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Dr. Katharine Wilkinson

“…So much of the work is helping one another imagine, and then beginning to build towards that. And to realize that we’re in this very weird, hard, fraught, beautiful, liminal time where we’re all kind of fumbling our way towards, hopefully, a just and livable future.”

The Sewanee Spectre has the exceptional honor of publishing our first interview with the acclaimed writer, environmentalist, and visiting Sewanee professor Dr. Katharine Wilkinson.

I first met Dr. Wilkinson last October, when I accidentally crashed one of her classes. This was an easier faux pas to make than one would think. It was a pleasant day weather-wise, and Dr. Wilkinson was teaching in the Quad on a picnic blanket, accompanied by her dog Arthur and several students. One of them was my friend Sarah Strand, who waved to me as I walked to Walsh-Ellett. I approached to say hello, unaware that I was interrupting one of Dr. Wilkinson’s lessons. She was gracious enough not to appear to mind. The tableau was so photogenic, in fact, that the University photographer snapped a shot of us talking. If you look closely at the photo, you can even see my elbow. 

As Dr. Wilkinson introduced herself, Sarah gesticulated wildly behind her, stage whispering: “She’s a big deal! She’s big!” I wasn’t aware what she meant until after I googled Dr. Wilkinson, but Sarah was right; she is a big deal. I’m uniquely unqualified to make pronouncements like this, both as a 22-year-old and as the editor of an obscure radical chic blog, but Dr. Wilkinson is likely the biggest deal to come out of Sewanee since Jon Meacham. A Sewanee grad (class of ’05), Dr. Wilkinson received her DPhil from Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar in 2009. After a short period in consulting, she’s been dutifully attempting to save humanity from itself ever since. Alongside being a TED speakerpodcast host, and Project Drawdown contributor, Dr. Wilkinson recently co-edited All We Can Save (One World, 2020) with Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. The book, which includes work by Naomi Klein and Joy Harjo, is an anthology of essays on climate change, all authored by women. It’s received laudatory reviews since its publication last September.

The following interview was conducted at Stirling’s Coffee House by that same friend, Sarah Strand, who introduced me to Dr. Wilkinson last semester. Sarah is one of Dr. Wilkinson’s most enthusiastic students, a passionate advocate for climate justice, and a brilliant human being. I asked her to interview Dr. Wilkinson because I knew the two would have a great conversation, and they did. Insh’allah, you’ll enjoy reading what they had to say as much as I did transcribing it. – Maxwell Saltman, Editor-in-Chief

Sarah Strand: A lot of popular trends to combat climate change focus on individual choice rather than on forcing private companies to curb their carbon emissions. What can student activists do to make sure that polluting companies are held accountable? 

Dr. Katharine Wilkinson: So, I think the first thing is to not buy into the framing or the narratives that I think often are present in campus sustainability messaging, which often reinforce the idea that we’re gonna recycle and green consumerism our way to solutions. And I get that, on the one hand, because it’s relatively simple, so there’s something appealing. But what it ends up doing is misinforming people that that’s the most important thing. So, I think the first thing is to recognize that you’re constantly shaping a narrative in small messaging, big messaging, little campaigns – it’s all telling a story about why we’re in the mess that we’re in, and what we need to do to address it. 

When it comes to companies, sometimes a very targeted campaign directly to a company can have an impact, but I think more often than not, it’s policy change that rewrites the rules that leads to better accountability. And so, how do you get involved with that? I think that there are a couple ways to think about it. One way to think about it is how do we get involved with getting good people elected to do the work of holding companies accountable. 

Also, another way to think about it is, “are there campaigns to push for policy?” For example, right now, there’s a lot of energy around a clean electricity standard or a federal climate policy. And what that would do is set a target for how much clean electricity needs to be on the grid nationwide by some next date. That’s going to be part of the solution of holding companies accountable rather than doubling down on coal and fossil gas. So, that’s kind of a more macro-example. It might look like being connected with advocacy organizations like the Sunrise Movement, or 350.org, there are lots out there that are trying to do that work. 

There are also a lot of exciting more local opportunities when it comes to utilities because, for the most part, they’re regulated state-by-state. Things like the Beyond Coal campaign that the Sierra Club leads would be an example of something between a hyperlocal focus and a national focus. I think sometimes, though, those are also the spaces where it can feel like you’re not just a tiny, tiny minnow in a huge, huge sea. 

I think the other thing that may be more about feeling some sense of integrity is just, like, not to spend money with shitty companies! I don’t think that that is the primary avenue for making change at the speed that it needs to happen, but, you know, we are constantly making choices about what we’re going to eat, what clothing we’re going to put on our bodies, these kinds of things. So, I think those are opportunities. 

And it’s also, like, do it and talk about it, right? Not in a guilting, shaming way, but do it and talk about it so you kind of make something more visible, broadly. Does that make sense? 

SS: That does make sense. I was talking to one of my family friends who works in solar and wind energy about my presentation to the Board of Regents [on Sewanee’s climate strategy], and he said that the first thing the school needs to do is create a marketing campaign around this, and then hold themselves accountable to live up to the standards they’ve been presenting to the world. I can see how that might become problematic, especially if you say all these things you’ve been doing and then you don’t actually do them. What would you say to that kind of strategy?

KW: There’s often a really critical step of setting goals, right? Setting goals that are bold enough that they’re in alignment with what science tells us we have to do. For example, Sewanee should have a goal of at least cutting its emissions in half by the end of this decade. And that means actually cutting emissions in half, not offsetting! 

SS: Right. 

KW: So, that would be an example of a goal – we’re gonna put this down on paper, and we’re gonna commit to it. And then we’re gonna lay out our plan to get there, and I think that we have to be setting goals that are bigger than we’re comfortable with, and maybe even goals that we’re not sure how we’re gonna get there. But we’re committing to figuring that out and we’re committing the resources to figure that out. Goal, plan, resourcing the plan, making sure you’ve got the people power that’s needed, but also the financial resources that are needed to work towards that. 

I think that we’re in an era where now there are lots of companies and institutions making big goals, making big promises that they actually don’t have the intention of living up to, so I think it’s really important to make sure that those other pieces are in line. And I think we should be skeptical when we hear really big goals that don’t have real plans behind them.

SS: And keeping our eyes open to greenwashing and false marketing strategies. 

KW: Totally. Lots of fossil fuel companies now saying, “yeah, yeah, yeah, we’re gonna be net zero!” But they have no plans to stop digging up ancient carbon! So, that’s a good example of, like, talking out one side of your mouth while actively investing and doing the opposite. 

SS: Before the pandemic, Sewanee was under heavy scrutiny in the national press because of a New York Times article about the transparency of our endowment and our Socially Conscious Investment Club. What do you think about the movement to divest from fossil fuels on American college campuses? Does it make a difference? At what point do you think that Sewanee will realize that its financial health shouldn’t come at the expense of its guiding principles?

KW: I’m going to start with the last part of that question first. Assuming that the only thing that Sewanee cared about was its financial health, it should divest. It is very clear now that the overall market is going one direction and fossil fuel companies are going another direction. So, we’re at the point where from a purely utilitarian, purely risk-management strategy, this is a choice that any reasonably intelligent institution should be making. 

I think actually the question is, what are the stories and the politics that are at work that are keeping Sewanee from acknowledging that? Because we’ve got things like the New York State pension system divesting, and the whole country of Ireland! These are not like activist strongholds. 

So, I think that’s the first piece. The second piece is that divestment is absolutely about getting capital out of the industries that are perpetuating the problem, investing them instead in industries that are creating solutions. But it’s also about stripping irresponsible industries of their social license to operate. When we think about the kind of moral strategy and ethical and cultural strategy of divestment, it makes perfect sense for colleges and universities to be at the pioneering edge of that effort, because they say that that is their reason for being in the world!

Now, does it make a difference? I think that it is certainly big quantities of money. Is it enough on its own? But we’re at this point where we’re looking for these tipping point moments. This has progressed enough that oil companies are worried. This is a sign that this is doing something that’s working. And also, it’s a real opportunity for a teachable moment, as well. Divestment opens up a conversation in an ideal world. Why are we doing this? Why does this matter? And especially for an institution like Sewanee that hasn’t always been on the right side of history, this would be a really good opportunity to try to be. 

SS: I feel like also, schools themselves are talking about climate change and teaching students about these issues, and the disconnect is so evident which is just the most frustrating thing about this article, too. Like, gosh, we’re on just such different pages in terms of academic integrity and…how embarrassing for us! Just that it had to come to this article. And I think the lack of a response around this article, too was the most frustrating part. How the administration just ignored it, like it wasn’t a big deal. 

KW: I mean, honestly it was just a big “f-you,” frankly, to students and to students’ futures. Like, if you’re twenty, today, you have more at stake than if you’re fifty or sixty or seventy. You just do, because if things go well, hopefully you’ll see the end of this century. There is an incredible intergenerational injustice at work, and the refusal of people who have the power to address that injustice to actually address it is like…I don’t know how you read that other than “f-you, screw you, screw your future.” What they care about is maybe some short-term financial returns, like maybe they don’t wanna piss off the bros, but c’mon…the failure to understand the basic physics that is happening on this planet and what that necessitates we do is mind-boggling to me. It is just mind-boggling. 

SS: Much of your work focuses on the need to empower women and girls as a prerequisite for fighting climate change. In that spirit, at last semester’s university debate regarding America’s role as the “predominant world leader,” you criticized the framework of the debate as “hierarchical and patriarchal” during the audience Q&A session. “Why,” you asked, “should we expect this kind of leadership to make the change we need?” What would the right mode of leadership look like, in your mind, and how might student activism fit into it? 

KW: That was an interesting framework. I remember being like, “God, this feels so bro-ey.” Like, “we are in charge!” I guess my feeling is that we are in heaps of trouble just on a planetary basis and if you’re in heaps of trouble, you should interrogate what systems and practices got you into heaps of trouble. So, I think in some ways, it’s kind of simple in the sense that if we are doing deeper root cause analysis, then we should be asking questions about the kinds of leadership and approaches we use. 

I don’t think I have a perfect answer for what the right mode of leadership looks like, but I think it looks much less hierarchical, much more distributed, so that where there are decision making spaces, a representative cross-section of society is participating. You know, in every single climate decision making space we have today, there’s not gender parity in any of those spaces, from UN negotiations to media coverage, to legal systems, to whatever. I think that is fundamentally unfair, but it’s also not effective. We see in research that when there is at least gender parity in leadership that climate policy outcomes are better, emissions are lower, land protection is more effective, and I think, similarly, if we were to take a look at the biodiversity crisis: indigenous peoples live on roughly [five] percent of the world’s land area, and that land area holds roughly 80% of the world’s biodiversity. So, “why are we in a mess?” Let’s not repeat that. Like, “where are there bright spots?” Let’s try to learn and replicate what’s happening there. 

And I think that in many of those contexts, you have a much more collective and communal mode of leadership that also includes the natural world. I think when in doubt, see how nature does it and try and do it that way. Like, there’s nobody sitting at the center of an ecosystem and going “Bees, this way! Moss, over there!” That’s not how it works. So, I’m enjoying learning from more biomimicry leadership approaches. 

SS: Is there one place that’s doing that really well? 

KW: I don’t think there’s one place that comes to mind. I think it’s more of a learning edge for everyone… I think a lot of the mutual aid projects that rose up during the pandemic to more nimbly respond to needs that were arising for people in different communities, I think that’s an example of creating a network of exchange to make sure people’s needs are met, or at least that they don’t fall through the cracks. 

SS: The need to decarbonize our energy economy was on full display when most of Texas’ privatized power grid shut down in the freakish cold snap last month. How has the American trend of privatization affected our ability to fight climate change? Likewise, how can activists and everyday people in the American South address climate change amid a deeply conservative incumbent political culture? 

KW: I think one of the things that is helpful to know as a starting point is that the vast majority of Americans think that we should be doing more, and the vast majority of Americans specifically want us to be investing in renewable energy. So, I think that gives you immediately a sense of common ground. And it would be easy to think otherwise when you hear ridiculous Fox News commentators saying “This is the fault of windmills.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so toxic. 

SS: And so wrong!

KW: And so wrong. And, in fact, so effectively trying to anchor us in a present, in terms of our energy production and our grid, that is not going to work. On electricity and the grid specifically: they’re called different things in different places, but a lot of utilities in the country are publicly regulated or in some cases are public companies. So, there is an official platform for utilities – like in my case in Atlanta, we have Georgia Power – to be held to account for what they’re doing or not doing. 

But a lot of those processes are really opaque. I mean, we had a runoff for the public service commission in Georgia in January. We elected two Democratic senators. And we did not elect the Democratic candidate for the PSC who was running on a platform of energy justice, because I think for the average person, you get down to “Public Service Commission” [on the ballot] and you think “What the hell is that? I don’t even know what that is!” But because that many people don’t know what that is, it means that sometimes it takes not that many people to tip things. And we covered in an episode of A Matter of Degrees, the kind of “people’s uprising” about some really shady things that were happening in Arizona with Arizona Public Service and their utility commission. It’s a reminder that that is a space where a) there is a need for more involvement, b) these are oftentimes organizations that have been working in that space for a long time, and so it gives you something to plug into and, you know, maybe really contribute. 

And I think the other piece is continuing to grow the narrative that clean energy is good. Clean energy is health, clean energy is good jobs, clean energy is safer and more resilient, and not letting something like Texas shut down the conversation, but lean in. 

SS: And it’s growing more reliable…

KW: And cheaper! We were talking about this with divestment, but we’re at a point where the economics are in alignment with what is best for the planet. So, let’s do it!

SS: The Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek once stated that “it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” Likewise, Naomi Klein, one of the authors in your book All We Can Save, positioned climate change as a question of “capitalism versus the climate” in her book This Changes Everything. Do you think that combating climate change is possible under capitalism?

KW: I think we can and have to make headway in our current system. So, finding ways, for example, to move capital into solutions and out of sources of the problem. But I think that at the end of the day, at least from everything I’ve seen, capitalism seems to be fundamentally predicated on extraction. Particularly when we think about capitalism as a commitment to never-ending growth. So, where does growth come from? Well, it can come from extracting things from the planet. It can come from “natural resources,” which is a term I find disturbing actually. Or, even more disturbingly, it can come from “human resources.” Well, there are limits to what you can extract from this planet, and there are limits from what you can extract from human beings, and there are limits to how many human beings this planet can support. So, there are just natural limits to the possibility of never-ending growth. Whether it is a radically revised capitalism or whether we call it something else, I think that we have to be…we will be heading towards a non-growth future, and we can do that intentionally or we can do that in a haphazardly and potentially harmful way. I find Kate Raworth’s work in her book Doughnut Economics really helpful in thinking about how we actually live in balance with the planet’s living systems and with one another, and how we make sure that there’s enough. 

I also think it’s sometimes like…like, there are very few people that I hear about who are spending their days at the heart of capitalism and think that it’s great. They might say that it’s great, but I think that, like, the loneliness and the…certainly in terms of American capitalism, the false promises of how you can be happy…it just makes me really sad. I’ll put it this way: if it felt like capitalism was serving humanity – the majority of humanity – in a genuine way, but screwing the planet, I might have more faith in like, a tinkered capitalism. But it feels like to me that capitalism is failing the majority of humanity and the planet. 

I love this quote because I do believe that so often what’s stopping us is a failure of imagination. I don’t know what a world that’s thriving on a “doughnut economics” model would look like, but what I imagine is that it is a world where we are more committed to taking care of one another, and not willfully sacrificing people or places for the profiteering of a few. 

I haven’t watched it yet, but Ayanna [Elizabeth Johnson, the co-editor of All We Can Save] just moderated a conversation between Naomi Klein and Régine Clément, who also has a piece in the book, called “Catalytic Capital.” They did this for Pioneer Works, but the video is available for people interested in going deeper.  

In a lot of ways, I think the Régines of the world need to figure out how we use this deeply flawed system to move solutions forward, and I think we need the Naomi Kleins of the world who are saying “keep your eye on the long game.” And I think that capacity to have a kind of “bifocal vision” is a real challenge and really important.

SS: It’s wild how diametrically opposed capitalism is to human values and our ability to live in community and participate with everything and with each other. One of the things we talk about in the “Ethics of the Anthropocene” class with Dr. Tam Parker is, “will it take the end of the world to actually change these things?” I think that’s something that came up with COVID… sometimes it needs to be started by this huge thing we all need to adapt to. Which is kind of scary to think about, because then we ask ourselves: can we really harness our imagination when we feel like everything’s okay? And on such a big scale, will we be able to do that without any immediate pressure, and one could say that climate change is an immediate pressure…

KW: But do we feel it as such?

SS: And do we treat it like the crisis that it is? Can we be courageous enough to believe that what we’ve imagined could be better? 

KW: I think of Janine Benyus, who I first heard this language from, who asked “what if the human species could be a beneficial species?” Which on the one hand seems so simple, but you realize just how radically far most of humanity is from that. I think that data point that we talked about with biodiversity on indigenous lands is a really good counterpoint, but human beings in our dominant capitalist, white supremacist, patriarchal system…we’re like the only species on the planet that is actively thwarting its own capacity to live. 

SS:  There’s that moment in Braiding Sweetgrass where Robin Wall Kimmerer asks her class, “what beneficial relationships do humans and nonhumans have?” And no one could answer, not a single one. I mean, even though there are, we don’t think of that. 

KW: It’s the same thing as alternative leadership paradigms, or someone was asking me last week, in the context of our new organization, the All We Can Save Project, “how do we want to resolve conflict, whenever it arises?” And I’ve read about restorative justice, but I’ve never experienced restorative justice. Mostly, I’ve just experienced institutions that deal really badly with conflict, right? So, I think imagination takes experiential learning. I think there are some people who are so radically imaginative that they can tap into something else, but I think for most of us, we catch a glimpse of something and then we see that it could be possible. 

SS: And the example is always going to be what helps guide us, too. And when there is no example, it’s like, we’re just kinda pulling this out of the air!

KW: Right – and it can feel so theoretical that it’s like, “is it even ok to say this?” 

SS: That’s something that I’m thinking about with my thesis. My project is all about the personhood of rivers, and it all seems so theoretical…like if this happens, we could foster a more intimate connection with nature. But is the theory behind it even helpful? I think about, too, when we were building this country, Alexander Hamilton was writing so much [through the Federalist Papers] about what this country would look like…but it was all theoretical!

KW: I mean, the gumption to put things on paper, right? Words can – not always – but words can become real! And I think, just to round out thoughts on this question…we need critics, but I so appreciate people who can go from the place of critic to creative. To take that extra step from not just from “this is wrong, this is broken in these ways, this isn’t working in these ways, this needs to be better,” to how it could be better. How it could work, what it might look like, you know? And I think academics are trained to be critics, right? They are primarily trained to criticize one another. So, I think that we have a lot more training, by virtue of our educational system, of critiquing or upholding, defending the status quo, than imagining and creating something different. And I think that so much of the work is helping one another imagine, and then beginning to build towards that. And to realize that we’re in this very weird, hard, fraught, beautiful, liminal time where we’re all kind of fumbling our way towards, hopefully, a just and livable future. 

SS: Knock on wood. 

KW: And to be gracious with ourselves and one another in the fumbling, which is just impossible to avoid. ♦︎

Note: A previous version of this interview included an incorrect statistic about indigenous peoples and the percent of land they live on. It is roughly 5% of all land, not 1%. The statistic has been corrected.

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