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First person: A wiser Wisconsin Idea

Rethinking scholarly service through the lens of climate justice

Spring 2017 | By Andrew Stuhl (M.S. ER ‘07)

As graduates of the Nelson Institute, we are all familiar with the Wisconsin Idea: the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state. Indeed, one is hard-pressed to imagine addressing environmental issues without also committing to sharing research beyond the classroom.

Yet, in the context of climate justice, the Wisconsin Idea may need careful revision.

Andrew Stuhl
Andrew Stuhl

Lest that seem like a heretical claim, let me say at the outset that I fully subscribe to the principle of public service. While a graduate student, I led a series of workshops on ecology and history for middle-schoolers in south Madison as part of a Public Humanities fellowship. It was my exposure to the Wisconsin Idea during my Environment and Resources degree that led me to study climate change in the first place.

After graduating in 2007, and with an interest in seeing firsthand the effects of global warming, I traveled to Inuvik, Northwest Territories — a town 200 miles above the Arctic Circle. I spent a year volunteering in an elementary school, traveling on the tundra and ice road, and peppering locals with questions about changes in local ecosystems.

One of the answers I heard forever altered my outlook on the relationship of research, outreach and climate change.

I was told that, while Arctic environments were in the midst of rapid transformations, this was not the first time such changes had occurred. This was also not the first time that governments and corporations had come to Inuvik with interests in the region’s valuable natural resources, like oil and gas. Most importantly, this was not the first time that scientists and their research had marginalized Gwich’in and Inuvialuit — two of the area’s Indigenous groups — in their own lands.

In short, I was told that for each environmental change observable today, there is deeper history of intervention beneath it. I could not hope to understand climate change in the Arctic without first understanding these historical legacies. To do that, I had to accept that the production of scientific knowledge about the far north had itself been entangled with the colonial enterprise for a very long time.

The steamer Proteus in a harbor during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition
The steamer Proteus in a harbor in the Canadian Arctic in 1881 during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, officially the International Polar Expedition, promoted by the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

This realization startled me. How did I not know this about the Arctic? Like many folks I speak with now, I had thought the Arctic was a wilderness, a landscape left unscathed by modernity. Over the course of that year in the north, my surprise turned to embarrassment, and then again to resolve. I would make my Ph.D. dissertation a study of the colonial history of science and environmental change in the Arctic. I wanted to share that past so that southerners concerned about today’s north would not repeat it in the future.

That story is now told in my book, Unfreezing the Arctic: Science, Colonialism, and the Transformation of Inuit Lands, published by the University of Chicago Press. In it, I trace 150 years of science in Arctic Alaska and Canada — from specimen collectors working for the Smithsonian in the mid-1800s, to explorers, biologists and anthropologists venturing on expeditions at the turn of the 1900s, to permafrost scientists and ecologists studying the effects of oil development after World War II, up to climate scientists modeling the sea ice pack today.

The argument is in the book’s title. First, the far north is warming — twice as fast as the global average. And greenhouse gas emissions from the temperate world (read: the Lower 48) are the leading driver. But, more importantly, we need to unfreeze notions of the place and its past. Scientists especially need to come to terms with their own roles in colonialism’s Arctic history.

I could not hope to understand
climate change in the Arctic
without first understanding
these historical legacies.

It is at this point that revising the Wisconsin Idea seems warranted. Climate justice is a framework that positions climate change as an ethical and political phenomenon as much as a physical or environmental one. In this context, the Arctic shares much with other regions currently experiencing rapid environmental transformation — low-lying river deltas, the Amazonian rainforest, or the mountain glaciers of the Andes.

All of these places have their own colonial histories of science as well. It seems reasonable to ask climate scholars to redress asymmetrical power dynamics wherever they go. This is a tricky situation, compounded by the fact that those in the U.S. are causing climate change, not those in the Arctic or elsewhere.

I want to be clear: I am claiming no moral high ground here. Though I am a historian, I also benefit from the colonial legacies of science in the Arctic and must confront them. I have had some success in doing so, but also many failures. I do not mean this as a humble brag. I am writing this because I want us to use our platforms and privilege as scholars as best we can. We can learn to listen to marginalized voices and find ways to amplify those voices while de-centering our own.

My book has my name on it. And I know I stand to profit from it. It will become part of my reputation as a scholar. It may help me earn tenure at my institution. But I will not make any money from it. I am donating all author royalties to two youth organizations: Alaska Youth for Environmental Action and the On the Land program at East Three School (Inuvik, Northwest Territories). I have also asked the publisher to include Indigenous representatives on any interviews or publicity for the book.

These gestures may not amount to much. But they do something meaningful: they allow me to have a conversation about the importance of public service, and what public service looks like in the context of climate justice.

Andrew Stuhl is an assistant professor of environmental studies at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. Learn more about his work, and his newly published book, Unfreezing the Arctic, at


In Common welcomes first-person essays from Nelson Institute alumni on topics related to your lives, professions or perspectives. Send an idea, or a draft to be considered for publication, to

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