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Constructing, Consuming, and Complicating the Human-Nature Binary: Communication Practices in Forest Environmental Education

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Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/1928/10869

Constructing, Consuming, and Complicating the Human-Nature Binary: Communication Practices in Forest Environmental Education

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Title: Constructing, Consuming, and Complicating the Human-Nature Binary: Communication Practices in Forest Environmental Education
Author: Dickinson, Elizabeth
Advisor(s): Foss, Karen
Committee Member(s): Schuetz, Jan
Milstein, Tema
Chavez, Karma
Goldstein, Alyosha
Department: University of New Mexico. Dept. of Communication and Journalism
Subject: environmental communication
environmental education
Nature-deficit disorder
Nature-culture binary
Human-nature binary
LC Subject(s): Environmental education--Social aspects
Environmental education--Philosophy
Environmental education--Activity programs--Research
Human ecology--Philosophy
Degree Level: Doctoral
Abstract: This project combines interdisciplinary conversations within the field of communication to examine environmental meaning systems and communication practices in the context of forest environmental education. Due to concerns over children’s environmental alienation, there has been a continued push toward place-based environmental education. One such venture is the North Carolina Educational State Forest system (NCESF), where educators bring K-12 students into forests to help them reconnect with nature, expand environmental knowledge, and tackle what has been recently termed “nature-deficit disorder.” When students visit the sites, rangers deliver structured lessons on ecosystems and forest management to children and chaperones—lessons that must adhere to the state’s science curriculum. I used interpretive and critical qualitative approaches to conduct a five-month study of communication practices in the NCESF system. As a participant observer, I paid attention to rangers’ daily practices and the spatial layout of the forests and trails, including a number of “talking-tree trails” throughout the sites. As an observer, I watched rangers teach lessons to students on one site. Additionally, I conducted in-depth interviews with forestry personnel and analyzed texts and artifacts, such as curricula, teaching materials, forestry literature, and photographs that I took. Situated within four extant bodies of literature—socially constructing nature, environmental communication, consumer and commercial appropriations of nature, and environmental education—my purpose in this study is threefold. First, I examine how rangers, teachers, forestry, and curricula conceptualize, construct, and frame nature and the role of humans in it. Next, I investigated how people, parties, and nature resist and complicate dominant framings. Last, I explored the possible intersections and implications of what is being constructed, produced, and performed about human-nature relations in the forest sites. This study is further contextualized within larger cultural and educational practices to expand environmental communication research, reexamine forest environmental education, and retheorize nature-deficit disorder. This study’s findings point to three analyses and corresponding theses that rearticulate human-nature relations. First, in the forest sites, people and parties frame nature as tightly organized and contained—as scientific, named, managed, gendered, a physical place, disciplined, competitive, different, and ocularcentric. These framings maintain a traditional nature-culture binary that promotes what I call a get close-stay away dialectic, sending children the message to get close enough to trees to advocate for them, but far enough away to be comfortable with cutting them down and using them. Second, people and parties frame nature as produced for human use, where trees exist in abundance and are central to commerce. This framing points to a production-consumption context and cycle that reproduces consumer relationships with nature and necessitates the production of trees. Third, humans and nature alike challenge dominant framings through subtle acts of resistance and autonomy, through expressions of awe and wonder, and in adults’ stories of “when I was young.” I conceptualize these resistances as interrupted boundaries, which disrupt and complicate the human-nature binary. I then use the three theses to retheorize and rediagnose nature-deficit disorder, pointing instead to schizophrenic-like relations that contribute to human-nature alienation. Nature-deficit disorder and my research site position the cause of environmental problems as decreased exposure to the outdoors and advocate for children to go back to nature as a solution. This move sidesteps important issues that contribute to environmental estrangement among adults and children. Incorporating ecopsychology and the environmental communication concept of “mediation,” I argue that the metaphor of schizophrenia allows environmental degradation and environmental education to be conceptualized and addressed differently and enables the nature-culture binary itself to be consumed. I end with a number of future directions for environmental education practices that address the nature-culture split. Ultimately, this study adds to environmental communication research by retheorizing nature-deficit disorder and environmental education and envisions new ways of thinking about human-nature relations.
Graduation Date: May 2010
URI: http://hdl.handle.net/1928/10869


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