Photo: From Netflix.

Climate Satire and Anti-science Populism in Don’t Look Up

This commentary reviews the 2021 film Don’t Look Up, an allegory about climate-crisis apathy in an imagined populist future in the USA. 

By Heidi Hart

Allegory is as tricky an art form as satire. The 2021 film Don’t Look Up, directed by Adam McKay, attempts both in its treatment of impending planetary crisis. McKay’s production company’s name, Hyperobject Industries, apparently refers to eco-philosopher Timothy Morton’s term from his 2013 book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World, which posits that global warming is a force too immense and strange to be easily graspable. Since 2013, that “hyperobject” has come all too close to home for humans faced with record heat waves, wildfires, monster storms, and floods, even in the most unlikely places. If the recent COP26 Summit on climate change is any indication of the future, governmental inertia will continue to prevent the broad, deep changes necessary to unhook wealthy nations from dependence on fossil fuels. The planet may well be as doomed as Don’t Look Up declares it is, though from a different (hence the allegory) threat. 

Photo: From Netflix

The film’s chirpy aesthetic (retro 1960s titles, upbeat dance music, onscreen memes) belies its serious theme, announcing satire as if this were not obvious enough. In the not-too-distant future, a couple of scrappy astronomers from an average state university (Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence) discover a comet on a collision course with Earth. When they finally get the attention of the Trump-blonde-style US President (Meryl Streep), she and her wisecracking Chief of Staff son (Jonah Hill) dismiss the crisis until a steamier political scandal calls for a distraction. The astronomers appear on a shallow Fox News-ish talk show, and, predictably, DiCaprio’s character is rewarded with “sexy” status while Lawrence’s explosion of grief and anger leads to a cascade of “crazy lady” memes. President Orlean stages an aircraft-carrier press announcement, à la George W. Bush, of a Pentagon-backed plan to nuke the comet before it strikes. 

When that mission fails, enter a slightly spacey Steve Jobs type (Mark Rylance), who – without bothering with the inconveniences of peer review – breezes in and excites Madame President with a whole new plan to mine the comet for valuable resources before exploding it. Randall Mindy, DiCaprio’s character, wins brief fame and a fling with “Fox blonde” talk-show host Brie Eventee (Cate Blanchett). Meanwhile, the disenchanted Ph.D. candidate who discovered the comet in the first place, Kate Dibiasky (Lawrence), drifts into the baggy counterculture world of Yule (Dune star Timothée Chalamet). As the comet speeds ever closer, threatening tsunamis and volcanic eruptions, an already split USA breaks into irreparable halves, with “Just look up!” memes battling “Don’t look up!” rallies featuring the President in a MAGA-style baseball cap. Distrust of science and faith in the quick tech fix meet in a populist frenzy. When the mine-and-explode plan fails, too, last concerts- and dinners-on-Earth ensue. I won’t give the ending all away, but it does send bits of phones and photographs drifting into the cosmos. The film’s post-credit epilogue is a darkly comic take on billionaire space tourism (enough said here as well).

Maybe it’s just my age as a too-earnest Gen Xer, but the film’s meme-based satire and too-obvious allegory trivialize a genuinely terrifying future, instead of destabilizing comfortable assumptions, as satire does when it works well. As an example, Daniel Dencik’s 2013 Expedition to the End of the World works as almost-mockumentary about a group of researchers and artists sailing to Greenland to witness its melting ice. Like Don’t Look Up, it features soundtrack music suddenly interrupted, but in an oddly uncomfortable, not gimmicky, way. Random conversations about spiders and microbes unsettle black-and-white ideas of what humans can know about threatened ecosystems. Genre ambiguity (is this satire or not?) fosters curious criticality in viewers, instead of cementing already entrenched political differences, as Don’t Look Up does in its heavy-handed treatment of American populism. 

Another example of humor used effectively in environmental film is Benedict Erlingsson’s Woman at War (also 2013). This film features an Icelandic eco-warrior who also happens to be a choir director, leading her community in songs about national pride and thus complicating the environmental/populist binary. A band of musicians (who may or may not be visible to her) pops up on hillsides, in her flat, and at the airport, echoing Icelandic outdoor music practices and adding an element of estrangement as well. The protagonist’s difficult decision to adopt an orphan in Ukraine complicates the drama further, showing the challenges activists face in caring for the planet and its human occupants. Ultimately the film’s surprise, humor, and ambiguity foster energy rather than despair in the face of climate crisis. 

Don’t Look Up is one of many films imagining an impact event on Earth. Most do not relate to climate change directly but hold implications for the current planetary crisis. Bille August’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow (1997) imagines deadly microbes deposited by a meteorite in Greenland’s ice, which now, in real life, is thawing at a rapid pace and releasing long-dormant and potentially dangerous bacterial archives. Lars von Trier’s rhapsodic disaster film Melancholia (2011) juxtaposes a rogue planet’s impending impact with the beauty, cruelty, and banality of life on a wealthy family’s estate; the film’s feverish slowness, set to orchestral music from Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, foreshadows the strangeness of time’s passing in our current age of pandemic and collapsing ecosystems. More recently, Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2018) alters Jeff VanderMeer’s book of the same title by framing interspecies genetic mutations in the eerie “Area X” as the result of a meteor strike. Though VanderMeer did not set out to write a climate-crisis novel (Woodbury, 2016), his “new weird” Southern Reach trilogy reflects dark ecology anxieties and aesthetics. None of these films is satirical, and none takes on the political divides that Don’t Look Up sends up, but all three show how planetary dread is easier to narrate and digest if it concerns a crisis humans have not caused. 

This distinction brings us, naturally, to the film often mentioned as a forerunner of Don’t Look Up: Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1964 Dr. Strangelove. That film, with its subtitle How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is also satire about impending planetary doom, but it works in a far more terrifying way than Don’t Look Up, for three important reasons. First, it brings seriousness and humor into such close contact (lines like “You can’t fight in here! It’s the War Room!” amid heavy discussions of US military policy against pre-emptive strikes) that viewers need to bring their own critical curiosity to the giant table in the Pentagon. Second, war film conventions in the B-52 scenes (profile close-ups, relentless repetition of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”) make the pilot’s gung-ho cowboy bravado all the more painful to watch today, as it comes close to truth in this age of endless wars and the populist-militarist January 6 insurrection. Third, Dr. Strangelove does not imagine a random object from space colliding with Earth; human arrogance is what unleashes the ultimate nuclear disaster, via one rogue pre-emptive strike that automatically triggers the Soviet “Doomsday Machine.” 

Photo: From Netflix.

 

Watching Dr. Strangelove again for the first time in ten years, now that human-caused climate crisis is pressingly upon us, I found the ending more moving than I’d remembered. The soundtrack’s counterpoint in the final scene (mushroom cloud after blinding mushroom cloud, to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again” in Vera Lynn’s warm voice) served its painfully satirical purpose, unlike the glib ending of Don’t Look Up, with Earthly debris scattering in space to the tune of Bon Iver’s breathy pop song “Second Nature.” In both cases, music is meant to work against the images onscreen, as has become a film convention since its first uses as a distancing technique (Adorno and Eisler, 1947), but to very different effects. I would rather feel the shock and sadness of humans’ destruction of our home than be mildly entertained by an imaginary comet and political caricatures. Too much is at stake in this age of ideological and environmental menace for satire to fall short. 

References

Adorno, Theodor and Hanns Eisler. (1947/2010). Composing for the Films. Continuum.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology After the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.

 

EatingWorld

Eating and Environmental Consciousness

The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject.” Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

By Heidi Hart

“Western consumers should put aside their reservations about eating crickets,” states a recent Economist commentary, “and give plant-based burgers, 3d-printed steaks and vat-grown artificial tuna a try” (Pascual, 2021). What is happening here? Consumers in privileged countries have taken dietary luxuries for granted for several generations, eating beef and buying wild-caught fish at the supermarket, choosing to go gluten-free or vegan for health or political reasons, abiding by religious food traditions and taboos. Now, simply finding what you want to eat is not so simple after all.  

Covid-era food shortages, with familiar items missing from grocery shelves in wealthy countries, are only part of the story. Long-term droughts, locust invasions, and lingering shortages from the 2014 Ebola outbreak in west African countries complicate the picture (Burgeon, 2021). The current megadrought in the western US, one painful side-effect of global warming, is straining farms and ranches beyond their already environmentally costly water use for irrigation (Nelson, 2021).

Climate leaders Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac (2020: 16) have envisioned two scenarios for Earth’s livability in 2050, depending on the level of global warming in the next several decades. In once scenario, air pollution is endemic, droughts and famines commonplace, and food production unpredictable. “Disasters and wars rage, choking off trade routes,” they predict in this scenario. “In some places, the inability to gain access to such basics as wheat, rice, or sorghum has led to economic collapse and civil unrest more quickly than even the most pessimistic experts had previously imagined.” 

In the alternate scenario, which seems painfully far-fetched after the recent disappointments of COP26, Figueres and Rivett-Carnac (2020: 26) imagine emissions halved every decade until 2050, keeping global warming at the 1.5-degree threshold. In this case, industrial agriculture has given way to regenerative farming, which involves “mixing perennial crops, sustainable grazing, and improved crop-rotation on large-scale farms.” Food shopping has shifted from large commercial centers to small, local markets and co-op purchasing groups. Meat and dairy products have all but disappeared. “We’ve come to realize,” the authors continue, “by growing our own, that food is expensive because it should be expensive – it takes valuable resources to grow it, after all. Water. Soil. Sweat. Time.”

However idealistic this scenario sounds, it does reflect present concerns about food deserts, in which poorer city dwellers do not have access to fresh produce and other healthful options, and about farming practices that deplete rather than nourish the soil. 

Environmentalists have long spoken out against genetically modified foods and pesticide-heavy industrial agriculture. Proposed solutions include organic and no-till farming, which regenerates the soil with minerals, as well as  “multistrata agroforestry,” which creates vertical plant layers and horizontal “blankets” of crops to mimic forest biodiversity (Hawken, 2017: 46-47). Dietary changes by individual consumers, such as avoiding environmentally costly beef consumption, can make a difference as well. 

These solutions come with their own problems, however. The effects of global warming are no longer part of an abstract, future dystopia or a hard-to-comprehend “hyperobject,” as environmental philosopher Timothy Morton described it in 2013. Summer 2021, with the whiplash of Covid outbreaks and re-openings, supply chain breakdowns, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires from California to Turkey, and heatwaves even in Siberia, was a sobering wake-up call for many who had believed they would not live to feel climate collapse. 

Regenerative farming may not be enough in areas without sufficient water. Consumer food choice may become a luxury even for those who have never had to worry about finding the ingredients they need in a short errand to the market. For those who have already suffered from food insecurity, indoor “vertical” farms and 3-D printed meat (Pascual, 2021) may still be far out of reach. Privileged proponents of “full stomach” environmentalism may come closer to understanding their “empty stomach”-driven counterparts (Guha, 2006 in Nixon; 2011: 5), but this is a long process, and the planet is warming and drying and flooding more quickly than human empathy may be able to catch up. 

Two results of this profound environmental stress have already begun to show: on the one hand, increased rigidity around food choices among those wealthy enough to choose (dietary “purity culture” that crosses political lines and spills into Covid vaccine debates as well); and on the other hand, deeper engagement with food sources that takes Indigenous values as a guide. Creating community gardens based on historical practices in the Ute (Utah, US) tribe is one example; growing only as much as each community needs and working from a shared economy allows the tribe to “go from an experience of exploitation to one of authentically living with each other” (Braidan Weeks, in Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67-68).

“As a human being who cannot photosynthesize,” writes US Indigenous botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer, “I must struggle to participate in the Honorable Harvest” (2013: 180). What she means by this term is the ecologizing mindset that treats plants as beings in their own right, that honors the animal killed for meat, that does not take more than one’s share. “Cautionary stories of the consequences of taking too much are ubiquitous in Native cultures,” she notes, “but it’s hard to recall a single one in English. Perhaps this helps to explain why we seem to be caught in a trap of overconsumption, which is as destructive to ourselves as to those we consume” (Kimmerer, 2013: 179). 

Learning limits and humility is difficult for humans used to consumption-based economies. Paradoxically, though, Indigenous gift economies have fostered a sense of abundance and community reciprocity, rather than scarcity and individualism. Kimmerer (2013: 29) recalls an experience at a market in the Andes, where the transition “from private goods to shared wealth” created a sense of gratitude and, with a meal in every basket exchanged, “justice” as well.

The deep community work required to shift collective mindsets may seem impossible, but with droughts and supply chain breakdowns already occurring, it may soon become essential for survival. The alternative is a future of pandemic-style hoarding and water wars. Smarter farming, access to birth control, education for women, and local food co-ops (see Hawken, 2017) may help ease the strain of feeding a crowded, warming planet. At the local level, learning to share rather than hoard one’s groceries is a good start.  

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee and Brooke Larsen, Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Figueres, Christiana and Tom Rivett-Carnac. (2020). The Future We Choose: The Stubborn Optimist’s Guide to the Climate Crisis. New York: Vintage.

Guha, Ramachandra. (2006). How Much Should a Person Consume? Environmentalism in India and the United States. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 

Hawken, Paul, Editor. (2017). Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York: Penguin. 

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions.

Morton, Timothy. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

COP26A

Grief, Rage, and Courage at COP26

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius”. With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment.

By Heidi Hart

Observing the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) from a virtual distance has created a fractured impression. The official program website shows a swirling green and purple Earth, with links to live-streamed press conferences, speeches, and the #TogetherForOurPlanet Twitter feed. This Earth looks clean and healthy, as if such an ideal were an easy goal to reach. Meanwhile, mounds of trash fill the outskirts of the conference city Glasgow, amid a garbage-collectors’ strike that makes human “throwaway society” all too clear (Gross, 2021).

News reports showed internal fault-lines even before the conference began. In the pre-conference summit in Italy, G20 leaders from the wealthy countries “collectively responsible for around 80 percent of current greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide” largely failed to come together, though they did agree to cuts in methane leaks and in coal financing overseas (Economist, 2021). Protests on the outskirts of the main Glasgow conference and around the world have included thousands of young people, who insist that carbon reduction pledges fall woefully short of the profound value shifts and decolonializing efforts that must occur in order to avoid unlivable conditions for humans and countless other species (Pruitt-Young, 2021). 

COP26’s makeup of 30,000 delegates consisted mainly of political and business leaders, who worked to draft a document that, before the delayed end of the conference, reflected disappointment in wealthy countries’ failure to reach earlier goals of financial reparation to their poorer, more climate-stressed neighbors, as well as “rage” at ongoing resistance to urgent carbon-cutting measures (New York Times, 2021). The final document created a new “Glasgow Climate Pact” that includes accelerated carbon-reduction plans, efforts to support poorer countries in adaptation measures, and worldwide infrastructure for a carbon market, but extends the target year for emissions cut to 2030, rather than the 2025 date set in the 2015 Paris agreement – “[n]ot the stuff of triumph, but not a trainwreck, either” (Economist, 2021).   

Speeches included several long, populist ramblings (by India’s prime minister Narenda Modi, for example, who did conclude with a concrete pledge to “reach net-zero emissions by 2070” [Economist, 2021]), but some voices from marginalized communities also found a place to be heard. Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, named the climate-change-induced drought leading to failed harvests and starvation in her country, where she has seen children crying by a dried-up river after walking twelve miles to reach it with their mother. “As we sit comfortably here in Glasgow,” she called for an opening of hearts and a moment of silence for those suffering and dying in poorer countries affected most painfully by global warming (see the complete video here). As Mary Annaïse Heglar has noted, “Climate grief is not an illness to cure. It is a condition we will have to live with.” Grief can lead to courage (Marvel, 2018), if not the easy optimism some may expect from a global climate conference. 

The first week of climate talks ended with a focus on agriculture and land use, with somewhat vague pledges to increase international “dialogue” on the commodities that lead to deforestation (beef and palm oil, for example) and to promote “innovation” in sustainable farming, without the concrete goals or attention to biodiversity that protesters demanded (Economist, 2021). The second week began with discussions about adaptation to the inevitable droughts, floods, and famines that will result even in the best-case scenario of the planet’s warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and about “loss-and-damage” efforts in which wealthier countries compensate poorer ones for the damage their carbon emissions will continue to cause. These discussions have been largely disappointing for developing nations (Sengupta, 2021).

On November 10, a draft of COP26’s “cover decisions” outlined stronger pledges than in the Paris agreement to reduce emissions (and, unlike that document, actually uses the phrase “fossil fuels” [Economist, 2021]), but without mentioning specific dates or enforcement measures, and without offering developing countries the financial assistance they need to help with decarbonizing efforts. One dramatic and encouraging turn of events occurred that day, when China and the US announced a long list of future joint measures to reduce emissions in concrete ways, from research and alternative energy policies to methane reduction and bans on illegal deforestation (Economist, 2021). Critics have noted, however, that China’s methane efforts are only are their own terms, and the joint list is still not enough to curb global warming already out of control (NPR, 2021). 

At the end of the conference, the 1.5-degree goal still appears far out of reach. “Beyond that threshold,” scientific consensus warns, “the likelihood significantly increases of deadly heat waves, droughts, wildfires, floods and species extinction. The planet has already warmed by 1.1 degrees Celsius” (New York Times, 2021). With this dire situation in mind, climate activist Greta Thunberg has called COP26 a “global greenwashing festival” – using a term coined in the 1980s that refers to corporate sustainability claims that do not actually improve the environment (Watson, 2016). The “PR event” that Thunberg calls COP26 has failed to address deeper issues of “colonialism and beyond” that cost poorer countries as their wealthy counterparts show unwillingness to sacrifice fossil-fueled industrial comforts (Campbell, 2021). 

Thousands of people taking part in a demonstration against climate change in Glasgow city centre during UN COP26 climate conference on November 6, 2021. Photo: Bruno Mameli

Alongside the official meetings in Glasgow, a large-scale “counter summit” took place, drawing on indigenous and other “frontline” communities. This alternative conference also included progressive lawmakers and landworkers, along with representatives from trade unions, social justice organizations, and faith groups (Lakhani, 2021). On the design level, the summit’s website applies COP26’s signature purple background but with emergency- and heat-signaling orange as well. Images of humans attached to rising plant spores offer a sense of hope from the ground up. 

Discussion topics at this People’s Summit for Climate Justice included carbon pricing, the impact of British mining in Brazil, trauma and resilience among activists, environmental warfare in Kurdistan, and energy transitions in Latin America. The program offered virtual as well as in-person participation and translation services, to be as globally inclusive as possible. While this conference may not have been as optimistic as its official counterpart (with headlines such as “Landmark Agreements at COP26 Put Nails in Coal’s Coffin” celebrating cutbacks in large banks’ support of fossil fuels), it has taken a more local, grassroots approach that does not shy away from painful questions of colonialism, racism, and “slow violence” (see Nixon, 2011). 

Where to go from here? For all its limitations, the very fact of US-Chinese cooperation is a large and unexpected step. Financial commitments to decarbonization and reparations may materialize at least in time to keep warming below the truly catastrophic 2.7-degree increase the world is headed toward today (Chestney, 2021). Elsewhere in the world, many communities feeling the stresses of global warming still find themselves left out, however, from deforested Indigenous zones in Brazil to rural areas in France with out-of-reach gas prices, where residents feel very far away from the “green energy transition” discussed in Paris (Cohen, 2021).

Historian Andreas Malm takes a boldly Leninist approach to current climate debates, seeing the need for a revolution that actually challenges capitalism. Though Malm might be accused of “cosplaying revolution while the planet burns,” one reviewer of his new book White Skin, Black Fuel finds his attitude to be one of “tragic realism,” a historically informed climate grief that calls for courage, too (Tooze, 2021). Malm and his collective call for direct and even destructive action to dismantle new carbon-emitting machines, pipelines, and even the homes of the planet’s most damaging capitalists (see Malm et al., 2021). But this radical approach is not the only possible solution to a climate crisis that leaves no safe place on Earth (Peach, 2019).

Indigenous and other frontline leaders, like those who participated in the COP26 counter-conference, are bringing generations-deep wisdom to the crisis at hand. As Ute Indian Tribe (Utah, US) representative Braidan Weeks has put it, “Creating a sustainable future means empowering communities to take care of themselves and reassess that value of always having to produce. Why do you need five hundred pounds of tomatoes? You don’t. My community needs a hundred pounds of tomatoes and we do that by growing and sharing it together” (Bitsóí and Larsen, 2021: 67). Traditional controlled-burn practices to reduce the impact of wildfires (Sommer, 2020), international support of the Water Protectorsorganizing to stop the Dakota Pipeline in the US, and land-rights movements from the Arctic to Latin America are only a few of the efforts inspired by communities who have long put circular economies over ideologies of endless growth.  

On a smaller scale, individuals can still make a difference in choosing how to consume (or not), how to travel (or not), and how to recreate responsibly in natural areas. Developing an attitude of care that does not avoid grief or even rage is a good place to start, to cultivate the courage needed for protecting Earthly futures. For those of us lacking the youthful energy of activists like Greta Thunberg and Elizabeth Wathuti, the example of an older climate educator in Sweden is inspiring: 73-year-old Gitte H.D. has just released a “climate rap” that demonstrates how people of any age can feel and act for climate care. There’s still time to learn and change. Enjoy her video here, with the kind of concrete advice large climate conferences often fail to deliver. 

References

Bitsóí, Alastair Lee & Larsen, Brooke. Eds. (2021). New World Coming: Frontline Voices on Pandemics, Uprisings, & Climate Crisis. Salt Lake City, UT: Torrey House Press.

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Malm, Andreas & the Zetkin Collective. (2021). White Skin, Black Fuel: On the Danger of Fossil Fascism. London: Verso Books. 

A dying stalker in jacket and gloves in damaged gas mask with filter reaching out his hand to camera on destructed apocalyptic wasteland city background.

“Ruin Porn,” the Populist Apocalypse, and Art as Antidote

This commentary considers several populist frameworks for apocalyptic thinking in Europe and the US, in historical and environmental perspective, with reflection on art forms that counter right-wing “ruin value.”

By Heidi Hart

Teaching American undergraduates in Berlin in the early 2010s, I asked my students to create short documentary films in places that held particular historical interest for them. Many of them chose dystopian remnants of the former East Germany, from an empty-windowed primary school to the famous Spreepark with its silent Ferris wheel and tumbledown dinosaur parts. Following the Abandoned Berlin website, these young students on the cusp of the Instagram age were already sensitized to dystopian films and graphic novels, though the totalitarian resurgences and up-close climate crises of our current decade were yet to come. Ruins seemed fun then; Berlin’s gentrification had not yet transformed all the peeling, shell-pocked back courtyards of now trendy neighborhoods. 

Ten years later, ruins have become pathologically fun (I think of the selfie-driven tourism around Chernobyl) and at the same time painfully foreboding. Abandoned office buildings during the Covid-19 lockdown, with dead, ghostly potted plants, became a harbinger of an upended labor market amid rapidly intensifying climate disasters, from monster floods and megadroughts to heatwaves in unlikely places,  as capitalism’s costs have become apparent on a planetary scale. The “new weird” genre of film and fiction, in which strange life forms might overtake an abandoned swimming pool (as in Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation), now seems too close to home to be merely entertaining. 

Especially for climate educators, artists, and activists, ruins are more than Instagrammable tourist destinations or spine-tingling movie scenes. They are all too real, as in the loss of giant redwood trees to California wildfires, the flooding of a temple complex in Thailand, or the exposure of archaeological sites as a dam-built reservoir recedes to record low levelsin Utah. The climate crisis has made “the fragility of our collective cultural enterprise” all too clear, as “[p]apyrus rots, paper burns, museums get sacked, hard drives crash” (Scranton, 2015: 100), not to mention whole towns charred to chimney-stumps by a wildfire. 

For some populist groups, however, ruins and apocalyptic thinking hold a different and dangerous power. Instead of a sense of weirdness or “wrongness” (Fisher, 2016: 13) that might lead to critical re-evaluation of human industrial comforts, ruins in the right-wing populist or eco-fascist imagination can signal pleasure in a world without humans at all – or at least without those white supremacists would like to see gone. 

Two elderly German men, one wearing the armband signifying blindness, the other his helper, sitting on a crate amid the rubble during Battle of Berlin in May 1945. Photo: Yevgeny Khaldei – Everett Collection.

This take on what is now called “ruin porn” is not new. “Ruinenwert” or “ruin value” was “one of Hitler’s favorite concepts … actually foreseeing the future ruins that would symbolize the greatness of the Third Reich, even after the demise of the empire” (Horvat, 2021: 88-89). Going back further in German culture, ruins were a key focal point in much Romantic art (see Pinto, 2016); the aristocratic gardens designed by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe just outside Weimar include “sham ruins” to evoke the melancholy of time’s passing.   

Well aware of this history, Hitler commissioned Albert Speer in 1934 to design a Greek-inspired proto-ruin for the Zeppelinfeld rallying ground (Horvat, 2021: 88). Speer provided Hitler with “a science fiction drawing that depicted the Zeppelin Field after the Götterdämmerung – or ‘after the Apocalypse’ – overgrown with ivy and with its column fallen” (Horvat, 2021: 89) according to the National Socialist “law of ruins” (Speer, 1970: 56). More recent architectural projects in Germany (the renovation of Frankfurt’s Old Town, for example) have raised specters of Nazism not only in their valorizing of an ideal “Heimat” but also in the far-right populist views of the designers and their political supporters (Moore, 2018). 

The idea of a violent collapse of civilization (or at least the democratic version) has also regained traction among far-right groups in Germany. The case of Franco A., a soldier posing as a Syrian refugee and caught retrieving a loaded weapon from an airport bathroom in 2017, exposed a complex network of military and police personnel planning attacks on individuals and on the German government. Their goal: an unspecified date of armed insurrection that would send German democracy up in flames (Bennhold et al., 2021). 

Author Dirk Laabs has traced the spread of this far-reaching movement in a recent book that reads “like a cancer diagnosis,” describing secret meetings, weapons stashes, and contact with the AfD party, as groups with names like Uniter and Nordkreuz have  attempted to cause “Germany to fall like a house of cards on ‘Day X’” (Hemicker, 2021, translation mine). Members have ranged from elite soldiers to one of Angela Merkel’s former security officers. Though assassination plots and an attempt to storm the Reichstag in August 2020, fueled partly by anger at Covid restrictions, have mostly failed, the threat of “spontaneous” attacks remains (see Laabs, 2021). 

In addition to end-times ideologies in Europe, eco-fascist fascinations with human ruins left behind, and widespread far-right interest in the Middle Ages (often for racist reasons, imagining a “threat from the East” [S.N., 2017]), apocalyptic notions appeal strongly to many Trump supporters in the US. Building on post-9/11 wishful thinking for a conflagration in Israel that would bring about the Second Coming of Christ (as popularized in the Left Behind fiction series [see Gribben, 2004]), an ideology of Trump’s inciting chaos to accelerate the end of the world has gained traction even among those who dislike his personality (Lecaque, 2019). 

Though Trump himself is hardly a religious figure, “his lack of apparent belief in anything has freed him up to seek out and uniquely cater to whatever group would show the most allegiance” (Morris, 2020). Stacking his staff with Christian fundamentalists, inciting reactionary thinking in his rally rhetoric as well as actual chaos on the world stage, Trump appears (even after his 2020 loss) to revel in teetering at the edge of the end times. The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington evoked a Götterdämmerung atmosphere, amid economic crisis and a global pandemic. What ruins of American democracy would be left behind? 

As Amir Ahmadi Arian pointed out as early as 2017, anti-Trump apocalyptic thinking is equally dangerous. The Spiegel’s post-election cover image of Trump as an open-mouthed meteor hurtling toward Earth is one example of “push[ing] Trump so far down the ladder of evil that he ultimately ceased to be a human, and became endowed with magical destructive forces” (Arian, 2017). The risk in demonization is turning one’s enemy into a god and taking pleasure (however guiltily) in watching the world burn. 

A doll in a gas mask in abandoned city of Pripyat in Chernobyl, Ukraine, in February 2016. Photo: Ondrej Bucek

Some antidotes to enjoying the threat of destruction (or commodifying it, in the case of Chernobyl tourism) include rhetorical “prose” instead of “poetry,” as Arian suggests, as well as clear-eyed and compassionate approaches to images of loss, toxicity, and decay. A helpful model is Andrei Tarkovsky’s iconic film Stalker (1978-79), filmed in the literal ruins of a “factory and two hydroelectric plants” outside Tallinn, Estonia (Riley, 2017: 21). In the film, the “stalker” or guide leads a writer and professor into this toxic landscape (which may well have led to the director’s early death from cancer), imagined as a mysterious “Zone” where wishes can come true. It is actually a liminal space between the “remnants of a ruined civilization” and “imminent human catastrophe” (Tarkovsky, Jr., Schlegel and Schirmer, 2018: 164), where humans must come up against their limits.

This Cold War-era film, with its dripping tunnels and overgrown train tracks, may call up contemporary associations with Chernobyl, but its slowness avoids the quick thrills of “dark tourism” that trivializes places where humans and whole habitats have died. It also counters eco-fascist celebrations of “empty” landscapes. The film works as a deeply phenomenological meditation on industrial waste, but with as much attention to human pain and care as it gives to human arrogance. 

Films and artworks like Stalker that approach ruins with critical curiosity recall Jacques Derrida’s term “hauntology,”coined in a 1993 corrective to triumphalism following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Not wanting to throw Marx out with the Cold War bathwater, Derrida re-imagined the 19th-century philosopher’s thinking as a “spectre” (as in Marx’s own words about the “spectre of Communism” haunting Europe) countering neoliberal fantasies of endless growth (Salmon, 2021, Derrida, 2006). 

In the wake and waste of these fantasies, grass and water surface: “Stalker’s visual landscape represents a natural world that industrialization is incapable of industrializing, a landscape that modernization can no longer modernize” (Riley, 2017: 22). In the moment when the Stalker lies down in that grass to feel it fully, however, the film overcomes any illusion of natural “purity” restored after humans have gone. 

Still, even critical contemplation of human-made ruins can be a luxury. For Indigenous communities whose worlds have already ended, ruins are not just artifacts or aesthetic reminders of human fallibility. In 2020, the Indigenous Action group in the US released Rethinking the Apocalypse: An Indigenous Anti-Futurist Manifesto. This document refuses White end-times ideology by acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth that include human-made climate crisis. 

From a post-apocalyptic perspective that carries genocide, stolen and poisoned sacred lands, forced education and mass graves of Native children, the end of the capitalist-industrial world may mean a rebirth of more grounded values – but not in the ecofascist sense of removing humans perceived as “other.” The manifesto includes this passage, as much invocation as provocation, with a different take on “ghosts” from Derrida’s:

As Indigenous anti-futurists, we are the consequence of the history of the colonizer’s future. We are the consequence of their war against Mother Earth. We will not allow the specter of the colonizer, the ghosts of the past to haunt the ruins of this world. We are the actualization of our prophecies.

This is the re-emergence of the world of cycles.

This is our ceremony.

Between silent skies. The world breathes again and the fever subsides.

The land is quiet. Waiting for us to listen.” (Indigenous Action, 2020).

Likewise, as slave histories are rising up amid fear and backlash in the American education system, Black artists are finding powerful ways to expose their own inherited ruins. Choreographer Mayfield Brooks’ 2021 Whale Fall takes its title from the bodies of whales that fall to ruin and feed smaller creatures on the ocean floor, as a way to embody grief and regeneration through movement and sound in a bare-bones theatre. Brooks describes the piece not only as a vehicle for processing the generational trauma of slavery but also as a response to experiencing Covid; “I just felt like my body was decomposing” (Kourlas/Brooks, 2021). This slow, solitary piece ends with a trio of Black women in a ritual of nourishment after grief. 

Making art with or from ruins is not new for artists from marginalized communities. Beverly Buchanan’s 1981 Marsh Ruins is a humbler, more historically embedded land installation than ephemeral works by Andy Goldsworthy or monumental constructions by Robert Smithson. In a tidal area on the Georgia coast, Buchanan constructed mounds of tabby (“a concrete made from lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash,” once used to build slave quarters (Art Papers, 2020) that serve as carriers of collective memory. Her work responds to literal tabby ruins in the area, including the remains of a former slave hospital that inspired the artist to create a container for “loss and unknowability – affirming the incompleteness of the historical record – while also evoking strength and endurance” (Groom, 2020: 51).

Having grown up in a privileged relationship to ruins (exploring a skeletal castle near my childhood school in Germany or visiting Native American sites in the American desert), I am learning to see these remnants with more attention to histories of power and loss. I try to take to heart Beverly Buchanan’s tongue-in-cheek attitude toward tourism, making her own mock signs to direct people to her “roadside attraction” Marsh Ruins (Groom, 2020: 14). I will not be visiting Chernobyl, for all its overgrown mystique.

I am also more aware of my own tendencies to romanticize natural spaces that humans have apparently left behind, and to wish to hold memory in place – of the American mountain town where I lived before “resort” development, or the 19thcentury foundations exposed as drought dries up the local reservoir. After all, as Caitlin Desilvey has noted, “With each act of preservation, the vulnerable object becomes (a little bit of) us, and its unmaking threatens to unmake our identities as well” (2017: 13). This threat to identity can be an opportunity for more humility, for knowledge of our human limits in a world we’ve damaged beyond our own control. 

References

Berardini, Andrew. Ed. (2021). Sirenomelia: Emilija Škarnulytė. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Derrida, Jacques. (2006). Spectres of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning and the New International. Translated by Peggy Kamuf. New York: Routledge.

Desilvey, Caitlin. (2017). Curated Decay: Heritage Beyond Saving. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. 

Fisher, Mark. (2016). The Weird and the Eerie. London: Repeater Books. 

Gribben, Crawford. (2004). “Rapture Fictions and the Changing Evangelical Condition.” Literature and Theology18(1), 77–94. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23925696

Groom, Amelia. (2020). Beverley Buchanan: Marsh Ruins. Boston, MA: Afterall Books/MIT Press. 

Horvat, Srećko. (2021). After the Apocalypse. Cambridge, UK:  Polity Press.

Laabs, Dirk. (2021). Staatsfeinde in Uniform. Wie militante Rechte unsere Institutionen unterwandern. Berlin: Econ Verlag.

Pinto, J. A. (2016). “Speaking Ruins: Travelers’ Perceptions of Ancient Rome.” SiteLINES: A Journal of Place11(2), 3–5.http://www.jstor.org/stable/24889511

Riley, John. (2017). “Hauntology, Ruins, and the Failure of the Future in Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.” Journal of Film and Video. 69(1), 18–26. https://doi.org/10.5406/jfilmvideo.69.1.0018

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Speer, Albert. (1970). Inside the Third Reich. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. London:  Trafalgar Square. 

VanderMeer, Jeff. (2014). Annihilation. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 

White Mushroom. Photo: Stephan Morris

Witnessing Beyond the Human*

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

By Heidi Hart

“The poetry ancestors scattered to all parts of the world.

Each family of trees, animals, winds, stones needed a poet.”

  • Joy Harjo

As populist movements gain traction, their environmental rhetoric tends to fall into two camps: unchecked extractivism for human use and distrust of scientific expertise on the one hand (McCarthy, 2019), and ecofascist fantasies of a “pristine” world without humans (particularly immigrants) on the other (Lubarda, 2020). What links these seemingly contradictory positions is a focus on people, the key element in the term “populism.” 

In academic and artistic circles, meanwhile, efforts to de-center the human, in terms of entanglement with other species, build on older models of witnessing to create a sense of truthfulness. Whether these efforts can actually prove persuasive remains an open question, but the work of imagining non-human subjectivities may leak far enough into popular media to reach even those who distrust climate science. This paper describes projects building on the “poetry of witness” tradition and their related popular manifestations, to argue that multispecies thinking can be adapted into mainstream media and cross ideological divides. 

The wax figure of Bertolt Brecht – opening of the waxworks “Madame Tussauds”, Unter den Linden, Berlin on July 10, 2008.

Background: Human Witnessing in Words

During Nazi-era exile in Denmark, poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht responded to his times with sharp-witted ballads and elegies that mixed reportage with biblical rhythms of mourning (Greenstein, 2010: 70). In the aftermath of the Holocaust, Jewish-Romanian poet Paul Celan bore witness to the reverberations of genocide by re-enacting folksong rhythms in his poetry – and at the same time breaking down the German language that had been used in the service of unspeakable brutality (Franklin, 2020).

From the Spanish Civil War through the Vietnam era, American poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote what is now called “documentary poetry” to collect and distill traces of “the first century of world wars” (Huber, 2018). In our own time, Terrance Hayes and others have borne witness to the grief, anger, and activism rising from the death of George Floyd (Hayes, 2020). Though the “poetry of witness” tradition has suffered from white privilege and over-personalization in the US, shifting attention from “atrocities at home and abroad” (Hernández, 2021), it has been a key measure of literary trustworthiness, especially in the “post-truth” Trump era. 

Why poetry? As environmental writer Andri Snær Magnason points out, poetry allows humans to “scale up” language to meet a crisis, since we cannot amplify it the way we can numbers (Magnason, 2021). How can poetry, then, best rise to meet our present crisis on a planetary scale? How to address wildfire, mass extinction, monster hurricanes, ice loss, floods, and ocean acidification, to name just a few of the threats that seem overwhelming today? 

A more pressing question might be, how trustworthy is a human poet anyway, when humans – though with varying privileges and complicities in the carbon-industrial complex – have been the agents of a once healthy planet’s demise? Poetic efforts toward de-centering the human “I” to make room for other species’ presences, can foster complex and generous truth-telling. When spread into popular (if not populist) media, they can do at least some of the work of “transcending human-centered exceptionalism” (Demos, 2016: 19).

Build A Bear Lion King display in Arrowhead mall in Glendale, Arizona, USA on July 29, 2019. Photo: E. Murphy.

Making Room for Other Species

In his book The Media Ecosystem, Antonio López describes a process of decolonizing what he calls media “monoculture,” in which Disney monopolizes “magic” (López, 2012: 9) and TV “teaches us what is normal by showing us that common people are middle class, white suburbanites” (57). Metaphorically applying principles of regenerative agriculture and even Bill McKibben’s “media equivalent of the farmer’s market” (143) can aid in disrupting a hegemonic media landscape, as can learning about Indigenous practices of community ritual and collaboration. 

Likewise, a literary geography of well-educated humans writing testimonials of their time on Earth can be a form of “monocropping,” too, not only in shutting out less privileged voices but also in assuming that only human perspectives count. Looking to older sources than Disneyfied talking animals, López points out that “[t]races of our ancient past can be found in how children are allowed to play as if animals, plants, or spirits can talk to them” (9). He cites Hayao Miyazaki’s films as a strong example of “respectful tales of nature spirits” and “ecological allegories of connection” (9). He also describes do-it-yourself, collage-like punk aesthetics as ways of being “more than a witness” in making “something participatory and real” (29)

Even for environmentally engaged writers and artists, stepping aside to listen to other species does require some DIY resourcefulness – and most of all humility, as humans are just beginning to understand how an octopus, a fungus, or a forest experiences the world. Philosopher Vinciane Despret’s attempts to understand animal subjectivity often take the form of questions, as in her alphabet-structured book What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (2016), because the answers are still piecemeal and contingent. 

Donna Haraway, known for her influential thinking on multispecies entanglements, cautions against essentializing groups of animals, humans included. This point is a helpful antidote to right-wing, populist thinking that privileges humans over all other species, either by promoting unchecked growth or by wishing humankind away from an imagined, pristine “Nature.” “Individual critters matter,” Haraway writes; “they are mortal and fleshly knottings, not ultimate units of being” (Haraway, 2008: 88)

Because human understanding of nonhuman subjectivity is so difficult, “stories built through layered and disparate practices of being and knowing” (Tsing, 2015: 159) may be the best approach. This can take time and many false starts. Even clumsy reckoning with other species’ perspectives can yield a strange, new insight: “[t]he way selves relate is not necessarily akin to the ways in which words relate to each other in that system we call language” (Kohn, 2013: 100)

Photo: Dora Zett

Risking Interspecies Poetics

For all the difficulty and even impossibility of meeting other species in words, poets have tried for centuries to do exactly this. Christopher Smart’s eighteenth-century meditation on his cat, “Jubilate Agno,” written at great length while in a London asylum, is equal parts biblical cadence and playful invention. The descriptive poem, in which an animal or plant is treated from a distance (and often given quasi-totemic power in a moment of personal realization), has continued to be the most accessible mode of human-nonhuman literary encounter. 

In the time of mass extinction combined with pandemic lockdown, the elegiac mode for mourning lost species has taken on new digital dimensions. The Vigil for the Smooth Handfish project, presented by the Parallel Effect for Lost Species Day in November 2020, was a scheduled online event that featured an animated image of a now-extinct fish that did appear to have hands, along with original poems and songs. The overall goal was to encourage participants to slow down, take time for a contemplative experience amid the confusions of the COVID year, and allow grief even for a small fish most people had never heard of to open a “space for a digital congregation, to contemplate loss, grief, the parameters of care, the interconnectedness of conservation and radical hope, and ‘collaborative survival’” (Parallel Effect, 2020). 

Another literary mode of approaching other species is the persona poem, in which the speaker takes on the “voice” of another creature or entity. Not surprisingly, this style of poetry is popular for schoolchildren, as in an Arizona writing program that includes “Poems by Pets” (Grunberger, n.d.), though the fictional mode of “zoopoetics” can be traced through the works of Kafka and into science fiction such as Octavia Butler’s Clay Ark (Magnone, 2016). Contemporary poets seeking contact with other species’ subjectivities tend to avoid speaking directly in nonhuman voices, knowing the ethical problems of presuming that “speech” (see Appadurai, 1988: 17, 20).

American Navajo (Diné) poet Tacy Atsitty’s speaker-persona slips obliquely in and out of nonhuman attributes, imagining what a cow needs, licking salt, and needing to be reminded “how I am human” (Atsitty, 2018: 25, 71). Turkish poet Ece Temelkuran takes another sidelong approach, in a collection titled “Meadow: The Explorer Encounters the Virtues in the Shapes of Animals” (2010). The poet’s impulse is to wriggle as closely as possible to her mysterious subjects (“I removed/ my eyes, thrust them under the earth,” 32) but she realizes that, in the case of a black swan, “She is none of the stories made up about her” (37).

Some poets test these limits, taking multispecies witnessing as a challenge. On one end of the risk spectrum, Brazilian poet Sérgio Madeiros keeps his words on the page but saturates them “in animist epistemologies that disperse divinity and personhood across a broad spectrum of beings,” such as a soldier in dialogue with a tapir “also identified as an old woman and a cannibal soul,” creating a “pluriverse” informed by Indigenous storytelling, Zen poetry, and avant-garde aesthetics, in an effort to resist human exceptionalism (McNee, 2017)

On the other end of the risk spectrum, multispecies researcher Eben Kirksey has experimented with biopoetic storytelling, in collaboration with chytrid fungi that reproduce with zoospores. Offering “death back to life, by offering bits of stuff to them – bait, like baby hair, pollen, or hemp,” this “composition without a composer or conductor” allows for decentralized creativity in a “cascade of reactions” (Kirksey, 2019). If this approach seems too lab-intensive, too biologically invasive, or too problematic in light of chytrids’ role in Central and South American frog extinctions (Platt, 2021) to work as trustworthy witnessing, there is a middle ground, a poetics of voice that allows nonhuman voices to be heard as well.

Two hooded crows are fighting on the summer lawn. Photo: Oleg Elkov.

US Poet Laureate and jazz musician Joy Harjo (Muscogee Nation) writes in playful relationship with other species, notably the crow. In an intertitle section of her 2015 book Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings, she writes, “Humans in this world fall too easily to war, are quick to take offense, and claim ownership. ‘What drama,’ said crow, dodging traffic as he wrestled a piece of road kill,” (Harjo, 2015: 24)

In her 2010 album Red Dream, Trail Beyond Tears, Harjo sings with a crow. The song “Urban Crow Dance” emerged after “a crow followed me to the studio the first session,” the poet recalls (Harjo, 2010). With an underlying drone, syncopated percussion, flute, and the crow’s own voice, Harjo speak-sings, “C’mon, crow!  Dance!” She counts out the dance beat, lets her voice recede, and banters with the bird “(“Be that way, then!”), imitating his call as the song ends. Somehow this interaction sounds as respectful as it is awkward, with two voices meeting in equal, playful author-ity. Harjo’s Native heritage, with generations of human-animal storytelling, gives her the credibility to take this risk. 

Recording and interacting with animal voices (as in the many jazz responses to whale song [e.g. Rothenberg and Saarimaki, 2015]) is of course nothing new. Bernie Krause’s Great Animal Orchestra project has led not only to the pleasures of multispecies listening but also to groundbreaking research on biophony, leading to the “acoustic niche hypothesis” (Krause, 2016) in which different creatures adjust their frequencies to create individual sonic territories and adapt to other species’ soundworlds. Moths jam bats’ echolocation signals, for example, and in return bats “have managed to figure out what the moths are doing and have adjusted their echoing signal from a loud ping to a soft whisper” in order to “creep up on their prey, drawing to within a wing’s length without being detected” (Krause, 2012: 97).

Scientific discoveries aside, though, the widespread practice of field recording risks artistic extractivism or what Dylan Robinson has called “hungry listening” (Robinson, 2020). From Indigenous perspectives, sound collection can be a form of consumption, of wanting to claim and fix sensory material in place. Likewise, relying only on human emotions as a channel for understanding non-human experience can risk shallow empathy rather than real engagement, as in the controversial work of Peter Wolhlleben, whose Secret Life of Trees has reached a wide audience by describing botanical “emotions” while sidestepping scientific forestry research and practice (Kingsland, 2018).

Poetry and other art forms that include nonhuman voices are most generous when they allow for the unexpected, for the awkward pause or caw, for a moment of being “beside ourselves” as humans (Kirksey, 2019). An attitude of “guest listening” and of witnessing through conversation rather than monologue (Robinson, 2020: 53, 70-71) can open a space for other species to be at once surprising and less “other” – simply themselves. 

Common octopus (Octopus vulgaris). Photo: Vladimir Wrangel.

More-than-human Witnessing in Popular Media

While poets, artists, and environmental humanities scholars have been finding ways to imagine nonhuman subjectivities, scientific researchers with communicative gifts have entered this stream, too. Suzanne Simard, a silviculturalist or forest scientist, has succeeded where Wohlleben’s project, however popular, has fallen short. Her new book Finding the Mother Tree draws on decades of research into ectomycorrhizal fungi that form communicative networks under the visible forest, an idea that has gone viral in human parlance as the “wood wide web.” Though Simard still uses anthropomorphic terms like “matriarch,” her clear and compelling writing helps general readers understand how trees pass information from generation to generation, adapting “energy flow” to changing conditions (Simard, 2021; Slaght, 2021).

In a similar, reciprocal flow between research and art, Maya Lin’s Ghost Forest uses visual poetry to reach a wide human audience in New York’s Madison Square Park. A grove of giant, leafless Atlantic white cedar trees, earlier slated for clearing in New Jersey, has taken up residence in a public space. The towering, lifeless trees speak for themselves witnesses to ecological vulnerability, as actual “ghost forests” appear more and more frequently in US coastal areas (Smith, 2021)

Less charismatic species, such as kelp or mushrooms, have also gained in mainstream awareness – and not only because of their nutritional or psychedelic potential. The 2019 Kelp Congress in northern Norway attracted not only artists and researchers but practically the whole town of Svolvær as well, as citizens marched in a ceremony honoring the kelp that had saved several villagers from a Nazi assault on their town – by providing smelly but effective cover for several days (Johannessen, 2019). Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s scholarly book The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) may have a daunting title, but it laid the groundwork for such popular projects as Louie Schwartzberg’s 2019 film Fantastic Fungi and widespread at-home mushroom cultivation as a “new pandemic hobby” (Matei, 2021)

As for the charismatic whales, elephants, and household pets treated as subjects of popular books and TV shows on “how animals think” or “how animals communicate,” this is nothing new; nature documentaries have been reaching mainstream audiences for decades. What climate crisis and the looming sixth mass extinction have added to the picture is a dual sense of urgency and intimacy. 

The 2020 Oscar-winning film My Octopus Teacher is a human act of witnessing, but one that shows new possibilities of interspecies connection in a rapidly warming ocean environment. Though filmmaker Craig Foster edited the project heavily to create a narrative arc about his own healing from depression through a “love story” with another creature (Thiyagarajan, 2020), the film has reached a far wider audience than scholarly or poetic efforts to come close to a nonhuman “other.” Perhaps such projects can shift even a populist imagination away from either a “people only” or a “world without people” ideology.  

Conclusion

The “poetry of witness” tradition ranges from Brecht’s Nazi-era ballads, Paul Celan’s broken German folk rhythms, and Muriel Rukeyser’s documentary lyrics on the Vietnam War to Terrance Hayes’ recent poem on the killing of George Floyd. As important as these works continue to be, with textual gestures that communicate trustworthiness, human-centered witnessing is now coming into question. Climate crisis and pandemic have led to a heightened sense of human fragility and ecological interconnectedness. Witnessing beyond the human can take many forms; when it enters the popular (and even populist) imagination, it holds the possibility of greater empathy for other species.

Works that include other species’ sounds are difficult to present without coming across as precious or extractivist. Still, this can be done with playfulness and openness to chance, as in Joy Harjo’s jazz-inflected “Urban Crow Dance.” As artist and activist Olafur Eliasson has put it, “The fastest way to make a populist into a humanist is to listen,” in an artistic experience that encourages openness and empathy (Lauter, 2021). This applies to more-than-human empathy as well. 

As I have considered a range of works that de-center human author-ity to make room for other species, I am well aware of the imaginative leap such works require. To return to the Kelp Congress in Norway in 2019, one helpful guide for researchers and artists was a speculative philosophy text by Emanuele Coccia, “The Cosmic Garden”:

“Imagine you have no eyes. There are no colors in front of you. No forms. No patterns. No outlines. The world is not a variety of bodies and intensities of light. It is a unique body with different degrees of penetrability.

Imagine you have no ears. There are no noises, no music, no calls, no language you can understand. Everything is but a silent excitement of matter,” (Coccia, 2019: 17).

The text goes on to ask the reader to imagine having no legs, no arms, no hands, no “movement organs” (Coccia, 2019: 18), only a penetrable and penetrating presence in a fluid world. These words, which do not pretend to “be” an entity like giant kelp but rather press toward imagining its experience, allow the gap between us to remain. This humility in witness, knowing how far the writer is from really knowing how it is to be a plant, is what makes the text trustworthy.

The distance between humans and nonhumans, however inspiring moments of unexpected connection (the crow following Joy Harjo to the recording studio, for example), is no reason for despair. As climate-aware writers and artists test the limits of interspecies poetics, it is helpful to remember “the animal dimension in my own speaking” and even writing (Abram, 2010: 168) as the body leans forward to think through a phrase, and as the voice grows quieter or louder to make an urgent point. 

A beyond-human poem, or a book or film or even viral video, can be a kind of kin, too (Robinson, 2020: 95), expanding beyond what populist rhetoric (either human-focused or anti-human) counts as valuable. These varied forms of witnessing in human language, even in the effort to move beyond it, create a system of reaching relations, like tentacles spreading to touch, if not completely comprehend, the pluriverse in which we live. 

(*) This article is adapted from a paper presented at the 2021 conference Trust Me! Truthfulness and Truth Claims Across Media, Linnaeus University, Sweden. 


References

Abram, David. (2010). Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 2010.

Appadurai, Arjun. (1988). “Introduction: Place and Voice in Anthropological Theory.” Cultural Anthropology. Vol. 3, No. 1: 16–20.

Atsitty, Tacey M. (2018). Rain Scald: Poems. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Bilodeau, Chantal. (2015). Sila: A Play. Vancouver, B.C.: Talonbooks.

Chaudry, Una & Hughes, Holly. Eds. (2014). Animal Acts: Performing Species Today. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press. 

Coccia, Emanuele. (2018). “The cosmic garden.” In J. Andermann, L. Blackmore, & D. Morell, Editors, Natura: Environmental aesthetics after landscape.17-29. Zurich: Diaphanes.

Demos, T.J. (2016). Decolonizing Nature: Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Despret, Vinciane. (2016). What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? Translated by Brett Buchanan. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Greenstein, Edward L. (2010). “Lamentation and Lament in the Hebrew Bible.” In: K. Weisman, Editor. Oxford Handbook of the Elegy. 67-84. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Haraway, Donna J. (2008). When Species Meet. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Harjo, Joy. (2015). Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. New York, NY: W.W. Norton.

Kirksey, Eben. “Molecular Intra-Actions: Storytelling with Chytrids.” Keynote address, Multispecies Storytelling in Intermedial Practices conference, Linnaeus University, Sweden, 23.01.19. 

Krause, Bernie. (2012). The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places. New York, NY: Little, Brown & Co.

López, Antonio. (2012). The Media Ecosystem: What Ecology Can Teach Us About Responsible Media Practice. Berkeley, CA: Evolver Editions.

Moe, Aaron M. (2014). Zoopoetics: Animals and the Making of Poetry. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Robinson, Dylan. (2020). Hungry Listening: Resonant Theory for Indigenous Sound Studies. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Simard, Suzanne. (2021). Finding the Mother Tree: Discovering Wisdom in the Forest. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.  

Temelkuran, Ece. (2010). Book of the Edge. Translated by Deniz Perin. Rochester, NY: Boa Editions.

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. (2015). The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. 

Young, James O. (2010). Cultural Appropriation and the Arts. Chichester, UK: Blackwell.

Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change in Stockholm, Sweden on April 12, 2019. Photo: Per Grunditz

Snowflake Resistance: Protecting the Paris Agreement Against Populism

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.

By Iysha Arun

Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.” 

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.

The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.

Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019), Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.

However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.

In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance

Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020)

Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008)

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020)

Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”

Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.


References

— (2016). “France’s Sarkozy says population bigger threat than climate change.” Reuters. September 16, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/cnews-us-france-politics-sarkozy-climate-idCAKCN11L2UD (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2017). “Climate change adaptation: our position.” Friends of the Earth. November 27, 2017. https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/policy-positions/climate-change-adaptation-our-position#:~:text=The%20Intergovernmental%20Panel%20on%20Climate,members%20of%20society%20can%20benefit (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019. IDMChttps://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2019/  (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). “Remarks at 2019 Climate Action Summit.” United Nations Secretary-General. September 23, 2019. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-23/remarks-2019-climate-action-summit#:~:text=Our%20warming%20earth%20is%20issuing,rising%20and%20oceans%20are%20acidifying (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2020). Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council. United Nations. July 24, 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14260.doc.htm (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Baird, Rachel. (2008). “Briefing: The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group International. https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-524-The-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on-Minorities-and-Indigenous-Peoples.pdf (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Bugden, Dylan. (2020). “Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools.” Socius : Sociological Research for a Dynamic World6https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120925949

Cho, Renee. (2019). “How Climate Change Impacts the Economy.” State of the Planet. June 20, 2019.https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/06/20/climate-change-economy-impacts/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Draxler, Breanna. (2020). “The Power of Inclusive, Intergenerational Climate Activism.” YES! September 21, 2020. https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2020/09/21/intergenerational-climate-activism (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Goulard, Hortense. (2016). “Nicolas Sarkozy says climate change not caused by man.” Politico. September 14, 2016. https://www.politico.eu/article/nicolas-sarkozy-says-climate-change-not-caused-by-man-cop-21/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Todd, Eloise & Parker, Laura. (2019). “Facing up to climate change means facing down the European far right.” The Independent. May 14, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-party-farage-european-elections-climate-change-far-right-eu-a8912821.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Vicedo-Cabrera, A. et al. (2018). “Temperature-related mortality impacts under and beyond Paris Agreement climate change scenarios.” Climatic Change150(3), 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2274-3

Williscroft-Ferris, Lee. (2017). “Sustained Intersectional Resistance Can Defeat The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism.”HuffPost UK. January 24, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lee-williscroftferris/intersectional-feminism_b_14343214.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

People hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against Donald Trump's environmental policy at conference attended by Trump climate advisor Myron Ebell in Brussels, Belgium on Feb. 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Michael M. Bell: We have to understand knowledge as a social relation to understand authoritarian environmental populism

Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.”  “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart 

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.

Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”

Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.   

He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other. In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?

That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.

Count On Us Women’s March 2020: Reporter asking protesters about their Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler comparison sign in Washington D.C. on October 17, 2020. Photo: Julian Leshay

Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles

Heidi Hart: Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?

Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.

In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.

Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?

Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.

Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.

The Kehlsteinhaus (also known as the Eagle’s Nest) on top of the Kehlstein at 1.834m is the formerly Hitler’s home and southern headquarters in Berchtesgad, Germany.

An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument

Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?

Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.

I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”

So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.

We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.

Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?

Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.

Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?

Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News?  There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.

One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.

When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse

Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?

Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].

Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?

Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.

Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?

Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.

Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out

Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.

Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.

A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”

Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.

Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.

Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.

Who is Michael Mayerfeld Bell?

Michael M. Bell is an author and scholar, as well as a composer and performing musician. Bell is the author or editor of eleven books, three of which have won national awards. His most recent books are the Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Cambridge, 2020; Legun, Keller, Carolan, and Bell, eds.), the 6th edition of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (Sage, 2020; Bell, Ashwood, Leslie, and Schlachter), and City of the Good: Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What Is Right (Princeton, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the sociology of heritage, with Jason Orne and Loka Ashwood.

Professor Bell serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, as well as a member of the faculty of the Agroecology Program, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and the Religious Studies Program.

Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.

Pollution

Whose Anthropocene? Climate Grief and Climate Justice

This commentary considers problems of privilege in climate anxiety and grief, asking which humans have left the deepest marks in planetary history, in the sense of the Anthropocene or “human age,” and who will suffer most as a result. 

By Heidi Hart

If far-right populism favors only certain people, in the sense of “Herrenvolk democracy” or populism for the white and preferably wealthy, does the climate-active left risk exclusionary thinking as well? When discussing the Anthropocene, an often contested but still useful term for the human age on earth, which humans’ traces in the geologic record hold most weight? Who has done the most to add untenable amounts of carbon to the atmosphere, and who will suffer most as a result? What about thinking beyond the human, to grieve endangered and already lost species? And whose voices are heard most loudly, asking these questions?

The realities of climate collapse can feel overwhelming, even for those not yet directly affected. I recently came up against a blind spot in my own work, curating a climate grief project involving mostly white women, when I read a thoughtful essay on the “whiteness of climate anxiety.”  Sarah Jaquette Ray (2021) asks an even more pressing question than in my list above: “is climate anxiety just code for white people wishing to hold onto their way of life or get ‘back to normal,’ to the comforts of their privilege?” She notes that ecoanxiety (a term the American Psychological Association defines as “chronic fear of environmental doom” (Clayton et al., 2017) can lead to “eugenic thinking” (Wilson, 2018) and other explicitly racist aspects of ecofascism.  

This sounds like a dramatic leap, especially for well-meaning environmentalists who may have delighted in Covid-era news of quieting oceans, goats meandering down Welsh streets, or dolphins swimming in Venice canals, however, false many of those reports (Daly, 2020) and who now bemoan the return of carbon-emitting, human-driven machines to the roads, seas, and skies. This seems like an innocent and even virtuous outlook. But when I hear casual comments about “the planet telling us to go away,” I now hear a dangerous implication there, too, one that I have felt myself in fantasies of green growth overtaking highways and the windows of suburban homes. If humans are a part of nature, too, we need to repair and adapt without simply imagining our own demise – or worse, that of those who lack the resources to make art about their fear and grief.

Anxiety about impending floods and wildfires is easier to bear when you can afford to move away. The pang of having to give up transatlantic flights, red meat, or the Instagram excesses of fast fashion is hardly the pain of losing one’s home with nowhere to go, or of having to keep working in dangerous conditions while others enjoy remote work, in a pandemic that is also tied to climate crisis through habitat loss. From this perspective, even grief for lost species, performed in contemplative, virtual art experiences such as Parallel Effect’s Vigil for the Smooth Handfish (2020) begins to feel like something of a luxury. So does the pleasure of watching dystopian films and TV series, designed by corporate media that “gauge the sociopolitical moment and hope to capture audiences who are now sensitized to dangers without taking things so far as to alienate audiences or the conservatives” (Kaplan, 2016: 12)

Superkilen public space in immigrant neighborhood in Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

When confronted with the problem of art as luxury, I have to step back and remember the motivation for my own curatorial project. During a fall 2020 workshop at the Sixty-Eight Art Institute in Copenhagen, I was faced with the choice between holding onto hope for a return to planetary “normalcy” and accepting that climate collapse is already happening. Even the conceptual move of acceptance led to an embodied reaction (panic, heaviness, confusion about where to turn my attention) and a need for help in the process of grief. I recalled the practice of music thanatology, or improvising harp music in response to a dying human body, and I wondered what would happen if that practice were extended to the collective grief for the world as we humans know it. 

Six months later, the project is developing into an international constellation of public events, audiovisual art, and “extinction theatre.” The goal is not to wallow in despair (another critique of “collapsology”) but to face loss – not only of endangered species but also of our own innocence and environmentally costly comforts – in order to move forward into new ideas for the future.  As Roy Scranton (2015) puts it, in his influential book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene, “as biological and cultural diversity is threatened across the world by capitalist monoculture and mass extinction, we must build arks: not just biological arks, to carry forward endangered genetic data, but also cultural arks, to carry forward endangered wisdom” (109). Our Climate Thanatology project is an ark of sorts, a holding place for a moment of realization: we are losing the planet we know, and everyone will be affected, as all have been by the pandemic.

Humans and other species are inextricably linked in the “biocultural phenomenon” of extinction (Rose et al., 2017: 5). But because not all will be harmed in the same way, the situation calls for change, too, in individual choices and in institutional power structures. But how to move toward change, a change based on climate justice, not only for endangered plants and animals but for the humans suffering as well?  Part of our project is to learn from Shoshone tribal leader Darren Parry (interviewed here last month) to better understand collective grief from the perspective of a descendant of massacre survivors in the American West. Learning how generational grief and restoration can occur, not only in families but also in the land itself, can help us better imagine the long-term process of coming to terms with a damaged planet, and our complicity in that. 

We are also questioning “who counts as a witness” (Nixon, 2011: 16) in places struck by climate trauma. Because most of our work takes place in Scandinavia, we are well aware of the uncomfortably hot summers that are quickly becoming a “new normal” (Steinthorsdottir, 2019), but we have not arrived here after fleeing war, fire, drought, or flood. Seeing our arts constellation as a tool and not as an end in itself is helpful. As we prepare for public programs in Copenhagen, learning from refugee communities will be a part of our project, with awareness that they have their own criticality and imaginative work to contribute. 

Assistens Kirkegård (Lost Species Walk), Copenhagen. Photo: Heidi Hart

One of our events is a Lost Species Walk in Assistens Kirkegård, the historic welfare cemetery in a part of the city now chafing at “ghetto” status (Achiume, 2020). Participating in a parallel walk through the Refugee Voices Tours project will help us to see the city as an ecosystem that complicates Copenhagen’s “greenest city” reputation and that includes grief over lost homelands. We do not want to be “extractive” as many public programs are, in borrowing from other cultures for their own use, however inclusive they proport to be (Costanza-Chock, 2020: 89).  We want to learn what we are missing. 

Our collective is also learning from other climate grief projects as they do their own reckonings with privilege. For example, the Remembrance Day for Lost Species project recently hosted a video presentation on their process of understanding terms like “extinction” … “in terms of violence [and] its use in white and Euro-centric discourses to invisibilize, justify and even promote colonial acts” (Mitchell, 2020). As I work to develop a curatorial methodology, I am also learning from museum workers who critique nationalist and exclusionary practices in order to “drop the usual contrast between a supposedly sealed ‘inside’ and a critical ‘outside’” in exhibition spaces (Bayer et al., 2021: 24)

If the Anthropocene has become a “loaded term for the end to the dream/nightmare of a hyper-separated nature” (Rose et al., 2017: 5), this demise is also an opportunity. Naming a geologic age after ourselves risks human hubris, certainly, but it also allows for critical distance. When that space opens up, it is no surprise if grief enters. To see consumer and corporate excesses and their costs to others (human or not) can be painful. I recently came across these lines in a new book on waste published in Denmark (Frantzen, 2021), quoting the poet Inger Christensen (translation mine): 

Now we turn on the light. Somewhere we use up

long-concentrated plankton. Humans

consuming a million summers a day. 

Clear seeing, however difficult, can lead to clarity in action, too. We can’t get those “million summers” back, but we can grieve the loss and imagine a more responsible future that puts care before consumption and community, for humans and other species, before post-human dreams. 


References

Bayer, Natalie; Belinda Kazeem-Kaminski and Sternfeld, Nora. (2021). Curating as Anti-Racist Practice. Espoo, Finland and Vienna: Aalto ARTS Books/University of Applied Arts Vienna.

Costanza-Chock, Sasha. (2020). Design Justice: Community-led Practices to Build the Worlds We Need. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Frantzen, Mikkel Krause. (2021). Klodens Fald. Copenhagen: Laboratory for Aesthetics and Ecology Publications.

Kaplan, E. Ann. (2016). Climate Trauma: Foreseeing the Future in Dystopian Film and Fiction. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press. 

Nixon, Rob. (2011). Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

Rose, Deborah; van Dooren, Thom and Chrulew, Matthew. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Scranton, Roy. (2015). Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization. San Francisco, CA: City Lights.

Dreamcatchers in a breeze in Monument Valley, Utah, USA.  Photo: Jane Rix

Shoshone Nation leader Darren Parry: All decisions should be based on the ‘seventh generation’ principle

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart

Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.

Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”

Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.

After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.

Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City.

 

The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.

Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?

We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.

When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.

At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.

The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.

Heidi Hart: Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?

Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.

Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?

I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.

‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’

Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?

That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.

Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.

What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.

Winter on the Bear River near Brigham City Utah. Photo: Josh Munns

Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?

I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?

So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.

‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’

Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?

I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …

When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?

But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.

It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.

Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?

That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.

For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.

When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].

‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’

They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.

People in native Indian clothes performing a traditional dance in front of the world famous Monument valley rock formations in Utah in 2013. Photo: Milan Rademakers

Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?

Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.

So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.

I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.

Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?

That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.

‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’

However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.

Shoshone Falls in southern Utah.

Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?

I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?

I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.

The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements”.

Everybody Wants to Be ‘Origines’: Nativism, Neo-pagan Appropriation, and Ecofascism*

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods.

By Heidi Hart

Introduction: Primeval Streaming

In the Netflix series Tribes of Europa, a group of post-apocalyptic survivors has retreated to the forest, where they live “happily” and “in harmony with nature,” to quote the opening voiceover (Netflix, 2021). These “Origines” live protected, or so they think, from the other tribes warring over the former European territories, decimated by an unexplained global and technological meltdown in 2029. The sudden crash of a drone-like object in the forest drives the series’ central conflict, resulting in heavy bloodshed between the Origines and rival tribes. 

The Origines call their forest home “Refugium,” fear another tribe called “Crows” (a name that would carry obvious racist overtones in the US), and utter lines such as “We are the voices of the forest, the blood of the earth, and the breath of the wind.” These lines ring painfully close to Blut und Boden Nazi rhetoric. The Origines’ unironic use of the word “Heimat” is also problematic, in light of the Nazi fetishization of that term, for all the critical cultural work around it in the decades of Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or reckoning with the past, in Germany (Krug, 2018). In one of the opening scenes, the young protagonists’ dancing to a contemporary indie rap song gives a sense of forgetfulness of that past, as does the series’ Game of Thrones-like aesthetic of violence and torture (see Gjelsvik and Schubart, 2016)

According to series creator Philip Koch, the “shock” of Brexit led him to develop this dystopian-utopian fantasy (Scott, 2021), with its “ruin porn” (Riley, 2017) of abandoned concrete structures and geodesic dwellings in the woods. The idea of a destroyed European Union certainly haunts the series, but on a deeper level, it echoes back-to-nature fascinations on both the political right and left, especially in a time of ecological collapse. The nativist idea of retreating to one’s roots, to an imagined state of Indigeneity, or to an impossibly “virgin” wilderness (see Solnit, 1994: 52) may seem like a 1970s hippie fantasy and is certainly nothing new, but it has gained traction as ecological anxiety and COVID-driven outdoor adventurism have led more privileged humans to bake sourdough, take to the road in converted vans (Anderson, 2020), and watch screen fantasies of a simpler life in the woods. 

This paper explores the tensions that emerge in neo-pagan media and practices, when they appeal not only to far-right enthusiasts but also to those with a left-leaning, environmentalist bent. New Age appropriation of Indigenous cultures and the anti-human temptations of ecofascism further complicate the picture. Ultimately, any group that follows a purity mentality, seeking deep, unadulterated roots in nature, risks nativist thinking and exclusion of those without the privilege of imagining themselves doing heroic deeds in equally imaginary, old-growth woods. 

The Real Barbarians?

COVID-era Netflix offers another pagan fantasia to viewers more or less confined indoors. Like Tribes of EuropaBarbarians is informed by Game of Thrones and the recent explosion of “Viking TV.” This series also valorizes forest-dwelling as Heimat and, in its real-life historical setting, portrays the Romans as vicious colonialists who not only demand unreasonable tributes from their Germanic neighbors but behead and crucify them as well. Blonde tribal teens appear as innocent, playful, and fierce when necessary. They joke about human sacrifice and fear the wolves on the outskirts of the forest, a repeated motif that comes uncomfortably close to contemporary anti-immigrant rhetoric blaming the “wolf” of fairy-tale infamy in Germany (Bennhold, 2019). A key moment occurs when the young heroine Thusnelda takes the heraldic eagle from the Romans, making it a tribal icon – with its inevitable future on the German flag. 

The invading Romans come across as the “true” barbarians here, fitting paradoxically into liberal, post-colonial critique as much as they do into nativist, pro-Germanic narrative. Meanwhile, the series’ torchlit ceremonies and marches recall atavistic Nazi aesthetics, as does its “primeval forest” or “Urwald” setting, not far from that of the 1936 propaganda film Ewiger Wald, or Eternal Forest, which has found a new generation of fans on white supremacist websites. Both that film and the Netflix series focus on the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, a weighty historical moment for the German far right (see Winkler, 2015). Though Barbarians writer Arne Nolting claims that part of the series’ goal is to reclaim this material, Teutoburg Forest remains a pilgrimage site, and the battle that took place there is “an ideological rallying point” for white supremacists (Rogers, 2020). German Studies scholars have expressed concern, via social media threads (see Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum, 28 October 2020), that this series also promotes essentialist thinking and toxic masculinity. 

Some neo-pagans claim that, although their Germanic ancestors (literal or figurative) may have beaten back the Romans in 9 A.D., they have long been a “conquered people” (Lindenschmidt, 2015) under Christianity, and their practices constitute anti-colonial resistance. Combined with the idea that “when they destroyed paganism, Christians made exploiting nature possible” (Kaplan, 2016: 27), a Romantic inheritance with appeal to the ecologically conscious left, especially in light of many evangelical Christians’ support of Trump in the US, neo-paganism’s ideological tangle remains complex. 

Martin Heidegger.

Roots and Purity

Concepts of ancestral “roots” and “unspoiled” countryside have a long and tangled history, too, especially in German culture, and not just because of these ideas’ appeal in stereotypically xenophobic, rural communities. The still-influential philosopher Martin Heidegger, an unapologetic member of the Nazi party, extended his love of the literal forest to ideas of rootedness in language and existence itself, “not simply a rootedness in the soil, in the past, or in the tradition from which one ‘views’ the world” but “something concealed, mysterious, and chthonic whose meaning lies hidden beneath the surface of the earth” and that validates the “destiny of a Volk” (Bambach, 2003: 19). His quasi-poetic wordplay shows a fascination with etymology as a depth-seeking practice: where is a German word’s most profound origin, and what does that mean for a nativist sense of identity? In his 1951 “Bauen Wohnen Denken,” Heidegger traces the German verb “bauen” (“build”) vertically back to the Old High German (and Old English) “buan,” or “to dwell in one place;” he then relates this word horizontally to “ich bin” (“I am”), linking dwelling with Being itself (Heidegger, 1977: 324-325).

This close link between home and existence, and the fascination with what lies underneath the ground, continues to surface in German literature and film, and not always with ill-considered tribal forest scenes. For example, novelist Jenny Erpenbeck’s critically sensitive take on the Heimat problem, Heimsuchung (Visitation or Haunting, 2008), treats historical trauma in a way that reverberates in one piece of land over centuries, with particular attention to the years during and after the Second World War (Goodbody, 2016). The philosophically informed and ecologically terrifying Netflix series Dark invites viewers to ask why a cave in the woods can have such a strong pull, and how much damage humans can do to each other once inside it. 

One writer responding directly to the toxic aspects of Heidegger’s nature-driven thought is Elfriede Jelinek, best known for her unsparing critiques of Austrian “whipped cream” culture and the violence it sugarcoats, for example in her novel Die Klavierspielerin or The Piano Teacher (Hanssen, 1996). Jelinek’s 1991 spoken-text play Totenauberg (its title a play on the name of Heidegger’s Black Forest cabin) includes an “old man” character (Heidegger) and a “middle-aged woman,” meant to stand for Hannah Arendt, the philosopher who was Heidegger’s sometime lover and, in what gave their relationship an excruciating twist, a Jewish antifascist who, with her teacher Karl Jaspers, coined the term “banality of evil” when writing about the Nuremberg trials (Diner and Bashaw, 1997).

Totenauberg is not just a dialogue between these two historical figures, though, as Jelinek also includes skiers and other performance athletes, some hunters and men in Tracht (traditional Bavarian dress), and even a few cheerleaders. As the “old man” laments that nature has simply become an image for those who consume it (in a statement foretelling today’s outdoor selfie culture), the other nature enthusiasts lay their claims to “authentic” enjoyment of the woods and mountains (see Jelinek, 1991: 25). This text shows, uncomfortably, how outdoor recreation can be as much about ego as eco-awareness, and how concerns about the purity of that enjoyment cross conventional political lines. 

Mad vikings warriors in the attack, running along the shore with Drakkar on the background.

Current Nativist Tensions

In our present moment, the appeal of purity culture across the political spectrum (from the vegetarian “QAnon shaman” who helped to storm the US Capitol to left-leaning consumers of organic-only foods), can lead to a strange nexus of virtue and violence, onscreen or otherwise. Adherents of “conspirituality,” a blend of New Age beliefs and conspiracy thinking, include anti-vaxxers on the right and left as well. The post-technology dystopia/utopia of series such as Tribes of Europa appeals to purity impulses that may be heightened in the age of COVID-19, when “somehow people feel that their societies now are unsafe for them” and this anxiety can fuel “regressive populist movements” (Richards, in Haslam, 2021: 8).  

Recently in North Carolina, a group belonging to what the Southern Poverty Law Center has termed “the neo-Völkisch hate scene” (Ball, 2021) purchased a church building, causing anxiety and pain for their Black neighbors. Claims of “ennobling” pagan practices rooted in white European heritage, along with an ideology of “healthy, active lifestyles” and rules about racial purity (Ball, 2021) are painfully familiar in a part of the US that is deeply split about reckoning (or not) with its own racist past. Fans of Wiccan culture and “Viking rock” bands such as Wardruna may argue that neo-pagan fascinations are not in themselves dangerous, but the agendas of groups like North Carolina’s Asatru Folk Assembly (Ball, 2021) show how thorny such attractions can be.  

In Norway, a recent self-examination by a Viking re-enactment blogger has caused intense debate. After years of cultivating craft skills and appreciation of pre-Christian culture in Scandinavia, Ingrid Falch found herself implicated a few too many times in right-wing propaganda. “Unfortunately,” she writes, “blood and swords sell more tickets than cooking and spinning wool. Better keep it speculative, cheap and easy – reproducing the stereotypes making sure that ‘most people’ won’t see the difference between you and the Q-shaman” (Falch, 2021). For all the efforts to puncture too-earnest Norse aesthetics with humor, as in the Norwegian TV series Norsemen and Ragnarok, this “beast I can’t control” has led Falch to leave the re-enactment community. The resulting online repercussions have been brutal at times, often reinforcing ideas of white supremacy and misogyny associated with neo-pagan culture (Falch, 2021). 

Collapsing beds situation for Corona Virus patients. Medical staff work in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for COVID-19 multiple patients inside a special hospital in Bergamo, on November 11, 2020.

Problems of Appropriation

What about Indigenous fantasies relating to cultures not one’s own? In the US, wealthy suburbanites have been purchasing Dances with Wolves-style tipis ever since that film appeared in 1990. A recent manifestation of this trend is the use of traditional tipis as “après ski” pods for COVID distancing (see Compass Rose, 2021), which often leads to exactly the opposite effect, as libertarian business owners make free with Native traditions for entertainment. On the other end of the political spectrum, shamanic training groups, Vision Quest trips, and festivals such as Burning Man have long attracted educated, left-leaning whites (Aldred, 2000). “White guilt” over several centuries of Native genocide and oppression may contribute to this phenomenon, but much of the attraction seems to be toward spiritual nourishment in an age when religion is often associated with right-wing politics (Olomi, 2019).

In Germany, a generation raised on Karl May’s Western adventure novels has contributed to ongoing romanticization of Native American culture (Schumacher, 2020) that may seem innocent of right-wing politics but fosters damaging stereotypes. In addition, what many “Indian hobbyists” in Germany may not know is that Nazi researchers studied US discriminatory policy toward Native peoples in order to hone the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (Miller, 2019). Meanwhile in southern Sweden, Wild West fascinations have become more complicated, as a theme park called High Chaparral became a camp for 500 Syrian refugees in 2015 (Loewinger, 2017).

White appropriation of Native symbols and rituals is of course different from European seeking of ancestral “roots” in the primeval woods, but it is equally problematic. A drum circle intended for specific cultural or medicinal purposes, for example, can become an excuse for vague trance-like experiences when used in a New Age setting, and shows disrespect to the very Indigenous practices it takes as inspiration (Johnson, 2020). Adrienne Keene of the Native Appropriations project has created an open call for Indigenous voices to address this issue, with additional attention to cultural practices in the COVID era and in relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement (Keene, 2020). As Mark Rogers has put it, “Everyone wants to be an Indian, but nobody wants to be an Indian,” referring to Paul Mooney’s comment about “everyone want[ing] to be Black” without the “experience of being part of that culture” (Rogers, 2014, 2018).  

Debate is ongoing in the US about sports team mascots named for Native peoples, or using racist nicknames (National Congress for American Indians, n.d.); traditional clothing imitated in fashion, such as feathered headdresses (Wood, 2017); stereotypes in Hollywood films, from Pocahontas to one-dimensional warrior figures (Little, 2021); appropriations in the classical music world, as in quoting or imitating traditional songs stripped of their cultural purpose (Davids, 2019); and academic writing about Indigenous topics without consulting those who know them best, an issue of concern outside the US as well (Arbon, ed., 2010). With the regenerative agriculture movement gaining traction around the world, Indigenous voices are also speaking up about the need to give credit for soil restoration practices where it is due, and to reconsider value systems driven more by “commodification” than by the land itself (Mangan, 2021).

Ecofascism and “Avocado Politics”

To return to the problem of purity culture, back-to-nature advocates across the political spectrum often cite a wish for “unspoiled” wilderness (Cross, 2018), meaning outdoor spaces free of others except themselves. Especially in the age of COVID, this wish has resulted in what is now termed “wreckreation” in the American West (Wilkinson, 2020), with overcrowding and trash becoming increasingly problematic, though the political stakes for public lands protection are very real (Hart and Soyer, 2021). As an avid hiker in the mountains where I live, I admit to getting up at 5 a.m. to walk my favorite trails without the noisy, selfie-obsessed crowds I have come to resent – and this reminds me, uncomfortably, of Heidegger’s comment in Elfriede Jelinek’s play, about his own resentment of nature becoming only an image. I have felt smug triumph when reading about quieting oceans during the pandemic, and I have laughed at recycled satire about overpopulation and climate destruction (The Onion, 2011)

In a more innocent time, I might have been a deep ecology adherent, following the ideas of Arne Næss about the natural world as more than “natural resources” and about the need to acknowledge human-nonhuman interconnectedness. These ideas do in fact permeate most ecological discourse in academia, with reference to Donna Haraway’s metaphor of tentacle-like entanglements among species. While I draw on this thinking in my own work in the environmental humanities, I am also aware of the dangers of wishing for a post-human utopia, however tempting the overgrown cities Alan Weisman evoked in his 2007 book The World Without Us. For all my own selfish wishes to have a mountain trail to myself, my long study of Nazi nature-cult thinking has made me wary of ideologies that promote purity and idealistic “harmony with nature.”

Ecofascism, the belief not only in racial but also in environmental purity, posits that the world really would be better off without us – or at least without the darker-skinned climate refugees a warming planet will increasingly push out of their homes. This nexus of ecological and racial purity, an ideology that also fosters “deep” connections with the natural world, complicates conservationist thinking, as young activists are discovering amid the hype surrounding COVID-era planetary recuperation (Newton, 2020). What this ideology ignores, too, is that the first wave of climate refugees is the wealthy, who can afford to flee the California wildfires or rising coastlines in Florida (Bakkalapulo, 2018), and as “climate gentrification” (Hu, 2020) pushes marginalized people further away from affordable housing.

Though many deep ecologists disavow far-right, eugenics-driven thinking about population reduction for the planet’s sake (Drengson, n.d.), that movement’s tendency toward oversimplified ideas of purity, depth, and harmony has contributed to ecofascism insofar as it ignores political misuses of “nature” in the past century. Murray Bookchin (1999: 203) expresses it this way: “Vital as the idea of “interconnectedness” may be to our views, it has historically often been the basis of myths and supernatural beliefs that became means for social control and political manipulation.”

Likewise, immersive ecological artworks and “primeval TV” series such as Tribes of Europa can promote a feel-good sense of environmental connection, rather than encouraging activism that takes environmental racism into account, too. 

Over the past decade, ecofascism has become a draw in far-right recruitment, linking deep-ecology ideas of humans as “parasites” with its own anti-immigrant sentiment (Lamoureaux, 2020). White supremacist shooters from Christchurch to El Paso have also identified as ecofascists (Lawrence, 2019). In Austria, “avocado politics,” in which brownshirt ideology hides in green political agendas (Gilman, 2020), has led to an unlikely alignment between the center-right People’s Party and the Greens. Austrian agitator Elfriede Jelinek’s work seems as urgent as ever, with its uncomfortably close-to-home portrayals of right-wing immigration policies (Dege, 2016). Her Heidegger- and purity-culture critique Totenauberg would be a timely piece to revisit as well.

Conclusion: Contamination, Curiosity, and Reciprocity

While back-to-nature idealism can certainly foster environmental care, it has a dangerous side, too. Narratives such as the currently popular series Tribes of Europa and Barbarians promote a nativist vision of paganism that veers close to the “blood and soil” ideology of Nazism. Purity culture in eating and recreating, along with the seeking of “unspoiled” nature, however understandable, can feed this ideology across the political spectrum. Meanwhile, appropriating Indigenous cultural practices works as a wishful-thinking kind of nativism that bypasses the real experiences of Native peoples who have suffered oppression and genocide. And as deep-ecology values spill over into ecofascism, this form of environmental activism becomes not only anti-immigrant but also anti-human.

How to untangle the toxic threads that have found their way into ecological consciousness, from Martin Heidegger’s nativist philosophy of “rootedness” to today’s Viking re-enactment controversies? One approach is to allow for what some environmental artists call “contamination,” the practice of refusing purity in one’s work in order to accept that the planet is irrevocably compromised and, at the same time, to salvage what is left. Some artists work intentionally with waste and pollution, as in John Sabraw’s work creating pigments from contaminated streams in the UK (Surugue, 2019), while others, as in the Parallel Effect group’s recent Vigil for the Smooth Handfish, work with rituals for grieving a planet already in collapse (Audrey Journal, 2020).

In more practical terms, many conservationists are becoming less focused on restoring an “ideal” state of nature and more concerned with managing the messes that already exist. Emma Marris’ book Rambunctious Gardens (2011) has won an enthusiastic following but has created controversy, too, as it goes against conventional wisdom about removing non-native, invasive plant species. At the same time, Marris outlines concrete practices for rewilding and assisted migration, such as building wildlife bridges over highways. Climate adaptation thinking has its dangers, too, in terms of normalizing catastrophe; as Geoff Mann and Joel Wainwright (2018: 71) have noted, “simply to claim that ‘society must adapt’ is to represent social responses to climate change […] in a way that makes these adaptations seem natural and functional.” That said, the crisis at hand does not allow the luxury of wishing for a pristine future based on an imagined, “harmony with nature” past. 

An ethos of planetary care that does not fall into nativist or purity thinking requires critical evaluation of environmental media (even in the form of Netflix entertainment!) and of one’s own attitudes (the wish to have the forest to oneself, for example). One aid in this can be learning about Indigenous approaches to land and culture without disrespectful appropriation. Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass (2013), written from her dual perspective as a botanist and as an Indigenous woman learning about her own heritage, has become a guide for environmental thinking that views other species as kin but does not sentimentalize those relationships. Curiosity and humility are key, so that humans can ask, “Who are you?” instead of “What is it?” (Kimmerer, 2013: 42) and can appreciate what we see and hear without needing to own it (see Robinson, 2020).  

In many Indigenous cultures, reciprocity is also essential to co-regulation with the land. One way to express this is to ask for consent before entering a forest, logging it, or building a home there, a practice Native communities in the US are now asking others to honor, especially as oil and gas interests threaten traditional lands (Danesh and McPhee, 2019). In more personal terms, reciprocity can be a form of gratitude. As Kimmerer puts it, “What could I give these plants in return for their generosity? It could be a direct response, like weeding or water … Or indirect, like donating to my local land trust so that more habitat for the gift givers will be saved” (Kimmerer, 2020). If nativism is a kind of narcissism, critical curiosity and reciprocity can break the mirror we humans seem to want to project everywhere, and so that we can see the world around us as a subject, not the object of our deep, dark forest dreams. 

(*) This article follows up on topics of neo-paganism in the Feb. 3 commentary “Music and the Far-Right Trance,”calling critical attention to nativist themes in entertainment media, problems of cultural appropriation, and ecofascist strains in environmental activism. 

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