Friday, April 20, 2018

Earth Day 2018: Facing the greatest human-rights challenge of our time.


The world has come to know the wildlife of the Arctic more than its people: The Inuit.

For two decades my life’s work, which includes elected positions with an international mandate to protect the rights and interests of our people of the circumpolar world, has been to work diligently to put a human face to the urgent environmental, health, and cultural issues affecting us all. Too often, the world still sees the issues of climate change through the lens of politics, economics, and science. For us it is about our children, our families, and our communities, which still rely on the well-being of our environment and climate to feed our families the nutritious bounty of the land and ice.

To me, and to all Indigenous Peoples, and to all those affected by the harmful impacts of climate change, the issues I speak to are all connected—our rights as indigenous peoples are one and the same as our environmental and cultural rights. Indeed, everything is connected.

As one of the world’s most vulnerable regions, the Arctic is undergoing an historic environmental and social change. For decades, the North and its peoples have been subjected to many historical traumas and the most dramatic environmental effects of globalization. Most recently, dramatic climate change caused by greenhouse gases has left virtually no feature of our landscape or our way of life untouched, and now threatens our very culture.

The latest reports of climate change coming in from all of our communities are starker than ever. Virtually every community across the North is now struggling to cope with extreme coastal erosion; melting permafrost; and rapid, destructive runoff that threatens to erode away whole towns especially in Alaska and the western part of our own country of Canada. Despite our last particularly cold winter, our sea ice remains in rapid decline. Glacial melt long relied on for drinking water is now unpredictable, and invasive species travel much further north than ever before. While the size and type of each change varies across the North, the trends are consistent. The change is not just coming. It is already here.

The past two decades, however, have seen more than just dramatic environmental change – they have also witnessed the start of an awakening of a global environmental consciousness, a realization that we are all connected by a common atmosphere and oceans. As Inuit we have been and remain a hunting people of the land, ice, and snow. The process of the hunt teaches our young people to be patient, courageous, bold under pressure, and reflective, and gives them a sense of identity and self worth. The international community has learned from us as well. International agencies, national governments, civil society, and media have begun to see that the Inuit hunter, falling through the melting ice, is connected to the cars we drive, the policies we create, and the disposable world we have become.

As this consciousness has emerged, so too have new and innovative partnerships and solutions to address these problems. Global environmental challenges have been successfully addressed when the international community has come together to acknowledge the connections between far-off sources of pollution and the local impacts on health, environment, and human rights.

While you would never know it today, the links between climate change and human rights were virtually unknown in the broader world just a few years ago before we submitted a climate change petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on behalf of Inuit from Alaska and Canada, myself included. The purpose of the petition was to educate and encourage the United States to join the community of nations in a global campaign to combat climate change. This petition was a “gift” from Inuit hunters and elders to the world. It was an act of generosity from an ancient culture deeply tied to the natural environment and still in tune with its wisdom, to an urban, industrial, and “modern” culture that has largely lost its sense of place and position in the natural world.

We successfully translated the human rights dimensions of climate change and its impacts into legal arguments and brought our message to an international human rights tribunal. It was the first case in which the links between human rights and climate change were made clear, but not the last.

As elders, youth, scholars, policymakers, activists, and the general public, we must come together as a collective to address the greatest human rights challenge of our time. This understanding of our ‘collective and interconnectedness’ as a shared humanity is what is needed to spur decision-makers to act urgently and ambitiously to protect our right to a safe climate. My book, The Right To Be Cold, is a human story with the intention to bring a heartbeat to the issues for us to better feel that deep sense of connection to one another no matter where we live. Knowing just how potent that possibility is is what drives me to keep going.


Sheila Watt-Cloutier is author of The Right to Be Cold (Minnesota, 2018). She is one of four winners of the 2015 Right Livelihood Awards (also called the “alternative Nobels”) for her work on climate change in the Arctic. In 2007 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her advocacy in showing the impact of global climate change on human rights. She has been awarded the Aboriginal Achievement Award, the UN Champion of the Earth Award, and the prestigious Norwegian Sophie Prize. She has received honorary doctorates from twenty universities for her pioneering work linking climate change to human rights. From 1995 to 2002, she served as the elected Canadian president of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, and in 2002 she was elected its international chair. Under her leadership, the world’s first international legal action on climate change was launched with a petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

"No one writes about the Arctic with more authority than Sheila Watt-Cloutier. Part memoir and part call to arms, The Right to Be Cold is an essential addition to the literature of climate change."
—Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"Reading this book—the story of a quiet young woman who rose to lead her people in a desperate battle—should give all of us the inspiration we need, whether it's to go to jail blocking pipelines or to run for Congress battling oil companies. We owe Sheila Watt-Cloutier an immense debt."
—Bill McKibben, from the Foreword

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

The End of Man, One More Time.


The apocalypse is back—with a vengeance! Cue the visually intriguing Altered Carbon on Netflix, the conceptually teasing yet disappointingly humanist Humans on Channel 4 in the UK, and the just plain terrible Blade Runner 2049 (surely a crime against cinema, if not against humanity). But let me make what might seem like an odd link. The current return of the android, the robot, and the cyborg on the big and small screen, fueled by a renewed interest in Artificial Intelligence (AI) on the part of Silicon Valley researchers and investors, looks to me like a response (although not necessarily a direct or even acknowledged one) to a number of planetary-scale issues. Among them are climate change, the depletion of the Earth’s resources, and the impending extinction of various species—including our own. In other words, I am making a connection here between the apocalyptic prophecies about AI replacing “us” with the dominant crisis narrative of our times: the Anthropocene.

My recently published short book, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, examines this existential anxiety about the future of our planet, and of ourselves as a species. But it also probes the gender aspect of the whole apocalyptic “end of man” scenario as it unfolds both in AI and the Anthropocene narratives. Offering an ironic take on various contemporary eco-political crises, from the climate catastrophe and the threats to the human species posed by AI through to the widespread rise of populist politics, it responds by outlining an alternative ethical vision. My aim is to figure out better ways of living in a high-tech-driven world—while also probing the very nature of this “better.” This is why for me AI stands not just for Artificial Intelligence but also for the Anthropocene Imperative: a call to humans to respond to the multiple crises of life while there is still time. But this call also involves challenging the supposed uniformity of this human as some kind of “eternal man” who has despoiled the planet—but who has it in “him” to repair it too.

There are other reasons why deciding what form such an ethical response to a planetary crisis should take is not easy. Even though it supposedly stretches back at least 250 years, to the early days of fossil fuel excavation and burning, the Anthropocene cannot actually be seen, and hence known, by us contemporary humans because of the vastness of the time period across which it has unfolded. It can only be envisaged. The photo-film Exit Man, included with the book and presented here, stages a visit to a “local museum of the Anthropocene” of my making, with a view to imagining a different future for humanity. It also offers a different mode of scholarly engagement with issues that challenge not just our thought processes and conceptual frameworks but also our very being in the world.

Exit Man from Joanna Zylinska on Vimeo.

Curiously, in the current Silicon Valley-fueled climate, the apocalyptic-sounding “end of man” is mainly presented as an upgrade: an evolution of the fleshy model that is quickly becoming obsolete. And so if the planet is proving to be more and more uninhabitable, the next logical step for the redeemers of today is to reach for what many venture capital-driven saviors are calling, without irony, a “technofix.” The 1980s cyborg figurations are thus returning under the umbrella of human enhancement research, gerontology, and indeed, AI. In this mode of thinking the Anthropos, or man himself, is seen as fully fixable, to the extent that death becomes rebranded as a “technical glitch.” But should man’s upgrade process fail or take too long, an alternative plan is currently under development: a literal escape to heaven, aka planetary relocation. (Thank you, Elon Musk!) It is important to note that such outsider solutions are not just being proposed by high tech entrepreneurs on their celestial missions. They are also part of our current political landscape, with its procession of strongmen that are promising us earthly redemption and perpetual abundance: making America, Britain, or Poland great again.

One way to start challenging this macho-techno-apocalypticism is precisely by envisaging something like a “feminist counterapocalypse”. Adopting precarity as the fundamental condition of living in the global post-industrial world, a feminist counterapocalypse would contest many of the technicist solutions that are currently being proposed—while not being anti-technological itself. It would also reposition the standalone subject of ethics and politics as always already multiple, strange, and strange-to-itself. Indeed, what the “end of man” prophecy actually signals is not so much the extinction of the human species but rather the expiration of the White Christian Man as the key subject of history. The feminist counterapocalyptic agenda thus promises liberation from that form of subjectivity that is pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity. It also opens up to the precarious lives and bodies of human and nonhuman others—including the male bodies and minds that have been discarded in the downsizing process of disruptive technocapitalism, or made redundant by AI. Because, under the current conditions, we all need to ask: If unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?


Joanna Zylinska is professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, author of seven books (including Nonhuman Photography and Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene), and a photomedia artist.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Uncovering the brave women behind mental-health reform in Minnesota.

Professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota

In the past two years, the Women's March and the #MeToo movement have given voice to demands for gender equality. These claims are part of a long history—from suffragists marching for the vote to the cry of feminists in the 1960s and 1970s for equal opportunity. While women have long fought for opportunity and recognition of their contributions, many of their stories have not been told.

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota's Mental Institutions 1946–1954 tells the story of a statewide social movement to reform the abject conditions for 15,000 Minnesotans in the seven mental hospitals and the school of the "feeble minded." When I began the research, I learned that in this little-remembered period of Minnesota history, Governor Luther Youngdahl, a Swedish Republican with a big heart, gets most of the credit (though a few accounts acknowledge the role of the Reverend Arthur Foote (my former father-in-law, who passed away in 1999) and Dr. Ralph Rosen).

As I dug deeper, I learned this was not the whole story. When I read Youngdahl's biography, a name caught my eye: Engla Schey. The biographer wrote that Schey "started it all." Nothing more about her. Who was she? I searched for clues in public records—census documents, local newspapers, city directories. She was a poor farmer's daughter, unmarried, with a long stint in Salvation Army, and on the roster of low-paid attendants at Anoka State Hospital in 1940. How did Schey start a social movement?

Through a wonderful stroke of luck, I located a descendant who had Schey's diaries and other writings. She sprang to life. In response to her own father's mental illness, she wanted to help the mentally ill. She "crashed the gates" at Anoka and was horrified at what she found. She tried to improve care from within, but was blocked at every turn. Despite disdain from professionals, she became a fearless crusader. At a fortuitous meeting of Unitarians interested in mental-health reform, she spoke up passionately, and the Unitarians took up the cause.

Our second important woman in the story is Genevieve Fallon Steefel. She and Schey met at the Unitarian conclave and corresponded during the reform effort. Unlike Schey, Steefel had status. She was a graduate of Radcliffe College, wife of a respected professor, and active in many social causes. Her public life was accessible because her husband had donated her papers to the Minnesota Historical Society after her death. But, once again mining public sources, I learned more about Steefel than her papers conveyed. She was the child of Irish immigrants in Boston, her father died when she was six, and she was raised in poverty by her grandmother. Where was her mother? She spent years in Worcester State Hospital. A brilliant student, Steefel's social worker found a way to get her to Radcliffe College. Steefel reinvented herself. Within five years, she graduated with honors, had a year on a fellowship in France, moved to Minnesota and married the professor. She buried her tragic past but carried forever deep in her heart a drive to help unfortunates, less from noblesse oblige than from an intimate knowledge of true misfortune.

Steefel became secretary to the Unitarian committee—a role often given to women who were expected only to take and transcribe notes. Steefel did much more. She wove detailed reports used at every stage of the reform effort. She consulted experts, organized meetings, prepared witnesses for hearings, and wrote testimony. She stepped out of the shadows to write several blistering editorials under her own byline. Arthur Foote was the important public face, but Steefel was the substance and discipline behind it.

Our third hero is Eva Jerome, a 70-year-old social worker. Jerome's family valued education, and she was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1899. Her family belonged to First Unitarian Society in Minneapolis, a hotbed of activist feminists involved in women's suffrage and birth control. Jerome was a practical woman. She saw a need and responded directly. She formed the Unitarian Visiting Committee and mobilized volunteers to work with patients. Over time, the cadre included many other church and service groups, and in one two-week period, more than 100 volunteers visited patients; organized parties, musical programs, and movies; and offered sewing, typing, and art classes for men and women. In addition, social workers in the congregation designed and taught formal training for volunteers. Jerome's daughter Ida Davies published Handbook for Volunteers in Mental Hospitals (University of Minnesota Press, 1950) to disseminate their findings that laypeople can positively affect patient outcomes.

Last but not least was Geri (Hoffner) Joseph. A young Jewish woman from St. Paul, Hoffner was the managing editor of the U's Minnesota Daily from 1945-46. She aspired to be a journalist and chose the Minneapolis Tribune when offered a chance to do in-depth stories. She had been at the paper little more than a year when Foote approached her with the idea of a story on the mental institutions. Hoffner's editor advised her to inform the governor of the plan. When Hoffner told him, Youngdahl bellowed: “If you try to do this, I will have your job!” (You will have to read the book to find out why Youngdahl, the reformer, threatened the reporter.) Her series, "Minnesota Bedlam," was a powerfully written 11-part series accompanied by heartbreaking photographs. The story mobilized the public, which was essential for Youngdahl's 1948 re-election, and strengthened his hand during the legislative session that made reform a reality.

The Crusade for Forgotten Souls was the work of many people, men and women. The contribution of these talented and committed women was pivotal to the reform's success. The research process revealed the challenges of documenting their women's contributions that were often unacknowledged at the time. Their legacy is an inspiration to all of us.


Susan Bartlett Foote is professor emerita in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota, where she was head of the Division of Health Policy and Management from 1999 to 2005. She is author of The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota's Mental Institutions 1946–1954 (Minnesota, 2018) and Managing the Medical Arms Race: Innovation and Public Policy in the Medical Device Industry.

"In a wondrous feat of research and storytelling, Susan Bartlett Foote has distilled personal accounts, public and institutional records, and newspaper coverage to dramatically detail Minnesota’s mental health reform of the last century. Her narrative is harrowing and inspiring—a tribute to the difficult work of countless people, many of them outraged ordinary folk, who challenged the horrors of a stubborn and intractable system."
—Jack El-Hai, author of The Nazi and the Psychiatrist and The Lobotomist