A Conversation with Hamilton Fish on The Marfa Dialogues: Politics and Culture of Climate and Sustainability

The Marfa Dialogues get under way tonight, August 31, in Marfa, TX, with an opening of an art exhibit, Carbon 13, at Ballroom Marfa. Tomorrow and Sunday, the Crowley Theater, Marfa Book Company and other venues around town are host to the two-day dialogues, the second edition of a project that Ballroom Marfa presents in conjunction with the Washington SpectatorThe Big Bend SentinelMarfa Public Radio and Marfa Book Company.  I spoke this morning to Hamilton Fish, publisher of the Washington Spectator, about

Hamilton Fish at the first edition of the Marfa Dialogues in 2011

the dialogues, and in particular the meaning of “culture” when it comes to the politics of climate and sustainability. Hamilton Fish will moderate a conversation with Michael Pollan, author of The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, on Saturday evening, September 1, at 6 p.m. at The Crowley Theater.

Address the word “culture” as it appears in the subtitle of the Dialogues: “The Politics and Culture of Climate and Sustainability.”

The first point to make is that it would go the central premise of this project. The (national) debate is pretty polarized, not just on climate change, but broadly. On the issues we are defining as a nation we seldom have consensus – and one necessary step, it seems, to all that is to broaden the conversation and to do so in a way that avoids the inevitable alienation that the recitation of one’s ordinary prejudices (creates). I think it’s pretty clear from my perspective that there’s not only a rampaging issue of climate change but a pretty concerted campaign under way to deny the issues associated with climate change and especially being conducted by interests that have a very small agenda. We’ve found in the past that a particularly satisfying effective approach (to expand the conversation) is to introduce the contributions of artists and not leave the complex issues (only) to the experts who have been working on them — but to introduce ideas and imagery and the values of other people who also come to these questions legitimately and to encourage a cross-disciplinary communication. It makes it more acceptable to a wider audience; it makes it more entertaining more stimulating; and it attracts the interest of people who sometimes otherwise might just turn off.

Help us understand your involvement as a publisher of The Washington Spectator. Last year, the Dialogues took on issues of the border and the drug cartels. This year it’s climate change.

The subject is different but approach is similar. I have lived in Marfa for a number of years off and on, I have a great deal of admiration for a number of the institutions that have established themselves here; Ballroom Marfa has quite brilliantly developed as a venue for contemporary art. I have a collaboration with them that is ongoing and when we decide on a topic they naturally have a better sense of who in the world of art-making and who among artists in this country and abroad would be good choices for a show dealing with some aspect of the issues we’re talking about. I was happy to reach out to Michael Pollan.

Does the Washington Spectator get involved from a policy point of view?

I don’t want to overstate it because (The Washington Spectator) is a small bi-monthly bulletin but the result of thinking out these questions, approaching figures like the southwestern writer Osha Gray Davidson (to publish in the Spectator) who wanted to communicate the environmental challenges facing the Southwest [Link  here] means I have, more than the average easterner, an understanding of being on the precipice of both border issues and environmental issues. We try in this context to find authoritative contributors whose additional talent is to communicate the findings of their research and analysis in a moderated way.

Marfa is a tiny little town but it’s interesting in  hat it has at least one very good version of everything, and we have a great public radio station. It has a vast footprint and a correspondingly rather small listening audience but we broadcast half the proceedings of the dialogues of the region live, in an area that’s about four times the size of the state of Rhode Island. Also, Marfa itself has a national and international understanding. We find through social media and a wider distribution of the content that we’re extending the brand (of the dialogues) beyond Presidio county.

Given the makeup of west Texas and some of the very conservative elements, have the Dialogues instigated commentary and dissent?

The radio station has been hearing a lot from people in the region who come to the global warming issue (believing the oil companies). There’s a strain of individualism out here and self-reliance that comes naturally from having a small population of people who live in a vast area. Obviously we pitch (the dialogues) as a democratic small-d service and we’re interested in advancing the discussion on these questions in this region and nationally as well.

How is this happening?

Locally, every outlet that we have that relates to news and information has gotten engaged in the dialogue community. 400-500 people will attend the show that opens tonight at Ballroom. There’s the live radio broadcast of the proceedings. Lots of social media and the other digital platforms that are engaged. The local newspaper that has reach from halfway to El Paso east to Stockton and down to Big Bend. Intellectual center of life in Marfa is the Marfa Book Company and they’ve scheduled a reading and book signing by Rebecca Solnit.

So as you describe the virtues of localism, that you’ll also be discusssing with Michael Pollan, presumably, what is the goal of getting national media attention?

It’s always nice to be mentioned in the New York Times but we’ve moved beyond that in our process of formation and public values. People are communicating and relating to one another and these kinds of issues way beyond the reach of the  cosmopolitan press. Michael Pollan has had bestsellers for years, he is one of the 100 most influential thinkers in the world. Nevertheless we just went through a convention of one major (political) party and we’re on the doorstep of another. Neither of these gatherings will mention climate change or food policy in the four days of prime time television. And everything counts. We do talk about this within the limits of being small organizations.

How is it possible to make the full dialogues a free public event?

We don’t get into very elaborate cost structures. We have some programs that cost a little bit of money. It costs money to bring the speakers who live in distant parts. It costs a little money to videotape the proceedings and edit the video and put them up on our respective websites. But everybody in town contributes. (Ballroom Marfa) has already budgeted for their part in association with the opening of this Carbon 13 show, and the board of the center arranged some extra money so we have this big community dinner, and then we close with this eagerly anticipated show (Cynthia Hopkins, This Clement World).

 So it is really a local collaboration?

Yeah, it is.



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