Rhetorical Spaces

A blog about writing, space, and technology


It's a Dry Rhetoric

8/29/19

When you tell people in Florida that you’re moving to Arizona, you usually get the same response: “At least it’s a dry heat.” And when you tell people in Arizona that you’re from Florida, you (also) usually get the same response: “I can’t stand the humidity.” People don’t like to be hot, but they really don’t like to be sweaty.

Floridians love to complain about the heat (myself included). Being outside in Florida on a humid, breezeless summer day is a quasi-religious experience. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen angelic visions through the sweat droplets dangling from my eyelashes. It’s an incredibly uncomfortable heat, which makes it an easy way to connect with others. Shared discomfort is a strong social glue. When Floridians talk about the heat, it’s usually not in relation to specific degrees or even humidity levels. Raw numbers fail to capture the lived experience of a humid Florida day, even the “feels like” temperature doesn’t cut it. Saying “it’s 90 degrees with 85% humidity” just isn’t the same as saying “I’m literally melting.”

Arizonans, on the other hand, seem to take a more quantitative approach. When it’s 116 degrees, what else is there to say? Saying it feels hot outside would be like saying “I, too, breathe oxygen.” Unlike Florida, where erratic rainstorms, coastal breezes, and overcast skies can alter humidity levels on an hourly basis, Arizona heat is relentless and predictable, which I suppose makes it easier to correlate experiences in daily life to subtle temperature changes. When it’s 95 or under, I can walk my dog five blocks. When it’s 100-105, we can walk three blocks and he has to wear shoes (pics below). When it’s 110+, we can walk one block, he has to wear shoes, and I can’t listen to a podcast because I don’t know any podcasts that are only five minutes long. So, when people in Arizona look at the temperature and see a high of 109, it’s easier to anticipate how the heat will impact various aspects of their day, whether walking the dog or some other mundane activity. Maybe this is why talking about the heat with Arizonans usually revolves around specific temperatures: “Tomorrow will be the first 100 degree day of the year!” “Did you hear about when it got up to 120 last summer and they had to shut down the airport?”

In his book What We Think About When We Try Not to Think About Global Warming, the Norwegian psychologist Per Espen Stoknes outlines how decades of climate-related news coverage has resulted in a prevailing public sentiment of apathy, denial, and resignation. Stoknes writes that images of melting glaciers, sea level rise predictions, and abstract global temperature rates, however real and frightening they may be, often fail to persuade because they are not “rooted in messy social reality or guided by how our brains actually think.” The socio-rhetorical processes through which local communities talk about the weather as a personal, embodied experience is often in direct opposition to how climate change is discussed in the media as a global, abstract phenomenon.

Talking about the weather (especially something as relatively uninteresting as heat) is usually seen as small talk, the bottom of the conversational barrel. But maybe it’s a core feature of being and living in any community. Publics cohere around shared climatic experiences. Florida and Arizona are both ground-zero for some of the most dire climate change predictions in the United States, one dealing with too much water, the other too little. This existing discursive network seems like it could be a viable rhetorical space through which communities can engage in shared inquiry about the local effects of climate change, a kind of persistent, albeit mundane, hum of atmospheric chatter.

As I write this, I’m watching my friends and family in Florida post jokes and memes about hurricane Dorian. Perhaps a key rhetorical feature of climate change is looking out for moments where the exceptional (a hurricane) becomes mundane (another meme about a hurricane). Or maybe it’s just a way of coping with the absurd helplessness many people feel in the face of a slow-moving catastrophe. People don’t post hurricane memes in Phoenix, but they do post recipes for baking cookies on your car dashboard. Can publics meme their way into caring about climate change as a local phenomenon? Or does environmental change become embedded into local discourses to the point of becoming innocuous? I’m not really sure. But it’s 103 degrees right now, so I need to go put shoes on my dog.