You are here: American University School of International Service Big World podcast Episode 9: Earth After Activism

Earth After Activism

Over the years, environmental activism in America has evolved. The movement began with a concern for wilderness and focused on pollution as we transitioned into the Industrial Revolution. Events that occurred during World War II then gave rise to the modern environmental movement in which the post-war generation no longer accepted environmental destruction at the price of progress. And now, the environmental challenge that defines our time is climate change.

In this episode of Big World, SIS professor Paul Wapner joins us to discuss environmental activism as well as the problems with America’s idealized notion of Nature (1:47). He explains how “wild places” can be defined (4:51), why it’s important for humans to recognize their power over ecology (6:35), and how environmental activism has changed over the years (7:56). We also ask Wapner to define and tell us more about climate suffering (14:56).

Now that Earth is on track to pass the two-degree Celsius global warming threshold, is it too late for environmental activism (21:22)? Wapner discusses what we should do now that climate change isn’t so much a puzzle that has a solution but is rather a permanent part of the human condition (23:09). On a lighter note, Wapner shares why he chose to jump into the Potomac River on a cold day in February (26:36).

During our “Take Five” segment, Wapner tells us five ways he would change the underlying engines of environmental degradation (11:16).

0:07      Kay Summers: From the School of International Service at American University in Washington, this is Big World—where we talk about something in the world that truly matters. Environmental activists have been around in America since at least the 1890s. They were first called “conservationists”—think Teddy Roosevelt—and then “preservationists.” These movements had, at their core, a concern for “wilderness” that evolved into concerns around pollution as the Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear. It was a confluence of events around World War II that gave rise to the modern environment movement, however.

0:38      KS: The newly affluent post-war generation no longer accepted that environmental destruction was the price of progress. New technologies like the atomic bomb brought new and very unclear environmental damages and new thought leaders, like Rachel Carson, brought the concept of ecological wellbeing home to countless Americans. And of course, the defining environmental challenge of our time is climate change. Today, we're talking about environmental activism. I'm Kay Summers, and I'm joined by Paul Wapner. Paul is a professor in the School of International Service. He researches global environmental politics, trans-national environmental activism and environmental ethics. He's the author of several books, including Living Through The End Of Nature: The Future Of American Environmentalism. Paul, thanks for joining Big World.

1:25      Paul Wapner: Thank you for inviting me.

1:26      KS: I was wondering if we could start out talking about the American public's relationship with nature. You've written that, and I'm using nature with a capital N, you've written that “America has produced an idealized notion of nature.” Can you give us a few examples and tell us why you believe that this is a false and perhaps dangerous narrative?

1:47      PW: What I mean by an idealized notion of nature is that we have a received concept of wilderness, and we often link that with our understandings of nature such that we think that nature's something completely separate from human beings, that there's this divide. Humans are on one side, nature's on the other side. There's insight there. I mean, there are distinctions to be made in the world and so forth. The problem with that received notion is that if it ever was, it's no longer true. We live in an age where humans have mined the earth's crust. We fly through the sky. We go through the waters. We have been extracting resources and putting waste into the earth's ecosystem for so long that there's not a place anymore where you can put your finger and say, "untouched by humans."

2:47      PW: Bill McKibben, the environmental writer, termed this the end of nature in a book in 1989. For him, the death nail of nature was really climate change because while human beings were doing all this stuff, mining and toxifying the world and so forth, it was climate change, which changed the moisture, the temperature of everywhere on the planet so that now, there's a human signature on every living and almost every non-living thing that exists. It's not accurate anymore to talk about nature as completely distinct, as some pristine place that we can worry about, let's say, and treat as if we're not implicated in it. I think that this notion, when we recognize that old notion of nature is no longer accurate and perhaps no longer helpful that it calls on us to clean our house both inside the city and outside the city. The city's not separate from some larger domain, which we traditionally call nature.

4:04      KS: I know that there's been a move toward urban conservation among environmental groups and there are steps that people are trying to take to reduce impervious surface and have controlled run off to control the amount of dangerous chemicals and nitrogen that are getting into the water supply. What you're saying though, there's also always been this narrative of saving the last wild places, particularly in America and our idea of the wild places, they always seem to be out west. Is that even still an accurate thing to try and accomplish, to save the last wild places, or is what you're saying that really, truly, there's nothing that's completely wild anymore?

4:51      PW: It doesn't mean that we stop working to protect the wellbeing of other people, future generations, other species and the more than human world in general. Although human beings have their signature everywhere, it doesn't mean that everything is human. Even, to take a dramatic example, mice that we engineer to grow cancers, which are basically human artifacts, for all intents and purposes. They're still more than the human in there. They're still an organism. It is important to continue to try to protect what we call the last wild places but we should recognize they're not as wild as they used to be.

5:38      KS: That biodiversity piece is so important for all the different systems that people may or may not understand but at the same time, we can't say that the most biodiverse places are untouched by the human signature. We're just been around. We've done too much. Thinking about the Appalachians in particular, with the biodiversity there, in particular, the salamanders, oddly enough, and how their skin is so porous that is takes in toxins and you can judge the health of the surrounding environment by that and it just brings home to me what you're saying, which is that, yes there are wild places and yes, we need to guard biodiversity but we can't do so thinking that it's in a test tube somewhere and it's completely protected from what we've already done. Is that about right?

6:35      PW: Yeah, absolutely. That's perfect. Beautiful. I would just add that also says to us then, the charge of protecting places is not simply to draw a fence around them and staff the barricades, actually, but it's to recognize our responsibility to these places now that we're implicated and so forth. The other thing I would just add about biodiversity and the salamanders and so forth is that humans are the governors of evolution right now. We determine which animals live, which animals die. It seems to me that is a recognition of our power, and I'm not sure if this is the appropriate way to say this but geographers tell us that we now live in a new geological age. We came out of the Holocene and now we live in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is translated as the age of humans. This is the age where humans have an ecological force in themselves and so to me, the exciting questions is: how do we protect the environment writ large in an age, in an Anthropocene or in the Anthropocene.

7:46      KS: Exactly. Looking at that, thinking about that question, how has environmental activism changed over the past four decades in particular?

7:56      PW: Well, it's changed a lot. I guess like everything in the world it's changed a lot and it's the same. It's not quite the same. I would say that as you spoke of when you opened the show you mentioned that environmentalism was at least first a preservationist movement, a conservationist movement and that in many ways it was a nature movement. Protect nature. That was an important historical moment for the movement itself but I think that the movement has evolved. It's woken up to the limitations of that focus and what I mean by that is I think that the movement has gotten, and sometimes against its will, has had to wake up to the injustices that are part of our interactions with the more than human world. What I mean by that is that if we think about it human beings rarely solve environmental problems. If you think about it, what have we solved?

8:58      KS: We make them. We create them.

9:02      PW: But more generally what we do is we don't solve them but we displace them. We take them from one place, put them somewhere else or take them from one period of time and put them into the future. We displace problems across species. We actually, as you with the salamander, we take our toxicity and put it into the more than human world and we ask other beings to suffer it. If we think about what future generations, those who live downstream and other species, have in common, they all have a struggle to have a political voice. Future generations don't vote. Those downstream are often not privileged enough to be organized. Often they don't speak English, and if the powers that be do speak English, that's a problem. Of course other species have this challenge. There's, I guess there's a long way of saying this, a moral dimension to this. I think that the environmental movement has had to wake up to that.

10:04      PW: Associated with that the environmental movement initially, except for some key people like Rachel Carson and so forth, was a predominantly white male movement. The heads of all the main environmental organizations, the heads of the department of interior, department of environmental protection, almost across the board all white men and therefore had a mandate to focus on I would say these nature issues more than the social justice issues. I guess that's a long way of saying that if the environmental movement has had to grow up...And I would say that now even climate change we have a climate justice movement now. It's not just a climate movement.

10:55      KS: Paul Wapner, it's time to take five. This is when you, our guest, get to reorder the world as you'd like it to be by single handedly instituting five policies or practices that would change the world for the better. Specifically, if you could change the underlying engines of environmental degradation what would you do, what would you change?

11:16      PW: What would I change? I would first change this notion that human beings are the center of the universe. We think basically this is all here for us. We think that the more than human world is just a set of resources or a set of environmental sinks that we can dump into, and that is called anthropocentrism but that source of value has fundamentally perverted our abilities to relate to each other and to the more than human world. First, I would knock us off the center in terms of value. The second thing I would do is I would, you've invited big dreaming so I would get rid of patriarchy. Patriarchy is fundamental also to the way we often gender the Earth. We talk about the Earth as a female being and that's not a mistake because in the same ways that human beings or maleness has dominated femaleness we recognize that that has also opened up the opportunity to exploit the more than human world.

12:27      PW: The other thing I would do is, I would put, and this is more specific but I'd put a price on carbon. We need to start paying for the goods that we use for free. We take the atmosphere as a big sink that we can dump anything into and not have to be accountable for and I think that, not think, I know that if we started holding ourselves accountable and I just point to money because that's one quick way to do it. Going beyond money though, I think we can also be accountable for our contributions into the atmosphere in other ways as well. I think we need regulation to tell us to stop doing certain things and start doing other things. I also think we need to stop commodifying everything in our lives. Everything is not simply...I mean I think we need to price carbon but that's not to say that commodification is the answer because I'm sure as soon as we price carbon, people are going to think of ways to pay themselves out of it.

13:29      KS: Discount it.

13:30      PW: I would say stop commodifying it. The fifth thing, is that five? Maybe that's, we'll say that's five. The fifth is I would bring back Dave Brubeck for Take Five so that he could play, yet again, that fabulous song that you are inviting us to think a lot about.

13:48      KS: That would be awesome. Thank you.

13:51      PW: Sure. Thanks a lot.

13:58      KS: Paul, you mentioned the disparate effects and social justice and how that has become a part of environmental activism. The effects of environmental harm have always been felt most by those with the least. This was true when people living in tenements and cities during the industrial revolution didn't have access to clean air or water, it's true now when those in the developing world are more likely to live in areas of flooding and sea level rise or drought. Depending on our physical location and socio-economic status, many people, especially those of us in the US are more removed from the immediate effects of climate change. Paul, I was hoping you could talk a bit about your writings on “climate suffering.” Specifically, where are those “canaries in the coal mine” and what do the residents in those places face now and in the immediate future?

14:56      PW: Yeah, climate suffering. There's an upbeat topic. To put it in context, there's generally two ways that people respond to climate change. The first and most important is mitigation. Let's just stop contributing to the problem. That certainly hasn't been enough and that has opened the door to a second form of response, which is adaptation and that is building higher sea walls, cultivating drought resistant crops and burying electric lines. Trying to do things to prepare for a warmer world. Those are the two categories that most scholars and politicians and so forth focus on. I took on some work about climate suffering simply because I think that there's a third category, which is we should mitigate as much as we can, we will adapt as much as we can but it's baked into the system that there's going to be inevitable suffering. The numbers, the data just suggests that we're going to blow through the two degrees, which we've agreed to as a stable threshold.

16:08      PW: I've been trying to think about, what does climate suffering mean and what does it look like? I did some research where I went to where I thought were the frontiers of environmental intensification. Climate intensification. I did some work in Nepal and India and I spent time with people who are living on the front lines insofar as they were generally non-affluent people living in substandard shelter, often geographically vulnerable places and asked them, did lots of interviews and spent time with them trying to feel what life was like on the edge. One of the more dramatic experiences I had was in India. I did some work with about 20 farmers who, a colleague of mine was able to gather them together for an afternoon and these were subsistence farmers. They were people who were not tied into the market.

17:13      KS: They farm to live.

17:14      PW: They farm to live and trade but not really marketing producers. We talked and by then they were experiencing at the time their fifth straight year of drought. They relied on the rains as the form of irrigation. They didn't practice other forms of irrigation. They had five years of drought, and we were talking for a long time about what that was like and how their children felt like there wasn't a future so they had left the villages where they had lived, where they had to switch crops to try to find crops that would withstand the heat and so forth. It was fascinating. I felt incredibly humbled and privileged to be able to spend time with these people. All of them thoughtful, all of them had heard about climate change even if they had imprecise definitions as the way I might use the term.

18:17      PW: I want to say that was in April. In June of that year, in the same part of India, the rains finally came. The way it works with climate change is when there's lots of heat there's evaporation so it doesn't rain, it doesn't rain, it doesn't rain and then when it rains its torrential because there's all that energy in the atmosphere. That's what happened to this part of India and so thousands of people had died from mudslides. Thousands of people had died from these floods that just washed away whole villages and personally, it was a really, I don't know, incredibly troubling time for me because I couldn't contact these people, email was, before the floods there wasn't email. But it really, it shook me to my core as a researcher, thinking, who am I? What did I learn? And so forth. But more generally, I was really touched by the dignity of these folks when we had talked and how they had the least. Nepal for example, Nepal, what 98 percent of its energy comes from hydroelectric or cow dung. Very little fossil fuels.

19:39      PW: In terms of contribution to the problem, essentially nothing, and yet, they're ranked as one of the most vulnerable countries partially for the geography, partially for the poverty and partially for the governmental structures that don't provide these social networks of support. But that's sadly what happens to people who are on the front lines is that they lack the structures, they lack the shelter, they lack the social networks in terms of governmental–they're the last to receive aid and so forth. This is not just in India and Nepal. We've seen the same thing in Hurricane Sandy. The last people to get compensation and attention were the ones who had the least political ability to grab attention and so forth. Anyway, I see climate suffering as something that's inevitable and something that is going to require I think much more social science work to understand what it means, ways we can go forward without intensifying those injustices.

20:47      KS: You're such a calm person. I feel like you have to be calm to do what you do. It seems that just about every day there's a headline somewhere that's saying that some element of climate change is past the point of no return or it's worsening faster than expected. You mentioned the two degrees that we all agreed was going to be okayish and now that's not going to happen either. In the face of that, is it too late for activism or is activism conversely the only thing that might spur real policy change? Where does activism fit into this?

21:22      PW: Yeah, too late. I wonder oftentimes if we don't do ourselves a disservice by thinking about this in terms of apocalyptic narratives because what does too late mean? For me, for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, its too late. It's already happened. What does two degrees mean for the victims of the tsunamis that have happened last year?

21:55      KS: Right or the fire in California, yeah.

21:57      PW: Yeah and so on some level we have these threshold numbers and it's certainly true that the intergovernmental panel on climate change has told us in no uncertain terms that above two degrees, actually above 1.5 degrees, we're going to see climate feedbacks that are so self intensifying that we're going to have runaway climate change. But again, for the people who I interviewed in India, two degrees is meaningless. That's the one piece of, I suppose, my response. The second thing is that I don't think that it's ever a time to throw up our hands and say there's nothing to be done or that activism isn't important. The way I guess I think about this is that climate change and other environmental challenges are not puzzles that have some sort of solution set out there like an assignment for an economics class but rather it's part of the human condition now.

23:09      PW: As part of the human condition it seems incumbent upon us to put our shoulders to the grindstone here and lean into this. If nothing else, for moral reasons. I mean moral both in the sense of addressing some of the injustices we've talked about before but also moral in terms of what it means to be a human being today. On some level, we're all mortal. We're all going to die. Do we throw up our hands and say, "oh well, nothing to be done I'll just eat cake." I don't particularly like cake so maybe that's a bad example. I think that there is this engagement that is not simply even required but is an opportunity.

24:01      KS: What I was thinking was, it's almost as if climate change has been positioned as this thing that is an entity unto itself and then climate change will happen unless we do so and so. What I hear you saying is that climate change is already going to happen, it's already happening. It certainly is a process but its more like a chronic illness almost. We're going to have to learn how to manage it and live with it because there's not going to be a day where the Earth says that's it, that's too much climate change and all the people just disappear. We're all going to be here dealing with the ramifications of what has happened so we need to learn to consider this a part of our process and a part of our reality. Am I getting anywhere close to this?

24:45      PW: Yeah.

24:45      KS: Like a chronic illness for the Earth or something that we have to learn to manage.

24:49      PW: And like a chronic illness, parts of ourselves are going to be damaged. There are people who are certainly going to continue to be on the front lines of feeling the effects of this but as we know with a chronic illness, as we can manage it with more attention, more care, more dignity, then we can make it less severe. Less degrading to individual certain types of people and so forth. We can attend to the injustices that are part of this and we can also challenge ourselves to surmount this technologically, economically, politically and so forth. There's a famous book by a woman called Naomi Klein called This Changes Everything. The title speaks of two different meanings here. One is it changes everything because climate change changes, it turns us into this condition. But also changes everything because to address it requires us to rethink fundamentally our political systems and our economic systems and our technologies.

25:58      KS: Paul, I'm going to try and end on a slightly lighter note.

26:01      PW: Please, maybe lunch.

26:03      KS: Today as we're recording this, it's actually a balmy 60 something degrees even though it's mid-February but it was quite cold last week and I heard you say that you took a jump into the Potomac river and I'm wondering, first of all, why and, second of all, was it on a day like this or a day when it was actually cold? What's up with that? What are you doing jumping into the Potomac?

26:26      PW: I thought you'd be there with me.

26:27      KS: Oh, my God. I'm from Georgia, we do swimming pools at 80 degrees and that is it.

26:33      PW: Is that right?

26:33      KS: Yes.

26:36      PW: I have to say first of all I am terrified of the cold and so this was not something I did happily. I work with an organization, I don't work with them, I support an organization called The Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which is an organization that works in Maryland, Virginia, and DC addressing climate change. Each year, they hold a polar bear plunge in an effort to keep winter cold. Sadly, winter as today shows us, it's February fifth and it's like 60 degrees or something? I don't know if you read, but the New York Times just had this long piece on ski areas where the ski season's getting shorter and shorter and we just see that the climate's changing.

27:27      PW: To draw attention to this and to help raise money for, its called CCAN, the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, we had about 250 people went down and we went into the frigid and I would say it was frigid, Potomac river to dunk ourselves to raise awareness and shake ourselves also I think out of a little bit of laziness. I teach this stuff, I write about it, I talk about it endlessly, bum people out endlessly about it but I feel like there's always more that we can do and this, among some other things that I do. Feel really important.

28:07      KS: Paul Wapner, thank you for joining Big World. It's been a real pleasure to speak with you.

28:11      PW: Thanks.

28:12      KS: Big World is a production of the School of International Service at American University. Our theme music is "It Was Just Cold," by Andrew Codeman. Until next time.

Episode Guest

Paul Wapner,
professor, SIS

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