Category Archives: Natural World

A lively dodo!! On extinction, Derrida and solastalgia

Went do a corking seminar this afternoon, at the end (well, middle) of a corking day (more on that another time).

It was by Gitanjali Pyndiah, a third year PhD student at Goldsmith’s University (scene of a crime against academia and activism 10 days ago, but I digress).

She’s looking at how ‘we’ (people from both Mauritius and the wider world) think of and portray … the dodo.

Dodo_tennielThe title was “The objet-Dodo: reframing extinction in a post-colonial context.

This blog post is NOT a verbatim summary of what she said, more of the interesting stuff (and also my stuff) that came out of the talk and the discussion.

She started in with a brief history of the dodo and how it is native to Mauritius. It got wiped out by the Dutch, who then scuttled off and left the island to be colonized by the French, who had it till 1810, when the English took it (but left the language, laws and everything else untouched).

There was a good short description of “Imperial Nostalgia” –

a mood of nostalgia that makes racial domination appear innocent and pure; people mourning the passing or transformation of what they have caused to be transformed. Imperialist nostalgia revolves around a paradox: A person kills somebody and then mourns the victim; or someone deliberately alters a life form and then regrets that things have not remained as they were. . . Imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture peoples’ imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination (R. Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis)

There was a fascinating bit on the biology of islands and “island dwarfism” – how things either shrink or become giant when isolated. May use it to think about social movements some more, and how they shape people’s habits… But I digress

There was a fascinating section on how the Oxford Dodo (on display, in multiple senses, at the Natural History Museum there) is worth thinking about.

There was a bit on Derrida where my attention became decidely undecidable; I thought and wrote some theoretical stuff about my PhD (on the dialectical issue lifecycle model, since you ask), which would make my supervisor happy, but he doesn’t read this blog.

Then there was some cool stuff on a Mauritian artist whose representations of the dodo are again worth thinking with.

This was followed by a lively discussion. If only I could read my hand writing that suggested I read something “Essay on Cr…., essay on…..”

Other books and essays to add to the tottering pile

“Borders, boundaries and frameworks.” Hmm, can’t find, but this, by someone called Mae Henderson, might be it?

Peasant Pasts: History and Memory in Western India” by Vinayak Chaturvedi

My thoughts, fwtw

Solastalgia – sadness for what we’ve lost thanks to climate change.

Solastalgia is a neologism coined by an Australian; The philosopher named Glenn Albrecht in 2003 with the first article published on this concept in 2005.[1] It describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change.

Hans Haacke – German political artist

Elizabeth Kolbert and her book on The Sixth Great Extinction

Extinction as a passive term where the doer is missing, but in Chile the dictatorship would “disappear” people, as a verb…

The Portuguese only have one word that covers exploration and exploitation, which is sensible and honest, if you think about it…

The dodo as US (we are stupid but don’t know it). An invading alien would do for us the way the Dutch did for the dodo. As per “The Arrival” which stars Charlie Sheen as a rocket scientist…

Martha the Passenger Pigeon and the last Tasmanian Tiger (that we know about  and that sad sad footage.)

Baudrillard’s Simulacrum – representation of a thing that never existed/no longer exists blah blah

Dodo as boundary object?

In sociology, a boundary object is information, such as specimens, field notes, and maps, used in different ways by different communities. Boundary objects are plastic, interpreted differently across communities but with enough immutable content to maintain integrity. The concept was introduced by Susan Leigh Star and James R. Griesemer in a 1989 publication (p. 393):

The animals we choose to represent us (the hippy students of UC Santa Cruz getting the banana slug instead of the sea lion. But not every animal “means” the same thing the world over, of course…)

Oh, btw, Shell, we have that ‘hybrid world’ – thanks in part to you…

Yesterday I posted a piece on Shell’s beautiful (in a Leni Riefenstahl kind of way) new advert in which two vegan, pierced women act as spokespeople for the exploration, extraction and burning of natural gas.  I should have pointed out that this advert is also an appropriation of the whole “we need more women in STEM” thing. And even more than that, I should have pointed out that we already have the hybrid world they are saying they’d like, just not quite in the way they probably mean…

As the late Ulrich Beck said in a May 2014 discussion with Bruno Latour –

“… global warming is already transforming the world dramatically. For example: there is no longer such a thing as a purely natural weather event. Equally, no weather event can truly be described as artificial, that is human induced. By changing so substantially the composition of the world’s atmosphere, humans have not simply brought a new category of weather into being – ‘human weather’, for example, as distinct from ‘natural weather’. Rather, the planetary system which yields distinct weather at distinct times in distinct places is now a both-and-system – it is a hybrid system yielding hybrid weather. Whatever the weather outside this window today – whether storm or calm, whether heat wave or cold wave – it is a result of this new co-produced natural-societal system.”

 

Of Monbiot, Manchester and miserable ‘feral’ futures.

Nature as redeemer, nature as escape, nature as the solace for our “gridded, controlled, mannered urban lives.” So far so romantic.
Well, nature is on the road, and she’s gunning for the lot of us. We’ve poked the beast, and now it really is waking up. On a quiet day, you could hear it snoring. Nowadays you can hear it going about its morning ablutions while preparing to unleash a can of whoopass on the species wot woke it up.
Which made the Manchester Literature Festival event I went to all the more weird. Row upon row of staggeringly white (this is Manchester?) people, of a certain level of (cultural) capital – not so many upward omnivores here – sat in rows while downloadGeorge ‘Feral’ Monbiot and Sarah ‘Carhullan Army’ Hall stood at t’podium. Hall read from her latest novel, The Wolf Border, which is about a woman, Rachel, involved in a project to reintroduce wolves to the UK. George does what George does well – some witty observations, confidently delivered with a smile. I first saw him do this at the Schumacher Lectures in, bosh, 1996?, when he alarmed the assembled ‘hippie’ gentry by advocating for land rights in the FIRST world. (They were underwhelmed, given the tacit deal with the Schumacher Lectures is that rich people get to be telescopically philanthropic, not locally so. But I digress).  He did not epater la bourgeoisie on this occasion however, but advocated the roaming of the four-legged beasts, especially ones that might contest the ‘white plague’ (sheep, not TB). And deer. [What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out? No eye-deer. What do you call Bambi with his eyes poked out and his legs chopped off? Still no eye-deer. I’m digressing again, aren’t I?]

This is all well and good, but as the host alluded to, there are slightly bigger fish (well, planets) to fry. So, uncharacteristically, I stuck up my hand and asked this.
“On climate change. We’ve been warned since 1988 by the scientists and some politicians. We’ve done nothing. We WILL do nothing. So we are going to get acidified oceans, seven metres of sea level rise and four degrees plus of warming. Given that, to be provocative, what does it matter if we re-introduce this species or that. “Mother Nature” will introduce – and eliminate – species over the next hundred years as she sees fit.” 
George’s answer was in two parts. I will try to report each fairly, and then editorialise.
1) You mustn’t say that we will do nothing, that we are doomed, because that is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The species is hugely altruistic, it’s just a few (percentage) who are screwing it up.

2) Ecosystems with lots of biodiversity (and apex predators etc) are more resilient to shocks.

George – if you’re reading this and I’ve been unfair, lemme know. Ditto if anyone who was there is reading this…

What I wanted to say in response, but obviously didn’t.

1) The “you mustn’t say we’re doomed because that means people will give up” argument is beginning to get on my tits. I think it can and should only be made by people who have done a thorough job of studying WHY our response has been so poor (it’s not ALL Exxon’s fault) and – this is the crucial bit – have some clearly-stated suggestions about HOW TO DO THINGS DIFFERENTLY ‘GOING FORWARD’. George may have these, but he didn’t say them on Sunday (fair enough – folks were coming to hear him talk about wolves and rhinos, not social movement strategy).
We don’t say “you shouldn’t tell people with lung cancer that they have lung cancer because then they’ll get upset.” We expect to treat ourselves/each other as adults, who can read a Keeling Curve, read the emissions trajectories and understand the concept of climate sensitivity, and do some pretty rudimentary guesstimating.
ALSO, it’s not my ‘doom’ that is killing the species’ chance of seeing the 22nd century in reasonable shape. It’s capitalism, technological hubris, consumerism, population, the failure of social movements to cope with neo-Gramscian passive revolution strategies, and good old fashioned inertia baked into ‘the System’ (, “man”).

2) Hmm, that’s

a) curiously anthropocentric and

b) kinda misses the point about the shocks to the System. The second half of the 21st Century is (probably, okay, probably) going to make the first half of the 20th look like a picnic. This or that species of wolf is not going to mean there isn’t starvation, plague, war and all of that zombie apocalypse stuff. Wishful/magical/totemic thinking to think otherwise, no?

Sarah Hall’s answer I can’t categorise so clearly (I’m sexist man only paying attention to men? Maybe. Or just getting old? Or both). She seemed to be saying, with the example of the 2005 floods in Carlisle, that the cities will be affected, and it’s only when that happens that we will do something.

Worth reading on this “back to Nature” malarkey

  • EM Forster’s short story “The Machine Stops
  • Kingfisher Lives by the late Julian Rathbone, denied the Booker Prize – because one of the judges, the wife of then Prime Minister Harold Wilson, could cope with the incest, murder, cannibalism, but not the (in context) dropping of the C-bomb.
  • Paul Theroux The Mosquito Coast
  • And of course all the feminist sci-fi/spec fiction writers – Marge Piercy (Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass), Barbara Kingsolver, Ursula Le Guin, Octavia Butler.  And I STILL haven’t read Carolyn ‘The Death of Nature’ Merchant. #lazy

PS Thanks to CG for the ticket!!

“This Changes Everything” changes nothing #smugosphere #emotathons #samemistakes #RoadtoParis

Here we go.  Here we go with the summit-hopping and the protestations that we have to Build a Mass Movement and the only/best/sensible (delete as appropriate) way to do that is to have a big march/ruck at (Prague/Genoa/Copenhagen and… Paris.  (Yeah, well – screw Paris. No, seriously, screw Paris.)

Here we go with the sages on the stage. Here we go with the ego-foddering,  the emotathons and all the pathologies of the smugosphere.

And, most unforgivable of all, here we go with the cynical or careless misuse of the language of liberation for a bunch of stale, unimaginative and exclusionary events that want to be sexy so wrap themselves in the cool lingo of the day, devaluing it. The lyrics change, but the song remains the same.

Example the first

Naomi Klein has written a new book (great review here) (some of us are old enough to remember the first biggie – “No Logo”).  It’s called “This Changes Everything”.

The facebook event says

changesevertying

“On 28th March, three weeks after the national climate demonstration, [you know, the one that got an attendance of 10,000 ish and caused the barest ripple imaginable in the mediaverse] we will be hosting a radical, participatory event called This Changes Everything. Inspired by Naomi Klein’s new book, the day will bring hundreds of people together in interactive workshops with leading campaigners and climate scientists….”

And to quote myself from an email I wrote to someone about whether I would go

“radical, participatory event” my fat arse. It will be same smug emotathon and egofoddering and sage on the stage tosh that they always do.

I’d just get too angry about it.

There will be denunciations of

a) the Conservatives
b) the Americans
c) Capitalism/Industrialism/Finance  (the three wil be conflated, elided etc)
d) “Big” green organisations that are, you know, totally complicit with the System, man.

And there will be precisely zero genuine searching critique of what the grassroots movements have been DOING WRONG.

And there will be ritual invocations that Paris Really Matters.
And there will be grandstanding and tussles for attention from various radicals who like to stand on soapboxes and lecture everyone about how participatory their movements are[redacted – we have libel laws in this country].
And loads of paper sellers and the hippy equivalent of paper sellers.
I refuse to be complicit.  To hell with the lot of them.

I am sure the organisers will survive my absence, just about.

Example the second; the  “Boom Bust Boom” conference happening in Manchester the following week. They have the brass bloody necks to call what they are doing an unconference, because unconferences sound ooh so sexy.

boomprogramme

Oddly, my comment on their volunteer section about how it was perfectly okay and nothing to be ashamed of to be running a conference, but that you shouldn’t call it something IT ISN’T didn’t get approved.  How radical.

So one thing promises it will be radical and participatory but will be stuffed to the gills with “Celebrities” and experts talking at people.  The other claims to be an “un-conference” but simply isn’t.

Why do I care?  Because it debases the coinage.  Because I hate it when the corporations steal our dreams and sell them back, and I also hate it when Trotskyists –  be they liberal, anarchist, Trotskyist or whatever – do the same.  I hate being conned. To quote myself again –

“Throwing around terms like un-conference and “open space” and then perpetrating what Compass did seriously devalues the currency of innovation. If people who attended think “that’s what World Cafe is” or “that’s what open space is like” then they become cynical and dismissive about them. But these tools are are not – in the right hands – marketing ploys.

We laugh at  the economists when they present emissions reductions graphs that point downwards in a nice straight line to the chosen target but actually rely on fantasy technologies like carbon capture and storage and on nuclear-rolled-out-everywhere-tomorrow.  Ha ha ha.  That’s right. We should laugh.  Ha ha ha.

But apparently you’re not supposed to laugh when people use the words ‘social movements’ instead of CCS, as if those are any less a “fantasy technology” for achieving emissions reductions.  We. Will. Not. Mitigate. We haven’t in the last 25 years, and we won’t in the next 25. We will wrap our ickle opposable thumbs around every last lump of coal that we can. The savannah did not equip our brains or our political institutions to think about everyone’s long-term futures. Deal with it.

There is only one thing funnier than the magical use of the term ‘social movements’ and that’s when those proponents think that they are going to magic those social movements into existence using exactly the same formats and tools that haven’t worked the last 25 years.

That? That really cracks me up.

But try to change it?  Well, to steal from another email –

Good luck with your attempt to restructure.  Final unsolicited advice – “expect resistance“.  Folks have their comfort zones, and they largely perceive no problem with the existing set-up. They will not take very kindly to the implicit rebuke of their previous actions in your proposal to change things.

“Radicals” are some of the most conservative people I know….

References

The Law of Two Feet

Unconferences

Human emissions level off – so, no need to worry about #climate change?

Marc Hudson tries to put the “global human-caused carbon emissions not going up” news into context.

I don’t know if there are people out there who, on hearing from the International Energy Agency that for the first time outside of a recession, the amount of carbon dioxide we’ve tipped into the atmosphere (from burning fossil fuels for transport, electricity, heating) has ‘stalled’ and thought “our climate worries are over!”

Probably there are. Humans have limited cognitive capacity, and are always looking for rationalisations to allow them to keep doing what they’ve been doing. And climate change leads itself both to rationalisations and misunderstanding of scales and speeds.

Great+Acceleration+2015+igbp+src+low+resLet’s take human emissions.  They’ve been growing dramatically over the last few decades, especially since the Great Acceleration of the 1950s, when everything started to grow dramatically.  In 1988 the scientific warnings of the previous 15 years or so burst onto the public stage. Since then our emissions have gone up and up pretty relentlessly, in a global perspective.  We built new infrastructure, we didn’t create and/or export the low carbon technologies for energy production, and that’s basically all that matters. Every year we pumped more carbon into the atmosphere than the previous year, unless there was a global recession (which means less economic activity, less energy use, less coal/oil/gas being burned).

But human emissions – a relatively small part of overall emissions from ‘natural’ causeskeelingcurvelions breathe out c02, trees die and decompose etc –  are only of interest, I would argue, because they increase the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide That is currently at the 400 parts per million (ppm) mark, up from 280 in 1780.  The possible ‘safe’ level is 350 ppm, thus the name for the organisation 350.org.

If you want to stop worrying about climate change, you can’t just look at human emissions, you have to look at concentrations.  And a ‘flat’ level of human emissions – especially at 2013-4 levels doesn’t lead to a stable amount of atmospheric C02. It leads to increases, because the amount we produce is higher than what the planet absorbs from the atmosphere into a) vegetation (plants draw C02 out of the atmosphere and use it as building blocks for their growth, which is a pretty neat trick) and b) the oceans (but the oceans can only absorb so much, and the act of absorbing C02 is making the water more acidic (actually, “less alkaline”), with devastating consequences for anything that makes shells out of calcium, and anything that eats anything that makes shells out of calcium, and anything that…. well, it’s a web. You get the picture, I hope. Btw, those “carbon sinks” are weakening.

Higher atmospheric concentrations of C02 leads to more energy being trapped in the atmosphere (if you’re in bed under two thick duvets, you are going to get warmer than under 1 thick duvet. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’ll do for now.)  And higher temperatures mean more extreme weather events, higher global temperatures (especially and sooner at the poles), and very probably more crop failures “etc”.

Look, if people want to grasp at straws, they will.  Death row inmates always hope for the last minute phone call from the governor granting clemency.  It usually doesn’t come.  People turn away from climate change not because those silly environmentalists have got their “messaging wrong” (If one more person says ‘MLK said “I have a dream” not “I have a nightmare’ I am going to explode).  People turn away because climate change is a terrifying and imminent nemesis about which we can no longer do very much. If we’d started properly in 1988 we’d have had some chance, perhaps even a quite good one.  Now?  Um….   If you need to believe that one year’s flat emissions is a harbinger of salvation, you go right ahead.

The metaphor:

The car has been accelerating towards the cliff for some time now. No matter what the pleas of the passengers, the driver has had his foot clamped down on the accelerator. Really the car should be slowing, giving itself time to turn. Faster and faster the car goes. But wait, “good news”!! For whatever reason (the fuel mix, the hand that a passenger has put out the window in order to change the car’s aerodynamics, something else), now the car isn’t going faster. It’s merely heading towards the cliff at the same fearsome speed it was going at a minute ago. So that’s much better…

Why advertisers make us look at animals

We miss animals. We don’t hang around with them so much any more (1). George Monbiot has written with his customary brilliant synthesis of fact and theory about the costs of this.

So, on the stepper at the gym this morning, halfway through an excellent article called “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence and the Study of Politics”, I looked up and caught three adverts on Granada TV (0823-ish).

The first had an animated koala telling people that a brand of toilet paper was something special

The next had some guy with a cold being given an anti-congestant by a big red bull that burst through the living room wall.

The final one was for various pieces of tech that help people feel good and connected. The first was a big curved TV – and what was that TV showing? A tiger lying down in some snow.

So, we miss animals. And advertisers seem to think (presumably with some market research to back this up) (2) that this will get us buyin’.

The three adverts fall into two categories. The first category is “animals are part of God’s plan to help us live the lives we do now” (where “God” might be an old white guy with a beard, or capitalist technoscience. It doesn’t matter). The koala clearly can’t bear the idea of us not having tidy anuses. The bull thinks the idea of a bad cold isnot funny.

The second category is that mournful “look at what we have left behind (last chance to see)”. (And perhaps for some a vague thought of “By watching this documentary we are expressing our solidarity with the natural world. Aren’t those dark people in Africa – those poachers- just awful? Why can’t they live in harmony with Nature like we here in Europe do.”) (3)

What is to be done? This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for kids having unstructured play in natural settings (which, btw, is distinct from a litter-pick or two) and wring my hands about nature-deficit disorder. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for media literacy classes, so everyone can become a decoding advertisements ninja. This is the bit where I am supposed to advocate for a ban on advertising on TV at kids, like they have in Sweden.

But you know what? It’s too late. We’re like the psychotic monkey in the Harry Harlow experiment. Deprived of crucial mothering, its own child had to be removed because it just didn’t know what to do.

Except there’s no-one to remove anyone to anywhere. So it goes.

Footnotes

  1. Which makes the occasional getting-eaten-by-a-shark so newsworthy perhaps. We have come to see (and be) ourselves at the top of a food pyramid, rather than part of a web.

  2. As I recall, Fast Food Nation has stuff about how psychologists discovered that kids dream of animals A LOT until the age of six. And so cereals get marketed with ‘baby’ (big head to body ratio, big eyes) animals. Welcome to the free market.

  3.  I shouldn’t have to add the disclaimer, but this is the Internet – I do not advocate this position. I am adamantly opposed to it.

To (re-) read

Barbara Ehrenreich Blood Rites [Who did I lend my bloody copy to? I’d like it back, thankew]

Donna Haraway on Simians, Cyborgs and Women and all her other stuff (she’s a freaking genius)

John Berger Why Look at Animals (short excellent essay which I’ve nodded to in the title)

George Monbiot Feral Searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding