A Brief History of the Conference on Communication and Environment

Spring 1996

In 1991, roughly fifty academics and movement activists gathered in Alta, Utah to discuss environmental communication at the Conference on the Discourse of Environmental Advocacy. Sponsored by the Humanities Center at the University of Utah and co-directed by Chris Oravec and myself, this seminal meeting provided a forum for those interested in sharing interdisciplinary research regarding historical and contemporary perspectives on environmental communication. It was the first nationwide attempt to bring together scholars from diverse backgrounds so as to define the province of environmental advocacy, share views of how humans communicate about an environment at risk, and chart directions for future research. The participants left Alta with a renewed sense of mission and an expectation that another, even more productive conference could be held in the near future.

Following the 1991 conference, Jimmie Killingsworth and I began planning for a second national conference to be held in the Summer of 1993. Using the Alta experience as a guide, we attempted to maintain the collegial feel of that conference while increasing the range of interests that might be attracted to the topic of environmental communication. To this end, we cast an extensive advertising net and publicized the call for scholarly submissions in a wide variety of venues. The name of the event also shifted to the Conference on Communication and Our Environment so as to expand beyond a perceived bias toward strictly advocational or adversarial settings. From a large body of submissions, and using a juried process of blind-review by experts in various fields, panels of academic papers were thematically organized for presentation in sessions at the Yellowstone Conference Center. The Big Sky conference began with a keynote address by the Communication Director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, one evening featured a slide show and open discussion of landscape photography and environmental politics, and a total of thirty-three papers were presented to the more than fifty individuals attending the conference. The papers offered a number of approaches, illustrating the inevitably interdisciplinary nature of the study of communication and the environment. Rhetorical analyses, which tended to dominate the first conference, still comprised the bulk of scholarship at Big Sky, but contributions from the fields of journalism, visual communication, and literary and cultural studies were more represented than in 1991.

The 1995 conference, hosted by David Sachsman at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, followed through on many of the same themes found at previous conclaves. Unlike previous conferences, however, this event took place in the Spring, did not involve concurrent panels, called for the blind review of synoptic versions of manuscripts, and had costs largely underwritten by the host institution. In addition to the series of competitively selected presentations, the Chattanooga conference featured an informative roundtable discussion with major figures in environmental media production, a presentation by the President of the Sierra Club following a reception at and tour of the Tennessee State Aquarium, and a mini-workshop with students regarding careers in environmental communication.

Another iteration of the CCOE will take place in the Summer of 1997 in upstate New York. Sue Senecaln is on point with the coordination of this event and advance advertising will commence in the Fall of this year. Again, I will be coordinating paper selection following the same procedures Jimmie Killingsworth devised for the last conference (e.g., ten page synopses to be blind reviewed by individuals in a variety of disciplines.

- James Cantril