Barbara Willard is an associate professor in the College of Communication. Her research is focused on environmental communication, examining best messaging techniques for promoting pro-environmental behavior. Dr. Willard was scheduled to lead a session at Alumni University—a chance for alumni to get back in the classroom and learn from DePaul’s outstanding faculty. In light of the university’s decision to cancel all university-sponsored events to help fight the spread of COVID-19, Alumni University has unfortunately been canceled.
However, in late February, we sat down with Dr. Willard to talk more about her proposed Alumni University session and her work in environmental communication. Read that interview below:
Knowing what I know about climate change communication, it’s important that you don’t focus on the apocalyptic nature or the dark side, and that you don’t say “There is no hope.” I’m one who likes to stress hope in the face of this dire situation. I want to talk not only about what kinds of changes are taking place on the individual level—which is usually what people consider—but about what sort of structural changes need to take place. Can we stay with this economy? Can we just replace our fossil fuel economy with a renewable energy economy? Would that be okay, or do we have to really change our entire consumption practice and move to a sort of steady state of growth?
You’re both an expert in communications (PhD in Communications Studies, University of Iowa) and in environmental rhetoric. How did those two interests intersect for you?
Years ago, in college, I was doing general communications studies, but I became a vegetarian in 1990. I read a book, Diet for a New America, in 1989, and I have not eaten any meat, fish or poultry since because it so influenced me. I became a vegetarian because of animal rights, and the more I read about it, the more I made connections between our diet and the effect it has on the environment. Because my behavior was changed, I became interested in what it is that convinces people to change their behavior. That led me to an interest in the rhetorical tactics and strategies that people use to change environmental behavior.
I was most interested in how to change behavior for good, for pro-environmental behaviors, but I was also interested in the rhetoric of particular ideological positions that favor environmental practices which create a culture and a society that is destructive, that uses more resources than the earth can possibly provide. So I went back to school. I had my Masters in Communication Studies and I was teaching at the community college level, and I went back to get my PhD in Environmental Rhetoric. There wasn’t a formal program in that when I started, but there were a couple of other people that were doing the same thing I was doing.
So we took classes all over at the University of Iowa. I was in Geology. I was in their nascent Environmental Studies program. I took some courses in food and diet because I wrote my dissertation on vegetarianism and vegetarian rhetoric. That’s how I morphed into this highly interdisciplinary field. Eventually, it became more solidified as the field of environmental communication was established. The idea that, you know, messaging is really important. Communicating is really important. We need a marketing plan for the environment. So we in the National Communication Association developed the Environmental Communication Division.
There’s a common stereotype that academics live in “ivory towers” and aren’t actually interacting with the consequences of the issues they study. For you, it seems as though that couldn’t be further from the truth. Do you feel as though part of your work is advocacy—fighting the good fight?
I do. In terms of my teaching, I’ve done certain things on campus, work with students. We have an urban garden here at DePaul, and I was the one that started it in 2011. I developed an urban agriculture program with a sequence of classes and we did service learning. That might seem like a pretty small action, but knowing how much diet has an impact on our environment, I thought that’s what we needed. So we added that to the environmental studies curriculum. And more recently, we have a student chapter of the Climate Reality Project here, the “Climate Reality Campus Corps.” I’m the advisor for that, so a group of five students and I went last summer to get the training.
I’ve always liked application. I mean, in graduate school I always had a difficult time with theory just for the sake of theory. And rhetorical theory would drive me nuts. But when I discovered that there was an outlet, there was a way to look at things rhetorically and understand “What are the material outcomes of messaging?” that really struck a chord with me. That’s kind of the only way I can do academics—if there’s a practical application of my work and it makes a difference.
In terms of the coverage and discourse regarding our environment, what’s the most harmful mischaracterization of our circumstances that you’ve encountered? How would you amend the false reality that is often presented to people?
I think climate change denial used to be a significant problem. That is changing. All the research suggests that more and more people—the majority of Americans—not only believe that climate change is real, but that we need to do something about it. Climate change denial was incredibly harmful. The difficulty is that mitigating climate change is going to require a shift from a fossil fuel economy, and in our current state of affairs, there are really strongly vested stakeholders not interested in changing anything. And so there’s been a concerted effort to promote climate denialism, or at least to downplay the effects of climate change.
Part of the difficulty is that climate change science is very complex, and it also necessarily operates under the scientific method, which means that one can never express 100% certainty. There’s always a degree of uncertainty in the scientific method. That’s why you test, hypothesize, test, hypothesize, test. Climate change deniers oftentimes understand how science operates—its inherent uncertainty—and use the fact that most people don’t know that to say, “See, they’re not certain. They never say that they’re 100% certain. So why should we make such a great change in the way our business operates? It could cause economic catastrophe.”
You’ve spent 20 years at DePaul in the College of Communication. Do you feel as though DePaul has been supportive of your work?
Completely. In fact, in the College of Communication, we have so much flexibility in curriculum design and creation that I was able to develop a whole program of classes in environmental communication: We have a minor in environmental communication and we hired a journalism professor, Jill Hopke, who teaches in this area. That’s not easy to do at a number of universities, but DePaul has always welcomed that sort of curriculum creation, especially if it’s in the Vincentian mission tradition. I feel like this is one of the only places I could’ve worked.
I believe in our mission so much that I was a part of the Vincentian Mission Institute. Not only did I go on the Vincentian heritage tour, but I did a two year study with the Vincentian Mission Institute, where you work with the other Vincentian institutions—St. John’s University and Niagara University—to study the literature of St. Vincent de Paul and develop capstone projects. Our capstone project was on sustainability, which was completely in line with and supportive of DePaul’s mission. So I think it’s… yeah, this is the only place I can be.
What do you consider your mission as an academic and as an educator?
I must admit, I know academics shouldn’t really be about advocacy, but that’s what I do. I see my teaching as advocacy, so the classes I teach promoting sustainable practices, understanding environmental rhetoric and politics and our culture of consumption… I go into them with an advocacy position.
I mean, I’m not neutral. How can I be? People might say, “It really doesn’t matter how you consume.” But no, it does! It does. All of this matters. And so I see education as an opportunity to advocate for a better world and a better environment.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
To hear more from DePaul faculty, check out our interview with Dr. Horace Hall from the College of Education, and stay tuned to bludemonline.com for more faculty interviews, at-home activities and information about virtual alumni programming in the coming days!