A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Review of Debra Hawhee’s A Sense of Urgency: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Rhetoric

John Purfield, University of Colorado at Denver

(Published December 14, 2023)

On May 20, 2023, I participated in the Colfax Marathon 5K. On this particular weekend, the Denver sky was covered in a sickly grey film, and the air tasted of smoke. The race’s official website promised scenic views of downtown from the race path that ran through City Park, but the skyline was obscured. The reason for these conditions was record-breaking heat in the Pacific Northwest, resulting in an intensified fire season in Canada. Smoke from Canadian fires blew down across the United States, making Denver the city with the fourth worst air quality in the world on that spring Saturday (Jarpe).

The introduction to Debra Hawhee’s A Sense of Urgency: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Rhetoric begins with a similar anecdote. She describes her book’s frontispiece—a photograph by Adam Gravett—that shows a mountainous overlook in Tennessee. The sky is smoke-covered, just as Denver was during my 5K, illustrating another instance of diminished air quality caused by fires burning thousands of miles away. Hawhee analyzes the experience through the picture better than I could have while actively huffing and puffing the carbon of burned Canadian trees when she writes, “Like the particles of soot and the jet stream that carries them, rhetoric too drifts and travels, gathers and dissipates; it carries and rides material forces across vast geographic distances, making lived conditions and elsewheres sensible, breathable, harmful—in a word, felt” (2). I was in no mood to make such a scholarly connection.

A Sense of Urgency is about how the climate crisis is intensifying rhetoric. The argument Hawhee makes is an intrepid one in that it does not just follow well-worn paths of applying rhetorical concepts or performing rhetorical analysis; it is not merely a rhetoric-of sort of book. Instead, she seeks to evidence how material circumstances are changing some of our disciplinary mainstays. Specifically, she focuses on the concepts of magnitude, presence, and witnessing as means of “intensification” (4). This is not to say that rhetoric is merely an object to which intensification happens. Hawhee understands rhetoric, specifically, as an art of intensification that can (or perhaps must) engage with the climate crisis at effective and affective levels. In other words, as we rhetorically engage with climate change, climate change intensifies the art of intensification.

To evidence this relationship, Hawhee’s chapters focus on rhetorical responses to the multiform exigencies of climate change. Her depiction of these exigencies showcases the drama, pain, and losses of the crisis, although the rhetorical responses take the form of epideictic composition. These responses are, in order: a memorialization ceremony for a dying glacier in Iceland; several addresses from youth climate activists made before the Select Committee on Climate Change in April 2019; the ubiquity of curves in infographics related to the COVID-19 pandemic; and finally, a public art installation in New York titled Ghost Forest. These epideictic compositions demonstrate the rhetorical intensification that Hawhee is looking for in the social landscape’s response to climate change. Through her analyses, Hawhee supports her central claim while including a panoply of diverse voices, roles, and stakes. Readers are reminded that the damages and losses of climate change are not equal across demographics, but disproportionally and unjustly affect Indigenous, marginalized, and youth populations through environmental degradation, cultural damage, and resource depletion.

Though intensification is the foundational concept of A Sense of Urgency, the diversity of the rhetorical situations that Hawhee engages require a cast of concepts to read for and analyze intensification, with focus on the aforementioned magnitude, presence, and witnessing. Magnitude, traceable to the Greek megethos, refers to intensification with “potential to galvanize action” through expression of new qualities and quantities generally related to climatological loss and damage (13). Presence is a form of intensification read through a materialist lens, located in humans and nonhumans alike—including animals, plants, and objects generally held to be inert (such as the Icelandic glacier)—that experience, and change along with, anthropocenic changes to their biomes (10). The final form of intensification included in Hawhee’s triad, witnessing, encompasses moral and ethical dimensions of experiencing climate change, to include the necessity of climate justice and the onus of temporal responsibility (9). Witnessing manifests not only in the presence of the unfolding, damaged future, but in the burden of deciding what sort of ancestors we want to be to those that follow us as habitants of this planet. Readers of Hawhee’s previous work will likely be reminded of “Looking into Aristotle’s Eyes: Toward a Theory of Rhetorical Vision.” For Hawhee, witnessing has a special significance because it accentuates the importance of vision to rhetoric as an “invigorating” element (140). The relationship between vision, rhetoric, and intensification has been and continues to be a fixture of Hawhee’s scholarship.

Readers of enculturation will find value in A Sense of Urgency as a continuation of the field’s coalescence around the climate crises. The book refers to many of these related works, especially Joshua Trey Barnett’s Mourning in the Anthropocene and his adjacent articles. Hawhee’s emphasis on witnessing dovetails especially well with Barnett’s concept of “vigilant mourning.” A Sense of Urgency fits in the sub-discipline of climate rhetoric populated by enculturation’s issue 32: Rhetorics and Literacies of Climate Change and the work of climate-concerned rhetoric scholars such as Laurie Gries, Michelle Comstock, Mary Hocks, Jennifer Clary-Lemon, Dustin Edwards, and many others. The way that Hawhee describes and analyzes her foci also reminds me of multidisciplinary works like Anna Tsing et al.’s Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, which articulate the intensification of damages through vivid engagement with places and creatures in the Anthropocene. I have long held that, for rhetoricians and composition pedagogues, the study of climate change and resultant crises is not just a matter of interest, but necessity. In that regard, I would go so far as to call this book necessary reading for the field. The multiple exigencies presented by the changes to our planetary systems demand rhetorical intervention and changes to our teaching practices. Hawhee’s focus on intensification effectively characterizes an ecology of increasing complexity, and her analyses of this intensification of the discipline provides a useful and sufficiently multifaceted vocabulary for enriching discourse around these issues. I have already found occasion to use sections of A Sense of Urgency in my first-year English classroom, specifically her analysis of youth climate activist argumentation, and her reading of epideictic rhetoric as it pertains to the climate crisis. The speeches of youth climate activists show that young people are aware of and engaged with the climate crisis, and that it is possible to advocate for meaningful change through writing. Further, these same first-year English students often have issues understanding the value of display rhetoric (as opposed to forensic or deliberative), and the examples provided by the Okjokull glacier commemoration or Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest make display rhetoric a more accessible concept, evidencing the affective power of thoughtful epideictic composition. Hawhee’s connections between intensification and display rhetoric get at the heart of this power; epideictic rhetoric, more than forensic or deliberative, resonates with the conditions of the climate crisis through mutual intensification.

But there is, in climate change scholarship coming from rhetoric and composition here and elsewhere, a notable deficit of policy argument beyond the obvious. This lack is due, in part, to the obviousness of what needs to change, and also, I believe, to the improbability that those changes will happen. Hawhee clarifies her purpose on the book’s final page, wherein she writes, “I [do not] pretend to fully resolve the care crisis that exacerbates the climate crisis . . . I wrote this book, that is, to take the pulse of rhetoric at a time when the past—the usual way of looking toward the future—so often seems of limited use” (146). This is a fair qualification, though I cannot help but feel frustrated. My frustration does not come from the scope of Hawhee’s work, which is truly useful and necessary, but rather from the circumstances that it elucidates, and, perhaps, from the emotions it does not engage.

Though, like much rhetoric and composition scholarship working with climate change and its damages, Hawhee finds loss and grief through analysis of memorialization and its epideictic dimensions, there is precious little mention of anger. Where, in this presentation of climate-magnified rhetoric, are the accounts of murdered ecowarriors, the scalding condemnations of activist groups propagated by the media of climate regimes, or the sacrifices of those physically fighting these regimes in what could rightly be considered a theater of war? Fear, sadness, and resignation have been documented widely, but the anger of the disenfranchised and the direct, intentional violence moving in either direction remains underrepresented in rhetoric and composition scholarship. For instance, on April 22nd, 2022, Wynn Bruce set himself on fire outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building. He left neither note nor manifesto, but an MSNBC article linked Bruce’s suicide to climate grief (Jones). I disagree with this characterization because it obfuscates the fury inherent in his method. Fire burns, rages, and engulfs; one does not employ this force for suicide if these characteristics do not resonate, to some extent, with a rage within the wielder. His tragedy, and many others like it, begs for representation in our discipline, as does the possibility that we will eventually have to outgrow our affair with hope. I do not invoke this deficit as a criticism of Hawhee’s book, but rather as a suggestion of work still to be done, and perhaps as a personal projection of my own feelings. Anger might be, after all, the emotion most prone to rhetorical intensification.

The field may not fully engage with the anger of those who have had their future strip-mined until we are finally forced to admit that the apparatus for climate justice simply is not there, and we turn instead to either climate vengeance, or perhaps an absurdist’s acceptance of damning circumstances and impending doom. Getting to that point will take time, thought, and scholarship, and Debra Hawhee’s work represents a milestone in what I understand to be a progression towards that understanding. Her characterization of the relationship between climate change and rhetoric points to a larger pattern of changes not just to the climate, but to the ways we think and communicate as subjects to this climate.

I experience the intensification of climate change every day, and Hawhee’s work has helped me understand that my own academic work around this issue is about the mutual intensification between climate crises and rhetoric. Moreover, outside of professional responsibilities, the intensification reaches me when I am living my life in any other respect, for instance, when I am running a 5K race through the smoke of distant fires or contemplating my own feelings and the temporal complications of assigning blame or directing my anger. The point is that we are still, despite growth in our scientific and experiential understanding of the topic, impoverished of ways to understand climate change and its effects on us, on our rhetoric, and on our discipline. A Sense of Urgency is a step towards amending that lack.

Works Cited

Barnett, Joshua Trey. Mourning in the Anthropocene: Ecological Grief and Earthly Coexistence. Michigan State UP, 2022.

Hawhee, Debra. A Sense of Urgency: How the Climate Crisis is Changing Rhetoric. U of Chicago P, 2023.

--. “Looking into Aristotle’s Eyes: Toward a Theory of Rhetorical Vision.” Advances in the History of Rhetoric, vol. 14, no. 2, 2011, pp. 139–65.

Jarpe, Samantha. “Denver’s Air Quality Still Remarks Among the Worst in the World Saturday.” Fox 31 News, 20 May 2023. kdvr.com/news/local/denvers-air-quality-still-ranks-among-the-worst-in-the-world-saturday/. Accessed 21 June 2023.

Jones, Ja’han. “How an Activist’s Self-Immolation Exposed the Dark Reality of ‘Climate Grief.’” MSNBC, 25 April 2022. www.msnbc.com/the-reidout/reidout-blog/wynn-bruce-fire-supreme-court-climate-change-rcna25837. Accessed 21 June 2023.

Tsing, Anna, et al., editors. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. U of Minnesota P, 2017.