Water Is Wide: Women, Climate Change and the Iowa River

Liz Behlke is a junior at the University of Iowa, majoring in English and Sustainability. This essay appears as part of the Climate Narrative Project, a special media arts initiative in the Office of Sustainability.

Act I: The Flood

When my parents told me I was born during the 1993 flood of Iowa City, I imagined my dad braving harsh winds and rain in a tiny rowboat, furiously cranking the oars down Burlington Street just to get my pregnant mother to the hospital in time. Then I came wailing into the world.

When I was little, I was desperate for a flood. I had this idea to turn my entire neighborhood into one big swimming pool. I’d do a cannonball off my roof and swim across the street to my best friend’s house and we’d spend the day in the water. I had big plans for the swing set in my front yard that was equipped with three swings and one yellow slide. The basketball hoop in my driveway would come into play as well. If I could convince my next-door neighbors to leave the trampoline out in the flood our neighborhood would basically be a water park.

I loved stomping around in the puddles when it rained, staining my legs with dried brown dribbles and dodging worms on the sidewalk, but a full-blown flood would be even better. Because what would happen when the water went away? Everything would dry up and go back to normal! The amount of devastation a flood can do didn’t occur to me at this age. I wouldn’t see this devastation until the flood of 2008.


The Iowa River flooded from early June to early July that year. It crested at 31.5 feet, a new record, flooding up to twenty University of Iowa buildings, most of which were in the art department. More than $300 million worth of art owned by the university was moved in preparation for the flooding. The university shut down its main source of power in order to avoid structural damage. Summer courses were postponed until further notice and Mayflower Hall was evacuated. Only the Burlington Street Bridge remained open. Regenia Bailey, the mayor of Iowa City at the time, issued a curfew restricting unauthorized persons from being within 100 feet of flooded areas between 8:30 p.m. and 6 a.m.

TV screens showed helicopter footage of little houses in Cedar Rapids with dirty river water up to the doorknobs. KCRG TV 9 News at 10 was the anthem of that summer and head anchors Bruce Aune and Beth Malicki were our river guides.

This footage inspired Julie Tallman to get involved. Tallman, a development regulation specialist for Iowa City, tells me over the phone that her interest in the Iowa River peaked during the summer of 2008.

“Something that wasn’t supposed to happen, happened,” Tallman states. “One hundred year flood, 500 year flood, those are false terms.”

According to the U.S. Geological Survey website, a 100 year flood is a flood that typically has a one percent chance of occurring in any given year, while a 500 year flood has a .2 percent chance.

“The river is so powerful and yet so vulnerable to the activities we allow around it,” Tallman says. “We need to think more cautiously and carefully—we must create awareness for the risk we run.”

I turned 15 the summer of 2008. I spent more time at my best friend Heidi’s house than my own, which was located just in between Solon and Iowa City, close to civilization but just far enough out for big yards and riding lawnmowers. We spent days switching back and forth between lying by her pool and four wheeling around her neighborhood. At night we watched scary movies and ate cool ranch Doritos. We’d wait for her mom to come down to the basement, squinty eyed and cranky, to tell us we were being too loud but this just sent us further into hysterics. I was at Heidi’s house when our friends invited us to sandbag the water treatment plant the following morning.

I remember the water treatment plant being out in the middle of nowhere with large but squat tan structures placed throughout the grounds. The scene vaguely reminded me of the sand people and their habitat from Star Wars. The water was already shin deep, but had not yet flooded the buildings. A loud woman wearing sunglasses directed us towards one of many assembly lines. All over, people were in line passing sandbags from a pile to make a wall against the buildings. The sun was bright and hot and the water soaking into my skin smelled bad. We spent the day in the assembly lines, stopping to take the occasional break and to eat lunch from the truck that brought free McDonald’s for everyone.

“I’m gonna eat so much McDonald’s that I throw up,” my friend Tom said. Heidi and I watched in a mixture of amusement and disgust as he shoved burger after burger into his mouth.

After lunch, beads of sweat formed on my forehead as I struggled to keep the sandbags from slipping out of my grasp. The middle-aged woman passing them to me dumped them into my arms like spilling bags of groceries. I began to feel something thicker than water form around my right leg and looked down. Vomit. I looked towards Tom, opposite the lady on my other side. He was doubled over and wiping his mouth with the bottom of his shirt when he looked up at me.

“Told ya.”

Act II: Women, Water, Land and Legacy

The drought of 2012 was the worst in Iowa’s recorded history and was followed by a large amount of rainfall. Being in the Midwest, agricultural runoff was essentially unavoidable—or so we’re told. This lead to a rise in nitrate levels in our water, which is detrimental to human health. Studies have found that the higher the nitrate level, the more likely newborns are to have birth defects. High nitrate levels can lead to methemoglobinemia, a blood disorder in which the level of methemoglobin rises, making it more difficult for oxygen to bind in blood. This leads to red cells’ reduced ability to release oxygen to tissues.

In other words, your body is not getting the oxygen it needs. Through the Safe Drinking Water Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency set a standard of 10 milligrams of nitrates per liter of water. In a 2007 study conducted by scientists at the University of Georgia, 12 impregnated cows were placed in a high nitrate area and another eight impregnated cows were placed in a low nitrate area. Ten out of the 12 fetuses from the high nitrate area died, while only one out of eight died from the low nitrate area. The aborted fetuses were indicative of tissue anoxia, which is a symptom of methemoglobinemia. Other effects included a mummified fetus, lesions on the mother’s cervix, uterus, and placenta, and maternal death.

“What was it like being pregnant during a flood?” I ask my mom one day. We’re at the kitchen table, where I am doing homework and she is doing bills.

“I don’t know. The same as before? Except normally they have you sit in this tub to sort of heal things after you give birth, but water supply was limited so I couldn’t do that after you came out,” she replies. I wondered what the conditions were like for women in different areas of Iowa.

This spring, I discovered Women, Land and Legacy, an organization working to reach women in agricultural areas throughout Iowa. It involves government, nonprofit and faith based organizations. Women involved in agriculture meet monthly to discuss general interests and concerns with farmland. It is a way for women to develop a local network with other women of agriculture. Divided into three areas, the third group in Women, Land and Legacy interested me most; The Inheritors: those who receive land through the death of a husband or parents.

My stepmom Donna received ownership of her farm in West Branch from her late first husband. The Hemingway Farm has been around since the 1800s, and has not left the family yet. The barn is the first visible structure on her land when my dad drives us down the winding road leading to the farmhouse in his big Toyota truck.

“You know I’m always looking for some help out here. I’m gonna put you to work,” he says.

“What type of work?” I ask, wary of where this is going.

“The type that’ll put callous’ on your hands.”

“Yeah… I’m more of an indoor girl.”

After I said this I realized that though I may paint my nails instead of shuck corn, agricultural activities eventually affect me and everyone else in the city. There is chemical runoff from farms into the river that I—we all—drink water from. I wondered what sort of role women—outdoor girls if you will, had in this.

Act III: Old Woman River

I decided to explore the relationship between women and the river, and Carol Sweeting was the person to tell me about it. She spoke quickly to me over the phone and I struggled to write down all the information she threw at me while she drove home from work. I heard the highway in the background almost as clearly as I heard the passion in her voice. As the Department of Public Works volunteer coordinator, she had the opportunity to work with many Iowa City community members during the summer of 2008, most of whom were women.

“Every woman gave every minute to that river,” Sweeting said. “Many of the organizations that were there were made up of women and lead by women.”

Sweeting’s words made me wonder, do we think about the role of women when we think about our natural resources, our land, our water? I tried to think of female characters, real or fictional, with an interest in the quality of rivers, oceans or water. I realized that while women and female authors have played a major role in the forefront of environmental literature, we rarely find female characters with their hands on the oars. Sure, Emily Dickinson wrote a lot about nature, Sacagawea guided Louis and Clark through the Western U.S., but have women been left behind like the undercurrents?

I returned to Carol Sweeting, the water woman of Iowa City. She made clear how many women are truly involved and why.

“For me, I get a feeling of accomplishment. Life and death begin with the river—it’s constantly changing, constantly evolving. People effect it, but they step over it and don’t look at it as important, but the truth is Iowa City wouldn’t be the same without it.”

Iowa City was established in 1839, and the University was founded only eight years later, flanking the banks of the Iowa River. In 1855, it became the first university to admit both men and women on an equal basis. The inaugural class included 124 students, 41 of whom were women.

The Iowa River is visible from where I sit in Barbara Eckstein’s office. Eckstein, an English professor at the university, has a lamp lit rather than the harsh fluorescent bulbs installed in the English Philosophy building. The soft lighting matches her voice as she tells me about the English course she taught on the story of water. Not many classes in the English department revolve around nature or sustainable efforts, but Eckstein thought it was important to bring these themes into play.

“The river is the spine of the university,” she says. “We walk over it, we drive over it, but we don’t pay very much attention to it. I’m very conscious of the quality of the water, and the reasons for the quality of the water—we’re all complicit in this—and I wanted us to pay more attention to it.”

But Eckstein doesn’t see the river as connecting to one gender over the other. She says we all need to recognize “the mesh” of humans and the river noting that, “the river is literally inside of our skins.”

“I think of the river as the remains of a much more complicated aquatic network,” she says. “Like the roots of prairie plants literally underground still there after all this time. I think we need to think hard about the value of bringing it back to the surface."

People often ask me what its like growing up in a college town, and I never know what to say. I only know that my experience as a student in Iowa City is different than my experience growing up here. Just because my location hasn’t changed doesn’t mean that my identity hasn’t. Even the river is different. It flows down the center, bringing in new water, twigs, fish, life through our city. Both the way we view the river and the way we view women have changed over the years. Levels of involvement and interest have fluxuated like the height of the river.

Perhaps before we establish that there is a relationship between women and the river, we must first explore what our own personal connection to it is. What is our story and how can we tell it? I grew up a child of the river, and perhaps one day will transform into a mother of the river. Knowledge and awareness of the Iowa River has been passed down to me from women with deep connections to it. As I think of my own future, I cannot imagine being as connected as I am to the river and not spreading this knowledge and awareness to others. As the web of connectedness between women grows, we can look to the future, where perhaps mothers will not need to worry how drinking water effects the health of their children, where women farmers will be equally represented in the world of agriculture, and where we will realize our own impact and connection to the river. The story of women and the river starts out as a general one, but our own personal narratives connect us and weave us in like the creeks that stem from the river spread throughout Iowa.



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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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