Requiem for the Commons? Part II[1] : Prelude to Progress

EJ Tangel

I know nearly nothing about Australia.  Though many seem captivated by the distant continent—the land, the culture, its bountiful and diverse flora and fauna—I’ve always thought of the place as the prison colony it once was now crassly packaged and commercialized, just for us, here in America.   I never wanted anything to do with “firing up the ‘barbie’”, or drinking Foster’s too-big can-o’beer, or least of all, an Outback Steak.  And except for an occasional empathic embrace of Indigenous movements attempting to redress that ignominious birthing of colonization (is there any other kind?), I basically ignore the place.  And truthfully, my concern for the native population there has been intermittent, at best.  The first time was in the eighties when Midnight Oil released their hit single, Beds Are Burning.  It was such an impassioned polemic for aboriginal rights that I found myself dancing extemporaneously in my living room like a white man set free to participate in the service of human rights.  Everywhere.  The lead singer Peter Garrett, a veritable white giant—long-limbed and gangly, bald headed with a hard-chiseled face—could be seen on MTV leading the band with pounding feet and flailing limbs in an ecstatic dance that was altogether an emotional appeal, a prayer, and a demand to recognize the rights of aboriginals in their own land. [2] “How can we sleep?” he asks when we’ve done such harm to the people and the planet.  That’s a tough question, but only for those whose affective, specifically empathic, ability remains intact.   The remedy, as unsurprising as it is necessary, is to right the wrong.

The time has come                

To say fair’s fair

To pay the rent

To pay our share                        

Peter Garrett by Paul Natkin RS Mag

Peter Garrett by Paul Natkin RS Mag[3]


A fact’s a fact

It belongs to them

Let’s give it back [4]

The album was a result of ethnographic research, aka, the “Blackfella/Whitefella Tour” in which the band travelled the Outback to learn about the indigenous population and their struggle to survive in an increasingly hostile manmade environment (social, political and natural).  Unsurprisingly, again to those who can feel, the band was moved by “the great pride and resilience of the Indigenous people and embraced their stories,”[5] and the people as their own.  It turns out the western desert lives and breathes, just like the rest of us, but out there in forty five degrees (centigrade mate).

A few years later I was excited to read accounts of the band parking a flatbed semi-truck in the heart of Manhattan right in front of Exxon’s headquarters to perform a demand that the giant global oil company take full responsibility for the Exxon Valdez’s egregious fouling of the Prince William Sound. [6] It was part of their Blue Sky Mining tour, a continuation of their increasingly globalized work for social and environmental justice.   Peter Garrett, though now diminutive at the foot of the Exxon edifice, rose to dance as a righteous Odysseus, come up from Down Under, thrusting himself into the eye of the shameless hegemon to demand restitution, penance and forbearance from Polyphemus, a prevaricating pleonexic[7] giant, hell-bent on the for-profit wanton destruction of the Earth.  Fair’s fair.  Cheers all around!  Of course, Exxon would have just as soon eaten the little rover bastard—or have him arrested—but the NYC cops were reportedly taken in by both the band’s audacity to do such a thing (in NYC, chutzpa) and their music, and so the band played on making headlines for the cause of civil society everywhere. [9]

Today I find myself rooting for descendants of the colonists, good people by all appearances and accounts, against an insatiable intruder who won’t take “no” for an answer.  McDonald’s wants to build one of its indelible “restaurants” in Tecoma, Victoria at the edge of the Dandenong Mountain Range—a place beautiful and precious to many—and no doubt sacred to some.  But to an insatiable global corporate giant it is a place lacking the mark [10] of development, the homogenized yellow shit-stain of a Maccas, which is what the people Down Under call McDonald’s unmistakable “Golden Arches”.  It is a heraldic flag that signals, well conquest.  According to the people of Tecoma, their home is a place,

…where Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs meet the mountains and forests.  Protected parklands and National Parks preserve the beauty of this area which includes valleys and hills covered in thick temperate rainforest and dense ferny undergrowth.  It’s a bushwalking and cycling paradise with extensive trails through lush vegetation…the surrounding villages offer boutique accommodation, galleries, markets, beautiful gardens…The Puffing Billy steam train runs between Belgrave, Emerald and Gembrook, taking in the scenic landscape of the Dandenong Ranges…tourists visit the Dandenong Ranges…to experience life away from suburbia, away from mass development, noise and pollution.  Locals live there for the same reasons.  [11]

Wow!  Such a lovely, and diverse, nature-culture mash-up; maybe I’ve been wrong about the place.  And such a shame the descendants of the colonists are now being colonized themselves—this by yet another giant with no shame.

I found out about this in a most amusing way.  Several weeks ago I was flipping through the pages of the Chicago Tribune and came across a half-page add with a headline addressed to McDonald’s directly: “Sorry McDonald’s, You’re Not Welcome in Our Town” it said, ever so politely.   The ad featured a picture of an elderly gentleman in a dark jacket, distinguished and proud, with Anglo and Indigenous features, a light scarf knot round his neck, head tilted slightly, stern grimace and a piercing straight-ahead look in his eyes.  This guy had seen some shit and wasn’t having any more of it.  Visible behind him was a softly blurred crowd holding images of Maccas overlaid by a circle with a diagonal slash-line, the universal symbol for “No”.   The ad took the form of a letter.   The salutation, “Dear McDonald’s CEO Don Thompson,” was personal and proper, and the text remained civil yet firm throughout, while disclosing that “McDonald’s continues to try to bully and intimidate us with lawsuits and bulldozers,” even though they have amassed “almost 100,000 signatures asking [McDonald’s] to stop this development.”

Signing the document, “Sincerely, The Community of Tecoma, Australia,” continued the townspeople’s exemplary manners and civility.  All of which multiplied the impact of urging Tribune readers to:

“Sign the petition at—”! [12]

A "kindy" is a grade school!

A “kindy” is a grade school!

Well I love a good pun as much as I dislike a bad one—so this one had me laughing out loud, both for its slight vulgarity, but especially for the chutzpa to say such a thing in a newspaper!  And the ad wasn’t just a gratuitous Monty Pythonesque fish-slap in the face.  It was an announcement that a delegation of Tecomaians were on their way to Chicago bearing those 100,000 signatures under their “Burger-Off”  banner to stand face-to-face with the corporate giant in its headquarters to demand they do the right thing, the civil thing: to not force themselves where they weren’t wanted; to have the common decency to burger-off.[13]  Is that too bloody-much to ask mate?

And note: this group represented no small minority of hippie-dippie castaways, animal rights folks, peaceniks and women with nothing better to do.[14]  No sir.  Nearly everyone, 9 of 10 of the 2085 residents of that fair hamlet, does not want the burger monster in their town—and the entire city council voted unanimously that McDonald’s please move on.[15]

Well, McDonald’s didn’t and won’t.  The company appealed their case to the regional Victoria authority—which in a stupefying perversion and inversion of “democracy” ruled that the “overwhelming objections of the local community [were] ‘irrelevant’, and granted McDonald’s planning permission,” which, as you might imagine, really pissed people off.[16]  Hell the rights of the Maccas supersede the rights of people?  Excuse me but, huh?  The good people of Tecoma love their diverse nature-culture mash-up, and know creeping homogeneity when they see it.  And they object to the junk McDonald’s sells as food.  Can’t they do that?

Apparently not, for a couple of reasons: first global proliferation of the idea that development, as defined by the biggest developers, is an unadulterated good.  And this is undergirded by the similarly viral “principle” of creative destruction—which in grand irony springs from an observation by Marx portending the end of capitalism—capitalism will destroy itself, he argued.  And so the idea was creatively co-opted by the 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter and brought to a contra-Marxian and oxymoronic conclusion.  By some magical self-referential transubstantiation—capitalism is good so what it does is good—destruction becomes a good thing…so let’s have at it!  Nowadays, development and creative destruction are built into our laws and “regulations” at all levels of government.  These are more accurately understood as rent-seeking rules that privilege development and developers.  Since it is the “developers” who are doing the destruction in the name of creation, they “are gifted the ability to receive concentrated benefits through government actions, the costs of which are dispersed throughout the whole of society.” [17]  This is, in short, how government works.

Folks in Tecoma were so taken aback by such an unjust ruling that four days later “600 local residents united to ‘Reclaim Tecoma’ and planted a Community Garden on the proposed site,”—which I thought was an absolutely brilliant idea.  And this was followed by a “24 hour peaceful vigil” in which residents sustained themselves, at and in the garden for a month until they were evicted by the police. [18]  Sound familiar?  It should.  I have no idea whether these folks were influenced by Occupy, but I’d find it hard to believe they weren’t aware of it—even down there, in a place I ignore.  They were simply, Occupying a space—presently an act of civil disobedience, but like Occupy, may wind up being part of a movement towards political disobedience in which the whole system is reveled as incorrigibly corrupt.[19]  In any case, the attempted colonization of their little bit of land by a mega-corporate giant has these new-natives more than restless.

It has them feeling like a community.

Photo by John Weeks at

Photo by John Weeks at

Building the community garden.

Coming soon: Part III

[1] See Tangel: Of Black Holes and Alternative Universes: A Requiem for Commons?  EC August 12, 2013

[3] Picture credit: Peter Garrett, by  Paul Natkin in Rolling Stone magazine

[4] Beds Are Burning lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC


[6] Midnight Oil performs John Lennon’s Instant Karma at Exxon protes in Manhattan May 30, 1990

[7] Pleonexia, often translated from ancient Greek as “greed” is better understood as “insatiability” that moreover leads to injustice.  See Hesiod, Plato and Aristotle; and Jesus Christ.  For some excellent contemporary analysis see the work of Arthur Nikelly, PhD, a recently deceased professor of psychology at the Univ. of IL. The Pleonexic Personality: A New Provisional Personality Disorder, Nikelly, Arthur G.Individual Psychology: Journal of Adlerian Theory, Research & Practice, Vol 48(3), Sep 1992, 253-260.

[9] Interview: Midnight Oil vs. Exxon:

[10] This is a wonderfully useful word.  As a verb it means to “make a visible impression or stain) on” something, or as a “symbol…typically for identification”…which can be a means to “separate or delineate”; it can threaten, as in “’you mark my words!’” and it can “honor, celebrate,” and of course it could flunk you out of school, etc.

[11] Website….  and they have a tab for “Humor”!!! (Under “Story So Far”)

[12] I can’t seem to find a link to the ad online but it appeared on page 15 in the Chicago Tribune, Section 1; Thursday, September12, 2013.

[13] Indigogo Thanks: Video of spokesperson in Chicago, “These people have no ethics whatsoever.” (0.1.33)

[14] The phrase, “Women with nothing better to do” is quite intentional.  My activism experience is rife with industry, government and institutional representatives denigrating citizens’ groups in just this way.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Adler, Jonathan H. Clean Politics, Dirty Profits, from Political Environmentalism: Going behind the Green Curtain, T.L. Anderson editor. pg. 4.  Hoover Institution Press 2000 (and it is ironic that I’ve used his quote).  And for Schumpeter reference see:

[18]  Please do check out their website, click around, lots of good work on display there.  Really, these people are really something!

[19] For an enlightening distinction between the two, see U of Chicago professor Bernard Harcourt’s essay Political Disobedience in Occupy: Three Inquiries in Disobedience, University of Chicago Press 2013

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by | November 25, 2013 · 18:06

photo by Randall Honold



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Can Only a Little Cat Z Save Us? Vanquishing the Pink Spot Hyperobject

Randall Honold



I’ve been spending time recently with Tim Morton’s new book Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. I ordered it as the main text for a course on philosophy and the environment I’m teaching in December. The course lasts only two weeks and is two-thirds online, so I thought it would be a valuable exercise to focus intensely on one topic: the meaning of global warming. What could be a better book to use? Well, last night while struggling to write the introductory lecture, I found myself echoing Morton in quoting a Talking Heads song, muttering to myself, “my god, what have I done?”


Then this morning something clicked. I recalled the Dr. Suess book, The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It may have had special resonance growing up in wintry Wisconsin, where the prospect of interminable show shoveling had us understandably longing for a felis ex machina to relieve us of finger-numbing duties. You may recall the basics of the plot: Two kids are directed by their mother to shovel the walk while she goes shopping. The Cat in the Hat shows up (again – the same dramatis personae were in the original), snow-shoeing into their house and promptly helping himself to a piece of cake while reclining in a warm bath. That impertinent behavior causes a pink bathtub ring which the Cat removes with the mothers’ white dress. The pink spot is “re-moved” to, in turns, a wall, shoes, a rug, and a bed. With the help of littler and littler alphabetized cats emerging from his headwear, the pink spot is transferred to a TV, a sauce pan, and finally fanned outside to the snow in the yard. Attempts to eradicate the spot by pop gun, rake, and baseball bat only serve to spread the mess until the last anti-spot combatant-in-hat, the microscopic Little Cat Z, deploys the magical “Voom” to successfully clean up all the pink. When all the snow is restored to its original whiteness the Cat and his re-hatted assistants depart with the open offer of future spot therapy.

Theodore Geisel’s The Lorax gets all the attention as an environmental cautionary tale, but I think this one is the more interesting. If we’re truly living in the age of hyperobjects, per Morton – things that are massively distributed relative to humans: viscous, nonlocal, generating their own time and space – then even the wisdom of the Lorax is going to look quaint and inadequate. Let’s assume the pink spot is analogous to something like nuclear radiation, a persistent reality resistant to remediation. Both spread from a localized, background space to ubiquity. They can’t be wiped away or moved away. Did Geisel mean to say that, like Heidegger, only a god-like power from elsewhere can save us now, called forth by the spread of doom we’re within? Or did he want us to not give up the hope that we can solve our environmental problems with enough imagination (“maybe we can engineer some Zoom!”)? The Cat in the Hat is undoubtedly a beautiful soul, so helpful and all, but is that what we need?

I think I need to get my students to help me figure this out.

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Some Thoughts on Anthropocentrism

By Rick Elmore and Jon Elmore

ANIMAL-AGENCY-1Recently, while composing an essay on animal perception in H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau, we had the pleasure of encountering Philip Armstrong’s book, What Animals Mean in the Fiction of Modernity (2008).  In this text, Armstrong argues that the stories we tell about non-human animals in modern fiction are closely aligned with the framework of modernity and, particularly, the modern subject.  In this sense, Armstrong’s work takes its place alongside a number of recent texts such as Kelly Oliver’s Animal Lessons: How They Teach Us to Be Human (2009), which argues that non-human animals have been fundamental to our conception of the human in ways that have gone previously unacknowledged.  It’s an important point and worth repeating.  However, one of the things that struck us most forcefully in Armstrong’s book was a claim he makes about anthropocentrism.

A few pages into the introduction, Armstrong notes that in general to speak of non-human agency is to invite the charge of anthropomorphism: “Surely such a notion imputes to non-humans a capacity—traditionally considered unique to human beings—for conscious planning, decision-making, and choice” (3).  It is commonplace when thinking about issues of animality to assume that any claim to non-human agency must be fundamentally anthropocentric, insofar as such claims seem to attribute aspects of human agency to animals.  Although Armstrong here only addresses claims to animal agency, one sees this kind of critique in other aspects of animal studies, positing the notion that any thinking about other animals cannot help but engage in a violent “humanizing.”  Behind such claims is the assumption that to begin from a human standpoint dooms us to the all too human limits of that standpoint.  This logic is not unrelated to the basic ethos of Speculative Realism, insofar as there too the question (or one of them) is to what degree starting from a human or correlationist standpoint necessarily taints one’s analysis in an anthropocentric or correlationist way.  There are, of course, good reasons to worry about anthropocentrism and about the potential for violence in our thinking about animals (and the rest of the world for that matter).  Although Armstrong is certainly not the first thinker to challenge this kind of blanket concern over anthropocentrism, he questions it in an interesting way.

For Armstrong, following the work of Jonathan Burt, Chris Philo, and Chris Wilbert, the basic problem with this charge of anthropocentrism is that it assumes that “agency” is a fundamentally human concept.  Yet speaking of animal agency does not necessarily suggest “assumptions about what specifically constitutes animal subjectivity or interiority” (3).  There seems no reason to assume that all agency, subjectivity, or interiority need be human or similar to the human.  In fact, it seems far more plausible that engaging with non-human animals challenges rather than reinforces our conceptions of agency, subjectivity, etc.  Hence, these questions, “turn[s] the charge of anthropomorphism on its head, asking instead whether evidence of animal resistance in cultural texts and practices might not destabilize taken for granted assumptions about how agency works in the first place” (3).   For Armstrong, the notion of animal agency, thus, leads not so much to anthropomorphism as to a critique of anthropocentrism. 

Armstrong’s point is that, in principle, the claim to animal agency remains anthropocentric only so long as one assumes that the notion of “agency” being discussed is somehow related to human agency.  Yet, this need not be the case; rather, the possibility of exploring other forms of agency challenges the hegemony of “human” agency.  Hence, Armstrong’s analysis of non-human agency and its implications for our understanding of anthropomorphism and agency leads him to a kind of call to action: “A reconceptualization of agency [...] might facilitate a mode of analysis that does not reduce the animal to a blank screen for the projection of human meaning, and might offer productive new ways of accounting for the material influence of the non-human animal upon humans, and vice versa” (3).  This is, of course, no easy matter, and he spends the rest of his book working through such “modes of analysis” in literary studies, exploring some of the most well-known, non-human animals of modern fiction: the whale in Moby Dick, the creature in Frankenstein, the Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, and so forth.  However, what we found so interesting in Armstrong’s analysis is the way in which it points to a certain anthropocentrism at the very heart of the concern for anthropomorphism.

One of the interesting insights springing from Armstrong’s argument is that the charge of anthropocentrism rests, ironically, on a profound privileging of the human.  The notion that all human engagements with the world must always entail the “humanizing” of the world posits the world as something that cannot but conform, in some basic sense, to the human.  In such a worldview, every engagement with the world is always already “human” in a way that forecloses in advance the possibility of access to any truly non-human world.  Hence, in a somewhat strange turn of events, the worry over anthropocentrism ends up positing a remarkably anthropocentric world, a world in which every statement, analysis, experiment, and fact about the world ultimately figures the human.  There is, of course, much that can be said about this kind of worldview, but the very first thing that must be said, it seems to us, is that it just can’t be right.   

Image Credit:
Borjan Bonaque,

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Conference Wrap Up

Conference Wrap Up

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by | October 7, 2013 · 19:59

The Hive Project Premiere at SLSA Postnatural Conference

The Hive ProjectINC friend, Guy Zimmerman will premiere The Hive Project at this year’s Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts Postnatural conference in Notre Dame.  Performance: Friday, October 4th, 2:00 – 3:30 pm.  Session 5 C.  For more about The Hive Project, see right banner.

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Rhetoric and Magic in the Anthropocene: A Variation

Below is a comment on Tim Morton’s Realist Magic available on Open Humanities Press, and recently published in paperback.  For a review see a previous Environmental Critique post by Rick Elmore, “Adventures in Realist Magic” (6.20.13).  (WordPress link functions not cooperating in this endeavor.)  I highly recommend the paperback to scholars who want to grasp the material more firmly and really work with it.


Timothy Morton’s critique of modern causality in Realist Magic is in some sense a fulfillment of an unspoken promise in the earlier works.  It reveals the fragile “man” behind the curtain of  the normal science that underwrites consumer capitalism, and it synthesizes Morton’s aesthetic and ecological investments in a manner that avid readers will find particularly satisfying.  While it is commonplace to critique the scientific establishment in the name of ecology, much current criticism fails to grasp the elusiveness of the empirical method as a hyperobject that confounds conventional analyses.  Morton’s thesis that causality is aesthetic braves the complexities.  It also comes to the rescue of sleeping Beauty and the dwarfed Humanities (to confound and confuse narratives even further).


In this comment I focus on Morton’s stunningly simple inversion of the rhetorical canons.  The five canons, often used to describe the writing process, are invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  In Realist Magic Morton privileges delivery, arguing that the other canons, as aesthetic moments, follow (in reverse order) from delivery.  Indeed, the work performs this thesis, beginning with the opening of Realist Magic and Morton’s sound track of PM Dawn’s Set Adrift on Memory Bliss.  The melancholy 90’s mix sets the tone for the work at hand, attunes us to Morton’s melancholy, and foregrounds relationships between affect and cognition within the context of causality.

Linking the rhetorical canons and causality is not so radical given the dominance of the canons as tools of thought in the pre-modern era, and the likelihood that the empirical method was derived from these rhetorical habits.  However the reversal of order and focus on delivery, as opposed to invention, are very—Morton.  As I suggest above, the inversion also dovetails with affect theory, if delivery follows sense of audience and sense of audience follows affect (attachment), as outlined, for example, in Judith Butler’s Giving an Account of Oneself.  I particularly appreciate Morton’s references to sound throughout the text.  Sound is an important element of rhetoric (which I think is categorically affective), not only because tone is always constructive of meaning, self, and relationships, but because internalized qualities of rhythm and harmony pervade all rhetorical performances including Morton’s text.  This emphasis on sound is performed by the cadences of Morton’s well-known authorial voices, articulated through his prose, and in the echoes of his public and new-media selves.  Morton’s recursive style is also punctuated by sharp images, including (my favorite) clown faces crowding the picture frame.


Circling inelegantly back to rhetoric, aesthetic and affective qualities of causality are evident not only in the rhetorical canons, but also in the Classical Stases, which are the stages of an argument or deliberation.  The conventional order (stages) of Stases arguments (“stasis” is the singular) are fact, definition, cause and effect, evaluation, and policy/procedure, or what I might here modulate into “practice.”  (This is one of many versions of the Stases, btw.)  Arguments about causality are crucial to conventional processes of deliberation because they are the presumed basis of value judgments and practical procedures, but they are relevant to the discussion at hand because, as arguments, they have an affective quality.  A good deal of contemporary critical and rhetorical theory  (not to mention neuroscience) has proposed that cause and effect follow value judgments, which follow practice as habit.  To the extent that all of these arguments are aesthetic/affective, not only sound and sight, but various other senses (external and internalized), determine our perceptions of causality.  Following Morton, rhetoricians might further explore an inversion of the Stases.  We might ask what aesthetically and affectively warrants practice and work back through value, cause and effect (or effect and cause), and definition, to fact. 

Such a reverse practice, a rhetrico-hermeneutic moonwalk if you will, could be applied to virtually any socio-cultural situation or text.  Ecological restoration, for example, a major concern of the Institute for Nature & Culture which sponsors Environmental Critique, could be encountered as an aesthetic problem, which derives its ethical means and meanings from beauty, writ large.


On the simplest level Realist Magic reminds us that causes are infinitely complex and our instrumental understanding of them is always an interpretation.  The book is full of rhetorical magic performed, as Morton advises, right before our eyes.  While the old alchemists strived to turn dross into gold, Morton merely vanishes matter, and thus the usual “substance” of both capital and science.  He does not dissolve the real into the ideal however.  Rather he separates the real from the material, redirecting our attention to affect, the limitations that science places on our affective experience, and the capacity of art to reveal and realign our priorities.


Image titles, artists, and sources in the order they appear:

Installation 1 by Gregory Euclide:

Field of Flowers by David Friedman:

Self-portrait with Masks by James Ensor:

The Big Bang by David Friedman:

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Only Mars Can Save Us Now: Space Exploration and Terrestrial Sustainability as Competing Strategies

by Liam Heneghan

More than any at other conferences I have attended, participants in the annual Mars Society meeting, which was held this year in Boulder, Colorado (August 2013) — their 16th such meeting, my first — like to nod their agreement. In contrast, attendees at the meetings I more regularly visit concerning the ecological fate of the planet signal their comprehension with aghast motionlessness. When Robert Zubrin, director of the (currently Earth-bound) Mars Society, announced in Boulder this summer, that Mars is our future, the audience nodded. Rather, I should say, we nodded.

Not only is a manned mission to Mars technically feasible with existing, or almost-existing, technology but Zubrin insists that it is desirable for us to go to Mars sooner rather than later. Zubrin was reasserting an argument that he has been making for some time. In The Case for Mars — The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (1996) he set out his blueprint for Mars Direct, a plan for manned missions to Mars that would pave the way for colonization and would be both cost-effective and possible with current technology.

Why should we go to Mars? There are economic arguments in favor of us doing so, Zubrin claims. Certain elements, such as deuterium used in nuclear reactors, are hyper-available elements on Mars could be profitably used on Earth. Additionally, rare metals: platinum, gold and silver, can be

recovered from Mars and returned to Earth. The economic arguments are important to the case for Mars, but central to Zubrin’s argument, is what exploration of Mars says about us as a species. We should go because we can; it’s who we are. According to Zubrin “virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet”. Of all the planets in our solar system Mars has by far the greatest potential for self-sufficiency. The resources on Mars will cater for both initial colonists and for the subsequent expansion of a civilization on the Red Planet. For example, subsurface accumulation of water can provide supplies to explorers. Moreover, the colonization of Mars “reaffirms the pionee

ring character of our society.” Drawing parallels to Roald Amundsen’s successfully traversing the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Passage in 1903, an expedition which adopted a “live off the land” strategy, Zubrin appeals to a pioneering grit and esprit in forging his plans for Mars. Summarizing his reasons for colonizing Mars, Zubrin wrote, “For our generation and many to follow Mars is the New World”. Considering that as of the 9th September 2013 more than 200,000 have applied for a one-way settlement mission to Mars over at the Mars One website, it would seem that Zubrin’s assessment is confirmed.

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Cattle Photobombing a Connemara Landscape


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by | September 17, 2013 · 20:27

Interview with The Handsome Family

Randall Honold


Rennie and Brett Sparks

I’ve been a big fan of the band The Handsome Family for over 15 years. This summer I had the chance to finally hear them play live. They were touring to support their new album, Wilderness. It was a show that stirred the imagination: bottomless holes, phantasmagoric encounters, and incalculable fates were sung about with warmth, humor, and intimacy. I wanted more! So I emailed them asking if they would be willing to be interviewed for Environmental Critique.

Who are The Handsome Family? They’re the married songwriting duo, Rennie and Brett Sparks. Rennie writes the lyrics, adds backing vocals, and plays a variety of stringed instruments. Brett writes the music, sings, and plays guitars. A visit to their website is highly recommended to find out more and to hear some of their songs:

Rennie spoke on behalf of both in what follows. (I’m RH; she’s RS.)



RH: Your music is filled with images and tales of animals and other natural beings. Why is it obvious to you that nonhumans are such an important part of our world? Why do you suppose this isn’t obvious to most musicians and writers?

RS: Maybe a better question is: how did humans manage to forget they were living things on a planet of living things? We have a real blindness for our own connection to the rest of this world. That being said, I believe if you asked the ants who was running things on this planet they wouldn’t hesitate to say, “The ants!” Maybe all species are born blind to the needs and fears of the rest and our task is to perceive the connections?

RH: What’s the difference between living in Chicago vs. Albuquerque in terms of inspiration from, or awareness of, the nonhuman world? Do you think big urban areas are places of hope or despair in this regard?

RS: Chicago taught me to look carefully for wildlife. There is great wonder in observing the pigeons cooing under the overpass or the rats scuttling along the edge of buildings at dusk. For many years in Chicago I noticed the big downtown buildings were growing kale in their little squares of garden at building entrances. Strange that for so long no one thought of kale as food. It was an ornamental that grew in cold weather!  Chicago was all about noticing the little things for me, but Albuquerque is all about expansive views. It is just as bewildering to learn to see the great expanse of the desert sky and understand a little of how big our universe is. The ability to see for many miles in all directions is a great gift and reminds you of the presence of the infinite in all finite things. Big urban areas are neither hopeful nor despairing, I think. They await an eye to look at them and a heart to decide.

RH: Your music seems to help you stay in a productive relationship with the troubling aspects of existence – mystery, loss, decay, mortality. When did you realize it had this power as therapy?

RS: Writing songs, or making any art for that matter, is always about finding a beautiful balance between opposing forces. It teaches you that light needs dark, soaring notes need deep tones. Life wouldn’t feel precious if it never ended. Beauty would not feel miraculous if we didn’t see chaos and decay.

RH: Would you like to be immortal, like nature is? (Okay, in about 4 billion years the earth will be swallowed by the sun. Nearly immortal, then…)

RS: When the earth explodes the matter that makes it up will merely change form, but will not disappear. That means we’re all going to be outer space travelers eventually! I don’t think we can have any concept of immortality. We are creatures trapped in time and space, always pushed from past to present to future. There seems to be nothing in our universe that is not subject to this change except, maybe the singularity at the center of a black hole. Maybe that’s the only true immortal in our universe and nothing in our universe can even approach it without being utterly destroyed.

RH: If you could become a different animal, what would you become and why?

RS: Golden retriever! They always seem to be living in utter joy over the smallest pleasures!

RH: Can we expect a song featuring a golden retriever on the next record?

RS: I’ve been trying to write that song for a long, long time. There are so many ‘good doggie’ songs out there like Old Shep, it’s deep waters to tread. 



RH: I’d like to focus a bit on your new album, Wilderness.  As a concept, “wilderness” has become problematic. Some say we need to retain an idea of the wild in order to keep ourselves humble, others say this idea reinforces the harmful separation between humans and the natural world. What say you?

RS: I say we need to remind ourselves that we are part of a huge web of life on this planet so, yeah, the idea of wilderness is really a sad one. I always remember William Bradford as he sailed into Plymouth Harbor for the first time and was so dismayed to see the ‘hideous’ wilderness before him. They got their axes swinging pronto. That being said I think there is something really soothing in contemplating vast multitudes. The vastness of herds and hives and forests, the group soul of the termite. We can learn a lot from the termite. We may not be all that different.

RH: The album cover art is mesmerizing. Why did you decide to depict the animals who share the song titles in the form of a mandala? Does the mandala symbol have special meaning to you?  The glow worm surrounds a black hole at the center of the mandala. For me, the parallel musical image is in the song “Glow Worm,” when Brett sings,

Tightly in my fist I held that glowing worm
Deep down in the hollows I held the center of the world.

Do you see this couplet as the spiritual/emotional center of the album, to mirror what the cover art suggests?

RS: Bingo. How nice that you were thinking as I was thinking. Yes, mandalas are very important to me. I love the idea of artwork designed to pull you inward to infinite space. The best kind of wilderness, I think. I used to have recurring dreams about visiting the center of the earth. It would probably not be good to spot the little light there and grab it in your fist. What not to do at the center of the earth! Yet how many of us could resist at least touching with our little finger and inadvertently turning out the light of the world.

RH: In the songs “Caterpillars,” “Woodpecker,” and “Gulls” you describe humans transmuting into other animals. Is this a way of imagining what it would be like to be other-than-human?

RS: Maybe it’s just a reminder that our bodies are always changing shape. Also who doesn’t wonder how wonderfully strange it would be to cocoon yourself and then emerge into a totally new life. Rebirth is a grand fantasy.

RH: Have you spent time in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, Mary Sweeney’s hometown in “Woodpecker?” I went to college there and I think Mary might have been my anthropology professor.

RS: I stopped at Taco Bell there once in a snow storm. That was the extent of my ground research. Mostly that song was inspired by reading, “Wisconsin Death Trip” and also by a series of windshield smashing I witnessed one morning in Chicago on the way to work. These two boys were just running down the street smashing all the windshields with bricks. The street was crowded with people, but we all just stood there in shock. The noise was beautiful, but the sight was very disturbing.

RH: Any final thoughts about how academics and artists might be able to work together more (or better)?

RS: Maybe we can plan a sailing trip to the center of the world. I know a spot we can start from.

Thanks Randall!

xo Rennie

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