“Do as I say, not as I do,” is a common refrain of my father’s, and perhaps of parents the world around. It echoed in my ear during eighteen years of education, listening to academics purport the existence of a cataclysmic crisis while calling for analysis over action. I wrote papers about why climate change is the perfect storm of a collective action problem and high modernist ideology. I was in endless discussion groups with environmental studies majors who grappled with the crisis solely from nine to five. This disconnect between sentiment and action Edward Abbey once deemed “the ruin of the soul.”
Framing “the climate issue”: Patterns of participation and prognostic frames among climate summit protesters. Accidental alliteration welcomes the reader to this sociology paper that explores the variation in the beliefs of “rank-and-file” protesters during COP15, Copenhagen’s failed climate summit in 2009. Twenty pages later I can only wonder: how does it feel to be handing out surveys at a protest? An invitation to lunch from the paper’s authors later, we convened in the modern hallways of the humanities building at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden.
We walked through the cobblestone streets to a vegetarian restaurant, “the only remnant of this district’s history as the radical hotbed of the city. Many an uprising was planned within these walls.” Professor Håkan Thörn wrote a book on the history of the revolutionary neighbourhood of Solrossen, and the first day of his Intro to Sociology course is a walk through its streets. He hung his black Levi denim jacket on the back of his chair as we sat down with cauliflower soup, social movement researchers on one side, cyclactivists on the other. My first question for them: are you studying the movement, or are you in the movement?
“I wouldn’t want to be part of a movement I couldn’t be critical of,” Håkan responded, skirting my question. “We analyze the movement. As a professor I can then make my voice heard. I often write op-eds. They’re political when compared to journal articles. There is a risk that the university discredits your work. I’m willing to take that risk.” Deeper into conversation, we uncovered a hope that social movement analysis can inform the movement. Mattias, who studies the role of police in protest, cautioned that “I’m not helping them repress protestors.” I wondered why he thinks climate activists are any more likely than the police to read academic journals describing their antics.
Weeks before we met an Icelandic sea-ice scientist hoping his research might increase the reliability of IPCC models by an infinitesimal decimal. We went on to speak to a lecture of Masters in Climate Change students in Copenhagen after one of them shared with us her despair over her classmates’ lack of engagement with the movement. We later met a post-doc that having spent years immersed in climate adaptation thought believed it was inappropriate to call for the implementation of her findings, as if working to relieve human suffering would impinge on her impartiality.
We decried academia. Why when amongst rising seas of crisis are we calling for more refined boat designs over the building of boats? We will surely be left stranded if this continues. But then we met Professor Andrew Baldwin, the first academic of our journey to answer the only two questions that matter in the midst of crisis: what do you hope are the real-world outcomes of your research? And how do you work to realize them?
A human geographer who studies climate change and migration and the interrelations between nature and race, Andrew names his goal as the improved cooperation of the racial and climate justice movements. “How?” we asked, and he affirmed that this is the most important question. He talked of convening conferences of frontline activists and academics, of his work with Virtual Migrants, a digital media and arts collective connecting race, migration and global justice, and a dedication to upending oppressive understandings of migration and adaptation. Stories of action, origin and the future later Garrett and I found ourselves walking away from the Institute for Hazard, Risk and Resilience quite drunk on new ideas. Is adaptation the way we talk about maintaining capital? When we move climate finance away from loss and damage and towards adaptation mechanisms are we talking about the shoring up of the status quo? When we talk about climate change as a national security issue are we reinforcing racialized notions of refugees as solely catalysts of political violence or objects of humanitarian assistance?
Unanswered questions are lifeboats, bright orange in stacks on the deck of transition. Once we are afloat, migrating from old life towards new, perhaps these are the ones that will save us when the weather turns foul. “Listen up,” the tannoy will say. “Assemble at the square green-and-white sign with arrows pointing inwards to a symbol depicting a family group. Evidence suggests that these people will have some idea what you should do next.”
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