BAAS 2023 Panel Review: 8H- GreenBAAS Panel ‘“Our House is Still on Fire”: New Research in Environmental American Studies’
Since debuting at 2021’s BAAS Annual Conference, GreenBAAS’s panels have become something of an annual fixture, acquiring a reputation for interdisciplinarity, provocativeness, and contemporary relevance. These features were again apparent as GreenBAAS re-convened on the final day of the BAAS 2023 Annual Conference for a panel chaired by Christine Okoth (Lecturer, KCL) and entitled, after a quotation from Greta Thunberg, ‘Our House is Still on Fire.’
Building on ‘Teaching Environmental American Studies in a Time of Crisis’ (BAAS 2021, published in The Journal of American Studies) and ‘Code Red: Embedding the Climate Crisis in the American Studies Curriculum’ (BAAS 2022, published in Transatlantica), 2023’s discussion offered a wide-ranging discussion with two overwhelming themes: the diversity of environmental thought and the imbrications of climate crisis with global imperialism and settler colonialism.
Ananya Mishra (Lecturer, QMUL) opened proceedings by exploring the poetry of Simon J. Ortiz (1941-), an Acoma Pueblo writer whose collections, including Fight Back: For the Sake of the People, For the Sake of Land (1980), discuss the fallout in Hopi, Pueblo, and Navajo communities as uranium mining expanded into New Mexico. Mishra persuasively illustrated how Ortiz’s poetry reflected on states of captivity, material incarceration, and indigenous entrapment, a combination that “anticipate[s] the struggle of global indigenous communities working in sites of mining.” Fruitfully employing a trans-indigenous methodology, Mishra then compared Ortiz’s work to the music of the Konh poet Bhagaban Majhi, which describes the loss of Adivasi (Indigenous Indian) land in Eastern and Central India following the arrival of multinational mining firms during India’s period of economic (neo)liberalisation in the 1990s. Both poetic corpora offer new forms of evidentiality, of climate vocabularies that name the ties between mining, the nuclear industry, and climate crisis. Ortiz and Majhi, Mishra argued, reveal sites of resource extraction as places of slow and sudden violence predicated on the dispensability of indigenous bodies. This was an influential opening paper which usefully evidenced how studying the environment fosters transnational perspectives and solidarities.
Abigail Morton-Wilcox (PhD Student, UEA) too focused on the combination of settler colonialism, capitalism, and hetero-patriarchy. An incredibly promising preview of her PhD research into women environmentalists, Morton-Wilcox explored a series of writings by predominantly Indigenous American voices who propose ways to discuss the environment within the academy while opposing Western hierarchies and power structures. Morton-Wilcox’s discussion centred on the Michi Saagiig Nishanaabeg scholar Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s article Land as Pedagogy: Nishnaabeg Intelligence and Rebellious Transformation (2014). Simpson’s land-based framework, Morton-Wilcox argued, is critical to reframing our climate crisis as an ongoing form of colonial violence and forwarding an alternative “respectful, reciprocal, and sustainable approach to consumption diametrically opposed to extractive capitalism.” Simpson’s article opens with a story regarding Kwezens, a character whose curiosity and work “from the land and with the land” (Simpson’s words) Morton-Wilcox suggested offered a powerful model for regarding the more-than-human as kinfolk. Through this textual reading and more, Morton-Wilcox’s presentation revealed an array of strivings towards new worldmaking. This message was perhaps best exemplified in Morton-Wilcox’s closing quotation from the reflections of Potawatomi writer Robin Wall Kimmerer regarding corn- and land-people relationships: “Imagination is one of our most powerful tools. What we imagine we become.”
Joining virtually having recently completed his PhD at the University of Exeter, Abdenour Bouich also presented early findings from an exciting new project centring imagination, albeit in the alternative setting of indigenous futurisms. Bouich’s paper centred on the speculative fiction novel by the Nulhegan Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchah Killer of Enemies (2013), the first in a series by the same name. Bouich’s discussion persuasively developed Kyle White’s argument that speculations often reflect and comment upon realities indigenous peoples endured under colonial practices. Killer of Enemies’ protagonist is an Apache woman, Lozen, who lives in a future characterized by technological advances and hegemony by ‘The Ones’, technologically enhanced human beings. In the novel, however, a cloud settles on the planet, disabling technology and plunging the world back into a steampunk apocalypse. Bouich persuasively illustrated how the ensuing plot both centres indigenous peoples within futurist imaginaries and, by making indigenous knowledge a key driver of Lozen’s resistance, demonstrates how indigenous knowledge offers a necessary political corrective to societies violated by capitalist logics. Like both preceding presentations, Bouich thus situated appreciation for the more-than-human as a critical imperative in a world on fire.
Sam Hawksford White (Postgraduate Researcher, University of Hull) then provided more sumptuously illustrated portions from his ongoing research on photographic representations of landscape in New Deal America, research previously featured as part of USSO’s Resilience and Renewal Series. He investigated pictorial representations of the 1937 Ohio-Mississippi flood disaster, one of the most devastating and—by virtue of the newly-created Life magazine’s extensive visual coverage—widely discussed disasters in American history. In the words of its founder Henry Luce, this emerging publication invested in photojournalism to cultivate two journalistic tones: the nervous alert news magazine and the photo essay. Indeed, a March 1937 Life editorial predicted that “when a few more floods are properly reported by pictures, America will decide that there shall be no more floods.” While Hawksford White cited several flood narratives that described the disaster as a war between humans and rivers, the photos of Russell Lee (1903-1986) proved most striking. Hawksford White powerfully illustrated how Lee, who avoided the reckless stunts of the ‘first-arriver photographer’, took photographs once the crests of the waters had passed, depicting the floods’ ongoing effects in startling “distillations of domestic loss”.
Katie Taylor (PhD student, Liverpool John Moores University) then offered an intriguing preview of her thesis chapter on the environment in African American children’s periodicals, commencing with Kimberly K. Smith’s warning that our conceptions of what constitutes environmental thought have frequently excluded Black voices. Taylor starkly illustrated the benefits of bringing these voices back in, finding in the publication The Brownies’ Books a rich visual tapestry of Black joy and pleasure. A short-lived publication running from January 1920 to 1922, The Brownies’ Book was the first African American youth magazine. It was launched by figures involved in The Crisis, most notably W. E. B. Du Bois, who celebrated the publication as “a thing of Joy and Beauty”, to be “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Taylor illustrated how the YWCA’s Girl Reserves depicted in the Books offered a space for asserting relationships with the Black environment and defying normative notions of Black girlhood. Centring camaraderie and play as means for liberation, this paper powerfully expanded our understanding of Black environmental thought and resistance to environmental oppression.
To conclude proceedings, George Barkes (PhD Student, University of Derby) offered a strongly argued and activist-inclined historical analysis of climate denial heavily informed by concepts of Hegelian false consciousness and Gramscian hegemony. Barkes detailed four forms of climate denial: cultural hegemony through social greenwashing, cultural hegemony through political greenwashing, false consciousness through propaganda, and false consciousness through conspiracy. This was a notably contemporary presentation, critiquing—remarkably for the first time in this panel—both neoliberalism and Donald Trump. Another promising sign of research to come, Barkes effectively concluded the panel through his macro-systemic analysis, memorably concluding that mega-corporations’ pronouncements on climate change should be “given the same level of trust as a rattlesnake with a ‘Pet Me’ sign on it.”
A year after the American Studies Association met in New Orleans with the title ‘The Roof is on Fire’, ‘Our House is Still on Fire’ was a convincing testament to the environmental research being done by American Studies researchers and practitioners on this side of the Atlantic. Usefully for those working in an already economically beleaguered profession/country/globe, it avoided the temptation of bleak apocalypticism and instead offered a rich vein of ideas for mining radical hope going forward.
Indeed, the focus on representations of climate crisis coming from a diverse array of imaginers all corroborated two key arguments offered by Elsa Devienne in the introduction to the 2021 GreenBAAS Transatlantica special issue. First, that American Studies’ “interdisciplinary and transnational outlooks work best to fathom the complexity of environmental phenomena acting on multiple scales” and, second, that the insights afforded by Black, Ethnic, and Indigenous Studies all concomitantly challenge the focus on predominantly White, predominantly male mainstream environmentalism which may limit the insights of environmental studies within other disciplines.
In sum, ‘Our House is Still on Fire’ evidenced both the immense promise of this new research and the existence of a critical shift in the methodological priorities and activist commitments of our American Studies community. After six more papers and one more enthralling panel, perhaps it’s time a 2024 GreenBAAS annual conference assumed a critical position in next year’s American Studies calendar.