In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Environmental Communication

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Advocacy, Journalism, and Management
  • Media and the Environment
  • Media Effects
  • Rhetoric, Discourse, and Social Movements
  • Risk Communication and Public Participation
  • Sociology and Theory

Communication Environmental Communication
James Shanahan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0141


The study of environmental communication, as a subfield of the study of communication, is a relatively recent endeavor. Roughly speaking, the field of environmental communication involves the study of existing communication about environmental issues and the identification of methods for improved communication about environmental issues. The field has its roots in a variety of disciplines, and it now includes subdisciplines such as environmental rhetoric, environmental journalism, and environmental media effects, among others. The earliest articles in the core literature emerged in the late 1960s and the 1970s, partly as a response to the obvious increases in environmental awareness that had taken place since the publication of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. In the 1980s, more universities began offering courses in environmental communication, and some departments even offered graduate specializations. The field was often, though not always, linked with science and health communication, and some scholars profess specialization in “environmental, science, and health communication” as a single unified subdiscipline. The major communication associations have developed divisions for environmental communication (first, the National Communication Association, and, then, the International Communication Association) though both followed the lead initially of the Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). Now the International Environmental Communication Association is the latest group unifying environmental communication scholars. The association publishes the journal Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture. A variety of activities take place today under the banner of environmental communication. Approximately equal contributions are made by scholars using humanistic or social science methods. Some researchers focus on the study of environmental communication from a critical or analytic standpoint, whereas others develop teaching tools and instructional methods to improve environmental practice. Thus, the typical divisions within communication are present (rhetoric versus mass communication approaches, for instance), but scholars from diverse fields are also engaged in examining ways to improve communication within their own environmental subdomains (wildlife management practitioners, for instance, have been especially interested in communication). Another way to segment environmental communication research is by topic domain. Recently, major studies have focused primarily on climate, but earlier research concentrated on topics such as nuclear power, pollution, endangered species, acid rain, etc.

Core Texts

“Core texts” in the field of communication are few in number, whereas, at the same time, scholars have emerged from a variety of approaches to focus on environment as a topic. Some researchers came largely from social science approaches, and, thus, they apply theories from sociology, mass media effects, and so on. Others of a rhetorical bent have their own philosophical origins and methodological touchstones (and see Evernden 1992 for an interesting philosophical perspective). In many ways, these scholars still maintain their own research styles with little alteration, so at least two major “flavors” of environmental communication research can be identified. While cross-fertilization takes place at environmental communication meetings, this interchange does not always extend to research practice. Carson 2002 (originally published in 1962) is seen as a touchstone work for many. It is not directly about environmental communication; rather, it provides an example of the galvanizing message-making that so many scholars seek to understand, study, and, sometimes, even emulate. John Muir (see Muir 1890, cited under Advocacy, Journalism, and Management) provides a similar example (of the effectiveness of mass media to catalyze environmental concern) that dates from earlier in the 20th century. In the absence of canonical core texts, Cox 2007 and Cox 2010 are as useful a starting place as any, and they were formulated to address the need to unify perspectives in the field. Good bibliographies (International Environmental Communication Association; Pleasant, et al. 2002) assist the student looking for perspective on the field. Senecah 2007 has also provided perspective on the emerging subfield, and the author’s editorial efforts have provided an important place for new voices to emerge (see Senecah 2004–2006).

  • Carson, R. 2002. Silent spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

    Carson’s work showed that chemicals such as DDT could have unintended effects that would devastate environments. It is considered the touchstone of the modern environmental movement. Carson’s writing picks up a century-long tradition (from Muir) and moves it into the contemporary world, with a poetic vision that includes a human future in the scope of the development of a movement from conservation practices to environmental concern. Originally published in 1962.

  • Cox, R. 2007. Nature’s “crisis disciplines”: Does environmental communication have an ethical duty? Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture 1.1: 5–20.

    DOI: 10.1080/17524030701333948

    Cox argues that environmental communication is a field similar to conservation biology in that it takes on a predefined crisis. Normative judgments are made prior to doing research within the field. Cox’s most salient idea is that “dominant systems of representation” influence the way that society deliberates about environmental issues. These deliberations, in turn, materially affect the quality and health of the natural environment.

  • Cox, R. 2010. Environmental communication and the public sphere. 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    Cox’s book is the standard text for the field. Based on a career in both research and advocacy, Cox presents a variety of approaches to the emergent environmental communication discipline. Topics covered include social construction, public participation, conflict resolution, media, risk, advocacy, and green marketing.

  • Environmental Communication Bibliographies. International Environmental Communication Association.

    A link to several bibliographic resources, including a bibliography of proceedings of the Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE) maintained by Mark Meister, a list of books dealing with environmental communication, and a public participation bibliography from the University of Cincinnati.

  • Evernden, N. 1992. The social creation of nature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Univ. Press.

    This book is primarily a thought experiment in how humans create concepts of nature. The history of evolving attitudes about, and beliefs toward, nature is examined, from the Greeks through the Renaissance toward more modern dualistic (separating Man from Nature) conceptions. While the focus is on culture, communication media and techniques (such as the development of perspectival painting) are examined in terms of how we conceptualize nature.

  • Pleasant, A., J. Good, J. Shanahan, and B. Cohen. 2002. The literature of environmental communication. Public Understanding of Science 11.2: 197–205.

    DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/11/2/306

    A bibliometric study of the literature of environmental communication.

  • Senecah, S. 2007. Impetus, mission, and future of the environmental communication division: Are we still on track? Were we ever? Environmental Communication 1.1: 21–33.

    DOI: 10.1080/17524030701334045

    Senecah outlines the growth of the qualitative side of the subfield, tracing the early establishment of COCE, leading to the development of a division within the National Communication Association, and finally a journal. Senecah contests Cox’s assertion that environmental communication is a “crisis discipline.” She thinks that many of Cox’s concerns can survive under a broader disciplinary tent that includes advocacy but that does not require it.

  • Senecah, S., ed. 2004–2006. The environmental communication yearbook. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    The biennial Conferences on Communication and the Environment (COCE) led to the publication of this yearbook, which lasted from 2004 to 2006. The yearbook itself then led to the publication of the journal Environmental Communication.

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