Beyond the American culture wars

A call for environmental leadership and strengthening networks

in Regions and Cohesion

Abstract

This article focuses on the United States (US), looking at the American culture war specifically as it relates to environmental issues. Looking at the US today is a reminder that the culture wars are as overtly political as they are culturally motivated, and they diminish social cohesion. The term “culture wars” is defined as increases in volatility, expansion of polarization, and obvious conflicts in various parts of the world between, on the one hand, those who are passionate about religiously motivated politics, traditional morality, and anti-intellectualism, and, on the other hand, those who embrace progressive politics, cultural openness, and scientific and modernist orientations. The article examines this ideological war in contemporary environmental management debates. It identifies characteristics of environmental leadership and discusses how networks can act as environmental leaders.

The culture wars are diminishing social cohesion. By culture wars, I mean the increases in volatility, expansion of polarization, and obvious conflicts in various parts of the world between, on the one hand, those who are passionate about religiously motivated politics, traditional morality, and anti-intellectualism, and, on the other hand, those who embrace progressive politics, cultural openness, and scientific and modernist orientations. The current culture wars reflect opposition based on divergent worldviews and ideological positions. Indeed, “war” seems an apt term to capture the social fissuring occurring in various parts of the world, from conflicts between Boko Haram and the Nigerian military to the civilian harassment of and neo-Nazi violence against Muslims in France.1 Social fissures are evident in the inability to stake out common middle ground and through the myriad of obstacles that adherents from opposite camps face in peaceful coexistence, much less being able to listen to, understand, or be respectful of one another. Undoubtedly, conflicts are inevitable within all societies, yet in the culture wars instead of airing differences and working constructively on conflicts, a tendency has developed to resolve conflicts one- sidedly, without transparency, with temporary fixes or simply repressing them, causing the social fabric to tear repeatedly. And while it may be less obvious, the culture wars sway the movement of people and, in so doing, change their prospects and livelihoods. Such is the case of the Rohingya people who flee violence in Myanmar for an uncertain future in Bangladesh. As social cohesion wanes with the swelling of culture wars, regional, national, and local integration are weakened as well.

Given the widespread recognition of culture wars emerging or growing in many parts of the world, it is a chilling moment for many people around the world. Yet, it is possible to respond constructively to the culture wars, which is to say that there are approaches that have the potential to transform conflicts in ways that contribute to social cohesion, rather than tear it up. At the individual level, one approach could start by making sense of one’s own placement “by directly confronting what we want as scientists and citizens and acknowledging where these desires put us relative to others in the world, [so] we can begin to sort through what to measure and what to change, what to alter and what to preserve” (original emphasis; Robbins & Moore, 2012, p. 16).2 Another approach involves actively moving beyond the idea of there being existential, immediate, and/or unsolvable crises of global proportion (Berry, 2009), and instead working on discrete aspect(s) of the cultural wars and recognizing the capacity of strategic actions at appropriate scale(s) to change matters. A third approach is to contribute to the construction of well-placed bridges between camps through creating initiatives that have the potential to flourish.

Rather than addressing the culture wars around the world generally, my goal in this short article is to focus on the United States (US), looking at the American culture war specifically as it relates to environmental issues.3 Looking at the US today is a reminder that the culture wars are as overtly political as they are culturally motivated. For example, during the political campaigns leading up to the 2016 election and in its wake, the outlines of a broad-based and escalating culture war were revealed. Targets in the war include formerly taken-for-granted political processes, such as protocols on campaign financing, nominee transparency, and political appointments. As ammunition, insults hurled over what is and what is not the truth have been salient enough that a new term was recently coined: post-factual.

I am compelled to probe these matters and write about the cultural war in the US for the international audience of this journal, in part, because of the potential significance of the American cultural wars in terms of US participation in regional integration. For both bad and good, the US has historically seen itself as an international leader and acted accordingly in regional economic integration (through, for example, the promotion of free trade agreements, global corporate capitalism, and multinational financial and regulatory institutions) as well as a degree of regional political integration (through, for example, military interventions, strategic alliance initiatives, and the advocation of democratic institutions). Yet, the recent turn by the federal administration to pursue more nationalistic goals in lieu of strengthening regional integration—for example, the aspirations of President Trump to build a wall between the US and Mexico—has fueled the US culture war. An overtly nationalistic orientation has the potential to change the roles of America with respect to regional integration in a variety of ways that may be quite significant. A second reason that I write this is because at the core of my interests are the nexus of environmental justice and social justice, and it is becoming increasingly clear to me how deeply entangled the environment is within the current American culture war. I have a few ideas to suggest about approaches that might transform some environmental aspects of the cultural war and hope to elicit a larger and international dialogue on these issues.

Environmental politics in the United States during the past two decades has been dominated by the politics of climate change. While issues surrounding climate change continue to be deeply enmeshed in national partisan politics and are often presented as a litmus test in the culture war, in recent months other environmental issues have become targets on the national political scene as well. One current battlefront is the struggle over de-funding agencies associated with environmental research and regulation through funding appropriations (or lack thereof). For example, the initial budget put forward by the Trump presidential administration in March 2017 proposed to reduce the budget of the US Environmental Protection Agency by nearly one-third, aimed at eliminating not only initiatives related to climate change but also a number of the agency’s environmental regulatory functions. Additionally, other federal agencies, among them the research-oriented National Science Foundation, as well as state and tribal environmental agencies dependent upon federal funding, are trying to figure out how to re-secure their base of funding while simultaneously bracing for potential budget shocks. In this case, the battlefields of the culture war are executive actions that determine whether and how much to make federal monies available in support of the environment. Stated rather simplistically, the rallying cry from the conservative right is that government funding must reset its priorities to support people instead of the environment. On the other hand, the rallying cry from the liberal left is that people cannot survive very well or very long without adequate funding to understand and protect the environment. Both camps are passionate and, in general, seem to lack understanding of, or respect for, one another.

On another front, environmental scholars and their research have now become targets in the current American culture war. A recent and prominent example is the work of Mark Carey, a professor at the University of Oregon, and his co-authors in an article, “Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research” published in 2016 in the journal Progress in Human Geography (Carey et. al, 2016). This surprisingly, widely-distributed article, which was debased and ridiculed by some on the right, was featured in Science magazine. An interview with Professor Carey included his reaction to the political hubbub caused by the article, and in it, the interviewers stated that Carey had “found himself thrust into the limelight as the latest target of conservative-leaning bloggers questioning federally funded research” (Gramling, 2016). As the quote makes clear, this is not an isolated incident. Scholarship and research concerning the environment, in this case social science that challenged traditional norms, has now developed into another battlefront within the current American culture war.

These two environmental fronts in the American culture war are by no means exhaustive but provide insights into the nature of the culture war and some of the dynamics, especially for those less familiar with the current situation in the US. It is to two approaches related to the environment that may have potential to transform aspects of the cultural war that I now turn.

First, we need to cultivate environmental leadership. Unfortunately, few of America’s heroes or heroines have been environmental leaders or have even worked on environmental issues. While over a half century ago Rachel Carson wrote The Silent Spring, capturing many Americans’ imaginations and inspiring the nascent environmental movement (Carson 1994), few others have emerged in the intervening years. Al Gore may be an exception at a national level, but it was his film, An Inconvenient Truth, rather than his legislative role or work as a politician that made him famous for a time and propelled his popularity. Unfortunately, Al Gore has been cast as a darling of the left and enemy of the right, so he is now firmly positioned within the cultural war. Given that environmental scholars have become increasingly enmeshed in the culture wars and that the media is often seen as polarizing, creative ways to cultivate environmental leadership are needed and dialogues about this should expand. One approach may be to find ways to leverage local level environmental leadership into state-level and national-level spheres.

While at this point it may not be possible to avoid some degree of polarization, meaningful environmental leadership should be politically aware and socially responsible as well as grounded in global issues. It is my sense that, not only in the US but also around the world, environmental leadership is needed that recognizes how social justice is necessarily coupled with environmental justice and acts accordingly. Both are requisites for long-lasting social cohesion. RISC (the Consortium for Comparative Research on Regional Integration and Social Cohesion) is an existing network designed to facilitate cross-regional, interdisciplinary, and multilingual networks of socially conscious and prestigious institutes in Europe, North America, South America, Africa and Asia.4 Through this journal and a number of the conferences that RISC has sponsored, including Comparative Perspectives on Leadership in 2008 and Human and Environmental Security in Cross-Border Regions in 2013, RISC is well-positioned to contribute to developing environmental leadership.

Second, networks are significant in bringing together and balancing social justice with environmental justice in potentially transformative ways. The value of networking is already clear for many environmental professionals (Delfau, 2017). Networks can also serve as important means to promote dialogue and find solutions, even across some of the frontlines of the cultural war and between a wide variety of activists, politicians, scholars and others. Earlier I mentioned constructing well-placed bridges between camps as an approach to address the culture war through the creation of initiatives that have the potential to flourish. Networks may be just such a means by which to connect social justice with environmental justice and help transform the culture war into more discrete and potentially solvable conflicts.

While social media has the potential to expand the number of people who can be involved, it also has limits because the lack of personal investment may restrict what social media alone is capable of producing. Some degree of direct involvement is likely to be necessary within networks. Many people today are already comfortable collaborating, yet developing meaningful networks that crisscross the lines of the cultural wars will not always be comfortable, particularly at the beginning. Environmental leaders will be needed to clarify the processes and goals of such networks and to build in adaptive capacity so that networks evolve and progress.

NOTES
1

Indeed, the culture wars may be evoking what Pain (2009) calls globalized fear.

2

This was suggested by Robbins and Moore (2012) as a way to resolve what they have termed as “ecological anxiety disorder” rather than the culture wars.

3

While it’s not perfect, I am using the terms United States, US, and America interchangeably in this paper.

4

For more on RISC, see http://www.risc.lu/

REFERENCES

  • BerryK.A. (2009). Social risks of environmental crises: Implications of drought in North America. In H. Koff (Ed.) Social Cohesion in Europe and the Americas: Power Time and Space (pp. 169181). Brussels: PIE Peter Lang.

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  • CareyM.JacksonM.AntonelloA. & RushingJ. (2016). Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist framework for global environmental change. Progress in Human Geography 40(16) 770793.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CarsonR. (1994). The Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

  • DelfauK. (2017). The importance of networks. International Water Association blog. Descargado de http://www.iwa-network.org/the-importance-of-networks?/utm_source=IWA-Network&utm_campaign=7071833df.

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  • GramlingC. (2016March 11). Question & answer forum: Author of “feminist glaciology” study reflects on sudden appearance in culture wars. Science http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/qa-author-feminist-geology-study-reflects-sudden-place. doi:10.1126/science.aaf4181.

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    • Export Citation
  • PainR. (2009). Globalized fear? Towards an emotional geopolitics. Progress in Human Geography 33(4) pp. 466486.

  • RobbinsP. & MooreS.A. (2012). Ecological anxiety disorder: Diagnosing the politics of the Anthropocene. Cultural Geographies 20(1) pp. 319.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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Contributor Notes

KATE A. BERRY is Professor of Geography at the University of Nevada, Reno. She has a Ph.D. from the University of Colorado, Boulder. Professor Berry specializes in the cultural politics of water, including research on Indigenous water quality governance; participation and environmental justice; and identity studies as they relate to irrigation policy and access to water. She is the chair of the International Panel Advisory Committee for the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) initiatives CoCooN (Conflict and Cooperation in Natural Resource Management in Developing Countries) and CCMCC (Conflict and Cooperation in the Management of Climate Change). E-mail: kberry@unr.edu

Regions and Cohesion

Regiones y Cohesión / Régions et Cohésion

  • BerryK.A. (2009). Social risks of environmental crises: Implications of drought in North America. In H. Koff (Ed.) Social Cohesion in Europe and the Americas: Power Time and Space (pp. 169181). Brussels: PIE Peter Lang.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CareyM.JacksonM.AntonelloA. & RushingJ. (2016). Glaciers, gender, and science: A feminist framework for global environmental change. Progress in Human Geography 40(16) 770793.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • CarsonR. (1994). The Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

  • DelfauK. (2017). The importance of networks. International Water Association blog. Descargado de http://www.iwa-network.org/the-importance-of-networks?/utm_source=IWA-Network&utm_campaign=7071833df.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GramlingC. (2016March 11). Question & answer forum: Author of “feminist glaciology” study reflects on sudden appearance in culture wars. Science http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/qa-author-feminist-geology-study-reflects-sudden-place. doi:10.1126/science.aaf4181.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • PainR. (2009). Globalized fear? Towards an emotional geopolitics. Progress in Human Geography 33(4) pp. 466486.

  • RobbinsP. & MooreS.A. (2012). Ecological anxiety disorder: Diagnosing the politics of the Anthropocene. Cultural Geographies 20(1) pp. 319.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation