🌿Wild Ones #50: Environmental Communication Digest

Rhetorics of dispossession in Papua New Guinea + Future Ecologies Podcast + Hurricanes Get Names. What About Heat Waves? + More!

The Ahupuaʻa and Moku Systems in Hawai‘i: “The way Native Hawaiians lived before Western contact in 1778 demonstrates that ecosystems and large human populations can coexist, and that cultural and biological diversity not only can flourish together, but should be codependent.” – Sam 'Ohu Gon and Kawika Winter. (Credit: National Tropical Botanical Garden, caption and image accessed here).

Hi everyone, welcome back to Wild Ones, a (usually) weekly digest by me, Gavin Lamb, about news, ideas, research, and tips in environmental communication. If you’re new, welcome! You can read more about why I started Wild Ones here. Sign up here to get these digests in your inbox:


📚 What I’m reading

Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. By Paige West. Columbia University Press (2016).

  • I’ve only finished a few chapters of West’s Dispossession and the Environment. But so far, I’m finding it to be a brilliant and highly engaging collection of essays interweaving ethnographic research, social theory, and discourse analysis from her time doing research on conservation practices and institutions in Papua New Guinea.

  • The book is especially helpful in shedding light on what West calls “representational rhetorics” of dispossession. These are rhetorical strategies used to justify Western technocratic approaches to economic development in the Global South, but which ultimately serve to entrench inequalities, uneven development, and cultural and environmental (ecocultural) dispossession in a globalizing world.

  • The rhetorical strategies of development discourse West examines in the book are rooted in histories of colonialism and capitalism, and because of this, are especially connected to Western ideas about non-European peoples and places involving particular themes of “nature, culture, savagery, discovery, and gender.”

  • In each of the chapters, West explores how these recurring themes are used in corporate, government, and NGO messaging, often from the perspective of Euro-American-Australian consultants in the country, to shape development trajectories in Papua New Guinea, especially development projects related to natural resource extraction and environmental conservation. In increasing depth in each of the chapters, we see the real-world effects these rhetorical strategies of economic development – or rather rhetorical strategies of economic ‘dispossession’ – have on the peoples and places of Papua New Guinea.

  • For example, in the first chapter, West describes how a fast-growing, Western-run surf tourism industry in Papua New Guinea – including places like the Nusa Island Retreat – uses a development rhetoric of “discovery,” involving a particular set of Western ‘discovery’ stories, texts, advertising imagery and more about Papua New Guinea to promote and profit on surf destinations in the country. West writes,

“The discovery and pushing of the surf site frontier is a form of accumulation by dispossession or uneven development. Tourism, with its constant production of new illusions of the further “beyond” (i.e., sites and frontiers that are not ruined by tourism), is a never-ending form of accumulation by dispossession. It is relentless in its search for new images and new destinations; however, these newly discovered places are not really ever new at all…

There is no real discovery going on. By claiming to have discovered a place you are editing out the people who live there from your representations of that place and thus attempting to disempower them. This disempowerment, this erasure of people from sea and landscapes, leads to the fantasy of these sites as empty and therefore open to transformation by outsiders.”

  • West describes how the rhetorical strategy of ‘discovery’ really works as a strategy of ‘hollowing out’ and economic, cultural and environmental ‘dispossession.’ West defines dispossession like this:

“Dispossession, broadly conceived, is a taking, a theft of sovereignty over lands and bodies. When the thieves use the stolen land and bodies (usually as labor) to make money for themselves, you have accumulation by dispossession.”

  • And for West, sovereignty is not only about control of land and bodies, but…

    “‘sovereignty’ [also] means control over meaning, representations, the future, ideas, and the creation of social worlds and social reproduction, as well as political control and material manifestations of control. This expanded notion of sovereignty comes from the work of indigenous scholars, and I attempt to build on it.”

  • So “representational rhetorics of dispossession” emerge as powerful communication strategies designed to wrest multiple forms of sovereignty – cultural, environmental, economic – from the peoples of Papua New Guinea. These communication strategies show up in the sustainability and development rhetoric of Business and Industry NGOs (BINGOs), Corporations, and International Financial Institutions seeking to strategically underdevelop Global South nations around the world by ‘profiting through theft’ or as West puts it, ‘accumulating through dispossession.’

  • For more on Paige West’s work, I also recommend this wonderful talk she gave recently on her research in Papua New Guinea: “Reimaging conservation today: Decolonization, indigenous sovereignty and collaboration.


🎧 What I’m listening to


🔍 Tools & Resources I’m exploring


📰 News and Events


📚 Research

  • The Power of Narrative: Climate Skepticism and the Deconstruction of Science. By Raul P. Lejano and Shondel J. Nero. Oxford University Press:

    “Narrative is the stuff of community. The Power of Narrative embarks on a quest to understand how narrative works in taking an inchoate group of individuals and turning it into a powerful social movement. To understand the force of narrative, the authors examine the particular phenomenon of climate skepticism. Somehow, the narrative of climate skepticism has been able to forge a movement and stake a challenge to the hegemony of the larger community of scientists on what is ostensibly a matter of science. The book asks: How is this achieved? What is the narrative of climate skepticism, and how has it evolved over time and diffused from place to place?”

  • Gendered citation practices in the field of communication. In Annals of the International Communication Association:

    “…Using data from 14 communication journals from 1995 to 2018, we find that reference lists include more papers with men as first and last author, and fewer papers with women as first and last author, than would be expected if gender were unrelated to referencing. This imbalance is driven largely by the citation practices of men and is slowly decreasing over time. The structure of men’s co-authorship networks partly accounts for the observed over-citation of men by other men. We discuss ways researchers might approach gendered citations in their work.”


💡 Ideas

  • Mary Annaïse Heglar on the importance of ‘greentrolling’ fossil fuel companies on social media:


💬 Quote I’m thinking about

“You ask of my companions. Hills, sir, and the sundown, and a dog large as myself [...] They are better than beings because they know, but do not tell: and the noise in the pool at noon excels my piano.”

– Emily Dickinson, 1862, Letter to Mr. Higginson. Cited in Marianne Elisabeth Lien & Gisli Pálsson (2019): Ethnography Beyond the Human: The ‘Other-than-Human’ in Ethnographic Work, Ethnos.


Thanks so much as always for your interest in my work, and if you found this digest useful, please consider sharing with others who might find it interesting too😊 I'd also love to hear from you. Leave a comment to let me know what you think about this digest, what areas of environmental communication you’re involved in/most interest you, or anything you’d like to see more of in Wild Ones:)

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