Max Liboiron — Advisory Committee

Tyler Stefanich

Climate Chaos | Climate Rising – Advisory Committee

Earlier this winter Northern sent each committee member a questionnaire focusing on themes and features of Northern Spark 2016. Here’s what they had to say.


Dr. Max Liboiron
Director, Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR)


Max Liboiron is an Assistant Professor in Sociology and Environmental Sciences at Memorial University of Newfoundland. Her research focuses on how harmful yet invisible threats such as disasters, toxicants, and marine plastics become visible in science and activism, and how these methods of representation relate to action.Liboiron is founder and director of Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR), which creates citizen science technologies for environmental monitoring of plastic pollution. She is also managing editor of Discard Studies, a public online forum for audiences interested in research on waste and pollution.


What are your thoughts on this year’s theme, Climate Chaos I Climate Rising?

The title is an alarmist title, and there are plenty of studies that show that alarmism decreases, rather than increases, participation and uptake. Also, from a scientific perspective, climate change doesn’t necessarily result in only chaos or things that rise, so it’s curtailing some of the experiences, data, and futures that will arise from climate changes (such as “nicer” summers in Saskatchewan and the ability to grow new crops there). That’s the criticism– I don’t necessarily have a strong alternative, though I am partial to the idea of the Anthropocene  (permanently changed world due to human interventions), which is not a term that is fit for public consumption, but the ethos behind it might be. It aligns with new normals, outliers as normal, permanent change, and massive time scales.

Of the topics: move, nourish, interconnect, perceive, act, which engage you?

All of them except nourish.

With which does your practice align, reflect or agitate, and how?

I’m an activist scientist, so all of them except nourish. 🙂

Move: ecosystems are shifting, either slowly or catastrophically, and tracking that through new ways of perception via scientific instruments is a major part of my practice. Because so many unusual and unique things are happening in ecosystems (plastics in plankton, for example), new forms of perceptions, tracking, monitoring, etc are required. Odd things are turning up in odd places in the Anthropocene precisely because things are interconnected. And acting is important. Screw awareness– it’s more important to get key players to act on problems that have a wide range of people aware of problems. There are so, so many studies that show that awareness is not a strong indicator for action.  

What are two important ideas or questions related to the subthemes you identify with, that the public should know or ask?

Act: As mentioned above, it’s important for people to understand the relationship between good intentions and personal ethics on one hand, and scales of action that matter to global phenomena like climate change on the other. Brining a reusable bag to the grocery store or changing light bulbs will not impact climate change– people need to scale up as citizens, through social movements, through policy and law and economics and other forums that match the scale of the problem. Matching the scale of problems and potential solutions/interventions is a major part of scientific work. It can also be part of artistic work.

Perceive: If climate change is a global problem, how to hyper-local individual perceptions relate to it? This is also a question of scale, since the time scales and resolution at which humans can perceive do not match with the phenomena we’re interested in (climate change, ocean acidification, marine plastics– all of which have similar roots in the petrochemical industries). So, how to we scale up perception to “see” scale, interconnections, etc?

From the perspective of your field in general, what are two of the most pressing concerns about the effects of climate change that the public should know?

  1. Ocean acidification– a direct cause of C02 increases
  2. Shared roots of many, many environmental problems in the petrochemical industry: climate change, ocean acidification, marine plastics, fracking-related earthquakes and water contamination… If we solve one, we solve them all. Getting to the roots of problems, rather than tweaking their symptoms, is an important mode of action.

What is missing from that conversation about climate change? Whose voice is missing?

The Degrowth Movement, perhaps.

What has been your experience of how and why people’s behaviors change in relation to climate change?

Frankly, behaviour change has little relation to climate change. Economic change, political change– that matters. Not individualized change.

In your view, how does or could art add to the climate change conversation?

It may be able to move from individualized to collective visions and visioning (the climate change equivalent of the NYC subway speech bubble project, for example). It may be able to represent evidence in a way that best works at policy levels by collaborating with science (which is often what circulates in policy) or economic interests (which certainly circulates in policy). It may help to identify and target key decision makers as an audience.