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  • Climate Change, Environmental Aesthetics, and Global Environmental Justice Cultural Studies
  • Michael Ziser (bio) and Julie Sze (bio)

Many commentators in the U.S. academy, press, and nonprofit and activist worlds have recently argued that an effective response to the unprecedented global scale of the ongoing climate crisis demands a new kind of environmentalism. In the realm of public activism, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger assembled a variety of preexisting critiques into their notorious position paper "The Death of Environmentalism," which argued that "modern environmentalism is no longer capable of dealing with the world's most serious ecological crisis" and that "a more powerful movement depends on letting go of old identities, categories and assumptions."1 The plea to reorient environmentalism away from its traditional focus on resource conservation, wilderness preservation, and pollution prevention and cleanup has become the hallmark of some who see global climate change (GCC) as an issue that supersedes all other ecological agendas. The underlying problem is one of scale. For one thing, GCC is too big a problem for any current institutional actor. More importantly for this essay, the implicit assumptions of global "Environmentalism 2.0," as the news media have dubbed it, have broad consequences for the structure of the environmental movement itself and even for the fundamental terms in which "the environment" is understood in the cultural productions that so often [End Page 384] shape or at least articulate consensus in contemporary societies. The very scale of the global context presents deep challenges to the customary ways that the West imagines basic concepts like place, agency, and justice. As literary ecocritic Ursula Heise has pointed out, the realist narrative structures that sustained earlier phases of environmentalism—structures that made use of well-defined places (Hetch Hetchy, for example), iconic human agents (John Muir), and readily grasped mechanisms of cause and effect (damming destroys alpine valleys)—may be inadequate to represent an invisible global crisis, the responsibility for which lies in billions of widely dispersed individual and corporate actions and the effects of which are first indicated not in new forms of tangible damage but as abstract upticks in statistical risk.2

Fredric Jameson, speaking of the general significance of the sense of the global that is brought about by planetwide crises like GCC, has noted that new forms of nationalism are apt to arise to defend "national difference" against the abstracting and leveling mandate of large-scale climate regulation.3 In the environmental movements of non-Western countries, this phenomenon has often taken the form of nationalist arguments against the environmental depredations of international extractive industries and manufacturers.

Although the United States is not immune to this kind of environmental appeal, matters are complicated considerably by several relevant historical facts. For one thing, the United States has long been the world's largest polluter and emitter of greenhouse gasses (GHGs) both in terms of its domestic industries and its financing and consumption of polluting industries elsewhere in the world. Because of its simultaneous role as a single nation (prone like any other to fits of domestic econationalism) and a transnational ideological force that drives much of the current economic globalization (often called "Americanization"), the United States is in an unusual position with regard to the cultural politics of climate change. Any American cultural consensus on climate must grapple with the finitude of an American ideology and power long associated with nature, a subject out of favor since the end of the Cold War. Indeed there are signs that U.S. environmental culture, without waiting for intellectuals to sort out the theoretical dimensions of the new representational paradigm, is already undergoing a rapid and difficult shift toward the undefined target of climate-change discourse. This essay explores the aesthetic and ideological dimensions—some more obvious than others—of this new phase of environmental representation, with a particular concern for the fate of environmental justice as a core component of global Environmentalism 2.0. The environmental justice movement (EJM), [End Page 385] despite its major differences with traditional environmental preservationism, shares with that earlier ideology an emphasis on place-and community-based measures and standards of justice.4 As we see it, the palpable investment of...


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pp. 384-410
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