News of the Wehr

For this Sac State sociologist, the personal is environmental

The scholar, Kevin Wehr.

The scholar, Kevin Wehr.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Two summers ago, Kevin Wehr and his friends rode their bikes from Mexico City to the country’s coast. There his friends returned home, but he decided, “I’ll just keep riding south and see how it goes.” On a single-speed mountain bike he’d bought for $50, Wehr rode through the jungle, strong winds blowing against him and mosquitoes biting at his skin, all the way to the edge of Guatemala, 1,000 miles from where he’d started.

Once there, dirt roads and massive mountain ranges made the ride too rough, so he traded in his bike at the end of this two-month journey and thought, “Wow, I am super-ready for a beer.”

Such is a scholar’s life. Wehr, a Midtown resident, traveled to Mexico to research and network for his work as professor of environmental sociology at Sacramento State. He traveled there also for his own enlightenment, to experience the land and the people, because he believes “the personal is political is environmental.”

Growing up in Berkeley exposed Wehr to “a lot of things people aren’t normally exposed to at a young age.” He graduated from UC Santa Cruz and spent the next few years enjoying the beach and working on environmental-justice campaigns.

One of those campaigns involved fighting the U.S. government’s decision in the late 1980s to build a nuclear-waste dump in Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert, an area that provides critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise and land that indigenous people regard as sacred. Researchers found five pathways that, if the trench leaked, would deposit hazardous materials in the Colorado River, which supplies drinking water and irrigates farmland. At a crucial moment in the campaign, Wehr suggested the group chain themselves to the bulldozers and really do something.

“They wanted to go on spirit runs,” Wehr recalled, jokingly. “But it’s not the time for ‘Kumbaya.’ This is a time for direct action. I became disaffected by the current environmental movement.”

Wehr left the campaign shortly after this moment—and before the government abandoned its dump plan in 1999—because his frustration had sparked his interest in exploring deeper questions of social movements and activism. He sought to understand why some movements succeed and others fail, why some people radicalize and others do not. There were the working-class mothers personally motivated by the jeopardized health of their families. Then there was the elite, middle-class group who traveled to wilderness areas and saw places and animals worth protecting.

Wehr enrolled at the University of Wisconsin–Madison with these questions in mind, but ended up pursuing another focus: water politics. He investigated how people view landscapes and how government acts on these perceptions, specifically related to dam construction. He was hired on at Sac State in 2002 and two years later turned his doctoral dissertation into his first book, America’s Fight Over Water.

His next book—out in 2009—will be an ethnography of the bike-messenger culture. Wehr worked as a bike messenger for five years in graduate school, and drew on his experience to determine why people do this dirty, low-paying, dangerous job. He identified two types of bike messengers: the one with a bike who wants a non-office job, and the educated, middle-class, white male who rides a fixed-gear bike, dresses distinctively, doesn’t wear a helmet and is attracted to risk.“Our society is characterized by alienation and shifting meanings and what is truth—and how do I find meaning and authenticity and fulfillment?” Wehr said, adding that this second group crafts a self-image that offers meaning; so even when these guys aren’t working, they’ll blow through stop signs or ride in a panic, because “this is who I am.”

This personal aspect compels Wehr, who lives everyday as an avowed environmentalist. When he bought his house, he converted wastewater from the sink, shower and laundry to a gray-water system for landscape irrigation. He dug up the lawn, put in drought-tolerant plants, wildflowers and a vegetable garden.

But as important as the personal component is, Wehr continually seeks to understand larger structural systems at play; his next big project will be a comparative look at water infrastructure in countries with different political-economic systems. He’ll travel to China and India next summer, and once there, who knows. Maybe he’ll buy a cheap bike, start riding and see what happens.