How researchers get heard
Abstract lines

Put Your Stake in the Ground

The world, it seems, is now calling climate change an emergency. And climate activists are calling for a “World War II-style mobilization” to combat it. So are candidates for US president. Working papers have been published about using the WWII economic mobilization as a model for a climate-emergency economy. There’s even an NGO called The Climate Mobilization.

We have a meme.

Let’s say you’re an assistant professor of English. You’ve studied and written a book on American literature during World War II, and you’ve written a best-selling book on what it means to live with climate change and the other threats of the Anthropocene.

Your research — your expertise — tells you that the meme is casual. Sloppy. And not just historically inaccurate, but blithely, romantically and thus dangerously ignorant about what “mobilization” really means for societies. About how “the experience of war brutalized, dehumanized and traumatized millions.” About how Word War II was actually a time of “rage, fear, grief and social disorder.” Of mass migration and massive economic and social disruption and transformation. And, of course, of internal “enemies” (e.g., the internment of Japanese-Americans) and the unforeseen creation of the US military-industrial complex, which continues to this day.

You also understand that climate change doesn’t fit the WWII mobilization model in other important ways. It lacks an enemy. It would cause economic losers as well as winners, and those losers would fight. It couldn’t simply be national — it would have to be global to be effective. It would require actually legislation, which requires hard compromises among competing groups and priorities, which seems beyond climate activism at the moment.

But, in fact, the problem is actually far bigger and more complicated than winning a war. So total mobilization “may be our only hope.” You just want people to be informed and adult about what that actually would require.

Some researchers might tweet about this, or email their colleagues and friends and reporters, complaining.

Others put a stake in the ground — a highly public wakeup call, a contradictory jolt to the smug, monologic rhetoric. Their hope: that the stake becomes a pole to which the conversation flows, admitting new participants and solutions and improving the discourse.

That’s what Roy Scranton did this morning, with this opinion piece in The New York Times, “Climate Change is Not World War.”

You can call this public scholarship, researcher thought leadership, or something else.

What it feels like, when you read it, is necessary.

Scranton’s best line among many good lines: “When people who have never personally experience war and have little historical sense of what it was like to live through World War II talk about a “war for the climate” or demand a “World War II-scale mobilization,” they are reaching for old-fashioned costumes in which to dress contemporary problems.”

We’ll see if Scranton’s piece becomes a touchstone for the conversation about how we should respond to climate change. One would think it should — given that the mobilization rhetoric has had limited traction thus far. A Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation poll published late last week showed that, while 76 percent of Americans now describe climate change as either “a crisis” or “a major problem but not a crisis,” 62 percent say reducing the negative effects of climate change will require only “minor sacrifices” or “will not require much sacrifice.” Perhaps there’s a reason why the real details of mobilization haven’t been talked about much…

Takeaway: The most important trait for researchers who want to do public scholarship — for those who hunger for their expertise to make a bigger contribution to the conversation — is to see the opportunity to put a stake in the ground and to plant it.

The opportunity is richest when the public conversation rests on assumptions you know as an expert aren’t correct — and those assumptions, if left unchallenged, could prove disastrous.

That doesn’t happen much, does it? 🙂

If this all seems like a thankless task, then you probably aren’t ready for it.

But if it seems like a hero story — like what a researcher should actually be doing — then it’s your story.

Find your stake. Be the hero.