ORONO, Maine — The emerging field of environmental communication is, in a way, similar to a traffic rotary. At least that’s how University of Cincinnati faculty member Stephen Depoe looks at it.
“It’s like this intersection or crossroads between science, politics, culture and everyday life,” Depoe said Friday morning between sessions of a symposium at the University of Maine. “You get on a rotary based on whatever the issue of the day is and you use it to get from Point A to Point B. The rules are a little bit unclear about how to navigate. But everyone has to use them.”
In order to consider the growing intersections of the natural world and economic development, and the difficulties in navigating those discussions, UMaine gathered Depoe and seven other scholars from as far aways as Portugal and Sweden for the first Environmental Communication Symposium.
The two-day conference, which included UMaine graduate students and faculty and others from around the state, was held at UMaine’s Buchanan Alumni House.
Environmental communication is the study of how individuals and groups talk about environmental issues, said Depoe, who is the University of Cincinnati’s director of graduate studies in the department of communication.
“Everyone is going to talk about these issues at some point in their lives,” said Depoe, who also is the founding editor of Environmental Communication: A Journal of Nature and Culture.
“It’s an increasingly important aspect of our life and times, and I don’t think that is going to change,” Depoe said.
UMaine held the symposium in conjunction with its Sustainability Solutions Initiative, a statewide program that was created with a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research.
The study of sustainability, which also is a relatively new field, focuses on the intersection of society, ecology and the economy, and how to maintain those systems.
One of the projects under way, for example, examines how the possible presence in Maine of an invasive species can affect not only the environment but also Maine’s Indian basket makers, who rely on the natural world for materials.
“If communication research isn’t a part of this, you lose much of the information that you need to understand how people live their lives, how they make decisions, how researchers and communities can work together,” said UMaine’s Laura Lindenfeld, a faculty member in the department of communication and journalism who is involved in the sustainability initiative.
Other issues discussed during the symposium included the effect of popular media on environmentalism and communication across cultures.
Anabela Carvalho, a faculty member at the University of Minho in Portugal, spoke about research she has done into how nations have included their residents in discussions about climate change.
In her work, Carvalho looked at 12 nations in different stages of development and found they fared poorly, for the most part, in encouraging public involvement.
“There’s a widespread lack of information, especially in developing countries,” she said. “There’s no attempt typically to engage the public in the processes that are necessary to deal with climate change.”
Other scholars came from Brock University in Ontario, Canada; the University of Massachusetts; the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry; the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences; the University of Texas at El Paso; and San Jose State University in California.