Talking About Nature: Rhetoric and Reality

This is an assignment I had to write for my upper-division writing class UWP 102G, Writing on the Environment. The assignment was to read a law review article and then write a memo summarizing it and evaluating it as a foundation for a major policy speech by Senator Barack Obama in his campaign for president in 2008.


TO: U.S. Senator Barack Obama

FROM: Jeremy Ogul

RE: Talking About Nature: Rhetoric and Reality

DATE: April 12, 2010

In her law review article, “The Rhetoric and Reality of Nature Protection: Toward a New Discourse,” professor Holly Doremus makes the case that the ways we talk and think about nature in this country fall short of what is truly necessary. Doremus outlines the three main discourses that have dominated public discussion in the U.S. and argues that, in order to develop laws and policies that truly protect nature, nature advocates must develop a new discourse that accounts for the shortcomings of the other discourses.

In this memo I summarize Doremus’ descriptions of each of the three discourses her argument for a fourth discourse with particular regard to the implications it would have for you as a U.S. Senator and candidate for the presidency. While Doremus does an expert job of describing the context, usage and limitations of each of the three current discourses, her call for a new way of looking at the world is weak and not thorough enough to serve as a foundation for a major policy speech on the environment.

Doremus first turns to the discourse in which nature is a material resource for human consumption. Forests provide timber for building, animals are a source of food and profit, and undeveloped land is a blank slate to be built upon (Doremus 2000). The material discourse is widely utilized because it reflects nature’s economic benefits for humans. With money being a critical factor in the policy world, the material discourse effectively draws attention to the costs and benefits of nature destruction and preservation. Money motivated many of the conservationist policies of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In the material discourse, protecting nature really is a proxy for protecting our own economic interests; nature has no innate value in and of itself. Even within the other, non-material discourses, however, nature advocates tend to fall back on the material arguments because “the mathematical cost-benefit analyses it provides for appear objective” to policymakers (Doremus 2000).

Doremus draws our attention to the “ecological horror story” as one of the more important in the material discourse. Expressed in books like Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s Extinction, this story asserts that nature is fragile, and seemingly minor losses or alterations could have dramatic, irreversible impacts on the planet and on human life (Doremus 2000). Stories and analogies like this have been effective in inciting the political community to action (Doremus 2000). The ecological horror story conveys an awareness that humans have developed godly power over the world that, if not controlled or used wisely, could spell our own demise. From the perspective of the third, or ethical discourse, the horror story also suggests, however, that if we recognize our relationship with God we will be stewards of the dominion he created for us.

Doremus identifies the second discourse as the “esthetic discourse,” in which the non-monetary benefits of nature, such as its beauty and unique ruggedness, are of central value. Like the material discourse, nature is a resource. In this case, however, it is a resource to be exploited not for monetary gain, but for personal enjoyment and psychological and spiritual fulfillment (Doremus 2000). It recognizes that connections between people and nature build character in a way that manmade environments cannot.

Influential environmentalists such as John Muir and Henry David Thoreau helped popularize the esthetic discourse by writing about power of their experiences in nature. “Solitude and the sense that some parts of nature remained beyond human control were essential elements of the wildness Thoreau extolled (Doremus 2000). Places that were wild in that sense could serve as reminders of the larger world beyond human civilization,” Doremus writes. Muir’s efforts led to the creation of the first national parks. Later, advocates such as Aldo Leopold, a prolific writer and conservationist, and Howard Zahniser, director of the Wilderness Society, took the esthetic argument even further, pushing for purer forms of wilderness protection (Doremus 2000).

Rarely has the esthetic discourse stood on its own. Time and again, nature advocates who have relied on the esthetic discourse have also utilized aspects of the other discourses as well, particularly the material. While it has some political appeal, advocates have never been able to achieve significant political gains merely by championing nature’s beauty. Doremus makes this one of her main critiques of the estethic approach. Moreover, arguments that focus on nature’s visceral impact tend to favor “the spectacular, characterized by a preference for grandiose, easily observed landscapes, as opposed to the more subtle beauties of nature,” Doremus writes. She also criticizes the concept of roping off and protecting nature because it suggests that nature can only thrive in the absence of humans and that human intrusion inevitably leads to destruction.

The third school of thought, according to Doremus, is the ethical discourse. Unlike the material or the esthetic, nature in the ethical discourse is not a resource to be exploited for human gain. Instead, it is a vulnerable entity for which humans are uniquely responsible for protecting and nurturing (2000). It is also different from the first two discourses in that it has gained popularity more recently. There was far less of an emphasis on ethical concerns in the late 1800s and early 1900s (when the material and esthetic discourses dominated) than there is today.

The most powerful argument in this discourse is the “Noah Story,” based on the biblical tale of a human family commissioned by God to save every animal species from the flood by taking them on the ark. This discourse has special appeal to religious conservatives and others who generally tend to feel ambivalent or worse about environmental regulations. Doremus criticizes the ethical discourse, however, because it centers on a short-term crisis and only really applies to animal species rather than plants or entire ecosystems (2000). This criticism is similar to that of the ecological horror story. Both the Noah story and the ecological horror story tend to focus on resolving short-term, immediate problems. For Doremus, the problems with the current discourses represent a deeper misunderstanding of the relationship between people and human (2000).

Doremus calls for a fourth discourse that focuses on the human relationship with nature. “It promises to balance the human with the natural, and to balance the needs of the present with those of the future,” she writes (2000). Nature advocates need to put more into exploring all the ways people connect with nature in order to increase their willingness to sacrifice when it comes to protecting nature. Doremus says there needs to be a greater focus on decisions at the local level as well. There may seem to be no material or esthetic or even ethical cost to decisions that harm nature at the local level, but in the aggregate the cost is great, Doremus argues. Finally, she writes that it is imperative for nature advocates to expand on the ethical discourse beyond the Noah story.

Final recommendation

Holly Doremus makes clear that nature protection will fall short with the current discourses and narratives. The need for a new way of looking at the relationship between humans and nature is clear, but there is much work to be done to determine the arguments and narratives that will make up that discourse.

As president, it is not your job to make that happen. A speech on this topic necessarily would be broad and vague. Assuming the media and public even pay attention, it is likely that your message would be interpreted in a plethora of different ways, some of which may be unintended. In this critical time leading up to the election, it is important that you focus on concrete political goals with demonstrated effectiveness in Congress and with the American people.

Instead, it would be better for you to sit back and allow nature advocates to lead the way. It should be up to them to work out the details of a new discourse. Once they have found something politically expedient, it would behoove you to take up those arguments in pressing forward on nature and environmental protection. In the mean time, incorporate aspects of Doremus’ arguments into your everyday dialogue on nature and the environment.