The Agnotology of Ecology: How Dominant Environmental Discourses Serve to Postpone Changing ‘Business as Usual’

Posted: 6 Sep 2009

See all articles by Yogi Hendlin

Yogi Hendlin

affiliation not provided to SSRN

Date Written: September 3, 2009


The paradoxes of environmental politics abound: The persistence of antiquated highly-polluting technologies when less harmful alternatives exist attests to the power and stubbornness of industrial hegemons, barriers to accepting new technologies, and a fundamental antagonism against the free-market of ideas.

Brazil’s President Lula proclaiming “the Amazon is not for sale” to conservation investment while allowing industry to continue clear-cutting rainforest for cattle grazing. While industrial hegemons’ promise of a deus ex machina environmental panacea placates the press and popular concern, honest evaluations of the systemic shifts and short-term ‘sacrifices’ needed are consistently and actively ignored. This paper investigates the willful perpetuation of ignorance, and the failure of popular discourse to confront the impact of ecological fact.

The juggernaut of inertia has dragged retrograde environmental gains by implanting in popular consciousness the idea that we can have our ecological cake and eat it too without sacrifice. The notion that the future will continue to provide more or less of the present goods and services, without our having to reflect on the finitude of resources or our part in the global complicity to not to take action. Movies like An Inconvenient Truth proposing demand-side only change tap into the same feel-good ‘I-made-a-difference’ meaninglessness perpetuated by oil industry advertisements which declare “I will leave the car at home more.”

Personal empowerment narratives serve to distract environmental well-wishers from the continuing infrastructural problems which perpetuate environmental violence and sends them back home to consume more pseudo-eco goods carried in their reusable bags. The rhetoric of the individual (minimal) effort ‘making a difference’ holds a great deal of appeal to those who are too busy or too enmeshed in society to be able to opt-out of ecologically destructive practices such as driving, using power from energy companies relying on coal, purchasing consumer electronics, etc.

All of this greenwash has the (intended or unintended) consequence of pushing more systemic critiques and plans for sustainable change to the fringe, where shifts involving any amount of sacrifice, either in industry, economically, or personally in terms of current definitions of comfort, are seen as drastic, impolitic, and unreasonable. All of which secure the maintenance of the status quo.

This paper applies rhetorical and political theory to contemporary popular environmental discourse in hopes of illuminating how the green movement is subsumed and co-opted in order to neutralize its political force. It concludes by highlighting examples of real environmental successes and focusing on the colluding factors that gave these particulars sufficient resistance against subsumption to flourish while being substantial enough to further environmental politics and policies.

Keywords: Agnotology, ignorance, marketing, rhetoric, ecology, Precautionary Principle

Suggested Citation

Hendlin, Yogi, The Agnotology of Ecology: How Dominant Environmental Discourses Serve to Postpone Changing ‘Business as Usual’ (September 3, 2009). Available at SSRN:

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