Interview with Molly Wallace, author of “Risk Criticism”

by Kathryn Beaton on October 15, 2018

Our author Molly Wallace, author of Risk Criticism: Precautionary Reading in an Age of Environmental Uncertainty, recently answered a few questions for us. Dr. Wallace is Associate Professor of English at Queen’s University.


You recently won the Alanna Bondar Memorial Prize, from the Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada—congratulations! The committee was interested in “works with a broad appeal within and beyond environmental humanities…books with the potential to engage a broader public.” What is it about your book that you think appeals to non-environmentalists? 


Well, the “environmental humanities” to which the committee refers is itself a capacious interdisciplinary category, taking in environmental historians, philosophers, literary critics, cultural geographers, and artists among many others. If my book appeals to these various audiences—which I certainly hope it does!—I am delighted. The book treats texts that are also read in other contexts—so, Don DeLillo’s novel, White Noise, has often been read in the context of postmodern literature, for example—so I do hope that literary critics who do not necessarily count themselves as eco-critics might read my chapter with interest. I think, though, that when the ALECC committee says “books with the potential to engage a broader public,” they mean not just other humanities scholars who may or may not count the environment as a key concern for their research, but a broader environmentally minded public—environmentalists in the widest sense—who might not normally read academic books. This “cross-over” appeal is, of course, the Holy Grail for many of us (in academia and publishing alike!). This is the audience for whom I might aspire to write.

The issues with which the book grapples—the ubiquity of plastics, the dangers of uranium mining and nuclear meltdowns, the hazards of chemical contamination, the unknowns of genetic modification—are hardly academic. They affect all of us all of the time. I am not a scientist when it comes to these issues; I approach them as a layperson who happens to be trained as a literary critic, which means I puzzle through them using literary and filmic texts. But these are issues that none of us can afford to ignore. It should be a basic part of any citizen’s education to know something about genetically modified organisms, to think through the hazards of glyphosate. Both are in the food supply, so there is really no avoiding them, whether one thinks about them or not. I do not think my book would appeal to “non-environmentalists,” frankly, though I might certainly wish they would read it! In this era of climate change skepticism (in offices as high as the White House) the urgency of recognizing risks before they turn into catastrophes is particularly acute—and the likelihood that any form of environmental precaution might hold sway feels increasingly remote.



At the University of Michigan Press, we currently have 109 open access titles. Risk Criticism is one of a few dozen from our Literary Studies list, but it’s the only one from our Nature/Environment list. What made you decide to offer your book as open access? How do you think other science writers can benefit from doing this? 

I am delighted that the book is open access, as my main interest is in people reading it! I have found that people are accessing it in that format—as well as in printed and e-book formats—and I am grateful for that exposure. In my personal case, I did not see a downside to open access publishing. The financial models and incentives may be different in the sciences, so, as a humanities scholar, I cannot speak whether science writers would experience the same benefits.



Did you first start thinking about our ecological threat in a personal setting or a professional one? Did it happen gradually, or do you remember a sudden moment when you realized this was what you wanted to focus on?

I have always been interested in the environment. I grew up in southern Wisconsin and spent many summers on my family’s hobby farm, growing strawberries, hiking in the woods, raising goats. My childhood was also overshadowed by what most of us thought would end all of that beauty in an instant: the nuclear threat of the Cold War. Ronald Reagan is often now remembered as the man who “ended the Cold War” (“Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”), but in my childhood he was the one recklessly referring to the Soviet Union as the “Evil Empire.” My parents were involved in the Nuclear Freeze Campaign, which aimed to freeze all nuclear weapons production and testing. And I very vividly recall the sense of dread that living under the nuclear cloud produced. With the end of the Cold War, of course, there was tremendous hope that environmental threats on that scale might be over, though it was also about that time that we started hearing more about the hole in the ozone layer and the possibility of climate change. For the book, I was interested in what it means for global existential threats to shift from war to peace, from the fiery apocalypse of nuclear holocaust to the “slow apocalypse” of climate change, toxic contamination, extinction, and meltdown. The nuclear threat has not disappeared, of course, though I do find that my students, most of whom did not experience the Cold War, do not see nuclear weapons as a kind of daily threat of the sort they were for me as a young person. Still, in a context of scorching heat and wildfires, floods and tsunamis, polar vortices, we continue to live in the risk society. The book really grapples with what this feels like, and only tangentially touches upon what one might do about it. My new research aims to respond to this other, more difficult question of what the alternatives might be.



The Internet is awash with ideas for living a greener life–bike to work, start composting, take shorter showers, don’t eat beef, buy used clothes, etc. The sheer amount of things the average person is encouraged to do can be overwhelming. Which things do you think are the most efficient and realistic?

I think that most of those lifestyle changes that are promoted on the internet are benignly good. I certainly enjoy reading about them in my Facebook feed and trying to implement them in my daily life. The most difficult and also most laudable, I find, is doing without plastic, which is so ubiquitous (and useful!) that it is very difficult to avoid. In the end, though, I do not think that such incremental changes will make the difference necessary. I don’t only mean that these lifestyle choices target the individual, though this is a serious and valid critique. Focusing on our own individual—and often consumerist—choices can be a way for us to take our eyes off the big polluters, the corporations responsible for the chemical spills, the giant carbon footprints, the cancer clusters. This can leave us feeling at once falsely empowered (“look, I am single-handedly saving the planet with my organic cotton reusable napkins!”) and entirely disempowered. The late sociologist Ulrich Beck, from whom I draw much in the book (including the concept of risk itself) described this latter feeling well when he recounted a Greenpeace campaign against the Shell corporation’s plan to sink its oil rig in the sea. Beck described the moral outrage of the layperson, as Shell “can sink an oil rig full of toxic waste in the Atlantic … while we … have to divide every tea bag into three—paper, string, and leaves—and dispose of them separately in order to save the world.” Our small lifestyle decisions can, in order words, feel particularly futile in the face of these large-scale eco-disasters that proceed apace, seemingly without thought or recourse. I agree with critics like Naomi Klein who have emphasized the necessity of combining small scale lifestyle changes with activism, but I also think that the lifestyle changes will need to be far more dramatic than bicycling to work and buying used clothes. This is why in my more recent research I have started investigating alternatives like permaculture, biodynamic agriculture, and agroecology—and started to think about how these might be integrating into everything we do, even in universities. Any brake on climate change that doesn’t include total collapse is going to require a massive rethinking and retooling of the basic infrastructure—mental and physical—of society, and we in universities who have the leisure to think and imagine have a responsibility not only to provide ideas but to try to implement them ourselves.

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