Dr Blanche Verlie

Meet Dr Blanche Verlie

23 May 2024
Blanche joins SEI as a new theme lead for the Environmental Justices research theme and is also a Sydney Horizon Fellow.
Blanche is a multidisciplinary social scientist whose work focuses on climate change. Her Horizon project explores how policy negligence and gaslighting by political leaders contribute to climate injustice.

Can you tell me about your research background?

I completed my PhD in environmental education in 2019. At that time, climate change education and communication research was finding that many people still imagined climate change as something abstract, scientifically framed, as distant from their real lived experiences, and something to be solved by technologies.

I was interested in climate change pedagogy, and how we can understand what it means to know climate and climate change in ways that take our embodied, personal, social, and cultural entanglement with climate change seriously. In short, it was an effort to think through situated climate knowledges, rather than pedagogies of knowing-from-a-distance – to counteract the dominant framing of climate change as a phenomenon occurring external to our subjective lives.

Following my PhD I moved to Sydney to complete a Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Sydney Environment Institute. I moved up on the same day the media first started reporting on the smoke from the 2019/2020 bushfires reaching Sydney. That was an incredibly surreal time to move to a new city. I will never forget checking the window each morning to assess how bad the visibility was, seeing the blood red sun and filthy yellow sky, and just watching everyone keep going to work. The cognitive dissonance between the business-as-usual reality in Sydney versus what showed up on our TV and social media screens from the regions was so hard to hold together. With a former student, I started a blog called Fire Feels, where people could write open letters to politicians about what they were feeling.

During my post-doc, I wrote a book called Learning to Live With Climate Change: From Anxiety to Transformation, which was based mostly on my PhD study, but also integrated insights from the 2019/2020 bushfires, as well as the school strikes for climate. Its main focus is on how feelings about climate crisis are rupturing – in sometimes obvious, in other times subtle or latent ways – existing ways of being, relating, practicing, knowing and acting, and how these cultural transformations can be engaged with collectively so that we can learn to ‘live-with’ climate change: to appreciate that human lives are interconnected with the climate, and to cultivate the emotional capacities needed to respond to the climate crisis.

This background has led me to focus more recently on a range of related areas, such as editing a special issue of the Australian Journal of Environmental Education on the School Strikes 4 Climate, theorising what politics and justice might look like if we recognise climate not as a thing but as a relational process in which we are entangled, investigating how community action can address the mental health impacts of climate change, and more recently, a number of projects exploring how communities self-organise in the wake of disasters.

Can you tell me a bit about your new Horizon Fellowship?

My project is focused on investigating the structural dimensions of ecological distress, including exploring the ways that policy negligence and discursive gaslighting on the part of political leaders manifests in what I am terming affective climate injustice: the outsourcing of worry about climate crisis from elected leaders to those on the frontlines who are least responsible for emissions. I consider this a form of structural violence.

I’m interested in the ways that feeling upset about climate crisis is made taboo, how even mainstream activists and disaster survivors are positioned as hysterical, and other ways through which our ecological emotions are silenced, repressed, derided, and pathologised. It’s easy to point the finger at right wing politicians in this regard, but these social structures are quite pervasive. For example, in a recent survey of 10,000 young people, it was found that of the 80% who had tried to speak about their climate anxiety to adults, 50% had been silenced or dismissed. These adults are mostly their parents, family and/or teachers; those people who society deems to be most responsible for caring for them, and who would most profess that they love their children.

We know that feelings are crucial in motivating people, that they reveal our core values and ethics, and that they are also integral in organising and changing social systems. So, if our climate feelings cannot be expressed among those who care most about us, how can we hope to create the collective action needed to address planetary collapse? I am frustrated at how easily our discussions about climate emotions slip into the discourse of mental health, and subsequently, therapy, counselling, and ‘healing’ our feelings, as though our worries are the problem – instead of fossil fuelled capitalism.  

What do you see as the biggest challenges or opportunities in the environmental justice space?

I think there are two key challenges. The first is to not be co-opted or appropriated by tokenistic, greenwashing type responses. Environmental justice seeks to respond to injustice, of which inequality is the main driver. As such, implementing environmental justice must reduce inequality at a systemic level. No technological quick-fixes or market mechanisms will do this. But that is not to say that corporations won’t try to use that language to brand their new products or to justify new/expanded polluting projects justified in the language of ‘jobs.’

The second key challenge is to keep being honest about the scale of the injustices, while not losing heart or being persuaded to accept compromises. For me, this is where my work around emotions fits in; however, mostly I have worked with relatively privileged young people, and I know that the experiences of oppressed or disadvantaged groups is likely to be quite different.

For these reasons, I think an opportunity for the environmental justice community is to (further) consider how we both maintain the outrage at enduring and escalating ecological violences, while ensuring that the people keeping the spotlight on these injustices are supported to continue doing it – rather than ending up burnt-out or otherwise mentally ill.  

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