Rebecca Solnit on Land, Climate, and Culture

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Land
Rebecca Solnit in conversation with Cassim Shepard
Recorded September 26, 2014

The Five Thousand Pound Life: Land was a symposium on rethinking land and its value in light of climate change organized by The Architectural League and co-sponsored by The Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design in September 2014.

In this video, activist and writer Rebecca Solnit, in dialogue with Urban Omnibus Editor Cassim Shepard, discusses American identity formation in relation to land and settlement patterns, touching on the American ethos of “rugged individualism,” changes in environmental activism and attitudes toward conservation, and the role of community action in countering climate change.

Solnit identifies a prevailing cultural attitude of self-sufficiency — a “psychological privatization” that insists we have no responsibility for one another — which she attributes in part to the vastness of American land, isolationist impulses, and our ability to choose where we live and “how much space we take up.” Calling climate change “an ultimatum that we all recognize that everything is connected,” Solnit advocates for collective action around the environment as a social justice issue. This interconnectedness requires a global scale of perception because our actions have wide-ranging consequences, such that “if ice in the Arctic melts, people in the South Pacific go underwater.” Yet it also signals important shifts in our relationship to land. She describes the environmental movement’s attitude as no longer guided by the “virgin-whore dichotomy” of places we protect and “won’t touch” and places that we “rape and destroy,” instead recognizing that the division of spaces for people and spaces for wildlife is flawed and needs revision.

Other topics of discussion include misguided characterizations of environmentalism as a luxury issue, the need to redefine “wealth” in terms of social rather than economic relationships, the role of storytelling in the climate narrative, and Google Maps and the “mapification of daily life.” Solnit and Shepard conclude with a hopeful call for civically engaged citizens in solidarity with one another.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist. She is the author of Infinite City: A San Francisco Atlas (2010), Unfathomable City: A New Orleans Atlas (2013), and The Faraway Nearby (2014), among others. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s and regular contributor to the political site TomDispatch.

Cassim Shepard is the editor of The Architectural League’s Urban Omnibus.

The Five Thousand Pound Life (5KL) is an initiative of The Architectural League on new ways of thinking, talking, and acting on architecture, climate change, and our economic future.


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