The atypical environmentalist : the rhetoric of environmentalist identity and citizenship in the Texas coal plant opposition movement




Thatcher, Valerie Lynn

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Many contemporary grassroots environmental campaigns do not begin in urban areas but in small towns, rural enclaves, and racially or economically disadvantaged communities. Citizens with no previous activist experience or association with the established environmental movement organize to fight industry-created degradation in their communities, such as coal-fired power plants in Texas, the focus of this dissertation. The Texas coal plant opposition movement is identified as sites of environmental justice, particularly as discriminatory practices against sparsely populated communities. The movement’s collaborative efforts are defined as a new category of counterpublic, co-counterpublic, due to the discrete organizations’ shared focus and common purpose. The concept that a growing number of environmental activists are atypical is advanced; atypical environmentalists often engage in environmental practices while rejecting traditional environmentalist language and identity to avoid stigmatization as tree-huggers, extremists, or affluent whites.

Presented are rhetorical analyses of identity negotiation and modalities of public enactments of citizenship within the Texas coal plant opposition movement and a critique of plant proponent hegemonic discourses. Research focused on five sites of coal plant opposition in Texas, gathered through ethnographic fieldwork and through a compilation of mediated materials. Asen’s discourse theory of citizenship was used to analyze the data for instances of rhetorical negotiation of environmentalist identity in politically conservative and in ethnically marginalized communities, their localized performances as public citizens, and the collaborative processes between established environmental groups and discrete local organizations. Texas anti-coal activists engaged in what Asen called hybrid citizenship; activists were primarily motivated toward enacted citizenship by a sense of betrayal by authorities.

Issue and identity framing theories were implemented to critique rhetorical strategies used by plant proponents. In order to silence the opposition, plant supporters marginalized local anti-coal activists using what Cloud called identity frames by foil; proponents borrowed derogatory rhetorics from well-established anti-environmentalist discourse through which they self-identified positively by framing opponents as Other. The means through which proponents deflected their responsibility to the community by promoting technological solutions to pollution and deferring authority to industry executives and government agencies is analyzed within Chong and Druckman’s competing frames and frames in communication theories.



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