This review was originally published in the ASLEC-ANZ Update, October 2015

Review of the 2015 Conference on Communication and Environment
Hosted by the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA)

“Bridging Divides: Spaces of Scholarship and Practice in Environmental Communication” was the theme for the thirteenth biennial Conference on Communication and Environment (COCE). Appropriately held in Boulder, Colorado—at the base of the Rocky Mountains and the Great Continental Divide of North America—the conference brought together participants from the US and Canada as well as from around the world, including a small Australia-New Zealand contingent. The theme reflected a clear effort to engage more practitioners of environmental communication in its many forms, from artists and filmmakers to journalists and national parks employees.

The opening keynote was from UK visual artists Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey (Ackroyd and Harvey), who specialise in large-scale interventions in public spaces highlighting processes of growth and decay (such as covering the entire exterior of London’s National Theatre in living grass for the 2007 work FlyTower). They have worked with genetic plant scientists to harness the process of photosynthesis and ‘grow’ photographs in living grass—which also, in time, wither and fade (read more about how it works here).

Reflecting on the question of what the arts has to offer the sciences, Heather said that the plant scientists reported gaining new insights and directions for their own research as a result of seeing the living artwork—an interesting inversion of how the relationship between art and science is often conceived (in which science can inspire art, but not vice versa). It was a welcome reminder of what artists and scientists have to learn from each other, in ways that go beyond artists fulfilling a pseudo-pedagogical role as public communicators of science (a role which, in any case, Ackroyd and Harvey resisted).

Of interest to ASLEC-ANZers were a number of panels and papers on art, imagery and performance. Artist Darlene Farris-LaBar’s 3D-printed plants from the Pocono region of Pennsylvania raised tricky questions about the ambiguous ethics of care at play in the scientific illustration and cataloguing of plants. On the one hand, Farris LaBar’s models are used to “educate” and “inspire” her fellow Pennsylvanians about the plants of their own region; on the other they also serve a more pragmatic purpose of allowing “for the future study of these plants, even if any become extinct” (read more here). Does this kind of attempt to replicate the natural world function as a call to preserve threatened species, or a salve to ease their inevitable demise?

Several papers on toxicity and waste also stood out. Following her work on the toxic sublime (especially in the photography of Edward Burtynsky) Jennifer Peeples, from Utah State University, is turning to Bakhtin’s trope of the grotesque body as a means of developing a typology of images of the effects of toxins in our environment, from their effects on human (and nonhuman) bodies to polluted landscapes. It will be interesting to see where Peeples takes this work as it develops. I also enjoyed Tom Bowers’ (Northern Kentucky University) paper on remediated landscapes. Through an account of his personal experience of visiting a memorial/containment centre for a former toxic waste dump site, Bowers explored the emerging opportunities afforded by waste containment facilities to open conversations about the history of place. It prompted me to ponder whether such memorials provoke visitors to reflect on their own waste practices and seek to change their behaviour, or to assuage visitors of their guilt at polluted landscapes by assuring them that such places can be safely rehabilitated (or whether, as per Timothy Morton’s thoughts on nuclear guardianship, it is the action of dwelling on the waste and the need to treat it with conscious care which is most powerful).

Finally, Julia Peck’s (University of Roehampton) paper offered a productive account of photography’s potential to foster an understanding of the agency of the more-than-human world, via Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter(2010) and Richard Misrach and Kate Orff’s project Petrochemical America (2012). Peck argued that Misrach and Orff’s book repeatedly emphasises the presence of the human in the landscape in a way that “produces an understanding of environment as not only inextricably linked to human activity and habitation, but as an environment which also has agency in its influence on human living patterns” (link to abstract).

Conference organisers made a number of more-than-token efforts to reduce the conference’s carbon footprint. No disposable cups were provided for drinking water, so people were encouraged (forced) to bring their own drinking vessels. All the keynotes and one panel from each parallel session were live-streamed, plus all other sessions were recorded and available afterwards. Virtual registrations were available if participants wanted to attend or present remotely. Boulder itself, and the University of Colorado campus, is very green (and by appearances, very wealthy—a contingency that cannot be forgotten from an ecological justice perspective). Nonetheless it was inspiring to be in a place where even the disposable cutlery in the cheapest on-campus café was compostable (and had a compostable bin alongside).

What was most exciting about this conference was the sense of urgency mixed with hope that accompanied it—it was filled with passionate people who passionately want to see change in our relationships with the more-than-human world, and are dedicated to working to achieve that. As with any conference on environment, there were moments of despair and sadness over the four days, but the conference ultimately ended on an uplifting note with an inspiring keynote from Edward Maibach, Director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. Maibach is a part of the “Seven Americas” surveys of attitudes to climate change among US citizens, which found in 2009 that local TV weathercasters were the third most trusted source on climate change among audiences. This finding has gradually evolved over five years into a national program training TV weathercasters to be climate change communicators, a study which (early results suggest) is gradually changing perceptions on climate change in some of the most conservative states of the US. As an example of practice-led research driving positive change in the community, it presented a case for hope as well as a challenge to do more. Always nice to end with the good news.

View the full program here.