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English class decodes 'greenspeak'

March 06, 2011

“Global climate change” or “global warming?” Both phrases are used to describe changes in the Earth’s atmosphere, but why do some use the former term while others tend to prefer the latter? Do we ever think about the differences in meaning between these two expressions? According to Jacqueline Wheeler, senior lecturer in English at Arizona State University, the choice of terminology can speak volumes about how humans perceive their natural world.

Students in Wheeler’s ENG 371 course, “Rhetoric of the Environmental Movement,” which meets each Tuesday evening this semester, explore such questions of language and meaning in relation to the environment. Going beyond exercises in grammar or discussions of literary texts that one expects in an English class, students use a cross-disciplinary approach to examine what Wheeler calls “the diversity of dialogue” surrounding sustainability issues.

The authors of “Ecospeak,” the textbook for Wheeler’s class, define rhetoric as “the production and interpretation of signs and the use of [artistic proofs] in deliberations about public action.” Such rhetoric, laced with intention and sometimes even manipulation, can become “a barrier to even basic communication” on the issue, Wheeler said.

Students in ENG 371 analyze the original arguments of scientific ecologists, scientific activists, popular media outlets, government entities such as the Bureau of Land Management, literary writers, and others, to investigate “the strategies, value systems, and priorities that inform them.” The aim in dissecting these arguments is to lead students one step closer to a nuanced understanding of the issues themselves, according to Wheeler.

Wheeler, who holds a doctorate in English and is associate director of Writing Programs in the Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, developed the course in response to students’ interest in her research on historical portrayals of American western wilderness.

“‘Green’ concerns are ubiquitous today. Critical awareness of these arguments will help students as they face these concerns as scholars and consumers,” she said.

Many of Wheeler’s students have expressed an interest in environmentally-focused career fields such as environmental law, where they might litigate on “pollution reduction refunds,” currently known as “cap and trade.”

Written by Lisa Ricker,, Department of English.