Tag Archive: political ecology

Political Ecology position

We’re been given the green light to announce the following tenure-track position in Environmental Studies and Geography. I’m chairing the Search Committee. Please pass it on to anyone you think will be interested. Review of applications will begin November 15. 

The Department of Geography and the Environmental Studies Program at the University of Vermont invite applications for a tenure-track assistant professor in Political Ecology to begin August 2012. Possible areas of expertise for this position include: critical engagements with conservation and development, ecological displacements and migration, regional and inter-regional adaptations to climate change, environmental governance/governmentality, risks and conflicts of resource extraction, impacts of ecological change on livelihoods, and contested rights to resources. We seek an individual whose primary regional specialty is Latin America/Caribbean or Africa.

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A few observations from the events of the last week or so:

(1) Tsunamis happen. When they do, in a globally media-connected world, they bring us all a little closer together. (Not all of us; those who don’t wish to be brought closer may drift further apart. But, to risk getting overly psychoanalytical, those who’ve had a reasonably loving upbringing, or those whose instincts and/or the influences they were exposed to helped them overcome a loveless upbringing, will drift closer together — because empathy works on, with, and through them, and the images and thoughts of tragedy resonate.) This is something new in human history, and it gives me cause for hope.

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authoritarian body politics

(This post has been sitting in my Drafts folder for several days, but since it mentions The White Ribbon, which I just named 2009′s best film, I thought I might as well share it.)

I just got around to reading Timothy Snyder’s brilliantly lucid article Holocaust: The ignored reality, fittingly after recently seeing Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon. Snyder’s piece puts a fresh face on what we take for granted and don’t much think about anymore.

One of the things that struck me while reading it was the absolutely systematic nature of the Nazi death factory. Snyder’s analysis is like a historian flying over a war zone long after the battle, drawing connections that one couldn’t have possibly made from the ground. For those who were caught up in it, none or little of this may have been visible: glimpses of horror, and of humanity, are what make a war for those living it (which is why even the brightest individuals, like Martin Heidegger, can say they knew little of the things we know now). After the fact it’s less helpful to assign blame than it is to try to understand what happened and why it happened. Those causes have been much discussed and debated, and Haneke’s film, while not making an original argument, is probably as good a cinematic distillation of one of those arguments as any. Specifically, The White Ribbon is a kind of Freudo-Reicho-Foucauldian dissection of the repression that makes us enjoy the violence of authority and that nudges us toward the fascism in our hearts. (I say “us” and “our” because Haneke has said he doesn’t mean for the film to be just about turn-of-the-century Germany.)

The other things that struck me in Snyder’s article concern the territories, those soft pieces of dank earth, that were most bloodied by virtue of their being caught between the two great bone-crushing machines (the Red and the Brown): Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus. (I have some familiarity with those areas, in addition to ancestry, and understand the difficulty of exhuming their pasts and dealing with their ghosts.)

Despite the deadliness of the Nazi machine, both Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union were systematic attempts to realize a certain political ecology, that is, to organize its production of material goods (food and fuel) from the ground up so as to feed and sustain a certain organization of social power and authority. Understanding the way such a social organism, such a body politic, comes to life remains one of the challenges of our time. That understanding requires taking into account not only social processes, but affective, somatic, and ecological processes and the ways these all interact. One might think of this as a kind of golem construction, the making of an artificial creature out of production practices (the ways the earth is turned into food and fuel), somatic and affective orientations, and social structures, all of them premised on certain delineations between an inside and an outside, an us and a them, a certain identification of the enemy, and certain local and global goals. As Snyder writes:

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What do we do in the aftermath of such a disaster, except to express profound sadness, shock, and sympathy, and to send donations to aid and relief organizations working in the affected areas? How do we even portray it in a way that respects the victims?

Citizen media, according to Media Nation blogger Dan Kennedy, have gotten ever better at providing a sense of the real-time reality unfolding on the ground in situations like this, but they still have limitations. The best of the established media seem to be rounding up bloggers and tweets and connecting the diaspora community with their loved ones, in their general effort to cover what is happening. As Global Voices’ excellent Haiti earthquake page shows, reports are being compiled in numerous places, such as here, and even Wikipedia is doing a reasonable job staying on top of it.

Academics who know the area are responding by spinning some context around it, to help the rest of us understand the history that has made Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere, least able to withstand a shock like this. In his piece in yesterday’s Guardian, philosopher Peter Hallward blames a long history of US and colonial intervention, neoliberal economic policies, and the vacillations of the international community for the extent of the tragedy. Despite its being a couple of decades old, I know of no better account of that history than Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and his later Memory of Fire trilogy.

But then there’s nature, in her guise as unpredictable Mother, angry Papa Legba, vengeful Jehovah. The most egregious of religious interpretations is evangelical pastor Pat Robertson’s despicable comment blaming Haitians for their own disaster, claiming they had made a “pact with the devil” in overthrowing the French and have since been reaping its fruits. Voilà: rising up against unjust rule is bad when non-Christians do it, but good when it’s Robertson’s own Americans in their revolution. But reacting to such ignorance is too easy and does little (immediately) for the victims of the tragedy.

And there’s nature in the dark purity of the (f)act itself: nature acts, for no “reason,” wiping tens or hundreds of thousands in the simple scratch of an itch. Nature is not just.

That said, nature is also never merely nature either. We are part of the nature that acts, part of the system of relations by which the earth twists and moans and writhes in its sleep. There’s little point in looking for a global warming “signature” here. Rather, it’s about vulnerability — and its just (or unjust) distribution among us. As the world globalizes, as we come to see and feel the pain on our screens, we come to build the body of humanity. But the building of it is highly, deeply, radically uneven. An anthropologist working in Haiti, whose e-mail was forwarded to me by a friend, laments the news coverage, “which depicts this as a natural catastrophe, when the real problem is substandard housing and lack of infrastructure.”

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(On Kevin Kelly’s “The New Socialism,” Paul Ward’s Medea Hypothesis, Steven Shaviro’s “Against Self-Organization,” and more.)

Self-organizing adaptive systems and other networks are more than just the flavor of the philosophical month; they are a model increasingly used to make sense of the natural and cultural worlds. Generally it’s assumed that such distributed self-organization is a good thing and that our intelligence needs to mirror it as best as possible. This message is reiterated in books like Daniel Goleman’s Ecological Intelligence, a worthy recent entry onto the popular market by the psychologist who popularized the terms social intelligence and emotional intelligence. Summarizing the research of ecological economists and industrial ecologists, among others, Goleman argues that what we need is a “radical transparency” about the entire production and consumption cycle of the products we buy. I’ve only skimmed the book, but I imagine that this argument can be added to the social and emotional intelligence arguments he’s previously made, and perhaps to a “political intelligence” piece that may need to be better developed, so that what we’d get is a radical transparency about the ecological and social justice impacts of the things that make up our world.

Transparency and complexity would seem to go hand in hand, then: the more we are aware of the causal loops making up the increasingly complex systems of our uncertain world, the more capable we are of dealing with the results of those complex feedback loops. But there’s only so much knowing that can go around in a world that’s flooded with information, but in which that information comes primarily in the form of distraction. Both the distribution of knowledge and the economy of attention will be areas we’ll need to be concerned with more and more. On the latter, I highly recommend Sam Anderson’s New York Magazine piece “In Defense of Distraction,” an entertaining jaunt through the landscape of twenty-first century distraction, where attention is increasingly becoming a new currency, and attention aids, from neuroenhancement drugs to mindfulness training, will increasingly provide us with what we need to navigate the world (while remaining upwardly mobile).

To better map out the distributive politics of knowledge and of ecological (and other kinds of) intelligence, we may need to retrieve traditional ideological concepts like “socialism,” and also to examine our assumptions about the nature of the whole system (whether that be global capitalism, the biosphere, or the combination of the two). A couple of recent books and articles can help us think about the ethics and politics of globally distributed intelligence.

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Environmental pied piper Annie Leonard’s 20-minute teaching video The Story of Stuff got five minutes of frantic Fox News treatment a few days ago — which means it’s making an impact out there in the wilds of America. New York Times Education writer Leslie Kaufman, writing about it on Sunday, noted that six million people have viewed the film on the Story of Stuff web site, millions more have seen it on YouTube, over 7,000 schools, churches and others have ordered a DVD version, and Facing the Future, a sustainability and global issues curriculum developer for schools in all 50 states, is drafting lesson plans based on the video. Kaufman calls it “a sleeper hit in classrooms across the nation.” She also notes its critics, including a Montana school board that decided against showing the video “after a parent complained that its message was anticapitalist.”

Fox’s liberal media watchers apparently took the Times story as a cue to do a segment on it, so they invited Allegheny College environmental studies prof Michael Maniates and the American Enterprise Institute’s global warming skeptic Chris Horner to debate it for a full, well, not quite five minutes. (If the environmental studies field had its academic stars, Maniates would be one of them, alongside David Orr, Gus Speth, and a few others. That list alone makes me want to ask: where are ES’s Judith Butlers and Donna Haraways? But that’s a topic for another conversation.)

Horner describes the video as an “abysmal” marriage of Malthus and Marx — “community college Marxism in a ponytail” (sounds scary, doesn’t it?) — and claims that it “terrorizes children into rejecting the prosperity that will allow them to live into their 70s or likely 80s in America as opposed to their 40s if they’re lucky in Haiti or 50s in India — these poor societies that we idolize and romanticize through philosophies like this, which [...] were disproven some time ago.”

It’s that very connection between us living into our 80s here and the Haitians and Indians living only to their 50s ‘there’ that the video is so good at thematizing. Despite its oversimplification of the details, Leonard’s video captures the systemic interconnections between ecology, industrial growth, human rights and social justice, and corporate globalization in ways that’s nearly impossible in twenty minutes. It’s not a marriage of Malthus and Marx — calling it that is just Horner’s attempt to make it seem both dated and dangerous, though he may be shooting himself in the foot, since most Fox viewers aren’t likely to know much about either of them. It’s really a simplified ‘for-kids’ version of a pretty current synthesis of ecological economics (and industrial ecology) with world systems theory and political economy — or, in a word, political ecology.

One of Maniates’s points (one of the few he’s allowed to make in such a short segment) is that the video is being greeted well not only by the environmental left but also by parts of the right. You can see a bit of that on the Christianity Today blog, for instance (though I’m not sure how ‘right’ they are). Some interesting critical discussion of the video can also be found on tech-geek Andy Brain’s blog.

Thanks to GreenMuseum.blog and SustainablePractice.org for alerting me to the Fox story.

About this blog

An online space for environmental cultural theory, this weblog has two primary objectives:

(1) To communicate about issues at the intersection of ecological, political, and cultural thought and practice, especially at the interdisciplinary junctures forming in and around the fields of ecocriticism , green cultural studies, political ecology, environmental communication, ecophilosophy, and related areas (biosemiotics, geophilosophy, social nature, poststructuralist and liberation ecologies, zoontologies, urbanatures, animist liberation theologies — invent your own neologisms); and

(2) To contribute to the development of a non-dualist understanding of nature/culture, mind/body, spirit/matter, structure/agency, and worldly relations in general. Dualisms aren’t inherently bad, but these ones have become stultifying; they contribute to the log-jam in which environmental thinking has been caught for too long. To this end, the blog is interested in philosophies of process, ontologies of immanence and becoming, and epistemologies of participation, relation, and dialogue – that is, ways of understanding and acting that take ideas and practices, bodies and minds, subjects and objects, perceptions and representations, agency and structure, to be fundamentally inseparable, creative, and always in motion. The blog will be a place where non-dual mind (/body, subject/object) meets non-dual world (nature/culture), or where rigpa meets anima.

(For more on these topics, see the posts on immanence, immanent naturalism, rigpa and anima, geophilosophy, green cultural studies, between Continental and environmental philosophy, and the “P-R Theory 101″ links in the right-hand column.)

The blog aims to be a useful resource for scholars, graduate students, and the interested public. As the boundary between scholarship and the wider world of public thinking gets ever more more blurred thanks to digital technology, the distinction between lay and scholarly loses its cogency. The original idea was for the blog to serve as a forum for thinking in and around the Environmental Thought and Culture Graduate Concentration at the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Vermont. The broadening described here is an outgrowth of that.

A blog, like an idea, is only successful to the extent that it germinates, grows, connects, and takes on a life of its own. This one began as one person’s (self-) prod to think out loud and to forge connections in thought, word, and image. To what extent it grows beyond that will become evident over time.

For a summary of the blog’s first year, see here; and of the second year, here.

This version updated (slightly) on December 9, 2010 (after the migration of the blog to WordPress).

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