Harris on Hunt and Walker and Depoe, 'Breaking Boundaries: Innovative Practices in Environmental Communication and Public Participation'

Kathleen P. Hunt, Gregg B. Walker, Stephen P. Depoe, eds.
Dylan Harris

Kathleen P. Hunt, Gregg B. Walker, Stephen P. Depoe, eds. Breaking Boundaries: Innovative Practices in Environmental Communication and Public Participation. SUNY Series in Environmental Governance: Local-Regional-Global Interactions. Albany: SUNY Press, 2019. Illustrations. 320 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4384-7705-3

Reviewed by Dylan Harris (University of Colorado, Colorado Springs ​) Published on H-Environment (February, 2023) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (Texas Tech University)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58327

In 2008, Muntadhar al-Zaidi, protesting the then-five-year-long American war in Iraq, famously threw his shoes at former US president George W. Bush while he was speaking at a press conference in the palace of Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. In 2022, two Just Stop Oil activists—Phoebe Plummer and Anna Holland—doused Vincent van Gogh’s painting, Sunflowers, in tomato soup before gluing their hands to the floor of London’s National Gallery. Both actions, whether you agree with them or not, went viral, partly due to the immediacy of the protests, and the crises informing them, and partly due to how they were seen, transmitted, and metabolized by society. Both actions—as means of communication—cemented these people, and the issues they were protesting, into public consciousness, where they remain.

The interceding nearly-fifteen years between the infamous “shoeing” and the wave of climate activists targeting famous paintings around the world with soup (though, importantly, none of the paintings were seriously damaged) are significant in terms of not only how communication has changed the world but also how world events have shifted the means of communication. From considerations about how protesters in places like Tahrir Square in Egypt or in Hong Kong mobilized using widespread communication via social media to realizations that our current communication infrastructures are unable to fully grasp the enormity of an issue as complex as climate change, we are at a crossroads.

In his 1978 essay, “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” Raymond Williams writes, “means of communication, from the simplest forms of language to the most advanced forms of communication technology are themselves always socially and materially produced, and of course reproduced.”[1] As a means of production, communication is shaped by historical interventions. A crisis in the means of communication, he goes on to suggest, results in a crisis in the means of production, meaning that society struggles to reproduce itself amid crises. It is in this context, in a world profoundly shaped by both widespread and widely accessible communication technologies and crises—of environmental crises, specifically—that Kathleen P. Hunt, Gregg B. Walker, and Stephen P. Depoe’s edited collection, Breaking Boundaries, is published, and, I argue, the context to which it is responding.

Public participation—via public hearings, townhalls, open meetings, etc.—is an old communicative technology; however, now it is often mediated, in part or fully, by virtual communication tools like Zoom or tightly structured in ways that constrain it. Breaking Boundaries, in many ways, is about this disjointed communicative reality: one in which old tools are still being used alongside a cadre of new tools and ideas that, left unchecked, continue to privilege those in power. The book is about acknowledging these tensions, breaking through them to reframe public participation as a meaningful endeavor in light of pressing environmental concerns. The book is divided into three sections: exploring dimensions of participation within policy frameworks, expanding pathways of community engagement, and enacting horizons of civic technology. The first section includes discussions and case studies that examine how new ideas of public participation—new issues, like transitions to renewable energy—resonate in the historically stoic realm of policymaking. The second section, its authors acknowledging how this stoicism stimies meaningful public participation, outlines pathways to reframe and conduct community engagement as a means of public participation, while the third section offers insights into how new communicative technologies either help or hinder this process.

Overall, given the ambitious scope of the book’s goals, as well as the context to which it is speaking, the book is successful. The editors’ introduction does an excellent job of framing why this book is important, outlining its contributions clearly and in a way that will be helpful to many scholars across multiple disciplines. The chapters themselves cover a wide range of issues and are all rigorously researched and well written. Further, while this book’s contents are largely about environmental communication, there are lessons here for communication more broadly, namely, that we live in a world profoundly shaped by what can be considered a crisis in the means of communication. While there are many things to like about this book, there are, however, some ideas that are not as fully developed as they could have been and important concepts—communicative strategies—that are hardly discussed.

Again, there is much to appreciate about this book; too much to cover in a short review. Still, I want to highlight what I see as some (of many) important takeaways. First, I appreciate how the book not only frames the tension between historical modes of public participation and present-day concerns and technologies but also shows how these historical modes are simply not working. For example, chapter 5 documents prospects for “democratic design” in the transformation of the energy system in Boulder, Colorado. While some elements of the design, such as working groups (largely composed of experts), were successful at garnering feedback, other elements of the design, such as public hearings, were not only unsuccessful but also prohibitive to public and community engagement. Second, given how historic modes of communication are largely unhelpful, I gravitated to chapters that discuss alternatives to these modes. For example, chapter 6 asks readers to consider how “indecorous voices”—modes of participation that often exceed and challenge the confines of traditional public engagement—critically expand what “counts” as public participation. Similarly, chapter 8 introduces readers to new “spaces” of communication—in backrooms, outside closed doors, in the lobby, etc.—where public communication happens, even if it is not formally recognized. Third, following from chapter 8’s insights, I like how many of the book’s chapters discuss how, and where, environmental communication takes place. People’s relationship to their environment is personal, often intimate, spurring connections that are often difficult to articulate in formal public spaces. Context—spaces, places—is key for communicating about these issues. Several of the book’s chapters (e.g., chapters 4, 8, and 10) acknowledge this need to understand and respect context for meaningful community engagement.

It this last issue, critical attention to context, however, that is not as developed as it could have been. Like knowing an audience, knowing context is foundational to effective communication. While this book begins an important conversation about context, its engagement with concepts like “space” and “place” could have been more fleshed out. For example, while this book has the potential to speak to and across many disciplines, there is not an in-depth engagement with such fields as geography or anthropology, which have richly considered how “space” and “place” are shaped by—and shape—social processes. In sum, rather than only signaling why these concepts are important, I wish the book delved more deeply into discussing how these concepts are important. How, for example, might a deeper consideration of the political economy of global conservation affect the “successes” of community decision making outlined in chapter 9? By way of another example, chapter 10 does effectively discuss how histories of settler colonialism affect place-making as resistance in the Elsipogtog First Nation’s fight against fracking. Yet it is chapter 10’s discussion of Twitter that leads to another facet of the book that is underdeveloped. Though social media exists in the background of many of the book’s chapters, only four chapters (9, 10, 11, and 12) address it explicitly. This general lack of engagement is surprising because of the book’s goals of addressing the tensions between old and new modes of communication and public participation. As I mention above, the communicative success of al-Zaidi’s “shoeing” and climate activists’ actions regarding famous art depended largely on how these protests were metabolized by society, which is to say shared, discussed, and critiqued by way of social media. It goes without saying that social media has indelibly and profoundly influenced public communication, and this book is missing an opportunity by not discussing these technologies more deeply and critically. For example, there is no mention that most social media platforms, while good at enabling public discourse, are still corporate entities. The very same arguments authors make about the constraints of historic modes of public participation could be levied against how a powerful few technology elites (e.g., Elon Musk) control the voices of so many.

Despite these critiques, which I see less as oversights on behalf of the editors and authors and more as opportunities for deeper engagement, I really enjoyed this book, and I look forward to using several of its case studies in my research and teaching. The book’s premise—of acknowledging how historic modes of communication are at loggerheads with the issues we are facing—is important, especially as issues like climate change become even more complex, raising key questions about where and how public participation takes place. More important, the book raises questions about why public participation is still relevant, needed even, regardless of shifts in communicative technologies. If we consider the present moment as a crossroads of sorts, as a break in what Williams may consider the means of communication (and in production by extension), then it is critical to consider, as Breaking Boundaries does, that “these new means of production [enable] a more advanced and more complex realization of the decisive productive relationships between communication and community,” which is needed now more than ever.[2].


[1]. Raymond Williams, “Means of Communication as Means of Production,” in Culture and Materialism (New York: Verso, 1978), 50.

[2]. Williams, “Means of Communication,” 63.

Citation: Dylan Harris. Review of Hunt, Kathleen P.; Walker, Gregg B.; Depoe, Stephen P., eds., Breaking Boundaries: Innovative Practices in Environmental Communication and Public Participation. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58327

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.