by Rick Elmore
Recently, while attending the annual meeting of The Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in Rochester New York, I went to a panel on Kelly Oliver’s most recent book, Animal Lessons: How Animals Teach Us To Be Human (2009). It was an afternoon panel, and I had eaten a very light lunch. Hence, I was a little hungry as I sat down. However, I had read Oliver’s book when it first came out and was excited about the panel. One of the central themes of Oliver’s text is reexamining the relationship and role animals have played in the development of our concept of the human. She argues, quite convincingly, that “[p]hilosophers unthinkingly use animals to develop their theories of the human subject and human nature” and, consequently, “[o]ur concepts of the human, of kinship, of language, and even of human rights are borne on the backs of animals, whose importance to philosophy goes unacknowledged” (http://rorotoko.com). Much of Animal Lessons is a tracing of this unthought and unacknowledged importance of animals to philosophy through an impressive number of thinkers including Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Freud, Lacan, Derrida, Agamben, and Kristeva to name just a few. Central to her argument is the claim that many of these thinkers insists on the distinction between humanity and animality and yet cannot explicate such a distinction without recourse to examples and uses of animals that challenge and complicate it. I am, of course, sympathetic to this line of argumentation, which, although not new or revolutionary, is decidedly right. It is difficult to argue that there is not a profound and constitutive speciesism running through the Western philosophical tradition.
Now the panel was set up with three speakers (David Wood, Kalpana Rahita Seshadri, and Brett Buchanan) followed by a response by Oliver. I especially enjoyed Buchanan’s paper which brought up the issue of extinction and, in collusion with Wood’s talk (defense) on Heidegger, got me thinking about what it would mean to think of Heidegger’s notion of “being towards death” as “being towards extinction.” However, the thing that lingered with me the most about the panel was the way in which the figure and example of the “pet” circulated as a touchstone for talking about our relationship to non-human animals.
Thursday, January 3, 2013 4:00pm at the Local Option 1102 West Webster Avenue Chicago, IL 60614
In anticipation of a visit by Graham Harman, American University in Cairo, to DePaul Friday, January 11, 2013 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM to deliver a lecture entitled: “A New Look at Identity and Sufficient Reason” (see here) INCsters and friends will read his influential book The Quadruple Object (2011). Harman was awarded his PhD from DePaul’s Department of Philosophy in 1999.
Several of us associated with INC have been interested (both positively and critically) in Object Oriented Ontology, a newer flavor of thought that has Harman has led over the last decade or so. OOO resists the way in which philosophy since Kant prioritizes humans over non-human objects. The movement has been influential in environmental thought especially through the work of Tim Morton (whose The Ecological Thought we read last year). This discussion will be a chance for both the novice and seasoned OOOer to dig a little deeper into the literature of this vibrant movement.
We will meet in Local Option – no doubt a stiff drink will assist us in our labours.
A Phenomenological Approach to Social Ecological Systems Research in the Chicago Wilderness Region – First Notes.
by Liam Heneghan
These are some thoughts on the results so far of work our group is doing on understanding governance structures ecological restoration in the Chicago Region.
Recently, I have been reading excerpts on the natural history of the Chicago Wilderness region recorded during the 19th Century as collated in Joel Greenberg’s excellent volume Of Prairie, Woods, and Water: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing (2008).
One piece that especially caught my attention is Colonel Colbee Chamberlain Benton’s A Visitor to Chicago in the Indian Days: Journal of the Far-Off West. ThereBenton described a trip that he and Louis Ouilmette, a young man of French and Potawatomi heritage, embarked upon from Chicago on August 19th 1833. They left the infant city to inform local Indian tribes that their federal annuities would be paid in September of that year. On the night of August 24th the pair of travelers passed through some oak groves and arrived at a small stream in a little prairie in Southeast Wisconsin and they camped there for the night. As night fell they heard Indians around their camp. Benton hid beside a large tree and at Ouilmette’s suggestion he removed his straw hat since it was “a good mark to shoot at.” Assessing the danger they found themselves in, Louis remarked that “there were occasionally some of the Sauks and Fox Indians wandering about in [that] part of the country, and from them [they] could not expect much mercy.” Benton could not sleep. Not necessarily because of the danger. Rather, because of the noise! Some of the noise certainly may have emanated from the Indians who “mocked almost every wild animal.” But also there were unfamiliar birds calling, as well as foxes and raccoons. In the distance, wolves howled and the owls hooted in concert with the wolves. The mosquitoes added their part to “the music”. A sleepless, noisy, vaguely threatening night, and yet Benton declared that never before had he “passed a night so interestingly and so pleasantly…”
Though some might conclude that what Benton and Ouilmette experienced was the Chicago Wilderness against which present times seem lusterless, species poor, and silent. And though some of that may be so, nonetheless we know better to conclude it was nature pure and simple. It was, of course, a social ecological system, one that at the time of the trip had been in place for centuries. In those times it was the society of Native Americans being shaped by, and in turn shaping, the natural systems surrounding them. By a social-ecological system we mean a system in which humans and non-human life forms are found in a spatiotemporally defined environment. Moreover, the term is not simple an expansion of the ecological community concept to include humans which is a relatively easy matter. Rather, SES’s include more of the mental tackle of humans in it; not the biophysical interactions merely. Humans’ conception of nature, our consciousness of it, our desire to change it or leave it alone, for example; the human institutions that govern nature and the way in which nature influences human health and sensibilities are part of the social ecological system. These mental attributes are less easy to accommodate in our ecological theories than our trophic ecology for instance.
Ecologists are accustomed to thinking about parts and wholes. The way in which the aggregation of components contribute to higher level structures – organisms, populations, communities, variegated landscapes, biomes, Gaia etc is theorized under the rubric of Hierarchy Theory or Systems Thinking. Now we know it does perhaps a little injury to suggest that in this theoretical approach we can separate out a particular level in the hierarchy and analyze the level discretely, as if the other levels do not exist. That being said, this is the basis for the subdisciplines of ecology: autecology, population ecology, community ecology etc. But since each one of these subdisciplines derives from humans’ conception and abstraction of nature, the subdiscipline of ecology dealing with the integration of human mental processes into ecology has some sort of confusing meta-status. Social-ecological systems research, in a sense, founds all ecology; that is, all ecology is already a type of under-inspected social-ecological systems ecology to begin with. Our conception of nature and our recognition of the different ways of teasing apart the pieces of an ecological system to make them tractable for analysis can plausibly be done for everything except for the very mental processes decomposing the system, those very processes that represent the very “stuff” of social ecological research.
Now, ecologists are not the only ones interested in theories of wholes and parts. Such a theory is at the cornerstone of phenomenology, a central movement in 20th C continental philosophy. This is provided by Edmund Husserl (1859 1938) as the third of his six Logical Investigations. We don’t need to detain ourselves long with this (though the entire Logical Investigation may detain you for a considerable period – in fact, reading it is like striking yourself repeatedly with a dull mallet). But let us just note that Husserl makes a distinction, one that ecologists don’t, between parts of wholes with quite unique properties. Those parts that can be analyzed separately from the whole to which it belongs he calls pieces (populations, communities, tree branches, a horse’s head (ask me later!) and those parts that cannot be so analyzed. He calls the latter part “moments”. The color of a branch is a moment rather than a piece since it cannot be separated from the branch of which it is a whole. Let skip ahead quite a bit and suggest there are several problems in science and philosophy that are exacerbated by confusing these distinct notions of parts. The notion of mind, the ecologically novel element in social-ecological ecology is not a “piece” clearly; it is a “moment”. It can neither be extracted nor added to our analysis like adding an orange into a barrel full of apples. The orange is always already in the apple barrel.
It is perhaps not a surprise, then, that social ecological systems research has been difficult, slow. We are used to working with “parts” and now we must address “moments”. In our work exploring the ways in which variation in governance systems influences biodiversity and how biodiversity outcomes in turn influence our response to nature we are, in fact, doing something a little easier than putting the whole structure of consciousness back in the picture. We are not looking for a pure science of essences as Husserl was. Our problems at the moment are the pragmatic one of determining how two data sets should be analyzed together. Environmental social science and ecology have developed as disciplines in response to the way in which we have broken down human-nature connections for the purposes of empirical investigations. Surveys, sophisticated qualitative analysis of interview data, elucidation of rules, worm surveys, vegetation analyses, mite ordination are the ingredients but reassembling this particular Humpty Dumpty into a whole egg will be difficult. But I am working with the finest of the king’s horses and the best of the king’s men.
Large-scale change in complex systems never comes from the top down; it always bubbles up from the bottom. That means that large-scale social, political, and economic change comes from the citizenry, whom elected officials will follow when its collective voice becomes loud enough.
Tom Wessels. The Myth of Progress. 
Stormwater management in the Chicago area is generally seen as a problem of volume—what to do with all the water. This attitude arises from media coverage of street disruptions from flooding, and frequent testimonies of flooding damage to private residences. However volume is not the only problem, and media coverage of predictable seasonal flooding does nothing to educate the public about water-quality and other related environmental problems, or sustainable solutions.
Stormwater problems illustrates the overarching problem of human beings trying to force the natural world to adapt to their needs rather than understanding and respecting ecological processes. Wetlands, for example, are a natural antidote to the flooding problem, provided that they remain undeveloped. They not only store excess stormwater, but they can also remediate it. Naturally occurring or ecologically-restored vegetation throughout a region also helps to manage stormwater. Trees, bushes, and indigenous plants with deep roots soak up excess water, and return it to the atmosphere through transpiration. When this vegetation is replaced by conventional lawns and paved surfaces ecological processes are disturbed. Manicured lawns also tend to be treated with chemical fertilizers and herbicides that seep into ground water or runoff, polluting rivers and lakes.
Poor water quality in Lake Michigan means more energy is required to remediate lake water for drinking. This energy expenditure improves water quality but adds more chemicals to the water and further degrades the environment through remediation processes. As Tom Wessels explains in The Myth of Progress, the continuous clean up of degraded natural systems is a waste of natural capital and increases entropy in an already stressed environment.  Though it is also possible to remediate water quality through natural processes, the vast majority of current water reclamation plants use traditional, energy-intensive methods.
The continuing degradation of Great Lakes water is a large-scale and long-term environmental problem. Since access to drinking water is likely to become a cause of conflicts in the U. S. as well as abroad (in the near future), regional freshwater can no longer be treated as a free resource. Future food security issues and an increase in urban agriculture may also begin to stress freshwater supplies and production capacities, especially if populations begin migrating from water hotspots to the Great Lakes region to access fresh water for drinking and agriculture. 
Urban ecologists foreground the importance of social, economic, and cultural conditions, and view hydrological problems as opportunities for improving urban life, increasing public awareness, and stimulating the economy.  The problem is not just a lack of public education, however, but misinformation, as businesses, governments, and media outlets iterate outdated economic assumptions unrelated to scientific facts. As identified by The Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), there is a pressing need for public education on environmental issues.  However this problem is a symptom of general scientific illiteracy and a lack of bioregional knowledge and identity. While CMAP recommends that local organizations become more involved in public education and outreach, such a “policy” diverts the responsibility for public education onto private organizations. Alternatively individuals should support policies to reform actual public educational systems.
Large-scale, homogenous, energy-intensive solutions were the technologies that created today’s environmental problems. Conversely, sustainable solutions may lie in diverse, ground-up, local policies and programs, sparked by various community leaders and informed citizens cognizant of the big picture. Leadership need not begin and end with given political structures, processes, and agents, however. It can emerge in various professions and forms of community engagement. A paradigm shifting approach to environmental and economic problems may be dependant on new political perspectives—new political “technologies.”
 Wessels (2006), Chapter 3, “Personal and collective action,” paragraph 9
 Wessles (2006), Chapter 3, “Personal and collective action,” paragraph 2
 Scott C. A., Varady, R. G., Meza F, Montaña E., de Raga, G. B., Luckman B. & Martius C. (2012, May/June). “Science-Policy Dialogues for Water Security: Addressing Vulnerability and Adaptation to Global Change in the Arid Americas.” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development. Retrieved from http://www.environmentmagazine.org/Archives/Back%20Issues/2012/May-June%202012/Science-Policy-Full.html
 Niemczynowicz, J. (1999) “Urban hydrology and water management—present and future challenges” Urban Water 1, 1-14.
 Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (n.d.). Stormwater management BMPS. Education. Retrieved from http://www.cmap.illinois.gov/strategy-papers/stormwater-best-management-practices/education
From top to bottom:
by Randall Honold
Last week I wrote about a “put up or shut up” request made of me after labeling E.O. Wilson an “unrepentant epistemologist” in a public forum. At the close of my post I promised some thoughts next week (i.e., now) about how object-oriented ontology motivated my exclamation. In the meantime Steven Craig Hickman posted a reply on his Noir Realismblog. And after I wrote that post I discovered a piece on Aeon Magazineby Massimo Pigliucci critiquing Wilson’s idea of “consilience” (the most succinct definition of which is “unified learning”¹). I’ll fold in responses to Hickman and Pigliucci in what follows.
In fact, the three issues I wanted to look at through OOO glasses are ones that Hickman raised: Wilson as moralist, Wilson as scientist, and the implications of naturalistic epistemology.
I agree with Hickman that Wilson’s discussion of epigenetics is a good place to find his epistemology. But I don’t see the distinction he does in Wilson between epistemology and morality (“…Wilson’s philosophical naturalism is grounded not in epistemology but in a deeply moralist scientific humanism…”) Following Wilson, they have to be consilient, naturally – they’re two aspects of the same system. Whether or not consilience is possible, though, is an open question, one that Pagliucci takes up. He opts to follow the tradition that offers an internal critique of absolute knowledge (Hume, Russell, Gödel) rather than an external critique (Foucault, Derrida, Latour, Harding), concurring that consilience, as a kind of absolute knowledge, is structurally impossible. But then in his concluding paragraph he writes:
This isn’t a suggestion to give up, much less a mystical injunction to go ‘beyond science’. There is nothing beyond science. But there is important stuff before it: there are human emotions, expressed by literature, music and the visual arts; there is culture; there is history. The best understanding of the whole shebang that humanity can hope for will involve a continuous dialogue between all our various disciplines. This is a more humble take on human knowledge than the quest for consilience, but it is one that, ironically, is more in synch with what the natural sciences tell us about being human.
I have no idea what the difference is between ‘beyond’ and ‘before’ science. Pagliucci ends up in a Goldilocks position: mysticism is too little, consilience is too big, but dialogue is just right. And the commitment to the primacy of scientific knowledge stays, like a security blanket. Dividing the world into what we can know and cannot know is our default, natural, position. But isn’t what we think is natural what we ought to question first and always? While I agree with Hickman that epistemology isn’t something Wilson reflects upon, that’s still where I’m “attacking” him. (I certainly don’t have the chops to critique Wilson’s science. And I hope this doesn’t come across as a game of “gotcha!”) Ordinarily, who cares what someone’s epistemology is? Some of my best friends are epistemologists of different colors. Wilson, however, ups the ante: consilience is the thread that ties together by nature his empirically-informed epistemology, biology, morality, and futurology. The last discourse is the most important for me, here. When Wilson, one of the most respected scientists alive, calls for consilience as a means to address climate change, I have to take that proposal seriously. More seriously than a friend’s recommendation of acupuncture for my sore neck, for example, even though she is an expert acupuncturist. This is because climate change is a lot more important than my aching neck, objectively. The force of the argument to deploy consilience on climate change has to be measured by how many objects it brings to bear in the deployment. (The same goes for my pain in the neck, actually.) Wilson dismisses everything but science in his assertion that science is the only way to yoke all other disciplines to the task of reversing climate change. On the other hand, if OOO attempts to bring all objects to bear, isn’t this already – in principle – a more progressive alternative?
No OOO’er I’ve read discounts the value of science or any other intellectual endeavor on principle, the way, say, scientists like Wilson dismiss philosophy and religion, or (speaking for my tribe) many phenomenologists will dismiss technoscience or Marxists will dismiss, well, anything other than the Marxian critique. Following Graham Harman, what’s the difference if objects are overmined by scientism or undermined by scientific data? In both – ostensibly opposite – scenarios, objects are slighted and their messiness is cleaned up. Recall the second of Harman’s two basic principles of OOO: “These entities are never exhausted by any of their relations or even by their sum of all possible relations. Objects withdraw from relation.” The reason why promoters of consilience and interdisciplinary dialogue haven’t effected the changes they desire might not be because the rest of us aren’t getting on board enthusiastically enough. Maybe it’s because objects themselves collectively resist our modernist attempts to yoke them. As objects and their relations (which include humans and societies) become ever more complex, we respond by wanting to simplify even more, to discover the epigenetic rules for everything, as it were. I have no way of knowing if OOO’s keeping of all things in play, were it to become a new intellectual default position, would help us shape better futures. It seems, at least, to offer a way of respecting science without that becoming scientism, of seeking knowledge without needing to ground it in a universalizing method.
¹ Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: the Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998), page 1.