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n late September of 2023 the New York Times organized a day of live journalism called Climate Forward, explicitly framing the event as a discussion of “Hope and Despair on a Boiling Planet” (Gelles 2023). The organizers argued that there is reason to be both “exceedingly optimistic” and still “deeply concerned” about planetary futures. Many of the Climate Forward speakers, including Al Gore, voiced these same sentiments. Numerous criticisms could be raised about the Climate Forward event, but it captures well the fact that hope and despair are the two most commonly-acknowledged emotions in discussions about global climate change. For many commentators, this is where the attention to climate feelings ends. One of the many contributions of Kai Bosworth’s Pipeline Populism is that it not only takes the emotional dynamics of climate politics seriously, but also analyzes a richer range of affects beyond hope and despair.
Bosworth’s book focuses on the emergence of pipeline opposition movements in the upper Midwest region over the period from 2008-2016. It situates these movements within a regional history of populism and the emergence of “populist environmentalism” as a strategy for confronting fossil fuel combustion and the climate crisis. “Populist environmentalism,” in short, is a genre of ecological politics in which “the people” are taken to be the primary political actors, but for whom democracy has been corrupted by a nefarious elite. The description of populist environmentalism, as one among several varieties of environmentalism, provides a major insight for public scholarship which has, instead, tended to portray environmentalism as primarily a venue for elite interests.
In addition to scholarly debates, Pipeline Populism’s political arguments emerge from, and are directed for, the public climate justice movement (as can be demonstrated by public-directed interviews and podcasts Bosworth has conducted since its publication). And it is not an outsider critique. The book is rooted in Bosworth’s involvement in the Youth Climate Movement, with personal origins in South Dakota and Minnesota. In particular, Bosworth seeks to bring to light two crucial insights for climate justice movements and organizations. Bosworth demonstrates how populism tended to reproduce limits in how Indigenous sovereignty movements were understood. Yet the book also shows how non-Indigenous South Dakotans could be transformed by working with Native Nations like the Oceti Sakowin Oyate. Second, Bosworth brings geographical analysis of affect and emotion to bear on the practical problem of political organizing. He demonstrates the importance of reflecting on anger, resentment, resignation, jadedness, courage, humor, and joy in place-based climate justice movements. These arguments are practical tools for climate justice organizing.
Empirically, Pipeline Populism analyzes several ways that the public interacts with pipeline firms and government bodies, describing the emotional experiences of activists and lay members of the public who come to oppose pipeline construction in the region. It describes the repetitive experience of attending public participation or consultation meetings, in which farmers, ranchers, and others testify in three-to-five-minute speeches about the potential harms or benefits of the pipeline. Bosworth describes how members of the public come to feel resentment towards these meetings, all the while continuing to engage in them despite feelings of resignation. Bosworth’s attention and care to members of the public, who themselves often feel forgotten or unheard, elevates these forms of testimony to a more central place in our understanding of climate politics—particularly in rural America.
In this review forum, four interlocutors engage with Pipeline Populism and relate it to their own scholarship and research. Andrea Marston locates the international politics of populist environmentalism, considering whose sovereignty is included or discounted in the imagination of North Americans. Deondre Smiles addresses how settler colonialism operates as an assemblage of structures which can come to conflict with each other even if they have shared premises. Kelly Kay reflects on how the affective infrastructures of populism come to reproduce “pillars of liberalism.” Jared Margulies describes how desire comes to produce “psychic twists” in settler subjectivities, creating opportunities for more capacious subjects of climate justice. In an author’s response, Kai Bosworth considers the multiple modalities of “infrastructure” at work in the book’s somewhat tragic analysis of populist environmentalism–while eyeing how such analysis contains practical implications for radical organizing.
Lauren Gifford, PhD is a critical human-environment geographer exploring intersections of global climate change policy, conservation, markets and justice. She is Associate Director of the Soil Carbon Solutions Center and joint faculty in the Department of Ecosystem Science and Sustainability at Colorado State University.
Levi Van Sant is an assistant professor of environmental studies at George Mason University. His research analyzes the politics of agriculture, land, and conservation in the US South.