Water Futures with Wisconsin Humanities

by Sydney Boyd, project manager, Humanities in American Life

What roles do history, storytelling, public policy and civic engagement play after a flood? How do they help us understand environmental devastation that is already happening while also prepare for what’s coming?

“We know that it’s not just how much rain falls and it’s not just who gets flooded, there’s really a social component to this that we’ll explore today,” said Steve Vavrus, Senior Scientist at the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW-Madison). “We need to consider which areas are most vulnerable.”

Vavrus was the first of six panelists who discussed climate “weirding,” or climate change, and its effects on the lives and livelihoods of Wisconsin residents in “Beyond the Headlines: Wisconsin’s Water Future,” a virtual event recorded in March. The event is part of Wisconsin Humanities’ Beyond the Headlines project, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation as part of the “Democracy and the Informed Citizen” initiative and administered by the Federation of State Humanities Councils.

“It seems like we can’t go a week without some headline about a big climate event, some disaster has struck,” Vavrus began, gesturing to a collage of headlines from around the world—“A Historic Heat Wave Roasts Siberia,” “Texas weather: Deaths mount as winter storm leaves millions without power”—that opened onto graphs showing upward trends in the frequency of climate-related events from 1980 to the present.

But even though these events are happening more often, said Caroline Gottschalk Druschke, Associate Professor of English at UW-Madison, generally climate issues—particularly those around watersheds—fly under the radar of the state because media attention hasn’t focused on the issue.

“I know when I talk about catastrophic flooding most recently in 2018 in the area, my undergraduate students have often not ever heard of that. And they were here in Wisconsin—many of them are from Wisconsin, many of them are from areas not very far away from the Kickapoo and Coon Creek Watersheds—and still really knew nothing about the scale and severity of flooding,” Gottschalk Druschke said. “So I think there’s really an equity issue there related to…media coverage, certainly related to sustained resources at the state and federal level, not only for flood recovery, but for things like mental health resources…these things really compound.”

One of the things that emerged to help communities process and heal is “Stories from the Flood,” a Driftless Writing Center storytelling project that Gottschalk Druschke said shows the importance of story and storytelling on the landscape. (Hear more about “Stories from the Flood” in the second episode of Human Powered, a Wisconsin Humanities podcast.) How do we live with this changing reality, and how do we make decisions at the community scale?

“How do these big events that sometimes seem too big to grasp, how do they play out in people’s individual lives in ways that are really significant at the moment, you know, during the 24-hour flood event and also during the two-plus years now that have followed as people are really navigating in their communities ways to work together and think about how to move forward knowing that the next flood is coming, and coming soon?” Gottschalk Druschke said. 

For Dylan Bizhikiins Jennings, Director of Public Information for the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, whose community is situated right on the shores of Lake Superior, climate change is an active crisis. Species and resources like manoomin (northern wild rice) or ogaa (walleye fish) are alarmingly vulnerable to climate extremes—something Jennings said is affecting Tribal subsistence in real time.

“These are just some things we work with on a daily basis,” Jennings said. “How do we address climate change in a way that one, making sure people understand that communities like our Tribal Nations are disproportionally impacted by climate weirding, and two, what do we do to help kind of change policy to reflect some of that?”

With those questions in mind, the conversation turned to the role public policy and civic engagement play in addressing inequities with panelists Tony Wilkin Gibart, Executive Director of Midwest Environmental Advocates, and Wenona Wolf, Deputy Chief of Staff and Policy and Legislative Director for Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, and closed with thoughts on how best to communicate the complexities of climate change with Dominique Brossard, Professor and Chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at UW-Madison.

“Climate change is really an issue that we tend to actually look through the lens of science when maybe we should be looking at it through the lens of other dimensions,” Brossard said. “What’s the best way to talk about this, knowing that as a starting point this is something that should be historically, culturally, and context-dependent?”


This post is part of “Humanities in American Life,” an initiative to increase awareness of the importance and use of the humanities in everyday American life.

Photo Credit: Wisconsin Humanities