The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Sustainable Living

Sustainability, Climate Change, and Inaction: A Stasis Theory / Rhetorical Analysis September 26, 2012

One of the most frustrating issues in the sustainability and environmental movements today is the lack of serious discussion or action of any kind on the part of world governments and leaders.  While we have stunning examples of people enacting sustainability in local communities, larger political climates, especially in the USA, seem to turn a blind eye to the elevating challenges of global warming, loss of habitat, pollution, and environmental destruction.  From the Kyoto protocol which the United States famously refused to sign to more recent non-discussion on environmental and sustainable issues in the US presidential election, it seems that issues of sustainability aren’t really even being debated, much less solved.  Even within earth-centered spiritual communities like druidry, we see substantial non-discussion of these issues (with the exception of John Michael Greer, who spends a great deal of time examining them in his books and on his blog).

As someone who studies and teaches rhetoric as part of my profession, this lack of serious public discourse really concerns me.  Dialogue on issues can lead to direct action; communication is a path to avoid conflict.  Yet, on the issue of climate change and sustainability, the silence is deafening, especially here in America.

In ancient Greece and Rome, a rhetorical system known as “stasis theory” helped parties who disagreed (in legal cases, primarily) work through a set of heuristic questions that allowed a problem to be resolved.  Stasis theory is quite simple–it involves four steps, each of which must be worked through before moving on to the next step.  By working through the four steps of stasis theory, individuals or groups were able to resolve their differences and seek solutions.  A stasis theory analysis might benefit us in terms of understanding the inaction on the part of the US and world leadership on issues of sustainability and climate change.

So now, lets take a look at the four steps of stasis theory and where we stand on the issue.

Conjecture. The first step of stasis theory is an examination of the facts of the issue to gain understanding about the issue at hand.  You might see questions like: Did something happen? What are the facts in this situation? Is there a problem at all? What has changed to cause this problem? The key in the 1st stage of stasis theory is not to debate what the problem is, but to simply agree that there is a problem and establish some basic facts that help better illustrate  the issues that surround the problem.

For sustainability and climate change, we might think about the facts of climate change–what we can scientifically observe and predict (such as predictive models used in The Limits to Growth as well as direct scientific observations, of which we have countless numbers).  We might look at fossil records, the decreasing diversity of habitat and species, the melting ice caps, the increasing temperatures, the loss of healthy aquifers, the overfishing of waterways and so on. And in terms of scientific evidence, the evidence is, well, overwhelming.  Facts in this area have been around for over 60 years, and each day more and more research provides further evidence pointing to human-caused habitat loss, climate change, and so forth.

We can already see challenges with climate change and sustainability emerging in this first step.  Most political discussions in America no longer work within the realm of what Aristotle called “logos” (or reasoning, logic, facts).  While the science behind human-caused climate change is nearly irrefutable, the facts have yet to be accepted by the bulk of America’s citizenry for a complex set of reasons. So until as a culture, and as a world, we can acknowledge that evidence that points to human-caused climate change and environmental destruction, we have little hope of continuing on through the next three stages of stasis theory.  Furthermore, the facts themselves are not readily part of public discussions on environmental issues.  They have yet to enter our public discourse and, therefore, we are stuck before we even begin.  But let’s assume that we agree on the facts (a big assumption, I know) so that we can move on to the next stage of stasis: definition.

Definition.  The definition stage of stasis theory is where people most often get stuck. In the definition stage, we consider questions such as: What exactly is the problem? Who is influencing the definition of this problem? What kind of problem is it?  We see challenges in getting past the definition stage of stasis in nearly every social issue of our day where the problem itself and how its defined isn’t agreed upon by the two groups, so no headway towards solving the problem is made (think about issues of social justice, welfare, immigration, abortion, gay marriage, etc.).

Its clear that as a culture, as a world, we have not yet agreed on what the problem is concerning sustainability and environmental destruction.  Many people think there is no problem,  and until we do, we can’t move on to the 3rd stage of stasis….which is quality.

We must learn to respect the cycles of life.

We must learn to respect the cycles of life.

Quality. When we consider issues of quality, we consider : How serious is the problem? What are the costs of solving the problem? Is this problem a good or a bad thing? What happens if we don’t solve the problem?  While some are having discussions of quality concerning the problem of sustainability, they are not happening within our larger culture but rather in smaller sub-cultures that may or may not have influence over the larger whole.  Since the bulk of our citizenry doesn’t yet actually agree upon the facts nor the fact that unsustainable/business-as-usual practices are a problem, we can’t really discuss the quality of this problem (which is quite serious indeed).

Policy. Policy is the fourth stage of stasis.  This is when we ask, What steps should be taken? How can we solve this problem? Who needs to be involved for this problem to be solved? It is at the policy stage that we begin to act. We are really very far away from the policy stage at this point, and this is part of why I am deeply concerned. In terms of climate change and sustainability, we aren’t going to see large-scale action until we are able to accept the facts, to have serious discussions about the definition of the problem, and to address the quality aspects of the problem. Discussions typically happen before action; we have to agree that there is a problem and that the problem is serious enough to engage in policy to solve that problem.  Without the earlier steps in stasis theory, policy is uninformed, unclear, and inept.


So what does stasis theory teach us?  I think one thing it teaches us is the value and importance of continuing, logos-based dialogue on issues of climate change, sustainability, and environmental protection.  Until we begin to have these dialogues in a serious way, we can’t expect serious action.

We *must* begin to engage in serious discussions about the living earth, and humanity’s place in it, both from a position of reason and a position of ethics.

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2 Responses to “Sustainability, Climate Change, and Inaction: A Stasis Theory / Rhetorical Analysis”

  1. Cory Johnston Says:

    I like this but the box for “Like” above goes off screen when I pick it and therefore denies me the opportunity of being the first to like this. :( May I add one complication consisting of many more. There are many problems which in itself is a problem, and the issue is often how to prioritize whether through stasis theory or anything else. This often leads to the quick solution so that a prblem can then be ignored for at least a short period of time. It will of course be back which is probably why we now have so many problems.

    So how so we engage people in the serious discussion?

    • Willowcrow Says:

      I think the key here is *serious* discussion. We live in a world of 30-second news bites, 150 character tweets, and text messages. Issues that we are dealing with, and will continue to deal with as a society and world, will require more than a 30-second sound bite or a 1 minute rebuttal. They will require serious discussion. Engaging in serious discussion requires time and space to have that discussion–and for all parties to be willing to enter the discussion open-minded and willing to engage. Another problem we have as Americans is that most of us are quite stubborn and refuse to move from a position once we settle on one (there’s some fascinating research on this coming out of the field of political science concerning political opinions). This means that any discussion where either party might be swayed or be willing to compromise *has* to occur if we are to see movement on these issues.

      PS: This is why congress really scares me right now. The lack of willingness to engage in compromise is undermining our functioning as a stable democracy….because stable societies *must* be built on compromise.

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