Sidestepping Environmental Controversy through a Rhetoric of Security: George W. Bush in Summerhaven, Arizona

Article excerpt


Robert Cox (2005) has called upon environmental communication scholars [1] to consider their work as part of a "crisis discipline." Drawing upon the work of Michael Soule in environmental sciences, Cox asks environmental scholars to consider the rhetorical needs of environmental advocacy along with their own academic study. Cox says "the field of environmental communication arises at a moment of conjunctural crisis, defined principally by human-caused threats to both biological systems and human communities, and also by the continuing failure of societal institutions adequately to engage these threats" (p. 4). The crisis Cox discusses, however, is fundamentally different from the crisis appealed to in the environmental speech I discuss in this essay. In a 2003 forest-fire policy address in Summerhaven, Arizona, President George W. Bush draws upon the crisis of terrorist endangerment in a rhetorical shift from natural protection to citizen security (Bush, 2003). This invocation of crisis moves the focus away from natural protection in a way that should trouble environmental advocates. If environmental communication is to consider itself a crisis discipline, its scholars must take note of all uses of crisis rhetoric within environmental discourse. Ultimately, it is evident that crisis is in the eye, or the ear, of the beholder, and how we define the crisis and what rhetorics are drawn upon for its definition will bear powerfully on the function of a crisis-driven discipline.

My central argument is that Bush's address in Summerhaven demonstrates that rhetorical invention can cross lines between seemingly distinct exegetical situations. Only by broadening the analysis, following the shift beyond the environmental domain, do we find the implications of inventional boundary-crossings meaningful. I analyze George W. Bush's speech in Summerhaven as forest policy discourse shifts away from the rhetoric of natural resources and toward the rhetoric of national security. Thus, my analysis not only draws on the text of the speech and forest policy discourse but also on the seemingly superfluous association with the discourse of the "war on terror." Connecting a rhetoric of security in the Summerhaven address to the discourse of a "war on terror" is understood when considered through preceding studies in the rhetorics of crisis, war, apocalypse, and demonology. I maintain that the speech in Summerhaven sidesteps a disadvantageous media frame through a rhetorical shift, taking a rhetorically inventive exigency out of its expected context and placing it implicitly in an un-associated discourse. The bulk of my textual analysis demonstrates how a rhetoric of security, an inventive resource associated with the "war on terror," functions in a speech on forest policy. I conclude by pointing toward the dangers of implicit rhetorical shifts in political discourses.

Press, Public and the President

Few would disagree that President George W. Bush lacks credibility when it comes to environmental policies. The League of Conservation Voters, citing initiatives that "would weaken and eliminate fundamental protections for our air, land and water," gave him an F for his environmental record (Malone, 2003). President Bush's own Environmental Protection Agency head resigned amid rumors of dissatisfaction with the President's role as conservator-in-chief (McCarthy, Cray, Dawson, Roston, & Zagorin, 2003). Lastly, one poll found that on environmental issues, the public mistrusted Bush by a two-to-one ratio (Services, 2003).

Analyses of news-media coverage of environmental issues have repeatedly shown that media conventions set so-called pro- and antienvironmentalists against each other in "frames" (Davis, 1995; K. M. DeLuca, 1999; Karlberg, 1997; Miller & Riechert, 1999; Paxton, 2004; Schlechtweg, 1996; Wolfe, 2002). Media frames are repeating patterns of interpretation used to organize the excess of available data and bracket information into socially recognizable narratives. …