The Structure of Advocacy: A Study of Environmental Rhetoric

Judy Z. Segal (University of British Columbia)

This essay provides an analysis of environmental argument, and suggests that environmental advocacy is sabotaged to some extent by certain of its own rhetorical features. In order to make the case, I outline some of the main strategies of environmental argumentation, I suggest that arguments on behalf of the environment fall short of what they set out to do, and I attempt to explain why they fall short as arguments.

In writing this essay, I have drawn boundaries and made cuts in the field of environmental rhetoric, and have thereby obscured it somewhat. My essay is meant to be more suggestive than definitive; it is meant, above all, to invite further interest in environmental debate.

From an Aristotelian perspective, arguments on behalf of the environment use both "artistic" and "non-artistic" proofs. Non-artistic proofs, according to Aristotle, are those that "existed beforehand, such as witnesses, admissions under torture, written contracts, and the like"; artistic proofs are those that rely more directly on the persuasive resources of the speaker. Arguments on behalf of the environment are often non-artistic, relying as much on a compilation of facts, an accumulation of expert testimony, and a gathering of evidence as they do on contrived deductive appeals.

Aristotle described artistic appeals as being of three kinds: logos, the demonstration of truth (real or apparent) by the arguments themselves; ethos, persuasion through the character of the speaker; and pathos, the argument from emotion, or through the character of the audience. Environmental debate uses all of these.

Many of the points of logos in environmental argument are derived from places (topoi) Aristotle classified as "past fact" and "future fact." A typical argument says if recent trends continue, 1/5 of the land mass of Bangladesh could be submerged by 2050; or at the current birthrate, global population will reach 15 billion by the year 2070 (MS, 3, p. 20). The structure of the underlying argument is this: if we do not intervene in the process of environmental destruction now, then we are doomed to a situation in which no intervention will be of any use. The if. . .then claim of the hypothetical syllogism is the core device of environmental advocacy.

The argument from ethos is also crucial in environmental debate, with credentials, qualifications to speak, determining to some extent the perceived strength of the logos. Speakers are often scientists, physicians, and professors. When the speakers are laypeople, the ethos of science may be borrowed and sustained by scientific language and citation. Because environmental advocates, however, are often affiliated with organizations such as Greenpeace, Pollution Probe, Worldwatch--groups still regarded by some as marginal--the ethical argument may backfire and the effect even of arguments from logos may be weakened.

In the presence of creditable arguments from logos and ethos, the environmental argument from pathos must find a balance between despair, which by itself can be paralyzing, and some motivating hope. Threats of a planet in ruin for our grandchildren, threats of Canada itself being occupied by millions of environmental refugees whose own homelands have become uninhabitable--these are certainly emotional appeals. However, they are negative appeals, or warnings, much like arguments that say smoking causes lung cancer or unprotected sex transmits AIDS. Like those arguments, threats of environmental disaster seem to need complementing by some positive urging. The environmental advocate's strategy has often been to say, at least in the popular press, something like "but wait, it's not too late; if you do these simple things, you can change everything." With such an approach, however, environmentalists may be setting up a smokescreen against the strength of their position: in fact, it is too late--for some species, for example--which is a compelling reason to attempt change by doing some extremely difficult things.

Much of the argument for the environment takes place as well at the level of tropes and figures. The major trope is that the earth is sick. "We're no longer talking about environmental protection," says one advocate, "We're talking about a massive program of healing the environment" (Wells, 1989). In 1990, the widely televised Earth Day Special saw Bette Midler, covered in flora, playing an ailing Mother Earth. Jay Forrester, an economist, says, "I think we should look upon [the process of environmental poisoning] very much like a biological cancer [which] grows until it kills the host on which it is living and thereby kills itself" (MS, 5, p. 6). The illness metaphor extends so that the planet can be imagined after a period of time not to be ailing but dead.

Despite the power of arguments on behalf of environmental protection, many people--certainly many businesspeople and politicians--are persuaded of the possibility of catastrophe, but are somehow unconvinced. One supermarket chain, for example, has introduced a line of "green" products, some of which are marked by extra paper tags announcing how environmentally friendly they are.

Also persuaded but not convinced is George Bush, who in the course of his 1988 presidential election campaign, announced that he was an environmentalist, then backed up his claim by saying how much he enjoyed taking his grandchildren out camping. Bush's statement is of rhetorical interest because with it, Bush gently removed the environment from the centre of public life and pushed it to the weekends; he marginalized the environment issue and seemed to support it at the same time.

Bush's statement is of interest as well because it illustrates an important quality of the environmental debate--that is, that the "debate" itself contains no declared opposition. No one supports environmental degradation. Differences centre instead on the degree and rate of appropriate response to environmental crisis; all arguments represent themselves as arguments for environmental protection. The absence of a clearly identifiable opposition means we encounter gestures in support of the environment even from those who would despoil it. This complicates the task of the environmental advocate.

While some observers contend that the environmental message is getting through, many others worry that it is not. All are able to marshal evidence to support their positions. Some cite hopefully the 1990 Montreal initiative to reduce production of clouroflurocarbons, while others cite the failure of the 1988 Toronto protocol which meant to do very much the same thing; everyone cites the Mulroney government's "green plan" as evidence of something. Likewise, some public opinion polls place the environment high on the list of concerns of North Americans, while others find that concerns about the economy, drug abuse, the GST occupy a higher place in our minds. CBC Radio reported last spring that three out of ten Canadians think global warming would be good for Canada--get rid of those cold winters and help the crops too.

If the large-scale rate of response is slower than environmental advocates would have it be, if the environmentalist argument is in fact not compelling, what accounts for the relative weakness of the rhetoric?

Part of the problem is that we cannot prove things in the future. Naturalist and York University Professor John Livingston (1981) points this out with respect to arguments for wildlife conservation which, he says, depend for their effect on our being able to imagine the world without certain animal species, but the problem holds for arguments about the environment in general. Aristotle says that we can argue effectively about future fact, that "consequences will occur if their natural antecedents have occurred"; but in these cases, enthymematic logic seems not to have the force of evidence. The hypothetical syllogism is weakened when seeing is believing. For most of us, it taxes the imagination to consider life on the planet after our personal death.

Evidence from the present might, of course, make images of the future more vivid. However, there are two problems with evidence. One is that the evidence can go away, like the symptoms of a disease, though the disease progresses; the other is that we do not always know what our evidence is evidence of.

Stephen Schneider, an expert on climate change, says he is concerned that so much of the argument for the reality of global warming rests on media pictures of the summer of 1988, and 20-second media spots reminding us that the six hottest summers on record occurred in the 1980s. Schneider (1988) accuses the media (and scientists speaking to the media) of oversimplifying complex phenomena, such that public belief in the reality of global warming could vanish with the next cold spell. Evidence via the media can be misleading in other ways as well. According to specialists in risk communication, the media focus on events, rather than contexts and explanations for events, whether the event is chemical contamination in Bhopal or a government report on poisoned fish in the Great Lakes. In the absence of an event-centred story, the media are likely to offer no story at all.

Another factor undermines the case for the environment. We are lulled not only by the media into a false sense of understanding, but also by politicians and industrial spokespeople into a false sense of security. News coverage of the PCB fire in St. Basil Le Grand ended when government inspectors pronounced the site safe; last year's tire fire at Hagersville left the same happy result. In a similar move, officials reported that a recent leak of radioactive water at the Bruce nuclear station in Ontario was "one of the largest leaks we've ever had," but added, "there was never any concern to workers inside the plant or the public outside" ("Radioactive," 1990). When insect repellents were removed from store shelves in April, 1990 because of the presence of R-ll which had caused cancer in rats, experts told the public the fact that these products had been in use for years was no cause for alarm.

Environmental advocacy, then, has been hobbled not only by the weakness of its central argument, the hypothetical syllogism, but also by problems inherent in the nature of evidence itself and by certain propensities of news reporters and official spokespeople. Another reason, however, that environmental rhetoric leaves a reality gap is that it uses an old language to derive the terms of a new condition--the condition of environmental crisis; and the language itself is most conducive to a conservative response.

George Bush's chief of staff, John Sunnunu, says Americans must not rush to change, but "measure environmental regulations against free market principles" (Berke, 1990). Lucien Bouchard as environment minister said the Hibernia project would proceed because "we are concerned with the environment, but we are also deeply concerned with other aspects of life. We want jobs" (MS 2, p.16). Efforts to respond to environmental crisis are tempered, then, by deeply-held values as to what constitutes a planet worth having. The weakness of environmental rhetoric is that it has not as a rhetoric called those values into question.

To the extent that the rhetoric of environmental change is rooted at the level of lexis and metaphor in values of mastery and growth, it disables itself. Yet environmental advocates themselves resort to such a rhetoric, suggesting, in effect, that we take charge of the environment as always, but in a new way--that we declare "war" on pollution, organize our "plan of attack," and make good on our "investment" in the future.

For example, Tom Brydges, head of the changing atmosphere secretariat with Environment Canada says Canadian scientists are playing a key role in the "war" to control the effects of climate change; he talks about cooperation by 50 countries to develop a "joint plan of attack" (Burtt, 1990). Metaphors of dominance are commonplace among politicians. However, when environmentalists speak, the perspective changes, while the language, for the most part, stays the same. In the following quotation, John Livingston condemns human violation of nature, but his indignation is both expressed and undermined by his description:

Entirely out of control, the human technomachine guzzles and lurches and vomits and rips its random crazy course over the face of the once-blue planet, as though some filthy barbaric fist were drunkenly swiping with a gigantic paint roller across an ancient tapestry. (p. 20)

The encounter reads like a rape. While the metaphor is apt, the prose indulges too much in the sounds and images of violence, so that the act is rehearsed even as it is condemned.

The framing of the environmental position in the language of entrenched values is apparent also in the persistence of financial metaphors in the arguments of environmental advocates. Scientist Stephen Schneider:

There are four or five good reasons to invest in a strategic policy of energy efficiency, of which climate change insurance is only one. . . . There's a better than even money odds of unprecedented change, that we can slow down. And that to me is what a prudent society does, especially when you can get lots of other dividends for your money. (MS, 1, p. 17)

Ecologist Paul Ehrlich:

We've managed to build a gigantic population size. . . and we're going to keep it going, by doing something that I don't think any of us would do in our personal finances; that is, we're squandering our inheritance; we're living on capital. (MS, 2, p. 2)

Conservationist Doug Scott:

My vision of what a comfortable life is, for myself and for my children, may change as I understand that I was doing it all on a big gigantic ecological credit card. Balance due. Overdrawn at the bank. (MS, 2, p. 21)

These financial metaphors seem to make solid arguments, as they describe the unknown in terms of the known. However, the strength of the arguments--their grounding in the language and the already-held beliefs of their audience--is also their weakness. The arguments work to a point because they begin from where the audience is, but in using the terms of that starting place, they also restrict their own efficacy. Metaphors of finance, like metaphors of aggression, depend on the values of the past, the very values that created the situation environmental rhetoric is supposed to change. As they play in environmental argument, these metaphors implicitly make sense of the notion that Americans must measure environmental legislation against free market principles, and Canadians should assess fossil fuel megaprojects in the context of employment figures. Both of these positions may indeed be completely sensible; what is interesting is that part of the tug of the argument is invisible.

Because the structure and language of any debate are necessarily factors in the debate itself, it is possible to argue that environmental rhetoric sabotages itself. To say so is not to suggest that a change in the conduct of environmental argument would necessarily bring about rapid change in the course of environmental action. The point of rhetorical criticism is to subject debate to scrutiny, to determine how arguments are made--or fail to be made--compelling. In the case of environmental debate, in which positions resist identification and all of us are inclined to resist reality, such criticism is crucial, for it enables at least the possibility of change.


I am indebted for their comments to Douglas Brent and others who responded to a version of this paper delivered at the 1990 meeting of the Canadian Society for the History of Rhetoric.
These figures are taken from It's a Matter of Survival, program 3, transcript p. 18. Further references to the radio series appear in parentheses in the text.
See John Alan Lee (1988, 1989) for a discussion of metaphor in environmental controversy.
See Wilkins and Patterson (1987).


Berke, Richard L. (1990, 17 April). Oratory of environmentalism becomes the sound of politics. New York Times, p. C19.

Burtt, Bob. (1990, 16 March). Canadian scientists play key role in "war" to limit climate change. Kitchener-Waterloo Record, p. B2.

It's a matter of survival. (1989, July-August). Host David Suzuki. Transcripts by Characters Word Processing, Toronto. CBC Radio.

Lee, John Alan. (1988). Seals, wolves, and words: Loaded language in environmental controversy. Alternatives, 15(4), 21-29.

Lee, John Alan. (1989). Waging the seal war in the media: Toward a content analysis of moral communication. Canadian Journal of Communication, 14(1), 37-56.

Livingston. John A. (1981). The fallacy of wildlife conservation. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.

Radioactive water leak may shut power plant. (1990, 24 January). Toronto Sun.

Schneider, Stephen. (1990). The greenhouse effect and the U.S. summer of 1988: Cause and effect or a media event? Climactic Change, 13, 113-115.

Wells, Paul. (1989, 31 December). Here come the '90's. Montreal Gazette, p. B1.

Wilkins, Lee and Patterson, Phillip. (1987, Summer). Risk analysis and the construction of news. Journal of Communication, 37(3).

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