Revealing Neoliberal Discourse in Climate Communication: A Visual Mapping Approach – A paper at IAMCR 2015?

My paper proposal for the INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR MEDIA AND COMMUNICATION RESEARCH 2015 conference: Hegemony or Resistance? On the Ambiguous Power of Communication has been accepted. This mapping research has had over 135,000k views on My abstract is below. MAPPING-Climate-Communication-Network-of-Actors-2014-web

Mapping Climate Communication offers an overview of how climate change is communicated in the public realm by visualizing and contextualizing actors, events, actions and discourses influencing public opinion. Since communication happens at the level of rhetoric as well as the level of action, discourses in this project include explicit messages and also messages that are implicit within political, corporate and organizational activities and policy. This approach reveals tensions and contradictions in climate communication. The public is told that climate change is a serious threat but the same institutional actors continue to support carbon intensive development. The discursive confusion that results from contradictory communication on climate is theorized as central to the ongoing deadlock in climate policy. Explicit and implicit communication is at odds in the neoliberal discourse. This discourse often uses the language of the environmental movement to gain and maintain legitimacy and public trust. The danger here is that the climate movement’s work in creating awareness and policy opinions responding to climate change is simply used as convenient rhetoric and public relations messaging for continued and indeed exacerbated carbon intensive development.

Since the ecological modernization discourse is open to the use of market mechanisms to regulate climate change, this discourse often unwittingly erodes capacity for regulation as responsibility for a responding to climate change is captured by corporate interests and thus possibilities for climate regulation become even more remote. Despite green intentions of actors in the ecological modernization discourse, when this discourse fails to challenge neoliberalism, it is easily appropriated. It then serves to facilitate neoliberal processes, which in turn enables contrarian discourses, since neoliberalism transfers power from the public to the corporate sphere, where contrarian power is most concentrated. The historical appropriation and political neutralization of green movements is a dynamic that needs to be considered when theorizing climate communication. Continue reading

The Green Economy: Reconceptualizing the Natural Commons as Natural Capital

green economy graphic Abstract: The green economy is an emergent approach to sustainable development launched at Rio+20. Herein environmental decision-making is increasingly achieved through economistic processes and logic. The natural commons are quantified and managed as natural capital. This paper summarizes the trajectory of the project and its ideological framework. It examines various conceptualizations of economic approaches to the environment and considers philosophical, methodological, and political problems associated with the green economy project. In the face of very different definitions of what constitutes a green economy, environmental communicators face a situation characterized by discursive confusion as the complexity of natural capital accounting processes conceal new political configurations. Counter movements argue that the green economy program is performing ideological work that uses language of environmentalism to obscure an intensified agenda of neoliberal governance and capital accumulation. The concept now has contradictory meanings. Environmental communicators have an important role to play in exposing the contested nature of the project and in helping to define the emerging green economy. Published March 13 in Environmental Communication. 50 free downloads here (until they are used up – please do not use if you have institutional login)

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Mapping Climate Communication: No.1 Climate Timeline and No.2 Network of Actors

The Mapping Climate Communication Project illustrates key events, participants and strategies in climate communication.

1) Climate Timeline visualizes the historical processes and events that have lead to various ways of communicating climate change. Key scientific, political and cultural events are plotted on a timeline that contextualizes this information within five climate discourses. These reveal very different ideological, political and scientific assumptions on climate change. A clearer version of the timeline is available here.

Climate Timeline

Climate Timeline

2) Network of Actors displays relationships between 237 individuals, organizations and institutions participating in climate communication in Canada, United States and the United Kingdom. A clearer version of this graphic is available here.


Details about this project can be found in the Mapping Climate Communication: PosterSummary Report. This report can be downloaded here.

The maps reveal how specific details in climate communication are contextualized within complex debates. For example:

  1. How does a climate march impact the volume of media coverage of climate change?
  2. How does the work of the climate denial industry potentially impact climate policy?
  3. Do popular movies and books on climate result in activity in the climate movement?
  4. What are the relationships between organizations active in climate communication?

By illustrating key events and actors over time and within five discourses this work makes links between disparate factors and reveals dynamics that contribute to public understanding of climate change. The project also explores politicised issues in climate communication by using a discourse approach to analyse the various strategies and ideologies held by those organizations, institutions and individuals participating in climate communication in the public realm. This report describes the impact of neoliberal dogma and modes of governance on climate communication as one of the central problems preventing a global response to climate change. Theorizing the impact of neoliberalism on climate change communication and policy is key to an understanding of why emissions continue to rise despite the significant work by the climate science community and the environmental movement over the past four decades.

Mapping Climate Communication, new posters July 2014

Mapping Climate Communication: Timeline

This series of three posters maps climate communication by means of a timeline, a network visualization and a strategy map. The work illustrates
relationships between climate discourses, prominent actors and major organizations participating in climate communication including science institutions, academic institutions, media organizations, think tanks and government agencies – along with the interests and funders linked to these organizations. Various discourses are mapped including climate science; counter-movements (contrarianism); ecological modernization, neoliberalism and corporate capture; and social movements (climate justice). The timeline visualizes the historical processes that have lead to the growth of various ways of communicating climate change. The network visualization illustrates relationships between actors and prominent discourses. The strategy map displays methods used within four discursive realms.

The posters are still work in process. They will be presented at the ‘Changing Climate Communication’ conference in July 2014. Feedback from this presentation will inform a final stage of the visualizations, to be completed in September 2014.

No.2 Network of Actors, USA and UK Based Organizations and Individuals.  Version 1. July 2014

The poster illustrates relationships between prominent actors and major organizations participating in climate communication. These include: science institutions, media organizations, think tanks, government departments, non-governmental organization (NGOs) and individuals – along with some of the more significant funders. Actors are situated within four discursive realms: climate science; counter-movements (contrarianism); ecological modernization (often neoliberalism); and social movements (climate justice). These four discourses are mapped on a framework wherein actors are colour-coded according to where they are situated. In this first version the colour, the size of the circles and their positions are all speculative. Subsequent versions will use different methods for plotting the actors and linking the nodes.


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25th Anniversary of FBI + EPA raid on the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant outside of Boulder, Colorado

rocky flats - promoting mutations

The 25 Year Commemorative Postcard and T-Shirt Design by Artist Stephanie McMillan and The Rocky Flats Nuclear Guardianship Group.

On June 6, 1989 the FBI and the EPA raided Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant (outside of Boulder and Denver near the city of Arvada) for environmental violations. The Denver Post explains:

Twenty-five years ago, on June 6, 1989, a convoy of about 30 vehicles carrying more than 70 armed agents of the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency raided the U.S. Department of Energy’s plutonium-processing plant at Rocky Flats for suspected environmental crimes.

rocky flats nuclear

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Design/Ecology/Politics: Towards the Ecocene


Today I signed a contract with Bloomsbury Academic Publishers for a book called Design/ Ecology/ Politics: Towards the Ecocene, due to be published 2017.

Design/Ecology/Politics describes a powerful role for design making sustainable ways of living – but only once informed by ecological literacy and critical perspectives. Instead, the design industry normatively perpetuates unsustainable development. When design does engage with issues of sustainability, this engagement typically remains shallow due to the narrow basis of analysis in design education and theory. The situation is made more severe by design cultures which claim to be apolitical. Where design theory fails to recognise the historical roots of unsustainable practice, it reproduces old errors. New ecologically informed design strategies hold promise only when incorporated into a larger project of political change.

Bringing design, ecological and socio-political theory together, I describe how power relations are constructed, reproduced and obfuscated by design in ways which often cause environmental and social harms. Communication design can function to either conceal or reveal the ecological and social impacts of current modes of production. Revealing these dynamics creates new possibilities for transformative practice. This change-making potential of design is dependent on deep-reaching analysis of the problems design attempts to address. Ecologically literate and critically engaged design is a practice primed to facilitate the creation of viable, sustainable and just futures. With a critical ecologically informed foundation, designers can make sustainability not only possible, but desirable.


It will be available in October 2017 for $19.99.

Visualizing the Environment and the Politics of Representation

sea ice volume12:00 – 1:00 PM, 16 April 2014. Center for Science & Technology Policy Research Noontime SeminarSpring 2014 Series.

Institute of Behavioral Sciences, 155 B  (webcast live). Grandview Avenue. University of Colorado in Boulder.

This talk will introduce the many ways that images work to communicate environment issues. With the rise of data visualization, new mapping strategies, network visualizations and other types of information design, images are increasingly being mobilized to support environmental learning. Images can be powerful tools capable of supporting public understanding of the environment while also potentially influencing behavior and social norms. Images can work to make complex information accessible in ways that are especially well suited for environmental communication since they have the unique ability to reveal relationships, patterns, dynamics and causality in complex socio-ecological systems. On the other hand, within the politically and ideologically loaded terrain of environmental communication, images are also capable of concealing tensions, complexities and interests behind environment problems. Images are regularly used to reproduce the perspectives of powerful interests, often in ways that obscure environmental circumstances and the consequences of various types of industrial development and consumption patterns. Visual representation of the environment embodies political and philosophical assumptions about the capacity of the natural world to sustain continued abuse along with other associated notions of human-nature relations. This talk will examine how images are used to both reveal and conceal environmental circumstances with examples of particularly effective, politicized and/or disingenuous visualizations of the environment.


Ecological Perception: Seeing Systems – 2nd Paper for the DRS 2014

beware-fo-the-invisibilityImage-makers have the unique ability to make hidden ecological processes visible by revealing relationships, patterns and dynamics in complex socio-ecological systems. This paper describes how communication design can support relational perceptual practices and even nurture ecological perception. It presents specific methods to harness the latent potential of graphic design to communicate the context, causality and complexity of ecological processes and systems. Visual metaphors function to establish meaning. Furthermore, aesthetics experiences can provoke deep perceptual insights supporting new ways of perceiving our relationship to the environment. In these ways, graphic design has the potential to nurture the ability to ‘see systems’ – supporting both ecological perception and ecological literacy.

A second paper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014. Download the paper here.

Design vs. the Design Industry – Paper for the DRS 2014

Design vs. The Design IndustryPaper to be presented at Design Research Society’s conference DRS 2014.

Design can be understood as a practice that evolves as new cognitive and perceptual capacities enable a greater understanding of complexity, context and system dynamics. These emergent capacities create greater potential for social and technological innovation. This paper will argue that despite emergent skills, designers are not able to effectively address contemporary problems in a sustainable manner due to the systemic priorities of the design industry. This paper theorises ‘design’ as the professional practice of creating new products, buildings, services and communication as a broader practice than the work that is produced within the ‘design industry’. The design industry operates according to highly reductive feedback generated by capitalism that systemically ignores signals from the ecological and social systems. The exclusive focus on profit results in distortions of knowledge and reason undermining prospects for the design of long-term prosperity within the context of the current political/economic regime.

Download the paper here.

The History of the Concept of “Natural Capital” – First Coined by E.F. Schumacher in 1973 #NatCap13

The concept of natural capital was first used by E.F. Schumacher in his book Small Is Beautiful (1973). In the same book Schumacher wrote:

To press non-economic values into the framework of the economic Calculus… it is a procedure by which the higher is reduced to the level of the lower and the priceless is given a price. It can therefore never serve to clarify the situation and lead to an enlightened decision. All it can do is lead to self-deception or the deception of others; for to undertake to measure the immeasurable is absurd and constitutes but an elaborate method of moving from preconceived notions to foregone conclusions…The logical absurdity, however, is not the greatest fault of the undertaking: what is worse, and destructive of civilisation, is the pretence that everything has a price or, in other words, that money is the highest of all values. (p. 27)

b2 colour

Dr. Sian Sullivan describes the current meaning of the concept of natural capital as having its origins in the formation of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) at the first Rio United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) Earth Summit in 1992. The concept of natural capital gained popularity in business circles as a way of thinking about environmental governance and has encouraged by environmentalists such as Jonathan Porritt. Now, four decades since the concept was first coined, the idea has metamorphosed. The notion of nature as natural capital, and as equivalent to capital in the bank, is being adopted by the UK government. In 2011, then UK Environment Minister Caroline Spelman launched the report The natural choice: Securing the value of nature with the statement;

“…if we withdraw something from Mother Nature’s Bank, we’ve got to put something back to ensure that the environment has a healthy balance and a secure future” (2011).

By 2012, the UK established a Natural Capital Committee and economists began preparing to include a value for ‘natural capital’ in Britain’s GDP calculations by 2020. Meanwhile, at an international level, the Bank of Natural Capital website was launched in 2011 by The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) project, a programme supported by the United Nations and European Union. Within the Bank of Natural Capital, Sullivan explains that “nature’s stocks and flows are depicted such that they accord with the format of a standard online current bank account”. Herein nature’s processes are reduced to numbers that can be traded like other financial instruments.

The World Forum on Natural Capital – A Radical Approach to Environmental Decision-Making #NatCap13

The World Forum on Natural Capital meet today and tomorrow in Edinburgh. Here NGOs, governments, business and the financial industry will consider ways of valuing nature using the concept of natural capital. This project emerges out of programmes launched at Rio+20 such as the UNEP’s Green Economy Report and financial institutions’ Natural Capital Declaration. The forum will undoubtedly raise awareness on environmental threats, but the strategy of using “natural capital” to respond threatens to take environmental decision-making out of the political sphere and into the marketplace. Not only does this move erode democratic decision-making on the environment – but it will give more control over nature to the very financial institutions and corporations responsible for unsustainable development. The real threat is that the natural commons, the ecological space we all share, will be subject to a new wave of privatization under the pretense that corporations and financial institutions will suddenly become responsible environmental guardians – once natural capital is part of their balance books.


This radical new policy approach to environmental decision making is being pushed by the UNEP, the UK government and a variety of environmental organisations eager to help business understand the environmental consequences of their activities. While well intentioned, the project lacks a critical view on corporate power and the ways in which neoliberal institutions work to appropriate the rhetoric of social and environmental movements to serve their own agenda. In this case, the project establishes conditions for resource and land grabs while also creating fantastic greenwashing opportunities for corporations. On the first day of the conference it has already been made apparent how the concept of natural capital accounting provides an effective means for corporations like sponsor Royal Bank of Scotland and presenter Rio Tinto to greenwash their disastrous environmental activities (RBC in Canadian Tar Sands and Rio Tinto in Indonesia and around the world).

Using Financial Logic to “Value” Nature

While we desperately need to develop more effective means to value nature, using financial calculations is an ill-conceived and dangerous approach for reasons that I describe at length in my recent paper ‘Re-imaging the commons as “the green economy”’.  Take the example of Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond’s claim that nature is worth between £21.5 to £23 billion per year to the Scottish economy. As always when we attempt to fix a financial figure to something that is priceless, the figure itself reveals gross errors in logic. If ‘nature’ in Scotland were to become radically de-stabilized and regional ecosystems were to collapse (say to due to run away climate change – or become heavily polluted due to severe radioactive contamination or groundwater contamination from fracking) than human habitation would become extraordinarily difficult, exposing residents to extreme hazards. Thus the idea that nature is only worth 10% of annual Scottish GDP is absurd – Scotland’s economy is 100% dependent on the relative stability and provisioning services provided by the natural world. This undervaluation of natural capital is only one of many flaws I describe at length in my paper.

Social Movements Respond

A counter-conference is taking place in Edinburgh called ‘Nature is Not for Sale: Forum on the Natural Commons’. This event exposes the political drivers and the interests being served by the World Forum on Natural Capital and highlights alternative means of managing the ecological commons. As World Development Movement director Nick Dearden tweeted today, there are many alternative approaches: ‘It’s happening: food sovereignty, community energy, remunicipalise water. Less finance, more regulation’. Organized by World Development Movement, Counter Balance, Re:Common and Carbon Trade Watch the ‘Nature for Sale’ conference asserts that the United Nations, governments and global financial institutions are planning ‘how to put a price on nature so it can be bought and sold as a commodity’. The ‘No to Biodiversity Offsetting’ declaration will be launched tonight. Natural capital accounting is radical the way that neo-liberalism is radical – radical in giving new powers to corporations and financial institutions while weakening democracy and government’s capacity to regulate corporate pollutors.


Cartoon by Ralph Underhill@CartoonRalph Continue reading

The Guardian (temporarily) redefined ‘environmental terrorism’ (but eventually amended the article)


*Update* The EarthFirst! logo has now been removed from The Guardian article. 

Last Friday The Guardian published an article where the author unfairly accused the radical environmental social movement EarthFirst! of terrorist activity committed in Switzerland and Mexico by two other groups. Not only was there no evidence that EarthFirst! was involved with the attacks on nanotechnology labs, but two other groups had already claimed responsibility. Clearly the author, physicist Michele Catanzaro, was keen to use these attacks to discredit radical ecological social movements.

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Experiences of a Natural Disaster as a Catalyst for Climate Awareness


Can the experience of a natural disaster such as the recent Colorado flood help individuals to confront the risks associated with climate change? Can dramatic experiences initiate a major learning experience or even a life transition? Based on the literature of sustainable education, levels of learning and transformative learning, a powerful disorienting experience can be (and often is necessary as) a catalyst for deep, transformative learning. For these reasons, natural disasters are an excellent opportunity to reflect on the risks we are taking as a civilization – and consider what we can do about about these risks.

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