Waterlines: Confluence and Hope through Environmental Communication

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Hopeful Communication about Citizen Science in Water Ecology: A Rhetorical Critique of “Citizenship” Language and Values

Scholarly Paper - In person

Philippa Spoel,  Professor, Department of English, Laurentian University, Canada

Keywords: citizen science; water ecology; rhetorical criticism; environmental citizenship

Summary

Citizen science is becoming an increasingly significant component of aquatic ecology research. For the most part, both scholarly and public-facing communication about this research celebrate citizen contributions as supporting the development of scientific knowledge, but what does communication about this research tell us about the kinds of citizens or citizenship that it both celebrates and constitutes? To begin to address this question, this paper examines a small selection of recent scholarly and public communication materials about several Canadian-based citizen science projects, affiliated with academic and non-academic organizations, that are focused on water-related ecological and climate issues. Drawing on theories of environmental and scientific citizenship and the concept of epideictic rhetoric, I examine the language and values of citizens/citizenship in this discourse. I then discuss the implications of this particular analysis for larger questions about the epistemic and political-ideological dimensions of citizen participation in environmental science research, especially as concerns the degree to which this participation reinforces a mainstream, roll-out neoliberal configuration of what it means to be a “citizen” in relation to “science,” or, conversely, fosters what I consider to be a more hopeful modality of critical, politicized engagement with macro-level issues of environmental governance and social-environmental justice.

Description

Citizen science is becoming an increasingly significant component of environmental research. Aquatic ecology and water quality research is one important area in which citizens are becoming more and more engaged. For the most part, both scholarly and public-facing communication about this research celebrate, in a hopeful rhetoric, the value of citizen contributions for supporting and enriching the development of scientific knowledge. Granted that the contributions of citizens are generally recognized as valuable to the development of stronger science in aquatic ecology, what does communication about this research tell us about the kinds of citizens or modes of citizenship that it both celebrates and constitutes? For instance, are citizens valued primarily as volunteer resources for water ecology research, as learners about this science, as amateur science enthusiasts, as concerned environmentalists, as decision-making research partners, as community-based stakeholders, and/or as activist “counter-science” knowledge-makers? In what epistemic and political-ideological capacity are citizens conceived as operating when engaged in aquatic ecology research?

To begin to address these questions, I propose to examine a small selection of recent scholarly and public communication materials about several Canadian-based citizen science projects focused on water-related ecological and climate issues. Affiliated with both academic and non-academic organizations, these include the “Waterlogged” project led by the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability; the “Global Water Citizenship” project affiliated with Wilfrid Laurier University; Nature Watch Canada’s “IceWatch” program; the “Uncover Your Creeks” project led by the Evergreen urban environmental centre in Toronto; and the “Water Rangers” initiative launched by a non-institutional group of “aquahackers.”

Drawing on theories of environmental and scientific citizenship and using methods of rhetorical criticism, my aim is to examine the language and values of citizens/citizenship in this discourse. Understanding this discourse as a form of epideictic rhetoric (that is, as rhetoric that praises or blames something or someone through the attribution of positive or negative values), I aim to trace the diverse, and possibly conflicting, types of citizens/citizenship that are explicitly or implicitly celebrated, and constituted by, Canadian-based aquatic ecology citizen science projects. I will then discuss the implications of this particular analysis for larger questions about the epistemic and political-ideological dimensions of citizen participation in environmental science research, especially as concerns the degree to which this participation reinforces a mainstream, roll-out neoliberal configuration of what it means to be a “citizen” in relation to “science,” or, conversely, fosters what I consider to be a more hopeful modality of critical, politicized engagement with macro-level issues of environmental governance and social-environmental justice.

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