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

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.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (REDFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (REDFeather, 2022), and Land Healing: Physical, Metaphysical, and Ritual Approaches for Healing the Earth (REDFeather, 2024). She is also the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is an herbalist, certified permaculture designer, and permaculture teacher who teaches about reconnection, regeneration, and land healing through herbalism, wild food foraging, and sustainable living. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart. She also regularly writes for Plant Healer Quarterly and Spirituality and Health magazine.

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  1. 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?

    1. 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.

  2. How much pounding by hurricanes and flooding will it take before someone in authority is willing to discuss a viable solution with mere laymen? The only feasible means of restoring and balancing the climate, to a sustainable stable point, is not necessarily in stopping pollution, war, resource -depletion, disease – and any or all of what today appears to contribute to Climate Change – that would be like trying to turn a 6th Fleet flat-top on a dime. Agreed, something must change for the human race to merely survive, let alone flourish, but it won’t happen by attacking the fragmented problem-state, because that is precisely the way humanity has braved and resolved some of its many past mistakes, and failed experiments; however they always come back with a vengeance to clobber us in a new more virulent form – the yearly flu-bug is a prime example.
    This may not sound very encouraging; it isn’t meant to, but by the same token it isn’t intended to depress anyone, rather, to cause us to openly consider going right back – reverse-engineering the fragmented problem to its point-of-origin when it was only a potential source of problems if there was a failure to observe the principles of the way life works.
    This can be done – I’ve successfully done the work on an individual basis – which will serve as a foundation for the disclosure of the original problem, and absolve a lot of otherwise time-consuming research. By putting together a jigsaw puzzle of clues, along a reliable realistic timeline, I can illustrate a working hypothesis to form a platform-of-agreement upon which to build a reasonable premise for a wider audience to consider and participate in.
    I look forward to opening a dialogue with one or more people, who are open and honest enough to admit our strong personal responsibility, in freely cooperating sooner rather than later, because it will only get more difficult the longer we delay; – when there is enough momentum, by a sufficient number of little people, then those in authority will eventually listen to reason if only to protect their vested political interests

    1. I think a lot of us are working on individual bases, but is that enough? I fear it is not. When these issues were first raised in the 1970’s, there was widespread support and concern. Now, due to incredible amounts of misdirection and industry lies, a lot of people think climate change is a hoax. The first thing we have to do is get everyone (or at least those in power) to agree tha there is a problem and that problem requires we act. Hopefully, in time, more rational heads will prevail. I cry for this world, and for our future and our children’s children’s future.

  3. If we go by the premise that our Earth was originally a perfect ecosystem, then we have a macro-biome from which to consider the planet’s purpose as well as our own purpose. The problem otherwise – the traditional false premise that thinks in terms of accidental evolution, without design or control – is tough, if not impossible to rationalise. Personally I find it easier to start with perfection and build on that premise, than starting with a cosmic explosion with no design or control. Take your pick, or make your choice, whichever seems logical and reasonable to you; however a universe of design and control is easier to work with than accidental evolution from an explosion, a Big Bang, with no logical direction.
    Whether we accept the premise of a universe based in design and control, or stick to the traditional view of a cosmic explosion, the latter does not explain our own sophisticated design in terms of the vehicle we inhabit. Science is still fumbling at replicating a whole macro-biome of only the human aspect of our dwelling, but with no target-time in sight. If the body cannot be replicated, without a mind containing the immaculate unique blueprint first, then science can only at best copy the parts; it cannot animate them. However, here we are, a complete human being, with all our parts (if we’ve been careful), in perfect function (healthy well-being to whatever degree we haven’t screwed up), but with apparently no recollection of why we’re here or where we came from.
    If the state of affairs is recognised with an open mind — and that implies no emotional resistance – or at least exercising our ability to set negative feelings aside for the time being – then we have a perfect laboratory, the human mind, in which to consider the conundrum of the human problem on planet Earth. And this is the perspective from which we can have sufficient overview to get a clear picture, without a personal history of emotional involvement with an environment gone awry. The astronauts of the latter century were blessed by such an impersonal view of planet Earth, and immediately experienced the splendid wonder of their view from space, in which Earth had no apparent mankind-made boundaries; Earth was just as whole and beautiful as a new-born baby, and a joy to behold in its parents eyes.
    Human vision, on the other hand, jaded by the surface appearance of our compromised environment, finds it quite difficult to grasp the vision of such perfection, and thereby be in wonder of our own immaculate conception. Instead, it seems easier to go-with-the-flow of scientific authority, based in theory, that denies an origin of perfection by accepting the excuse of a Big Bang as our accidental origin, and by which we have no responsibility, or reason, to think or feel differently. However, we do have the ability to think and feel, and there is no scientific explanation of how our capacities to think and feel could come from an explosion; you may as well equate the mind and emotional realm as figments of imagination, but that doesn’t dismiss or explain the fact that we each have these miraculous capacities. We certainly do not – since we have the ability and privilege to exercise design and control – have any right to roam around the planet, being destructive, because we’re unaware of our purpose or its potential.

  4. […] power of experience. How many people, in seeing that melting glacier could really deny the truth of climate change? How could it be denied that these things are happening, powerfully and directly, before our very […]

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