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1.3 Why Communication?

Given the challenges associated with global warming:

Effective communication is absolutely essential for the purpose of mobilization; achieving buy-in and agreeing through consensus over priorities. This communication is necessary especially because to a greater or lesser degree all climate change response measures involve trade-offs along with their benefits. Hence, a measure of consensus and synergy is required across the board; from the board room to the boiler room; and from the federal government to municipal courts (Okereke et al. 2012, p. 26).

Although Okereke et al. (2012) spoke specifically of climate change responses, communication plays a critical role within organizations generally. Organizing is first and foremost a communication activity. Karl Weick, Professor Emeritus of organizational behavior and psychology, writes, “The communication activity is the organization” (Weick 1995, p. 75). Some scholars take this assertion seriously and acknowledge communication's constitutive role in creating organizations.

Communication occurs when sustainability-related issues are conceived, defined, discussed, planned, initiated within and between organizations, modified, and, perhaps, terminated. It is present when various stakeholders encounter and react to the initiatives.

A useful guiding theoretical framework for understanding communication's role

rests in social constructionism, or the social construction of reality. This theory of knowledge emerged from sociology and communication to examine the processes underlying the development of our jointly constructed understandings of the world. The theory was introduced in Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann's book The Social Construction of Reality (Berger and Luckmann 1966). Two of their points are especially relevant to our focus on communication: people construct a model of how the social world works which helps them make sense of their experiences, and language is the most important system through which reality is created. Whatever exists in the social world is the product of human communication. Through communication, social constructions (e.g., what sustainability means in an organization) are created, maintained, repaired, and changed. People communicate to create meanings for the physical world. For example, scientists say that 350 parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere is the safe limit for humanity. Regardless of how they know this, an environmental action group sprang up around that number (see “Social actors use language to make things happen. Naming something gives them substance and makes them real” (Leeds-Hurwitz 2009, p. 893). Symbols (e.g., the number 350) and conversations function as critical tools in reality maintenance, to create a particular cultural (e.g., organizational) identity and to mobilize actions.

Communicators use mediated and nonmediated verbal and nonverbal channels to manage the ambiguity surrounding the term sustainability and to create and enact shared sustainability initiatives within dyads, small groups, and organizations and between organizations. Knowledge of theory and best practices, coupled with our personal experiences and trial and error allow us to communicate strategically toward our personal and organizational sustainability-related goals. Although this definition appears very functional, within any organization, the norms about what sustainability is and how it is symbolized and discussed are continually being created, challenged, and recreated through human interaction. Other definitions certainly exist. For example, Cox (2013) defines environmental communication as the pragmatic and constitutive vehicle used to shape our understanding of the environment as well as our relationships to the natural world. He writes that “it is a symbolic medium that we use in constructing environmental problems and in negotiating society's different response to them” (p. 19). This construction and response duality is addressed in Domenec's (2012) essay describing how Exxon, Chevron, and British Petroleum (BP) talked about environmental issues in their companies' annual letters. Domenec (p. 296) wrote:

The recent BP oil spill evidenced that today, “communicating green” is as important as “acting green”: in April 2010, BP was not only criticized for polluting the Gulf of Mexico, but Tony Hayward's awkward statements also caused a general uproar, further discrediting the company.

Like Cox, I view communication as pragmatic in that it educates, alerts, persuades, and helps us enact sustainability initiatives within and between organizations. It is constitutive in that it orients our consciousness by inviting a particular perspective, evoking certain values and not others, and creating referents for our attention and understanding. Frandsen and Johansen (2011) analyzed the constitutive and pragmatic nature of how automobile manufacturers discuss climate change. Recognizing that climate change is a social construction, they define it as a set of ideas that materialize through communication in (at least) three ways: (a) as representations or symbolic constructions of nature, the environment, and/or the climate (What and how do the car producers communicate about climate change? Has a new vocabulary been institutionalized?), (b) as strategic actions (What and how do the car producers communicate about their strategic-level climate-friendly initiatives?), and (c) as tactical actions (What and how do the car producers communicate about their tactical-level climate-friendly products and/or production processes?). Action Plan: Consider similar ways ideas materialize and are discussed in your organization or industry.

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