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Category Archives: Environmental Ethics
Timothy LeCain | “A Thousand Dead Snow Geese: The Matter of the Non-Human in the Age of Humans”
See video of LeCain’s informative and moving talk here.
Shifting toward an Ethics of Sanctuary
“If Harambe and his gorilla family lived in sanctuary rather than on display at the Cincinnati Zoo, he would still be alive. No curious child would have been in a position to crawl into the enclosure and no care staff would have had to make the horrible decision to kill a highly endangered gorilla. The gorillas would interact with each other and caregivers when they decided to; would exercise their bodies and minds as they wanted; and would be free to make choices about how to spend their time. Many respectable sanctuaries report on the personalities and interests of the animals who live there, so the public can get to know them. Some sanctuaries have live webcams. Supporters may be invited to pitch in on site and special educational activities might be arranged, but the animals decide whether they want to be seen by the occasional visitors. Harambe’s curiosity could have been safely peaked in such an environment and he would have been able to continue to develop into a majestic silverback adult.”
Continue reading below.
EC now following Jeff VanderMeer’s The Southern Reach. This excerpt is from “Eco Watch: Robin Wall Kimmerer in Sun Magazine on ‘Two Ways of Knowing.’” (More from and about VanderMeer soon.)
The Sun Magazine recently published a fascinating interview with Dr. Robin Wall Kimmerer, who fuses her formal science background with knowledge from her background as a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. Kimmerer is a SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She also serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment.
I encourage you to read the entire interview, which speaks to a holistic and more complex view of ecosystems and the environment–and one that’s useful in thinking about how we combat global warming and biosphere degradation but also in how we re-imagine our relationship to the Earth in a more meaningful and positive way.
It’s useful, too, in pushing back against the frequent fetishizing or simplification of the cultures of various Native American and First Nation peoples–first by thinking of these diverse and varied cultures reductively as one culture and second by thinking of their views of the environment as being only “mystical” and not practical. I’d also argue that within the realm of “traditional” science, Kimmerer’s comments point to a vital fact: while specialization in science is important it can also be extremely limiting.
Continue reading here.
from Scientific American (March 2, 2016)
After Flint, Mich., switched from purchasing water via Detroit to sourcing locally from the Flint River, residents began noticing a change in water quality. One resident—Lee Anne Walters—suspected the water might be toxic, and had her water tested for lead. She brought samples to Marc Edwards, an environmental engineer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and a world-renowned expert on water treatment. He found lead levels in her tap water at 13,200 parts per billion; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sounds the alarm at 15 ppb. She subsequently discovered her three-year-old son had blood lead levels so high that he was considered lead poisoned. In fact, researchers estimated 4 percent of all Flint’s children five and under had elevated blood lead–a percentage almost double that seen before the switch to the Flint River water.
Keep reading here.
by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)
Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is currently interested in the applications and implications of developments in political theory sometimes termed the new materialisms – particularly insofar as they relate to theories of nature and politics and to our contemporary era of environmental devastation.
As we navigate the unfolding ecological catastrophe in which we reside, we need increasingly to elaborate and occupy a cosmopolitical stance toward the world. We can find resources for articulating such a cosmopolitics in many places. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) provide us with exactly such a resource. Let’s see why.
The term “cosmopolitics” stems from the Greek word κοσμοπολίτης, itself from κόσμος (meaning “the world conceived as an ordered whole”) and πολίτης (meaning “citizen,” or “one who belongs to a political community”). As such, κοσμοπολίτης refers to a citizen of the cosmos, to a citizen of some bigger, broader collective or order rather than to a mere citizen of some specific state – or state-of-affairs – in the here-and-now. We can follow easily the association of κοσμοπολίτης, then, with the discourses of cosmopolitanism that emerge in the modern period with Kant and onward.
However, the term comes well into its own in the work of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. Stengers explicitly distances herself from the Kantian sensibility of cosmopolitanism, preferring instead to examine and valorize the numerous relations between ecologies of practices and those “new immanent modes of existence” that arise therein.[i] Likewise, the early Latour proposes a flat ontology in which he foregrounds the symmetrical relationship between human actants and inhuman actants that takes shape in ANT (Actor-Network-Theory), and which he folds into his recent modes of existence project.[ii]
Crucial, then, is the expanded sensibility of the political that attends the cosmopolitics articulated by Stengers and Latour. If politics is about collective action and collective imagination, as I think it is, the collective in question opens up to include a much wider range of agencies. This greater inclusiveness does not occur simply for the sake of inclusiveness, nor to effect a mere expansion of our ethical sensibilities. Rather, in it, what qualifies as political becomes, itself, a matter of political claim and contestation – that is to say, a politics about the makeup of the cosmos. As Kyle McGee puts it, “The politics of the cosmos describes the practical problem of living together, or better, the challenge of building a world in which we, humans and nonhumans, can live together in durable association.”[iii] For Stengers and Latour, then, cosmopolitics exceeds the merely or only human. Institutions, practices, and subjectivities must also engage and overlap with the inhuman. We must think conjunctively: animals and atmospheres, technics and territories, flesh and firmament.
Principally, such a cosmopolitics indicates the degree to which conventionally political categories and practices are themselves both products of, and constituents within, the ecological materiality that throngs around us and makes us possible.
In the Southern Reach novels, Jeff VanderMeer takes even further the cosmopolitical vision that he shares with Stengers and Latour, and taking it further allows him to make contact with the ecological more directly than can either Stengers or Latour. The novels elaborate upon the cosmopolitical stance by unfolding a dramatic, uncanny narrative of affective transformation and material negotiation between landscape and subject. Indeed, I argue that the relationship between landscape and subject dominates the Southern Reach novels, and they articulate this relationship by enacting a weird psychogeography. Psychogeography, Guy Debord writes, refers to the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”[iv] The psychogeography of the Southern Reach is weird precisely because it simultaneously undercuts and produces new subjectivities. It is in this psychogeographical frame that the narrative unfolds.
The primary setting of the novels is Area X, a tract of land found along the Florida coast, seemingly isolated by “an ill-defined Event” and, now, “a pristine wilderness devoid of any human life,” at least superficially (Annihilation, 94; Authority, 9). Area X “lay beyond a border that still, after more than thirty years, no one seemed to understand” (ibid.). The first two novels revolve around two characters: a biologist who goes on an expedition into Area X, and Control, the newly minted director of the Southern Reach organization, “a backward, backwater agency” established in order to contain and study Area X.
Policing the boundary between Area X and everything else is Control’s responsibility, although it is soon revealed to be an impossible task, as the landscape behind the boundary inexorably, albeit slowly, expands, resisting all attempts at comprehension. However, this expansion does not exactly threaten destruction, as whatever exists within Area X finds itself transfigured, rather than destroyed. Nor does Area X embody a classical depiction of vengeful nature, bearing down violently upon the human race in reprisal for poor environmental management or general lack of character.
To the contrary, Area X is precisely a space of unmitigated natural being, self-expressive beyond the conceptual bondage of theorized natural law or function – it is the active, motile embodiment of what the late Merleau-Ponty calls “être sauvage.”[v] Merleau-Ponty articulates the savage being of the world in terms of what he calls its flesh. The flesh is his term for the entirety of the immanent distribution of the sensible, which is to say, the body of existence as such. It encompasses both “my flesh,” as in the body in its lived experience, and “the flesh of the world,” as in the continuum that preserves and produces entitative singularity precisely by virtue of its seamless contiguity. He writes of the flesh that it means “that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world” (248). This allows us to start fleshing out what exactly Area X does
Area X embodies the truth of landscape as such. It is not a nostalgic depiction of a natural world untrammeled by the human. Nor is it the romanticized wild at issue in the so-called “wilderness debate.”[vi] Rather, the seething being-singular-plural of Area X, which always somehow just avoids our conscious apprehension, captures what it means to be a landscape altogether – that is, to be the ecotonal space composited by distributed agencies and interleavings.
Consider the recurrent imagery VanderMeer employs regarding samples taken from Area X by researchers at the Southern Reach, writing:
Not a single sample had ever shown any irregularities: normal cell structures, bacteria, radiation levels, whatever applied. But [Control] had also seen a few strange comments in the reports from the handful of guest scientists who had passed the security check and come here to examine the samples, even as they had been kept in the dark about the context. The gist of these comments was that when they looked away from the microscope, the samples changed; and when they stared again, what they looked at had reconstituted itself to appear normal. (Authority, 125)
What emerges from this passage is the uncanny sense that there is always a pretense performed by the natural, a pretense that comprises part of what it means to be natural in the first place. One need only imagine the eeriness of feeling that a terraced garden is only pretending to conform to our desires and techniques of control – that catching it by surprise might reveal a green inferno of writhing, clamorous, and underlying wildness (as opposed to wilderness).
As the biologist notes of Area X: “I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage” (Annihilation, 98). And VanderMeer emphasizes that those who visit Area X come back changed and transformed – both “utterly human and inhuman” (139). You could say that they have been re-inscribed as a part of the living landscape. It is fitting, then, that it is the biologist who attunes with Area X, embracing its weirdness and becoming transformed by it into such an uncanny creature herself, whereas Control endeavors to combat its effects and even its very existence (“[h]e liked the word enemy – it crystallized and focused his attention more than ‘Area X.’ Area X was just a phenomenon visited upon humanity, like a weather event, but an enemy created intent and focus” [Acceptance, 80]).
There lurks here, in VanderMeer’s novels, a cosmopolitical vision other than that suggested by Stengers and Latour. It is a much weirder vision, I think – but, as Eileen Joy notes, the weird can be seen as “an ethical act, one invested in maximizing the sensual and other richness of the world’s expressivity.”[vii] This, I claim, is precisely how the ecological apprehension of the world’s flesh that VanderMeer makes possible gives us a cosmopolitical landscape worth preserving – what we might call an Area X to be conserved.
Image source: The Southern Reach, Jeff Vandermeer
[i] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I and Cosmopolitics II, trans. Roberto Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010/2011).
[iii] Kyle McGee, Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 77.
[iv]Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Wandering,” Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.
[v] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).
[vi] J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson (eds.), Wilderness Debate Rages On: Continuing the Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008): http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/wilderness_debate
[vii] Eileen Joy, “Weird Reading,” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV (2013), p. 30.
by Jeff Tangel
My son Jack is a nice young man. I haven’t been nice since I was a young man. Hopefully he’ll have more stamina. Isn’t that the kind of thing we wish for our children? Or ought to anyway.
Last weekend we drove downstate, to Farmington—a place just like it sounds—to see his grandmother who, after many years of sharing her talents with the people thereabouts, now lives in what we Americans call a “nursing home”. She taught 5th Grade for 31 years and raised six children. Now she has Alzheimer’s and can’t take care of herself, her memory a flickering flame.
On the way down Jack and I talked. He said that he had been thinking about the number of ways he could be contacted, nowadays, with all the technology. He counted out for me about fifteen: Facebook post and message, Facetime, cell phone call, cell phone text, email (2 accounts), g-chat, Skype, i-message . . . well, that’s ten, the others I’m forgetting right now. Maybe I’ll remember later.
Though I had some idea about this, hearing the list was eye opening. In my class I require students to watch the The Matrix—the well known, 1999, action packed allegory of our modern lives by Chicago’s Wachowski brothers, who, it must be said, are fans of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations.[i] Me too. I won’t recount the whole idea here, but the upshot of the film is that human beings have become the power source for the ruling AI machines. That is, super-intelligent machines now raise humans in test tube cells, farm-like, to capture the energy that we naturally produce. Every-body is connected by a multitude of wires and tubes—like a terminally ill hospital patient with great insurance—monitoring functions, making corrections and delivering nutrients all to collect the product of the cell, energy, which is food for the machines. We humans, in our tubes, see and experience everything as simulacra—so real-like we can taste it, and so we are placated and unaware, while the AI machines are able to harvest that energy to continue both their own, and our simulacrum existence. Think of it as a form of levitated permaculture.
When Jack started describing all of the ways that he could be contacted, I thought of the movie. Isn’t each of these new technologies that “connect” us like tubes and wires running into our bodies? Sure they connect us horizontally. Humans in the movie have all sorts of intercourse. But aren’t we all connected to central servers? And it’s unclear to me who is being served even as technology seems to be satisfying our needs.
The heroes of The Matrix, and specifically the reluctant Neo, aim at setting humans free from the chains of their manufactured existence—from manufactured illusion and slavery—to exit the cave and reclaim our humanity.
Steven Shaviro explains “accelerationism” as, “the idea that the only way out is the way through.” In a recent online interview he characterized the controversial hypothesis just so: “If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.” [ii]
This seems a pragmatic and sage response to intractable socio-economic forces. But I’m not convinced.
“Accelarationism” may be a new and catchy name for a not terribly new idea. “Back” in 2008, UC Berkeley sociologist Peter Evans published an insightful essay along these lines titled, “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” [iii] in which he argues well for employing the tools of capitalist globalization to render the world more hospitable for humans. This means, more than anything, recovering the power of technology and repurposing it towards better than profitable ends. As Shaviro says, “If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.” [iv] So we can live contentedly, the fruit of our technology.
And yet I can’t recall ever being so tired as I am now. Maybe I just can’t keep up. So Godspeed to that century-long promise of progress. Or has it been longer?
For me, the most interesting thing about capitalism is its creation of a capital as a concept with ontological status. This fictional disembodied spirit now roams the world without restraint and wherever it goes it recreates the world in its own image. What is that? Well, in a phrase: reproductive efficiency. That’s what capital does. Messy is bad, so it finds the most efficient path for its reproduction. And to do this it has to simplify the world into neat productive interconnected silos. That’s what globalization is.
Interestingly, that’s also what technology does. Long ago we dropped the “ought,” question. “Ought we aim at doing this or that?” Instead, we just do. Why? Because “we” are not the deciders anymore. Nearly all technology now serves its makers, not its users, and its makers serve capital. In fact technology creates its users as University of Pennsylvania Professor Joseph Turow explains in his insightful book, The Daily You[v] as if we were cultured in a lab. All that data collection is not to provide better stuff to human beings, for which they may or may not clamor. Instead it’s a means of creating a clamor. It’s about creating better, more efficient consumers of technology so that capital can continue to reproduce itself in the most efficient manner possible.
Production is the master. Consumption the servant.
Aren’t nearly all the solutions offered by technology aimed at solving problems created by it-self—created by capitalism? I call this the economics, and metaphysics, of duct tape and bailing wire. Sure some amazing things can be done with those rudimentary tools (think ones and zeroes), but it can’t, and never will be able to offer an “ought” idea.
Embracing technology as a means of breaking through to the other side is like someone who’s had too much Guinness trying to sober up with a shot of Jameson. Neat.
Steven Fraser tells us in his book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, that the reason we’ve had so much trouble battling back, or reforming capitalism is because we have forgotten a time when it didn’t make all our decisions. [vi] We can’t collectively recall our past. And lacking recall, we can’t imagine another way to live. We’re stuck.
What use is the past to capital? What use is the past to technology? Doesn’t technology now mean obliterate the past? Back in the 1940’s Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”. Today Silicon Valley calls it “disruption”. Whatever. New duct tape. We’ve naturalized Alzheimer’s because it’s good for business. That’s all the “ought” we have.
I haven’t yet remembered those other five ways my son can be contacted.
But I do remember many years ago my elderly neighbor saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is to stop digging.”
Image Credit: ” A Gene for Forgetting” <http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-gene-for-forgetting>
[i] Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations (P. Foss, P. Patton, & P. Beitchman, Trans.). New York: Semiotext (e).
[ii]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050
[iii] “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” <http://www.learningace.com/doc/57794/dfa1e8c1c7a26773e2bdd42973d1935c/evans-alter-globalization-pol-soc-v36n2-june08>
Peter Evans: <http://sociology.berkeley.edu/professor-emeritus/peter-evans>
[iv]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050>
[v].Turow, J. (2012). The daily you: How the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth. Yale University Press.
<https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Daily_You.html?id=rK7JSFudXA8C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false> Book TV Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt2KwcsMbks> (8:27)
[vi] Fraser, S. (2011). The Age of Acquiescence. Little Brown.