Transmitted Revolution
Essay / 10,000 Words / 2019
A study of the impact rhetoric and mass media have had on the progress of the environmental movement, by examining both historical and contemporary examples of environmentalism within the public sphere.


This thesis aims to outline the impact which the mass media has had on the progression of the environmental movement by applying communication and media theories to key case studies throughout the history of the movement. The four case studies used in this thesis aim to explain critical shifts within the way environmental issues have been communicated throughout history. Through these studies, this thesis has observed: the role of written media and the birth of the movement in the 18 & 1900s, the growing importance of images within the environmental campaigning and protest during the late 1900s, the influence new media technologies in the 21st century such as social media have had upon the movement. In order to research this topic, a wide range sources such as books, journals, reports, news articles and films have been examined in order to provide both first and second hand accounts of these events. Ultimately, this thesis illustrates the power of visual and linguistic rhetoric, as well as the role media framing plays in setting the public agenda. However, it has also been able to show that throughout time, as new technologies have developed to disseminate information to the masses, so to has the environmental movement developed, showing the influence mass media has on developing environmental issues within the public consciousness.


In the 21st century, the most prevalent issues that humanity faces on a global scale have arisen out of over-industrialisation, overpopulation and mass consumption, with many suggesting that human impact is leading the planet towards large-scale environmental and ecological catastrophe. From reports of the earth’s oceans drowning in plastic, harming critical ecosystems as well as posing concerns to our own health (Giam, 2017), to clear evidence that greenhouse gas emissions are causing the global warming of the earth, acidification of the oceans, and the melting of ice-sheets and glaciers leading to a rise in sea levels (IPCC Core Writing Team, Pachauri and Meyer, 2014), as well as many more environmental concerns. As these issues arise as prevalent threats to society, it is increasingly important that we must all consider and understand the impact in which we have on the contribution to this issue. The media is a powerful agent of social change, with the one of the most prevalent communications theorists Marshal McLuhan commenting that “ink and photo are supplanting soldiery and tanks. The pen daily becomes mightier than the sword” (McLuhan, 2001, p.370). This thesis will look to understand the effect the media has had on shaping the public consciousness, leading to a progression and widespread acceptance of the environmental movement. This is in an attempt to understand how as communicators and designers, we can consider how image culture and media have had an effect on the issue’s global perception and priority within the public sphere historically, in order to better identify how we can continue to progress the movement forward. 

The field of media effects is well established within academia. However when specifically relating to the environmental movement, it is left rather undeveloped as the majority of the research within this field is often focusing on only one area. This thesis aims to be broader, focusing on three key ideas which previous research has failed to link together: linguistic rhetoric, the image event, and the role of technology within the movement. The reasoning behind this broader scope is that each of these three ideas are stages which chart a concurrent development which mirrors the development of media and communicative technologies. It is my belief that if we are to understand the role of the media within the progress of the environmental movement, we must observe each of these three stages as a whole rather than as separate entities. To support my arguments however, this paper will build on ideas introduced by key theorists within the field. 

Before undertaking this thesis, it is important to first mention and explain a few theories crucial to the understanding of the cases laid out in this research. Throughout, this paper will make continuous mention to rhetoric, for which the definition outlined by professor Robert Cox will be used, as explained in his book Environmental Communication and the Public Sphere. Cox describes rhetoric as “purposeful and consequential efforts to influence society’s attitudes and behaviour through communication, including public debate, protests, advertising and other modes of symbolic action” (Cox, 2013, p.63). Another theory which must be discussed is agenda setting, which is the assumption that the mass media sets the public agenda, as there is a correlation between what the media publishes and highlights with what the public actively thinks and believes (McCombs and Shaw, 1972). Similarly, media framing is the way in which the media can ‘package’ information in order to shape the way in which the public perceives it (Cox, 2013, p.16). 

This thesis will be split into three distinct chapters. Chapter one will look at the writing of early environmentalists John Muir and Rachel Carson, exploring how linguistic rhetoric caused a shift in the public conscious from industrocentric views (industrial gain placed at a higher importance to nature) to biocentric ones (humans as part of a greater ecosystem), culminating in the foundation and birth of the modern environmental movement in the 1970s. Throughout, reference to the ideas set out by Roderick Nash, introduced in his book Wilderness and the American Mind, as well as Environmental communication researchers Christine Oravec and Robert Cox in order to strengthen and further my arguments for rhetoric as a tool for change. Chapter two delves into the growing influence of the image within the media, observing the influence of image events, a theory popularised by Kevin Michael DeLuca, who is a key voice in the area of environmental communication and rhetoric within the environmental movement, by observing and analysing the early protests of environmental activist group, Greenpeace. Finally, chapter three will be taking these ideas forward, and applying them to the interconnected world, observing how new media technologies have affected and influenced environmentalism through the study of the the Stand With Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement, analysing the role of social media, citizen journalism and modern technologies have played in developing environmental rhetoric.

Chapter 1: Words of change

Pre-cursing environmentalism, the mass public consciousness was towards a view of industrocentrism by which society was focused solely on industrial gain. Nature’s place within this view was simply as a resource and commodity. This can be seen by the inhabitation and industrialisation of the American West through the national sentiment of manifest destiny during the 1800s. Professors John W. Day and Charles Hall explain in their journal America’s Most Sustainable Cities and Regions, that this was the sentiment that “Americans were inevitably destined to expand over the continent”. As the western boarder of the United States grew, so did the “reports [that] reached the east of vast stands of old growth forests, fertile prairies, mighty rivers, and abundant wildlife” (Day and Hall, 2016, p.10). These resources were used to further advance and fuel the industrialisation of the United States. Darren Dobson writes in the Flinders Journal of History and Politics that “the Western wilderness’ beauty and bounty became a vital ingredient for Manifest Destiny as the physical environment in which pioneers were settling provided raw materials upon which to further American civilization” (Dobson, 2013, pp.52-53). These were ideas influenced by our inherent instincts of survival to tame and harness the wilderness, something author of Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderic Nash, argues is due to our pre-conceived notions of ‘Paradise’, in which natural resources are always aplenty (Nash, 1982). However, this exploitation of the American West, lead to a rise in environmentalist sentiments in the United States, giving birth to early environmental advocates such as Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh and by far the most prominent, John Muir (PBS, 2014). 

Muir was a Scottish immigrant, who became one of the most influential environmentalists in American history with Humanities managing editor Anna Maria Gillis explaining that “over his seventy-six years, Muir transformed not only himself, but the nation” (Gillis, 2011). Muir’s work, much like other environmentalists of his time, looked to challenge “discourses about human dominion and the conquest of nature” (Cox, 2013, p.41) through the use of descriptive, romanticised language to achieve a sense of grandeur with the reader, a technique called the sublime response. Professor Robert Cox describes this as a rhetorical genre (Cox, 2013, p.65), a term which can be understood as “rhetoric [which] contains elements that share characteristics distinguishing [it] from elements of other rhetorical genres” (Jamieson and Stromer-Galley, 2001, p.376). Environmental communication researcher Christine Oravec explains the sublime response as a three step process; “the immediate apprehension of a sublime object; a sense of overwhelming personal insignificance akin to awe; and ultimately a kind of spiritual exaltation” (Oravec, 1981, p.248). Nash also makes reference to another philosophy called transcendentalism, which is the idea that “natural objects assumed importance because, if rightly seen, they reflected universal spiritual truths”, Nash goes on to explain that this was always the essential philosophy behind the writings of Muir (Nash, 1982, pp.85, 125). These philosophies and techniques can be seen in the first article published by Muir in the New York Tribune titled Yosemite Glaciers in which he writes, “as I lay on my back, feeling the presence of the trees-gleaming upon the dark, and gushing with life--coming closer and closer about me, and saw the small round sky coming down with its stars to dome my trees, I said, ‘Never was mountain mansion more beautiful, more spiritual; never was moral wanderer more blessedly homed.’” (Muir, 1871). By giving the natural world a spiritual, awe-inspiring tone within his writing, Muir is able to capture the imaginations of his readers, ultimately causing them to reconsider the value they place upon nature itself. It is this use of emotional rhetoric which gave rise to the widespread success and acceptance of Muir’s work.

Through writing books, articles and publishing essays in established journals at a time when public sentiments were beginning to shift towards a less exploitive view of nature, Muir was able to enter the public sphere as a popularised writer, something his predecessors, such as Thoreau, were unable to do (Bieder, 2011). One such example of this are two articles written for Century Magazine in which Nash estimates 200,000 copies were circulated, stating that “this was far more publicity than preservation had ever received before” (Nash, 1982, p.131). Furthermore, on discussing Muir’s articles in Century, Oravec explains that they had a direct influence upon the foundation of the Yosemite National Park in 1890 as “references in government documents to magazine articles, photographs, and personal testimony certainly included John Muir’s writing and editor Johnson’s active campaigning” (Oravec, 1981, pp.256-257). Following the creation of the national parks, Muir held a camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, in which he “convinced both Roosevelt and California Governor George Pardee, on that excursion, to recede the state grant and make the Valley and the Mariposa Grove part of Yosemite National Park” (, 2015). Adding to this, Muir was one of the initial founders and president of the Sierra Club, a grassroots environmental organisation which remains one of the largest in the United States to this date (Sierra Club, 2019). When observing these facts, it becomes clear that his writings were able to bring conservation to the front of the American minds, gaining him the influence to directly shape environmental legislature as well as leave a legacy of environmentalism within the United States.

Muir was decisive in his victories to bring a greater attention to wilderness preservation, directly influencing the future of wilderness protection in America through his influence in the foundation of the National Parks across the United States. This  influence throughout his life helped to bring about the rise of the conservationist movement, however, it wasn’t until post war American industrialisation that the widespread public sentiment shifted towards one of preserving nature before it was all lost (A Fierce Green Fire, 2014). According to Environmental Historian Adam Rome, this can be attributed to a number of factors such as a deeper understanding of ecology, technological developments and an understanding of the environmental issues they pose (Rome, 2003, p.526). It was in this period by which biologist and writer Rachel Carson released her second book The Sea Around Us in 1951, which “stood atop the New York Times bestseller list for thirty-nine weeks and won the National Book Award” (Souder, 2012), achieving her literary renowned. What makes The Sea Around Us important when observing rhetoric, is the duality of the writing, in which Carson blends science with poetry. Erin L. Anderson states in her masters thesis that “Carson’s commitment to revealing the beauty of the natural world to her readers would have been considered a pursuit outside the realm of science. Instead, Carson partners science and emotion, breaking the imagined dichotomy” (Anderson, 2017, p.20). Combining science with emotive language, Carson was able to tell “simple and sometimes sentimental narratives about the oceans to articulate sophisticated ideas about the inner workings of largely unseen things” (Griswold, 2012). With her use of technical terms, scientific jargon and statistics, Carson’s writing feels much less subjective in nature to the writings of Muir, whilst still engaging with the reader through emotive language in order to create a response akin to the the sublime. Therefore, not only did The Sea Around Us provoke emotional responses from the reader, but also feel more credible and appeal to peoples rational minds. In his book, Rhetoric for Radicals, Jason Del Gandio discusses how both logic and credibility can be used as powerful persuasive tools, writing that “logic is persuasive because people see it as truthful…[and]…people are more likely to listen to you and trust you if they see you as credible” (Del Gandio, 2018, pp.70, 74). David Rains Wallace wrote in The New York Times, that “Bartram, Thoreau, and Muir were amateurs, but Carson, Leopold, and Eiseley were institutionally trained and employed scientists” (Wallace, 1984). She was therefore able use these tools to great effect, strengthening her position for environmental advocacy by applying her great understanding of biospheres and ecology in a more literary easy to understand nature. Rhetoric professor Craig Waddell backs this up, writing that The Sea Around Us “conveyed gracefully and for nontechnical readers much of what had been learned about the oceans during the war years” (Waddell, 2000, p.5), achieving her aim in promoting deeper understanding and knowledge of our dependance on the ocean within the publics mindset.

Following her Sea Books, comprising of Under the Sea Wind (1941), The Sea Around Us (1951) and The Edge of the Sea (1955), Carson shifted her focus towards public health concerns. In particular, she studied the effects of the chemical insecticide, DDT, both on the environment and the human body. She harshly criticised its use in her fourth book, Silent Spring (1962), adopting a new style of rhetoric, which Cox describes as an apocalyptic narrative (Cox, 2013, p.65). This rhetoric can clearly be seen in the books opening chapter, A Fable for Tomorrow, in which she describes “a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings”; after describing the idyllic setting, she shatters this view, writing that “a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Every where was a shadow of death” (Carson, 2002, p.1-2). The use of apocalyptic rhetoric helped create a sense of urgency through harnessing the fears of the public. Eliza Griswold states that Silent Spring mirrored the growing public concern and fears of nuclear holocaust by tapping into “the era’s hysteria about radiation to snap her readers to attention, drawing a parallel between nuclear fallout and a new, invisible chemical threat of pesticides” (Griswold, 2012). This meant that Carson’s Silent Spring was able to make use of the momentum generated by Cold War tensions, applying it to the environmental movement (Globus and Taylor, 2011, p.631). One such example of this is seen later in her book, where she writes that “science armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth” (Carson, 2002, p.297), further contributing to themes of environmental chaos brought about by humanities irresponsibility and ignorance towards our ability to ‘control’ nature. This challenged societies growing dependance on science, provoking the ultimate question of technological progress versus environment. Through using these methods of rhetoric, Carson was able to bring about a new wave of concern for the environment with Linda Lear writing in the introduction of Silent Spring’s fortieth anniversary edition that her “writing initiated a transformation in the relationship between humans and the natural world and stirred an awakening of public environmental consciousness” (Lear, 2002).

On discussing the impact of Silent Spring, Souder writes that “the furor over Silent Spring began at once…moody stories expressing shock and outrage began appearing in newspapers across the country” (Souder, 2012). Whilst most reports supported Carsons conclusions, others focused upon the ever growing backlash from the pesticides industries and other opposing parties, prompting Congressional hearings in 1963 (Stoll, 2012). Regardless of this opposition however, the publication of Silent Spring ultimately “led to a special investigation by President John F. Kennedy’s Science Advisory Committee, which confirmed her conclusions, and eventually led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the banning of DDT” (Waddell, 2000, p.2). To many, both the contention and impact which Silent Spring had within the public sphere was the birth of the environmental movement as we know it today, with Carson sewing the seeds of the divide and mistrust many environmentalists still face within modern society.

Chapter 2: Image Events

Following the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), environmental coverage was a rapidly expanding field within the journalistic world. However, whilst the written word was still a dominant force, it was during this rise by which the image became one of the prominent driving tools within modern environmentalism. Donald Anguish (Anguish, 2015, p.63) explains that this is due in part to visual communication pre-dating written language, and so therefore, we have a stronger biological connection to visual language. One such example of this was Earthrise, the image captured by Apollo 8 in 1968 which contrasted the barren landscape of the moon to the abundance of our earth, suspended in the darkness. Environmentalists rallied around the image, using it as “an iconic reminder of our need to protect the Earth’s fragile resources” (McGuinness, 2009). Anguish argues that this was an important milestone as “to have a major portion of society see the Earthrise photo and be able to conceptualize the idea of a “One World” concept was essential to producing the environmental mass movement” (Anguish, 2015, p.68). By seeing the earth as a lonely oasis in the depths of space, it gave way to a sense of isolation and more awareness to the importance of protecting the earth. A further example of the importance of images within environmental communication is the 1969 Santa Barbra oil spill. Kathryn Morse (2012) wrote how photographs of the oil rig, beaches, animals covered in oil and volunteers were printed in newspapers across the country, illustrating the extent of the environmental degradation caused to the general public. Teresa Sabol Spezio echoes this sentiment, explaining how “viewers with their new color TVs were shocked to watch the beautiful Santa Barbara beaches turn black” (Spezio, 2018, p.3). Following these events, environmentalism was propelled into a large-scale movement with widespread action through the foundation of the first Earth Day in 1970.

Following the radical increase in public opinion towards the environmental movement, brought about by the inception of Earth Day, many activist groups were born. One of these groups was a small collective of activists in Vancouver, Canada, called the Don’t Make the Wave Committee, eventually evolving into the global organisation known as Greenpeace. It was formed out of a response to the growing concern created by nuclear testing on the island of Amchitka, an island just off the Alaskan coast, out of fear of geological disturbances such as earthquakes or radiation leaks into the pacific ocean (Walz, 1971). On the 15th September 1971, 12 activists set sail for the island on a small vessel temporarily named the ‘Greenpeace’. The voyage was halted by the US navy, and ultimately in the eyes of the activists on board, it was a failure. This however, was far from the truth. The voyage resulted in an explosion of coverage within the media, which “sparked a flurry of public interest”, as they began to report on “the small group of activist who had sailed off in the face of great adversity” (Greenpeace International, n.d.). The crew made use of constant radio updates to broadcast to countries across the world in order to promote the issue to the wider public, leading to public protests, as well as growing public awareness and support . With mounting pressure to stop the nuclear tests, a larger and faster ship, the Greenpeace II, was launched through the raising of $19,000 which was achieved due to all of the media attention being gained by the exploits of the Greenpeace (Weyler, 2004, p.111). When observing this, it becomes clear to see just how important the role of media was in the development of this campaign and it clearly demonstrates the successes of the voyage, despite the Nuclear detonation still going ahead with both boats over a days sail from Amchitka.

It is during this period in which one of Greenpeace’s most influential founders Bob Hunter coined the phrase ‘mind bomb’, influenced by the theories and writing of Marshal McLuhan. Hunter explains that “artists are moving out, taking up positions behind TV cameras, delivering mind-bombs into the livingrooms of technological society” (Hunter, 1972, p.221). Environmental humanities professor, Kevin Michael DeLuca discusses this media tactic calling it an image event, which “explodes in the public’s consciousness to transform the way people view their world” (DeLuca, 2005, p.1). In order to understand image events with much more clarity, one must first expand our understanding of rhetoric and how it can be defined. DeLuca quotes rhetoric scholars Karren Foss, Sonja Foss and Robert Trapp in his book Image Politics; they “define rhetoric broadly as the uniquely human ability to use symbols to communicate with one another”. Whilst stating they also argue that “the paradigm case of rhetoric is the use of spoken word to persuade an audience” (DeLuca, 2005, p.14 cited Foss, Foss and Trapp, 1985, pp.11-12). Whilst these two statements initially seem to contradict each other, they raise the idea that rhetoric can transcend the spoken and written word, in order to encompass the visual. Educator and designer, Aaris Sherin discusses the impact of visual images in her book, Design Elements : Using Images to Create Graphic Impact. She explains that “in almost every case, an image can stand in for a multitude of words. Images have the ability to suggest and imprint an idea in seconds, but they also allow viewers to make an interpretative leap on their own” (Sherin, 2013, p.108). Images and visual symbols are another way by which we can communicate with one another, especially in an increasingly visual world. The foundation of the image event is to marry the visual and the spoken in order to create a greater impact and rhetoric.

Looking back to the Amchitka campaign we can see this visual rhetoric in action. It was the idea that “the image is everything, the boat became an icon which was broadcasted to the masses through the use of the media” (How to Change the World, 2015). With the creation of a strong identity of eco warriors, ready to risk everything, they were able to carefully frame a story of defiance towards the status quo that thousands were able to rally behind. Even before setting sail, Hunter began to develop this visual identity, and the boat became his deliverable. As one of Greenpeace’s early members and writer for the organisation, Rex Weyler states in his accounts of the voyage, “a peace sign and an ecology sign appeared on a great, pale-green, triangular sail” (Weyler, 2004, p.94). Using simple graphic language, an identity was created and a movement was born. Glenn G. Sparks writes that “vivid images are more memorable as they evoke a more intense emotional reactions than spoken or written words” (Sparks, 2013 p.220). The image of the boat became a symbol which was much more than direct-action activism. It was an image that stoked the fires of resistance against the nuclear test and U.S government. The anti-nuclear campaigning was so successful that the island of Amchitka was eventually reinstated as a wildlife refuge with the government putting a halt to all future nuclear tests on the island (Covill, 2008, p.12). According to Weyler, upon reflection of the campaign, Hunter later stated that “small, once-power-less communities everywhere could use the media combined with civil protest to resit the headstrong advance of pollution and war”; Weyler reaffirms this idea, writing that “the fish boat from Vancouver had been the most visible symbol of public outrage” (Weyler, 2004, p.132). 

Through this practical testing of Hunter’s media theories set out in his book The Storming of the Mind “calling on ecologists to heed Marshal McLuhan’s advice: take over the towers of the mass communications systems and deliver new images…creating a new global consciousness” (Hunter, 2004). Greenpeace were able to set a new standard for the way in which activists carried out their protests through staged image events. These events are able to challenge and change opinions within the public sphere by deliberately framing the activists in a way which provoke empathy and ultimately solidarity with the group. This is addressed by Del Gandio in his book Rhetoric for Radicals, in which he writes that “emotions are awfully persuasive and can be manipulated to sway people against their conscious judgement” and whilst this does offer up perspectives of ethicality, “emotions can be used for socially just purposes” (Del Gandio, 2018, p.71). Morgan Clendaniel echoes this sentiment in the book, Green Patriot Posters, discussing that “when presented emotionally rather than factually, green issues could make a far more effective impression” (Siegel and Morris, 2011). If an image can evoke strong emotional reactions, it can speak directly to the viewer and pull them towards the cause. Greenpeace make use of this by harnessing an appearance as moral crusaders fighting for the protection of our earth. Furthermore, Del Gandio discusses the use of language and words of change. He writes that “truly powerful words of change capture peoples imaginations and withstand the test of time” (Del Gandio, 2018, p.136). This can be seen with in the naming of Greenpeace. It was born entirely by accident at an early meeting for the Don’t Make The Wave committee, when Irving Stowe left saying ‘Peace’ with the popular ‘V’ hand gesture and Bill Darnell responded with ‘let’s make it a green peace’ (Greenpeace International, n.d.). Combining the two words together, it is instantly apparent to anyone who hears or sees the name what the organisation is fighting for, in a short concise manner. It is a name which has lasted through the decades, and seemingly will last for decades more.

In 1975, the now official organisation of Greenpeace launched a new campaign, Save the Whales. It was focused on putting an end to commercial whaling which was taking place across the world’s oceans, decimating the whale populations. In his article within the academic journal, Anthropology Today, Arne Kalland explains that “whales serve as a totem for ‘nature-loving’ people and money as a totem for ‘greedy’ capitalists, represented by the whalers, who are depicted as evil, blood-thirsty barbarians” (Kalland, 1993, pp.4-5). Greenpeace sought to make use of this narrative by pursuing a Russian whaling fleet and positioning themselves between the whales and the ships, using small rubber dinghies. Academic Collin Syfert argues that this challenged the fundamental anthropocentric idea that as humans we have a dominion over the earth and everything within it, giving the spectator a view towards a more ecocentric way of viewing the world (Syfert, 2013, p.61). This can directly be seen as one of the whaling ships fired a harpoon right over the top of the activists, managing to strike the whale. Further to this, early Greenpeace member and founder of the organisation known as Sea Shepard was photographed on top of a dying whale that had been struck by a harpoon. The confrontation was filmed “and it became the image seen around the world, shown by CBS, ABC, and NBC News and on other news shows spanning the globe” (Delicath and DeLuca, 2003, p.316) An article from the New York Times reporting on the campaign explained that “the Greenpeace Foundation had accomplished its purpose to focus world attention once again on the plight of the whale” (Flowers, 1975). This is another prime example of how the image event was used in order to promote public awareness of an issue. Greenpeace continued their campaigning to save the whales right the way up until 1982 when the International Whaling Commission voted for a moratorium on commercial whaling which commenced in 1986. As stated in Stephen Dale’s book, McLuhan’s Children: the Greenpeace Message and the Media, Hunter believed that the campaign to save the whales was ignited by those first images and videos taken in 1975, as they were able to shift the publics opinion from seeing the whales not as monsters, as the literatures of Moby Dick inspired, but as humans being the monsters instead. He was of the opinion that the debate for anti-whaling before 1975 had fallen stagnant, and was failing to grab the media attention due to the academic nature of the debate (Dale, 2009). It was the image event which was able to tap in to the emotions of the public consciousness, and ultimately shift the tides in the favour of the anti-whaling debate towards the environmentalists.

Much like the writings of John Muir and Rachel Carson, which helped to refashion public perception of the natural world, Greenpeace were able to do do the same on a larger scale, and to more impact by harnessing the communication systems of the technological revolution. Hunter’s legacy had set the standard of modern discourse and activism through an analysis and thorough understanding of the mass media through producing mind-bombs to reach the masses and inspire a generation. This new generation of activists understood the importance of the image. One such group was Earth First!, a radical environmental group emerging out of the United States (García Hernández, 2017). Earth First! expressed their views on how to best drive change in an early document, stating that “the greatest force for change is when individuals stand up to be counted and are prepared to put themselves and their bodies in the way” (Barker, Johnson and Lavalette, 2001). Much like Greenpeace, they offer a voice for the natural world challenging anthropocentric views. DeLuca explains that “in clinging to treetops and embedding themselves in the earth [they] both literally perform and symbolically enact humanity’s connection to nature” (DeLuca, 2005, p.56). When these events are disseminated throughout the public sphere via the mass media, the public is further exposed to these ecocentric views which aim for a call to action in protecting the earth. These images of ecocentrism become floating signifiers, which are defined as “a symbol or concept loose enough to mean many things to many people, yet specific enough to galvanise action in a particular direction” (Boyd and Mitchell, 2012, pp.234, 242). These image events do however offer up limitations in the sense that the activist has no control over the final delivery of what is disseminated to the public. Ultimately, no matter how much an event is framed in a particular way, there is the potential for media outlets to shape these events to fit their own agenda.

Chapter 3: Digital Revolution

Throughout the modern digital revolution, technological advances have opened up a multitude of avenues by which people can better connect, share and disseminate information. In particular, the rise of web 2.0 has been instrumental in changing the landscape of activism and has now become a powerful tool which activists have at their disposal. Web 2.0 can be defined as the second phase of the web, which consists of people not only consuming information on the internet, but contributing to it through developments such as blogs, wikis, social networks and tagging (Darwish and Lakhtaria, 2011). Cox describes this rise as being “a shift from a one-way, elite news media to a participatory model of content generation and sharing” (Cox, 2013, p.183). For activists and movements, this is important as it allows a greater framework in which activists can voice their opinions free from the external influence of the mainstream media. In essence, this gives activists more control of how they are presented, allowing them to frame themselves and/or the issue in the manner which benefits their cause. This could be described as a process called inverted or reverse agenda-setting, which is the theory that instead of the conventional media setting the agenda, they are influenced by the agenda set out by public through avenues such as social media (Nair and Sharma, 2017). Furthermore, social media networks have “the power to create collective action movements due to [their] unique ability to rapidly connect and mobilize large numbers of people” (Johnson, 2017, p.157). This, in effect, means that campaigns are no longer limited to local areas giving people powerful tools to break free from the constraints of geographical boundaries.

In 2016 a nationwide movement and campaign began against the construction of Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in the United States (also known as the Bakken Pipeline), a crude oil pipeline extending 1,168 miles from North Dakota to Illinois that had been contested by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe since its first proposal in 2014 (Worland, 2016). Contention of the DAPL was fuelled by worries the project would, according to the the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, bring about the destruction of cultural, religious and historical sites; further to this, there were major environmental concerns raised to the pipeline polluting the tribe’s drinking water (Park, 2016). In early April 2016, the movement began to make it into the media, with article posted on the Guardian website (Woolf, 2016) reporting on Native American tribes mobilising by riding horses to protest the pipeline, and the formation of a spiritual camp where the pipeline was proposed to cross the Missouri river. However, many people criticised the lack of mainstream media presence at the protest, with Hayley Johnson writing that “many people equated the scant coverage to a news ‘blackout.’ Videos from supporters on the front lines were the main way that information was communicated to the outside world” (Johnson, 2017, p.162). Social media and web 2.0 became an intrinsic element to the campaigning as it’s identity became unanimous with hashtags such as #WaterIsLife #ReZpectOurWater, #StandWithStandingRock and #NoDAPL (Steimer, 2017) which were spreading across a multitude of social media networks. Media coordinator for Standing Rock, Desiree Kane, explains that “one of the weapons we have now is our own cameras and our own internet connections to tell our own narratives and stories” (Roberts, 2016). When applying the ideas of mind bombs and rhetorical tools within this context, we can start to understand the potential impact social media networks can have in reaching a wider audience and shifting perspectives.

Similarly to the earlier examples of Muir, Carson and Greenpeace, the #NoDAPL movement placed a great emphasis on both linguistic and visual rhetoric. The movement was defined by the idea that they were not protesters, but ‘water protectors’. Much like the eco-warriors of Greenpeace sailing off in the face of great adversity at Amchitka, the Standing Rock movement was able to craft a strong identity of Native Americans and water protectors being oppressed by the government for the development and exploitation of their lands (American Horse, 2016). This narrative is nothing new however, and is an issue the native populations have faced ever since the continent was initially colonised. Scholar and writer Robert Sarwark argues that this acknowledgement of historical wrongdoings and the heightened awareness the Native community has to their national sovereignty and autonomy was the underlying spirit to the #NoDapl movement, which “combined the repudiation of the pro-corporate American status quo with an assertion of the unique situation of Native sovereign rights” (Sarwark, 2018, p.20). In an article posted on The Guardian website by water protector Iyuskin American Horse of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe wrote; “I am defending the land and water of my people, as my ancestors did before me… I am fighting alongside their descendants, my relatives from all seven tribes, against the very same oppressors.” (American Horse, 2016). This rhetoric of oppression can be seen no clearer than in Ryan Vizzions picture, Defend The Sacred, which shows a solitary water protector on horseback facing off against a wall of militarised police. Throughout the movement, water protectors employed language and symbols which communicate the Native culture and spiritual connection to nature, in order to illustrate the DAPL as an environmental injustice (Nabong and Leffler, 2016). One such example of this was the common referral to the pipeline as the Black Snake (Zuzeca Sape), a Native American prophecy which predicts that the black snake bringing destruction as it appears across their land. This prophecy makes use of an apocalyptic narrative similar to the landscape plagued by death, presented by Rachel Carson in her book Silent Spring (1962). Ethnographer Mary Louisa Cappelli argues that “the black snake trope subverts Western capitalist ideas, ideologies, institutions, and structures that privilege development and consumerism over sustainable livelihoods and ecosystems” (Cappelli, 2018, p.9). With phrases such as ‘Mni Wiconi’ (water is life), ‘defend the sacred’ and ‘people over pipelines’ being displayed on posters and other media, the water protectors rallied behind the sentiment that both people and nature should be valued over profit. These posters, Cappelli explains, were “a rhetorical art form of cultural expression, political communication, and affective solidarity” (Cappelli, 2018, p.4). In addition to the posters, flags were also used as rhetorical tools in the communication of a movement, appearing at events and throughout the various camps. In a video interview with Montana Journalism (2016), The Fort Belknap Community Tribal Council president, Mark Azure describes the flag’s symbolic presence as signifying that the issue is bigger than the individual thought. Sarwark explains that “flags have been used for protest throughout history. Their semiotic power lies in their ability to transmit wordlessly political and ideological concepts” (Sarwark, 2018, p.20). Through the visual of hundreds of flags standing together, it instantly demonstrates two things; a) the coming together of tribes and other allies in solidarity for a singular cause, b) communicating the sovereign rights of lands to the native peoples.

Whilst a strong rhetoric was built by the movement that people were able to rally around, many of the conventional media outlets undermined this narrative. Journalist Susie Neilson (2016) discusses this, writing that the conventional media outlets were characterising the water protectors as ‘protestors’; furthermore they labelled the events as ‘protests’ and ‘clashes’, omitting words such as prayer and peaceful action. Neilson suggests that due to this, “many news stories [covering #DAPL] have lent the narrative communicated by police” (Neilson, 2016). Nowhere is this more evident than on November 20, 2016, when police deployed rubber bullets, sound weapons, tear gas and powerful water hoses in subzero temperatures against unarmed water protectors. The standoff ultimately left over 300 people injured, with the Morton County Sheriff’s Department releasing a statement that announced the stand-off as an ‘ongoing riot’, describing the opposition as ‘very aggressive’ (Wong, 2016). Without social media, this would have been the story, however with photographs, personal accounts, video and livestream footage appearing on social media, with Johnson explaining that they “changed the tone of the protests and the perception of the police response” (Johnson, 2017, p.164). This shows a strong “correspondence between mainstream media and public attention, influenced by viral topics and protest events on-the-ground” (Hopke, Simis-Wilkinson and Loew, 2018, p.314). Following the countless social media posts, articles about the event commented on the excessive misuse of police force, with one article on PBS stating that “activists can be heard on several Facebook Live videos shouting ‘No DAPL!’ (Dakota Access pipeline) as law enforcement appeared to use water cannons, tear gas and sound weapons against the people amassed on the bridge” (Barajas, 2016). This illustrates the influence media formats such as social media can have on public perception, giving citizen journalists, activists and alternative media a framework by which they can hold the mainstream media to account.

Although social media can be viewed as a powerful tool for activists, many have criticised whether it actually brings about any meaningful change. The umbrella term used for this is Slacktivism, which can be described as “activities that enhance the feel-good factor of the participants but have no impact on real life political outcomes” (Christensen, 2012). However, it is clear that through social media, the #NoDAPL movement was catapulted into the wider public consciousness, with over 13.5 million tweets, leading Hopke, Simis-Wilkinson and Loew to conclude that “#NoDAPL and related hashtags formed a diffused ‘interest network’ on social media applications, in effect mirroring and amplifying the solidarity of other tribes and non-Native supporters” (2016, p.314). This solidarity with the movement can be seen when on October 31, 2016, people from around the world began checking-in at the Standing Rock reservation, with the aims of countering supposed police surveillance of the activity at the camps, something which The Morton County Sheriff’s Department denied was a tactic (Titcomb, 2016). The number of check ins eventually numbered at over a million, and whilst many criticised that they failed in their immediate objective, they did however offer a “symbolic co-presence in solidarity, and finally drew some corporate media attention to the protests, despite being functionally ineffective” (Schandorf and Karatzogianni, 2018, p.142). Due to how widespread the check-ins became, and the speed at which they exploded onto social media essentially forced coverage from the conventional media. Furthermore, unlike the early Greenpeace rallies, people who supported Standing Rock could visibly do so from their own homes, effectively projecting their voice across within their connected networks. If we look at other data, such as the monetary gain, we can see even more successes. GoFundMe campaigns were able to raise over 7.8 million US dollars from 1,200 listed campaigns on the website, as the largest campaign raised just under $3 million with “60,000 donors from all 50 states, DC, Puerto Rico, and 95 countries” which as of December 2016, was the “2nd largest GoFundMe ever” (GoFundMe Reviews, Press & Media, 2016). This ability to contribute to campaigns in such a simple and quick manner is a way in which people can connect and have a physical impact on a movement from anywhere in the world. Whilst there was solidarity shown in the number of tweets, posts and donations, the #NoDAPL movement proved that these media formats were also able to mobilise people. On November 15, 2016, 300 solidarity events were held in a #NoDAPL Day of Action, reaching “across all fifty states…including global events in dozens of cities such as London, Paris, Auckland, Kyoto, and Marrakesh” (Simon, 2018). Similarly, following the creation of a Facebook event “two thousand veterans answered the call to show solidarity with the #NoDAPL water protectors and traveled to Standing Rock to participate in this movement” (Johnson, 2017, p.164). In total throughout the movement it is estimated that 10,000 people showed up at the Standing Rock camps (Hopke, Simis-Wilkinson and Loew, 2018, p.314). Retired law enforcement officer Jeff Ginter stated that he “decided to come and support after watching video footage online that I believe clearly demonstrates unlawful use of force” (Whittle, 2016). For many of the people who attended the rallies around the world, and who made their way to the Standing Rock camps, it is clear that they were highly motivated due to coverage they had seen of the movement on social media.

With the development of web 2.0, multimedia and information can be shared easier than ever within an instant. Whilst there is certainly concern and debate over whether social media can actually promote change, the example of Standing Rock shows us that in many ways it’s power should not be underestimated. In December 2016, President Obama denied a permit for the construction of the DAPL, a large victory for the environmental movement (Wong, 2016). However, the fight against pipeline developments across the United States carries on, as in February 2017, newly elected president, Donald Trump, reversed the decision which led to the pipeline eventually being constructed despite reported oil leaks of other areas of the pipeline (Kennedy, 2017). Whilst the movement was ultimately unsuccessful, the legacy of the Standing Rock protests has brought a mass awareness to oil pipeline development across the North America, with various anti-pipeline campaigns igniting in the aftermath of the #NoDAPL movement, the latest being the protest of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline in Canada.


As demonstrated by the case studies throughout this thesis, the mass media has played a significant role in altering and shifting the public agenda on environmental issues. From the early environmental advocates of Muir and Carson, to the protests of Standing Rock, rhetoric and framing has been a key component to these significant shifts in both the perception of the environment as a whole, as well as how the activists themselves are perceived. As observed with the Standing Rock campaign, social media is becoming an ever increasingly powerful tool which can be harnessed, in order to share these rhetorical narratives without external interference, placing more of an emphasis on the citizen journalist than ever before. Further to this, in the interconnected world, information can be delivered and shared immediately, offering the potential for information to go viral, therefore, having a large local and global reach. Effectively, this builds upon the tactics of Robert Hunter, making the concept of a mind-bomb more of a regular occurrence, with information and media regularly ‘going viral’, spreading around these new media networks. As Hunter stated, “artists are moving out, taking up positions behind TV cameras, delivering mind-bombs into the livingrooms of technological society” (Hunter, 1972, p.221). However with the developments of new technologies, these images and events are not only catapulted into the public domain via television and newspapers, but also appear on computers, mobile phones, tablets and even smart watches. The possibilities for activists to exploit these media networks are endless.

For designers and communicators, this offers us a strong framework to follow. Through carefully constructed narratives which combine both text and image, we can effectively set an agenda. With an ever growing control of what people are exposed too, mediated participation allows us to interact directly with our target audiences and the wider public, giving a voice to issues that otherwise would have remained voiceless due to the agendas of the traditional media. Whilst we are living in an increasingly visual society it is important to understand that linguistic rhetoric is still an important tool which must be considered. Although traditional media such as books have taken a backseat to more modern media formats, the tactics seen in the writing of Muir and Carson are still present in the environmental movement today, from constructing views of future environmental apocalypse, to appealing to a persons emotions and breaking the historical trope that human and industrial progress is more important to society than the environments we inhabit. By looking at the case studies as a timeline in chronological order, we can see that as media formats have developed and progressed in order to reach larger global audiences, breaking down the barriers of accessibility, so too has the message of the environmental movement developed in the public conscious.

From analysing the research undertaken for this thesis, it is clear that the media is a powerful agent of social change. The examples presented throughout are a testament to this statement, as they have led to changes and developments of environmental policy, such as the foundation of the EPA and the ban on international whaling. Understanding the power that media has in influencing public opinion and politics is extremely important, as it provides communicators with a framework to build upon in order to promote positive causes within the public sphere. however this also presents a inherent responsibility make sure that what we are communicating is for a moral cause. Effectively, it is the role of communicators to bring these issues to the forefront of the public consciousness, delivering powerful messages through the use of carefully constructed rhetoric and framing, in order to create a greater impact in the modern network society.


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Matthew Ryan Cooke
11th February 2019

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