Communication Currents

Earth Day and Environmental Communication: More Timely Now than Ever

April 1, 2008
Environmental Communication

Founded in 1970 at what some have called the birth of the contemporary environmental movement, Earth Day has become an enduring institution and a powerful global symbol. Earth Day is recognized across the globe, conveys a message of global connectedness, and reminds us of the need to think globally rather than myopically in addressing shared ecological challenges.

Ironically, controversy persists regarding who founded Earth Day and when to observe the occasion. An annual ceremony takes place at the United Nations headquarters in March, marking the northern hemisphere's vernal equinox, while most U.S. celebrants favor April 22, the anniversary of a national environmental demonstration. As with global warming and other issues, the U.S. treads a path of its own across the environmental landscape.

In a now-classic example of the power of visual communication, an iconic image of the planet in blue, white and brown tones graces the unofficial flag of Earth Day—a symbol of a symbol. Taken during one of the early Apollo missions, the image resonated compellingly with Buckminster Fuller's concept of spaceship Earth (borrowed from the economist Kenneth Boulding), a fragile and irreplaceable habitat carrying us through the hostile void of space. It was just a short leap from that metaphor to another one current at the time, media theorist Marshall McLuhan's global village.

The year 1970 was an opportune moment for the original Earth Day message. The Apollo missions gave us a new perspective, one small step away from the usual preoccupations of human affairs. But back at home there was a growing awareness of an ecological crisis resulting from our own activities. Rachel Carson's Silent Spring had raised widespread concerns about the effects of insecticides on nature and ourselves, while other authors pointed out further problems of chemical pollution, nuclear fallout, and overpopulation. New laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act marked governmental responses to public calls for action, mobilized by new activist organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace. A new social movement was underway.

Since then, Earth Day's symbolic power has ebbed and flowed with changing social and political currents. Oil prices, presidential administrations, journalistic reporting cycles, citizen activism, and the whims of public culture have all been factors, but public opinion polls consistently confirm that U.S. citizens rate environmental values highly. Of course, we know there's often a gap between belief and action, and that's where communication plays a key role. As the word's root suggests, communication is about a community coming together to address its common concerns. There's no concern we hold more in common than the fate of our shared environment.

As we celebrate Earth Day 2008, the timeliness of looking carefully at matters of environmental communication may be greater than ever. A remarkable shift in public awareness has emerged since Hurricane Katrina rolled over the U.S. Gulf coast and New Orleans, making a statement that could not be ignored. Irrespective of its meaning in the context of global warming, Katrina demonstrated the tragic consequences of presuming that we humans are the masters of our environment. That attitude runs deep in Western culture, and one task for environmental communication is to examine its roots in media messages, political discourse, and the ways we talk about our relationship to nature. Doing so is a first step toward reinventing that relationship.

Following closely in Katrina's wake came Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, an act of environmental communication that has now earned a Nobel Peace Prize. Gore shared that honor with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a global network of scientists that could not exist without new communication technologies. These examples illustrate three more tasks for environmental communication. First, concerned parties—experts, officials, journalists, educators, activists, and ordinary citizens—must work more effectively to get environmental issues onto the public policy agenda. Second, scientists, policy makers, and environmental advocates need to collaborate more successfully, overcoming the usual boundaries of language and power. Third, we can realize all of these goals more effectively if we take advantage of new media technologies such as blogs, online social networking, and new visualization tools. At the same time, there are hazards associated with these technologies, such as a fragmentation of the conversation and a tendency toward polarization, and we need to understand those as well.

Global warming has now captured global attention, and two outcomes—or a mix of both—are possible. A rising tide of concern could lift a range of environmental issues to the top of the public agenda: pollution and waste, energy use and its consequences, problems of environmental justice as poor and minority communities are disproportionately affected, and accelerating and irreversible extinctions of the species that share the planet with us. Or, global warming could steal the show, obscuring other environmental problems or making them seem less urgent by comparison. What may be the most hopeful sign on the global warming front could also backfire: Many of those who long dismissed concerns about human-induced climate change, fearing a threat to their economic interests, now see global warming (and environmental awareness more generally) as a vast opportunity for new products and services. This opportunity for profit could be the missing link to environmental action, or could lead to a cynical appropriation of the green ethic. We need to communicate more regularly, more substantively, and more effectively, as we face these critical choices.

Three recent news items illustrate the dysfunctional nature of our relationship with nature. In Chad, Janjaweed militia members have turned to murdering elephants, using ivory as a source of income for their operations. A continuing human disaster is now a disaster for another species, seen as nothing but a resource for fueling political conflict. Meanwhile, a new study has found traces of a host of pharmaceuticals, including antibiotics, anticonvulsants, and antidepressants, in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans. Our increasing efforts to control our environment and our bodies may be coming back to harm us in unforeseen ways. Finally, the Environmental Protection Administration will receive the largest payment to date under its Superfund program, from the company responsible for extensive asbestos contamination in Libby, Montana. Clearly, global warming is not the only problem facing us and the other species that share the planet. The examples continue to pile up on a weekly basis.

We need to come together as a community—nationally and globally—to recognize, understand, and act upon a multitude of pressing environmental issues. The urgency of our environmental situation and the level of public concern provide an unusual opportunity to do so. Let's rise to this challenge to connect research and policy, theory and practice, messages and their material effects, to address these crucial issues that threaten our shared future.

About the author (s)

William J. Kinsella

North Carolina State University