Mediocre careerism, respectability politics, and bad behavior by senior scientists erode global climate leadership
These are the prepared remarks by Rowan Institute’s Executive Director Sarah Myhre for the American Geophysical Union’s Fall Meeting, 2019.
Session entitled “Is environmental science serving or failing society?” December 10th, 2019.
Good Afternoon. I want to begin by acknowledging the conveners of the session. Thank you to Drs. Fricker, Byrne, Rapley, Dreyfus, and Maibach. And I also want to acknowledge and thank the other speakers today, including Drs. Lubchenco, Ramanathan, Foley, Blue, and Cobb.
I specifically want to thank Dr. Lubchenco for her leadership as the Undersecretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and the 9th Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is an honor to share the stage with you Dr. Lubchenco.
My name is Dr. Sarah Myhre. I am speaking here today in my capacity as the founder and Executive Director of Rowan Institute, which is a think tank and nonprofit organization for leadership in a hot and dangerous world. We uphold feminist, anti-racist, anti-colonial norms and practices, to train scientists, students, and STEM practitioners in public scholarship and climate leadership. I want to thank and acknowledge the board members of Rowan Institute, including Barbara Clabots, Priya Shukla, Tyler Valentine, Sarra Tekola, Gabi Serrano Marks, Dr. Juniper Simonis, and Urpi Ruiz Angeles.
My talk today is entitled “Mediocre careerism, respectability politics, and bad behavior by senior scientists erode global climate leadership.”
Wow! What a fun title, right? Just another confrontational step down the path of indicting allies in public, you might think. Why such a negative frame when what we really need right now is brave and hopeful leadership, you might think. Why can’t you focus on something more positive, some climate solutions, you might think. Such a nasty woman, you might think.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here!
As we all know, in the cannons of science communication norms, to properly communicate, we must start by being personable and then follow with telling a story. So, because motherhood is a highly-valued social and moral good within the patriarchy, I will tell you (in a very relatable and warm way) that today I am here with my 6-year-old son. We have had a really great time seeing old friends, exploring the exhibition floor, and spending time at the NASA booth. What an absolute joy. We are both learning so much today.
Now I will tell you a story.
Of course, the best stories about women are really just vehicles to explore their relationship to men. Indeed, reality itself often does not pass the Bechdel test.
Some of you may know that my partner in Seattle, who is a man, is a chef and restaurateur. He is extremely talented and very successful. Like with most entrepreneurial relationships, I, as the partner, play a role in supporting that success and as such see the business from the backroom perspective. Being “in the business” has allowed me a certain perch to surveil the restaurant landscape in Seattle, of business owners, power brokers, and storytellers.
Recently, there was a review of a new restaurant opening in Seattle; a neighborhood joint with classics: Steak, Brussel sprouts, French Fries. The spread in the magazine is buttery light and gleaming white tile and timeless presentation: it is glowing.
In the article itself, the chef is asked: why has he been so successful? He answers: “I give people what they like. I don’t follow fads.”
What a straight shooter, that guy. He really calls it like he sees ‘em.
But let me paint a more complete picture for you, in this small microcosm of power, careerism, and respectability.
This magazine story, and the money and attention which will flow from it, is not a product of his talent, but of his power. That article was placed because he had the cash to leverage a publicist for his businesses. That publicist pitched and placed the editorial spread, designed to be an info-tisement to promote his restaurant opening. A journalist uncritically copied word for word the story this chef is telling about himself as a “man of the people”, failing to mention his MBA or his growing multi-business empire. That line about fads failing to mention that real cuisine “fads” in Seattle come from the innovation and creativity of Black chefs, Southeast Asian chefs, Ethiopian chefs, Korean chefs, and more broadly immigrant-owned business. Chefs like Eduardo Jordan of Solare and Junebaby, Mutsuko Soma of Komonegi, Melissa Miranda of Musang, and Makini Howell of Plumb Bistro.
This is what white male power does. It transacts with impunity for its own centrality and storytelling perch in the culture, uses that perch to narrate counterfactual ideations of self-importance, and conscripts toadies and footmen to do the dirty work with the false promise of future power in exchange for loyalty. Then, it uses harassment, surveillance, threats, and direct violence to maintain such power, centrality, and impunity. If you need evidence of this final point, and struggle to believe women, I suggest you read Ronan Farrow’s book Catch and Kill.
Culture works this way, with the veins and axes of power undergirding our ideation and storytelling of the world. And these axes shunt resources, time, attention, health, safety, and life itself away from some people, some places and towards other people, other places. Culture works this way across scales too. A part of Seattle’s innovative, immigrant-owned restaurant culture is dampened and shunted, not nurtured, because of the power of white men.
At a different scale, the institutions of United States democracy have been foundational damaged by the normalization of nepotistic white male power, in the form of extortion, lies, intimidation, bribery, and toadery, and transactions of power often done through media, story-telling, and litigation. For such a system, President Trump is a logical conclusion.
And, at an even larger scale, effective action on climate change has been impeded for 30 years because of the political assassination and anti-democratic campaigns (a form of extortion, lies, intimidation, bribery, and toadery) waged by ExxonMobil, Shell, British Petrolem and other fossil fuel companies. Campaigns fueled by the wealth generation and power of international corporations which are the most powerful economic entities that have ever existed in the history of our planet. Their transactions of power are so damaging and genocidal, they are foreclosing the future of the totality of life itself on this finite and living world.
Systems of harm, nesting together, some people benefiting, some people hurt. Here we find the genocidal systems of white supremacy, fascism, nationalism, colonialism, neoliberalism, and capitalism. Here we find the billionaires, the oligarchs, the war mongers, the predators, the enablers. The veins and axes of power that maintain white patriarchy are the same axes of power that fossil fuel companies operate from.
Now, you might be saying to yourself right now, “Hey, I’m not a billionaire oligarch! I’m not a white supremacist! I’m a geologist!” And to that I would say, “I understand that Steve, I get it.” Yes. But let us put aside, for a moment such reactions that center on the self and the moral behavior of the individual, and think instead of our community collectively.
We together dream a dream, a detailed and well referenced dream, about how complex this interconnected and imperiled this living planet is. We together tell the stories about the sensitivity, reactivity, and commitment of the climate system, about acidification, deoxygenation, sea level rise, and sea ice collapse. We tell the stories, through documentation and evidence and hypothesis testing, of how the world is wounded, and how that wounding happens from individual to ecosystem to planetary scales.
We, our community, we are containers and brokers of this information in public. Many of us might feel like midwives sometimes, helping person by person through the birth canal of this information. Sometime we might numb and compartmentalize away from this information, the burden being too heavy. I feel, and I know many of you feel, the pressing urgency and crisis on a daily basis. We as a community struggle with right action and public narratives: balancing and fighting between personal action and structural change arguments. We are hurting too.
Researching and understanding the world is often, but not always, a process of learning more clearly how the world is being hurt, the explicit physical, chemical or biological mechanisms underway, who or what is responsible for that hurt, and how the wounding will accrue in the future if unabated. That’s it. Climate and Earth science itself is an explicitly political act of surfacing the very nature of how power, wealth, and violence are transacted across the surface of this finite planet.
It’s like we cannot properly ideate our positionality as scientists, knowledge brokers, in a world of planetary-scale foreclosure and harm. Is it just too great of an ask? It seems that we are either too big or too small, too hot or too cold, never just right.
Some in our field consider themselves the tip of the spear, the frontline of the battle for truth, self-deputized as culture hero, not conceiving of the role of toxic masculinity in narrating their centrality.
Some in our field narrate this moment as a business opportunity, simply a new field for venture capitalists to colonize and profiteer before eventually moving the human population into the vacuum of space or to colonize Mars.
Some narrate climate solutions in the counterfactual vein of white saviorhood, of “solutionaries” “giving” solutions to the people of the global south, as if indigenous peoples need to be told about the rights they have to their own lands.
Others demand the public debate be arbitrated alone by scientific authority, rather than by justice seeking, indigenous, intersectional, andlabor communities, not conceiving of how this positionality is a “power-over” not “power-with” framework.
Some in our field are silent, believing the lie that engagement here is a form of identity politics or culture wars. A red flag of bias. Rather than an integrative and ethical response to existential and systemic threat.
And for those of us in the justice seeking communities, we are tethered to and defined by opposition to these norms. Rather that ideating and power building on our terms, we circle the bottom of the drain of the culture, litigating and relitigating our humanity and the humanity of others. Using the same norms of leadership not for justice, but “just us.”
We are here at such a precipice of a moment — well aware of the deadlines we are pressed upon and the hundreds of millions to billions of lives at stake. If this information is powerful enough to drive vast reorganization across all of civil society, then we must act like it. If this information presses upon the power and profit of the richest oligarchs, billionaires, and war mongers in the world — then you can be damn sure that whats is necessary now is an interrogation of the norms of power itself.
This is the precipice that should drive us straight towards a structural surfacing of systems of harm. To bring our curiosity, our scholarship, and privilege to this work. To reveal that what is asked of us now is a reconstruction of the norms of power sharing itself. Whose world is this anyways? Whose future are we fighting for?
So much of the scientific community demands that this is our world and future to arbitrate and control at our will — and that progress at any cost is what we must fight for. In this frame, racist, misogynist, colonialist behavior are just unfortunate externalities of having to move fast and break things. As if we do not have the capacity to do more than one thing at once. As if this world view, of normalizing and accepting some harm as inevitable, is not at the foundation of this crisis.
So here we stand, seeing where we have miss-stepped, or perhaps worse yet, refused to move at all. How do we ethically move forward? How do we learn the lessons of the past while still moving forward at the necessary speed? We need to look to organizations and leadership that have made radical change before. I’m talking about organizations that saw that the plight of any given person is worth correcting in the name of everyone.
We must dethrone scientific leadership as the ultimate arbitrator of authority and instead act in solidarity and alignment with justice, civil, and labor leaders who have the embodied knowledge of movement and coalition building. We must organize and act in solidarity with the leadership of the civil rights and labor rights movements, at the individual, institutional, and national level. We must not excuse ourselves, our peers, our institutions from transacting in, or looking away from, systemic harm in all forms. And we must not let scientific leadership norms at the highest level of power calcify into reductive supremacist ideations of individual power. There are no sacred cows here, and certainly every one of us in this room is replaceable. We are leading the culture: we need to act like it.
Indeed, some in the community view this structural lens on leadership and power to be a fad itself: a manifestation of the “New Climate Wars.” And, those who advocate for a pluralistic and informed lens on power and privilege are character-assassinated as compromised or overly emotional wind bags. Our moral purity is indicted as a sign that these ideas are not robust: this is an old political tool.
But indeed, I am not a perfect vessel for this information. From a practice of embodied power sharing, regardless of my indictments and my thesis here, a more fundamental choice of power sharing would have been to have ceded this speaking time to a Black woman, indigenous woman, or other woman of color. The fact that I as a white women am on this stage while many of them are struggling or barred from such events or no longer living is itself white supremacy. My body, in this place of attention and power, is part of the problem.
To close, let’s revisit that fun talk title: Mediocre careerism, respectability politics, and bad behavior by senior scientists erode global climate leadership. These characterizations: of self-inflation, policing the gates of legitimacy and discourse, self-deputizing as culture hero and arbiter, and actually engaging in direct harm and harassment: this is bad behavior. This behavior is hurting our ability to care for the world and her peoples. It is hurting our ability to lead.
So cut it out. Do better. Stop excusing powerful white men and white women. Stop laying down for the egos of powerful people. Take back power from reductive, supremacist leadership. Stop omitting the power and violence of fossil fuel companies from your ideation of climate solutions.
Bring your scholarship and curiosity to deconstruct the transactions of legitimacy in this community. You all are smart, resourceful people. Organize with one another. Start a union. Plan a protest. Outfit a lactation room. Stand in profound solidarity and interconnectedness. Share your power, platform, and resources. And do not settle for anything less on this path towards climate justice and integration, because a better world is possible and we are on our way.
Thank you for your attention. I send you solidarity and love in this time of great change.