A Post-truth Rhetoric and Ethics for Writing Climate Now

Guest post by Matthew Pavesich. Posted on September 27, 2017

At Approaching the Anthopocene’s first event, last week’s panel “Writing Climate Now,” Dagomar Degroot insisted that climate change skeptics are not skeptics, “they’re deniers.” He’s right; over time this group has strategically adopted the title of “skeptics.” The distinction matters: “skeptic” expresses informed, rationally-oriented caution — waiting until all the evidence is in — while “denier” expresses stubborn disbelief (at best). It’s not the first time the American political right has successfully pulled off this stunt. Holocaust deniers at the so-called Institute for Historical Review, by adopting the posture of open academic inquiry, managed to place ads proclaiming the Holocaust a “hoax” in close to forty college student newspapers between 1991 and 1994. Around the same time, Christian fundamentalists were re-branding creationism as “Intelligent Design” in order to wedge it into public school science classes. The strategy, in all three instances, displaces accepted knowledge (the factual historical record, the division between the secular and nonsecular) with “more abstract issues of freedom and open inquiry.” Don’t get me started on the fact that we refer to anti-labor politics as granting the “right to work.”

Meanwhile, those who make the public case for the ravages of the anthropocene (present and future) have mostly continued to rely on liberal and academic styles of discourse. This style typically mobilizes two rhetorical strategies: 1) conveying (real) scientific facts to a broadly public audience and 2) occasionally spiking the latter with a healthy dose of pathos. Unsurprisingly, the latter spurs accusations of excess. Even as climate change deniers, that is, have successfully co-opted the liberal, rational rhetoric of their opposition (us), environmental advocates have mostly continued to believe that being correct will be enough. But maybe not. The question, then: what can environmental advocates learn from the success of their more rhetorically agile opponents?

The answer might be to become more agile, too, to rely on a larger rhetorical toolkit, and perhaps even, as one panelist put, to harness the “post-truth [moment] in service of our goals.” Sharon Crowley has written about these strategies, recommending challenging privilege and isolation; aiming for more select audiences, including those who have power in opposition groups and those with mixed allegiances; relying on story and conjecture; and appealing to emotion and self-interest.

The “Writing Climate Now” panelists discussed exactly these kinds of alternate rhetorical strategies. Mabel Gergan advocated adopting religious rhetoric in local communities; Evan Berry described targeting specific arguments at small handfuls of power elites; Shiloh Krupar connected writing climate change and teaching, where discussion and contact with provocative ideas can create lasting learning, as well as writing in modes like satire, documentary, and speculative fiction. None of these strategies work linearly through mobilizing specific informational or polemical arguments for broad audiences, but instead create rhetorical environments in which readers/viewers interact with story, affect, objects, and science, which might result in new conclusions, conundrums, conversions.

If Donald Trump took us into the post-truth age, and more responsible rhetors hope to make from it an opportunity, we must consider rhetorical ethics. Luckily, we have help. First published in book form in 1988, Harry Frankfurt’s “On Bullshit” anticipates the “post-truth” era by distinguishing between the truth-teller (the person who knows the truth and tells it), the liar (the person who knows the truth and conveys something otherwise) and the bullshitter (the person whose pursuit of self-interest causes him or her to neither know the truth nor seek it). For Frankfurt, the bullshitter represents the greatest danger because ignoring the truth, he believes, erodes its importance and maybe even its eventual accessibility. We don’t want to venture into bullshit, even while flirting with a post-truth mode, but maybe the post-truth climate advocate is a “maker,” a weaver of her own truth, in combination with the lies and bullshit of others. Embrace the weird.

The message from “Writing Climate Now” was that it’s time for new strategies. What we’re up against include Frankfurtian bullshitters, as well as good old-fashioned complacency and polarized political factions. When crafting climate-related rhetoric, we all can work in funkier combinations than ever before in order to push the boundaries of liberal, rational public discourse. Because, for now, that mode seems to be the only one that won’t work.


Matthew Pavesich is Associate Teaching Professor of English at Georgetown University. He teaches rhetoric and writing, and his research includes the pedagogy of those areas, as well as the DC/Adapters project.



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