What is Environmental Communication?

What is Environmental Communication? (version 2.6) by Mark Meisner

Humble oil company ad about melting glaciersEnvironmental communication is communication about environmental affairs. Rachel Carson did it. So did Chico Mendes. Andrew Revkin does it. Van Jones does it. David Suzuki does it. Simran Sethi does it. Bill McKibben does it. Majora Carter does it. Al Gore does it. He even got a prize for doing it so well. But it's not just these leaders; it is all of us involved in discussing, debating, educating and advocating (as opposed to literally fighting) about all things environmental. Even the oil companies, the logging companies, and the climate change deniers do it. In fact, they often do it better (i.e. more effectively).

As with other forms of communication, environmental communication is both an activity/phenomenon and a field of study that, not surprisingly, studies the activity/phenomenon.

As an activity/phenomenon, environmental communication is all of the diverse forms of interpersonal, group, public, organizational, and mediated communication that make up the social discussion/debate about environmental issues and problems, and our relationship to non-human nature. Loosely speaking, we can refer to that discussion/debate about environmental issues and problems as "environmental discourse." And, we can refer to the even broader social discussion about Nature as the discourse of Nature. Environmental communication manifests as the discourse of Nature and its subset, the environmental discourse. From billboards to Twitter to Facebook to Time magazine to Current TV to your local public hearing to scientific reports, environmental communication is everywhere.

As a field of study, environmental communication is a diverse synthesis of communication theory and environmental theory that examines the role, techniques, and influence of communication in environmental affairs.

In his textbook Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere, Robert Cox provides a more formal definition that situates environmental communication as a form of symbolic action. In Cox's words (p.20), environmental communication is "the pragmatic and constitutive vehicle for our understanding of the environment as well as our relationships to the natural world; it is the symbolic medium that we use in constructing environmental problems and negotiating society's different responses to them." By pragmatic Cox means the instrumental function of educating, alerting, persuading, mobilizing, solving, etc. By constitutive he means the creative function of helping to shape our perceptions of nature, environmental issues and ourselves.

For Cox, environmental communication has seven major areas of study:Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere cover

  • Environmental rhetoric and discourse
  • Media and environmental journalism
  • Public participation in environmental decision making
  • Social marketing and advocacy campaigns
  • Environmental collaboration and conflict resolution
  • Risk communication
  • Representations of Nature in popular culture and green marketing


Cox, Robert. (2010) Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

See also Tema Milstein's article on Environmental Communication Theories (PDF) from the Encyclopedia of Communication Theory and the many books that theorize, explain and illuminate the field.