I came into environmental scholarship as a geographer, passionate about our place on earth. Long before I arrived at Lewis & Clark I had been writing about environmental conflicts and the ideological roots of environmentalism. But I didn’t exactly consider myself an environmentalist—certainly not an anti-environmentalist either. My action focused on people and places I knew well, in particular rural Oregon, where I founded an educational nonprofit to help kids who grew up, just like I did, in a small and scrappy place on this earth, a place undergoing profound changes in its landscape and livelihoods.
Then I arrived to Lewis & Clark as Director of the Environmental Studies Program, and discovered that some people assumed I was an environmentalist: that, for instance, I had dedicated my life to sustainability, and that nature loomed large in my life. What they did not know was that much of my scholarship had called such Big Green Words into question. Of course I supported biodiversity conservation and environmental justice and climate policy, but let’s just say I did so in a more Latour-like sense of associationism (2010) or loving our monsters (2011) or whatever. I also discovered that some people around me who had dedicated their lives to issues of nature and sustainability had never heard of Latour, nor of countless other inspirations in my life. You bet they often kept their distance: I was not one of them.
These sorts of personal experiences raise a much bigger and more interesting question: how does, and how should, environmental scholarship relate to environmental social movements? Let’s consider three possible answers:
- Scholars supply the facts; movements supply the action. This is probably the most common assumption, at least by participants in many social movements, where their efforts are grounded in their sense of the truth—whether the truth of their experiences, or the authoritative truth conveyed by scholarship. This facts-and-action narrative is ubiquitous, and conveniently works in cases such as Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth, but is far less clear in the case of the wicked problems we face today. More broadly, this would suggest that environmental scholarship and social movements are always on the same side; so let’s call it the “allies” position. (Empirically, evidence for the allies position is shaky, as at least one major poll suggests.)
- Scholars think; movements act. This approach shares the same broad division of labor as the allies position, but here emphasis is placed on their different roles, such that the two occupy separable realms. We’ll call this the “NOMA” position, in deference to Stephen Jay Gould’s argument (1999) that science and religion occupy “non-overlapping magisteria” and thus cannot inform nor critique each other. According to NOMA, scholars do what they do, and social movements do what they do; perhaps occasionally a scholarly result is of significance to a movement, but neither is constrained by the other. The NOMA position is also ubiquitous: think of the claims that scholarship is “theoretical” but activism is “practical”—just another set of binary Big Words.
- Scholars and movements listen to each other. Okay, this is my preferred alternative; let’s call it the “conversation” position. It doesn’t assume that scholars and activists are allies, but it also doesn’t assume that they occupy non-overlapping magisteria. Good environmental thought is actionable, and good environmental action is thoughtful; the result can be a dynamic tension of value to both. Is the conversation position possible? Yes, but only if both sides are willing to engage with each other.
Allies, NOMA, conversation: these are three ways environmental scholarship and social movements can relate. I have rejected the allies position in my work, and this may lead some to think I embrace the NOMA position. But no, I simply want conversation, which is far more difficult and rewarding than being a ready ally or a distant NOMA.
The challenge for me is to help students find their way through this question, as many are far more familiar with environmental social movements than environmental scholarship, and the notions of allies or NOMA may strike them as ready, if unhelpful, shortcuts in figuring out how scholarship may relate to their activism.
Students, let’s continue this conversation in courses such as Environmental Engagement, a relatively new course in our ENVS curriculum, and let’s listen to the experiences and expertise each has to offer. Certainly we can build a stronger, more robust exchange between environmental scholarship and environmental social movements, to the benefit of both.
Gould, Stephen Jay. 1999. Rocks of Ages : Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballantine Pub. Group.
- Latour, Bruno. 2010. “A Plea for Earthly Sciences.” In New Social Connections: Sociology’s Subjects and Objects, edited by Judith Burnett, Syd Jeffers, and Graham Thomas, 72–84. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Latour, Bruno. 2011. “Love Your Monsters.” In Love Your Monsters: Postenvironmentalism and the Anthropocene, edited by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, 256–425 [Kindle]. Oakland, CA: Breakthrough Institute. http://www.amazon.com/Love-Your-Monsters-Postenvironmentalism-ebook/dp/B006FKUJY6.
—Featured image of COP15 protest (Copenhagen Denmark) courtesy kris krüg.