All posts by nguyeho2

Contributions of Geography

In Castree’s “Geographers and the Discourse of an Earth Transformed”, the author makes a convincing case for the involvement of geographers in climate change research. In the article Castree argues that Geography is particularly well suited to study the concept of the Anthropocene due to their experience studying “human-environment interactions” (247). I think this is an interesting point and surprising point. I had never studied geography before and had never thought about how geography could contribute to the study of the Anthropocene. The other interesting point is the inherent conservatism of most current climate change research. Castree points out the call of many to introduce critical social science into climate change research. Quoting O’brien, Castree also calls for a need for “knowledge that can help ‘transform … the systems … that favor some interests over others … and develop new types of power and leadership for change’” (249). This is one thing which I have always been frustrated with in climate change. The focus on the latest scientific findings tend to depoliticize the issue. No longer is climate change a question of struggling for power, it becomes a management issue which can be dealt with by scientists and bureaucrats without involving the public at all. This is a fundamental problem of our age and must be solved before any solutions to climate change can be considered.

The Environmentalist Western

In Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Tamarisk Hunter”, we find a dystopian fictional society where environmental degradation has wreaked havoc on the earth. What is interesting about “The Tamarisk Hunter”, is not so much the dystopia but the way it inverts the Western genre. Similar to the western, we follow the adventures of a lone ranger, Lolo, as he struggles to survive in the Utah dessert. Unlike, the conventional western heroes, Lolo does not find in the west a realm of freedom, adventure and possibilities. Instead, the west is a place of misery, unfreedom, and decay. The west, once a placed for those who wanted to start a new life with bountiful resources and land, is reduced to a place where no one owns anything and where drinking the water could get you arrested. As Bacigalupi described it “there was water; they just couldn’t touch it” (174). Bacigalupi also provides interesting descriptions the extreme disparity in wealth and power. This was conveyed most vividly with the description of the National Guards’ helicopters as “thud-thwap of a guardie chopper” in contrast to its appearance as “black-fly dot” (177). The extreme loudness of the chopper representing the high amounts of power and influence the Californians have over those on the outside, while its small appearance representing the Californians numerical insignificance. Through the theme of inequality, we can also see Lolo’s replanting of the tamarisk along the river as an attempt at rebellion, similar to Robin Hood stealing from the rich and giving to the poor (172). However, even here, there is a tragedy in Lolo’s rebellion. Not only does it end in failure, it was also not a true rebellion. Unlike Robin Hood, who rebelled in order to provide for the welfare of the community, Lolo rebelled solely to serve his own interests. Despite his “rebellion”, Lolo has wholly given up the struggle for freedom. Whereas Travis looked with fond memories back to the early struggles against the Californians’ dominance, Lolo shivers in fear (177). Ultimately, what makes “The Tamarisk Hunter” a dystopian is precisely its inversion of the Western genre. Through it, we can see that the worst thing about the end of the world is not the suffering, the violence, or the inequality. It is the impossibility of a better future. After all, Lolo’s defeat at the end of the story comes with one final realization: “Big Daddy Drought’s here to stay” (190).

Nature and Society

In The Great Animal Orchestra, author Bernie Krause describe his attempts to recapture the “true” sounds of nature.  Much of the piece was Krause’s valorization of the beauty found in the “undisturbed” sounds of nature. Although Krause’s vivid and elegant description is very interesting, I think he might be mistaken about the “undisturbed” nature of these sounds. First of all, Krause uses sensitive microphones to pick up the sounds. Microphones which are more sensitive than the human ear. Besides that, Krause also need to use various microphones to record multiple samples and later uses “sound editing software to combine all the samples” (18). Krause writes about the sounds of nature as if they were a discovery. His travels across the world has led him to unearth the hidden sounds of nature. However, Krause is not discovering new sounds, he is creating them. Similar to a music producer, Krause is sampling different sounds together to create the “organic” whole of natural soundscapes.

What Krause and most of us forgets, is that our concepts of nature is socially constructed. It represents a society’s relationship with the natural world around it. When most of us live in dense urban centers, surrounded by nothing but concrete and asphalt, nature can appear as an exotic and alien thing, wholly separate from the artificially produced human world. As the German Marxist Karl Liebknecht correctly points out “the population of a city […] have been brutally torn from the natural mother soil on which mankind flourished” (par. 4). To understand nature as something which have been robbed from us implies a struggle for freedom. It implies a struggle not merely for survival, as much of the apocalyptic discourse surrounding climate change suggests, but also a struggle to freely define our own social relations and through it our relationship with nature. In short, our historic task continues to be the emancipation of human kind.  

1. Liebknect, Karl. “Speech on ‘Environmental Protections’.” MR Online, Monthly Review, 9 Oct. 2019, https://mronline.org/2019/10/09/speech-on-environmental-protections-by-karl-liebknecht/. 

Environmentalism: a moral crisis?

In Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters, the author seeks to provide a critique of the recent enthusiasms for geoengineering. Hamilton claims that there is a moral hazard involved in supporting geoengineering projects and research. For one, it distracts attention away from the more effective strategy of reducing emissions and gives politicians an easy way of pretending to solve the problem without doing anything too disruptive. Another concern is that by supporting geoengineering efforts, we are letting the people most responsible for the climate crisis off the hook. Hamilton concludes by suggesting that there are “God’s domains”, which include nature, that humans morally ought not interfere with. Doing so could be dangerous, or if not, at least hubristic and disrespectful to the will of nature. However, nature has no will. Nature itself is a social concept. It is us who have reflected upon the world around us and discovered its motions and properties. As such, nature doesn’t so much have a will as it was given one by us. To suggest that there are “God’s domains” that we should steer clear is to avoid our responsibility for shaping the world around us. This was the same justification that feudalism was built upon. It is God who made the world and our job is merely to obey his will. In other words, human freedom implies a reshaping of nature. In his obsession with morality, Hamilton forgets that the main problem with geoengineering is that it is nonsensical and absurd. It is no more realistic than Elon Musk’s plan to construct a Martian colony. Finally, Hamilton’s desire to hold oil executives to account is also problematic. The ecological crisis was caused not by oil executives, but the march of capital. It was the invisible hand of the market which has caused so much destruction, not the faults of isolated individuals. If oil executives have the power to destroy the world, it is because we have given it to them. What is needed is not moral project but a political one. One that can wrest control of society from capital and back to its rightful stewards: humankind. 

One sided critique

In their essay “Sustainability”, Doerr & co. seek to challenge the idea of a universal concept for “sustainability”. This reminds me of Yusoff’s book we read a few weeks ago. Both tries to challenge a universal conception of the Anthropocene, and both demonstrate the unequal distribution of harm and suffering caused by the ecological crisis that disproportionately affect black and brown folks across the world. Unlike Yusoff’s book which was much more abstract, this article uses a specific and concrete example of Doña Marta to illustrate the problem. Doerr & co.’s description of “U.S corn came rushing in to feed them, family after family returned this gift with their sons and daughters”, reminded me of the wave of Mexican immigrants coming to the United States in the 1990s. After NAFTA was signed, many farmers struggled to survive due to the privatization of communal land and competition from larger U.S corn producers. As such, many sold their land and moved into the cities or up north across the border to find work. However, I do find myself disagreeing with Doerr & co. on some points. Although they present a more nuanced understanding of sustainability, they present Western conception of progress as one dimensional. For instance, they contrast Marta’s understanding of sustainability with “the destination-oriented future of modernity’s progress or the never-satisfied longing of industrial capitalism” (Doerr et al. par. 4). However, progress in modernity have not always looked the same. The classical enlightenment notion of progress is not one that is “destination-oriented”. On the contrary, it is precisely the lack of destination that makes freedom possible. This was what caused the philosopher Immanuel Kant to write “when we ask, Are we now living in an enlightened age? the answer is, No, but we live in an age of enlightenment” (par. 9). I am also perplexed as to what Doerr & co. might mean when they write “the objective is rather to care for the stratified reproductions between not-so-global global languages and the various strategies of world making”. If it is to mean that we should take the world making strategies of people like Marta as against the “global” language of sustainability, then I would disagree. From the description of Marta’s world view, it appears to me that her concern was surviving the ravages of ecological degradation and as such contains no better guide for tackling the ecological crisis than the “global” language of sustainability. This is to repeat the false dichotomy between Main Street and Wall Street. As the philosopher Slavoj Zizek once wrote “the solution is neither Main Street nor Wall Street, but to change the system where Main Street cannot function without Wall Street” (par. 5).

1. Kant, Immanuel. What Is Enlightenment. Columbia University, http://www.columbia.edu/acis/ets/CCREAD/etscc/kant.html.

2. Žižek, Slavoj. “Occupy Wall Street: What Is to Be Done next? .” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 24 Apr. 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2012/apr/24/occupy-wall-street-what-is-to-be-done-next.

the angel of history

In Thompson’s “Radical Hope for Living Well in a Warmer World”, Thompson lays out two conceptions of a new kind of environmental ethics. One he calls “virtues of transition”, and the other “virtues of the future”. Virtues of transition prepares one for living well through a period of radical transitions brought about by the ecological crisis. These virtues aim at opposing “despair and hopelessness” and urged everyone to fight on against ecological destruction and the injustices and sufferings that it brings (9). On the other hand, virtues of the future, are our newly developed virtues after the ecological crisis has been stopped that will allow us to deal with the wreckage that the crisis has left. For Thompson this involves an abandonment of the concept of nature and a requirement that human civilization itself takes responsibility for the continued survival of nature (12). Although I think the idea of responsibility for nature as a virtue is an interesting one, I oppose Thompson’s distinctions of the two virtues. This distinction put means and ends at odds. The means (virtues of transition) being backwards looking involves returning to nature it’s autonomy and undoing the consumptive habits of society while the ends (virtues of the future) involves taking the responsibility for caring for nature which is forward looking (9, 12). Thompson provides an apocalyptic vision of change where the future has to be rebuilt after the end of the world. However, this vision misunderstands the significance of the environmental justice movement. The struggle for environmental justice, if it is to be effective, must be a struggle for freedom. It must be a call for humanity to take responsibility for its own fate and its own decisions in the world. In other words, it must rely on “virtues of the future” and not simply “virtues of transition”. Thompson sees the inevitable suffering brought about by ecological degradation as tragic, but this is not true. As the philosopher Theodor Adorno once wrote: “thought which does decapacitate itself leads to transcendence and to the idea of a world constitution in which not only is present suffering abolished’, but even the suffering that lies in the past and is beyond recall might be revoked” (qtd. in Zuidervaart). In other words, it is the achievements of future which sets the context for the suffering of the past. The sufferings of the present and near future can only be tragic if we have failed our historic tasks. Since we have only begun to realized our historic mission, I suggest we wait a little longer before passing judgement.

1. Zuidervaart, Lambert, “Theodor W. Adorno”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =<https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2015/entries/adorno/>.

REDEEMING the revolution

The Storming of the Bastille during the French Revolution

In Kathryn Yusoff’s book A Billion Black Anthropocene or None, the author seeks to critique and work through the categories of geology to show the way it hides and naturalizes the exploitation and oppression of black and brown folks around the world. Throughout this critique, Yusoff makes a variety of claims about modern liberalism. Two of which I take issue with. The first is her view of private property. Yusoff associates private property with the “inhuman” and with geology. This is because “geology is often assumed to be without subject (thinglike and inert)” (Yusoff 19). Furthermore, Yusoff often describes the acquisition of property as an “extractive” process that “enacts colonialism” (20). However, when one examines the views of the classical liberal philosophers a different vision of private property emerges. According to John Locke for instance, a man’s private property comes from the fact that “the labor of his body and the work of his hands, we may say, are strictly his. So when he takes something from the state that nature has provided and left it in, he mixes his labour with it, thus joining to it something that is his own” (Locke 11). Thus, property is not merely something that is inert that one extracts out of the ground. It is not inhuman; it is an extension of the human. It is an extension of the individual since all private property contain a piece of their labor in it, in other words, a piece of themselves. Yusoff’s description might apply to the way private property functions in the 21st century, but she is wrong to attribute this to the liberal tradition. Underlying this mistake is Yusoff’s approach to critiquing modern liberalism, mainly through a rejection of liberalism. On the one hand, Yusoff wants to go “beyond liberal individuation”, but on the other hand, all of Yusoff’s critique rely on pointing out the hypocrisy of liberalism, reinforcing liberal values. To truly go beyond liberalism requires not a rejection of the liberal tradition but a redemption of its revolutionary potential. It will require the completion of the work started by the liberal tradition. As Karl Marx once wrote “our task is not to draw a sharp mental line between past and future, but to complete the thought of the past […] it will becomes plain that mankind will not begin any new work, but will consciously bring about the completion of its old work” (Marx par. 11).

  1. Locke, John. “CHAP. V. Of Property.” Second Treatise of Civil Government, https://www.marxists.org/reference/subject/politics/locke/ch05.htm.
  2. Marx, Karl. “Letter from Marx to Arnold Ruge.” Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09-alt.htm.

The Original Sin

The fall of man from the garden of Eden

Although Lynn White Jr. and Pope Francis might at first appear as opposing poles in the ecological debate, closer examination reveals them to be merely two sides of the same coin. Underlying their attack and defense of Christianity is the conviction that our modern ecological crisis has been brought about by the dangerous belief in man’s dominance over nature. For White this original sin was found in the heart of Christianity itself, with the story of creation and the idea that “God planned all of this [nature] for man’s rule” (White 4). On the other hand, Pope Francis, being the head of the Catholic church, trace the idea to our alienation from God. In his book, Pope Francis wrote“the harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations” (Francis 48).This raises an interesting question. Christianity has been around for thousands of years and humanity’s alienation from God, according to the Christian tradition, have been present since the dawn humanity. Why has the ecological crisis only now appeared? It is true that instances of human caused environmental damage have been around for a long time, but the scale and rapidity of environmental degradation did not exist until the Industrial Revolution. After all, it was this degradation that led to the rise of Romanticism in Europe in the early 19th century (“Romanticism” par.1). Both Francis and White miss what is historically specific about the modern ecological crisis. Another problem with both their approach is their hostility to human freedom. For White it was the use of a new type of plow in the 7th century by northern Europeans that turned distribution of land from one based on need to one based on “the capacity of a power machine to till the earth” (White 4). White appear to suggest that the move away from subsistence farming was a mistake. What he forgets is that this move allowed for the production of surplus and enables human culture and freedom. For the first time, humans no longer have to be solely occupied with the production of food freeing ourselves to develop other capacities. This is what separates us from other animals. Francis pays closer attention to the question of freedom, but he falls into a similar trap as well. In saying that “the earth was here before us and it has been given to us”, Francis reduce the role of humans to that of a housekeeper in God’s mansion. The earth is no longer a place where we can freely develop our human capacities. What all these problems in Francis and White’s arguments amount to is their misunderstanding of the problem. What’s important about the ecological crisis is that it was caused by human actions and that it threatens our free development. In other words, the ecological crisis is not a crisis of nature. It is a crisis of human society.

1. “Romanticism.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Sept. 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanticism.