In this episode, doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon sits down with Dr. Paul Farber and Dr. Bethany Wiggin of the Penn Program of Environmental Humanities, a collective of artists, students, scientists, and educators, whose mission is to generate local and global awareness and engagement in the ways in which stories are told about data. Together they explore a unique project at Data Refuge and consider the ways in which climate media is at risk in the 21st century.
Aaron Shapiro: Welcome to Media at Risk, a podcast from the Center for Media at Risk at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In this episode doctoral student and producer Muira McCammon sits down with Bethany Wiggin and Paul Farber of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities, a collective of scholars, students, artists, scientists, and educators, whose mission is to generate local and global awareness and engagement in the emergent area of the Environmental Humanities. Muira talks with Bethany and Paul about their project titled “Data Refuge: A Safe Harbor for Environmental Data.” They also discuss the role that storytelling and connection play in fostering a sense of intersection and collectivity around environmental issues.
Muira: My name is Muira McCammon. I’m a doctoral student at the Annenberg School for Communication. Before this spring, I’d never really given much thought about how climate media might be at risk, or what it even was, and then I came across Date Refuge. Data Refuge is a Philadelphia-based project that launched in November 2016 in order to draw attention to how climate denial endangers environmental data. Now, with the support of National Geographic and a series of other partners, it’s working to build a storybook to document how data lives in the world, and how it connects people, places and non-human species. In today’s episode, and in this mini-series, produced in the weeks before the launch of the Center for Media at Risk, we consider different corners of the global media environment and how its practitioners work under threatening political conditions. This March I paid a visit to Dr. Paul Farber and Dr. Bethany Wiggin, two of the project’s core team members at the University of Pennsylvania. I went to find out what Data Refuge is and how it came to be.
Bethany: Data Refuge, I think quite literally was born in the Schuylkill River. We work with our community partners. Like we work in wildlife refuges, but we also really are trying to get at that larger question of like why do we care about this place, but not that place? Why do we call that nature, but not this nature? So one of the, the really big pushes that the program in Environmental Humanities, a collaborative research project that’s been going on for about two years and change, is this Schuylkill Core that we have been building. And in this Schuylkill Core, this Schuylkill Core draws attention to the kind of data about the Tidal Schuylkill River that we wish we had, but we don’t. We, we are keenly aware of what happens when pollutant load data is missing, and the types of violations that can happen, so we wanted to know what makes it possible to forget, like actively forget a place. The students who have year long fellowships in the program in environmental humanities, they were very aware of what happens when there isn’t environmental data, when there isn’t environmental regulation, when there isn’t document, like on the record about what’s happening in our natural world. They started thinking, well, is that our future? That Tidal [Schuylkill] River, where we don’t know anything, is that what the future of United States landscapes looks like? We thought it was our past, before the Clean Water Act, before the Clean Air Act, but with an administration that is hell-bent on tearing down all of the protections that have been put into place since the late 60’s and early 70’s, that very well may be our future, and the students were horrified (laughs), really horrified, but also very pragmatically-oriented, and they said, you know, “The first thing we have to do is draw attention to the ways that past data is actually vulnerable.” Like, it’s one thing to think about like what’s all the data that’s missing for the Tidal Schuylkill, but when you’re starting to talk about the scope of the entire Clean Water Act, or Clean Air Act, and all of EPA data, and some of energy data, and, uh, NOAH, and, you know, you’re like, oh my God, it’s just, you, this is wicked problem.
Muira: How do you deal with the emotions that, that are tied to data, and particularly environmental data?
Muira: The emotions that are evoked?
Bethany: Yeah. Oh, you really, that was the perfect question, because on the one hand there is a sense of incredible urgency, you know, when we talk about is the Tidal Schuylkill the future of American landscapes more broadly, that feels pretty urgent, and for anyone who has driven past Philadelphia’s Energy Refining Complex along the Tidal Schuylkill they know that sense of urgency. On the other hand, data, when it’s not attached to a particular place, or it’s not attached to a particular concern is actually mind numbingly boring. Like data doesn’t mean anything until humans make it meaningful, and I think that has, that combination of, sense of urgency and then how to make data an urgent concern shared by a broad coalition of actors across sectors, uh, has really been at the heart of the project.
Paul: I think one of the most important aspects of Data Refuge is to balance, you know, the, the real vulnerability of data, especially those that help understand the degradation of our climate, of, of, of our environments and our cities, but also to do so in a way that always invites people in to the understanding of it as well, because I think in many ways, you know, when we think about data, it is a hidden infrastructure, you know? I mean, just the transfer of data in of itself is a matter of, of civic infrastructure. When we, you know, I always say like what is the most tangible visualization of data, and, and I always say like it’s the weather icons on your phone, and imagine if that went away tomorrow, like we’d be in uproar of like how would our society function, right? We, we’d get by, but we’ve become so equipped, many of us, to having that really complex breakdown of meteorology, of atmosphere into icons that help us figure out our day.
Paul: …and therefore inform our sociality. So I think if, what are the other places where knowledge is produced, considered, what are the histories that are embedded in there and the stories, but really to think about the relationships. Knowledge, just like pollution, can’t exist without polluters; knowledge can’t exist without knowledge communities.
Bethany: Early on in the Data Refuge project, and when I say early I mean like week one, as we were doing that early stage research, I was on the phone a lot with climate modelers, and, and, and there was, a point, I can remember this so, so clearly, I was sitting in my house in Mount Airy, and I was on the phone with like three modelers, and I was like “Are you guys worried about like the, the data that feeds your models?” Two of them were like, “No, not really,” and then the third was like, “I’ve been camped outside NASA’s offices for the last week.”
Bethany: And I was like, “What?” (Laughs) Like, I was, just it blew my mind. And then, what it really kind of led to was a real understanding of how much United States produced data, so American data, fuels planetary models. Modern science including environmental science is very much a phenomenon of the Cold War in the 1950s, and coming like through the ’70s. Um, it’s very much also implicated in Defense Department budgets, and, and certainly NASA. Um, so, environmental data lives in a lot of places. A lot of it, what we recognize as more formal environmental data has been generated and produced by U.S. federal agencies. The United States is now scaling back that role; the support to R&D is much less, and certainly climate-denying administrations will further diminish the role of the American research community globally. Just without funding you, we, it’s not going to happen. And, you know, on the one hand it was incredibly heartening to see the French Premier Macron, his, call for, you know, climate scientists to come to France, and that was also echoed by the German research community with a lot of money, and I know a number of people who are going, and that’s great for the planet, but for the country it stinks.
Paul: Just, I would add, you know, like for example, the number of FOIA requests, for EPA data has spiked, and so the story of what is environmental data, in some sense it’s quite obvious when it’s produced or utilized by the EPA or other major kinds of institutions, governmental institutions or, or research institutions, but it is also about power, it’s about resources, and of course, environmental data doesn’t exist on its own island. It’s really about how you can connect a variety of stories, of understandings about a landscape. But we want to understand the legacies of environmental racism in Southwest Philadelphia, or in other areas of the city, you understand the kind of intersections, and environmental data is of course focused on the air, water, other kinds of resources that we deem, quote-unquote natural, but it is also about the way that our society functions, how resources are allotted, how we live in our cities and how we build them, and how we think about access and opportunity. And if, in fact, we are seeing as, as noted these, you know, spikes in the kind of call for that information, we’re seeing a real clash between not just, not just access to the, to the information that exists, but to the value systems that put that information out in public for research purposes and also for, you know, the purposes of the polis as well.
Muira: What do you, what do you think it takes to tell a good and powerful story….
Bethany: Oh my gosh…
Muira: About environmental data?
Bethany: If you can answer that question for us, please join our core team (laughing)!
Paul: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Please.
Bethany: So, we are quite literally experimenting in public about that precise question. What are effective stories that help data producers to talk about why they care about their data, what their data does, like how it connects to real people and real places, and what it does or what are the questions, research questions that that person is asking and why, and then what can be done with that data? You know, I think a lot of times we think about data are matters, you know, of fact, but matters of fact don’t speak for themselves. You know, we have great, great partners in the Union of Concerned Scientists who have been incredibly helpful to us, and this word “concern” I think is really important, because facts or science doesn’t exist without care and concern. So it’s finding stories, and almost genres of stories that can be told with data producers, with data users, with data intermediaries that do that work of translating like why should I care about this data? What does it do?
Bethany: So, one of the things that we have set ourselves as a way to experiment in public is to say, what if you cared about data so much that you treated it as if it were alive? And so, when I switch hats now from my environmental research hat to my literary and narrative (laughing) like researcher hat, I think, things that are alive, there are stories that many people know about things that are alive, they’re called biographies; they’re called autobiographies; they’re called obituaries; they’re called birth announcements. They may look like LinkedIn pages, or like Instagram accounts, so what would it mean, we thought, to create those types of genres and stories for data, and then to make those story-generating tools available to others, so that they could amplify stories about their data and why they care about their data as well.
Paul: We want to meet people where they are, and, you know, that means a few different things. For scientists, we want to learn from them, and as Bethany suggests, understand their relationships with their data, with their colleagues, and with systems of power as well. We want to have a conversation that is reflexive, that is, is thoughtful, but is not necessarily posed as a, a session, between a scientist and their dataset on like a therapist’s couch.
Paul: Instead we kind of want to make it a game; we want to make it a destination; we want to make it a, you know, utilize the tactics of public art and engagement, and have stories live outside of one’s own laboratory, and share that, make collective spaces of thinking, because of course, you know, here at the University of Pennsylvania, this is a collective space of knowledge production, but of course, it’s cloistered, and it’s cellular, so how to have moments, where outside of one’s own space of knowledge production that you can connect that with others. I think in part it’s meant to play out those connections that are necessary, that data isn’t fact…
Paul: Data is a chapter in in a long sprawling kind of exercise of thought. Also, with that how do you engage people who, may not be as familiar with like the tactics of open data, of scientific data, but have a lot to share about the world around them, especially those from, either fields of study or even from communities that know a lot about themselves, but the kind of practitioners of, of let’s say big data, often use their, big data as a tool against that community or as an extractivist tool as opposed to a mutual one. So for us it’s actually, a big opportunity and challenge to meet people where they are when it comes to data. There’s, I think a number of ways. That includes meeting them to kind of break down the walls between laboratories and, and offices, and archives and spaces, and also finding other places, where people in Philadelphia, people in other cities can share insight about their lives that can either help us understand the data that’s missing or really understand broader systems of knowledge and power and possibility.
Bethany: People do not think of themselves as their life being implicated by data in any kind of way, but as soon as you tell someone like, “Oh, actually the city is using this data in order to make a more permeable surface for rainwater, so that your basement doesn’t flood,” “Well, that’s cool.” You know, like people love those stories, and then they care that that data exists, because who wants a flooded, soggy, moldy basement? (Laughs).
Paul: I think in Philly, climate change and environmental understanding, for many people, is not something that’s distant. It’s not just reserved for you know, rising seas and, melting ice. It’s a conversation in this city led by scientists, and also artists, neighborhood organizations, community activists, environmental racism conversations and collectives, and I think that creates possibility for new levels of understanding that environment as, as we’ve been saying, is not somewhere else. And so, when we are thinking about climate change, when we’re thinking about extreme weather events, and when we’re also thinking about those kind of systems of power and, and profound sweeps of denial that we are in a crisis, we have a kind of fleet of people, from the ground up in this city, you know, who challenge each other, but also help lead a conversation that make us understand, or at least compel us to understand about the places that are precious to us here, and also how they connect outward, and that actually helps us understand how climate is not elsewhere, climate is here.
Muira: So, that’s a wrap for today’s episode. We can’t really do full justice to the Data Refuge Project, so for more information about how to get involved check out some of the supplementary materials we’ve posted on the Media at Risk website.
Aaron: Thanks for listening. We’d like to thank Waldo Aguirre, Paul Farber, Xelba Gutierrez, Fiona Jensen-Hitch, Hanna Morris, Emily Plowman, Diami Virgilio, Bethany Wiggin, and Barbie Zelizer, Director of the Center for Media at Risk. This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by me, Aaron Shapiro. More information can be found on the center’s website, www.ascmediarisk.org.
- Go deep into the history of Data Refuge.
- A brief tutorial on how to pronounce “Schuylkill River” for those living outside of Philly.
- Watch Emmanuel Macron, President of France, launch his initiative, “Make Our Planet Great Again” and encourage US-based researchers to come to France to continue their work on climate change.
- Fill out a downloadable Data Refuge postcard.
- Read an article in The Hillabout the record number of lawsuits filed against Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency.
- File your own Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
- Check out this recent profile of Annenberg Doctoral Student Hanna Morris, who is working as a fellow with the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH) and Data Refuge to develop a set of visual interventions for mediating climate change in a more human and personal manner.
- To get involved with Data Refuge, say hello here.
Son Lux: “All the Right Things” (intro)
Khruanbin: “The Sicilian Plan”
Zammuto: “Stop Counting”
Tortoise: “It’s All Around You”
Khruanbin: “A Fang Kheng Kan – Acoustic”
Khruangbin: “Two Fish and an Elephant” (outro)
We’d love to hear from you, especially if this podcast episode made you think about climate media differently. Feel free to record a voice memo on your smartphone and email it to email@example.com; you can also find us on Twitter at @ASCMediaRisk. Though we’re a small operation, we’re always open to pitches and new stories.
- Bethany Wiggin is Associate Professor and Graduate Chair of German, Affiliate Faculty in English and Comparative Literature at the University of Pennsylvania and Founding Director of the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities. She has published books and essays on transnational and world literatures, the birth of fashion and commodity culture and utopian pasts and futures. She is now working on the book Germanopolis: Utopia Found, Lost, and Re-Imagined in Penn’s Woods.
- Paul M. Farber is a historian and curator from Philadelphia. He is currently the Managing Director of the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities. Farber received a PhD in American Culture from the University of Michigan. He previously served as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Haverford College, a Doctoral Fellow at the German Historical Institute in Washington, D.C. and a visiting scholar in the Urban Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania.
- This episode was produced by Muira McCammon and edited by Aaron Shapiro.