Anthropocene Research Collective for Human, Animal and Interspecies Collaborations

Interview COP26: Everybody has a place at the table: narrative, heritage, climate change


One of the ARCHAIC members, Boris van Meurs, was present at the COP26, the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow that gathered so many citizens, politicians, businesses and other stakeholders the last two weeks. We share here an inspiring interview Boris held with the California State Historic Preservation Officer, Julianne Polanco.

This past week I have been visiting the international climate conference in Glasgow. I have gathered stories of climate change, and listened to indigenous people, to climate justice warriors, to Australian businessmen. In these stories, the sense of place recurred continuously. Where are we now? Where are we going? A bishop from Norwich will answer this question differently than a Fridays for Future activist from Israel.

A random encounter with another conference participant in a place that is swarming with beginnings of possible stories (also known as the pub), would ultimately lead me to an engaging interview with California State Historic Preservation Officer Julianne Polanco several days later. Julianne Polanco investigates how narrative, heritage, and climate change come together. She gathers and revives the stories that connect people to place in her State of California. Next to this, Polanco is a founding member and Immediate past CoChair of the Climate Heritage Network, that has as its aim to bring the power of arts, culture and heritage to climate action.

After days of WhatsApp contact, we finally met under an enormous globe in COP26’s Action Zone. I listened as Julianne told me about her work, which deals with how heritage and story make us land on Earth. The message she brings is timely and of inspiration to all those trying to make a change.

Could you tell me about what kind of work you do?

“One of the primary responsibilities in my office is to review projects that have the potential to affect historical properties. This involves archaeology, the built environment, historic districts, and also large landscapes that are important to our indigenous tribes and communities. There are a hundred and forty five tribes in California currently.

Some of the stories told about places around us in our books are of the glorified, alleged saving of California by the Spaniards. They are also stories of the Gold Rush. But we do not really get much of the story of the native peoples who were there first, their experiences, and the genocide that happened.

In contrast, we are trying to help add the rest of the stories. All places are multi-layered, and we want to make sure that all stories are told. So better than simply telling the public what to think, we strive to make all the information available so they can decide for themselves about what they want to learn.

Our history needs to be acknowledged and understood, so that we can know where we came from, inform our present, and do better going forward .”

That is really interesting. I think that a lot of people will automatically think about very tangible things when hearing the word ‘heritage’. Things as buildings or artifacts that are passed on. How do narratives relate to heritage?

“I always think that the physicality of a place is the container for the things that happened, for people’s memories. Now, a place can mean something different for different people. One and the same place could be your backyard, or it could be the place that you went as a child when visiting one’s grandparents, or it could be something you pass by when you are on a trip from a foreign country.

Sometimes, when I start a meeting with a group of people, I say to them: close your eyes and think about who your favorite person was when you were a child? For me it was my grandmother. So I ask them: ‘Close your eyes and think about your grandmother. What kind of memory do you have of your grandmother? I smell the food cooking in the kitchen. I can feel her love. “ I then ask people to share their memory with the person sitting next to them. I use that as an ice breaker to remind us that we are all really very similar. And these similarities bring culture to the table to remind us that, in all the work that we do, we are doing it together.”

You are also part of the Climate Heritage Network. How does climate come to play in all this?

“Cultural heritage can help make changes in a way that people will react to and listen to and engage with. So, for example, our U.S. Fish and Wildlife department needed to restock a river in Northern California with fish. They came to us with this project and we asked: ‘Have you talked to the local tribes? Did you find out what their food knowledge is about those fish? And can you incorporate any of their ideas to help with food security?’ They did talk to the tribe, they learned that there used to be four types of fish that has spawned in four different seasons historically. In present day, we only know of one. The Fish and Wildlife people found that they could stock two different kinds of fish in that river. This provided two different times a year in which fish were available of spawning per year. So that doubled the food security of that tribe. In that space, they just changed a little bit by simply listening, and this did change something for a tribe that was really helpful and necessary.

We are also looking at streambed restoration zones as a possible way to increase the availability of basketry materials for tribes. We asked: is it possible to plant reeds that will help sequester carbon, that will help with the biological parts of the project, and that will also help the tribes to have reeds for basketry and their cultural activities? These are two examples of how we can play matchmaker, if you will, for projects that say ‘can we do more together, faster’?

Culture is in everything. It is in climate, it is in transportation, it is in every way of life.  And so my job and role and mission for the Climate Heritage Network and as California State Historic Preservation Officer is to make those synergies and connections for greater ambition.”

What you say aligns with my impression of the COP26. In some way, what is at stake is a very scientific question of climate change. We need to reach net zero and we need to do so fast. Yet, if one walks around the pavilions here, one sees that it is almost very much a conflict of interpretations. Especially people from Africa and indigenous peoples urge us to listen to local stories and traditions. So, on the one hand climate change is a global issue – we are sitting here under a giant globe in the Action Zone – while on the other hand, we should listen to these stories to make sure that the scientific knowledge really grounds and does what we want it to do.

What strikes me as well in the literature that I study about the Anthropocene and climate change, is that there is usually a lot of talk about grand narratives. Narratives of progress. Narratives of eco-Marxism as a response to what is going on: large stories. How do these larger stories relate to the more particular stories that you tell?

“I see them all as a continuum. If I do not feel it my soul, how am I going to do it? How am I going to change? We are not going to get out of our cars just like that, we are not going to stop eating meat – whatever the topic is, right? We can all come to Glasgow and be overwhelmed by all the information that is here. And it is a lot! But if we cannot figure out how to translate the concepts and lessons to my eighty three year old dad sitting in his recliner chair with his iPad wondering what he can do to help solve climate change, then we have failed.

People want to be a part of something larger. I always say that I see my role as being the axis of a wheel, where I try to connect global frameworks to on the ground action. It is on the ground action that will make the difference, not the global frameworks alone. We need to form these connections from global to local, and all along the way, to meet the urgency and the need.

Culture does this in so many ways. We need science, we need traditional science, but not in an extractive way. So, processes and policies now seem to invite people to meeting, ask them lots of questions and them send them away. ‘Hi, nice to meet you! Thank you for coming. Now I am going to do what I really wanted…’ we must invite people in, tribes, communities, everyone every step of the way, if we are truly going to create just frameworks that succeed.

I think people a want to know how they can contribute. I ask people all the time what they want to do against climate change. And people will say: ‘I am not sure whether climate change exists, but I know that the creek bed in my back yard has been dry for the last five years.’ So do we need to call it climate change? That is sort of secondary, because we know that something is happening and we need to fix it for ourselves, or there will be nothing left for our children.

We have to look at our existing frameworks and say: how do we partner? That is really the work that we are trying to do. What can we do now? And what do we need to put forward in policies to make sure that this continues to happen? Because we cannot wait six years or ten years. And we can no longer wait for projects that are single-issue oriented. We just do not have the time, or the funds, or the human capacity anymore. Nature can’t wait.”

Are there any lessons to take from the COVID situation?

“If COVID has shown anything, it has shown us that communities act locally. It has really reminded the world that we rely on our neighbors and our friends, more than ever. I think we had got away from that, and we were so busy being involved in the internet, flying around the world… We did not really remember that home and our backyards are really what sustain us, no matter what.

And so I think that we are trying to help drive those changes in a way for greater ambition. Not create new things, but just: how do we work better together? How do we convene to work with people together?”

All this aligns with the aims of the ARCHAIC. We gather over a certain dissatisfaction concerning what academic knowledge is doing today. Knowledge still means abstracting, taking a distance, while we are looking for ways of knowing that also involve engaging with or changing things around you. Would you have a piece of advice for us for how to do this?

“What a great question. I think that academia should not stop being academia, because I think it is really important. But I think that it should not be the only source of information. So, everybody has a place at the table. I mean that truly. We have to value every person who wants to participate. We have to make sure that they can participate in ways that are meaningful to them.

My suggestion to academia is to do a lot of listening and do a lot of collaborating. Also take the time to realize that you do not have to be the smartest person in the room. Everybody is the smartest person in the room. How do we embrace that knowledge and really celebrate and rise up? My advice is do a lot of listening, do a lot of sharing, and please keep doing your research.”

Thank you very much, Julianne, for your time. I enjoyed our conversation, thanks.

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