For the first three years of college, I was an Evolutionary, Ecology, and Organismal Biology major. I was taught from a young age that science is an objective truth. Learning about science, I thought, was the key to understanding the world: the inner workings of life and all of the complex relationships that organisms share with one another. I thought that science would be my key to unlocking all the knowledge that the world had to offer. However, I came to understand through my time as a biology major that science is incredibly human: flawed and imperfect in its own way.
I switched my major to Environmental Studies at the beginning of my senior year. Following the COVID-19 pandemic and a full year of online school, I was disillusioned with my work in academia. I wasn’t connected to the joys of scientific discovery through a computer screen and I came to realize that the scientific data I would later produce would remain behind the screen of academia: largely unknown to the public with only the potential to be referenced by other scientists. I realized I didn’t want to generate the science; I wanted to share my understanding of it with the public and implement it in much-needed policy. I wanted to put my scientific understanding of climate change into action in the real world.
One of the first classes I took as an Environmental Studies major was Dr. Shannon O’Lear’s Environmental Geopolitics class. Under her direction, I began to see the humanity behind the institutions that were presenting me with data and information about the world around me and global environmental issues. I saw how scientific data was poorly implemented in current policy: used selectively by politicians to push their agendas rather than being holistically used to benefit everyday citizens suffering under environmental degradation. I began to question and research the credibility behind the knowledge presented to me by governments, academic institutions and media. I started to ask: What are they not telling us? What variables are they not including? What is really happening behind the curtain of our own institutional Emerald Cities?
By reflecting on my reality, I realized that I had naturalized narratives about climate change or the scarcity of resources as an unfortunate symptom of modernity, centered around capitalistic progress that had been presented to me as the only rational way to address the environment. However, capitalism—its greed, competition, and inherent exploitation of the environment and less powerful populations to achieve profit—is exactly what got us into this mess of depleting fresh water sources and increasing global temperatures. More science, more technology, and more capitalism was not going to change that fact.
The Earth has provided enough resources to support all of its populations, but those resources are inefficiently and inequitably managed under ethically-flawed human-made systems. The Environmental Geopolitics class has taught me and my classmates to examine and question the knowledge we are presented with about our human and environmental systems from multiple angles instead of accepting that information at face value. By utilizing the Environmental Geopolitics framework to question what we thought were objective truths, we were able to identify some overarching themes across several narratives.
One overarching theme our class picked up on was the idea that humans tend to separate themselves from the environment. Humans are in fact not separate from the environment, but rather a small piece of a deeply interconnected and interdependent system. We are an organism—just like squirrels, trees or microbes—that cause chain reactions in the web of natural relationships around us. And yet, our actions cause a significant impact in all aspects of ecological systems.
The waste that humans create or the emissions generated by different industries don’t just disappear like magic. Waste is moved to more hidden locations like garbage dumps or other nations where the people generating it don’t have to think about it anymore. Emissions stick around in the atmosphere, looming above humanity’s head like an invisible ticking time bomb. Discourses of environmental security frame these issues as a conflict of humans versus the environment. However, the environment is not our enemy. We are not in conflict with it, rather the environment is reflecting the actions of its organisms back onto us. The only conflict humanity is in is with the consequences of our actions.
Another overarching theme we noticed was that better individual behavior won’t fix climate change by itself. Alleviating humanity’s conflict with our actions entails more than just buying better products or recycling more on the individual level. Individuals do have an impact, especially when acting as a collective, but the real culprit behind environmental degradation are the polluting and extractive industries that are ravaging the air, water, and landscapes with pollution, waste, and overuse. These activities are largely enabled by policies and regulations that hold economic growth as paramount over the general health of the environment—policies that are poorly designed and implemented from an ecological point of view. Massive amounts of pollution are generated to produce the products that shape our modern reality and put profits in the pockets of the wealthy few in charge of these industries.
As you’ve hopefully seen throughout each of these podcasts, the pesticides produced to support our agriculture practices or the cobalt mined to create the batteries for our technologies are being over-produced and over-extracted with disastrous effects for landscapes and the people within them. While eating one cheeseburger won’t utterly collapse the world around us, the massive industries behind securing that cheap meat and dairy does bring the planet one step closer to catastrophe. The global environment is being destroyed in the name of economic growth that benefits industries and corporations which in turn support and influence government decisions and policy making. The general public of consumers is largely left out of the conversation through the feedback loop of corporate support and governmental action despite being the main source of income for both corporate and government entities.
Another overarching theme we noticed was that certain Western discourses naturalize environmental degradation in marginalized areas and nations with disastrous effects. To protect the livelihood and happiness of modern consumers, damaging and polluting industries have been outsourced from richer Western populations into the reality of poorer populations and nations with less money—and therefore less power—to fight back. Western discourses have naturalized nations in the Global South as more degraded and less suitable for human prosperity around colonial histories of violence and exploitation that destabilized the security of these nations in the first place.
Western imperialists ravaged the land and people of the Global South for economic gain, and Western companies continue to do the same today. Google pictures of the impacts of fast fashion talked about in Renz’s podcast in Accra, Ghana or just listen to Reid’s podcast on what is happening in the Democratic Republic of the Congo again. Their environments are not naturally polluted and their people do not naturally experience suffering as a result. Rather they are the victims of slow violence and neocolonial industrial practices.
This is seen in America as well, like in Lauryn’s podcast about Little Village and Anika’s podcast about Cancer Alley, where minority populations are saddled with the burden of health crises while the voices of environmental groups are disregarded as politicians continue to support the sourcing of chemical industries near these populations.
Another overarching theme we noticed is that governmental action is curbing some harmful activities of polluting industries but selectively based on limited knowledge. Their claims also conceal the spatial scale of their impacts. Politicians, at large, are political actors looking to protect the interests of only what lies within their jurisdictional borders. Often times these interests are solely economic as we discussed in our chapter on Climate Change and Security.
Politicians often believe that their impact and responsibility end at their borders of control. However, lines on a map don’t stop air and water pollution from bleeding over into adjacent jurisdictions. Lines on a map don’t stop waste chemicals from diffusing into water sources that feed into our water cycle—a water cycle that slowly makes it way around the entire globe. With the support of various scientific institutions at their side, politicians promote their interests (or the interests of lobbyists or constituents) through policy and discourse that centers their citizens as the main causes of destruction. Many of our creators discuss this skewed perception of spatial scale and responsibility.
As Karis discussed in their podcast, governments tout what they do achieve proudly by showing emission reductions in certain areas and citing specific data to support their actions. Corporations act similarly, as discussed by Bella, by publishing advertisements to show trees being planted or delivery vehicles switching to all electric to present data on how “green” they are. However, these focused narratives can disguise ever-mounting pollution and degradation that is actively happening under everyone’s noses that are encouraged by political practices.
The scientific knowledge used by government authorities is limited even though it contextualizes all of Earth’s systems for their populations. The data generated and presented to global citizens depends on the humans who make the hypotheses, put together the variables to set up the perfect equation, and carry out tests to prove or disprove their conception of the world around them. Those hypotheses are based on the individual perspectives of the very human scientists who can only analyze so many variables at once. Limited by the set of variables considered, a scientific study can only yield one incomplete perspective of truth. So who and what should we believe? The answer lies in the analysis of the sources of that produce the data that goes on to shape our view of the world. Examine the methods, check the sources they’re citing, and determine the legitimacy of that claim based on your own conclusions.
Humans and human knowledge are limited. We are limited by our individual perspectives, which are created by our specific upbringing, schooling, and cultural knowledge sets. We are limited in what we can consider and what we can do in our everyday lives. Humanity as a whole, however, has had a seemingly limitless impact on Earth. Humanity has leveled mountains, changed the flow of rivers, and slowly increased the average temperature of the entire planet. Most of the environments we interact with have been created or manipulated in some way by human action, whether deliberately or not.
These actions of humans are what we examine in Environmental Geopolitics. To fully understand the scale and impact of influential institutions like governments and corporations, we examine the complexities behind their decisions and the inevitable effects of those decisions on the planet. To only considering certain perspectives—like the individualist perspective of Western science or economics—when making decisions limits how we see the world and understand our part in it.
The podcasts we created for this class were also limited. As individuals, we could consider only so many sources and variables when assembling our research. Most of us brought in our own perspectives of the environment and looked to tackle certain issues based on how we were taught to research and understand them. As a result, this resource is full of podcasts tackling all kinds of environmental issues from wildly different perspectives. When we listen to these podcasts altogether, however, we are able to construct an interdisciplinary understanding of what is actually happening across multiple nations, markets, and locales based on many social, economic, ecological, and spatial variables.
The students of the Fall 2021 class of Environmental Geopolitics were able to construct a multifaceted view of current human processes on the planet, but there are more perspectives and variables that are still needed to be analyzed. As more students conduct research and make their own podcasts, more pieces of our global environmental puzzle will fall into place and create an even more accurate, holistic image of what is happening at local, national, and global scales. As the world progresses, so will the research that students will conduct around it. Our global context is constantly shifting and changing so similar research topics will not yield the same results from year to year.
Dr. O’Lear allowed us the freedom to choose which environmental topic interested us the most instead of presenting us with ideas or topics she wanted to see research on. In doing this, she gave the power to individual students to pursue topics they were actually interested in. We worked throughout the semester to fit that interest into the framework of Environmental Geopolitics and built our independent research around her textbook from the ground up. As a result, you’ll see a lot of passion in the thoroughness of each podcast from each individual creator.
Dr. O’Lear also gave weekly worksheets to check in on the progress of research building and to have individual conversations about what was working and what wasn’t working for each creator. She allowed us to follow our intuition and passions in order to produce a unique final product that reflected our perspective of environmental problems around the globe rather than create an echo chamber of Dr. O’Lear’s personal perspective of the environment. The podcast was a great format as a final product because it incorporated the creator’s voice and allowed the students to reshape their heavily academic research into an informative conversation with their listeners. The result is that these podcasts are more like a Ted Talk or an episode of “My Favorite Murder” rather than academic jargon shared between colleagues.
We also chose to publish these podcasts in an open educational resource rather than an academic journal or textbook in order to give this knowledge to the public for free. All too often the life-changing, world-flipping knowledge discovered by academics is kept behind the paywall of academia. In order to actually change the world with the knowledge that we independently discover and research, we need to educate the general public with what we learn. Our individual perspectives mean nothing if we are unable to rally other humans around what we learned about and how we can fix the environmental catastrophes forced onto us by economic and political institutions.
The power in our own podcast perspectives lies in our ability to teach and enlighten one another. When humanity comes together to learn from each other, bringing different cultural knowledge and viewpoints, individuals are able to make better decisions and be more aware of how we are impacting the world around us. The knowledge and information disseminated by groups in power reflects the biases and perspectives of those publishing authorities. The subjective perspectives of governments and corporations have been disguised as objective truths to keep populations from questioning the actions taken to enforce and secure those perspectives. Human truths are hardly objective. Instead, they reflect our very subjective realities. Individuals do have the ability to impact these realities and change the planet even if it is statistically small. That impact grows exponentially when we learn from one another and act together.
To fully understand how the teachings of Environmental Geopolitics relate to the real world, one must first understand how it relates to their own reality and environment. One must first understand that environmental degradation is taking place all around us, not just tucked away across the globe or behind barriers of protection set up by governmental or corporate authorities. We hope that this collection of research and information helps our readers to better understand the role of the environment, the role of humanity, and the spatial scale of impacts that make up the environmental claims that conceptualize the world around us. We hope that each student, instructor, and non-academic alike are able to use this information to better inform their own actions as influential organisms as well.
O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.