Talking about climate change

(Edmonton) If we diligently recycle, compost our garbage, take cloth bags to the store, try to buy less, yet feel we must drive five hours to really experience the full majesty of nature in the Rockies, what does that say about our perceptions of what a nature experience is, and of our role in climate change?

These are some of the intriguing and complex questions and contradictions Lara Fenton, a doctoral student in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation, presented at the Canadian Congress of Leisure Research at Brock University last month. Fenton’s paper, “Talkin’ about a revolution: Conversations on climate change and activism,” earned her a special award of distinction at the congress, the first of its kind ever presented.

“I wanted to explore the discourses between how people talk about climate change, their leisure as a nature experience, the intersections between these and what this meant for their climate-change activism using the lens of social construction,” said Fenton, who interviewed people at Hawrelak Park on the subject.

“Activism is related to how we talk about nature and climate change,” said Fenton, adding this activism can take many forms. “For example, someone who talks about nature as being a visceral, emotional experience may feel personally responsible [for climate change], need to talk to people one-on-one and try to change their minds about their personal behaviours.” Others, she says, may look beyond the production of greenhouse gases and pollution and include actions such as not buying from companies they don’t deem ethical, or consider the origin of products they buy and shun products from countries where human rights are violated.  “That [type of activism] considers climate change as a broader problem,” she says.

Fenton found that perceptions of what nature is and what it is not in relation to climate-change activism differs widely and reveals plenty of contradictions, such as the desire to reduce one’s carbon footprint, yet drive or fly long distances to a mountain park or other remote natural setting to truly experience nature. “Here leisure is contributing to the climate-change problem when you have to drive five hours to Canmore, but at the same time feel a real responsibility about climate change,” she said.

It’s a dichotomy that Fenton understands well. An experienced river guide for a decade, she leads raft and canoe trips in Canada’s wilderness areas, and she’s quick to point out how her own leisure and research also “perpetuate unsustainable notions of leisure,” as these draw her to remote nature spaces.

“This is where the social construction comes in,” said Fenton. “We have been trained, we’ve inherited these ideas of what the mountains are to us, the awe experience, that emotional connection. What would happen if we got those experiences closer to home?”