Published: March 18, 2024 By

The Ted Scripps Fellowships have been bringing award-winning environmental journalists to CU Boulder for 27 years. Fellows embark on a year of courses, projects, field trips, seminars and more— taking advantage of everything university life has to offer. This series is a chance to get to know this year’s cohort of talented journalists beyond what a typical bio page will tell you.

Clifton WiensPrior to being a Scripps Fellow, Clifton Wiens was a writer and filmmaker with National Geographic, where he worked on documentaries such as “Strange Days on Planet Earth,” which focuses on the climate crisis around the globe, as well as Jared Diamond’s “Guns, Germs, and Steel.” During the fellowship, Wiens is developing a documentary film exploring the apocalyptic impulse in American culture and how such beliefs and attitudes influence the politics and policy related to climate change and other environmental issues.

Could you tell me a little bit about your fellowship project?

The elevator pitch for my project is Mad Max meets Billy Graham: The film is an archival project that examines American religious and secular culture over the last one hundred years through the lens of the apocalyptic strain in both of these worlds, and how this apocalyptic impulse is particularly dangerous right now at this time in U.S. history.  It leads to apathy, to fatalism, or for some to escapist expectations.

By apocalyptic I mean an expectation that the world’s end is coming soon, whether through natural or supernatural means.  

So I’m going through enormous amounts of film footage from really the beginning of film as a medium until now.  It’s quite a range of material, from tent meeting evangelists to secular apocalyptic mainstream films.

I’m interested, in part, in how the apocalyptic style in American life and politics has now become dominant within at least one of America's major political parties, and how this cultural strand is becoming more overt in national politics, but perhaps more importantly, how the apocalyptic tradition manifests in voters’ attitudes across the political spectrum.

What led you to this line of research?

A couple of factors, at least.  I grew up in a culture where, as a kid, I was surrounded by this idea that the world was going to end soon. And then when the pandemic began, the uncertainty surrounding a vaccine at first made for a lot of television and radio chatter that related sometimes tangentially, sometimes specifically to apocalyptic expectations. These expectations can be positive or negative, depending on a person’s beliefs and culture. 

If you think that you're either going to escape through some supernatural means or the world's going to end and we are all doomed, your concern for the world beyond your own small world tends to be very limited. Fatalistic beliefs and escapist beliefs are equally dangerous.   

Part of my objective with this archival film is to make a broader audience aware of this apocalyptic strand in American culture which is sometimes subtle.  We don’t need a Mad Max scenario for society to collapse.

Switching gears, how has your time in the fellowship been so far? 

It's been great. It took a bit of time to adjust to being around others after being solitary in the mountains or other lonely landscapes during the peak pandemic years. 

My fellow fellows and everyone that is part of the CEJ, including the fellowship’s directors, have made that transition from solitude to society beautiful.

The field trips and the seminars are always a highlight of the week, such as the first field trip in the fall semester, when we trekked through Boulder cemeteries, creeks, and the town’s century-plus old ditches with legendary western water expert Bob Crifasi. It’s a different water world in the West than east of the Mississippi River in ways I never understood until Bob’s walking seminar.

I love being on a campus, wandering the corridors of the Norlin Library at random, and pulling books off a shelf that catch my eye. 

You took a little bit of a different approach from most fellows and designed your own syllabus the first semester. Could you tell me how that is going? Clifton Wiens 2

For me, developing my own syllabus for one of my courses was freeing and enlightening. I wanted to do an independent study that examines the monotheistic world’s concepts of linear time, utopias, and apocalypses from the era of Alexander the Great until the present. Alexander and the Hellenistic era still influence our worldviews in the West more than most people realize.  So my self-designed course is entitled “Time, Utopia, and Apocalypse in the Monotheistic World from Alexander the Great to The Anthropocene.” I’m happy to supply the syllabus to anyone who is interested.

Lastly, what do you like to do outside of journalism?

I absolutely love the mountains, long treks, and the occasional summit of a Fourteener. Backpacking, bicycling, anything that can take me out of myself and into nature is what inspires me.  And Colorado, of course, is one of the great places in the world for that.  I love music from classical to alt-country to punk. One day it’s Bach, the next it’s Iggy Pop.The next Max Richter and Maria Callas. The next day Patti Smith. And Dylan. Always Bob Dylan. I love dogs and during the pandemic I spent many weeks caring for other people’s pets and dogs in whatever state I happened to be in. I still do that occasionally and have a few favorite animals and people I’ve come to know around Boulder, though I won’t mention any names.