All Kai Bosworth Events

Kai Bosworth is geographer at Virginia Commonwealth University and a 2023-25 Red Natural History Fellow. In this edited conversation with The NHM’s Steve Lyons, Bosworth discusses the key divisions forming under the banner of “environmentalism” today, challenging us to rethink and recompose the “we” of our collective struggles against extractive capitalism.

Steve Lyons (SL) What brought you to your current work as a researcher and activist working on fossil fuel infrastructure in the US?

Kai Bosworth (KB) I’m interested in understanding opposition to oil pipelines in the United States, in part because I am also opposed to oil pipelines in the United States. Since getting involved in the youth climate movement in the early 2000, I’ve spent almost 20 years trying to understand how to produce radical and transformative climate justice here in North America. My interest in oil pipelines also stems from having grown up in western South Dakota and attempting to understand the history of resource extraction in that region, as well as how that history was tied to colonialism and to the outright colonial theft and poisoning of much of the Black Hills where I grew up. I have been trying to think about how, over the last century, movements in this region have tried to create a radical response to these kinds of rapacious effects. 

Out of this context, my academic and political work tries to help us see environmentalism as an umbrella for a variety of political positions, not all of them acting in concert or with the same goals or strategies in mind. In my academic work, I try to single out and think through one environmentalist tendency, which I think of as “populist environmentalism.” Most basically, populist environmentalism takes appealing to “the people” as a strategy for producing climate action. But in the process, it tends to shy away from radical or transformative demands that may not appeal to the broad imaginary of democratic politics in the United States. My work unpacks the difference between populist environmentalism and the radical and transformative leadership of Native Nations in opposing pipelines—a distinction that allows us to see why the former tends to reproduce forms of whiteness and fealty to liberalism, both factors that hamper its capacity to build alliances with more radical tendencies within the movement, which see environmental action and action against oil infrastructure as only one part of a broader movement for decolonization or a reclamation of sovereignty. 

Right now, I’m continuing to think about movements against oil and gas infrastructure, including pipelines, but also active and abandoned oil wells, refineries, and the sorts of waste that are also associated with oil and gas production. This current work is examining how a variety of movements and organizations across North America are trying to highlight the impacts of oil and gas infrastructure on subsurface spaces. 

Oil wells, pipelines, the injection of wastewater from hydrofracking and new forms of carbon dioxide sequestration are disturbing underground aquifers, caves, salt domes, and the geologic stability of the land underneath our feet. But in order to demonstrate this, activist groups have to use scientific data and their imaginations to try to make these subsurface spaces worthy of our attention, because most of the time we don’t really experience or think about what’s under the ground on which we stand. The sorts of groups I’m engaging with now are facing a classical political problem: how to represent and thus extend the meaning of what they cherish, and what they oppose. In this way, they’re trying to demonstrate why we have to understand and care for both the subsurface and the surface world.

Mapping Imperial Geography

SL I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time, but as I was rereading some of your work, I started to narrow in on two central problems that you’ve been dealing with. The first, which you engage directly in your contribution to our recent Red Natural History essay series, is the problem of liberating the discipline of geography from its imperialist baggage—of rethinking the discipline’s priors and priorities so it can effectively participate in anti-capitalist, anti-colonial movements. And the second, which I think is related, is the problem of building a revolutionary collective within the current conjuncture—where what you call “pipeline populism” has come to substitute for the durable forms of collectivity we need. In both senses, you’re helping us think through the challenges of finding alignment between constituencies and projects that are not necessarily on the same side, but could be.

I thought we’d start with the first problem. What is the imperialist tradition of geography? How did it evolve into the twentieth century? And what does this historic connection between geography and imperialist expansion, militarism, and imperialist rule teach us about how practices of research can be part of a transformative political project—in this case, the political project of imperialism?

KB Like a lot of Western modes of knowledge, geography has a long and intimate history with the imperial project. Paramount to the project of building empires was the process of knowing lands from a distance, understanding what peoples, resources and non-human animals populated these lands, and understanding how to move those people or resources in ways that maximize profits and produce value for the imperial core. As it emerged as a discipline, geography was crucial to this project, especially in North and South America, as well as later and in different ways in Africa, South Asia, Southeast Asia. 

In the Americas, we can think about the history of the discipline through a figure like Alexander von Humboldt, who traveled all through the Americas to engage in early mapping projects, before bringing maps back to the imperial core to develop the methods of communicating spatial knowledge about the sorts of resources available to exploit in colonies, why and how wars could be fought, and so on. Obviously this form of knowledge collection is relatively easy to critique. And yet, as geography transformed into the twentieth century, its disciplinary knowledge continued to be used to advance new forms of imperial exploitation as well. 

Alexander von Humboldt, diagram of a cross-section of the earth’s crust, 1841. From Heinrich Berghaus, Physikalischer Atlas (Gotha: J. Perthes, 1852).

Out of this history, a whole theory in geography emerged that was consistent with nineteenth century racial science, which sought to categorize people based on their climate, and from that, to derive a moral understanding of their character, their value, and their intellectual type, and then to arrange it in a hierarchy, where the Europeans were at the top, and then below them, a variety of other peoples who were allegedly shaped by their climate to be better workers than thinkers, or who were believed to have certain kinds of feeble personalities. Populations deemed less civilized were thus also deemed incompetent to govern themselves, which meant they needed to be shepherded by the imperial powers. The racial and racist hierarchies of what we call “environmental determinism” eventually came to shape these justifications in rather direct ways. They were extended in the German Nazi understanding of the world, and in the wake of the disaster of the Holocaust during World War Two, as well as the influence of decolonization movements around the world, these forms of outright racism in geography were challenged more heavily.

This internal reckoning opened up a space within the discipline for a more radical reevaluation of how we should think about space, place, and people. By putting capital and capital accumulation and imperialism onto the map, geographers started to take those tools that were originally developed in and for imperial power and to use them toward another end. The idea was that by mapping the concentrations of power, wealth, and capital, geographers might understand how these structures could be transformed, fought against, and so on. The tradition of “radical geography” that began in the 1960s and 70s reshaped our discipline in a lot of important ways, not only by challenging imperialism and capital accumulation, but also by opening up space to cross-pollinate feminist, queer, anti-racist and other forms of spatial knowledge. 

At the same time, geography continues to be shaped by our history. This has sometimes created a kind of excessive self-criticism, where it can seem as if geography can only ever be an inheritor of its imperial history. Against this tendency, I think about geography as a discipline that has been split at its foundations. On the one hand, we have these imperial projects, but on the other hand, we have long histories of radical understandings of space and place, alternate concepts that might help us challenge the imperial mode of geography and its particular concepts of space and place. If we wanted to not only describe the imperial project but also intervene against it, we could draw on the knowledge of Red Power and many other past movements, for example, which developed their own modes of spatial knowledge in order to expose strategic weak points in the financial system, the arms industry, the resource extraction and transportation industries. 

Thinking the “Unthought”

SL Thinking about the difference between this critical mapping of capitalist relations, and, quoting Glen Coulthard, the project of drawing on this place-based knowledge to “guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place,” it seems important to delve into the uneasy relationship between the kinds of scholarly or analytical modes that we use in our research and the forms of resistance we seek to participate in or contribute to. What are the challenges of conjoining research and activism? What does it look like to be a good scholar and a good comrade at the same time? Is it about asking the right questions? Is it about research ethics, where you pour your research and time into, or who you give your findings to? 

KB The demands of any given social movement trying to achieve change are oftentimes a little bit different than the demands of academic research, which for me involves zooming out and reflecting on the broader landscapes in which a given struggle is situated. When we were trying to stop the construction of  the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines in the upper Midwest, we had a very practical problem to solve. We had to try to understand where the pipeline would actually get built. This knowledge was not available to us because it was deemed a security risk, because pipeline firms often invoke the threat that terrorists might blow up pipelines if their precise routes are made public. Within this context, we had the very pragmatic task of actually mapping out where the pipeline was going to be with a moderate degree of detail so that we could try to build a political coalition of people on whose land the pipeline crossed. Those could be potential choke points, where the oil infrastructure itself could be challenged. 

#NoDAPL signs in front of Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock, November 25, 2016. Photo: Becker1999 (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic).

What makes a good political thinker is the ability to participate in that kind of pragmatic research while also situating its importance within a broader tapestry of changes that are taking place broadly within the capitalist political economy and the ecological system. Sometimes what that means is trying to participate in movements with an eye towards understanding what their unthought is: what is the thing that isn’t necessarily being considered? Is there a way that you can articulate what that unthought is, not necessarily to intervene in this particular moment, but in order to help prepare for the next movement or the next cycle in the cycle of struggles? That was particularly important for me in the movement against the pipelines. And it remains a problem for our movements to think through insofar as our opponents are constantly adapting to what we are doing as well. Our opponents are trying to anticipate and figure out what the unthought of our movements are and try to stave it off. We have to be constantly adapting and updating our knowledge because they are as well. Beyond our ability to have time to wash dishes on the blockade and other sort of pragmatic things, political thinkers can offer movements a capacity to traffic between the day-to-day pragmatic needs of the movement and its broader context, where we can begin to see and understand what it is taking for granted. Of course, none of this is to say that I don’t have an “unthought” of my own!

Dividing the Environmentalist “We”

SL Much of  your research explores the unstable, contingent “alliances” that form in the midst of pipeline struggles. You wrote an important book on this phenomenon, where I think you offer an important lesson about the risks of banking on immediate material interests and/or what we’re against as a basis for political struggle. Can you expand on what you think the “unthought” of  populist environmentalism is? Where did it come from, where do we see it today, and what does it produce in terms of a politics of “strategic alliance”? What did your work on the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle teach you about the limits of the populist frame and the demand for a more granular understanding of these alignments?

KB Populist environmentalism is a way of understanding one particular tendency within the broader ideological field of environmental politics. If you think about environmentalism as a field of competing ideologies, on one side of the spectrum, we have the traditional Big Green organizations that are composed of elite individuals and boards and funders and the like, and thus take on strategies and tactics in alignment with elite interests. For them, environmentalism is a project of protection—conservation, protection fences, borders and so on. On the other side, we have the varieties of green anarchism and eco-socialism, which seek to confront what they see as the root causes of environmental damage in our social, economic, and political systems. And of course, we can think of all kinds of tendencies in between. Populist environmentalism, in my mind, is one way of naming a reaction against both the elite Big Greens and the kind of technocratic environmentalism which sees the management of environmental damage as a job for politicians, business leaders and these elite Big Green organizations. In both of these visions of environmental politics, regular people are nowhere to be seen. 

In the 2010s, governments and elite interests were proposing all sorts of supposedly “pragmatic” solutions to the urgent global problem of climate and ecological crisis, but at the same time, the United States continued producing more and more oil and gas, becoming the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. Populist environmentalism was one critical answer to the ways that elites seemed to influence our political process—both the way that they had consolidated power through the oil and gas industry as well as within the Big Green organizations. 

Populist environmentalism’s story about the world is seductive to me in a lot of ways. And in places like South Dakota, where there isn’t a lot of transformative political radicalism, populism has been an important way of taking the grievances of regular people and elevating them. I don’t begrudge this form of politics or its aspirations by any stretch of the imagination. Yet, at the same time, what my research showed was that forms of populism in the movement against the pipelines also became hamstrung by its simplistic narrative about who was responsible for the crisis and how it should have been addressed. If you understand the problem of oil and gas infrastructure as the result of a small number of oil and gas firms that have only recently captured or corrupted the American political system, then some sort of restoration of democracy is imaginable. And if you understand “We the people” as the authors of our political existence, you can leave out or obscure some of the real problems that American democracy has enacted at the expense of Indigenous Nations, which makes it difficult to think about what repair may be necessary. 

Populist environmentalism at the 2017 Climate March in Washington, DC. Photo: Mark Dixon (CC BY 2.0 DEED Attribution 2.0 Generic).

Rather than posit the people as an abstract entity that will save us if we only get rid of the corrupt politicians, I think it is necessary to compose the kinds of alignments and organizations that can produce an enduring political struggle capable of revising our relationship to politics and the environment. And this alternative requires a lot more work and takes a lot more time than the populist environmentalists hoped would be true. But it can also produce much stronger and less parochial relationships among Indigenous activists, the inchoate parts of the left, and in places as far flung as rural South Dakota, farmers and ranchers who are not just facing incursions on their private property, but are now subject to the whims of a global commodities market. These conditions produce grievances as well as feelings of despair, hopelessness, anger and indignation. But we have to tell different stories about our social relationships with others in order to begin to organize and build durable and lasting institutions that are going to be capable of growing at the same time as they confront a radically transformed world. 

SL You’ve described the book as a “something of a tragic analysis,” sharing with Mike Davis an interest in understanding the “lack of mass socialist participation in a coherent, avowedly anti-colonial movement in the US.” What do you think has hampered that socialist participation within the Indigenous land and water struggles of the past decade?  And where do you see, if not “hope,” possible movement in the right direction?

KB There are a lot of different ways that we could think about the missed connections between Indigenous radical movements and movements of working class leftists and organizations across North America and across the world. Perhaps one of the things that has contributed to that missed connection is an inability on the part of non-Indigenous workers or settlers to understand the ways in which their social position was being used by the state and capital as a wedge against Indigenous nations. When you are part of a class that is itself being exploited, it can be difficult to understand that your exploitation is rendering others even more dispossessed or more exploited at the same time. But alignments can and could grow around an injunction against exploitation and dispossession at the same time—against the ravaging of ecologies, environments and landscapes in the process of capital accumulation, a process that has also produced ruin for proletarian people around the world. We need to be constantly thinking about how we can listen and learn from the stories and histories of others who might be substantially different than us. 

Capitalism is itself productive of competition, and that means that it has fragments and cracks within it, both at the level of competitive firms and the way that that these firms struggle over the political sphere, over nation state governments, between governments around the world, in global institutions, whether the UN, the IMF, the World Bank, World Health Organization, global Green groups and the like. In order to respond to ongoing crises and instability, they need to act in concert. And so do we.

Part of what this entails is narrating the crises that we face and understanding them as part of not just their individual landscapes, but part of this world system that is predicated on exploitation and dispossession. I found this recent statement that the Colombian president Gustavo Petro made about the ongoing war against Gaza conducted by the State of Israel and its allies to be particularly interesting in this regard. Petro is trying to think about how this immense, concerted violence against a confined people is what the climate crisis is becoming for the world at large. He writes that “the political right in the West sees the solution to the climate crisis as a ‘final solution’,” a genocidal action of the “rich and Aryan peoples of the West and our Latin American oligarchies who do not see another world  where we live, other than that of the malls of Florida or Madrid.” He continues: 

“We are all going to barbarism if we do not change power. The life of humanity, and especially of the people of the South, depends on the ways in which humanity chooses a path to overcome the climate crisis produced by the wealth of the North. Gaza is just the first experiment in considering all of us disposable.” 

In part, this is a negative diagnosis of what we are up against. But it is also an attempt to produce a common sense of what we are all facing. When we understand our disposability for capital accumulation, for the preservation of this system of wealth and extraction, we can see struggles that might otherwise appear as drastically different to be part of a shared movement for a world that would actually make us indisposable.

Drawing the Red Line

SL  Petro’s statement is exposing this dynamic that has, throughout the history of capitalism, played out at different levels and scales, and which is in a sense expanding to the world scale under climate change. We’re at a good place in this conversation to shift into the question of “red natural history,” which as The Natural History Museum proposes, is about the stories, narratives and ways of doing research that allow us to see the world that capitalism needs to consume, a world that is larger and more powerful than the capitalist world—but which is invisible from a capitalist point of view. 

To return to where we started, if we see natural history as a constellation of practices and modes of inquiry that are never far from the actual praxis of transforming lifeways and landscapes, we can immediately start to see how natural history could either aid and abet capitalism or work towards its abolition. When we started the “Red Natural History” project, our hypothesis was that while it’s easy to see how the imperialist mode of natural history has a material force in the world, it’s much harder to see how practices of natural history that resist imperialism do too. For us, “red natural history” offered a name for this countervailing tradition of natural history—an internally diverse tradition, composed of practices that stand in the way of capitalism’s unceasing need to enclose, extract, exploit, and dispose. 

You’ve been involved with The Natural History Museum for many years and have been thinking with us about red natural history for a while now. How do you understand this term? If, following Raymond Williams, we define tradition as “the selection and reselection of ancestors,” how might you describe the ancestral line of red natural history? What ought red natural history fight for? And where might we see its outlines in the world today? 

KB At first blush, “red natural history” marks a division. On one side, you have traditional natural history–let’s call it “gray” natural history, a tradition of natural history made up of processes and institutions that have driven all of our climate and ecological crises, as well as the kinds of social violence and misery faced by working people around the world. On the other side, you have movements of Indigenous Nations, workers, socialists, and communists, who have spent centuries fighting to repair and transform the world so that present and future generations of people and non-human species can flourish. We can see this divide within different social groups, classes, and institutions, and certainly within disciplines like geography, geology, environmental science and natural history. 

Red natural history helps us challenge two seemingly distinct reactions to the climate crisis that are particularly unhelpful. First, red natural history pushes against the technological or market optimists, who would suggest that there is no divide, that we’re all in it together, that politics is too disruptive, and that we should simply be neutral. I think that this position is clearly bankrupt. We know that capitalist firms, the oil and gas industry chief among them, are doing anything and everything in their power to prevent any sort of social and environmental action. We’re not all in this together. We’re on different sides. At the same time, red natural history also pushes against the melancholic or nihilistic position, which imagines that the damage is already done. Everything turned bad hundreds of years ago, with the beginning of capitalism or colonization or Western science, or even with the invention of agriculture, and thus there’s nothing that we can do, salvage or fight for. 

In contrast to these positions, which are two sides of the same coin, red natural history invigorates us by showing the degree of organization and commitment that our ancestors have had in fighting against slavery, exploitation and colonization. Some of these ancestors have worked within academic disciplines and within universities, but others have worked beyond and against these institutions. And these ancestors didn’t give up when things were bad or when the odds were stacked against them. If they didn’t give up, why would we? The point is to begin to resuscitate the courage, will, organizational structures, and maybe even the humor of those who struggled before us, as well as the forms of knowledge that have been accumulated in and passed down to us from these long-term struggles.

Delegates from Indigenous Nations march in downtown Pittsburgh, PA, on the occasion of the Shale Insight Conference in October 2019. Photo: Mark Dixon.

We can learn, for example, from the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-20th century, both their successes in producing forms of sovereignty and independence as well as their challenges in facing new forms of neocolonialism and exploitation. In learning from their struggles, we can understand that there’s no “flip of the switch” that will instantly solve all our problems. And indeed, we shouldn’t expect that our struggles will be won overnight. We inherit the struggles of our ancestors and we will be passing down these struggles to people after us, who will learn from our mistakes. By giving us an inventory of the histories and ongoing struggles for human and non-human flourishing, red natural history can provide a lens for us to see the possibility for flourishing elsewhere and in each other, so that we can continue to grow and popularize the desire and necessity for a radical transformation of our politics and economy. 

Kai Bosworth is a geographer and assistant professor of international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century. He is a 2023-25 Red Natural History Fellow.

Malvina Hoffman, Races of the world and where they live, Racial Map and Border, published by C.S. Hammond & Co., 1944. American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Digital Map Collection.

Geography is a discipline defined by its conceptualization of, and attention to, space and place. Much like other modes of inquiry that have historically emerged from Euro-American perspectives, geography has mobilized reductive conceptualizations of space and place in material projects of dispossession and domination and in epistemological projects of delegitimization and hierarchy. In short, spatial knowledge, such as mapping and navigating the world, its peoples, and its resources, was and continues to be crucial to possessing, valuing, and rearranging space. Stemming from both internal challenges to geographical empiricism and the external pressure of the radical social movements of the late 1960s, “radical geography” emerged as a mode of thought around the world—an attempt to break with such modes of knowledge. Since then, the tradition of radical geography has become more introspectively self-critical, sometimes valorizing scholar-activism as an alternative mode of spatial practice. How can contemporary geographers both build on and diverge from the lineage of radical geography, not only to critique our discipline from within, but also to facilitate better and more widely “the selection and reselection of ancestors” (as Ruth Wilson Gilmore , drawing on Raymond Williams)? How are geographers fostering collective political projects that are conditioned by place-based Indigenous political struggles against capitalism and for alternative modes of living and surviving ecological crises? How might these questions open space for the broader consideration of a red natural history?

This essay suggests further transformation is possible and necessary: first, because of an incomplete reckoning with the fact that space and place are foundational concepts to Indigenous modes of inquiry, and second because self-criticism and scholar-activism alike tend to reinforce practices of individualistic inquiry, especially in the context of the neoliberalizing university. Both building on and diverging from the lineage of radical geography, this essay probes what the broader project of “Red Natural History” could mean for a spatially informed politics within, against, and beyond the discipline of geography.

The Call of Place

Place—one of geography’s central concepts—is also central to radical Indigenous thought and practice. Drawing on the work of Lakota scholar and activist Vine Deloria Jr., Yellowknives Dene theorist Glen Coulthard writes that for many Indigenous peoples “place is a way of knowing, experiencing, and relating with the world” (79). But one thing that differentiates this conception of place from that of many geographers is that “these ways of knowing often guide forms of resistance to power relations that threaten to erase or destroy our senses of place” (79). Kwakwaka’wakw geographer Sarah Hunt writes that in the past, “Indigenous geographies have remained peripheral to broader geographic theory” (29), seen by non-Natives as particular or regional subsets of knowledge rather than major contributions. Academic institutions favor piecemeal recognition, such as land acknowledgements, instead of broader transformation in commitments to decolonial anti-capitalism with all its messy responsibilities. Nonetheless, scholars engage in the latter by upending the responsibilities that universities and disciplines shirk. As geographers Soren C. Larsen and Jay T. Johnson argue, place is a more-than-human affair which thus has the potential to call to all who inhabit it to participate in political struggle (1). Place traverses institutions, species, disciplines, and subject positions. The authors describe how their respective settler and Indigenous ancestors ground their commitments to struggles that (to [146]) are “within and against,” “outside and beyond” universities (for example in a struggle over and for wetlands in Kansas owned by Baker University). The call of place is one potential meaning that could be ascribed to Deloria’s tantalizing description of “a new understanding of universal planetary history” (64).

Thus, while the concept of place is central to many geographers (especially those of us working after Doreen Massey), its resonance with Indigenous and other social struggles in defense of human and more-than-human flourishing is not automatic. A “red geography” could begin from the premise that any attention to place entails struggle. While we relate to place (and thus to each other) through historical positions shaped by (but not necessarily within) settler society and settler institutions (including universities), a red geography might ask us to establish relations to place that are incommensurate with settler society. Recognizing this mediation is crucial to building the counterpower that can break with that normative capitalist social order precisely by seizing and transforming institutions that would otherwise oppose us. Such struggles may still take place within universities—especially since they are still sites of labor and citymaking as well as knowledge production for the oil-soaked libertarian Right. How could the struggles of red geography be built within and beyond the discipline? Does naming it help us see its force?

Imperial Geography

The history of geography is deeply intertwined with European and North American empire. Alexander von Humboldt, perhaps our most famous progenitor, explored and mapped the species, landscapes, and occasionally peoples of North and South America in the service of the declining Spanish empire in the nineteenth century. In doing so, he created spatial knowledge that would condition and extend the functioning of imperial resource extraction across the two continents. Extending Humboldt’s legacy, the geographers Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder, and Isaiah Bowman each developed theories of place and power that sought to cement (respectively) the geopolitical prominence of Germany, England, and the United States in the early twentieth century. Their ideas of place and power assumed the prominence of European and Euro-American societies and militaries in a competitive, hierarchical, and ordered world system. Today, the tenor of their ideas is emergent once again in the role of (geo)spatial sciences in police surveillance, military action, and urban redevelopment, despite radical geographical criticism.

Mapping the world empirically naturalizes and hypostasizes the relationships among its elements. For example, maps and their spatial assumptions can (re)inscribe racial difference and hierarchy by representing people and places as fixed in different “developmental” stages (whether social or biological), serving everything from direct colonial rule to the imperialist financial policies of the World Bank and IMF. Such assumptions facilitate new avenues for capital accumulation, as “undeveloped” areas are seen to be either prime targets for resource and labor extraction, or sites for abandonment—proverbial or physical waste dumps.

From Self-Criticism to Collective Action

These origins haunt geography. They have led the discipline to frequent (self-)criticism, part of the inheritance of radical geographies, which have sought to challenge the supposed objectivity and innocence of geographical practice in the service of power. Conditioned by radical feminist, civil rights, ecological, and anti-war social movements, some geographers (many of them students) in the 1960s and 70s were spurred to re-evaluate their disciplinary methods and knowledges. Among their interventions included the founding of Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, which thrives to this day. Also founded at this time was the Socialist Geography Specialty Group (SGSG) of the Association of American Geographers (AAG) (now the Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group).

But the very emergence of radical geography was riven by internal tensions, many of which remain to this day. Is there any coherence to “radical” geography, or is it fractured and pluralistic? What is the relationship between the theoretical or practical knowledge that radical geography produces and the movements that condition it—especially given the unequal relationships amongst universities and the places they inhabit and/or influence around the world? And how “radical” is radical geography actually when it/we can uphold structures of patriarchal, racial, and imperial power in conferences and classrooms, and via key concepts?

In my admittedly limited experience in the last ten years, the subordination of scholar-activism to the university has frequently pressured graduate students, young scholars, and contingent faculty to frame these questions in an internally-limited manner. So long as we criticize each other (and our ancestors’ failings), we can still stake out a particular position, retain our innocence, and maybe earn a few citations. By encouraging self-criticism and individualizing our thought, the university works to prevent radical geographers from taking collective political stances, including towards decolonial action.

The academic job market and the contemporary university (through different but shared methods around the world) have produced variously hypercompetitive and austere labor conditions, valorizing only contributions that can be easily fitted into a CV. The need to publish in academic journals and speak at conferences encourages individual performance and interpersonal conflict over collective thought and action. Decolonial interventions end up paywalled in journals, featuring distantly political debates. Those involved in political movements end up so only as individuals (or connected to extra-academic movements), rejecting a collectivity as geographers. Though it might be reductive to explain it thus, to the extent that scholar-activism is allowed by the contemporary university, individuals are encouraged to find movements no one has yet studied, enter them somewhat instrumentally, and guard them jealously. Meanwhile, many university endowments have been built directly through Indigenous dispossession and remain dependent upon and thus beholden to the rates of growth of capitalist firms in which they are invested. Geospatial knowledge remains crucial to institutions of military, economic, and—as geographers recently have highlighted—policing and incarceration. All this prevents movements of geographers in solidarity with broader struggles to which we could be collectively committed.

Attempts to break out of this structure through mobilizing, for example, our professional societies can be very difficult. For example, in 2015 I became involved in a group advocating for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of the state of Israel. A session we organized at the 2016 annual meeting of the American Association of Geographers brought short talks by Palestinian geographers, critical and radical geographers, and academics from other disciplines organizing around BDS. But despite a packed room and much excitement, the organization failed to materialize. Though there’s much to be said about the internal and external challenges of BDS in academia, at the time I remember feeling it was also particularly hard to organize a collective of geographers to do something as geographers when so many felt critical of the discipline and the university, while attached to movements elsewhere.

Place-Based Struggle, Within and Against the University

With that responsibility in mind, I want to open three further speculative boxes for conceiving of such place-based political struggle: political ecology, regional networks, and renewed socialist geographies.

I’ve always thought of political ecology as an interdisciplinary subfield of geography, anthropology, and environmental studies. So I was slightly taken aback when the artist and thinker Brian Holmes (along with friends) used the term political ecology to describe a repertoire of collective practices of inquiry into the world around us into which art (of all things) might intervene. Long based in Chicago, Holmes had gotten involved in place-based environmental justice struggles over petcoke waste sites, a byproduct of the tar sands pipelines I was studying and fighting against (not the same thing) in South Dakota. Along with several other Chicagoans, Holmes had started practicing political ecology as a “different, disalienating contact with the local territory.” In my interpretation it had become a method of seeing the world around us with an eye towards both the infrastructures of domination as well as its potential for common(ing) struggle. Rather than a political ecology written in journal articles, it became a kind of place-based cognitive mapping inquiry, which entails understanding the historical human and more-than-human forces capable of mobilizing for different futures. This is the kind of political ecology I realized I already practice with others in producing the knowledge for a toxic tour or in learning about urban natural gas infrastructure. It’s also about commitment to place that frequently involves cross-cutting struggle well outside academia, frequently uniting a motley group of working-class leftists, Indigenous peoples, Black and migrant workers, women, and queer folks, all committed to struggling where they are.

Such political ecology is ineluctably local, yet “local” feels like an insufficient word to describe its aspirations. Nonetheless, it differs slightly from regional struggle—which I see as increasingly important in a world where the jet-setting travel of academic conference circuits should be ending. Where I now work in the Virginia Piedmont region, I’ve been influenced by an emerging regional network of political ecologists brought together, in part, around understanding the relationship the tobacco industry has had with our cities and universities as one that Eli Meyerhoff and Gabriel Rosenberg describe as “Piedmont  .” Regions are also the focus of critical non-academic political writing, such as the “POC-led, women-run” Scalawag magazine here in the US South, from which we could also well learn how to “reimagine the roots and futures of the place we call home.” Networking some of the scales of struggle described above, the regional projects constellate their power to perhaps challenge the twenty-first-century regional power blocs constituted by coal, tobacco, health care, finance, and higher education, which tend to prolong the afterlives of settler colonialism and slavery. To me, this practice inherits analysis and political commitment from geographer Clyde Woods, whose focus on regional struggle is sometimes forgotten. Regional struggle entails the connectivity of place, the circulation of modes of knowledge, and strategies of counterpower that might reshape the political landscape.

Though involved in place-based struggle, geographers will still communicate and advocate through disciplinary interest groups. Over the past few years, the aforementioned Socialist and Critical Geography Specialty Group (SCGSG) has been the site of debates over the vision and politics of radical geography, especially concerning necessary intersections with feminist and anti-colonial struggles within and beyond academia. SCGSG members are certainly politically diverse, yet are still capable of gathering under a name and articulating shared commitments—such as to defending and transforming higher education practice in the context of induced austerity. But if radical geography is to be (re)committed to the kinds of shared, decolonial, anti-capitalist place-based struggle described above, how would the commitments of this group be reconceived? And what connections are to be forged with the Indigenous Peoples Specialty Group and Black Geographies Specialty Group, with socialist organizations, and with international socialist struggle? These are speculative but crucial questions, which might form conditions that would enable us to act collectively as geographers.

Collectives have to be forged. This is doubly true when situations attempt to cleave us from each other and our relations so that we operate as individuals. Many other practices of social struggle might, as Eve Tuck frequently suggests, not be deserved to be counted and catalogued in the university. Drawing on Deloria’s writings with Muscogee scholar Daniel Wildcat Jr., , then the contemporary forms of academic knowledge production recognized by conventional university structures will be insufficient. Nonetheless, this does not mean that we ought to pack it up and accept the apocalypse. A red geography could be seen in pathways for combatting and overcoming the ressentiment of self-criticism and individualization in our practice, finding its form in place-based dis-alienating practices that seek to coordinate thought and action.

Kai Bosworth is a geographer and assistant professor of international studies in the School of World Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of Pipeline Populism: Grassroots Environmentalism in the 21st Century.

“Radical Geography: Historical Limits and Future Possibilities in the Context of Indigenous Resurgence” was originally published in Periscope: Red Natural History, Social Text (online, February 28, 2023).

The effects of climate change currently include not only extreme weather events, sea-level rise, melting glaciers, floods, and droughts, but also refugee crises, public health emergencies, military conflict, eco-cities for the super-rich, and reckless experiments in geo-engineering. As sociologist Christian Parenti (2011) reminds us, the social and natural impacts of climate change are not distributed evenly but are felt most severely by communities already impacted by histories of racism, colonialism, and poverty—the communities least responsible for producing greenhouse gases. The global inequalities deepened by climate change are altering the very makeup of the communities that museums are entrusted to serve.

In the face of climate emergency, many in the museum sector are asking what it means to be relevant to these communities today. Some museum workers are calling for greater inclusivity and accessibility, and for more sustained engagement with marginalized communities. Museums are diversifying their understanding of audience and expanding their tactics for political advocacy. Too often, however, the concepts of relevance, inclusivity, diversity, and participation lead museums to reinforce their claims to authoritative neutrality (Janes 2009: 59), diverting those of us working in museums from the deeper existential question that we ought to be asking: What is the role and responsibility of the museum in a time of climate crisis? The problem is not whether or not our institutions are relevant, but for whom and to what end.

This chapter argues that, in order for museums to matter in a time of climate crisis, they must first reject the claim to political neutrality that structures and limits their transformative social power. After briefly unpacking the discourse on relevance in museums and examining the dominant assumptions and justifications that lead to passivity and inaction, we will offer a divergent perspective on museum relevance, turning to recent initiatives organized by The Natural History Museum (of which we are representatives) to make our case. The Natural History Museum was founded by the activist art collective Not An Alternative in 2014 as both a mobile museum and an activist organization. Working with artists, scientists, environmental justice advocates, Native Nations, and museum professionals, The Natural History Museum organizes exhibitions and public programs that re-interpret nature from the perspective of environmental justice, connecting grassroots social movements to historical and contemporary political conflicts that are buried in many museums. These projects connect movements to museums and museums to movements, fostering a growing coalition of museum workers, activist scientists, and front-line communities in order to lay the foundation for what we term the museum for the commons.

Museums, like libraries and universities, are protectors of the knowledge commons, the vast resource of shared knowledge that is collectively created and sustained for the benefit of all. As social resources, museums can, and should, play an important role in educating the public about the unpredictable and overlapping effects of climate change on the earth’s ecological and social systems. The Natural History Museum demonstrates how they can also function as infrastructural supports for grassroots activist mobilization, champions of science for the common good, and advocates for an equitable, sustainable, and just future. In the climate emergency, museum relevance should be linked to the struggle to secure the common good.

The limits of neutrality

Museums have always adapted themselves to the volatile social, economic, geopolitical, and environmental conditions in which they are enmeshed. Since the late 1960s, social unrest galvanized by the growing civil rights and Red Power movements have impelled many US museums to address the racist assumptions underpinning their curatorial and collecting practices (Cahan 2016). More recently, the climate crisis has provoked science and natural history museums to challenge their close relations to corporate funding from the fossil fuel industry. In 2016, both Tate Galleries in London and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York parted ways with longstanding fossil fuel industry partners in the face of massive grassroots pressure. The AMNH joined the California Academy of Sciences (San Francisco, California), Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens (Pitts- burgh, Pennsylvania), the Field Museum (Chicago, Illinois), and the Australian Academy of Science (Canberra, Australia), among others, by announcing its commitment to divest from fossil fuels. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) has dedicated its first major in-house exhibition in four decades to the topic of the Anthropocene, the new geologic epoch that marks the global reach and geologic extent of anthropogenic impacts on earth systems.

Emergencies put into question the relevance of museums that are already locked into five or ten-year plans. They also provide openings for political engagement and opportunities to repurpose museums as activist institutions—as politicized agents in struggle. Emergencies do not merely force museums to take stands on important social and political issues. They also undo the innocence of political neutrality as it is claimed by most museums.

As Robert Janes notes, contemporary museums widely adhere to ‘authoritative neutrality’: they identify themselves as ideologically neutral spaces for balanced representation and reasoned debate, maintaining that they must preserve their neutrality ‘lest they fall prey to bias, trendiness and special interest groups’ (Janes 2009: 59). They locate themselves on the sidelines of crisis, often justifying their passivity by claiming that they do not have the resources or knowledge to address new or controversial issues. This argument, or rather excuse, becomes increasingly tenuous as we face the globally-threatening emergency represented by runaway climate change. Historian Howard Zinn’s famous argument that ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train’ (Zinn 1994) is apropos. As the extraction economy drives species toward mass extinction and endangers human and non-human communities alike, the passivity of many contemporary museums toward the world’s biggest polluters is equivalent to consent. The question of the climate emergency forces us to consider the shifting backdrop for museum practice. What new demands does the climate emergency place on institutions? How can museums rise to the challenge of this emergency, and whose interests should they serve?

Relevance—to what end?

Today, many in the museum sector feel an overarching imperative to be relevant. Although museums continue to be as popular and trusted as ever (American Alliance of Museums 2015), curators, exhibition designers, programming staff, and marketers wish to ensure that they provoke fascination and excitement, not boredom or distrust. In her popular book The Art of Relevance, Nina Simon (2016) argues that museums must create relevance rather than simply assuming that it already exists. Simon contends that by considering how, and to whom, museums can become relevant, museum professionals can create exhibitions that are meaningful to different, new, and changing audiences. Centralizing the question of relevance in museum practice can help institutions facilitate new relationships with people of color and other communities that remain underserved and underrepresented, consequently increasing the diversity of museum audiences and broadening their bases of popular support (ibid.).

Finally, Simon argues that a strategy based on relevance promises to help demonstrate the success of exhibitions to donors, sponsors, and other potential funders. By promoting increasingly inclusive, responsive, and participatory museum practices, the emerging discourse on relevance promises to modernize museums—to push them beyond the authoritative neutrality and passivity underlying traditional museum practices. Relevance has become one of the dominant frameworks for understanding the transformative potential of museums today.

It is undeniable that museums should strive to be relevant to the constituencies they are entrusted to serve. However, when limited to the aims of broadening audiences and producing participatory points of entry for all people, the idea of relevance can become problematic and disempowering for institutions, particularly in the polarized political climate of the US. In the wake of the election of President Donald Trump, some advocates felt that museums needed to become more relevant to ‘politically diverse’ audiences. Noting the overwhelming prevalence of Democrats and liberals working in US museums, the Center for the Future of Museum’s post-election blog entry explored the extent of the museum sector’s claims to inclusivity:

If museums have a mandate for our staff to reflect our communities, shouldn’t that encompass political outlook as well? And if we don’t encompass political diversity, with all the perspectives about values, priorities and policy that go with that very important form of self-identification, doesn’t that leave us vulnerable to being out of step with a huge segment of the public we, as nonprofits, have pledged to serve? (Merritt 2016)

The visitor-centered approach to relevance invoked above can lead to damaging consequences for museums. Case in point: One of the primary arguments made by the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences (HMNS, Houston, Texas) for not addressing the issue of anthropogenic climate change was that the institution’s relationship with its visitors could be jeopardized if it even implicitly criticized the fossil fuel industry. As Carolyn Sumners, Director of Astronomy and the Physical Sciences at HMNS stated, ‘We don’t need people to come in here and reject us’ (Kuchment 2014).

The HMNS made the choice to react to its visitors; to format its exhibitions based on the pre-existing values and beliefs presumed to be shared by its audience. The institution’s decision does not account for the truth that for many Houston residents, the fossil fuel industry is a perpetrator of environmental racism. In this instance, the motivation to be inclusive and visitor-focused has come at the cost of the museum’s relevance and leadership as an institution for popular science education, as well as its relevance to the working-class communities of Houston—largely composed of people of color who live near fossil fuel refineries and bear the brunt of their health impacts. The demand for museums to be relevant to the greatest number of people can ultimately reinforce the widely-held position that they must extract themselves from political debate.

Contrary to the thesis that taking positions on contested social and political issues will turn visitors away and destroy public trust in museums, evidence suggests that museum visitors prefer museums that take official positions on pressing contemporary issues. According to a November 2016 MuseumNext survey of 1000 museumgoers, those who visit museums most often think that museums should take positions on social issues. More revealing, 33% of respondents felt that addressing social issues would make museums more relevant to their lives and that they would be more likely to visit such museums. Respondents under the age of 30 felt even more strongly that political advocacy would increase the relevance of museums to their lives (MuseumNext 2017).

Discussions about museum relevance tend to focus on how museums can be deemed relevant to their visitors, but not how museums can be relevant participants in the world. We argue that, faced with the catastrophic impacts of climate change, the relevance of a museum should be gauged by its ability to participate in the processes of social change necessary for planetary survival. In this sense, relevance may, and in many cases should, involve participation and co-production by communities on the frontlines of the climate emergency. But participation or co-production is only relevant when it leaves participants in a better position to protect their communities, defend habitats, or collectively mobilize for environmental justice.

Many museums clearly value our common resources. They engage in sustainability initiatives, educate patrons about the natural world and, as noted above, some have even divested from fossil fuel sponsors. These actions present tangible first steps that any endowed institution can take. They are most important not only for their potential impacts on the fossil fuel economy, but also for their symbolic value: they demonstrate the museum’s official commitment to working toward a future beyond fossil fuels. Initiatives to ‘green the museum’ allow institutions to draw a line between themselves and the fossil fuel industry, suggesting concrete ways that museums can take the side of the commons.

By the commons, we mean the various aspects of planetary nature that we rely on in order to survive, such as air, water, and a habitable earth. But the commons also includes the wealth of knowledge institutionalized in public places like museums. The commons does not belong to any individual or corporation, but to all of us. Within our political economy, the commons has been enclosed. Nature is rendered as a resource to be extracted for profit and its death is memorialized as a foregone conclusion, as natural history. Taking the side of the commons means taking a stand against the system which enables this plunder. It also means being clear that the roots of the ongoing climate emergency lie in the privatization of the commons.

An abundance of research confirms that climate change impacts such as weather-related disasters, water- and mosquito-borne disease, and long-term drought are disproportionately affecting the global poor. Both historically and in the present, wealthy consumers and corporations in the Global North bear the vast portion of responsibility for producing greenhouse gases and sustaining structural inequality (IPCC 2014: 6). However, when the topic of climate change is taken up by museums of science and natural history, many struggle to articulate this dynamic of inequality and responsibility, either by locating the cause and solution of global environmental problems in individual consumer choice and habit, or by choosing to focus on the correlation between climate change and global population growth. Such frameworks obscure the political and economic forces that contribute to environmental destruction, consequently smoothing out the massive inequal- ities in both responsibility and impact (Peña 2012). By suggesting that ‘the roots of this crisis are linked to overpopulation and, by extension, the Global South,’ museums indirectly blame the poor for global environmental degradation (Rutherford 2011: 32).

Museums should acknowledge that the products of a mere 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (CDP Worldwide 2016) and that these same companies have an overwhelming influence on the environmental choices available to us all. Museums that take the side of the commons express this inconvenient truth. By shedding light on the precise political stakes of the current crisis, museums can empower visitors to move beyond the politically disabling feelings of guilt and helplessness, and toward the challenge of mobilizing resistance. By siding with the commons, museums also show themselves to be part of the commons—as simultaneously belonging to, and advocating for, the commons.

The Natural History Museum: a museum for the commons

All museums can be vital resources for communities around the world that are seeking environmental and climate justice—healthy environments for all people and ecosystems regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, citizenship status, or class position. Not only do museums, and especially science and natural history museums, define the history and meaning of the natural world, but, they are also tasked with ‘foster[ing] an informed appreciation of the rich and diverse world we have inherited . . . [and] preserv[ing] that inheritance for posterity’ (American Alliance of Museums 1991). Some interpret this to mean that the museum is a mausoleum, a repository for bygone and disappearing objects, cultures, and peoples. By contrast, The Natural History Museum was founded on the hypothesis that museums of science and natural history can shape history in the present by revitalizing their public mandate, but only if they reject the claim of authoritative neutrality that constrains their ability to work in the interest of the commons.

As we have argued elsewhere, the claim to authoritative neutrality shields museums from the implications of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) Code of Ethics, which includes investigating, exploring, and documenting the natural world and the impacts that particular social systems make on it (Lyons and Economopoulos 2015). Neutrality prevents museums from seeing (let alone acting upon) their transformative social power. In the face of the climate emergency, the claim to neutrality made by many large-scale science

institutions should be regarded only as an alibi for inaction. As the overwhelming majority of climate science predicts, without bold and immediate action from all sectors of society, there will be no livable future, let alone a future for museums. The only museum of the future will be one that champions the common good. The Natural History Museum was designed to model such a museum—a museum that functions both as an advocate and as infrastructure for environmental struggle.

Our experiment in the museum sector began as an earnest attempt to put the idea of authoritative neutrality into crisis, to make it appear as untenable as it actually is by exposing the entanglement of some of the largest natural history museums in the US with powerful representatives of the fossil fuel industry. What did it mean for David H. Koch—co-owner of Koch Industries, among the leading polluters in the US and a major funder of climate science disinformation to the tune of US$79 million (Greenpeace 2015)—to occupy a board position at the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, two of the country’s leading and most treasured science institutions? Our earliest work forced this question into the popular media to open up a broader set of issues about the role and responsibility of museums at a time of climate crisis.

Arguing that climate change deniers and fossil fuel industry executives had no business occupying leadership positions at science institutions, The Natural History Museum joined forces with top scientists and museum visitors to call on museums to cut all ties to fossil fuel interests. Our gamble was that there were activists already working within museums fighting for such changes, and that by applying pressure from the outside we could supply evidence of popular support for these unknown allies.

Following an open letter signed by dozens of the world’s top scientists, a petition signed by more than 500,000 members of the public, countless press articles, and an exhibition at the 2015 American Alliance of Museum Convention in Atlanta (Plate 9), David Koch quietly walked away from the board of trustees at the AMNH, where he had been a member for the previous twenty-three years. This was a partial and largely symbolic victory; it told us that there was support for our campaigns inside the museum sector. Since that time, at least eight major science or natural history museums have publicly cut ties to fossil fuel interests by divesting their financial portfolios from fossil fuel investments, removing a sponsor, or by implementing ethical funding policies (Bagley 2015). The restructuring or reform of museum governance will not magically and immediately transform museums into activist institutions. It can, however, remove a barrier to action, producing necessary conditions from which to model a positive alternative.

The more we investigated the US museum sector, the more we found allies working in museums who wanted to do more than police their boards of trustees. Indeed, many museum workers saw the potential of their institutions to participate in, and add value to, the burgeoning climate and environmental justice movements. This became particularly acute during the 2016 movement to block construction of the final section of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which became the focal point for climate justice and Native sovereignty struggles in North America. Among the injustices produced in the name of securing a petroleum pipeline was the desecration of sacred burial grounds and cultural features by DAPL construction crews on 3 September 2016. This was only one expression of the pervasive disregard for the health, culture, and history of Native Nations by both Energy Transfer Partners, the company responsible for constructing DAPL, and the North Dakota Historic Preservation Office, which denied any wrongdoing on the part of Energy Transfer Partners. This was despite the outcry of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers working on the ground at Standing Rock.

Having discovered the efficacy of the open letter as an activist tactic, The Natural History Museum organized a public letter addressed to President Obama, the US Department of Justice, Department of the Interior, and the Army Corps of Engineers, denouncing the destruction of ancient burial sites, places of prayer, and other cultural artifacts sacred to the Lakota and Dakota people (The Natural History Museum 2016). Signed by 1281 archae- ologists, anthropologists, historians, and museum workers, including fifty executive directors of museums and institutions of archaeology or anthropology (including the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., the Field Museum, and the AMNH), the letter represented an unprecedented act of collective advocacy from the museum community.

This was recognized as an ‘amazing act of solidarity’ by Sacred Stone Camp (2016), a cultural camp on the frontline of the blockade, as well as referenced as an important element of building alliances and unity behind Native historic preservation and consultation rights by Jon Eagle, Sr., Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Standing Rock Sioux tribe (Eagle 2016). The letter also indicated a cultural shift for museum leaders. Many of them recognized the urgency of leveraging their influence and expertise to support those working hardest to fight the corporations most responsible for anthropogenic climate change.

In a statement issued in response to the desecration of cultural resources by Energy Transfer Partners, AAM President and CEO, Laura Lott, declared:

These actions are an affront to the beliefs outlined in the Alliance’s strategic plan and an offense against the shared cultural heritage of the Lakota Nations and all people. The American museum community is committed to working openly and produc- tively with Indigenous people for the protection, preservation, and repatriation of culturally sensitive items and property. (Lott 2016)

Museum leaders are increasingly recognizing that their codes of ethics and mission statements indicate a moral responsibility to not simply represent history and artifacts from Native Nations, but also to stand against the offensive destruction of sacred cultural sites.

The Koch campaign and the solidarity letter point toward one prospect for the activist museum: the museum-as-advocate, standing in solidarity with frontline communities and leveraging cultural legitimacy to hold political representatives accountable for both their actions and inaction. If the Koch campaign was understood as a strike against the petro-capitalist interests that embed themselves within our museums, the Standing Rock solidarity letter envisions a museum that is for environmental justice. Museums can fortify themselves from the immediate impacts of climate change, but they also can, and should, use their privileged position and their resources to amplify and legitimize the struggles of frontline groups.

Beyond advocacy

Museums of science and natural history already have the resources they need to be powerful and influential advocates for grassroots activism. They have communications departments, massive email lists, popular social media accounts, and loyal audiences. Many museums have physical resources, including exhibition spaces, auditoriums, and atriums, as well as dedicated education, exhibitions, and development departments that can be coordinated and leveraged to support ongoing movements and campaigns in sustained and substantial ways. Museums also have objects and collections whose meaning can be activated by placing them in the context of the truth of climate change.

These resources can provide infrastructure for the commons. Museums can sign open letters, endorse movements and campaigns, and form broad coalitions within and beyond the museum sector. They can host community meetings and operate as meeting spaces for activists, organize training sessions and consultations, stage prop-building workshops before demonstrations, and host panel discussions and film screenings on pressing contemporary issues with thought-leaders in environmental justice and science for the common good. Activist museums can also dedicate space for collaborative, rapid-response exhibitions on contemporary environmental issues, offering movement organizers and activists platforms to not only represent, but also to legitimize their struggles for broad and diverse publics.

Such gestures of solidarity would require museums to cede some control over how their resources are used. At a bare minimum, each of the above-mentioned initiatives would require museum staff to facilitate open channels of communication between the museum and social movement organizers, which demands a level of committed outreach that many museums are already seeking in the interest of improving community engagement. Exhibitions and public programs need not be passive forms of activism or static monuments to social movements. They can be understood as opportunities for trust-building and co-production that, once released into the world, catalyze more committed and effective engagement.

Over the past two years, The Natural History Museum has built an infrastructure for collaboration with scientists, environmental justice groups, and museum workers on exhibitions and public programs, with the aim of instigating collective action on pressing concerns for both museums and the communities they serve. Working in collaboration with Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (T.E.J.A.S.), a Houston-based environmental justice organization dedicated to promoting environmental protection in the state of Texas, The Natural History Museum co-produced Mining the HMNS (2016), a multifaceted project investigating Houston’s fossil fuel ecosystem (Figure 15.1). We produced an exhibition at Project Row Houses (an experimental cultural institution in the city’s Third Ward), co- hosted monthly ‘Toxic Tours’ of East Houston’s petrochemical plants and refineries, built an exhibition amplifying the voices and stories of the low-income, predominantly Latinx and African-American fence-line communities situated along the Houston Ship Channel, and conducted air quality monitoring tests at sites across the city.

This project was designed to draw public and media attention to environmental injustices that T.E.J.A.S. has been exposing for the past decade. We used our resources and growing media infrastructure to both amplify T.E.J.A.S.’s struggles and communicate them to the public in novel and engaging ways. The precondition of this project was that our interests were aligned with, and supportive of, our collaborator’s needs and, that through our collaboration, we could leave T.E.J.A.S. in a stronger position than when we initiated the project.

In 2017, The Natural History Museum began developing a sustained collaboration with the Lummi Nation, whose ancestral homelands are near Bellingham, Washington. Our collabora- tion grew out of the recognition that our Standing Rock solidarity letter required deeper engagement with both the efforts of Native Nations to defend the land and water and the historical role played by museums in representing objects (including human remains) often taken without permission from Indigenous peoples from around the planet. After weeks spent learning from the Lummi Nation in the Pacific Northwest, we began to develop a collaborative exhibition and programming project related to the Lummi Nation’s Totem Pole Journey.

Kwel Hoy’: We Draw the Line is a multi-year initiative centered on a series of totem poles carved by Jewell James and the Lummi Nation House of Tears Carvers, which have traveled to communities threatened by fossil fuel expansion projects throughout North America since 2013. The Natural History Museum and the Lummi Nation are now traveling one of these totem poles to natural history museums around the country, linking them in a chain of solidarity with Native Nations and other frontline communities. The accompanying exhibition introduces visitors to the values and concerns guiding the Lummi and other Native Nations that are taking a leading role in grassroots movements to protect our water and earth for future generations. As we wrote in our exhibition pamphlet:

Indigenous Peoples of the Pacific Northwest can be viewed in dioramas at our nation’s major natural history museums, their daily life depicted through such artifacts as carved spoons and boxes and hunting and fishing tools. But they are also living tribes that today are fighting fossil fuel expansion projects and preparing for rising sea levels. Imagine if museums were providing the context, research-based visionary narratives, immersive experiences, and opportunities for audience identification and engagement with the struggles of communities on the front lines of ecological crisis?

By facilitating a relationship between the Lummi Nation’s innovative campaign and museums around the country, our goal is to deepen the historical significance of the Lummi Nation’s fight for sovereignty and to provide financial and organizational assistance for the Totem Pole Journey—goals that bring the museum outside of its traditional borders and into contact with social and political movements. We want to challenge other museums to gain further relevance to the growing, Native-led movement for climate and environmental justice. In these recent and ongoing projects, we are deploying the resources and skills developed by The Natural History Museum—both its physical and media infrastructure—to test new modes of community engagement that can help mobilize collective action in response to the challenge of the climate emergency.

Moral propaganda

The Natural History Museum enacts a version of what Don Hughes, Vice President of Exhibitions at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has called ‘moral propaganda’: it seeks to ‘design space, and to present content, that moves people in a specific social/political direction’ (Oakland Museum of California 2014: 21). Increasingly, we believe that museums can rise to this challenge by developing the vision of a world where the topic of climate change does not only invoke images of death and destruction, but also the courage of environmental justice communities working to protect the commons we all rely upon.

The natural history museum of the future will be both an advocate and an infrastructure for the commons. It will provide a lever for supporting environmental justice for all, as well as an institutional foundation for activism. It will draw lessons from the past and underscore the relevance of these lessons for the unfolding histories of the present. It will connect its collections to events happening beyond the museum’s walls. It will not simply represent communities, but it will engage them and their concerns. Only then will the museum be relevant to the wider world. When museums stand with communities fighting fossil fuel expansion, host migrants displaced by sea level rise, or provide sanctuary for the politically marginalized, they demonstrate the necessity of responding to what science tells us, aligning themselves with truth.

We envision a future where museums can join with other institutions of the commons— libraries, national parks, hospitals, public spaces, and so on—in order to generate the collective power necessary to struggle against the interests of the fossil fuel industry in the name of the commons. Their exhibitions will present positions on natural and social issues representing the positions of the communities bearing the brunt of the impact of climate change. The public trust in the museum will be based not on its supposed neutrality, but on its responsibility to the commons.

Some aspects of global climate change are already written into the future. We are now confronting sea level rise, species migration, and changing temperature and precipitation averages, with cascading effects on social and ecological systems. How we respond to these events is as open as ever. Museums help to shape the values, knowledge, and capacities of people to do so. Along with other institutions of the commons, museums have the opportunity and responsibility to join together in solidarity to ensure a livable and survivable world.


We would like to thank Beka Economopoulos and Jason Jones, co-founders of Not An Alternative/The Natural History Museum, with whom the conceptual framework for this text was developed.


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Steve Lyons is Director of Research at The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum based out of Brooklyn, USA that partners with scientists, major public museums, educators, artists, and community groups on environmental justice-themed exhibitions and programs. He is also FRQSC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Humanities Center of the University of Pittsburgh, USA.

Kai Bosworth is Researcher at The Natural History Museum, a mobile and pop-up museum that partners with scientists, major public museums, educators, artists, and community groups on environmental justice-themed exhibitions and programs. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society (IBES) at Brown University.

“Museums in the Climate Emergency” was originally published in Museum Activism, edited by Robert Janes and Richard Sandell (Routledge 2019), 174-185.