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Introduction

Environment, Nature and Communication in the Age of the Anthropocene
Céline Pascual Espuny et Andrea Catellani

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  • 1 We are obviously paraphrasing here the famous title of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (Of God Who (...)

1This thematic issue brings together a series of works that illustrate the current effort to thinking in SIC (Information and Communication Sciences), the ways in which the environment comes to communication1. This double coming – tocommunication, but also to SIC - is placed under the sign of a notion, that of the Anthropocene, which indicates a new quantitative and qualitative scale of human impact on the planet. With the Anthropocene era, what has always been true in essence (the fact that humans live in, think about, influence and are influenced and shaped by nature) has become, because of its evidence and magnitude in relation to the effects on climate and living organisms, a central phenomenon in scientific culture and thinking, to the point of changing the categories of the physical sciences. change the categories of the physical sciences.

2We would like to stress that the notion of the Anthropocene remains controversial. Bruno David (2020), a paleontologist and biologist, for example, prefers to speak of a historical era, such as the Middle Ages or the Renaissance, and not a geological era. But he says that this notion allows us to “put a name to a reality: the unprecedented involvement of humans in major upheavals on the planet”. (on this notion, see also the entry on the Anthropocene in the Dictionnaire de l’Anthropocène, 2020, and for the relationship with SIC the article by Françoise Bernard, 2018). For its part, the category of “environment” is used here despite its nature being strongly rooted in a certain (rather dualistic) view of the human experience of existing in the world, in relation to other natural beings and in the context of complex balances that concern the biosphere as a whole (see Philippe Descola's reflections on this point).

3Like Nicole D'Almeida (2005, p. 1), we assume that “the environment is not a given, a simple environment or setting for human life but a theoretical construction in which the conditions of living together are played out and discussed“. Basically, the environment is a notion that we use to make sense of our appearance in nature, constituted by nature but also positioned as capable of thinking and saying the meaning of nature (“beings there”, dasein, to put it with Martin Heidegger). To avoid any misunderstanding, we consider, as does the International Environmental Communication Association, that environmental communication includes ”all forms of interpersonal, group, public, organisational and mediated communication that constitute the social debate on environmental problems and issues and our relationship with the rest of nature”2. We are therefore a long way from any metonymic reduction of metonymic reduction of communication to “com.” (a reductive and caricatured image of strategic communication of organisations).

4The environment has been part of the international public arena since at least the 1970s - not to mention earlier media phenomena such as Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring in 1962 - and is now the source of a wide range of writings, narratives and debates in our societies. It now covers a wide and matrix-like discursive perimeter, where notions such as ecology (which is a science before being a 'trivial' content), ecological and energy transition, sustainable development, corporate social responsibility (CSR, which includes an environmental dimension), the Anthropocene, and even collapse, translate through the prism of physical, economic, political, scientific, but also cultural and symbolic realities that are linked but different. These realities can be continuously identified in the field of communication, public and private, professional, expert or lay, strategic or spontaneous. Communication practices are not only expressions but also vectors and factors in the construction of the cultural presence of nature and the environment, and the transformations of this presence, as Cox and Pezzullo (2018) point out. Our images of nature, the environment and ecology are (also) “communicative” and (hyper)trivial beings, caught up in the constant interaction between science, art, economics, politics, spiritualities, society, technology - and personal, more or less mediated, sensitive experience (that of “megafires” and extreme weather events, disappearing glaciers or beaches invaded by plastic waste).

5At a time when pressures are coordinating and overlapping, whether anthropogenic, climatic, biological, social, political, economic or moral, communication practices in the broad sense play a key role. Questioned from all sides, invoked to raise awareness, considered necessary in the emergence of participatory and co-constructed mechanisms, these practices - particularly on the side of organisational communication - nevertheless carry the burden of suspicions of manipulation, and of a 'greenwashing' practised in the past and still latent and resurgent. Media information on the environment at a time of anthropogenic challenges is caught up in the tensions between sometimes different economic, political, moral and societal imperatives, in a context of societies that are often themselves in contradiction between different values, and between values and practices (“values-action gap”). For its part, the popularisation of science is struggling to find a stable place, and the presence of scientific knowledge remains limited in a context that is sometimes cacophonous, with conspiracy, anti-system and reductionist tendencies. The Internet in the broadest sense, and in particular the digital social media, has for some time been the meeting place for different communicative (and societal) projects, for awareness-raising, polemics, disinformation, exposure and mobilisation, which are sometimes contradictory.

6Given these constraints and tensions, what can the information and communication sciences say today, in a critical and scientific manner, about this polymorphous reality constituted by environmental communication practices? How are the links between nature and ecology understood when communication practices are used? Does environmental communication present a different profile within the vast field of objects analysed by the information and communication sciences, due to their “hyper-trivial” nature as places of intersection of all tensions, expectations and disappointments?

7In reality, French (or partly French-speaking, no doubt) SIC has not always paid attention to issues related to the “environment”. As Bernard (2018, p. 35) points out, “a historical rendezvous was missed” at the beginning of the discipline, around the mid-1970s, and this relative distance continues afterwards (ibid., p. 40), even if theoretical and empirical currents and proposals were able to “prepare the ground” for the environmental communication research of the last 20 years, which has really taken off. The situation changes notably from the end of the 1990s, but Bernard echoes Francine Boillot Grenon's (2015) observation: “...SIC researchers publish little and very late” on themes related to sustainable development and the presence of the environment in communication. The absence of SIC in the framework of the “environmental humanities”, as noted by Bernard, is also a negative element to be noted, concerning a certain “invisibility” of CIS work on communication and the environment, despite its relevance and its increasing number.

  • 3 A series of books and articles review this history and the characteristics of international researc (...)

8The situation has been different at the international level, and particularly in the USA, where researchers like Robert Cox began to develop a reflection on the communicative forms of the environment and nature from at least the beginning of the 1980s, often with an orientation of rhetorical analysis of discourses, and with a rather obvious link at times with commitment and activism (see e.g. Cox 1982). Over time, an international community of researchers in “communication studies” on “environmental communication” (in the broad sense, including media phenomena), rather committed and with a very strong American presence, has been formed, and has gradually expanded its activity, with increasing institutionalisation. The first working group on environmental, science and risk communication was set up by the International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) in 1988; the first Conference on Communication and the Environment (COCE) was held in 1991. More recently, an international reference journal appeared (Environnemental Communication, in 2007), and finally the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA) was formed in 20133.

9To return to the French-speaking world, in a recent article we were able to observe from a quantitative point of view the evolution of interest in the environment in French-speaking scientific production in SIC (Catellani, Pascual Espuny, Malibabo & Jalenques, 2019) with a focus on only one part of the French-speaking world. We have identified a very marked increase in the number of theses, articles and books from 2007 onwards in particular, and even more so in the 2010s, with a variety of approaches and theoretical models evoked (more semantic, discursive and semiotic analyses, and others more linked to the paradigm of engaging communication, for example). This increase has also seen more recently (end of 2018) the constitution of a Study and Research Group within the French Society of Information and Communication Studies (“Communication, Environment, Science and Society”, https://comenvironnement.hypotheses.org/​): a new phase of more marked institutionalisation thus seems to be starting. In the 2019 article, the hypothesis was put forward that the links between French and (partly) Francophone SIC researchers working on the environment in communication and the wider international scientific community were not yet close enough. However, the situation is evolving, scientific production is increasing, and the links also seem to be strengthening. This research sector, which crosses different scientific traditions and “schools” in SIC, is showing its vitality and is finding new forms of visibility.

10In this issue we focus in particular on scientific contributions that propose an analysis of the specificities of so-called environmental communication, based on a solid methodology and a grounding in information and communication sciences. The objective is explicitly to collect the most recent points of view and results in order to make them visible and to show the ongoing solidification of a real research sector, which tends to go beyond the dispersion of individual contributions to aim for a form of institutionalisation, and if possible, a (multiple, admittedly) theoretical construction.

11In this issue we find nine articles, all of which have questioned the information and communication sciences head-on in the face of the challenges of the “environment” in the Anthropocene era, and, through the scope of researches that can be considered as complementary, draw up an outline of a science that is committed and that is deeply questioning itself.

12Considered as a whole, this issue goes beyond a qualification of a relatively new field in the French-speaking SIC landscape, which was the first intention. Among the articles selected, at least four of them open up SIC to philosophical reflection, and question our capacity to apprehend the sensitive differently, to change our cognitive base, to enter a new paradigm. A particular framework, on the place of the researcher in SIC, is built and answered in several contributions. The researcher is described as being caught up in the constraints and tensions of his or her research practice and relationships with stakeholders, and reflexivity is in tension. We also noted a continuity in the articles on the links between environmental communication, which has been built up as an object of reflection in SIC, and issues that are sometimes highly technical, always eminently societal, and deeply sensitive. Finally, in this issue, the semiological approach also appears as a guiding thread in most of the articles.

13Amélie Coulbaut and Frédéric Couston (“Manifesto for thinking about environmental communication in the light of human/non-human links”, in French) draw a portrait of the analysis of environmental communication involved in a renewed relationship between humans and their environment. The authors are in line with the renewal of the Pascalian wager which commits to action. It is a question of moving from a position of overhang to a more inclusive “hic et nunc” position, with the researcher becoming “a stakeholder in a modification of our relationship with the world”. The analysis of complexity is one of the keys to entry, with the mobilisation of dialogical, recursive and “hologrammic” principles. The authors pose the question of consciousness with Bateson. They propose three ways of thinking about environmental communication: the choice of complex thinking, the choice of situated research, and the choice of commitment.

14Erik Bertin and Nicolas Couégnas (“Nature in pop culture: modes of presence and enunciation of nature in contemporary transmedia fictions”, in French) place this questioning of the human/nature link at the heart of their reflection. Starting from the observation that the relationship between humans and nature is ontologically fixed, reduced to the relationship between a subject and its object, they see in the new discursive frames of nature in pop culture a possible overcoming and the possible emergence of a new cultural current. Between dystopian universes and digital affordances, the authors examine three current, emblematic and transgressive fictions. They identify and underline the hybridisations, the “unthinkable articulations” that fictions allow us to envisage, beyond the classic classificatory borders, and which revisit our assurances and cognitive routines.

15For Renaud Hétier and Nathanaël Wallenhorst (“From the idea of humanity as a power of nature to the representation of the Anthropocene in the media”, in French), two visions are opposed: on the one hand, “prometheism”, on the other “orphism”, which supports admiration and respect for nature. With the Anthropocene, the authors highlight the gradual emergence of a new awareness of nature and our relationship with it, which they describe through an unprecedented media research that seems at first sight to be going in the opposite direction, drawing from a media analysis of the forces of collapsology and the logic of collapse. The scientific inculturation of the mass media is here identified and dismantled, and the authors plead for a better communication and valorisation of the scientific word.

16Benjamin Lesson (“The invention of the principle of perseverance. A reading of The Art of the Anthropocene and Permaculture”, in French) offers another analysis of what he describes as “the putting on trial of our forms of life”. Using a semiotic approach, he works on a new grid of meaning for the place of man within a larger environment. His research question (are we capable of conceiving a possible world and a form of life that would be coherent with it?) engages him in a semiotic study of two works to show how their authors renew our understanding of man's being in the world and his relationship with nature. The author concludes with the strength of the dialectic of emergence in all forms of life and opens his reflection on the poetic dimension of man.

17The expert word, and man's relationship to his environment and his understanding of the sensory and of nature are the subject of other articles.

18Thus, François Allard-Huver (“What SIC do to environmental controversies and what environmental controversies do to SIC”, in French) underlines the ambivalence between complexity and triviality, between research and action, but also the delicate and highly strategic place of the researcher within media storms, which illustrates well the stakes of the posture to be adopted by those who carry out research in environmental communication. The polymorphic nature of environmental controversies is clearly demonstrated, as is the quality of the scientific reflexivity required. Techno-Semiotic approaches to controversies are at the service of a broader research, the researcher advancing here in a sensitive and media “fog” specific to controversies, in “moving temporalities”.

19Nataly Botero revisits another significant dimension of environmental communication through the issue of air pollution. Her article (“Air pollution on the front page: media visibility of an environmental problem”, in French) draws on the sociology of public problems in order to better account for the long-term dynamics of a problem that has remained “confidential” for a long time, even though it is major. Longitudinal analysis of the front pages of the press enables her to grasp the media and social dynamics of the circulation of this public problem. The issue seems to be too plastic, and awareness of it struggles to circulate due to a lack of uniqueness and simplicity, both in terms of understanding and the content of the messages and the quality of the spokespersons. New avenues of emergence seem to be opening up through the judicial mobilisation of citizen groups.

20Eloïse Vanderlinden, Elizabeth Gardère and Valérie Carayol, (“Carbon neutrality through the lens of organisational communication”, in Frenc), propose that we enter, through organisational communication, into the changes brought about in public administrations by the introduction of new ideas and new practices linked to the notion of “carbon neutrality”. The latter becomes a principle of action, a new metric, a flagship indicator for aggregating operational reversals in the organisation. The authors examine the emergence of practices linked to carbon neutrality, following this notion as it circulates in the decision-making and organisational space, and situating it in relation to sustainable development and ecological transition. They show how technical issues raise the question of organisational reconfigurations and the interplay of actors within the framework of the public institution.

21A complementary approach, anchored in a territory shaken by climate change issues, allows Mikaël Chambru and Jean-Philippe de Oliveira (“Climate change and territorial development in mountains: conflicts and communication issues”, in French) to enter into the complexity of these mutations in the “making” of the territory, and to consider the communicative responses of a municipality that has to face social and economic anxiety and environmental mutations. Here, issues of time, commitment and decisions are at stake; the levels of interest defended by the actors in the territory collide and raise the question of understanding and action in the near future and in an emergency.

22We conclude this dossier with an article by Alison Vogelaar (“The rhetoric of invasive species: Managing belonging on a novel planet”, in English), which returns to the vast questions of the relationship between humans and their environment, and which provides a bridge to some of the approaches and concerns present in research published in English today. Here it is a question of our relationship with so-called invasive and exogenous species. The relocation of species and their action on the territory evoke the categories of ecological struggle and invasion and echo those of disaster and crisis, referring to the controversies that sometimes shake up the media about these phenomena. It is also a question of scale and the visibility or invisibility of large migratory movements, of our relationship with and understanding of ecosystems and biodiversity.

23The set of articles illustrates the capacity of SIC to question cultural notions and frameworks, communicative habits and meaning, to show the complexity of the dynamics of meaning and relationship. According to Bernard (2018, p. 57), “[...] with the notion of the Anthropocene as a spur, SIC researchers are embarked on theoretical and epistemic debates that invite us to ask and explore questions about the interrelationships between technique, culture, science and society extended to nature, at a historical time when the dominant techno-scientific model is reaching an unprecedented level of extension” (pp. 58-59, translation of the Authors). The articles presented in this dossier do not directly debate the notion of the Anthropocene, but they clearly show that our discipline is indeed “embarked” on the effort to build a thorough, relevant knowledge of the interrelationships at stake in the 'environment' today. One of the strengths of these analyses is certainly the ability to open up to the complexity of situations and forms, by integrating different dimensions in order to seek an adequate vision, based on careful methodological approaches. The challenge of seeking theoretical syntheses remains open, but the different scientific sensibilities represented here advance a disciplinary reflection and will, we hope, open up new perspectives of exchange and scientific research.

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Bibliographie

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Notes

1 We are obviously paraphrasing here the famous title of the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas (Of God Who Comes to Mind, 1982).

2 https://theieca.org/resources/environmental-communication-what-it-and-why-it-matters, accessed on 26 January 2021.

3 A series of books and articles review this history and the characteristics of international research in the field. See, for example, Pleasant et al., 2002; Hansen, 2011; Anderson, 2015; Cox, 2007, 2015; Cox and Pezzullo, 2018/2016; Lester, 2015; Evans Comfort and Eun Park 2019.

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Céline Pascual Espuny et Andrea Catellani, « Introduction »Revue française des sciences de l’information et de la communication [En ligne], 21 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2021, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/rfsic/11543 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/rfsic.11543

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Auteurs

Céline Pascual Espuny

Céline Pascual Espuny is a professor at Aix-Marseille University. She is co-director of the Institut Méditerranéen en Sciences de l'Information et de la Communication (IMSIC) and co-leader of the SFSIC research group “Communication, environment, science and society”. Her research and publications focus on environmental and organisational communication, in particular on behavioural changes and the dynamics of message circulation (alerts, weak signals, crystallisation, emergence, resonance) on the environment and sustainable development. Email: celine.pascual(at)univ-amu.fr

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  • Introduction [Texte intégral]
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Andrea Catellani

Andrea Catellani is Professor of Communication at the Catholic University of Louvain (UCLouvain). He co-leads the SFSIC research group “Communication, environment, science and society”. His research and publications focus on environmental communication and discourses, discourses and images on climate change and corporate responsibility, communication ethics and the relationship between religion and communication in the digital world. He is Lead project investigator of the project “Overcoming ostacles and disincentives to climate change mitigation”. E-mail: andrea.catellani(at)uclouvain.be

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