By Trevor Durbin, Kansas State University §
“I took this class because I wanted to address my relationship with the idea of climate change. I think I was somewhere between guilt and grief…” I read these opening lines of a student essay with a sinking in the pit of my stomach. It was written by a young woman in a seminar I teach at the Kansas State University called “Environmental Anthropology in the Anthropocene.” She was distraught over our planetary future and, more importantly, over her inability to imagine anything she might do that would make a difference. She continued:
“The problem seemed so enormous. And then I started doing the readings for this class, and every problem that we learn about stresses me out so much. It feels uncomfortable to just go on with my normal, student life. I want to do something about climate change, but an individual has almost no influence. I can recycle and use reusable containers and take short showers. What does that add up to? It’s quite stressful being so uninfluential.”
Like this student, others have problematized a complicated nexus of affect and action in relation to climate change. They feel a personal responsibility to act, but sense a lack of ability to respond, or a clear means of imagining how they might do something meaningful based on what they know.
They are asking a big question: “Given all of this terrible information, what can I do that will make a difference?” It is a practical ethical query for which many students don’t have the conceptual tools, or social imagination, to answer in a way they find satisfying. Part of the problem, I believe, is that they are already sophisticated neoliberal thinkers. By this, I mean that despite their dissatisfaction with the world as it is and their willingness to change it, they tend to explain problems and conceive solutions in terms of self-interested rational actors. The individual person is ontologically real. Technological breakthroughs and individualist solutions—buying local or recycling—tend to be the most easily comprehensible. Imagining their place within assemblages with higher orders of organization is much more difficult. Yet, these students also tend to sense that individualist solutions to climate change are not nearly enough. The result is a gaping conceptual and pragmatic chasm between the individual scale of action and the global scale of climate change. What is missing is a “common” sense— a sense of being along with others, of being in a community of fellow doers.
A related challenge hinges on how students relate knowledge and action. I have noticed a pervasive notion that one must have careful and complete plans before executing a project that might help “save the world.” This perspective makes sense if to act means to act, fundamentally, alone. No one wants to look foolish in front of (rather than together with) one’s peers. There is an affinity here with what Tim Ingold has called the building perspective (Ingold 2000), and I think the antidote might be akin to his dwelling perspective, more recently recast as “wayfaring” (Ingold 2011). The idea is that we come to know the world by finding our way through it. Wayfaring has some fairly radical implications for ambitious young people who have spent much of their lives faithfully laying in wait and planning for their future— the first of which is that they can do something before they feel they have the world figured out. Joining in with others is, after all, how we continue to figure it out!
After reading about my student’s despair, and the sobering realization that I had offered no route from trauma to transcendence, I started a process of redesigning the seminar as a means of helping students find ways of joining in collective solutions. As a teacher, my journey is only beginning, but I have had some initial success by integrating a semester-long blogging assignment into the course. The primary requirement is that each student’s project must build on something that is already meaningful to them (something they are interested in, something they love, or something they can be passionate about) and then extend it both to larger-scale existential questions and, as much as possible, a community. Ultimately, the task is to begin searching for a meaningful form of life in the face of planetary crisis. I facilitate. I guide discussions and assign what I hope will be helpful materials, but I do not dictate the specific form any project must take. The vagueness of the task can be unsettling, but also liberating and energizing.
By inviting an understanding of coursework as wayfaring, I hope that students can begin to understand living in the anthropocene as a community-making enterprise that breaks with building perspective and individualist solutions, while remaining open to any available resources that might become useful. The message is that we have to do something at some point, and we do not need to have everything worked out before we take our first steps. Action, movement, critical reflection, and connecting with others in good faith is part of how we learn to reconceptualize the world and build up political movements, broadly understood.
I would like to end by drawing attention to two student projects (still ongoing, still changing, still wayfaring) that illustrate this approach to climate change action. Both are kinds of excuses to act without an assurance of success, excuses to do something anyway because it might lead to something better. Both connect on a deep level with what each student finds personally meaningful. Both are highly active and passionate responses to climate change. Neither of these projects will solve our biggest problems, of course, but perhaps they are the beginnings of journeys that, given the complex systems that make up our world, will connect with others, evolve, and contribute to the sort of tipping point we would all like to see. That, in any event, is my hope.
(Edi)morphosis— Edible Insects
Kenzie Wade tells audiences how she once felt powerlessness in the face of climate change. Regaining a sense of empowerment and hope, she says, involved choosing a strategic project that could have multiple positive effects at different scales. She decided to focus on the cattle industry as a major source of carbon emissions, biodiversity loss, and water consumption. However, instead of asking people to stop eating beef (a rhetorical and political non-starter in most of Kansas), she suggests that they add something. She now passionately advocates edible insects as a means of challenging harmful sumptuary norms in a way that cannot be easily classified as politically “right” or “left.” Instead, her political orientation is more akin to play, and who doesn’t like to have fun? In doing so, she is experimenting with the possibilities and limits of a pervasive neoliberal subject position (the social entrepreneur) that can work in politically polarized settings. You can read more about Kenzie’s project here.
Sammi Grieger knows from personal experience that faith, even in its evangelical Christian form, does not have to be an enemy of action against climate change. She has found role models in people like Katharine Hayhoe and Lowell Bliss. More fundamentally, she believes that the way we feel about the environment is critically important for motivating action and, although it is much more than a feeling, she wants people to begin their journey toward sustainability by learning to love the world they inhabit. She explores the dwelling perspective as a cycle of love, awareness, and storytelling that can motivate action on larger-scale environmental issues. I find a great deal of hope in her faith inspired manifesto, which you can view here. You can also learn more about her #LovingLocallyChallenge here.
Ingold, T. 2000. Building, Dwelling, Living: How Animals and People Make Themselves at Home in the World. In Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. New York, NY: Routledge. (pp. 172-188)
Ingold, T. 2011. Stories Against Classification: Transport, Wayfaring and the Integration of Knowledge. In Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge, and Description. New York, NY: Routledge. (pp. 156-164)
Trevor Durbin (PhD, Rice University, 2015) teaches environmental and medical anthropology at Kansas State University. Despite his penchant for hiking the prairie and cycling the Midwest’s beautiful gravel roads, Trevor spends most of his time thinking about the ocean, how it is changing in the anthropocene and what experts are doing about it. He has done research of, and alongside, scientists and technocrats in the Pacific Islands region (including fieldwork in Samoa, Kiribati, Fiji, New Zealand, and the Cook Islands) who are trying to create the world’s largest marine protected areas.
This post is part of our thematic series: “Anthropology and Climate Change: Intersections of Teaching, Interdisciplinarity, and Activism“