Tag Archive: ecotheory


The Integral Ecology reading group moves here this week, picking up the baton from Adam and Sam at Knowledge Ecology. (And see Michael’s summary at Archive Fire.)

This week we’re focusing on chapters 3 (“A Developing Kosmos”) and 4 (“Developing Interiors”). Following a short summative preamble, this post examines Chapter 3. Its follow-up will examine Chapter 4.

 

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What books, published over the last ten years, have contributed most cogently and profoundly to our thinking about the relationship between culture and nature, ecology and society? (That’s to name just two of the dualisms this blog regularly throws into question.) Who have been the most important ecocultural theorists so far this century? And which are the most important publishers in this area?

Below is a highly subjective “top 10″ (sort of) of the books that have most influenced my own thinking on these issues. It aims for a certain representativeness, a balance between the rigorously theoretical and the  theorized-applied, the established names and the new, and between the many fields and styles of thinking I’m aiming to encompass on such a list.

This is followed by a longer list of some 50 additional nominees. These include books that almost made the top ten and others that I haven’t read yet, but that have gotten enough mention in one or another of the fields and subfields I try to monitor to warrant their inclusion. Those fields include philosophy, social/cultural theory, geography, science and technology studies, environmental history, environmental anthropology and sociology, cognitive science, and emerging or interdisciplinary fields like ecocriticism, environmental communication, political ecology, biosemiotics/ecosemiotics, critical animal studies, affect studies, religion and ecology, and ecopsychology.

All are monographs (or close to it) first published in the English language between 2000 and 2010. In including titles published this year, I’m keeping in mind that a book can be influential even before it comes out, since the author is likely to be preparing the way for it — in articles and public presentations — for some time in advance.

I’m interested in hearing your suggestions for other books not on this list, as well as comments and votes “yay” and “nay” on any of the following. If there are enough “seconds” on any of these 60 or so nominations, or on any others anyone would like to add to the list, I’ll run a Survey Monkey style vote (and share it on relevant listservs) to see which book wins.

Finally, with such a long list, I’m bound to offend everyone who’s been left off. My apologies in advance. Remind me of your book (or, better still, send me a copy! ;-) ).

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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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Reading about the growing “transition towns” movement back to back with a read-through of Design Philosophy Papers’ latest issue on Bataille and “Inefficient Sustainability” has gotten me thinking about some of the unspoken premises that make their way into environmentalists’ prognostications of the future.

The transition towns movement began in Totnes, England, home of the Schumacher Society, and was spurred into motion in part from permaculturist Rob Hopkins’ work on transitioning to a sustainable economy, but it has now spread to hundreds of towns, villages, cities, and regions in the UK, US, Ireland, Canada, and elsewhere. Drawing from permaculture founder David Holmgren’s modeling of energy transitions and associated crises, Eco-Mag’s Future Scenarios issue offers a particularly useful and concise synopsis of four possible futures, intended to be taken up in transition town salons and community forums and to help guide in the development of local transition plans and sustainability policies. The four scenarios are distinguished by differential rates of fossil-fuel energy decline (slow or fast) and of climate change symptoms (mild or severe) and by people’s responses to these changes. The general idea is that human use of oil and other fossil fuels is “peaking” and we need to transition toward more sustainable power sources, but that these aren’t readily available; they require more systematic social, political, technological, and economic changes than most are prepared to work toward; and any transition will be marked by the effects of climate changes already, to some extent, set in motion.

The four scenarios are “Brown Tech: Top Down Constriction”, where slow energy decline rates accompanied by severe climate change symptoms allow for aggressive “resource nationalism” and centralized government and corporate investment to prevail, but with wars and chaos looming in the background; “Green Tech: Distributed Powerdown,” where slow energy decline rates and mild climate change symptoms allow for greater diversity of responses at multiple scales, including strengthened “cultures of place”, distributed energy economies, and the like (this is perhaps a best-case scenario); “Earth Steward: Bottom Up Rebuild,” in which rapid energy declines but mild climate change symptoms bring about financial and economic shock, reduction of mobility, increases in crime, malnutrition, and disease, and a hollowing out of cities, but also the rise of a kind of quasi-feudal, neo-monastic ecodecentralism rising up in the ruins (akin to what Theodore Roszak described back in his 1970s Person/Planet); and “Lifeboats: Civilization Triage,” a kind of worst-case scenario where rapid energy decline accompanied by severe climate change leads to global breakdown, significant population decline, and the abandonment of cities, but with “oasis agriculture” and regional survivalism helped out by new opportunities — such as by the creation of “highly productive shallow waters and estuaries” in and around the “complex reef structures” made possible by urban architectures newly flooded in coastal lowlands around the world. (I love it.)

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Paul Ennis has posted an interview with me over at Another Heidegger Blog. It follows a few great interviews with distinguished company — philosophers Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, and Lee Braver — and I hope it and the rest of the series generate productive cross-currents and conversations between philosophers, greens, and others.

EveningCanal2-m.jpg

Meanwhile, I’m in Amsterdam for a meeting of the ISSRNC, an interdisciplinary association that’s been producing some very interesting conversations about the intersections of religion, nature, and culture — without taking any of those three terms for granted — since its inception just a few years ago. More on that soon.

But what a lovely city. Last night, as the sky was finally beginning to darken after 10 pm, the lanterns on the streets were aglow and the lights beneath the bridges reflected on the canals, all of it blanketed by the soft hum of people’s voices, and I could imagine myself enjoying the same scene in the fall, with red and orange leaves on the ground, and in the spring, with smells of blossoms in the air, and in a winter covered in snow, skaters lazily moving down the frozen canals. (I’m told, though, that the snow doesn’t stay around long any more when it does fall. Europe’s warming, too.)

some favorites

As chair of the awards committee for the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, I’ve had to start thinking about the best scholarly books published in the last couple of years. Given the overlap between “the study of religion, nature, and culture” and this blog, I thought I’d throw out some names of books and other things I’ve been impressed with recently that make important contributions to the study of nature/culture in their many intersections and blurrings. The following are really just those closest to the top of my head right now. The list can certainly be expanded, and the exercise is even a little perverse, since there are many books I’ve been wanting to get to but haven’t yet (such as Tim Morton’s Ecology Without Nature, Steven Shaviro’s Without Criteria, and Graham Harman’s new book on Bruno Latour, The Prince of Networks). Other suggestions are welcome. (And if you have anything you’d like the Religion/Nature/Culture awards committee to know about, please feel free to send information, or even copies, to my institutional address.)

Best book in nature/culture (ecocultural) studies

Arturo Escobar, Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes (Duke University Press, 2008)

Stefan Helmreich, Alien Ocean: Anthropological Voyages in Microbial Seas (U. of California Press, 2009)

Joachim Radkau, Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment, translated by Thomas Dunlap (Cambridge University Press, 2008; orig. 2002)

Nicole Shukin, Animal Capital: Rendering Life in Biopolitical Times (University of Minnesota Press, 2009)

Best (most inviting) collections in ecoculture studies

(books that understand the importance of allure for disseminating ecocultural thought/art/work)

David Carrasco and Scott Sessions, ed., Cave, City, and Eagle’s Nest: An Interpretive Journey through the Mapa de Cuahtinchan No. 2 (University of New Mexico Press, 2007). (This could be in the first category above as well.)

Paul Waldau and Kimberley Christine Patton, eds., A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science, and Ethics

(Columbia University Press, 2007).

John O’Brian and Peter White, Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2007).

Best environmental blog

Dot Earth

Runner-up: WorldChanging

Best philosophical blogs in nature/culture theory

Well, this one’s difficult because I wouldn’t want to offend those I don’t mention, but my favorites of late have been Frames /sing, Larval Subjects, and The Pinocchio Theory.

The philosophical movement increasingly known as Speculative Realism is starting to get attention in these parts of town (the town being Academe, or at least its digital suburbs, and these parts being its ecocritical/biocultural/animaphilic ghettoes). News about the forthcoming re.press anthology, The Speculative Turn: Continental Realism and Materialism, has been circulating for a few days now. The publisher’s blurb announces that

“Continental philosophy has entered a new period of ferment. The long deconstructionist era was followed with a period dominated by Deleuze, which has in turn evolved into a new situation still difficult to define. However, one common thread running through the new brand of continental positions is a renewed attention to materialist and realist options in philosophy. [...] All of [the authors represented] elaborate a positive ontology [...]. [...] the new currents of continental philosophy depart from the text-centered hermeneutic models of the past and engage in daring speculations about the nature of reality itself.”

Scu at Critical Animal posted several beginners’ questions to the movement on Friday, and both Levi Bryant, a.k.a. Larval Subjects, and Graham Harman, a.k.a. Dr. Zamalek posted responses Saturday (Bryant’s providing the more detailed and, for Harman, “perfectly” agreeable replies). The speed of their responses shouldn’t surprise us; Scu aptly begins his post with the phrase “For an intellectual movement that has such a strong internet presence”… Indeed they do, as Paul Ennis at anotherheideggerblog points out, calling them “the first truly digital” philosophical movement, for the extent of online conversation and open access publication that goes on in the SR milieu.

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more ASLE observations

Intrigued by the number of times the name of Bruno Latour came up in conversations at the ASLE conference, I counted the mentions of different theorists and philosophers (i.e., not literary writers, artists, et al.) in the titles of conference papers and presentations. (Unfortunately, neither the program nor the conference website provides full abstracts. Note to conference organizers: these are useful to conference attendees and for reference purposes like this one.) Based on titles alone, by my count Latour and Maurice Merleau-Ponty had the highest number of mentions, with full sessions dedicated to them. Mentioned as well, but less frquently, were Agamben, Deleuze & Guattari, Derrida, Dewey, Appadurai, and Haraway, with an implicit nod or two to Heidegger.

But titles alone show a much greater focus on creative writers, which is what I would expect at a literature and environment conference. From just a very quick scan of paper and session titles, those receiving the most mentions were Wordsworth, Thoreau, Melville, Linda Hogan, Shakespeare, Gary Snyder, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Kim Stanley Robinson — which tells us that the same old sources (and a few younger ones, like Robinson’s) are continuing to generate productive scholarly conversations. That said, I would guess that the number of new writers, young writers, and non-North American and non-white writers continues to increase in proportion to the overall mix.

The most commonly focused-on topics included eco-poetics, animal studies, globalization, climate, area/regional themes (of various kinds), urban ecologies, film, islands (both because the conference was held on an island and because this was prominent in the call for papers), toxicity, environmental justice, rhetoric, and science. Most of these were mentioned in the call for papers, so none are particularly surprising, though the themes of animals/animality, film, and toxicity did impressively better than a glance at the CFP would have predicted. (I’ll have more to say on film in an upcoming post.) Longitudinal data spanning several conferences could give us a much more complete picture of the evolution of ASLE and of ecocriticism — which should be of interest to anyone thinking about the future of the latter (and a few responses to my previous blog on this topic, including from both of the plenarists discussed there, convince me that that is a topic of interest).

All in all, the conference was rich in words, readings, meetings, conversations, book exhibits, and presentations, all punctuated with wanders through the most beautiful ravine bordering a university campus I’ve ever encountered or even imagined possible (to which photos just don’t do justice).

There are rabbits all over the lawns of the University of Victoria campus. Like little furry grass-eating balls, they scurry forward a little from time to time but otherwise placidly chomp away at the lawns, oblivious to humans or anything else. Sometimes they just sit there, or lay themselves out and stare forward, cutely extending their forepaws. (And yes, they leave behind a carpet of little brown pellets as evidence of their grazing.) While I’m not sure what kind of rabbits they are, Vancouver Island does have European rabbits as well as Eastern cottontails, which are native to the eastern side of the continent but established themselves here after a 1964 release near Sooke.

Someone said yesterday, “there’s only so many rabbits a cougar can eat.” Vancouver Island is apparently a hotspot for cougar attacks. According to one study, of 53 documented North American mountain lion (cougar) attacks on people between 1890 and 1990, twenty, or about 38%, occurred here on this island off the coast of British Columbia. One explanation that’s been forwarded for this high concentration of attacks is that their common prey species – porcupine, opossum, coyote, bobcat, badger, and spotted and striped skunks – are absent or nearly absent here (or at least they were up to the 1980s). I guess they don’t hang around the campus much, but they do appear in the city from time to time: one found its way into the parking garage beneath the Empress Hotel, and there are occasional school closings after a cougar has been sighted in the neighborhood.

Which brings me to the ASLE conference, which, like all of these biennial gatherings, defines and redefines the field of literary and, to some (growing) extent, cultural ecocriticism. Each field has its rabbits, quietly plugging away at the grasses of its institutionalized lawns – analyzing poems and novels by this writer or that school of drama, a quiet luxury allowed us by our (in this case, mostly English lit) departments. And each field has its cougars, who appear from the surrounding hills, cast long sidewards glances over the territory, then send broad salvos to shake things up a bit now and again.

Okay, the metaphor has its limits. But some of the names that cropped up repeatedly at today’s plenary are a bit like those cougars, except that their presence is a bit more in evidence than the ones of Vancouver Island. I’m thinking of Dana Phillips, Tim Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Cate Sandilands (one of the plenary speakers) — the ones who bring in uninvited names like Judith Butler, Lacan and Zizek, Haraway and Latour, among others, to “queer” a field that began, in many respects, as an outright repudiation of culturalist “high theory.” Doing that alone is not difficult, and the field by now has plenty of Foucauldian, Harawayan, and Derridean readings of nature, but doing it well, in ways that helps redefine the field, requires a cougar-like crafty brilliance.

Today’s plenary on “Our Critical Challenges: What’s Next for Ecocriticism?” featured two speakers who define the field’s recent growth (if not its origins) rather well: Bath Spa University literary critic Greg Garrard and York University “recovering sociologist” and ecopolitical theorist Cate Sandilands. Both were asked to comment on each other’s work and to provide pointers for the future of the field, and here is where some profound and interesting theoretical differences emerged.

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Responding to a post on this blog, Kvond, a little while ago, raised the question of the relationship between Arne Naess, originator of “deep ecology,” and Spinoza – which made me think of the interesting if sporadic/uneven/episodic relationships between the main traditions of continental philosophy and environmental thought. A glance at the changing editions of Environmental Philosophy, a reader originally edited by Michael Zimmerman but now collectively edited and in its fourth edition, shows us how the place of continental philosophy has grown from barely a mention in the first two editions (1993, 1998) to an entire six-chapter section in the fourth. How that came to be is a story that has yet to be written, though a few brief accounts exist, such as Michael Zimmerman’s chapter in Rethinking Nature , comments scattered through Zimmerman’s Contesting Earth’s Future, and Bruce Foltz’s brief but excellent piece in John Protevi’s Dictionary of Continental Philosophy, which I discovered as I was wrapping up this post.

What follows is a highly selective and episodic overview of key moments in that unfolding relationship. But I start with a few caveats.

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