Public Thinker: Jenny Price on Refusing to Save the Planet

Thinking in public demands knowledge, eloquence, and courage. In this interview series, we hear from public scholars about how they found their path and how they communicate to a wide audience.
“First: Why are we not making more progress? Second: Why do so many people hate environmentalists?”

Jenny Price is a fierce and fun advocate for increasing public environmental access. This advocacy has taken many forms, such as codeveloping, with Escape Apps, the Our Malibu Beaches app (which shows citizens how to enjoy our public beachfronts, despite private homeowners’ attempts to block them), leading tours of the concrete Los Angeles River with the LA Urban Rangers collective, and enabling readers to grapple with complex ideas about the environment through acclaimed publications such as Flight Maps (1999) and “Thirteen Ways of Seeing Nature in LA.”

I first met Jenny in 2013, during our respective fellowships at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, Germany. We immediately bonded over our shared obsessions with Southern California culture and campy environmentalisms. Aside from that time we went to Oktoberfest, my favorite Jenny Price story is probably this: She once took me to Barbra Streisand’s old estate in Malibu, which is now owned by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy. After rambling all over this massive, half-ruins wonderland—we’re talking tennis courts sprouting weeds, abandoned pool houses, dusty bridges arching over creeks, wild orchards—we get back to her rental car, only to realize that she’s dropped the car key … somewhere … at some point.

So we start retracing our steps, and I start imagining that we’ll have to stay there all night and take shelter in one of the creepy pool houses, but that maybe there will be some old swimming costumes in the closet we can try on, or perhaps some memorabilia from Hello, Dolly! or Funny Girl or at least Meet the Fockers—but, for better or worse, we found the key pretty quickly in Babs’s grapefruit orchard (as you do). And then we went to famed Malibu seafood dive Neptune’s Net for a cold beer.

This escapade could be nicely summed up by Flight Maps’ subtitle: Adventures with Nature in Modern America. Here, I talk to Price about that book’s 20-year anniversary, her current book project “Stop Saving the Planet!,” and all manner of other public arts and humanities adventures. No keys were lost during this interview.

Nicole Seymour (NS): Good morning, and happy 20th anniversary of Flight Maps. What will you do to celebrate today?


Jenny Price (JP): I’ll celebrate by … realizing that it’s the 20th anniversary, which I didn’t actually know. So now I’m waiting for the commemorative conference panel. Nobody’s asked me yet.


NS: Oh. Rude. Rude. Monsters. OK, big question: How did you build your rather unconventional career? You earned a PhD in History from Yale, but you didn’t go the traditional academic route. You didn’t become a professor or work in a museum. And it’s amazing that your dissertation was made into a trade press book (Flight Maps) right off the bat. I’ve never heard of such a thing.

So, did you always know you wanted to work in the public arts and humanities? What other jobs have you had along the way?


JP: I would start out by saying that my career has been mostly accidental. It’s the product of boldness and stubbornness and complete idiocy and a complete lack of interest in and understanding of money.

But also, I never wanted to have a career in academia. I discovered history my last semester in college very accidentally. It opened up this whole new world, this new way of thinking. When I think back on it, I’m actually a born historian. But it took me a long time to figure that out. I was a biology major.

So, I went to graduate school, but I always wanted to be a writer. And I was fortunate enough to go to Yale, to study with Bill Cronon, and to find this thesis committee of four people in one department who were remarkably supportive.

I was always honest with them that I didn’t want to be an academic. Then, as now, it was unusual to be able to do that.


NS: Yes.


JP: Still, they were super supportive of my intention to write my thesis as a trade book from the beginning.

And after that, I was fortunate enough to move to Los Angeles, where I thought I was going to write three-hundred-page nonfiction books, just one after the other. And it took me a long time to figure out that I really didn’t want to do that.

But because I moved to LA—you understand, Nicole—well, strange things happen. I kept stumbling down these rabbit holes into new kinds of genres.


NS: Absolutely.

JP: In 2004, my friend Emily Scott, who was an art history grad student at UCLA (and a wonderful academic and artist who now teaches at University of Oregon) invited me to help create this project called the LA Urban Rangers. This would quickly turn into a serious long-term public art collective.


NS: And can you explain what the LA Urban Rangers are?


JP: We take all the curiosity and wonder that people bring out to Yellowstone and Yosemite, and we instead ask questions about the places where people actually live. For example, we created a project called Malibu Public Beaches—it’s part of our “Public Access 101” series—and we took people on “safaris” to the public beaches, where the adjacent homeowners are notorious for their attempts to keep people away with illegal signs, security guards, and so on. We led our safari-goers in skills-enhancing activities for how to use a public beach in Malibu. We had a sign-watching activity, a public-easement potluck, and so on.

We actually thought about asking this powerful parks agency, Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA), for funding. And I said, No, let’s not ask the real park rangers, since they might think we’re making fun of them.


NS: Right.


JP: So, we ran our safaris for a couple of weekends. But then, out of the blue, Joe Edmiston, who’s the remarkable head of both the MRCA and the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, contacted me. Joe said, We really love what you’re doing. Can we fund your work?

So, they gave us a big grant to continue to do the project. And they ultimately asked us if we could take their rangers to the beaches and teach them what we knew about access. So, here you have the real rangers asking the fake rangers if they can assist the real rangers. Only in LA, right?


NS: That’s amazing. This idea of the “fake rangers” reminds me of the important role that performance and persona play in your work. In fact, I wanted to talk to you about a different persona or character—the docent—that you performed for your wonderful “Homestead Project” presentation at the Environmental History conference in Columbus this past spring. Let me describe it for our readers who weren’t there:

Price appeared in character as a WASPy local history buff, docent “June Palmer,” who talked about the magical childhood of the great environmental writer “Jessica Prince” (which happens to sound a lot like Jenny Price) in the affluent St. Louis suburb of Clayton, Missouri. As June rambled on, a “simultaneous translation”—in the form of a scrolling PowerPoint behind her—presented striking statistics about white flight from St. Louis into Clayton and Ferguson and other suburbs, along with the history of racial covenants in the region and various regional environmental injustices. This provided a wider frame for Jenny’s—excuse me, Jessica’s—idyllic childhood.

JP: Thanks! The LA Urban Rangers started me down this path of creating characters. And it’s something that I am passionate about, because creating a character is actually a really, really powerful way of talking about issues.

Take the ranger character. It’s very familiar, and people bring those familiar meanings to our ranger character. As soon as you see that big hat, people know: this person is an expert on nature, and this person is the guardian of America’s great public spaces.

So, the character has proven to be wonderful for challenging how people define and think about nature. And also, it’s super useful for challenging the privatization of public spaces. When we took people on safaris to the Malibu beaches, for example, we essentially performed the public use and inhabitation of public beaches.


NS: Exactly.


JP: So, since then I’ve created a number of other characters. The docent is the latest. And I’m actually really excited about this Homestead Project, this St. Louis project, which is mostly about environmental justice. In part, it challenges the tendency of affluent communities to be willfully blind to all their connections to less affluent places—and their outsourcing of pollution and displacement of the labor force, etcetera—that make their charmed lives possible.

With the docent, you have to perform that character properly, because it has to conjure the meanings. You want people to bring the familiar meanings to the character. Right now, I think docent June Palmer sounds way too much like Ranger Jenny. I really have to work on this new character, because a docent is more obsessive, is a booster history fanatic, is often more closed-off and maybe even weird. It’s a very different character from the friendly, open park ranger.


NS: Personally, I am obsessed with docents. My friend Jane and I once went on a historic home tour in Louisville, where our docent looked just like Paul Giamatti. As the tour went on, he just kept talking about the second owners’ daughter—named Grace—and how she brushed her hair a hundred times a night. At some point, Jane leaned over to me and whispered, “He’s in love with Grace. He’s in love with a ghost!”

Anyway, docents are wild. This is a rich cultural persona for you to mine.

NS: I want to ask about your forthcoming book from Norton.


JP: “Stop Saving the Planet! A 21st-Century Environmentalist Manifesto.”


NS: Yes, yes.


JP: It’s a very small book. I want people to be able to read it in an hour and a half. I want it to be fun. I also want it to be take-no-prisoners, in a way that I’ve never quite done before.

It’s organized into 12 reasons to stop saving the planet and 50 ways to stop saving the planet. The reasons section is the critique, and the 50 ways add up to a blueprint for a much more effective and equitable American environmentalism.


NS: Yes.


JP: I look at what I think are two dominant environmentalist credos, what I call “green virtue” and “whole-planet-ude.” Think of them as the Thing 1 and Thing 2 of “save the planet!” environmentalism, which create havoc wherever they go.

I’m really, really interested in green virtue. Not least, where does this greener-than-thou-ness come from? Historians can show how it’s rooted in the idea of nature as something that’s out there, as something that we have to save, save, save.

You just can’t understand what environmentalists do, and what they’re oddly passionate about, unless you understand the power of green virtue. And how green virtue infuses the solutions that environmentalists embrace. These are mostly what I call “have your Prius and drive it too” solutions, which facilitate—more than challenge—our wholly unsustainable and inequitable industrial and economic practices.

The core argument in my book is: Stop talking about how to save environments. Start talking about how to change environments a whole hell of a lot better, because we have to change environments to live.


NS: Right.

JP: “Whole-planet-ude” is thinking that the environment is this one, unitary, not-human world out there. It encourages you to believe that anything, anywhere you do will contribute to the one, unitary goal: to “save” “the environment,” which environmentalists have mostly used synonymously with “the planet.” Such thinking has often played out as an extraordinary vagueness about the essentials—the whos, whats, wheres, and how muches—of environmental messes.

The point of environmentalism shouldn’t be to save environments from how we live, from our industry and economy. It should be to figure out how to change environments better to live. To change more cleanly, more sustainably, and a lot more equitably.

The biggest failure of environmentalism since the 1960s has been the failure to insist that environment is the foundation of our lives. It’s not something “out there.” How about screaming and shouting that? “Environment is in here!”


NS: Yes.


JP: The book opens by asking two of the most important questions environmentalists can ask. First: Why are we not making more progress? Why, in fact, are we actually moving backwards on many messes, contrary to this “before and after” heroic environmentalist narrative?

And second: Why do so many people hate environmentalists? Seriously, hate.

To me, these are the two most urgent questions. And I don’t think most environmental advocates are asking them.


NS: Absolutely. There was this 2013 article called “Study: Everyone Hates Environmentalists and Feminists.”


JP: Yes.


NS: In the study, people told this focus group what their beliefs were. Afterwards, they were highly rated by the focus group as competent, smart, interesting people.

Subsequently, others told those same beliefs to the same focus group, and then added, “I’m a feminist,” or, “I’m an environmentalist.” And then the focus group said, “Oh, those are horrible people.”

So, there’s something else. It’s not about the content per se. It’s about the posture, maybe. It’s not about what environmentalists believe. It’s their affect, the sanctimony, the virtue, and the sentimentality and all that.


JP: Nice. I’m really interested in following that point very specifically, by examining the actions that individual people take.

For example, one of the 12 reasons to stop saving the you know what is “because I can’t solve the Middle East crisis by myself.” This is about why people should not think they can solve climate change all by themselves in their kitchens.

I also explore how the emphasis on individual action is playing out as this explosion of green consumerism. This is essentially using the problem—a growth-based economy, which is designed to maximize wealth rather than to give people the resources they need to thrive—to solve the problem. Greenwashing is also about companies deploying the powers of green virtue. A lot of public policies just subsidize the green consumerism and the greenwashing alike.

This kind of environmentalism is alienating to people. Not only because of the righteousness itself, which can be super annoying. But because these solutions are doing squat for most of the people who are bearing the brunt of environmental crises. A lot of public policies—trading, consumer subsidies, LEED subsidies, hybrid permits for carpool lanes, cash for clunkers programs—they are just absurd. They do nothing.

So, people in coal country and Appalachia, they’re not seeing a lot of solutions that really clean up their environments, right?


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NS: You talking about greenwashing got me thinking about World Pride Day. The pinkwashing that’s been going on is just outrageous. Wells Fargo, like every corporation, now has rainbow banners on their websites. Your comment just reminded me that everyone’s “pro-gay” now, right? Similarly, everyone’s “pro-environmental” now. What does that even mean?


JP: Caring about the environment historically has long been associated with being a virtuous person. So, in 2020, a company doing anything environmental is holding up a sign saying, “We’re virtuous! And not just environmentally virtuous, but we’re a super virtuous company in general.” And then, people say, “Well, at least Exxon is doing something.”


NS: Are they? Are they?


JP: If the something that they’re doing—which is essentially nothing—is giving them legitimacy to keep doing everything else … then Exxon “doing something” for the environment can actually be worse than doing nothing.


NS: Of course, what you and I are both talking about is mainstream environmentalism. We’re not talking about frontline communities working on environmental justice.


JP: Absolutely. We’re actually talking even more narrowly, about just this particular “save the environment” way of thinking.


NS: It can be so hard to distinguish between mainstream environmentalism and greenwashing. But where that distinction doesn’t actually matter, that’s a problem with environmentalism—that you can’t tell the difference.


JP: That’s an incredible point. And that’s an incredible way to put it.

We know a lot of people are doing amazing work. Environmental justice is about rethinking the environment and economy. And yes, folks are working on bartering programs, repair shops, solidarity economy work. There’s a lot of incredible activity out there.


NS: There’s this other question, too: What gets counted as environmentalism in the first place? The free Repair Café in Long Beach, California—where people can take household items to be repaired rather than throwing them away—probably doesn’t get counted as “environmentalist,” even though it’s probably doing more than the Sierra Club. (Don’t get mad at me.)


JP: My starting point, too, is that you cannot tackle any environmental crisis effectively unless you understand it’s also about justice. That these two are one and the same. The resource-gobbling, growth-based, hugely inequitable economy is the central driver of most of our environmental messes.

NS: I try to be funny in my writing. And I think I’m funny in person. But you’re always funny; it seems to come effortlessly to you. So, I wonder about your process for both writing and performance. Are you workshopping your docent performances, for example?


JP: Nicole, you are hysterically funny. Maybe we have really different senses of humor. Yours strikes me as more campy and British-y. Whereas mine is more like Jewish humor, right?

I work on humor in the same way that I work on any writing, to try to be effective. But I think I’m just a smart-ass by nature. I grew up in a funny family. So, it’s just my voice. And I believe strongly in using your own voice (when you’re not being docent June Palmer).

But yes, trying to write something funny is tricky, because it’s a big fail if you don’t get it. If you fail as an academic writer, in a dry jargon-y voice, well, people might not even notice. But if you fail to be funny then it really fails.

This raises two bigger questions. First, what powers does humor actually have? Second, how do you put those powers to work?

So, what powers does humor have? Humor can break down people’s defenses when you’re talking about something serious and disturbing. Or you can make fun of environmental righteousness, which is so easy to do. Or you can use humor to make the same old arguments.

I love the humor that just takes down green virtue. But I tend to be most interested in how you can use humor to model and suggest alternative ways of thinking and doing.


NS: Yes. In fact, I wanted to ask you about the risks of humor. I get that question all the time, whenever I talk about my 2018 book Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age. People often question the book’s use of humor; they ask, Is this what we really need right now in a time of crisis? Aren’t you trivializing it?


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JP: You always get that, right? Because of how environment is associated with virtue. Jon Stewart, George Carlin, Stephen Colbert: there’s a long, long, long list of people who put humor to use for a serious purpose. So, this whole issue—“Is this the right time? We can’t make fun of environmentalism!”—says less about humor and its uses than it does about environmentalism. It’s just this tradition of righteousness.

I had this occasional satiric green advice column called “Green Me Up, JJ.” I used it to critique do-nothing “save the planet!” strategies and also the righteousness with which they’re pursued.

In one column, an assassin writes in to ask how he can green up his practice. And so, I offer him some solutions. For every person that he kills, for example, he can offset his homicides by making a contribution to the Brady Campaign. And when I presented this once at Stanford, one person said, “The one thing that I really love is that you just don’t judge. You just don’t judge this guy. You just give him the tools that he needs to be green.”


NS: Oh, no. No.


JP: I’m thinking, oh my God. Even the most obvious place where you’re using irony and humor, people don’t get it? That is a problem with trying to critique the righteousness of environmentalism. Yes, it might make people angry (though I think actually right now it’s really important to upset people). But also, will they get it?


NS: I see the column as commenting on the myopic nature of the mainstream environmental movement, where “green”—whatever that means—becomes more important than anything else. But it’s terrifying to me that some readers don’t get it.


JP: So, you’ve gotten that with your book, where people say, “How dare you critique environmentalists after 2016”? Or, “How dare you try to be funny about something that’s so deadly serious?”


NS: They’re not really saying, “How dare you.” They just want to know what I think about the urgency of environmental crises, and do I see myself as distracting from the issue. And my secret answer is that an academic book is never gonna solve any real-world problems. So, it might as well be hilarious.


JP: Yeah, but seriously, we can use humor to do analysis. We can deploy the tremendous powers of the humanities, so we can understand why things are the way they are and why people think what they think.


NS: That brings us back to some of the performance art you’ve done, like with the LA Urban Rangers.


JP: Yep.


NS: You spoke about the actual California park rangers being trained by your fake rangers.

JP: The National Park Service also contacted us about partnering up on programs. Which floored us.


NS: What I’m hearing you say is that every public agency needs a comedian on staff who can look outside of the organization to get it.


JP: Or an ironist! Or just to know that humor can allow you to speak effectively. As LA Urban Rangers, we weren’t really changing how the state agencies think about the importance of public access to the Malibu beaches. But we were modeling different tools to do and communicate this work.


NS: That’s the better way to say it. But, still, I think we need a writer in residence at the local dump. Maybe a comedian in residence at the National Park Service?


JP: How about in academic departments, too?


NS: Let’s write the grant.


This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohenicon

Featured image: Jenny Price