Rhetoric of the Environment and the Natural World: Temporal Tensions in Rhetoric After-the-Fact, Intergenerational Messaging, and Public Display

Kathryn Marie Meeks

Advisor: Heidi Y. Lawrence, PhD, Department of English

Committee Members: Douglas Eyman, Candice Welhausen

Online Location, https://gmu.zoom.us/j/94136508763?pwd=MXhSaHZLbWJzWS9TZmJ3bGtQMlRMdz09
April 19, 2024, 10:00 AM to 01:00 PM


When discussing Climate Change, urban development, sustainable fishing, drought, or any other environmental concern, a rhetor invokes a visual and material sensibility that is inseparable from the medium of the message—the audience is meant to see or sense the bleached coral reefs, heaps of garbage from the ocean, or land ravaged by fire. Additionally, these visual and material appeals expose temporal tensions of environmental arguments—often the kairotic, or most opportune, moment to make an argument about the environment is after damage has already been done. Distressing data, photographs, or video footage are meant to move audiences emotionally and instill a sense of urgency. Persuasive arguments about the environment thus depend on problematic circumstances. Time, then, becomes a central player in environmental activism.

Through three case studies, this dissertation addresses the role of visual and material objects created by and for the public to make arguments about the environment and the natural world. Specifically, the case studies are examined through the lens of what this dissertation terms “Rhetoric After-the-Fact,” a pattern that occurs frequently in environmental rhetorics and reflects on the nature of arguments and actions that are too late. The first case study examines the protest of the removal of sixteen willow oak trees off the George Mason University Fairfax, Virginia campus. Once the trees were already removed, protestors drew images on the stumps to express their discontent, effectively voicing their feelings after any change could occur. The second case study focuses on intergenerational discourse about the environment in illustrated children’s books. The third case explores the sculptures of the iguanodon dinosaurs created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in collaboration with Sir Richard Owen for a public display to accompany the Crystal Palace in London in 1854. Each case study highlights a visual and material argument about the natural world and the temporal tensions of those arguments. Rhetoric After-the-Fact immediately points to what has passed, what has been done or destroyed in the environment, while also pointing viewers forward to the future, to consider what is to come and what is to be done about impending environmental disaster.