Tag Archive: ecopolitics

Good news, bad news…

As I think about our Environmental Studies curriculum (I’m Acting Director this semester) and start to think about my Nature and Culture course (which I’ll be teaching in January), I come around to the question of how to conceptualize the fraught relationship between humans and everything else.

The Nature and Culture course offers tools for thinking about this relationship, and challenges students to interrogate those tools, developing them in their own ways and to various ends (ethical, practical, political, etc.). One conceptual tool, among many, is the “good news—bad news” frame. Here’s a quick attempt to present things in this frame.

First, of course . . .

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Cancun: what just happened?

Making sense of what happened at the COP 16 global climate change summit in Cancun is not easy, especially when environmental and climate justice activists seem so intensely divided among themselves (and when the mass media has paid so little attention to it all). Democracy Now yesterday pitted Friends of the Earth’s policy analyst Kate Horner against Center for American Progress senior fellow (and fellow environmental philosopher) Andrew Light, and the two of them seemed to be speaking from different planets. Light’s extended take on the “Cancun compromise” is available here, while FOE International chair Nnimmo Bassey laments the “hijacking of Africa” at the summit here.

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I’m getting ready to head to Spain, where I’ve been invited to give a talk on “green pilgrimage” at the Fourth Colloquium Compostela. Here’s a brief overview of what I’ll be speaking about.


Green Pilgrimage: Prospects for Ecology and Peace-Building

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Marx’s insights for ecology are many. The four “informal laws of ecology,” as Levi Bryant points out in his post on John Bellamy Foster’s Marx’s Ecology, are not one of them (let alone four). These “laws” have been making their rounds ever since biologist and eco-socialist (and one-time Citizens Party candidate for the U.S. presidency) Barry Commoner proposed them around 1970. Numerous iterations afterward have suggested three, four, or five such laws, with Greenpeace’s Declaration of Interdependence being particularly influential. I’m not aware of any scientific ecologists today who think of them as actual scientific laws, though others have been proposed for the science of ecology (see, e.g., here or Pierre Dansereau’s 27 laws of ecology). Foster’s point is that they are “informal,” and therefore intended to provoke thought, not to serve as a foundation for a science.

But let’s look at them, and then at Marx. The first of Foster’s (Commoner’s) “laws,” that “everything is connected to everything else”, is (as Levi points out) a platitude. It’s not wrong, but it doesn’t take us very far. (Except in the mystical experience, which has its place, and an inspirationally important one for many environmentalists; but let’s leave that aside.) The point it makes is intended as a corrective to the common-sense notion that things are simply what they are (people, animals, possessions, units of one thing or another, etc.) and that’s all. The law says that they aren’t just that: everything arises out of its own set of originating conditions, and passes away into other conditions, affecting other things in the process. Not everything directly affects everything else — that would be impossible, since two things that arise simultaneously but in different places don’t normally affect each other (unless by way of some “holographic universe” or superstring-like mechanism that scientists haven’t figured out yet). But if you traced the lines of causal connection from any thing in the universe, you could, in principle, trace it back/forward/across to anything else. That’s what the theory of evolution and the Big Bang both propose, and the science of ecology shares the supposition (though theoretical physicists may not): there is a single universe that has unfolded along a single (branching/diversifying/multiplying/expanding) trajectory, and everything in it is connected through this shared ancestry/descent/line of development. That’s all. The more pragmatic point (which was Commoner’s point) is that our actions have effects and that we normally don’t give them enough thought.

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night of the living dead


From Evan Eisenberg’s The Ecology of Eden:

Half a million years ago, our genus formed an alliance with perennial grasses which allowed us to conquer the world. Over the past ten thousand years, an alliance of humans and annual grasses has conquered much the same ground in a fraction of the time, displacing or subduing not only other species but other humans, their allies, and their cultures.

Only a few centuries ago, a third alliance arose which is now very close to total hegemony over the living world. It has displaced or subjugated much of the natural world that survived the first two waves, as well as what was left of the waves themselves, including humans, their allies, and their cultures. The odd thing about this third alliance is that our most important allies have been dead for millions of years. They are cycads, ferns, giant horsetails, mollusks, plankton, and other creatures that flourished in the Mesozoic and Paleozoic eras, and which the bear-hug of the earth’s crust has crushed into energy-rich carbon compounds.

Modern humans are merely the latest in a long and distinguished line of saprophages: creatures such as fungi, maggots, and various microbes that feed off decaying or decayed organic matter. In our case, the dead organic matter in question is wood, peat, coal, and oil. [. . .]

An oil spill is a kind of night of the living dead, in which dead organic matter that we have called from its grave rises and strangles the living. But oil spills are the least of the problems that fossil fuels cause. For species not allied with man, this third wave is a horror show in which their own ancestors come back to haunt and harm them. Whatever humans could do before–strip forests, rip up soil, move themselves and their allies to the outermost corners of the world–they can now do more easily. [. . .] The earth is punctured, gouged, and scraped to get at more fuel, and at the minerals that are used to make the machines that use the fuel. [. . .]

A biologist from a pedestrian planet, peering at some stretch of North America from a height of five hundred feet, will conclude that its dominant species is a shiny lozenge-shaped reptilian creature that alternately basks in the sun and sprints at great speed. It is host, he will note, to small endosymbiotic organisms which at intervals emerge, move about slowly, then re-enter the host. Further observation reveals why the host puts up with these seeming parasites. They are devoted to the care and feeding of the host. They suck energy-rich organic compounds from the bowels of the planet and feed them to the host, something it is unable to do for itself. At times they even fight other colonies of their own species for access to the host-food. They make over ecosystems to meet the host’s needs, replacing vast forests and grasslands with flat surfaces on which the host can bask or sprint more easily, and building hives or dens in which the host can take shelter from the elements. What they get in return is as yet unclear. Indeed, it seems possible the two organisms are forms of the same species, the lozenge being a sort of queen and the smaller creature a worker.”

drill baby drill…

How’s that drill-baby-drilly stuff workin’ out for ya?

On the other hand, the violence in détournements like this one is pretty grotesque. I’m even hesitant to link to it, let alone embedding it, for fear of getting my hands too dirty. I don’t think I’d want the guy who made it (no question it’s a guy) to live in my neighborhood. Thuggery (and misogyny) disguised as political cleverness. Makes me want to defend Sarah Palin.

The OTE keeps unfolding…

Does that thing (between 0:11 and 0:27) know what it is swimming through??

Here’s a good collection of some of the most memorable images (but what’s that awful music?):

Does Sarah McLaughlin improve things a little?

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Earth Day 40

I’ve been posting links to Earth Day news in the shadow blog (which you can follow in the column to your right on the Immanence main page). The most interesting news, to my mind, was the initiative for a Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth and the calls to establish an international climate court, both coming out of the People’s World Conference on Climate Change in Cochabamba, Bolivia. Hosted by Bolivian president Evo Morales, whose proposal last year that April 22 be formally adopted as International Mother Earth Day was unanimously accepted by the UN General Assembly, the conference seems to be where a lot of the energy from the global climate justice movement has gone since the Copenhagen debacle.

News about the conference is being widely covered in the left-green and indigenist mediaspheres, including at Democracy Now!, Climate Justice Now!, Climate and Capitalism, Another Green World, Grist, It’s Getting Hot In Here, Indian Country Today, and the World War Four report, and with Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, and others chiming in on it. Even at this people’s summit, and within Bolivian indigenous communities themselves, however, one finds rifts, such as this one over mining in Bolivia. And while all the “Mother Earth” language, pervasive at the conference, might raise questions in other contexts (for instance among feminists, for whom it perpetuates a dichotomy that equates femininity with passivity), in this context it seems a way of acknowledging the centrality of indigenous discourses, which I think is important both to climate change and to land rights activism. Meanwhile, however, Big Coal continues to boom.

The big controversy around here was Derrick Jensen’s invited keynote address on Wednesday night, which elicited at least a few calls for retroactive renunciation of his views. Jensen didn’t say anything he hasn’t said before, and at times his talk seemed to descend into a kind of anti-civilizationist stand-up comedy, but many of our students loved it.

On the philosophical front, my favorite Earth Day blog post (probably not intended as an Earth Day post, but certainly suitable to be one) was Peter Gratton’s interview with Jane Bennett, posted yesterday as part of a series of interviews with “speculative realist” philosophers (and, in this case, “vibrant materialists”). Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: a Political Ecology of Things is becoming a welcome theoretical interlocutor between the speculative realists and all the other theorists I regularly post about here, so it’s great to see it being read. Reviews are reportedly forthcoming (including, eventually, my own), but the book would be a good one for an inter-blog reading group.


Palestinian activists go Na’vi

(Note: After a query from an editor friend, who is unfamiliar with recent research on affect, I’ve decided I should preface this post by saying that no, I don’t mean “effects” with an “e,” but “affects,” accent on the “a.”)

It’s been fascinating to watch the unfolding public conversation about Avatar (much of which, come to think of it, my early review had anticipated): environmentalist celebrations of how it portrays the Earth rising up against the megamachine of capitalism and patriarchy; critiques of how the film perpetuates the stereotyping of indigenous people and reiterates tropes of their salvation by white male messiah figures; the Vatican’s and religious right’s denunciations of its pantheism; the film’s advance of technological wizardry into the domain of a virtual hyperreality, like The Matrix but replacing that film’s gnosticism with a pantheistic new age science of networks and neural systems; and debates over the balance struck in the film between good spectacle (the high-tech stuff) and bad narrative (poor writing, flat characterization, stereotypes all over), or between bad spectacle (Spielbergian gee-whiz stuff) and good narrative (such as the film’s allegorization of global capitalism’s destruction of indigenous communities). Film Studies for Free has usefully summarized the various allegorical readings of the film proposed so far, many of which get articulated in conversations and comments by viewers in various blogs, op-ed commentaries, and social networking sites.

The religious debate has been interesting in part because of the negative reactions that have greeted some of the conservative commentators like Ross Douthat and others who lament the film’s pantheistic nature spirituality and its associated “anti-Americansim” and “anti-humanism”. In his New York Times op-ed, Douthat wrote that “the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.” About 90% of his 146 commenters disagree, sometimes vehemently, with his assessment, generally by sympathizing with the film’s pantheism and seeing in it either something deeply American (in Transcendentalism’s line of descent), much more broadly religious (such as “panentheism” or some mixture of animism and stewardship), or just eco-pragmatically commen-sensical. And while some of the Christian movie sites that typically like to bash Hollywood liberalism do trash Avatar, others (reviewers and commenters alike) are surprisingly positive about the film. Defenders can also be found among more sophisticated conservatives, like the localist Front Porch Republic, and even the libertarian Cato Institute has defended it as an argument on behalf of property rights, the very foundation of capitalism.

What’s more surprising and interesting about the film, however, is how it’s not only breaking box office records around the world, but also may be setting off waves of emotional contagion in its wake — from spurring the launch of numerous fan groups and blogs to providing encouragement and fuel for environmental and indigenous activists as widely dispersed as South America, South and East Asia, and Palestine (portrayed above), to creating something that’s been called “post-Avatar depression.” But let’s start with the politics.

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Swift/climate/boating the media

Having published the results of its 12-part investigation into the leaked/hacked climate scientist e-mails at the University of East Anglia, the Guardian is now inviting “web users to annotate the manuscript to help us in our aim of creating the definitive account of the controversy.” It’s a kind of public version of peer review for something that has been so public already that the issues at stake have gotten lost in the din.

I haven’t read the full report, which concludes (not surprisingly) that the whole fracas was a PR disaster for climate science, but that it has not at all damaged the solidity of the scientific case for anthropogenic climate change. (Yet the silliness continues even in Fox News et al’s weather reports.) But The Wonk Room’s assessment of it as A Case Of Classic SwiftBoating (How The Right-Wing Noise Machine Manufactured ‘Climategate’) captures at least part of it. If you recall, the attack campaign by “Swift Boat Veterans Against John Kerry,” much of it based on unproven allegations and unsupported smears, helped sink the 2004 Kerry presidential campaign, leaving his campaign team with too little time to turn popular response around. The mass media reaction, then as now, involved too little critical analysis of claims and too much “following the leader.” This only tells us what we already knew about the American media, though it strengthens the case for a stronger left and progressive presence in the media landscape.

U.S. television’s few spaces for progressive-leaning critical analysis are already dwindling, with Bill Moyers and David Brancaccio both scheduled to end their shows on PBS. The significant exception is MSNBC, whose conversion to the liberal left still surprises me, given the network’s ownership by armsmaker General Electric (with a minority share held by Microsoft), and I keep wondering how long that will last. As Robert Parry has put it, “There is, after all, a big difference between Murdoch’s News Corporation’s longstanding commitment to a right-wing perspective on Fox News and General Electric experimenting with a lineup of a few liberals after other ratings strategies had failed.” Part of the problem is that Olbermann, Maddow, Matthews, et al. too often come off as predictable and repetitive — the left version of Fox News — which though I enjoy watching it, is not necessarily going to convince the unconvinced.

But Maddow can be brilliant, and it’s great to have a bit of European-style political diversity in the mass media landscape. Now if there was more of a unified infrastructure — not marching in lockstep, but at least in communication with each other — of progressive think-tanks and political pressure groups of the kind that the Right has built up over the last 40 years (thanks to billions from the Scaifes, Olins, Koches, Bradleys, et al), maybe that media diversity can hold out for a while, and even expand. Relying on philanthropy is ultimately not a very good answer to a desperate need for more democracy. But surely the George Soroses of the world could be convinced that science, environment/health, justice/fairness, and good governance — the cornerstones of today’s progressive left — are all principles worth supporting. (I know that “progressive left” hasn’t always meant all those things, but it’s a good time to come to an agreement that it does, or should, today.)

Published simultaneously at Indications. Hat tip to John Quiggin at Crooked Timber for news on the Guardian investigation.