Defining sustainable development: A case study in environmental communication

Waddell, C. (1995). Defining sustainable development: A case study in environmental communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 4.2: 201-216.

Waddell represents the field of technical communication and continues to hold a position in the Humanities department at Michigan Tech. Waddell sets the context for environmental approaches in the field of technical writing and communication, citing the growing enrollment of members in the Society of Technical Communication (STC) Professional Interest Group for Environmental, Safety, and Health Communication. Likewise, there are growing numbers of environmental communicators in both the public and private sectors. As a result, Waddell claims that teachers of technical communication need “experience in and case studies of diverse forms of environmental communication” (p. 4). Preparing environmental communicators to work ethically in a public, democratic society means that the field “must understand the various ways in which public participation can and should influence environmental policy” (pg. 4). In short, the author is reacting to not only the emerging market context for environmental communication jobs in the public and private sector, but also the lack of scholarship on public participation that frames how citizens can shape and influence environmental policy.


A visual representation of Waddell’s four models of public deliberation.

To demonstrate, Waddell uses a case study of citizens (nonexperts) and experts in the Keweenaw Bay area of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Most notably, the author mentions how public participation has become a needed and driving force in environmental decisions. While expert judgement was once standard procedure for risk assessment, the public is now more informed and skeptical of expert opinion than ever before and the government is now expected to be more open and accountable than ever before (pg. 7). To outline the discourse of public participation, Waddell presents four important models of public participation.

Technocratic model: technical decisions should be left to “experts” in science, engineering, industry, and government and allows no role for public participation or oversight (pg. 7).

One-way Jeffersonian model: one-way transfer of expert knowledge to the public, however, the public has a right to participate in decisions that affect its well-being (pg. 9).

Interactive Jeffersonian model: A more charitable interpretation of the one-way Jeffersonian in which technical experts communicate their expertise to the public and the public communicates its values, beliefs, and emotions to technical experts (pg. 9).

Social constructionist model: expands on the Interactive Jeffersonian by acknowledging the values, beliefs, and emotions also play a role in risk communication and environmental policy formation. Furthermore, technical information flows in both directions, blurring the distinctions between “expert” and “nonexpert.” All participants communicate, appeal to, and engage values, beliefs, & emotions. Public policy decisions are socially constructed under this model (pg. 9).

Overall, Waddell suggests that the social constructionist model, above all others he outlines, is in line with interactive-generative conceptions of rhetoric (pg. 10). In terms of theory, Waddell heavily leans on rhetoric for a foundation as well as a means to connect with the values of technical communication researchers (i.e., Wayne Booth and Donald Bryant). Social constructionism and its ideologies are also familiar to teachers, researchers, and practitioners in technical communication. Waddell stresses that policies should never be constructed arhetorically so that those policies can be imposed on the public. Instead, rhetoric—the social constructionist model specifically—“encourages us to value the communication process as much as the outcome; it suggests that the nature of the outcome is, in fact, largely defined by the process” (pg. 10).