I’m participating in a reading group here at the University of Vermont entitled “Ontology Across the Disciplines.” (More than just participating… I’ve been gently arm-twisted by the organizers, anthropologists Parker Van Valkenberg and Ben Eastman, into chairing the discussions. Thanks, guys ;-) )

Since I know there are folks out there who may be interested, I thought I’d invite online readers to read along with us, and to have a parallel conversation here or on other blogs.

We’ve started a wiki of potential readings, but most of these duplicate other lists that are out there, for instance, Somatosphere’s “reader’s guide to the ontological turn” series, which included contributions by Judith Farquhar, Javier Lezaun, Morten Axel Pederesen, and Annemarie Mol.

We are considering beginning with readings of two sets of short contributions by a variety of (primarily) anthropologists, since that is the field that has been most fervently recognizing the “ontological turn” recently (and because the organizers of the reading group are anthropologists): Continue Reading »

Astrophysicist and NPR blogger Adam Frank writes about the “sustainability bottleneck” as the state faced by technological civilizations like ours, which have learned how to “intensively harvest” energy, but not how to sustain themselves through the crisis this harvesting sets off.

It turns out there may be millions of planets that give rise to life in our galaxy alone. Frank asks, “So where is everybody?” and then answers that “Maybe not everyone — maybe no one — makes it to the other side” — which seems to me like the collectivist version of Jim Morrison’s famous quip that “no one here gets out alive.”

Frank and fellow astrobiologist Woodruff Sullivan develop this idea in a fascinating article published in the journal Anthropocene, where they coin the term SWEIT for “Species with Energy-Intensive Technology.” That’s a term I would question, since it’s not so much the species that is the issue here as it’s the techno-ecological system — a mode of production in Marxist parlance, that includes members of one or more species (humanity, in our case), but also various crucial relations with other species, tools, entities, and processes. It’s worth debating alternative terms for this beyond the speciecentric “SWEIT,” just as it’s worth debating the virtues and limitations of the term “Anthropocene.”

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With environmental and eco-political news in the front pages daily, it’s easy to get back into the swing of regular, even daily, posting after the winter holiday lull. Here’s more on the “dating the ecocrisis” theme…

Andy Revkin is reporting that the Anthropocene Working Group has concluded that the middle of the twentieth century makes most sense as a date of the beginning of the Anthropocene.

“In a paper published online this week by the journal Quaternary International, 26 members of the working group point roughly to 1950 as the starting point, indicated by a variety of markers, including the global spread of carbon isotopes from nuclear weapon detonations starting in 1945 and the mass production and disposal of plastics. (About six billion tons have been made, with a billon of those tons dumped and a substantial amount spread around the world’s seas.)”

Given that the term Anthropocene is intended to be descriptive, not analytical, this makes perfect sense to me. The causes of those markers — nuclear fallout, plastics, and so on — can be traced to some combination of other factors, including industrialization, capitalism, the nation-state system, European colonialism, and whatever else. But it’s what’s occurred, not what accounts for it, that is the message here. The rest is that much more difficult to ascertain.

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The journal Science has just released more news of planetary boundary transgression. (This is related to my post from a few days ago.)

Specifically, of nine such boundaries connected to “processes and systems [that] regulate the stability and resilience of the Earth System,” four have been crossed. Two of these, climate change and biosphere integrity, are considered “core boundaries,” which makes them the kind that, if significantly altered, would “drive the Earth System into a new state.”

The research, published by an international team led by Will Steffen, just came out in Science Express (which publishes Science articles in advance of their print publication). It’s summarized here.

Meanwhile, the New York Times’ lead story today is about mass extinction of ocean life — yet another boundary being crossed.

As environmental social scientists know, ecological boundaries are tricky objects to pin down. But one that’s pretty measurable is the boundary at which the crescendoing Greek chorus of scientists passes a certain threshold of audibility. (To those who are listening.)

Charlie Hebdo

A few quick reflections on the Charlie Hebdo affair…

1. In the age of social media, we are all producers of images and meanings. The difference is only a matter of degree.

2.  In a globalized world, those who traffic in media ought to have some knowledge of the cultural and ethical implications of their trafficking.

3. This means we are all called to develop our own standards for engagement in global media — our own “cultural policies.” So, for instance, when a faith group of 1.6 billion, or at least a significant proportion of them, believes that their prophet should not be depicted in images, and particularly not irreverently – that’s their cultural policy — each of us who traffics in media production needs to decide whether and how we will abide by that.

This blog, with its two to three hundred subscribers and score of other visitors, hardly qualifies in the ranks of Charlie Hebdo, which traffics at a far higher scale and knows full well the kind of effects it wants to trigger. Hebdo is in the business of iconoclasm, perhaps even iconoclash — that’s its cultural policy and its raison d’être.

But we all traffic in a world of iconoclashes, where the standards of modernism — free right to full visual and narrative expression, and so on — are not accepted by all, nor maybe even by a majority.

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Two kinds of historical turning points define our era.

The first kind involves the retrospective identification of new forms of enclosure, exploitive intensification, or system derailment. Debates over the beginnings of a recession, or of a war, or — on a larger scale — of the Anthropocene, are about this kind of backdating: how far back do we trace the beginnings of a crisis we are well in the midst of, but which we have only belatedly come to recognize?

The second kind identify “peaks” of a certain form of exploitation, such as “peak oil,” which mark the moments at which the viability of a crucial resource begins to reverse direction and force a scramble for replacements.

To the latter kind we can now add 2014 (roughly) as the year of “peak wild fish.” As the Breakthrough Institute‘s Marian Swain details in this Slate article, aquaculture surpassed wild capture as our main source of seafood for the first time this year. Swain accepts that there is no going back, and optimistically describes a scenario in the “not-so-distant future” when consumers “may be aghast to find out that their sustainably farmed halibut was actually trawled from a commercial fishery.” What, not from a farm? Throw it out, then.

That seems a bit like arguing that fresh air sucks compared to the exhaust you breathe in the middle of Boston’s Central Artery Tunnel. But whether it’s preferable or not isn’t the point. The point is that we are crossing these thresholds regularly now, like salmon on their way to an ocean who won’t have a river to spawn in when it comes time for that.

No going back. (Notch up one more point for the increasing relevance of Whitehead, for whom there is only always the movement forward.)


The latest issue of the open-access Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and the Moving Image, an issue devoted to “Gilles Deleuze and Moving Images,” includes a review by Niall Flynn of my book Ecologies of the Moving Image. Another recent review of EMI can be found in the The Journal of Ecocriticism. And I’ve mentioned the Environmental Humanities Book Chat devoted to the book, and Harlan Morehouse’s Society & Space interview with me about the book. I’ve been sent two other forthcoming reviews, to appear in the journals Aether (which, judging by its web site, seems to have gone into some hiatus) and JSRNC.

All the reviews I’ve seen so far are fairly detailed, for which I’m grateful, and I think that all appreciate the ambition, complexity, and nuance intended by the film’s theoretical model (which more than one reviewer calls “compelling”) and by the recursive method of its delivery. It appears from these readings that my strategy for overcoming binaries — through a layered, interactive, and dynamic “triadism” — seems to work, even if it takes patience to figure out and remains difficult to summarize.

The 40-minute EH Book Chat goes into the greatest depth at critiquing the book, and I’ll address one of the recurrent points raised in that video presentation here.

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Academic trend watchers will be interested to see how the digital and the Anthropocene have catapulted to the top of hot topics at this year’s American Anthropological Association conference. (A few others are mentioned here and here, Bruno Latour’s keynote being one of them. Here’s a collection of tweets on Latour’s talk, most of them by Jenny Carlson. And for those with more catching up to do, see the series on the ontological turn last year, and my own account of missing Latour then.)

John Hartigan has an interesting post on Somatosphere that compares the suddenly off-the-scale theoretical cachet attained by the term “Anthropocene” against the funkier, more earthbound, and more discipline specific term “multispecies” (its disciplinary specificity still mostly confined to anthropologists and STS folks).

What just happened in Anthropology?” Hartigan asks.

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Note: This is an updated version of a previously posted notice.

Our Environmental Studies program has announced a cluster hire — a search for three new tenure-track professors, at multiple levels from Assistant Professor to Program Director, under the overall umbrella of “Sustainability Studies and Global Environmental Equity.”

Details on the cluster hire can be read here. Details on the Program Director position can be found here. A list of potential courses to be taught by the new faculty can be found here. And here is a list of members of the search committee (we value transparency).

For full consideration, applications should be received by January 5.

The program web site is here. These three positions are being hosted by the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources. (The Environmental Program is a cross-college, interdisciplinary environmental studies program, but it is administered through the Rubenstein School.)

The deadline for proposals to next year’s Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE) conference — arguably the largest and leading ecocritical conference in the world — is coming up in a few weeks.

The conference theme is “Notes from Underground: The Depths of Environmental Arts, Culture and Justice.” Keynotes will include Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing, Linda Hogan, and a host of others.

Details below and here.

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