Richard D. Besel, Bernard K. Duffy, eds. Green Voices: Defending Nature and the Environment in American Civic Discourse. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2016. xliv + 370 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-5849-6.
Reviewed by Jon Hazlett
Published on H-Water (August, 2016)
Commissioned by Jonathan Wlasiuk
In Green Voices: Defending Nature and the Environment in American Civic Discourse, Richard D. Besel and Bernard K. Duffy have gathered a collection of works that analyze what they consider to be the formative role speeches have played in promoting ideas of environmental stewardship within civic discourse. According to the editors, speeches reveal prevailing attitudes of key environmental figures and facilitate the examination of “the broad sweep of U.S. environmental history from the perspective of nature’s leading advocates” (p. 2). Existing studies of environmental rhetoric, however, focus on written texts and ignore oratorical sources. Green Voices seeks to remedy that. Unfortunately, no other cohesive structure frames the book, as the editors and authors seek to focus on the power of individual voices to “stand out as unique … in challenging normative thinking and social inertia” (p. 9). Such an analysis relies on minimal historical context and rejects a “monolithic definition” of the terms “nature” or “environment” in favor of engaging the “variety of ways one may define” the terms (p. 2). The result is a somewhat disjointed collection of stories of various rhetorical strategies and contexts.
The book is organized chronologically in three sections. The first five chapters explore the “early roots” of environmentalism from the mid-nineteenth century through the 1940s. These chapters describe a variety of efforts, first to embrace the immense size of the fully expanded continental United States and then to preserve its geographic and ecological diversity. Readers will find familiar characters and stories of the early environmental movement: John Muir and his efforts to promote the preservation of sublime wilderness, Theodore Roosevelt and his calls for natural resource conservation, and Aldo Leopold and his vision of a harmonious relationship between humans and the land. Besel and Duffy also include chapters describing lesser-known wilderness advocates. The first chapter describes Charles Sumner’s arguments for continental expansion, specifically the purchase of Alaska, as a means to move beyond the sectionalism that led to the Civil War and unify the nation. Also included is a chapter describing the lesser-known See America First movement, which “constructed an environmental exceptionalism based on the grandeur of America’s landscape” to promote tourism within the United States as an alternative to European travel (p. 77).
The next five chapters explore the development of “mainstream environmentalism” of the 1950s through the 1980s and loosely reflect the well-trodden historical narrative of the development of environmentalism. Again readers are introduced to a combination of iconic and lesser-known environmental advocates. Chapters 6 and 7 highlight speeches by two instrumental figures in the development and passing of the Wilderness Act of 1964, Sigurd Olson and Margaret Murie. Olson offered a “transcendent vision of nature, often centered upon the ordinary” (p. 112) while Murie “depicted wilderness, not as an ideal place set apart from humankind but as an arena for human freedom” (p. 131). According to the respective authors, their oratorical ability to draw connections between human beings and their environment helped transition the environmental movement away from conservation toward wilderness preservation and protection. The book then moves on to the more popular figures of Rachel Carson and Jimmy Carter, both of whom relied upon rhetorical jeremiads to point out dire environmental conditions and encourage grassroots and individual action to remedy them. In the case of Carson, these concerns centered on the effects of pesticides on humans, which she first analyzed in Silent Spring (1962) and continued to present in speeches she gave defending herself against criticisms from the chemical industry. Carter also utilized the jeremiad in his attempts to convince the country of the need to change their individual consumption patterns in the wake of the energy crisis of the 1970s, an effort that failed to address the need for underlying structural changes. Chapter 10 highlights the efforts of Lois Gibbs in her successful battle against toxic chemical pollution of the Love Canal area of New York. Gibbs, a concerned mother and housewife, presented an “ethic of care” in congressional testimony that established a moral connection between industries and the communities affected by their pollution. She destroyed patriarchal ideas of housewives as uninformed and ill-equipped to rationally argue against corporations and exemplified the power of ordinary citizens to utilize democratic processes to demand environmental responsibility.
The final five chapters analyze the rhetoric of “mainstream environmentalism” as it continued to develop beyond the 1980s. The chapters span a wide variety of environmental actions and the rhetorical devices employed within them. Chapter 11 explores the success of Senator Frank Church’s moderate, “light green” rhetoric he used to seek protection of the River of No Return wilderness area in Idaho. The remainder of the chapters contrast this moderation with more radical and bombastic approaches. Chapter 12 describes the anarchist persona of “Cactus Ed” created by Edward Abbey and how he used it to help establish the radical environmental group Earth First! with public protest performances. Chapter 13 moves on to analyze the melodrama used by Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in his attacks on the negative environmental effects of “crony capitalism.” Chapter 14 explores actress Ashley Judd’s use of metaphor to urge citizens to take immediate action against mountaintop mining in Kentucky. The book concludes with the efforts of Benjamin Chavis to echo Black Power movements by coining the term “environmental racism” to combat the disproportionate effects that environmental pollution posed for minorities. In all four cases, each respective rhetorical method is used to create rigid ideas of good and evil in the battles against environmental degradation.
Upon completion of Green Voices, many readers may be left wondering what to make of such a collection and its sprawling discussion of a multitude of theories and rhetorical techniques. Each chapter attempts to place environmental advocates and their speeches within different theoretical frameworks and each argues for the effectiveness of different rhetorical approaches. Students of rhetorical theory may find such a collection helpful in analyzing the utility of certain techniques in certain contexts. Environmental historians, however, will find that much of the material has been covered thoroughly in foundational texts of the environmental movement, most notably Samuel Hays’s Beauty, Health, and Permanence (1987) and Robert Gottlieb’s Forcing the Spring (1993). Furthermore, such a limited historical context ignores the complex issues of political economy involved with all of these speeches. For instance, while Lois Gibbs played an integral role in the passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response and Liability Act of 1980, it occurred within the dramatically changing structure of the broader waste management industry that connected back to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965 and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976. Finally, notable absences from the book further prevent more meaningful engagement with present-day environmentalism. A chapter relating to the opposition to environmentalism that coalesced in the 1970s and 1980s or to the environmental rhetoric purveyed by corporations and other business interests that coalesced in “green” consumerism might have alleviated some of these limitations. Such analysis would prove beneficial in a world in which corporations have begun to label bottled water as “organic” and “non-GMO.”
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Jon Hazlett. Review of Besel, Richard D.; Duffy, Bernard K., eds., Green Voices: Defending Nature and the Environment in American Civic Discourse.
H-Water, H-Net Reviews.
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