Capitalism, Climate, and Public Discourse: The Limits and Possibilities of Rhetorical Intervention

A day-long symposium of in conjunction with Naomi Klein's Forum on Excellence lecture
February 12, 2016 || University of Nevada, Reno
Knowledge Center Graduate & Faculty Reading Room (422)

“Capitalism, Climate, and Public Discourse: The Limits and Possibilities of Rhetorical Invention,” is a one-day symposium held in conjunction with a public lecture by Naomi Klein about her recent book This Changes Everything: Capitalism Versus the Climate. The symposium speakers are comprised of 16 nationally recognized scholars from English, rhetoric, and communication programs from across the country who have worked directly or tangentially on climate or capitalism as well as those who have expertise in movement politics and institutional critique, all themes found in Klein’s book. Using Klein’s book as a common text, four thematically focused panels will discuss 1) the relationship between knowledge production and public policy; 2) social movement strategizing; 3) the critique and construction of alternative institutional spaces; and 4) the relationship between the economy and discursive production. Though each panel will foster important academic debate in particular areas of rhetorical study, the symposium will more broadly address the role of the critical rhetorician as public intellectual and critically explore the ethical responsibilities of the University in knowledge and cultural production.

Situating Symposium

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is an urgent call to action. It argues that if we continue on our present course and do nothing to stem the effects of climate change everything about our world will change. As Klein argues, climate change and the threats posed by it are imbricated in and a result of an untenable globalized system of deregulated capitalism. Saving the world, for Klein, requires us to change everything about the way we live from our habits of consumption to our economic, social, and political structures, to the way we imagine our relationships with the planet. In response, this symposium attempts to uncover the effects of capitalism on the climate and environmental policy by exploring how discursive practices within science, economics, politics, and culture manage public sentiment and shape public policy. Because of their intersections, we believe it is the role of the critical rhetorician to take up the questions raised by Klein’s book:

  • What is the role of deregulated capitalism in climate change?
  • How are our practices of living invested in systems sustained by extraction and production processes that raise carbon emissions every year?
  • How does a global policy framework that grants maximum freedoms to multinational corporations usurp policy decisions on local and even national levels?
  • What role can activism and collective action play in forcing change?
  • What are the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of capitalism and climate change?
  • What must change to avoid global, environmental catastrophe?

In taking up these questions this symposium asks what we as critical rhetoricians situated in Universities can do to affect change. As scholars in the humanities, it asks what our ethical obligations are. Lastly, it asks us to consider future action because, for Klein, there is no future without action.

To address these questions and related issues the symposium is divided into four different thematically focused panels:

Rhetoric, Science, and Public Deliberation
Presenting Scholars: Celeste Condit, Lawrence Prelli, Leah Ceccarelli, & James Wynn  

“Magical thinking,” a term Klein defines as the presumption of science’s unlimited capacity to solve the problems of human intervention within the global environment, bypasses the causes of climate change in favor of technological solutions. As Klein points out, climate change deliberations often ignore the effects these solutions will have on larger populations as well as individual bodies. The rhetoricians of science on this panel will illuminate opportunities for public participation in this relatively stymied conversation so as to enlarge and complicate the current debate on environmentalism.

Publics, Counterpublics, and Social Activism
Presenting Scholars: Kevin DeLuca, John Ackerman, Daniel Brouwer, & Robert Asen  

Klein’s work outlines direct action activism, alliance-building, and other strategies that address the effects of climate change and the industries (such as oil) that exacerbate those changes. Scholars in this panel will respond to these and other strategies for social change, discussing the mechanisms by which such publics emerge and are neutralized as well as the role of scholars who participate in these environmental movements.

Rhetoric and Institutional Critiques
Presenting Scholars: Carl Herndl, David Downing, Nancy Welch, & Rosa Eberly    

Klein’s work takes a self-reflexive turn as she admits how her own professional and personal lifestyle participates in the systems perpetuating climate change. In a parallel way, this panel reflects on the various institutions from which we, as rhetoricians, engage with these debates. While it is often easy to critique those outside our institutional alliances, it is necessary also to critique our own positions. These panelists will examine how rhetoricians can engage in both self-critique and critique of institutional situatedness in order to enhance public deliberation.

Rhetoric and Political Economy
Presenting Scholars: Tom Goodnight, Ronald Greene, & Ralph Cintron    

Klein outlines how the system of capitalism has engaged with, perpetuated, and exacerbated anthropogenic climate change. In particular, she cites free trade agreements and the neoliberal agenda as preventing local communities from protecting their own ecosystem. The scholars on this panel will engage and complicate this political economic critique, discussing the technologies and discourses that govern the possibilities and limitations for addressing change within contemporary capitalism.

Northern Nevada is an ideal place to host this symposium on capitalism and the climate as it stands at the crossroads of many of the issues found in Klein’s book. The region’s rich history of environmental conservation led by the likes of John Muir and the Sierra Club is contrasted by a local economy that was built on and is still sustained by mining and the extraction of natural resources. In an attempt to remain economically viable, Northern Nevada now finds itself deeply involved in the growing green economy spearheaded by Tesla’s soon top open Gigafactory and by supporting renewable energy projects. While this turn has the potential to change Northern Nevada’s cultural, political, and economic relationships to nature and the environment, it is interstitial in regional, national, and global questions of capitalism and the climate.

Format and Schedule
The day-long Symposium will begin at 8am on Friday in the Mathewson IGT Knowledge Center Rotunda.  There will be four different panels each lasting an hour and a half. Two panels will be held in the morning, followed by a lunch break, and then two panels in the afternoon.  There will be a 15 minute break between panel sessions. The schedule is as follows:

8:00—9:00 Coffee and pastries
9:00—10:30 Rhetoric, Science, and Public Deliberation Panel
10:45—12:15 Publics, Counterpublics, and Social Activism Panel
12:15—1:15 Lunch
1:30—3:00 Rhetoric and Political Economy Panel
3:15—4:45 Rhetoric and Institutional Critiques Panel