. When she turns to their capitalist ideology that prioritizes generating revenue over all else, she compares the promises that accompany such an ideology with something as incredulous as a fairy tale, which would seem more appropriate as being associated with her younger generation. That younger generation is thus in need of an ideology to replace the capitalist one Thunberg criticizes, so this group that I view as her implied audience must adopt the environmentalist thinking that will reverse the climate problem that world leaders have enabled. Thunberg displays how her structural choices regarding the presentation of values of her literal audience can magnify the urgency for her implied audience to support values that must change course and lead initiatives to lower carbon emissions.

I believe that Thunberg’s attention towards the capitalist ideology common among her actual audience of older world leaders puts her in the rhetorical position to endorse socio-ecological progressivism within the implied audience of her younger generation and the environmental activists that could arise from such. Her primary confrontation of world leaders at the Climate-Action Summit allows her to narrow in on why global warming has worsened under this complicit generation. But when considering the younger generation as her “second persona”, I find the depth of her message increases because she becomes able to insist that her own generation must take up activism to avoid suffering from the environmental negligence of capitalism.

The ideology she summons to back the upcoming generation is thus one that recognizes the benefits of halting climate change as well as the worth of voices not often considered in politics and legislation, such as the youth. This ideology falls in line with John Hultgren’s description of “socio-ecological progressivism” in his article “21st Century American Environmental Ideologies: A Re-Evaluation”, which discusses the ideology as prioritizing climate change as a global issue and being reliant on grassroots efforts (Hultgren). In order for her secondary audience to hear her call to embrace the values of such an ideology, Thunberg positions the youth alongside her in combating the antithesis of this take on environmentalism, capitalism, and the reach in her call to action multiplies in result. As a “second persona”, I believe that enabling the younger generation to create change stems from Thunberg’s primary criticism of world leaders.

However, in the article “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of The Peuple Québécois”, Maurice Charland claims Black’s concept remains too reliant on identification, and that identification does not apply proper depth and significance to a complete persona (5). I counter that Thunberg evades this potential weakness in her argument by speaking to not just an identity, leaders of power, but the shared ideology of that identity, robust capitalism. The speech relies on the confrontation of the capitalist policies of the leaders Thunberg speaks to in order to establish a precise point of attack for her argument and support socio-ecological progressivism. She judges the moral character of those who disregard a future in which carbon emissions still contribute to a treacherous global dilemma of climate change and uses this judgment to put greater emphasis on the expectations of her generation and the shifts in ideology they must undertake. Black believed that the hypothetical “image” of an auditor and their ideologies was enough to pass judgment (5). I stress that the rhetorical effect of an implied audience goes further; the judgment that a captivating intellectual like Thunberg can then pass allows for her confrontation of an issue to become more direct, more ideologically targeted, and thus more likely to spur agency from her actual audience as well as her secondary audience.

The inclusion of an implied audience within a discourse amplifies a speaker’s message, and I believe Greta Thunberg’s speech can be seen as recognizing one in the form of the younger generation whose impact on the environment must break away from the trend of world leaders that allow capitalist incentives to distract them from the urgent problem of climate change. When I process Thunberg’s speech through a perspective that considers Edwin Black’s concept of a “second persona”, her attention to the generational identity of her literal audience of powerful leaders creates an implied audience out of the younger generation that will succeed them. This relationship grounds her argument in a timeless manner. Her confrontational message targets an older generation, but the younger generation, including myself, will experience the results of the former’s action pertaining to climate change. I present this paper out of genuine respect for Thunberg giving my generation a voice. Thunberg’s intrepid confrontation of a specific audience and dire issue deserves the highest praise, seeing as how she speaks for many generations to come and the conditions that their Earth will present.

Works Cited

Black, Edwin. “The Second Persona.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 56, no. 2, Routledge, Apr. 1970, pp. 109–19. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335637009382992.

Charland, Maurice. “Constitutive Rhetoric: The Case of the Peuple Québécois.” Quarterly Journal of Speech, vol. 73, no. 2, Routledge, May 1987, pp. 133–50. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/00335638709383799.

Cohen, Jodi R. Communication Criticism: Developing Your Critical Powers. SAGE Publications, 1998. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/wfu/detail.action?docID=996656.

Hultgren, John. “21st Century American Environmental Ideologies: A Re-Evaluation.” Journal of Political Ideologies, vol. 23, no. 1, Routledge, Jan. 2018, pp. 54–79. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, https://doi.org/10.1080/13569317.2017.1397916.

Just, Sine N., and Tanja J. Christiansen. “Doing Diversity: Text–Audience Agency and Rhetorical Alternatives.” Communication Theory, vol. 22, no. 3, Aug. 2012, pp. 319–37. Silverchair, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2885.2012.01407.x.

Thompson, Georgina. 16 Children, Including Greta Thunberg, File Landmark Complaint to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. 25 Sept. 2019, https://web.archive.org/web/20190925123907/https://www.unicef.org/press-releases/16-children-including-greta-thunberg-file-landmark-complaint-united-nations.

Thunberg, Greta. “Transcript: Greta Thunberg’s Speech At The U.N. Climate Action Summit.” NPR, 23 Sept. 2019. NPR, https://www.npr.org/2019/09/23/763452863/transcript-greta-thunbergs-speech-at-the-u-n-climate-action-summit.


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

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