Investigative journalist and podcaster Amy Westervelt talks with Asher about the cultural roots of the climate crisis. Their wide-ranging conversation covers many stop-and-make-you-think ideas about sustainability, racial and gender equality, economic systems, the social contract, and philosophy over a long sweep of history. Stick around for the conclusion in which Amy considers the mismatch between the need for immediate action on climate change versus the slower-moving cultural and behavioral shifts that can propel such change. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website

Transcript

Melody Travers

Welcome to Crazy Town. I’m producer Melody Travers. In this bonus episode, Asher speaks with environmental journalist, Amy Westervelt about patriarchy and the cultural roots of the climate crisis. Thanks for tuning in. If you want others to get the Crazy Town experience, please hit the “share episode” button and send it to your community, or drop us five stars. Now to the show.

Asher Miller

Amy Westervelt is an award-winning print and audio journalist and author, and a podcaster, who has done amazing reporting and storytelling on the climate crisis, the fossil fuel industry, and the energy transition. She is the founder of the Critical Frequency Podcast Network and has executive produced more than a dozen podcasts including her own show, “Drilled,” which I highly recommend that you check out if you haven’t already. Amy, welcome to Crazy Town.

Amy Westervelt

Thanks. Thanks for having me.

Asher Miller

Yeah. So I wanted to talk with you just briefly about the deep roots of the climate and sustainability crisis. You partnered witha podcast called, “Scene on Radio,” which is one of my absolute favorites. We’ve actually encouraged folks in the past to listen to the “Seeing White” series in particular.

Amy Westervelt

Yeah.

Asher Miller

And you work with them on a series called, “The Repair,” which explores the cultural roots of the climate crisis, and the deep changes that that we in Western society will need to make. Can you just talk a little about the impetus for that project? And the general arc of the season?

Amy Westervelt

Yeah, yeah. Well, first of all, yes, “Scene on Radio” was one of my favorite podcasts long before I ever got the opportunity to work with them. So I was a total fan girl when John Biewen initially reached out. Like, you want me? But he wanted to do a season on the historical roots of the climate crisis. And he particularly wanted to do it on the back of these three previous seasons that they had just done which were unpacking the roots of racism, and, sort of the creation of race in general. And then patriarchy, and then democracy, and why no one’s actually been able to pull off a full democracy yet and why, you know, America hasn’t necessarily delivered on the promises in some of its founding documents. So he felt like that was a good foundation from which to start talking about the climate crisis, which I really strongly agree with. So where we started was looking at, okay, what are the root causes of this crisis? How do you get a crisis that impacts everyone, but is being managed by a small group of people making these big decisions? How do you end up with a situation like that –  where just a small group of people has so much power to dictate how the entire planet is going to move forward?

Asher Miller

Yeah, were there any things that really surprised you in the course of doing the season?

Amy Westervelt

You know what actually totally surprised me? And it seems so silly now. But there was this moment where John was interviewing this economist in Europe, Christian Felber. And he was interviewing him about economic systems and what needs to change. And, you know, I think John might have even gone into that interview thinking that Christian was going to be super anti-capitalism. But he was like, no, you can have capitalism if you want. There’s nothing that says that the core value in capitalism has to be extraction, actually. You could have a capitalist marketplace that values wellbeing and the viability of life on Earth. We just don’t do it that way. And it was like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true.” I think they’re these understandings that we have that feel really immutable. And it’s great to have those moments where someone just says something that makes you sort of cock your head and go, “Oh yeah, that was just one person’s idea of the system. We don’t have to do it that way.”

Asher Miller

Yes, that’s true that where there is debate about the form of the economic system, you have people challenging the capitalist model, certainly the capitalist model that we have, but you also have economists, in particular those that are steeped in the traditional study of economics, who also define capital and capitalism in the same way, right?

Amy Westervelt

Right.

Asher Miller

So I guess you’re talking about maybe an in-between a bit.

my Westervelt

Right or just – I think Felber’s point was that no matter what system you choose, you have to rethink what you’re going to value in that system. And right now, none of the economic systems that we have do a particularly good job of valuing the things that we need to make human life work on Earth for a long period. So he was encouraging people to not get so trapped into the “capitalism or socialism” kind of dichotomy and think more about, what would it look like if we rethought what we value in an economy to begin with? And then, the system matters a little bit less.

Asher Miller

Yeah, it does seem like we’re seeing more of a shift. The idea of measuring different things has been around for a while, right? But quite marginal. It does seem that it’s become more of a question.

Amy Westervelt

Yeah.

Asher Miller

Well, so in Crazy Town, we spend a lot of time lamenting how… I mean, part of the reason we called it Crazy Town was just that a lot of the way that we live, and by we I should be clear, right? Those of us in quote-unquote advanced economies primarily. The way that we live really is crazy.

Amy Westervelt

Right.

Asher Miller

And it’s constantly being reinforced, you know. We have to participate or be completely checked out. In this season of the podcast where we’re exploring unknown or underappreciated moments in human history that we see as “watershed” moments that  helped us drive to the craziness that we’re in. And some of them can be sort of silly, but are emblematic of a kind of  world that we built. My view for a long time, having done done this work for over a decade now, particularly looking at the energy part of the picture, was that the sustainability crisis — the source of it was the advent of the fossil fuel age. This was like winning the energy lottery, and we all went crazy for a while, like sometimes lottery winners do. I’ve been on my own journey, I think, over recent years, trying to dig more deeply and seeing, for example, that colonization has played a really big role prior to the fossil fuel age. There are certain belief systems, economic systems, ways of being, particularly coming from Europe, that pre-existed fossil fuels. And fossil fuels, in a sense, supercharged those. But trying to dig further and further back, people have talked about other energy transitions, moving from hunter-gatherers to agriculture, for example. My friend, Sherry Mitchell, points to the commodification of brides as one of the earliest forms of exploitation. When you think about it — and you’ve talked about this quite a bit — the exploitation of people and the planet. And she points to that . . .

Amy Westervelt

Right. It’s like, if you can look at people as a resource that you can extract and commodify, which happens, yes. In the case of women, with brides, in the case of all kinds of people, and then eventually, only African people with the slave trade. But even before the North Atlantic slave trade, you have a slave trade that goes back a long way. So I think, I don’t know, the idea of human beings as commodities. . . I don’t know, I think if you can get to that, then you can have a pretty extractive approach to every aspect of your life, I guess.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And I know they did a whole season on patriarchy. But I wanted to talk to you, because you touched base on this a little bit in a conversation you had with John – it might have even been the first episode of your series, talking about patriarchy and how it relates. And specifically, looking at the ecological crisis that we’re in. I’m just curious about how you would connect those two things, and that history a little bit, and how that shaped where we are now.

Amy Westervelt

Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a way that the sort of commodification and dehumanization of women really ties into how humans were evolving to see nature in general at that point. You know, you were talking about watershed moments, the thing that I think about a lot is the shift from a natural view of the world to a mechanistic view, where everything from water and oil to people are cogs in the machine, right? That view of the world (and how it works) is really key to the enlightenment. So that goes in some positive directions. And you know, I’m not at all arguing that organized religion has been good to women for much of the course of human history, but this mechanistic view adds this whole layer to it, of, “Oh, I can just sort of swap in these things that I need to get to where I need to go.” And I think that really sets us on this course of thinking about people and natural resources as inputs and outputs, and losing the sense of web-of-life that existed before that. And I get hesitant talking about this stuff because I don’t at all want people to think that I’m anti-science. But I do think that that shift in perspective really triggers a whole bunch of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily associate with. Oh, the scientific method, and that kind of thing. Even the bulk of our laws today are very much derived from this mechanistic view of the world. So when you get into environmental law, for example, it’s very much about resources as commodities. And even natural resource management is mostly done with this view of, “How do we manage this resource so that it continues to benefit the economy, so that it continues to benefit humans?” Versus, “How do we live in harmony with this ecosystem that we are a part of and connected to?”

Asher Miller

On the topic of the Enlightenment and the role that science has played, science was used, quote-unquote, science was used to justify belief systems that pre-existed it. So, we talked about race, right? The idea of a racial distinction was really propelled by the Catholic Church. And so it had in some ways a religious basis. But it’s not like when science took over, it did away with that belief system.

Amy Westervelt

Right. But science has given us an extra layer of legitimacy. When you look at that time period, there were really well respected, very powerful philosophers and writers who were absolutely more progressive than the most left person you will meet today, you know? But there were also people who went, “Oh, perfect. Now we can categorize people in this way that seems very divorced from feelings, or emotions, or opinions, or ego, or anything like that. We can just say it’s sort of this dry, pragmatic approach,” which became really dangerous.

Asher Miller

Taking it further back, you talked about the shift in terms of the belief system of our relationship with nature, the sort of animistic view, into –

Amy Westervelt

Animistic! That’s the word I was looking for.

Asher Miller

Yeah, to one that’s like… I don’t know how familiar you are with Marvin Harris? We talk about him maybe too much on this podcast because there’s this theory of cultural materialism which argues that it’s actually changes in our relationship to what he called infrastructure. And that is not roads and bridges; it’s energy, the natural environment, how we relate with it. It’s changes in those things that lead to changes in our political systems, how we operate with one another, and also our belief systems. It’s kind of compelling to think – and I think history is much more messy and muddy than this – but a shift to agriculture, people have argued, leads us to look to the sky for rain and sun and a belief in sky gods. Versus, seeing that every rock, every plant, every being is somehow co-dependent, in a sense, on each other. And I’m just curious if you share the view that one thing can lead to also then thinking like, well. . . especially when you create hierarchies in societies and in more complex societies that now women are viewed as subordinate to men. And then other humans are subordinate to other humans. And I’m just curious what your take on that would be?

Amy Westervelt

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that’s super interesting. And I think there’s a ton of evidence for that throughout history. When you get to agriculture, for example, not only are people looking to the sky for sky gods and things like that, but also, labor becomes much more important, right?

Asher Miller

Yeah.

Amy Westervelt

So you have both the domination of women, who are now conscribed to pumping out more workers and soldiers, and you have a clear incentive for slavery. I know John has gotten into this in great detail in some of the previous seasons of “Seeing White,” but that the greatest driver for racism and slavery in the U.S. was just the need for more agricultural labor, and the need for agricultural labor that couldn’t leave and that wouldn’t be too expensive. That, to me, is the thing that I obsess about the most on the climate question — just that all of these things are so intertwined. And therefore, when people look at the climate question, and they think, “Oh, we just need to replace this one energy source with this other energy source,” I think we run the risk of really perpetuating false solutions. And also just continuing on the same path in a way that might have some positive impact on this one issue of emissions, but will create a whole other barrel of issues down the road. I really think that we almost need another enlightenment where people really grapple with thinking through what we value as a society, really rethinking the social contract. And, I don’t know, just how we want to live on a much broader scale than just, “Do we want to use batteries? Or do we want to use oil?”

Asher Miller

Yeah, I couldn’t agree with you more. There’s even questions about how sustainable that is. Certainly on the trajectory of growth that we’ve been on, and especially, if we think about addressing the inequality issues in the world, and in this country the idea that those of us who have been privileged and benefited from this extractive, exploitative economic system wouldn’t have to change what we do in order for others to also benefit. Seems a bit delusional.

Amy Westervelt

It’s totally delusional! It’s totally delusional. I feel like there’s a real blocker in people’s minds where the word privilege has become very triggering for people.

Asher Miller

Yeah.

Amy Westervelt

Especially in America, right? Where everything is supposedly a meritocracy. How dare you accuse me of not having earned and not being deserving of everything I have? But that’s not what it’s about. In general, across the board, Americans have benefited from fossil fuel extraction. But there’s still enormous disparities just within our own borders, nevermind the fact that the U.S. is the largest contributor to historical emissions, which means that we are 100% the big driver of the climate crisis. So I don’t know, it’s weird. I feel like the way that it gets talked about a lot, too, is very guilt-and-punishment, and sacrifice, and all of this kind of thing. And it could be responsibility, and strength, and moral fortitude. And those things aren’t even separate from the dominant religions in the world. Every religion has some aspect to it that encourages people to care about their community and to care about the common good, and all of that kind of thing. So I don’t know. I feel like in the U.S., in particular, my biggest underlying belief for everything that I look at is that the intense obsession with individualism in the U.S. underpins all of this stuff. Every single problem I’ve ever looked into eventually gets back to that. And I think that is a big fundamental societal shift that we need to make if we hope to deal with any of the big problems that are facing us. Because no matter what, we are locked into a certain amount of warming, and we’re already seeing the impacts of that. And when big extreme weather events happen, like fires that you and I have both dealt with, or the hurricanes, or floods, or whatever, you need that community fabric to be strong. And we don’t have that at all in this country.

Asher Miller

It’s unnatural, that constant pushing for individualism. It is not how we evolved as a species. We are a social species. And I think we’ve disconnected people from that in order to participate in a transactional economy and replace meaning or relationships with things. And I think it also just feeds that sort of emptiness that people have. It’s interesting, though, you talked to John a little bit about this shift that also happened millennia ago around thinking that life was fated and preordained to feeling like people had agency of some kind. And that, in a sense, allowed people to feel like they could exploit. There’s a lot of freedom that came with that, but then there’s a freedom to exploit as well.

Amy Westervelt

Yes.

Asher Miller

And it’s not like you or I would argue that our belief system should be that our entire lives are fated, or preordained from before birth or something.

Amy Westervelt

No. I’m not arguing for return to the Dark Ages. But surely there’s a happy medium here. I think you just add in the social contracts of some other countries where there is a certain amount of personal freedom, and the ability for people who have some extraordinary skill or talent to benefit from that, or whatever. But also, a general sense that you have to give up a tiny bit of that to get the benefit of a healthy and sustainable community, which is the entire basis of any social contract. And it is actually the basis of most of the philosophers, even like the libertarian thinkers in the U.S. point to. I get really annoyed because I see people quoting all of the Enlightenment philosophers really out of context a lot. But even if you go back to the way that property was first conceived, which I think is another really, really big turning point.

Asher Miller

Yeah.

Amy Westervelt

How property was defined, in general, but then particularly how the U.S. decided to define it. But in England and Western Europe, when they first started talking about private property, it was always with the caveat that you had to leave as much or more at a similar or better quality of land to the commons. There was always that balance. And it’s a uniquely American idea to chuck that balance out the window.

Asher Miller

Yeah, you’re teasing an upcoming episode that we have on the commons.

Amy Westervelt

Oh, are you doing one on property?

Asher Miller

Yeah, because you’re right. I think that shift has been profound.

Amy Westervelt

Extremely profound. And the way that America, in particular, took some of the things that John Locke was saying, which is basically that land only has value once humans put labor into it, right? The idea that it is pretty much only agriculture and extraction that give land value. That gets really baked into U.S. property law. As does… we are the ones that got rid of the idea that water and minerals and things like that remain the property of the government or the public, or the commons, or whatever. And that creates so many big issues, right? Because if you look at, okay… I want to drill a well on my land for gas or oil. And then I can profit from that while also ruining a water source… It becomes really complicated really quickly. But that’s also what fuels the oil boom. It’s that you have all of these independent wildcatters that can grab a tiny bit of land and try to get rich. It also really, really ties into the whole American individualism thing, too. You see this in the early 1900’s, just all of these things colliding at once.

Asher Miller

Yeah. And then the incentive structure to focus on the near term over the long term.

Amy Westervelt

That’s right.

Asher Miller

I want to leave it on a really tough question for you. Sorry.

Asher Miller

I want to apologize in advance. We talked a little bit about how it’s necessary when you see the climate crisis as, in effect, a symptom — a symptom that could do us in if we’re honest. But a symptom of these larger system dynamics, and it really comes down, in some ways, to cultural norms and belief systems. So recognizing that that’s what’s required, but at the same time, you’ve done all this reporting. You study it, I’m sure, exhaustively, the nature of the climate crisis. The emergency that we’re in is so dire and requires this dramatic near-term response. So how do you square those things — the need for this urgent, immediate response, and a cultural shift that frankly is going to be generational?

Amy Westervelt

Okay. I’m ready.

Amy Westervelt

I think we needed to walk and chew gum. It’s not like anyone is suggesting that we not do short-term things to try to save as many people and places as possible while we think about these other things. But my answer to that is that we’ve essentially spent the last 30 to 40 years ignoring the big cultural drivers altogether. And that hasn’t worked either.

Asher Miller

I agree. I agree.

Amy Westervelt

So I think this whole idea — and I find this to be really perplexing about the climate movement — that there is this constant debate about whether we should focus on energy or on culture. And it’s like, yeah, both. We need to do both. And unfortunately, that means that we will probably have quite a few of what the IPCC was calling in their report today, maladaptation efforts, where something is ostensibly done to address climate change and winds up worsening the problem or creating new problems. We’re going to continue to have that problem until we solve for the cultural problem. But I think the solution can’t be, “Everybody stop what you’re doing on climate until we figure out how we want to function as a society,” because that’s just not an option available to us right now.

Asher Miller

Yeah, I do think we’re seeing progress on a certain level in terms of intersectionality. Certainly, we’re seeing it in terms of climate justice. I think you can go broader and broader. That takes profound education and asking people deep questions. And going back into history a little bit to understand why we got here, which is why I appreciate so much the work that you’ve done — the season you did with “Scene on Radio” and the broader work that they’ve done. I think without understanding how we got here, it’s really hard to know where to go in the future.

Amy Westervelt

Totally. And we have to realize that the vast majority of people don’t have the time and energy to learn and read and think about these things because they’re so busy just surviving. Because we live in this very extractive society. So that’s where I get really annoyed when I see people who do have the time and the relative privilege to be able to do that being really obstinate about refusing to do it. Because it’s going to require those of us who do have the time to look at this stuff and try to share it in a way that is accessible to people. Because people have bills to pay and are struggling to just put food on the table. I don’t want that to sound patronizing, because I really hate it when people say things like, “Oh, well, the poor don’t have time to think about these…” Every human being thinks about these things. It’s just that some of us have the luxury of time to really dig into it, and not all of us do. So I think that it really is a responsibility for those of us who do have the time to really grapple with this stuff and try to push that conversation forward as much as we can. But I agree with you. The climate movement, just in the last 10 years, has become noticeably more intersectional. And I think that we’re seeing benefits from that in the form of better solutions and policies. Because I also reject the idea that checkbox diversity is helpful. The reason to have a diverse set of opinions in your group is that you get to better solutions that way. That’s it. It’s not so that you can have a great multi-culti picture on your brochure. It’s because that’s how you get to better solutions. And I do think that we are starting to see that. I see some people maybe still having some growing pains with that and feeling like there are all these new discussions they are being forced to have. And we’re taking our eyes off of the goal of energy transition, or whatever. But I think overall, it’s a net good, and it’s a noticeable shift, and a positive one.

Asher Miller

Yeah, I think you’re right. The folks who who get to listen to our podcasts, your podcasts, are ones who at least have the privilege of time and the capacity to do it. And so I would say it’s incumbent on us and on them to dig deeper to understand the roots of the climate crisis and the other issues that we face. And maybe be on the vanguard of thinking about systemic solutions. And really learning from others, not in a patronizing way, but really learning from communities who have been living in a different way.

Amy Westervelt

Yes. I mean, you mentioned Sherrie Mitchell before, who’s brilliant on this stuff. And there are several – and you’re finally starting to see the international climate organizations embracing indigenous communities and indigenous approaches to things. I would like to see that happen in a more real way and less of a tokenizing way. Starting maybe with land back.

Asher Miller

Yes, put your money where your mouth is.

Amy Westervelt

Exactly, exactly. If you’re gonna name the stolen land that you’re on, then you need to make the next step and think about returning that land. But anyway, I keep seeing that in all kinds of climate things, where people will have a ceremonial acknowledgement of the land that they’re on, which is great. But then yeah, okay, why can’t we have the conversation about the next step from there? But I do think that learning from indigenous communities and even learning from… You know, I also co-host a podcast called “Hot Take” with Mary Annaïse Heglar, who’s a great writer and thinker on climate justice issues. And she constantly reminds me of parallels between the climate movement and the civil rights movement. And how when people ask her, “How do you keep going even though it’s so depressing and all that stuff?” She’s like, “Well, you know, I come from a long line of civil rights activists, and there weren’t a lot of wins in that place for a long time.” So yeah, learning from the resiliency of other movements and other people who have tried to work on these big generational shifts and thinking too, I think, is important.

Asher Miller

Yeah. Thanks for your time. I really appreciate it. I can’t stress enough or encourage people enough to check out “The Repair” on “Scene on Radio” and also all the other great podcasts you guys have at the Critical Frequency Podcast Network. Thanks so much, Amy. I really appreciate it.

Amy Westervelt

Thank you.

Melody Travers

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town. This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Get more info at postcarbon.org.