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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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Sharing info on tomorrow’s University of Vermont event on “Indigenous Sovereignty, Race-Shifting, and University Responsibility,” which I am honored to facilitate. The speakers include Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Dakota/University of Alberta), Chris Anderson (Métis/University of Alberta), and Brenda Macdougall (Métis/University of Ottawa), with a response from Darren Ranco (Penobscot/University of Maine Orono). The event is free and open to the public, and registration for remote attendance is still open. Click on the image below for details.

The event is related to the three posts I have written on the topic, which you can read here: 1, 2, 3. It is part of a learning process I and others have been undergoing in our Vermont/New England/Great Lakes-St. Lawrence context.

Space

Like atoms and galaxies, days are full of space.

What if the ways you take up this space—the pauses, transitions, and gaps between doings—shapes the world as much as the doings?* Do we fill the space with restless preoccupation? Death drive compulsions? Nervous uncertainty? Or curious delight at the poignancy of each thing?**

What if the redemption of the world depended on how we fill it, or allow it to be its own?

*the shared implication of affect theory, Buddhism, apophatic theology, Deleuzian cinepoetics, among others

**as Blake, Rumi, Whitehead, and others would advocate

One of the benefits of being a Cinepoetics fellow at the Freie Universität Berlin this year is that I was able to see a lot of films at last month’s Berlin International Film Festival, thanks to my Cinepoetics accreditation. (Another benefit is simply to be in Berlin, which is such a rich place for film, music, art, and theatre festivals, exhibitions of various kinds, and so much more. I’ll post something eventually about some of that.)

The Berlinale screens a tremendous diversity of films, from the popular to the experimental, with multiple themes every year. Of my favorites, these were three that stuck with me, for different reasons:

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My reflections on a year of full-scale war in Ukraine can be read here.

Among them:

Like Ukrainians in general, whose resistance to the Russian onslaught has been remarkable, President Volodymyr Zelensky has done wonders in so many ways. But one thing neither he nor his western supporters have succeeded at — as this New York Times analysis shows — is convincing the global South to support Ukraine in its struggle. Wartime emergencies call for military support, but diplomatic pressure on Russia also needs to increase, which means that Ukraine’s foreign policy must broaden.

There are no good reasons for postcolonial democracies like Lula’s Brazil and the ANC’s South Africa to remain “neutral” in an anti-imperialist, anti-colonial struggle. […] Zelensky and western supporters need to make clear that that’s what this is, and that no “tradition” of cold war “nonalignment” makes sense any more. We’re in a new world with new allies and new enemies, whose contours will increasingly be shaped by new conflicts. One of these — and one whose “war ecology” (to use Pierre Charbonnier’s astute phrase) shapes the nature of this conflict already — is that between fossil-fuel authoritarians (the likes of Putin and Trump) and climate-transitioning democracies (of whom the EU, Biden’s US, and Lula’s Brazil can be leaders).

It’s high time to shed the old lenses and shape a new global reality. In that, Ukraine can stand at the forefront.

Thinking further about the global climate precariat (and the ontology of climate trauma, etc.), I’ve been reading a set of books that try to articulate a “class politics” for the present eco-political conjuncture. In particular, Matthew Huber’s Climate Change as Class War: Building Socialism on a Warming Planet (Verso, 2022) and Bruno Latour’s and Nikolaj Schultz’s On the Emergence of an Ecological Class (Polity, 2023, Eng.) deserve to be read alongside each other as, at first blush, they seem to be about the same thing — the “class antagonism” of a world divided between climate “winners” and “losers.” On closer inspection, however, I think the two books are about different things occurring at different temporal scales, which makes them somewhat complementary. This post explains the difference and the complementarity.

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