Paul Ehrlich to AESS: It’s the Culture

paul ehrlichEarlier this evening I attended Paul Ehrlich‘s keynote lecture that launched the inaugral conference of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences. This is a man who (along with his wife and frequent co-author, Anne) has probably done more for the fields of environmental studies and sciences than any of his contemporaries. His lecture was entertaining, if somewhat frustrating, and I have some thoughts on what it suggests for EC beyond what I wrote about his MAHB initiative last month.

Before getting to that, I should note that the audience was warmed up by Greg Mittman, Director of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies here at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Mitman, as EC folks may know, is the author of one of the first books to deal with representations of Nature in film, Reel Nature. He spoke eloquently of the environmental heros of Wisconsin, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, and Gaylord Nelson.

Ehrlich talked extemporaneously for what I think was about an hour (I didn’t check my watch) to a packed auditorium at UW’s Memorial Union. After acknowledging that the audience was probably already in the know about environmental issues and saying he wouldn’t cover the basic stuff, he then seemed to do just that.

His talk was dominated by a familiar parade of apocalyptic warnings, interspersed wtih polemical (and sometimes funny) jabs at the likes of George W. Bush, Rush Limbaugh, would-be geo-engineers, Wall Street’s greedy bankers, and his long-dead arch-nemesis Julian Simon, calling the latter a “mail-order marketer” (whatever that was referring to I have no idea, but it was funny by virtue of its oddity).

At the start of his talk, he alluded to a “culture gap” related to the environmental crisis that needs to be closed. He didn’t explain this very well, but by the end he seemed to be calling for more involvement by the humanities in dealing with the issues, saying they were underrated, but at the same time not showing a whole lot of awareness of everything they currently contribute to environmental affairs.

I found it somewhat ironic that he was wondering why scientists had not succeeded in solving environmental problems after all these years (maybe because science alone does not solve the problems) while continuing to use the apocalyptic narrative that humanities (and social science) scholars have identified as having limited utility. That said, he alluded to the need for aspirational imagery and a discussion of what kind of world we would like to live in.

My conclusion? He understands the importance of communication and culture, but can’t articulate it anywhere nearly as well as he can rant against all that is wrong out there. This is yet another reminder of the need to organize and legitimize the environmental communication field and community.

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About Mark S. Meisner

Executive Director of the International Environmental Communication Association (IECA). I also research, teach, write about, and speak on environmental and sustainability communication, media, culture, and policy. Facts are usually facts, but opinions and sense of humour are always my own.
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4 Responses to Paul Ehrlich to AESS: It’s the Culture

  1. Eric Eckl says:

    “He understands the importance of communication and culture, but can’t articulate it anywhere nearly as well as he can rant against all that is wrong out there.”

    Man, that’s a very concise indictment of the mainstream environmental movement as a whole.

    Well said!

  2. Mark Meisner says:

    William and Steve – Thanks for your comments. Hulme came up today in the AESS panel on Media Representations of Climate Change. I hadn’t heard of the book before, but it’s clearly something I need to read soon. William, I think the arts are crucial, but I agree with you about the questions of how they can be better engaged with the community.

  3. Steve Schwarze says:

    A good attempt to bridge the gap can be found in Mike Hulme’s book “Why We Disagree About Climate Change” (Cambridge 2009). Hulme is a prominent scientist who went back to school to get a graduate degree in history. His book is an interesting argument for how we need to reflect more carefully the meanings of climate change and the cultural myths to which climate change can be articulated. Definitely worth a read.

  4. William Shaw says:

    The thorny question of the “culture gap” is something we’re wrestling with at the RSA Arts & Ecology Centre. It’s one thing to identify it, as you have. The question is the extent to which the arts are able enough, self-critical enough, and engaged enough to have any influence in closing that culture gap.

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