An interview with Blanche Verlie
This week, morethanhumanmatters interviews Blanche Verlie, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Sydney Environment Institute. Blanche has a multi-disciplinary background and works at the intersections between climate change, gender, culture, education, science studies, justice, emotions, affect, and the more-than-human world. Her research has been published in academic journals including Emotion, Space, and Society, Environmental Education Research, and Educational Studies. Blanche has also written shorter articles, including pieces in The Conversation on the political consequences of the 2019/2020 Australian bush fires and on the effects of climate anxiety among young people. Blanche is currently working on a book titled Learning to Live-With Climate Change, which will be published by Routledge in 2021.
Hello, Blanche, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in the issue of climate change and in particular, its relationship to education?
Hey Sophie! That’s a great question, because after you’ve been doing something for a while it’s easy to forget why you started. Clearly, climate change is an important issue but there are plenty of them around, so why climate change? I’ve always found the global/planetary element of climate change really interesting, even when I was in school. Thinking that we could be changing the atmosphere of the entire planet is really striking and it forces us to think in ways that we don’t normally do (at least, not if you’re a citizen of a contemporary industrialized nation). Thinking about climate means thinking about incredibly complex systems, where a change in one can elicit cascading and wildly surprising changes throughout the rest.
One of the stories that comes to mind when I think about this is about how the warming of the USA is increasing the geographical range of a particular kind of tick whose bite gives humans an allergy to red (mammalian) meat. We didn’t even know you could be allergic to meat a little while ago. While this is really awful for those affected by it, especially if they don’t know that’s what they are allergic too, in its own way the planetary system is putting a little brake on the changes in the climate (by forcing people to eat less high-emissions meat). These kinds of unanticipated system effects are so interesting to me. Thinking about climate also forces us to reckon with all kinds of questions: ethical, political, interpersonal, economic, and cultural. Thus, part of the idea of learning to live-with climate change is understanding climate not as something to learn about, but as a pedagogue that teaches us about how the world works, and our place within it. In other words, this is about learning to live, and about climate as our teacher.
In a recent article published in Emotion, Space, and Society (2019), you deploy the concept of “climatic-affective atmospheres” to outline more effective and ethical social responses to climate change. Could you break down this concept for us and explain how it speaks to the dialogical relationship between human action and environmental transformation?
This concept is part of my effort to think climate and feeling as ‘two sides of the same coin,’ – not quite the same thing, but intimately related. Sensing weather and responding to its current behavior and its patterns over time is a fundamental element of ecological survival, and thus, adaptation and learning, and thus key to all the relations we form with other beings and the wider world. We have so many idioms in English (and, I presume but don’t know, in other languages) where the weather is used as a metaphor for moods, such as ‘being on cloud nine’ or feeling ‘under the weather.’ We have all no doubt also experienced times when the weather has affected our mood. Given we that we often think of climate change as something distributed and far away in both space and time, but of feelings as internal, bringing an attention to climate as feeling can, I hope, help us care more about what numbers like 1.5 degrees, 415ppm of CO2, and so on, all mean.
Climatic-affective atmospheres, then, is building on the concept of ‘affective atmospheres’ in
emotional and cultural geography. The concept uses the morphology (i.e. the shape and form)
of atmospheres to explain how feelings can be composed, and how they move and circulate
between people and other bodies, such as the objects in a room, animals, and the air itself.
It’s kind of like the academic study of the ‘vibe’ or ‘aura’ of a space and how that comes to be
felt by humans. By adding ‘climactic’ at the start, I wanted to emphasize that given we now
live in a climate-changed world, all atmospheres are part of this bigger phenomenon.
In turn, how particular spaces feel (for instance, public transport, shopping malls, and so forth)
contributes to how we slow down or continue to increase greenhouse gas emissions.
You recently set up an online platform, www.firefeels.org, that publishes letters from the public, addressed to Australian politicians and speaking to peoples’ experiences of the bushfires that ravaged Australia in 2019/2020, and climate change more generally. Could you tell us what prompted you to set up this platform and what kinds of responses from the public (and if you wish, from politicians) you have received so far?
FireFeels started because a past student of mine, who is now a good friend, wrote a reflective piece of writing about her changing relationship to fire, and sent it to me, saying she didn’t know what to do with it. I felt that those fires were a real wake up call for a lot of Australians. From my teaching work, I know that taking time to sit down, identify, process, and express our emotions relating to climate change is a powerful way of clarifying our values and motivating us to take action – and it is often cathartic, too. I also know that sharing these experiences is really important to counteract the sense of isolation that many of us – particularly in a country like Australia – feel because of the systematic climate denial that prevents us from talking about climate change. When we know others are also distressed about climate change, we can forge collective action from a place of solidarity, and build community based on our shared grief.
But, there isn’t really any platform I know of where everyday people can have their long-form expressions about climate change published. Unless you have a really devastating story to tell about the fires, or you are an expert or a politician, no media is going to publish your writing, and social media doesn’t provide the space for dwelling with something so gritty. Finally, our politicians’ denial of people’s grief (epitomized by Scott Morrison) means the fires had a double emotional impact. Hence FireFeels was started as a platform where everyday people could share their emotions about the fires and direct them to politicians. We shared the letters on Twitter and tagged the MP’s they were written to. Only Ged Kearney responded on Twitter, and only by liking the posts (credit to her really, I don’t know what I would have done! They are not easy to respond to). I don’t know if the contributors got written responses from their MPs, but I did eventually get one from Tanya Plibersek. It was, as you would expect, a template letter about Labor's supposedly great climate change policies and some numbers and statistics to apparently back that up. In Tanya’s defense, she’s not just an MP but also a shadow minister, and I am sure they get so many letters. To be honest, I never expected any kind of significant personal response, and that was kind of the point – to highlight the cold rationality that dominates our climate discussions, where everything is reduced to numbers, and there is no space for actual, lived, human experience.
Your research cross-pollinates theoretical and empirical insights derived from an array of different disciplines – from education and climate science, through to feminist theory and post-humanism. In your view, how does inter-disciplinarity help us understand and inhabit the world differently as humans, and in relation to other-than-human lifeforms and elements that animate this world?
That is a great question. I think, probably for most of human history (which includes our ancestral history, in other words, before ‘humans’ evolved – we inherit all of that) and in most of our lives, we have not been disciplinary creatures. Sure, we are never without particular ‘lenses’ (cultural, economic, and so on) through which we interpret the world. But disciplinary knowledge (as we know it today) is really a feature of the Western education system, and now particularly of academia – which is, let’s never forget, one of the primary instruments of colonization. Disciplinary knowledge cuts the world into discrete areas of study – the classic division being humans and nature – and pretends they don’t inter-relate. So, it makes sense to me that disciplinary knowledge will always have traces of extractivism and prevent us from inhabiting the complex, messy world in realistic and responsive ways.
When you are seeking to contribute to ‘a discipline’, what is that for? Who is it for?
I think it is for academic careers and publishing companies primarily, and for public good
secondarily. Whereas when you start with a real-world problem which will always require
multiple disciplines at a minimum, and most likely inter- and trans-disciplinary knowledge,
you are far more likely to contribute to the ‘public good’ (broadly defined). That’s probably a
simplistic approach to it all. I have no doubt that disciplinary knowledge and training is a
necessary part of inter-disciplinary work. We absolutely need the careful methods and refined
skillsets developed by experts in their fields. I think the question comes down to how we work
together to leverage disciplinary knowledge for purposes beyond the maintenance of the
discipline itself. Thinking about the black summer in Australia and smoke pollution, we need
medical sciences, architecture, urban design, social sciences and psychologists, forest ecologists,
political strategy, and more, in order to work towards reducing climate change and the impacts
of it. We need all those disciplines to work together, but we also need them to do that through
bringing their expert, refined knowledges together.
Often though, when we do inter-disciplinary work, we are forced to think within a shared ontology, and by default this typically is that of positivist colonialism. I think multi-, inter-, and trans-ontological knowledges are probably where the really exciting opportunities to inhabit the world differently will come from. How we do that in reciprocal and non-extractive ways, however, remains a big question.
Finally, Blanche, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
Hmmm. Good question, again! Maybe, get outside? COVID-19 has brought to my attention how not very much that happens in a house is surprising. We have designed our homes and buildings so we can have as much control as possible over them, which means it is hard to learn very much. I am privileged to have grown up on a small farm on the edge of the forest in central Victoria. During my PhD, I came back here often and experiences I had here that didn’t have much to do with climate change were really formative in helping me think through the theoretical problems I was struggling with. For example, one day I realized my dad had cut down two of the low hanging branches on my favorite gum tree for firewood. Apparently, this was his effort to be sustainable. Instead of cutting down a whole young tree, he just took off two branches from an old tree. These were glorious branches that we climbed endlessly as kids, precisely because of how accessible they were. Losing them actually felt like I had lost a limb. I was so grief-stricken by the permanence of the loss. I still am, really. I know that’s just a sliver of the loss that Indigenous people must feel when their lands and cultural relations are destroyed and taken from them. But I learned a lot about relating to non-humans through that experience (including different ways of relating), and of more-than-human embodiment and subjectivity.
"Part of the idea of learning to live-with climate change is understanding climate not as something to learn about, but as a pedagogue that teaches us about how the world works, and our place within it."
"Disciplinary knowledge cuts the world into discrete areas of study – the classic division being humans and nature – and pretends they don’t inter-relate. So, it makes sense to me that disciplinary knowledge will always have traces of extractivism and prevent us from inhabiting the complex, messy world in realistic and responsive ways."