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I’m delighted to formally announce that I have accepted an offer to take up the position of J. S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, beginning next year. (Simon Fraser recently, once again, took the top spot among comprehensive universities in Macleans’ Canadian university rankings.)

The chair is named after J. S. Woodsworth (1874-1942), a prominent Canadian activist-intellectual, pacifist and labor campaigner, co-founder and first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party), co-architect of Canada’s social-welfare system, and minister (the robed type) who was part of the Social Gospel movement. It will be a great honor to represent these aspects of his legacy and to follow in the footsteps of previous chair holders Eleanor Stebner, Ed Broadbent, and Alan Whitehorn.

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Ontology 101

The word ontology comes up a lot in the fields I work in (loosely speaking, the environmental humanities and social sciences), especially among scholars grappling with cultural differences and “decolonial” thinking. Here’s a crack at a 5-minute introduction to it for newbies.

Ontology is commonly defined as something like “the philosophical study of being” or “of the nature of being,” or the study of “what is and of how it is.” I prefer to call it “the study and understanding of reality in its differing contours, dimensions, and modes.” So what does that mean?

Let’s take a random list of items: the Brooklyn Bridge, the rain falling outside my window as I write, the number six, a copy of The Book of Mormon found in a drawer in room 613 of the New York Downtown Marriott, gravity, Jesus’s resurrection on the third day, Spiderman, an earworm of Pere Ubu’s “Chinese Radiation,” and the Red King.

Each of these is real in some sense or other: for instance, as a tangible object, as a concept (a type or category, a theory, et al.), as an event that either occurred or was imagined to occur, as a possibility, etc. Some of their realities may overlap.

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This is a brief follow-up to the series of posts shared here on the topic of Indigenous identity, allyship, and the situation in my local state of Vermont. The first three can be found here: titled “Reindigenization and allyship: starting points,” “Reindigenization & allyship, part 2,” and “Reindigenization & allyship, part 3: on getting it right.” As I’ve been a co-organizer of a few key events related to this issue at the University of Vermont, I have other thoughts I intend to share when I get a chance. Below I am simply providing links to recent scholarship and reportage that could help bring readers up to date on the topic. The conversation continues to evolve. If you have other material you think should be here, please send it to me. (This page last updated on February 20, 2024.)

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Teaching my course in comparative spiritual practices, I find there is a rationality underpinning each, but that some require lesser leaps of faith (for us twenty-first-century humans) than others.

Stoicism is one of the lesser-leap philosophies: it has a pretty systematic account of the nature of things, which resonates with modern science reasonably well, and it shows you how to confirm that nature empirically. Of its Greco-Roman-Hellenistic kin, Epicureanism has a lower confirmation bar, and Skepticism still lower; so for those who like some bar, Stoicism is a good bet.

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My talk at the recent “Apocalyptic Anxieties” conference, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is available for viewing at the SFU Institute for the Humanities YouTube page, or below. Here is an abstract of the talk:

From the Angel of Apocalyptic History to the Optimism of the Will: Climate Hope within States of Urgency

Apocalyptic scenarios have accompanied environmental politics for decades; today they are globalized in a profusion of political and ecological anxieties (representing a “pessimism of the intellect”) and a welter of conspiracy theories. Apocalyptic trauma has also been the shadow side of the centuries-long “slow violence” of extractive colonialism, and of the fascisms of the twentieth, and arguably twenty-first, centuries. This talk will seek insight into apocalypse in the historical meditations of Walter Benjamin — specifically, in his “angel of history” who “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” in front of his feet — and in the writings of Gramsci, Stengers, Mbembe, and others. It will propose an “optimism of the will” rooted in a willingness to face Benjamin’s “angel,” who challenges us to acknowledge commonality with humans and nonhumans facing the uncertainties of a world unmoored from any guarantees — of “nature,” of “truth,” of “progress,” of scientific knowledge, or even of human survival itself. 

When I was younger, I would occasionally hear from fellow environmentalists that the “real problem” was human overpopulation. (The standard answer, from the well informed, was: nope, it’s inequality, extractive capitalism, institutional inertia, patriarchal values, colonialism, et al. “Overpopulation” was a symptom, not the disease.)

The population-mongers have mostly faded since then, as the “demographic transition” argument has proven itself pretty convincing (people with greater opportunities for a real life end up having fewer children, and more and more countries have taken that path). And as most environmentalists have come to see the role of culture, politics, and economics in shaping our problems.

But I still find it stunning to see a diagram like this one, in a NY Times article from a few weeks ago.

It shows a range of projections of global human population growth, with almost all of them peaking in the coming decades — at 10 billion around 2085 — and then falling way, way down, in fact to below 110 million within a matter of centuries.

According to the author, Dean Spears, who is an economist at University of Texas Austin’s Population Research Center but who is working from data produced by leading demographic studies, “per year births” may have already peaked, as early as 2014, and “peak human population” is expected to be achieved between 2060 and 2090. (I find it hard to believe that we won’t hit 10 billion by 2050. I hope to be around to see.)

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Like a lot of university faculty these days, I’ve been thinking about, and testing out, chatbots like OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s Bard. In fact, I’ve been quizzing them on various things.

They have answered some of my questions with general-consensus knowledge. For instance, on whether or not it’s too late for humanity to successfully respond to the climate crisis so as to “preserve a civilizationally-conducive climate,” both gave reasonable, concise, “first shot” answers at the question, in the manner of “on the one hand” this, “on the other hand” that. ChatGPT-3.5 assessed the “too late” probability at 20-30% and “not too late” at 70-80%. Bard assessed the first at 40% and the second at 60%. (Bard is a little more up-to-date in its database.) Both provided the kinds of responses you’d expect from students who’ve read IPCC report summaries and a smattering of other popular writings.

But on some issues they plainly make stuff up. Asked who are the most important authors and writings that have comparatively analyzed the philosophies of A. N. Whitehead and C. S. Peirce, Bard provided a few surprisingly reasonable answers, in no logical order (Corrington, Griffin, Hartshorne, Cobb), but threw in a made-up name, “Donna Orange,” a “professor of philosophy at the University of Vermont” and author of the book “Peirce’s Pragmatism: The Logic of Chance.” No such person is or has been at the University of Vermont (my university for the last twenty years). An actual Donna Orange, who works for NYU, wrote her doctorate (and later a small book) on Peirce’s theism, but not with that title.

Other responses get more wildly fictional. Asked about Ukrainian ecofeminist philosophers, Bard invented two out of four people from scratch, along with books they have supposedly written. Asked to create a course syllabus on “environment in world cinema,” Bard either made up or seriously mangled every single book (or author) it listed. (For the record, ChatGPT didn’t list books, just films, and otherwise tended to do better.)

The normal explanation for this chatbot creativity seems to be that their creators have programmed them to give seemingly reasonable answers even when they aren’t sure of those answers (as if AIs could be “sure” of anything). In their haste to respond quickly, they blend facts together into “believable” responses. Clearly, the imperative to satisfy its querents comes before the imperative to be accurate.

But the U. of Vermont reference made me wonder: did Bard throw that in as a kind of Hitchcockian MacGuffin, an empty plot-forwarding device meant to deflect from the fact (while still suggesting it) that Bard is actually playing with me?

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I’m happy to share the news that the Routledge Handbook of Ecomedia Studies is out — and is entirely open-access, which is especially thrilling, as Routledge handbooks can otherwise get pretty expensive. It’s a 36-chapter mega-volume that tries to define the field and lay out some of its most exciting international contours. The volume is the culmination of three years of work between co-editors Antonio López (whose initiative powered the process), Miriam Tola, Stephen Rust, Kiu-wai Chu, Alenda Chang, and myself, working with about 46 other authors from around the world.

It includes my co-written (with António Lopez) chapter defining “ecomedia” (“When Do Media Become Ecomedia?”) and theoretical chapter on the “three ecologies” (“Three Ecologies: Ecomediality as Ontology“), as well as 34 other chapters (plus an Afterword by Sean Cubitt) grouped into five sections: “Ecomedia Theory,” “Ecomateriality,” “Political Ecology,” “Ecocultures,” and “Eco-Affects.” The authors are arguably a who’s who of the burgeoning field, covering a range of topics, which the back cover lists as including “infrastructures, supply and manufacturing chains, energy, e-waste, labor, ecofeminism, African and Indigenous ecomedia, environmental justice, environmental media governance, ecopolitical satire, and digital ecologies.”

You can read or download the entire roughly 400-page volume, or individual chapters, from the Routledge Open Access web site, by clicking here.

Two things to consider before your morning coffee.

1) We are living through a Holocene collapse event,* when the nearly 12,000 year old regime of relative climate stability, the “comfort zone” for most of what we know as human civilization, is beginning to tear to shreds. (Here’s just one of the shreds from yesterday’s news.) It’s likely that climate havoc will grow, its extreme weather events and destabilizations creating the conditions for increased hunger, drought, heat waves, mass migration, disease, and warfare on a global scale. Those species that survive will eventually see a stabilization into a new “normal,” but any predictions about what that will look and feel like, or what role humans might have in it, if any, are premature.

2) Once you accept that, it should become clear that certain ways of living, and certain pursuits in life, are more worthy, more honorable, and more satisfying than others. The worthy ones will likely be focused on sharing (rather than hoarding) the joys of the world, fleeting as they are, and on devoting oneself to smoothening the ride for others. Ask yourself what capacities you can bring to easing the burden of what’s to come, then apply them as beautifully as you can. 

Now, enjoy your coffee.

The background to these promptings is that for the last three days I have been visiting, speaking at, and communing with a large group of thoughtful and creative people at a symposium hosted by the Ruigoord “free cultural space” outside Amsterdam, called Towards the Symbiocene?

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My recent E-Flux article, “Russia, Decolonization, and the Capitalism-Democracy Muddle,” raised the question of Russia’s potential “decolonization” — what it means (and doesn’t), and how the debate over it, and over decolonization in general, needs some political updating. The article seems no less relevant after the abortive mutiny led last week by the Wagner Group’s Yevgeny Prigozhin (which I wrote a little about here).

That Russia, like all colonial empires, will need to “decompose” itself, is something I take for granted. (My other blog has plenty of resources for you if you’re not convinced that Russia is an “unreconstructed” Euro-colonial empire.) The only question is how: whether by some kind of “guided transition” (which has been tried before, in the 1990s, but on a misguided basis), a replacement or even collapse at the top accompanied by a strengthening at the parliamentary level (leading perhaps to actual, rather than fake, federalism), or through some sort of implosion or fission, accompanied by civil war(s), as seemed quite possible last weekend.

What that article didn’t address is the eco-political and “ecocidal” dimensions of the Russo-Ukrainian war. Those were a subject broached at a conference I spoke at a couple of days ago, held in Tutzing, Germany, and organized by Germany’s Federal Agency for Civic Education. The following is a brief summary of the comments I made there, followed by a few afterthoughts on ecocide in light of the Russian detonation of the Nova Kakhovka dam in southern Ukraine.

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As the world breathes a sigh of relief that this meeting happened at all, ecocritics can wonder about the semiotics of the image framing Chairman Xi Jinping’s meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.

Relief :

  • 1. a feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.
  • 2. financial or practical assistance given to those in special need or difficulty.
  • 3. a person or group of people replacing others who have been on duty.
  • 4. the state of being clearly visible or obvious due to being accentuated; a method of moulding, carving, or stamping in which the design stands out from the surface, to a greater (high relief) or lesser (low relief) extent; a piece of sculpture in relief; a representation of relief given by an arrangement of line or colour or shading;
  • GEOGRAPHY: difference in height from the surrounding terrain. (Oxford English Dictionary)

Is this: China as a force of nature? Xi backed by the power of the Earth itself? Blinken representing the upstart (phallic) power (on the left) arriving at the (immovable) granddaddy of all things under heaven?

There are at least 33 other halls in the Great Hall of the People that they could have met in (and many more images that they could have met in front of).

Welcome to China.

These thoughts, written in the aftermath of a half-day conference on race-shifting (first part viewable here) and influenced by Kim TallBear’s critique of identity, have me going out on a limb, for reasons that are likely pretty obvious. But I will persevere with them, and ask that you read them through to the end before reacting to isolated parts of the argument. Thoughts welcome.

1. Gender transitioning and race-shifting are parallel processes insofar as they involve a move (shift or transition) from one pole of a dyad to another: either from male to female or vice versa, or, in the case of race shifting, from one racial category (e.g., white, black, Hispanic/Latinx, Indigenous, et al.) to another.

2. Gender transitioning and race-shifting concern identity, which in late capitalism has become both deeply personalized (“this is about who I am”) and deeply politicized (“I have the right to be myself” = “we have the right to be ourselves”). Talking about them, in North America today (and to varying degrees elsewhere), has for this reason become something of a minefield. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Since they are important issues for many people, we need to talk about them coherently.

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