Communicating Nature: How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages / Edition 2

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A broader and more comprehensive understanding of how we communicate with each other about the natural world and our relationship to it is essential to solving environmental problems. How do individuals develop beliefs and ideologies about the environment? How do we express those beliefs through communication? How are we influenced by the messages of pop culture and social institutions? And how does all this communication become part of the larger social fabric of what we know as "the environment"?

Communicating Nature explores and explains the multiple levels of everyday communication that come together to form our perceptions of the natural world. Author Julia Corbett considers all levels of communication, from communication at the individual level, to environmental messages transmitted by popular culture, to communication generated by social institutions including political and regulatory agencies, business and corporations, media outlets, and educational organizations.

The book offers a fresh and engaging introductory look at a topic of broad interest, and is an important work for students of the environment, activists and environmental professionals interested in understanding the cultural context of human-nature interactions.

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Editorial Reviews

Science Books & Films - John D. Owens

"For those involved with the communication of nature, this is an important book. No matter where your particular point of view fits into the spectrum of environmental ideology, understanding how your beliefs were formed and how they color your views of the natural world is important."
CHOICE - F.P. Conant

"Corbett gives practical advice in this text for her students in environmental studies ... The author explores attitudes toward the environment from lawn care at home to ecotourism. Valuable for graduate and undergraduate students as well as the lay public and organizations concerned with the environment. Summing Up: Recommended."

author of Last Child in the Woods - Richard Louv

"Traditionally, Nature's beauty has been in the eye of the beholder, when not in the wayof the bulldozer. Now, Julia Corbett turns a scientist's eye to how we communicate with each other about the natural world. Her astute and deep analysis is greatly needed. …."
Texas A&M University; editor of Green Talk in the White House - Tarla Rai Peterson

" theoretically sound and immediately practical. [Professor Corbett] has writtenan excellent textbook, filled with fun little gems of activities that will encourage studentsto complement the content knowledge [she] provides with their own personal experiences."
University of Florida; author of Communication Skills for Conservation Professionals - Susan K. Jacobson

"This is a wonderful book for any student of the environment.... Julia Corbett provides a valuable text exploring issues ranging from the morality of zoos to our consumer society and the 'buyosphere.' Readers will come away with a new understanding of nature and culture."
Yale University; author of Building for Life - Stephen R. Kellert

"Communicating Nature is a timely and important book on a subject that has received relatively little critical attention. This book… should be of great value to people interestedin promoting and marketing more responsible and effective resource management andenvironmental conservation."
University of Wisconsin-Madison - Sharon Dunwoody

"This focus on the role of communication—in its broadest sense—in the construction ofenvironmental beliefs and behaviors will be… a must-read for environmental communicationstudents and practitioners."

"Corbett gives practical advice in this text for her students in environmental studies ... The author explores attitudes toward the environment from lawn care at home to ecotourism. Valuable for graduate and undergraduate students as well as the lay public and organizations concerned with the environment. Summing Up: Recommended."
Science Books & Films

"For those involved with the communication of nature, this is an important book. No matter where your particular point of view fits into the spectrum of environmental ideology, understanding how your beliefs were formed and how they color your views of the natural world is important."
Quarterly Review of Biology

"Corbett's book is carefully researched and thoughtfully presented...her overall tone is unflinchingly objective...Communicating Nature is extremely successful at laying bare the messages that shape our attitudes."
Quarterly Review of Biology

"Corbett's book is carefully researched and thoughtfully presented...her overall tone is unflinchingly objective...Communicating Nature is extremely successful at laying bare the messages that shape our attitudes."

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597260688
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2006
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 364
  • Sales rank: 566,959
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Julia Corbett is associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Utah, specializing in environmental communication. She has previously published articles in Journal of Communication and other communications journals, as well as Orion and Owl/Egret.

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Read an Excerpt

Communicating Nature

How We Create and Understand Environmental Messages

By Julia B. Corbett


Copyright © 2006 Island Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-748-9


The Formation of Environmental Beliefs

If you've seen one redwood tree, you've seen them all.

Ronald Reagan

Something will have gone out of us as a people if we ever let the remaining wilderness be destroyed.... We need wilderness preserved—as much of it as is still left, and as many kinds—because it was the challenge against which our character as a people was formed. The reminder and the reassurance that it is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it.

Wallace Stegner

All environmental communication stems from a complex, evolving system of beliefs about the natural world. Regardless of how well it is understood or recognized, an environmental belief system inhabits each individual and informs her or him about where humans "fit" in relation to the rest of the nonhuman world. How you value redwoods, insects, and ecosystems—as well as the environmental messages you send and receive—all have roots in this belief system.

Like most people, you probably have not given much thought to your environmental belief system or what influenced it. You may think of "the environment" as something out there that people tend to fight over and wring hands about, but not as something that's a part of you. But we breathe an atmosphere, drink a watershed, participate in a climate, and live in a habitat that supplies us with food.

Famed naturalist and writer Wallace Stegner wrote that environmental beliefs "have roots as deep as creosote rings, and live as long, and grow as slowly. Every action is an idea before it is an action, and perhaps a feeling before it is an idea, and every idea rests upon other ideas that have preceded it in time." All environmental messages are crafted from a perspective, informed by a worldview, reference personal relationships and experiences, and are used to justify words and actions.

A fully formed environmental belief system is an environmental ideology, or a way of thinking about the natural world that a person uses to justify actions toward it. Ideology articulates a relationship to the land and its creatures, and to some extent, guides the way we act toward it. The next chapter discusses a full spectrum of specific environmental ideologies. These ideologies become the lens through which we interpret words and behavior—received from literature, education, film, news media, advertising, and pop culture—about the natural world. But first, it's important to explore what forms and shapes these beliefs, which is the focus of this chapter.

Development of Environmental Belief Systems

Your belief system is both an individual and a cultural product. The environmental history of this country, your childhood and adult experiences with the natural world, the beliefs of your parents and significant others—these all helped to develop your environmental beliefs. The process begins in childhood, particularly through direct experiences with nature and through deep connections to physical places. By adulthood, much of your ideological foundation has been laid but significant adult experiences may continue to shape it.

In the summer after sixth grade, I shared a tent at church camp with two girls from a Chicago housing project and a girl from an Indian reservation in South Dakota. The Chicago girls hated the bugs, the primitive conditions, and complained that it was so quiet they couldn't sleep. Backpacking was torture to them. Even at our young age, each of us already had established a relationship and comfort level with the natural world that would continue to mold our developing ideologies, regardless of the same direct experience with nature that we shared at camp.

Understanding environmental belief systems and how they form is essential to understanding and analyzing environmental messages. This chapter explores some of the factors that influence ideology formation:

* Childhood experiences

* A sense of place

* Historical and cultural contexts

Childhood and Nature

Almost everyone can remember a special outdoor place from childhood. Mine was the woods and fields of my rural midwestern neighborhood. On three sides of our house was a strip of woods with basswood trees for climbing, shagbark hickory trees with nuts to shell, and an assortment of tree limbs for building forts. The woods had squirrels, rabbits, raccoons, deer, blue jays, and owls, and for our summertime delight, fireflies. Across the road in the "park," an undeveloped parcel held in common by all the families on our road, we played Capture the Flag and held important meetings among the trees. Beyond the next road to the west was "the crick," a steep, wooded gully that held a small stream where we explored every inch, catching crawdads in summer and attempting to ice skate its crooked course in winter.

Even if I never saw this place again, I could draw a map of it in magnificent detail as if it were yesterday. Without intellectualizing or categorizing the experience, I could label the neighbors' houses, the paths through the woods, even a few favorite trees and landmarks. When I remember this place, a flood of senses—smells, sounds, colors, features, sizes, and shapes—returns. A person's childhood memory map can just as easily be an urban vacant lot or an abandoned building as a grandparents' farm or a family cottage on the lake.

Author, poet, and naturalist Gary Snyder reminds us, "The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is inscribed in the mind—trails and pathways and groves—the mean dog, the cranky old man's house, the pasture with the bull in it—going out wider and farther. All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned roughly between the ages of 6 and 9."

It is well documented that the experiences we gain from special outdoor haunts as children are carried through—with knowledge added and reinterpretations made—to adulthood. Even decades ago, psychologists knew that children's experiences with nature had crucial and irreplaceable effects on their physical, cognitive, and emotional development. As one noted, "The non-human environment, far from being of little or no account to human personality development, constitutes one of the most basically important ingredients of human psychological existence." Earlier forms of a child's knowledge are not lost as the child develops but are embedded, reworked, and transformed into more comprehensive ways of understanding the natural world and acting upon it.

Experiences with nature are like baggage a child carries that help shape the present and future. One researcher found that childhood experiences indeed helped direct future careers. The two most common attributes among a diverse group of environmental activists were the many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered natural place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature. The adults were parents, grandparents, other relatives, camp counselors, and neighbors. In another study, over 95 percent of people reported that the outdoors was the most significant physical environment in their childhood.

There are, of course, different ways to experience nature. A direct experience involves actual physical contact with natural settings and nonhuman species, and activities associated with this type of experience are largely nonplanned and nondirected. Building forts in a wooded area, wading streams, and exploring an overgrown city gully are direct experiences with the natural world.

Indirect experiences also involve physical contact with nature but in more restricted, programmed, and managed contexts. Here, contact with natural settings and species is the result of regulated and/or contrived human activity, and nature is often the product of deliberate and extensive human manipulation. Indirect experiences include visits to zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and contact with domesticated animals and habitats such as pets, gardens, and manicured parks. Although some indirect experiences may seem "wild" on the surface (like a wooded nature center), the experience qualifies as indirect if the children's activities are largely directed and controlled by adults.

A vicarious or symbolic experience lacks any physical contact with nature and instead takes place via representations that are sometimes realistic, sometimes not. TV specials, books, and movies about nature are vicarious experiences, which can be metaphorical, stylized, and symbolic. In this sense, an animated Disney movie is just as much a vicarious experience as is an ancient cave painting of bison.

All of these types of experiences with the natural world are important and have their place, particularly at different times of development. A toddler is more captivated by the vicarious experience of a book about a family of talking bears than by a solo jaunt through the woods. But what concerns child development specialists is the explosion of vicarious experiences and the dramatic decline of available, authentic, and unprogrammed direct experiences. They have noted an erosion of direct and spontaneous experiences with relatively undisturbed nature, especially by urban and suburban kids, and the corresponding substitution of more artificial and symbolic encounters. There has been a very real decline in children's direct experiences, particularly with healthy and abundant natural systems.

Scholars know that overall, childhood today is more structured, more indoors, and more fearful. One study noted a sharp decline in the amount of time kids age three to twelve spent outdoors—from eighty-six minutes per day in 1981 to just forty-two minutes in 1997. Another researcher concluded that childhood experiences with nature were diverging from direct contact with nature and animals, to more contact with symbolic nature, virtual reality, and "things." The changes in the outdoor lives of children are profound enough for one to warn of "the extinction of experience" for future generations as landscapes and habitats continue to erode and degrade.

There is no substitute for direct one-on-one experiences with authentic nature and the role such experiences play in child development: "direct experience of nature plays a significant, vital, and perhaps irreplaceable role in affective, cognitive, and evaluative development" of children.

Sense of Place

A friend once told me that she knew she'd grown attached to a place when she landed at the airport one day and subconsciously—but strongly—knew she was "home." Some people feel that at-home-ness in the mountains, some feel it near a body of water, and some feel strongly at home in a small rural town where they know every back road and change of the season. Urban environments also can evoke strong attachments to place. That at-home feeling has to do with the attachment to a physical landscape or space, not just to the people living there. It's a location that gives you a feeling of security, belonging, and stability. It's a feeling of living in an environment that has both boundaries and identity. The physical place is a source of rootedness, belonging, and comfort.

Attachment to place can mean fierce emotional struggles over the most appropriate use of that place, and at times, an inability to see one's own place as degraded. Studies have shown that people have the tendency to believe that the next city up the road has more pollution and environmental problems than their own city.

Sense of place has been described as the "rich and often powerfully emotional sentiments that influence how people perceive, experience, and value the environment." The place is a physical space imbued with meaning and special significance and represents a highly subjective encounter. The meanings that individuals associate with a place may have purely instrumental or utilitarian values (what the land "is good for") as well as intangible ones like belonging, beauty, and spirituality.

"Places have a way of claiming people." However, some of that strong attachment no doubt exists at the subconscious level. In the context of our everyday lives, we are familiar enough with "place" that we tend to relate to it in a largely unconscious way. Because our regular routine is part of being in the world, we're not always conscious of our feelings for place. Yet we very much associate comfort and security with places we "know" and feel a sense of place attachment.

For many people, the relationship they have with a particular place also becomes the means by which they grapple with issues like identity and self-development. If you feel troubled, you might go for a walk in the park or woods. If you need time to think, you go to a favorite fishing hole. Children likewise need undirected time alone in a favorite place. The restorative effects of natural environments are well documented: people seek out nature as a temporary escape and to reduce mental fatigue, and also gain self-esteem and a sense of competence from being in nature.

Our relation to a physical place helps us make sense of the world and know how to act within it. In other words, "Places inform who we are and therefore how we are to behave; in short, to be somewhere is to be someone ... [P]laces are also imbued with socially constructed (and often politically defined) expectations of appropriate behavior."

For example, if you see a deer in a forest, you observe the animal at a distance. Yet if you see a deer in a petting zoo, you would approach the animal, perhaps with food. So place is not just the biophysical characteristics of woods or zoo, but also the social and political processes (rules and norms) and cultural meanings that define a space, give it value, and help determine how we are to use it. (Chapter 3 contains more detail about rules and norms.) The meaning of a place (not just the physical characteristics of it) is what holds power over people.

People with different social roles and identities can view the same physical place through very different lenses. For example, imagine a developer, a farmer, and a hunter all looking at an open field. Each will conceptualize the place (and its potential) according to who they are and how they define themselves. The values and importance they attach to that field and the way each of them views it is fundamentally an expression of their self-identity. "Not only do places affect how individuals look out on the world, they influence how they look at themselves. How one understands, evaluates, and acts in a geographic setting directly reflects one's self-identity. Like a tinted window, place is at once reflective and transparent, allowing one to look on oneself while looking on others."

At the same time, the physical landscape affects the social role you see for yourself. In other words, how you interact in a place shapes your identity relative to that place. In your office, your identity is wrapped around your role as a manager, an employee. When walking through the desert, your social role may shift to that of a naturalist or a recreationist. Your perceptions and evaluations of the environment in those places are expressions of place-based self-identity.

It makes sense that conflict over the use of public lands is "as much a contest over place meanings as it is a competition over the allocation and distribution of scarce resources among interest groups." Relationships to place and self-identity become very wrapped up in collectively shared, conscious, and contested political natures. Places then become important to group identity as well; anglers or ranchers or hikers will identify strongly with their group's values and interests as well as their own individual ones.

If sense of place is so important—both in the development of our belief systems and to the protection of places to which we are attached—are there ways to better "know" the natural world and to connect with it? Environmental education programs maintain that when children know a place intimately, they are more likely to care for it, respect it, and safeguard it. Learning about the species that live in a natural system, the plants that rely on it, and the cycles of precipitation and growth that unfold, helps children in their psychological development and in their sense of themselves in a particular place. Some states and municipalities have institutionalized environmental education programs in their school systems, though the reach is far from encompassing.

For adults, environmental education may take place in natural history classes or field trips. Others have looked to something called "bioregionalism," a practice which calls for restructuring everyday life (urban and rural) to allow people to live more harmoniously "in place." For example, a bioregionalist would strive for more regionally based self-sufficiency in obtaining basic supplies and in food production and consumption. The bioregionalist might turn toward Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), a cooperative partnership between an organic farmer and members who buy a "share" of the farm's produce, which is then delivered weekly to a convenient (and often urban) location. The buy-in removes a great deal of the risk from organic farming and reduces the time and attention required for marketing. Many CSAs also involve members and children in activities on the farm (such as spring transplanting or pumpkin harvesting). After all, many adults and kids alike don't realize that perfectly shaped mini carrots don't come out of the ground that way!


Excerpted from Communicating Nature by Julia B. Corbett. Copyright © 2006 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


About Island Press,
Title Page,
Copyright Page,
1 - The Formation of Environmental Beliefs,
2 - A Spectrum of Environmental Ideologies,
3 - The Links between Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors,
4 - Work and Consumer Culture,
5 - Leisure in Nature as Commodity and Entertainment,
6 - Faint-Green: Advertising and the Natural World,
7 - Communicating the Meaning of Animals,
8 - News Media,
9 - Battle for Spin: The Public Relations Industry,
10 - Communication and Social Change,
Island Press Board of Directors,

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