On May 10-11, 2021, I had the great pleasure of facilitating part of a workshop on “Infusing Sustainability” for faculty at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. I would like to thank UWRF Sustainability Fellow Grace Coggio for inviting me to participate!
This meditation is inspired by the concept of the ecological self as described by Arne Naess, Joanna Macy, John Seed, and other participants in the Deep Ecology movement, which began in the early 1970s, and also by a guided meditation by Sharon Salzburg on gratitude and our interconnectedness with other people.
The ecological self honored here is the expansive, interconnected self, that lives in relationship with everything else that exists.
On March 25, 2021, I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Professors Ryan Martin and Chuck Rybak at UW-Green Bay for two episodes of the Canonball podcast. (Here’s the official description of the program: “Canonball is a podcast out of Phoenix Studios at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay that covers the great works from a variety of disciplines. From movies to film to literature to video games, hosts Chuck Rybak and Ryan Martin discusses all things canonical.”)
In the first episode, which aired on April 8, we discussed the Environmental Humanities.
In the second episode, which aired on April 22 (Earth Day), we discussed Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac (1949), as well as Robin Wall Kimmerer’s “Speaking of Nature,” from Orion Magazine (March/April 2017).
This talk, available on YouTube, was the opening plenary session for the Common CAHSS 2020 Conference at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on November 30, 2020. Professor Ryan Martin shared the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Land Acknowledgment at the opening of the session, and Professor Alison Staudinger skillfully guided me through the questions at the end. In the conclusion of the talk, I quote a sentence from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, “All flourishing is mutual.” This phrase appears five times in the book (on pages 15, 20, 21, 166, and 382), and Kimmerer presents it as one of the “teachings of plants” mentioned in the book’s subtitle. Given the degree to which this talk was inspired and informed by writings and teachings of First Nations people, which have been offered freely to all people, including settler colonists, I’d like to encourage anyone who watches the talk to consider how the United States and Canada could move toward reciprocity and justice for First Nations people today–as an essential aspect of moving beyond sustainability.
This excerpt from the beginning of the talk provides a brief overview:
We need to have an honest conversation about sustainability—not to demolish the concept, but to recognize that it has fallen short in helping us change our unsustainable ways. In my talk this evening, I’d like to focus on several aspects of the public discussion of sustainability, in order to suggest a more honest, expansive, and holistic approach. We can’t begin to talk honestly about sustainability until we come to terms with unsustainability and the harm we have caused on this living planet—including harm to each other. To do that, we have to see things holistically, and as whole beings. We will need sustainable knowledge systems that recognize multiple ways of knowing, and we will need a more robust media system, that shares accurate information and supports honest dialogue. We’ll need to pay more attention to the connections between environmental issues and social and racial justice. Above all, we’ll need to be more imaginative—to envision futures in which we thrive together as members of the larger community of life.
I recently signed the “Statement of Commitment to Ecocentrism” sponsored by The Ecological Citizen , an open-access, peer-reviewed online journal that, according to its mission statement, is “striving to address the central issue of our time: how to halt and reverse our current ecocidal course and create an ecological civilization.”
This statement resonates with me on a number of levels, including its support for the “intrinsic (inherent) value in all of nature and the ecosphere.” While the statement briefly maps out ethical, evolutionary, spiritual, political, and ecological rationales for ecocentrism, I also see important implications for social justice.
Ecocentrism does a better job than the discourse of sustainability of taking into account the profound interrelatedness of all life on Earth. Many of our models of sustainability and almost all ways that we try to implement sustainability reflect the values of human supremacy (aka, anthropocentrism), and will ultimately be self defeating, as Aldo Leopold pointed out in his famous “Land Ethic” essay, which was published in the Sand County Almanac in 1949. Human supremacy as a way of being has been destroying the foundations of our existence for centuries.
Moreover, the ideology and practice of human domination over the natural world in both the past and present is implicated in various systems of hierarchy and domination. I am thinking, for example, of how the African slave trade, which was one of the most brutal of these systems, empowered Europeans to transform and exploit the lifeworlds of the Americas to grow commodity crops such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton, at unaccountable human and ecological costs. But I am also thinking about how global capitalism today distributes both the benefits and harms of industrial production in terribly unequal ways. Thus, some of the most “productive” places within the context of the global economy also have the most polluted air and water. And, some of the poorest communities on the planet will suffer the most because of climate disruption, even as they contributed the least to CO2 emissions.
In other words, although ecocentrism might at first glance seem to replace anthropocentrism with misanthropy, that’s far from true. Overcoming human supremacy is a critical requirement for transforming the various systems of human oppression that continue to hold sway. Thus, as the statement concludes: “a transformation towards an ecocentric worldview is a necessary path for the flourishing of life on Earth, including that of our own species.”
On April 22, 2020, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I was fortunate to participate in a panel discussion with several wonderful UWGB colleagues and Bill Davis from the River Alliance of Wisconsin.
Dr. Kevin Fermanich moderated, with assistance from John Arendt. The topics are briefly summarized here, with approximate times for each part noted in parentheses:
Dr. Michael Draney, “My life with Earth Day” (00:30 to 08:30) — I was 2 ½ years old during the first Earth Day in 1970 so Earth Day and I have gone through life together. I want to reflect on how it’s doing as we enter our fifth decade together.
Dr. Vicki Medland, “Is nature slipping away? ” (08:30 to 16:30) — Earth Day was in part a response to an environment that the organizers no longer recognized. Today, we are shocked by what seems to be a sudden and massive loss of biodiversity and natural landscapes. Why do we not notice these massive changes to our environment?
Dr. David Voelker, “Earth Day 2020 in Perspective” (16:50 to 27:00)– How can we understand the 50th Earth Day and the environmental movement that it helped launch in historical perspective, and in light of the Covid-19 pandemic?
Bill Davis, “A New Water Agenda for Wisconsin” (31:50 to 39:20) — What would a system look like that could achieve our human health and ecology goal regarding water?
In my response to a question from Kevin Fermanich (at about 50:00 to 53:00 in the recording), I referred to the shared experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. I do think that the pandemic is affecting just about all Americans and most people around the world, whether directly or indirectly. I’d like to emphasize, however, that the pandemic is not affecting all people equally, or in the same ways. In many U.S. cities, for example, African Americans (especially men) are dying disproportionately, and that’s just one example of how the pandemic reflects and compounds existing social and economic inequalities. (For more on this topic, see this column by Owen Jones at The Guardian.)
I spoke on climate disruption at the Common CAHSS conference on human rights at University of Wisconsin-Green Bay on December 10, 2019. The sources and links below are listed roughly in the order in which I refer to them or draw on them in the talk. I’d like to thank my colleagues Ryan Martin and Alise Coen for their leadership in organizing this event. Early in the talk, I neglected to mention the Forest County Potawatomi when I was naming First Nations in Wisconsin. I apologize for this oversight!
The call of young people around the world to support the Global Climate Strike inspired me to organize the “Climate Change Talks” event on the UW–Green Bay campus on September 20, 2019. I was moved by the frustration expressed by these young activists: “We feel a lot of adults haven’t quite understood that we young people won’t hold off the climate crisis ourselves. Sorry if this is inconvenient for you. But this is not a single-generation job. It’s humanity’s job.”
When I put out the call for presenters, I encouraged colleagues to consider how the problem of climate change connected with a number of issues relevant to the humanities and social sciences, such as:
How has the fossil fuel industry funded climate change denialism?
How will addressing climate change require social, cultural, political, and economic transformation–not just new technologies?
How is climate change related to social justice issues, such as racism, colonialism, and immigration?
How have film, literature, and the arts helped us understand and envision climate change and how to confront it?
What are the barriers to action in the face of climate change?
As you can see from the talks (which are available on YouTube), the result was an outpouring of presentations that addressed many of these issues in compelling ways. A dozen speakers explored a wide range of issues, encouraging the substantial audience to ponder the climate crisis in light of speculative fiction, ethics, big data, economics, architecture, history, and poetry–among other perspectives.
Even as I strongly support the call of the Global Climate Strike movement for national and world leaders to take climate science seriously, which means taking major actions now to limit the scale of climate change, I also agree with the idea that this is “humanity’s job”—and it’s especially the responsibility of wealthy, industrialized countries like the United States, who have emitted most of the climate-changing gases, and whose fossil-fueled economy continues this trend.
In my own comments, however, I emphasized that addressing climate change is not only a job for scientists and engineers. Climate change is not simply an environmental problem that’s “out there.” It is a human problem, deeply rooted in the history and habits of the global, industrial economy–a system that has already done tremendous harm to the web of life on Earth. In order to transform this system, we will need to understand it deeply, and the arts, humanities and social sciences have a critical role to play.
The humanities have traditionally asked, “What does it mean to be human?” At the time when the humanities disciplines were emerging in American and European universities, the answers to this question usually focused on perspectives from the Western world, mostly on cultures with a long history of dominating both other cultures and the natural world. Today, knowing what we know about the impact of human activity–not only on the climate, but also on all of the systems that support life on Earth–we need to understand this history.
At the same time, we need to continue to ask that question anew, “What does it mean to be human?”—right here and right now (as opposed to focusing exclusively on how people in the past lived out answers to this question). We must do so with awareness of many enduring cultures outside of the West. Indigenous knowledge keepers from around the world supported the April 2017 March for Science, but they also asserted that “Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it.”
Mitigating climate change and coping with global climate disruption will surely demand that we go beyond technical adjustments; we will have to address systemic problems in the modern human relationship with the living planet, as well as social injustices. To protect the web of life, we need to untangle the webs of domination—not only of humans over nature, but of humans over other humans.
During the May 6, 2019, Pop-up Student Showcase at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, Kate Farley interviewed me for Rachel Scray’s Humanities+ podcast. Students in my “Craft of History” course were presenting on their research, which they shared via the Encyclopedia of Wisconsin Environmental History. I’m excited to say that two of the students in the Craft of History course spoke about their research projects, which were based on archival collections at the Cofrin Library Archives. The whole episode is well worth listening to. The segment on my class runs from 11’50” to 20’10”.
Back in late February, I was very fortunate to be interviewed for the Tea for Teaching podcast by John Kane and Rebecca Mushtare, who run the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego. You can listen to my interview, or just check out their wonderful collection of dialogues on teaching teaching and learning.