Reflections on COCE 2013

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Reflections on COCE 2013

Stacey K. Sowards, Ph.D.

Department of Communication

The University of Texas at El Paso

Board Member, International Environmental Communication Association

June 16, 2013


As the host of the Conference on Communication and the Environment in 2011 at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP), I was left with several key impressions of COCE 2013 in Uppsala, Sweden at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).  COCE 2011 took place in the arid climate of the Chihuahuan desert and the border region of Mexico and the U.S.  Ciudad Juárez, México is just a few hundred meters away from the UTEP campus.  The focus on international environmental justice issues was quite relevant for COCE 2011 in this border region; the theme of the commons for COCE 2013 in Uppsala is not so different in that there are a number of issues that are interconnected to both the commons and environmental justice.  Perhaps most importantly though, is that the presence, physical experience, the face-to-face interaction of being at COCE 2013 is meaningful in ways that are hard to explain.  Three major experiences for me, beyond the conference presentations and talks themselves, were the gleeful exhilaration I felt in riding the conference rental bike around campus and Uppsala, the amazingly delicious, healthy, and vegetarian food that was served for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks, and the sing-along and communal dinner on Saturday evening.  I especially want to thank Nadarajah Sriskandarajah and everyone at SLU for their hospitality throughout the conference and for leading the Monday excursions (thanks to Hans Peter Hansen, Hanna Bergeå, and Lars Hallgren).  And special thanks should also go to outgoing IECA president, Steve Depoe, who has put significant energy into developing IECA over the past few years.  He has done amazing work to advance the study of environmental communication as we all well know.  The presence of being at a conference was enhanced by such people and activities, and everyone at the conference was impressed by this fantastic experience in Sweden.

In thinking about the conference presentations, panels, and plenary sessions themselves, four observations come to mind.  First, communication has to be central to what we do as environmental communication scholars.  I participated in the European Communication Research and Education Association’s pre-conference workshop the day before the conference began in which the theme was the relationship between scientists and communication scholars.  One point that emerged out of that workshop was that as scholars, we spend a lot of time trying to help scientists and environmentalists communicate their messages more effectively.  Many times, communication is an afterthought and we become a minor addition to major scientific and engineering projects.  However, we may need to reframe how we think about science and environmental communication.  Perhaps we as environmental communication scholars should be the leaders and principal investigators on these big projects instead of the other way around.  A word of caution:  it’s very easy to say this, and much harder to do.  But I think we need to rethink how we are valued by our colleagues who work in environmental, biological, and engineering sciences.  Instead of trying to help them, maybe they should be helping us.  During one of the Monday excursions, SLU’s Hans Peter Hansen astutely pointed out that words matter.  In community participation on environmental issues, there is a difference in the kind of labels we use to describe stakeholders, such as “bird watcher,” “citizen,” or “farmer.”  Each of these labels represents a different interest on a particular topic, illustrating just one of the many ways in which communication matters on environmental issues.

A second important observation comes from the opening plenary session in which Wanjira Mathai, the project leader for the Wangari Maathai Institute for Peace and Environmental Studies in Nairobi, Kenya, urged us to “make waves.”  Another panel I attended on media and technology also discussed how we need to move beyond “clicktivism” (Richard Doherty) and more towards “events” (Kevin DeLuca, citing Alain Badiou) that rupture our way of thinking.  The bottom line is that we need to figure out how to make waves in contemporary contexts through social media and other communicative channels.

On a related note, Susan Senecaln talked about becoming pracademics,  that is the mix of academic research with practical application.  I think this also means that we need to do work that inspires and motivates change.  In a completely different context, Lauren Berlant (Desire/Love, 2012) observes that fantasy could both shape and imagine different possibilities of norm, conventions, and identities.  As communication scholars and practitioners, we are all concerned with how we can shape our futures, and it’s important to not lose sight of that.  As Anabela Carvahlo and Tarla Rai Peterson argue in the introduction to their 2012 edited collection that was also featured as a panel at COCE 2013, the political is “engagement with processes of debate and decision making on collective issues” involving different values and ideals.  Citing Chantal Mouffe, they contend that antagonisms do not mean that we reach consensus, but that we vigorously discuss and debate such ideas to move forward in political realms.

Finally, the issue of what we value as societies is also important for us as pracademics, making waves, and keeping communication central to our work.  In another panel, Tom Crompton of WWF-UK and Soenke Lorenzen of Greenpeace International discussed how important it is to consider what target audiences value and how we can focus campaigns and lobbying efforts to influence political and social processes on environmental issues.  It’s not just a matter of focusing on individual behavior change which puts the burden of collective responsibility on the individual, but we need to focus on social and policy change to have an impact, as Sharon Dunwoody and Tom Crompton both observed.

In short, COCE 2013 offered the experience of presence, of being with friends and colleagues and connection to the physical bodily experience, as well as thought provoking panels and presentations.  To sum up, the idea of the uncanny might best summarize the four observations here, about making communication central, mixing practice with academic research, making waves, and thinking about values.  I had the pleasure of visiting Stockholm’s photography museum, which featured an exhibit on Ruud van Empel’s digital photographic collages.  Some of his work was described as focusing on the uncanny, “the feelings of uncertainty that arise when objects or situations that seem to be familiar suddenly accommodate a new or strange element” and “The boundary between imagination and reality has been blurred and a feeling of unease can nestle in the mind of the spectator” (citing Ernst Jentsch, Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen).  The uncanny embodies the spirit of the conference in which we ask ourselves to imagine new possibilities through communication.


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