In the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, faculty and leaders in the School of Liberal Arts have had several meetings focused on how to best engage with our community, how to prepare ourselves for the future, and how to put those preparations into practice—together. Parallels were drawn between Ida and Katrina, which both made landfall on the same day, 16 years apart, as well as the numerous named storms in the interim.
Rebuilding is certainly no new concept to the Gulf South, but the students of this generation are voicing their concerns from a different angle: prevention. How can we imagine a cleaner future together and affect the kind of real, actionable change that mitigates the effects of climate crises? So, we sat down with three Liberal Arts faculty whose roles, research, and coursework approach this question from different angles. And we had a good, long talk.
Emily Wilkerson (EW): Let’s start with where you are today—with all that is happening, how do you personally stay positive and energized about the future?
Rebecca Snedeker (RS): The first thing that comes to mind is how much I have to learn from New Orleans and our region and how much I hope to contribute. This relates directly to an interdisciplinary liberal arts education—the development of curiosity about our surroundings and one another, ability to hold multiple narratives from different perspectives, and desire to co-create the local situation in conscious relationship to global patterns and realities.
I also tend to feel better when I feel oriented. So I do things like go for long walks, which gives me time to see my material surroundings, encounter people and animals, linger on stories I’ve heard from people or media, and integrate everything into new understandings. From here, I make practical decisions and take actions. We're in one of the places in the world that's on the vanguard of climate change. We're already experiencing climate migration and climate gentrification—all of these dynamics demand coordinated responses, which I find inspiring.
Adam McKeown (AM): I am inspired by how crisis can create opportunities for new direction. This may not make sense at first, but a crisis can create conditions that render the old way of doing things impossible, and so you have to think about new ways of doing things. Thinking about how we can now do something better because we can't do it the old way calls on us to be optimists. There's nothing good about a Category 4 hurricane plowing through Louisiana, leaving New Orleans without power for so long and doing so much damage, especially to those who live outside of levee protection. But it happened, and part of moving forward must involve thinking about how things can be better since they can’t be the same.
Marcello Canuto (MC): As an archaeologist, I tend to think about things in long time spans. I think about examples of things that we see today as elements that fit within a broader context of say 100 years, 1000 years, and so on. It is proving interesting for my archeology students right now to talk about evacuating for a storm, taking only certain belongings, and relate this to an experience someone had in Pompeii thousands of years ago. It is also important to think about this as not being a unique experience—epidemics have occurred before, hurricanes have occurred before, disasters are happening to us now, and they will likely continue to occur in human history. The question that we have to ask ourselves is how do we diagnose the problem? Not the symptoms of the problem, but the problem itself.
When we mention the impacts of climate change, we aren’t usually talking about how it’s affecting the planet Earth per se, but how it’s affecting human society on planet Earth. For example, when we think about returning to a ‘normal’ after a storm, we’re thinking about all of those aspects of complex society that we have come to expect—such as ready access to resources, like electricity. We can look to the past to find copious examples of how humans responded to their society’s functioning being stressed and apply these lessons to our current situation.
EW: Rebecca, the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South (NOCGS) is continuing dynamic programming around the Anthropocene this year—can you define this term for us and share how the Center is engaging with it?
RS: The Anthropocene is a proposed geological epoch that recognizes the present era in which human-generated forces have altered the Earth's surface, atmosphere, and planetary patterns. And it draws us into the longer history of humans on Earth and of Earth itself. This idea comes to life at NOCGS in the form of an international project that we've been part of called the Anthropocene Curriculum, which brings together clusters of people from different locations around the world to learn from one another in interdisciplinary settings that are based on the concept that while we can consider these macro ideas, we also need to ground them—and see how they play out—in our own locales and surroundings.
EW: How can the Anthropocene help us consider our future in daily actions and long-term goals to alleviate environmental stresses and subsequent effects of storms?
RS: The longer timeline the Anthropocene provides allows us to read our landscape more clearly and say, for example, the way we've been controlling the Mississippi River solved some problems in the early- and mid- 20th century, but has now created other problems. And, as Adam was suggesting, we need to get creative and develop new technologies to address the subsidence we've experienced as a result of controlled engineering systems. But it’s hard to design new solutions if we don’t get curious about and understand the mechanics operating in our lives today. We need space to come together, listen to one another, and learn about where we are in place and time. I realize we’re focusing this conversation on the future, but what many of our programs support is simply bringing people into the present.
MC: This idea of bringing people into the present reality should be part of our pedagogy, too. We have a responsibility to recognize the place, time, and circumstances we are living in, and try to consider how it can be approached from multiple perspectives. Much of our pedagogical effort can focus on key events, such as the one we just experienced, to provide students a holistic perspective on what happened. In this way we also acknowledge what is on students’ minds and use our disciplines, the classroom, and assignments to help them understand a larger context for their experiences.
One thing we have learned over several decades of research on ancient societal collapse is that when complex societies have trouble responding to changing conditions (climatological being one among many), it's usually because they are not diagnosing the crisis correctly and focusing on the more readily accessible symptoms. Short-term, immediate, reactive responses tend to exacerbate the underlying problem. Complex societies thrive in predictable conditions; when those conditions become erratic, so does decision-making. And from there, things usually get worse. So, the concept of the Anthropocene is a useful construct for us to declare that we are in a state of our own making (as a species), and that we need address the problems so that we can devise appropriate and effective responses.
AM: I believe narrative plays a huge role. The stories we tell about the present and the past have a lot to do with how we think about the future and what’s possible. And I think narrative is an area where we as educators, especially in the liberal arts, can make a big difference. Key questions we can ask in the aftermath of this crisis is what a better future for this region involves and what new conditions exist that would help make that future seem possible enough to get people excited about it. For example, the narrative about this hurricane and how to move past it could focus on the opportunity to modernize power generation and the power grid. The International Energy Agency outlines important and inspiring information in their 2020 World Energy Outlook: this is the first time in any of our lives that it is cheaper to generate electricity with solar panels and windmills than with fossil fuels. In some cases, it is now possible for buildings to generate more power than they use. Those developments happened much sooner than anyone thought they would. That’s a new condition, a very important and exciting one, and now we can really imagine changes to power generation and power grids—ones that will create twenty-first-century economy and strengthen the region in many different ways. Ida, as terrible as it was, has created circumstances in which we have to rebuild the grid. Why not dream big about how to do that? That’s a narrative we could focus on.
EW: Let’s take a bird’s-eye view of Hurricane Ida. It’s necessary for us to acknowledge our experiences of the storm personally and as a community, but I think there is also much to gain from discussing how the events and actions that affect our landscape and lives can also affect the landscapes and lives of others across the country, as well as the globe.
RS: To make comparisons between our landscape and others—say for example between Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf South and Hurricane Sandy in the Northeast, or Hurricane Ida connecting both in one swoop—we have to keep building cognitive understandings of how all of this interrelates in order to imagine and realize optimum policy and systemic change. I like to think of how we can each bring our different knowledge bases to these questions and see it as an “all-hands-on-deck” moment, where we continuously sort out how our own expertise can contribute and go for it.
MC: What we continue to see play out is that while there are responses undertaken by large-scale institutions such as the government in the form of FEMA, for instance, there is also a great deal of room for individual, household, and community scale responses that everyone can engage in. The smaller scales do not have to be limited to those directly impacted by any one disaster, though. Local responses can be replicated even by those not immediately impacted. In other words, everyone can be part of a broader process, but of different scales. This is important to remember as we approach our societal “response” for today, and for the future. The problem is not the same for everyone and for every scale of society, but everyone can be engaged.
EW: What are some of the ways we as Tulane students, faculty, staff, and community members, can take one step forward today, tomorrow, and into the future?
AM: It is an all-hands-on-deck moment, as Rebecca mentioned, but all hands on deck get more done if their efforts are aligned. We can’t task-organize a university community, but we can think about and articulate how different actions are aligned toward a particular effect. I believe that Tulane University is big enough and New Orleans is visible enough that if the steps we take work here, what we achieve will be noticed locally and nationally. For example, imagine if Tulane as a community went one week without single-use plastic. We wouldn’t need to go into this with a holier-than-thou attitude or by vilifying petroleum, which has been important to our region. Rather, we could align our actions with a constructive and practical narrative on energy, on the power grid, and the post-petroleum era. Right now the world does not know how it will move away from plastics, and this is a question we as educators, students, and researchers can help answer.
MC: There is a long conversation in archeology that suggests looking at the modern day as the “Plastic Age,” in the same way that we talk about the “Stone Age” or the “Iron Age.” Think about doing archaeology of New Orleans 300 or 500 years from now—there will be a layer of plastic (maybe mostly Mardi Gras beads!) deposited across the city. This is something that if it is visible at that scale, it is something we need to think about and address now. But every place is different and is at risk of being impacted by different phenomena and in different ways. The problems of a city along the coast are not the same as the problems faced by a farming town in the Midwest, but all those people and the problems they face are part of the same “system.” So, multi-scale, place-based response is how to approach this, in my view.
RS: At NOCGS, we are also thinking about the interconnectedness of climate change, equity, and the Black Lives Matter movement in our work. To Adam’s point that the all-hands-on-deck efforts must be for “something that can really work,” I’ll add that we must continue this and ask, work for whom? As Adam and Marcello pointed out, our climate futures are heterogeneous. When we come together in our varied humanity and use our imaginations, the expertise and solutions are inclusive.
The particulars of this region are intense and challenging, and the ways we respond to them will ripple outward. We like to say that that all of our programming at the Center is based on the belief that the more we understand where we are, the more fully we can engage in our collective destiny. We try to align the individual agency and empowerment we’ve spoken about here with a layered understanding of our surroundings and show up to create our coastal future. This approach prepares us all to have a mindset that we bring wherever we may go, whether it is in a classroom or across the globe. A liberal arts education cultivates this type of mindset, where we can apply complex thinking and communication skills to wherever we are. The pandemic has shown us that when we feel the urgency of the matter, we can quickly change many mundane aspects of daily life. We need to remember this now, because this is a time where we need swift, large-scale change.