“An Inconvenient Sequel” Screenings and Much More

See below information about “An Inconvenient Sequel” screenings, and various related resources for educators, business professionals, and concerned citizens.

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From a New York Times review:

In a summer movie landscape with Spider-Man, a simian army waging further battle for the planet and Charlize Theron as a sexy Cold War-era superspy, it says something that one of the most compelling characters is Al Gore.

“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” a follow-up to “An Inconvenient Truth,” Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning documentary from 2006, is a reboot that justifies its existence — and not just because Mr. Gore has fresh news to report on climate change since his previous multimedia presentation played in multiplexes.

Read more here.

See trailer here.

Get tickets and find various resources here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Image source: Occasional Planet, http://occasionalplanet.org/2017/04/03/just-time-inconvenient-sequel/

 

 

 

 

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VanderMeer’s Strange Bird and Animal Trauma in the Anthropocene

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Jeff VanderMeer’s new novella, The Strange Bird, is ingenious, provocative, and deeply moving. At times, it’s almost too painful and too beautiful. As a Borne story, it’s also revelation. Out of the futuristic world of Borne, VanderMeer conjures a totem for the Anthropocene. A hybrid spirit strange and familiar enough to wake us from our dogmatic stupor, Strange Bird guides us into unexplored regions of literature and the psyche. While we have excluded the secret life of animals from consciousness, on some level we understand their suffering because we suffer together. Nested in Borne, adjacent to VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, The Strange Bird brings us to the intersection of animals and the Anthropocene. We’ve been here all along, but now, slowly, we’re becoming aware.

Twentieth-century techno science created a false dichotomy of lab animals and animals in the wild. Born and bred to serve the medical and biotech industries, lab animals were primarily studied as surrogates for human bodies. Knowing them was generally synonymous with killing them, and always dependent on removing them from their natural environment and social context. This resulted in a culture that “understood” animals in isolation, and through the mottled lens of human interests narrowly conceived.

Wild animals were occasionally observed in the wild, during the last American century, but more often on television programing about animals in the wild. Mass media creatures were smart, charming, dramatic, and often hilarious. Masterfully edited, as well as narrated and set to music, such representations were a form of domestication or at least spectacle, related to zoos, aquariums and circuses. The most commonplace animals of the Modern era, however, were agricultural animals, not so much on farms, or even stories about farms, but at breakfast, lunch, and dinner. These animals didn’t have behaviors. They were invisible.

Twenty-first century animal and environmental activism has directed our attention to the plight of animals, but unintentionally maintains this twentieth-century dichotomy by focusing on animals in captivity and, conversely, animals in the wilderness. As the earth has become increasingly urban, however, conditions for all animals have changed. Academics and creative writers are becoming more attentive to interstitial ecology and urban animals, our neighborhoods and our neighbors, but we have not generally adjusted our assumptions about animal behavior.[i]

Enter The Strange Bird.  VanderMeer’s novella is as much urban odyssey as fantasy. At the beginning of the narrative Strange Bird, a biotech marvel, escapes the confines of a lab. In flight, she navigates an unfamiliar and frightening world, and begins to understand herself in new contexts and from different perspectives. Before long she is captured by a solitary old man who admires her, but who also imprisons her. He is attached and attentive, seems to want to commune with her, but he can’t appreciate her suffering. Like other humans in the novella, he rationalizes his cruelty even as he is haunted by it.

Eventually Strange Bird lands squarely into the narrative of Borne, where she is captured by The Magician, a sadistic genius who transforms her into a cloaking device. Somehow Strange Bird survives the radical transformation and enters a kind of bardo, where she communes with other animals, alive and dead.

Throughout the novella Strange Bird appears lost and alone. The cage is no home for her, but neither is the world. She is oriented to the voice of a friend or relative (intimate, stranger, and enemy), very close to her but also far away. Told from the point of view of a hybrid, engineered animal, The Strange Bird is one of VanderMeer’s most psychologically complex and heart-rending narratives. How does VanderMeer create and draw us into the inner life of Strange Bird?

 

Borken Places

 

Part of the answer must lie in his equally well-wrought and unapologetic anthropomorphism. As VanderMeer has explained in interviews and essays, the intellectual prohibition against anthropomorphism has prevented us from speculating about animal experience.[ii] But this stance betrays Modern prejudices. At a time when the popular media assertively preach the virtues of compassion (identification with the feelings of other human beings), we are reluctant to consider the thoughts and feelings of animals because we have already concluded they are categorically different. Even imagining what animals could be feeling is considered naïve, as if early twentieth-century phenomenology and Psych 101 behaviorism were articles of faith. Anticipating such objections, VanderMeer engineers human consciousness into his main character, though he also flirts with cross-species communication throughout.

Defending the speculative/creative impulse, I stubbornly note that human beings in all cultures still strive to understand one another every day. We dream of sympathy. We recognize ourselves in others.  Sometimes, it seems, others understand us better than we understand ourselves.  This counterargument has become a critical cliché, but it is also our way of life—our culture. Even if our sense of understanding and being understood are fabulations, why should we be dissuaded from striving to understand animals in this fashion? And why have we forgotten that this prohibition is a cultural and historical anomaly?

The long-standing, cross-cultural tendency to anthropomorphize is arguably a product of various and obvious similarities between human beings and animals. This is not only true from a biological perspective but also an ecological one. We share the same home. We are nurtured by the same planet.

I’d like to suggest that the leitmotif of habitat or home is a primary reason that VanderMeer’s novella is so moving. In The Strange Bird we can identify with the circumstances of the animal. If the storyteller is in a type of relation to the animal, he or she can help us imagine the creature’s circumstances, but perhaps that bond begins and ends with sharing a home.

Like so many of VanderMeer’s characters, Strange Bird is traumatized.  There are known and unknown causes of her trauma. Her inner life is familiar, strange, and mysterious, but readers can generally understand the experience of being imprisoned, for example. Though we may not be traumatized by such experiences, we have all had our freedom restricted, and we have all suffered as a consequence. Even if we ascent to such restrictions, through written, spoken, and unspoken contracts, we feel the tension between our competing desires for connection and autonomy.

Being conflicted, torn, fractured, and broken, are other common, potentially traumatic experiences. Particularly disturbing and provoking are VanderMeer’s first-person accounts of dismemberment. As Strange Bird is confined, tormented, and exploited by the Magician, we could and should reflect on basic bodily and psychological autonomy. How do we recognize and fail to recognize bodies in different circumstances? All sorts of relationships, perhaps even the imperatives of survival, tear us apart physically and psychologically. All animals are effectively dismembered when their bodies and brains are exploited. Even love tears us apart. To what extent, and why do we ascent to or resist various transgressions?

Most conspicuous about the main character and the story, is the fact that Strange Bird is always alone. We notice this first when she encounters other birds in social configurations. Later she begins to communicate with “the little foxes.”  This is a kind of solace for her, but also serves to foreground her physical isolation. When Strange Bird enters the narrative of Borne, she enters a second storyscape of alienation. She continues to commune with various creatures, in more or less out-of-body experiences, but Rachel and Wick are the only humans who show her kindness, who care for her.

We know from the example of the Passenger Pigeon that life and survival are intimately related to community.[iii] We also know that many animals need wide ranges in order to thrive even as individuals. All animals need space as well as society. Perhaps more significantly, each animal defines space in its own fashion. In this sense, human beings may not easily understand non-human behavior, though this may be a result of limited interaction rather than essential incapacity.

I don’t mean to suggest that The Strange Bird should function as a creative treatise on animal rights or metaphor for human suffering. Rather, I imagine the narrative as an entry point into a revelatory if not redemptive cycle of sympathy and self-awareness. As Sartre speculated in the Critique of Dialectical Reason, we label abject human beings as animals because deep down we recognize their humanity (Book I, section II, “Reciprocity, Exploitation and Repression”). Perhaps this is also why we define animals, categorically, as less than human beings, because we suspect they are not essentially different from us . . . and it’s the only way we can maintain our crumbling narrative of superiority.[iv]

As a Borne story, The Strange Bird is a creative but earnest speculation about animal behavior in the Anthropocene.  As such it’s also a story about animal trauma. It seems reasonable to speculate that animal trauma, in general, is connected to environmental degradation, survival pressures, displacement, and violence. We understand, and often repeat, the poorest populations are most affected by climate change, but we don’t generally include animals in this equation.

To the extent that animals are affected by environmental toxins, food deserts, homelessness, fast and slow violence, they may be generally traumatized.[v]  These conditions are not new. The beginning of the industrial era created terribly degraded environments for all animals, even if human beings were the focus of civic responses. Silent Spring invoked an animal totem and effectively created ecological consciousness, even if that consciousness still struggles with an imperial gaze. On some level, we are all aware of violence perpetrated by animals against animals. Bellum omnium contra omnes[vi]

What does all this mean for The Strange Bird as a new literary work by a prominent contemporary writer? I’m reminded of Amitav Ghosh’s imperative that literature in the Anthropocene should not be fantastic, because it masks real climate-change related horrors.[vii]  This may be a legitimate critique of popular dystopian fantasy, but the criticism makes less sense in the context of surrealism (qua surrealism), VanderMeer’s chief mode. Remembering that surrealism, historically, was an attempt to capture a more complete reality (a form of psychological realism), we can appreciate contemporary surrealistic literature as an attempt to include psychological strata that have been systematically excluded from realistic representations.[viii] Enter the unconscious.

Human consciousness, often understood as self-consciousness, has long performed a gate-keeping function. Because humans have a degree of consciousness about their own intellectual processes and emotional responses, we often assume that non-human cognition and affect is categorically different. Similarly, we tend to equate communication with conscious human languages. But human cognition and affect is also, arguably (and perhaps even primarily), unconscious. [ix]  Human communication is also partly unconscious as evidenced by language acquisition in children, who speak grammatically long before they have any concept of grammatical rules, and by studies on body language as a primarily mode of communicating intense emotions.[x]

Unconscious communication has been the purview of writers for well over a century. But all the arts engage the unconscious—consciously and unconsciously. Aesthetics might even be described as a paradigmatic unconscious value system. And while art, like language, is generally considered a uniquely human enterprise, we also know that many animals, birds in particular, sing and dance to attract mates. How is this essentially different than the conscious and unconscious behavior of  human “peacocks”?

In the context of Borne, The Strange Bird traces the terrible beauty of animal trauma in the Anthropocene, not as a surrogate for human trauma, but as a creaturely condition that directs our attention to the ubiquitous effects of climate change. If trauma can be communicated through non-verbal behavior, it may be an appeal to all animals. Artists like VanderMeer seem to hear that call, but are they uniquely aware of animal suffering, or uniquely responsive? I imagine that many of us are more aware of our collective suffering than we know. VanderMeer may not speak for non-human animals, but he surely gives voice to the unconscious.

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The novella is available at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B073TSB1TW

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[i] See City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, for example. Also see VanderMeer’s comments in his recent essay, “Moving Past the Illusion of Control.”

[ii] See “Moving Past the Illusion of Control,” above, as well as this Gulf Coast magazine interview on Borne.

[iii] The species became extinct because individuals can only mate in large flocks. See this Smithsonian Encyclopedia entry.

[iv] As DePaul philosopher Peter Steeves suggested at VanderMeer’s 2017 Earth Week address, perhaps we can’t ultimately define or understand animals because we strive to know them by comparison to human beings, whom we define by comparison to animals. (We can’t know non-human animals because we can’t know ourselves.)

[v] See Rob Nixon’s Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor and VanderMeer’s comments on war and ecological degradation in his Environmental Critique article on Johannes Heldén’s Astroecology published here.

[vi] Read VanderMeer’s Finch, as well as his other Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek: And Afterword.

[vii] See “Amitav Gosh: where is the fiction about climate change?” in The Guardian.

[viii] See this Met summary of surrealism.

[ix] The revival of the unconscious by the neurosciences and the influence of affect on cognition have become common knowledge in academic discourse. An interesting recent book on these topics is Richard Nisbett’s Mindware: Tools for Smart ThinkingIn a recent conversation, VanderMeer noted that we anthropomorphize animals in various sorts of propaganda, and I wonder if this is a marker of (social) media aesthetics as an unconscious economy.

[x] See this short Cambridge article on unconscious language learning, and this Princeton piece on body language and intense emotions.

 

Image sources:

Macmillian, https://us.macmillan.com/thestrangebird/jeffvandermeer/9780374714932

YouTube,  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o5stee_pAAU&feature=youtu.be

 

 

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Filed under Animals, Climate Change, Jeff VanderMeer

The Uninhabitable Earth

Re-posted from New York magazine.

Famine, economic collapse, a sun that cooks us: What climate change could wreak — sooner than you think.

By

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To read an annotated version of this article, complete with interviews with scientists and links to further reading, click here.

I. ‘Doomsday’

Peering beyond scientific reticence.

It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.

Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.

Continue reading here.

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Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock

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Awake, A Dream from Standing Rock.

Movie Screening,
Hosted by Chicago 350.

Wednesday, July 26,
7 PM – 9 PM.

Harold Ramis Film School,
230 W.  North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60610

See more information here.

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Dark Ecology. What’s a Human—to Do?

by Randall Honold
Co-director, Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University

 

Thoughts prompted by Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Remember the end? I’m recalling all the “end of . . . ” books that started pouring out around twenty years ago. We read about the end of history, nature, faith, poverty, men, globalization, power, Europe, imagination – even absence. Maybe because we love a good ending when we see one we start seeing them everywhere. Or maybe we love resolution no matter what comes next. There’s a kind of end-logic we get trapped by: either we’re pouring accelerant on the flames of decline or we’re cynically indifferent to the suffering in front of us: “Everything has to end sometime – c’est la vie!” Of course, nothing that has been ending has actually ended. We don’t know how to see the end to the end, it appears. The past persists.

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Today we’re grappling with the meaning of the end of the Holocene, from here and now at the onset of the Anthropocene. Coming to realize that we humans changing the earth may be a defining event for both the earth and humans. Who are we humans and what is the earth after the end (better: during the ending) of the Holocene? What might our entwined future(s) look like?

We need help thinking about who and what we all are at beginning of the first geological era to which we’ve given our name. Even if at first that help doesn’t look like a guiding hand but a dead sparrow on our doorstep. Even if in the welcoming of help we let go of what we thought we were and invite across the threshold what we didn’t want to admit was already here for some time.

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Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence is the kind of object we need to help us think what we are and what to do about it. Calling the book an “object” sounds like I’m reducing it to a single instrument but no – it’s a rich, dense, diverse collective of reflections that unfurls like a growing crystal, its fractal structure embodying one of Morton’s main ideas, that reality is a loop of objects resisting organization by a larger ideal. And like all objects, the book gets weirder the more I interact with it. Which brings me to what its title describes, “dark ecology.”

What happens to us if we practice dark ecology? That is, what happens to the meaning of us and what kinds of actions do we end up taking? Since Rimbaud, at least, we’ve known that “I is another.” That knowledge in itself isn’t enough to twist free of what Morton calls agrilogistics, the roughly twelve-thousand year tradition of rearranging the earth in order to stabilize ourselves. Furthermore epistemology itself probably isn’t tweakable any further. The knowledge we have and the ways of knowing we practice are plenty satisfactory for making it through the ecological crisis. Imperator Furiosa and Max Rockatansky made it across the wasteland and back on far less! Our fate is tied to a very large number of equally non-selvish beings that we can’t fully know but we always already coexist with aesthetically. Practicing dark ecology isn’t something esoteric or obscure; it’s kind of a continual reorientation toward the equally mysterious beings we’re already coexisting with.

Dark ecology entails practicing intimacy in as many ways as possible. It amounts to compassion, really, consonant with Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Morton.  Every manifestation of compassion arises from an orientation that has been open to suffering. Robert Thurman says suffering alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are. For at least a couple of thousand years we’ve tried applying a variety of Anthropocentric therapies to this lack of awareness, intended to restore us to the larger whole we’ve fallen from and redeem our suffering. But that’s not what we need at the onset of the Anthropocene. We’re in a time that’s pretty clearly defined by our futility at getting on top or to the bottom of wicked problems of our own making (cue global warming, species extinction, fresh water depletion, and even the end of sand!). What if there isn’t a big Nature to get back to, an Environment to clean up, an Earth to become one with? Would it be so bad for these big old Beings to come to an end? What if we follow Morton and experiment with Anthropocenic anti-therapies which yield results consistent with increasing intimate coexistence with ourselves and other objects?

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SPF 2017 (Subscendence Perpetration Formation).  Directions: Apply liberally and often.

Tim Morton
Image Sources:

https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/what-is-the-lay-of-the-land-part-ii/

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dark-ecology/9780231177528

http://archinect.com/features/article/149934079/timothy-morton-on-haunted-architecture-dark-ecology-and-other-objects

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The Upside Down World

by Jeff Tangel

The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.    –Voltaire

 . . . and the working, and middle classes.   –Tangel

In the comic hit movie, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, Mike Myers’s Fat Bastard character—who, as you might expect is always hungry—turns to Mini-me and demands, in his bellowing mock-Scottish bravado, “I’m bigger than you—and higher up the food chain.  Get in my belly!”  And then licks his chops while singing, “I want my baby back . . . baby back, baby back . . . ribs.”

Perhaps this is a telling example of being utterly absorbed in, and deeply confused by one’s worldview.  Mini-me simply scoots away of course, ironically into the loving arms of Dr. Evil, leaving Fat Bastard un-sated, yet nevertheless deliriously full of himself.

Despite appearances—and our hubris—we humans “on the top of the food chain” are actually the most dependent beings in existence—we rely on everyone and everything “below” us.   Author Michael Pollan’s lengthy and eye-opening essay for the NYT Magazine, “Some of My Best Friends are Germs,” reveals to us that we humans are, in reality, a mere 10% ourselves. The other 90% is actually an ongoing project of other beings, primarily bacteria and microorganisms going about their business.[1]

But for them we’d be nearly-nothing.

So what sense does it make to imagine ourselves at the top of anything?  Don’t we ordinarily think of dependent beings at some sort of bottom?  The child and the invalid are dependent on their caretakers.  So too are we humans dependent on the entire structure of ecology—which, as we are just beginning to understand, includes not just the flora and fauna all around us, but other people too.  Perhaps we can understand Max Ehrmann’s line from the Desiderata in a new way.

“You are a child of the universe . . . ” indeed.

And wealth works similarly, reflecting in parallel the imagined hierarchy we impose on Nature.  The wealthy hallucinate, seeing themselves as independent, as above everyone else.  But in reality, the wealthy are wholly dependent on all of the people “below” them, from their own workers to the teachers who educated those workers, to the people who maintain and operate buildings, the means of transportation, systems of exchange, and so on, and on and on . . .

Monopoly

The wealthy are utterly dependent on the entire infrastructure of nature/culture—they are dependents—more so than any other economic strata.  Think about this. Please.

The wealthy are not inter-reliant; the wealthy are held aloft by the compliance and work and servitude of others—some of whom they pay, or exploit, or from whom they simply receive unacknowledged and unearned benefits.  Yet many strut about the world, full of themselves, like Fat Bastard(s), as if they fashioned it all from their own hands.

Thus, shouldn’t we think of the wealthy as residing at the bottom of our society? And therefore, shouldn’t they be treated just like many of them treat the poor?

Reality bites! 

Of course I’m just having fun.  We certainly can’t cure dystopia with the “technologies” that created it.  We need to treat the rich the way most of us try to treat the poor: we help them because we feel for them.  I know, I’m asking a lot. But most of us are chock-full of empathy—plenty to go around—even if it doesn’t show that often.  For me, the older I get—the more I’ve seen—the more I cry, as if the world has been waiting for me to notice.

We need to dismantle the illusory hierarchy that encourages destructive arrogance, leaving the wealthy empathically poor and all of us poorer, so we can welcome them into human inter-dependency.  As Thict Nhat Hanh might say, such a generous and compassionate act could bring multiple benefits, to those helping as well as to those helped.  Who knows how far that wind may blow?

How do we help the wealthy and ourselves at the same time? We refuse to participate in their charade. We drop out of their hierarchically structured economy-world and build a new world that acknowledges our relational dependence on each other and all others; the whole nature/culture shebang. To start, this may take the form of public banking, co-ops and so on, but we can’t limit ourselves to economics. We need a new way to live, one that recognizes our inter-relational dependence.

 

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Fortunately, the world is a rich place for ideas. But to unlock real creativity and enable a critical and kinetic mass, first we have to be unchained from the hegemony of imagined hierarchy. We have to begin to see more clearly. Start with this:

Humans are the most dependent beings, and the wealthy are the most dependent humans.

The older I get the more I come to understand that reality is the opposite of the proffered convention—because the profferers of convention have a vested interest in keeping the world structured just so.  The poor suffer a lack of justice, which is what Voltaire meant when he said: The comfort of the rich depends on an abundant supply of the poor.

But willful poverty—call it minimalism if you like—as both a personal and political act, is something to be achieved. Or better, it is something to be created, with others, as one might make art from detritus.  Finding satiety for yourself, and providing satiety for others, is a means and ends united; the wholeness of the individual secure in the inter-reliance of the community of beings. Think of this as an emancipating intervention, a reclaiming of justice by refusing to aid and abet the accumulators—the wealthy—and heal them, and us, at the same time.

Free from the servitude that feeds Fat Bastard, the willful poor weaken him and are empowered to seek authentic concert with the world—real relationships with each other and the ecosystem—and thereby change the world.

This won’t be easy.  Begin with the dismantling of illusory hierarchy that is itself a direct cause of suffering and planetary degradation.
 holypalace


Jeff Tangel
is an Adjunct Professor at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, an Associate of  DePaul’s Institute for Nature and Culture, and a regular contributor to Environmental Critique.  His individual blog is The Tecumseh Project.  E-mail tangel@sxu.edu

[1] Some of My Best Friends are Germs, Michael Pollan, NYT Magazine May 15, 2013 http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/19/magazine/say-hello-to-the-100-trillion-bacteria-that-make-up-your-microbiome.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0 accessed June 13, 2013

 

Image Sources:

  1. New York Times: https://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/04/voting-in-and-out-monopoly-games-faux-riche/?_r=0
  2. Richelle Gribble, Intertwined-4: http://richelle-gribble.com/interdependent/
  3. David Friedman, The Holy Palace: http://www.kosmic-kabbalah.com/holy-palace

 

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A Thousand Dead

Timothy LeCain | “A Thousand Dead Snow Geese: The Matter of the Non-Human in the Age of Humans”

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See video of LeCain’s informative and moving talk here.

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Filed under Animals, economicss, Environmental Ethics