Summer 2016 - CMNS 855 G100

Selected Topics in Communication Studies (5)

Nature/Culture/Envrnmt CMNS

Class Number: 5595

Delivery Method: In Person


  • Course Times + Location:

    Fr 1:00 PM – 4:50 PM
    HCC 1525, Vancouver

  • Instructor:

    Shane Gunster
    Office: Burnaby K-9672



Specialized one-time graduate course offerings on topics related to the current research of school faculty of visiting professors.



Over the past two decades, the field of environmental communication has expanded rapidly as awareness has grown of the critical role played by culture and communication in shaping the relationship between human societies and our ‘natural’ environment.

On the one hand, culture and communication have played a major role in supporting the economic, social and political structures through which humans have come to exploit and dominate ‘nature’ in a fundamentally unsustainable and potentially catastrophic manner. Commercial and corporate media, for example, provide vital cultural and ideological support to ecologically devastating forms of consumer capitalism and economic growth, while often marginalizing the voices of those calling for a different relationship with the biosphere (or even those seeking to inform the public of environmental crisis).

On the other hand, cultural and communicative processes can also provide the conceptual and emotional space to cultivate not only an awareness of environmental crisis, but also (and more importantly) the social and political will to challenge existing structures of power and patterns of inequality, and inaugurate (and imagine) more sustainable forms of economy and society. Vigorous debates among scholars, practitioners and activists in the field about how to communicate more effectively with the public (as well as a strongly interdisciplinary theoretical orientation and research agenda) have produced a much richer understanding of the roles that affect, emotion, experience, identity, narrative, values, frames and other factors can and must play in motivating increased public engagement with environmental issues, both in terms of (individual) behavioural and (collective) political change.

These issues are of particular consequence to the evolving social and political landscape in British Columbia, where struggles over resource, energy and infrastructure development have become particularly intense in recent years. While the provincial government appears firmly committed to expanding carbon intensive extraction and export, strong resistance movements have emerged, led by First Nations, local communities, and environmental activists and advocates. Such efforts are supported by a thriving alternative media ecology, which is actively challenging the hegemony of corporate media and public relations. Our discussion of environmental communication will be informed by, and rooted within, this political and discursive context.

While our primary objective in the course will be to engage with the diverse range of academic scholarship in the area, we will also occasionally survey ‘primary’ forms of environmental communication where relevant – e.g., innovative forms of environmental journalism (esp. alternative and social media); innovative forms of environmental advocacy by NGOs (and others); corporate/‘think-tank’ discourse on sustainability; polling/surveys on environmental issues, policies and politics, etc.

Primary topics to be explored (will likely) include:

•     Theorizing nature, analyzing discourse about, and representations of, nature in popular culture.
•     Capitalism, consumer culture, economic growth, and ecological crisis.
•     Sustainable development? Corporate social responsibility? A green economy? Carbon capitalism?
•     Communication, sustainable behavioural change, and everyday life.
•     Evolving practices and paradigms of environmental journalism.
•     Communicating with the public about science and risk.
•     Researching, representing, and shaping public opinion on environmental issues.
•     Environmental advocacy: storytelling, strategies, platforms, best practices, examples.
•     Emotion and affect, fear and hope, frames and values in environmental communication.
•     Environmental citizenship, dialogue, deliberation, and public/political engagement.
•     First Nations practices, perspectives and politics on land and ecology, justice and governance.
•     Globalizing environmental (and social) justice, emergent forms of (radical) environmental politics.

As a means of creating some conceptual and thematic consistency and focus across these topics, much of the course reading will be drawn from the literature on climate change communication. Over the past decade, the question of how to communicate (or not to communicate) about climate change has become one of the field’s top priorities, generating vigorous discussion and debate in the scholarly, policy and advocate/activist communities about how to engage most effectively with the public on this and other environmental issues.

In addition to readings organized around a weekly theme, we will also read and discuss Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate over the course of the term. Although Klein’s book is not about environmental communication per se, it offers an influential, passionate and polemical discussion of the political, economic and cultural terrain in which we engage with climate change. Consequently, it will serve as a useful complement to more focused conversations about environmental communication.

While this course is a graduate course in communication, it has also historically attracted students from a variety of intellectual disciplines, including Interactive Arts and Technology, Resource and Environmental Management, Political Science, Geography, Sociology and Anthropology, and English. This interdisciplinary composition and participation is an important, valued and vital aspect of the course: A diverse range of backgrounds, perspectives and areas of expertise provides a productive and invigorating intellectual context in which to explore these issues.

Within the broad contours and key themes of the course as laid out in this outline, I strongly encourage input and advice from interested students with respect to a focus upon particular topics, the potential inclusion of additional issues beyond those described above, and suggestions for academic and/or non-academic readings. At this point, the structure of the course is quite flexible and I am happy to refine and modify it in order to address the needs and interests of students.

Course Format:

The course will be organized around a series of weekly readings and will be conducted as a seminar discussion. Accordingly, attendance at all meetings is mandatory.

Depending upon enrolment, students will be responsible for preparing one or two short presentations (10-15 minutes max) during the term, providing the group with a concise assessment of one (or more) of the week’s readings, and then two to three questions to kickstart our discussion of the week’s material. In addition, each student will prepare a short (5 page max) critical review of a week’s readings, twice during the semester. The aim of such reviews will not be to summarize the readings, but instead to engage with a set of key themes or ideas within them. They will not involve any additional research beyond the weekly readings.


  • To be finalized at our first meeting
  • Participation 25%
  • Presentation (1 or 2) 10%
  • Critical Review of Weekly Readings (x2) 20%
  • Research Proposal 5%
  • Major Research Essay/Project 40%
  • Note: The major research assignment will take the form of an academic essay. Within the broad rubric of environmental communication, students will have the flexibility to write an essay, which is relevant to their own areas of research.


The school expects that the grades awarded in this course will bear some reasonable relation to established university-wide practices with respect to both levels and distribution of grades. In addition, the School will follow Policy S10.01 with respect to Academic Integrity, and Policies S10.02, S10.03 and S10.04 as regards Student Discipline. [Note: as of May 1, 2009 the previous T10 series of policies covering Intellectual Honesty (T10.02) and Academic Discipline (T10.03) have been replaced with the new S10 series of policies.]



Course readings will be available through Canvas (with the exception of the Klein book). The amount of required reading will likely be 80-120 pages per week.

Graduate Studies Notes:

Important dates and deadlines for graduate students are found here: The deadline to drop a course with a 100% refund is the end of week 2. The deadline to drop with no notation on your transcript is the end of week 3.

Registrar Notes:

Each student is responsible for his or her conduct as it affects the University community.  Academic dishonesty, in whatever form, is ultimately destructive of the values of the University. Furthermore, it is unfair and discouraging to the majority of students who pursue their studies honestly. Scholarly integrity is required of all members of the University.

SFU’s Academic Integrity web site contains information on what is meant by academic dishonesty and where you can find resources to help with your studies.  There is also a section on tutoring.