Spinning the World: Making Visible the Genealogies of Environmental Policy

By Banning, Marlia | Radical Teacher, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Spinning the World: Making Visible the Genealogies of Environmental Policy


Banning, Marlia, Radical Teacher


In the contemporary United States, a host of political and commercial entities are challenging academically produced knowledge and, in particular, scientific discourse. At the heart of these attacks are struggles to shape public opinion in a manner favorable to various elite, government, and commercial interests. In this context, radical scholars and teachers may well return to the roots of the rhetorical tradition. We should teach students to examine public debates and analyze the methods and motives that interlocutors use to persuade and to shape belief, to examine the sources for such information and to inquire into the social, political, and economic contexts in which these efforts occur. Scholars and teachers of rhetoric, literacy, and others involved in environmental education can turn to the foundation of rhetorical study, as Donald Lazere urges in "Postmodern Pluralism and the Retreat from Political Literacy," and foreground the fundamentals of political literacy in the classroom and the various forums available to us.

What is alternatively termed "critical," "civic," and "information" literacy requires that students and all citizens educate themselves in order to engage issues of public policy in an informed manner. This process usually occurs in two stages. Students first need to learn about the environment by evaluating scientific evidence on a topic: that is, recognizing the main points of agreement and dissent on the issues. Then they can identify the steps needed to address environmental problems. This process provides a firm foundation for environmental education. It is equally important in the contemporary U.S. context, however, that environmental education include a third stage, one that examines political and corporate efforts in the United States to shape public opinion on environmental issues.

Students can progress to this third stage of education by learning and generating what I term "genealogies" of the environment that lay out the political debates over environmental issues and that illustrate how popular beliefs are manipulated and factual discourse is suppressed in the formation of public policy. Constructing these genealogies would make the struggles over public discourses and policies visible in the classroom and in other venues to demonstrate who is shaping these discourses, particularly as they are played out in cultural politics, and policies, and for what ends. Knowledge of the political and commercial efforts to suppress or reframe environmental research that is unfavorable to political and industry concerns--whether this research regards vocational hazards, air and water pollution, habitat alteration, or global warming--allows students to critically evaluate the sources of these messages. By making visible in these genealogies corporate and political attempts to frame public debates on environmental policy, students can learn about campaigns to shape public opinion, identify the language and arguments used to frame environmental issues, and resist this political and commercial rhetoric.

In this essay, I examine political and corporate efforts to shape public opinion on global warming and offer some suggestions for both teaching students about these efforts and helping students to create their own environmental genealogies. Global warming is a particularly telling example to illustrate how popular beliefs are manipulated and factual discourse is suppressed in the formation of contemporary U.S. public policy and opinion. Climate change science, the interdisciplinary area of study responsible for assessing changes in the complex systems that comprise the Earth's atmosphere, has encountered challenges to its authority and expertise for decades, but it has been literally under siege by governmental officials and the energy industry as it has produced increasingly alarming evidence of global warming over the past decade.

Moving genealogies into the classroom requires that we both assemble genealogies as demonstration for our students and teach students how to construct genealogies themselves. …

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Spinning the World: Making Visible the Genealogies of Environmental Policy
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