Can the Public Humanities Help Prepare Us for Global Warming?

Thorndale Beach in Chicago (Photo by Mark Hallett)

MH photo Thorndale beach Chicago

By Mark Hallett, Director of Grants Programs

Read Time 3 minutes
October 19, 2023

Mark Hallett, the director of grants programs at Illinois Humanities, took a sabbatical in May 2023 to explore the relationship between cultural work and global warming. 

Mark wrote an article that explores the myriad ways that community-based cultural initiatives help to reduce isolation, bolster community, and inspire people to take action. 

In this article, he addresses questions like...

What is the role of public humanities work in building the community-level resilience needed to address the climate crisis?

Below, read an excerpt from Mark's piece and download the complete article.

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(Photo by GlitterGuts)

“Having a baby is a life-changing event, but imagine giving birth in New Orleans the day before Hurricane Katrina,” begins Farai Chideya’s 2007 interview with journalist Katy Reckdahl. “The levees broke while journalist Reckdahl was in the hospital with her newborn son.”

Reckdahl wrote about New Orleans’ survival and trauma in her book, City Adrift: New Orleans Before and After Katrina. “I wasn’t due for two weeks, but I had started to show signs of early labor,” Reckdahl continued. “I was walking to the store to get popsicles when I went into labor, and I was watching everybody else pack up and get ready to leave.” 

Many people were simply ignored, Reckdahl explained — certainly those who were in the Super Dome and the Convention Center, who had a hard time getting back to New Orleans. “I think it indicates that we are less able to help a certain group of people. And I think it has to do with race, it has to do with class, it has to do with not listening to people who make less money and who are a different skin color.”

A devastating Category 5 Atlantic hurricane, Katrina ravaged the Gulf coastline from August 23-31, 2005, leading to 1,392 deaths. The hurricane caused damage to 5 million acres of land, destroyed more than 320 million trees, and led to damage or loss of 850,000 homes. To make things worse, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, actually fought a federal order to pay housing aid to Katrina victims, according to NPR; a federal appeals court ruled that insurance companies were not liable for the homes and businesses flooded when the hurricane breached the city’s levees. Low-income communities were by far the hardest hit. 

And yet many angles of community-level heroism took place too, much of it within what we consider the public humanities. A case in point was the role of ethnic media. The Korea Times, based in L.A., told the story of a Korean shopkeeper who was trusted with $12,000 of a Black neighbors’ money as they all fled the storm. He later tracked them down and returned the cash. Deejays from 1540 Radio Tropical Caliente, rather than fleeing, continued to broadcast nonstop after the devastating hurricane, providing critical information in Spanish to help Latinx residents connect with loved ones. Radio Saigon, in Houston, where about half of Louisiana’s Vietnamese population of 30,000 took refuge, directed Vietnamese speakers to a shopping mall in Houston where they could find food, shelter, and information in Vietnamese.

For many, Katrina was the first large-scale extreme weather event clearly borne of global warming. It also highlighted the trademark points that so many had predicted: the vulnerability of low-lying coastal communities; the heaviest burden falling on the poor; the economic disruption; the displacement that results and in many cases becomes permanent. But also the powerful role of grassroots groups and organic networks in response. 

For a statewide cultural group like Illinois Humanities, the certainty of more Katrina-like climate events raises questions:

What is our role in helping community-based cultural groups themselves — particularly in under-resourced communities — to prepare for what lies ahead? 

What is the role of public humanities work in building the community-level resilience needed to address the climate crisis? 

And in terms of storytelling and messaging, how can cultural groups help to raise awareness of global warming?


Download the full article