All posts by Griffin

Our conceptualization of nature

The definition of a ‘thesis’, according to oxford dictionary, is “a statement or theory that is put forward as a premise to be maintained or proved”. Essentially this means a thesis is a statement with no implied backing. Really the only assurance we have is that one person (the author) thinks it is true. This is not said to demean the “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature”, but simply to clarify what it is we are dealing with here. Furthermore, while it might be questionable to state unsupported theses in Physics for example, but the very nature (ah) of this topic is much more abstract.

All of the theses describe nature in some way. That much is apparent, but the way in which nature is described throughout has some notable diversity. Initially, all the theses describe the way in which we ought to think of nature. This pattern holds up until thesis 8 where Steven Shaviro boldly states “Nature is neither a plenum nor a void”. This distinction is particularly interesting because of something called the is-ought gap. The is-ought gap is the concept that no statements of directing what one should do can be derived directly from statements only consisting of what is true. This means that there is a fundamental divide between the thesis which guide action (or more specifically guide how we should think) and those which make a statement about the way that nature is. In another context I could potentially brush this off as a quirk of wording, but considering the philosophical nature of this paper and Steven Shaviro’s own background in philosophy I believe this is intentional.

While Shaviro gives us many theses (twenty two to be precise) they clearly work together, but what are they saying? My interpretation is that Shaviro’s Thesis with a capital T is we need to view nature in a way that motivates us to take care of it. Now, clearly this one statement does not include nearly the same level of detail that Shaviro’s theses give and most notably they answer the question of what exactly that way is, however I think this is the defining thread. An important note about this thread is that it is an ought statement. If we consider this as a premise to our 22 theses this makes sense. The ought component here is crucial to create other ought statements.

What the hell is a Tamarisk?

“The Tamarisk Hunter” is a short story set in a near future climate apocalypse world somewhere in the southwest United States. The story follows Lolo who is naturally a tamarisk hunter. Before reading this story the image that I had in my mind of a tamarisk was some kind of mythical beast, but I quickly learned of my mistake from reading on and instead a tamarisk is a type of tree. The key feature of the Tamarisk in this story is its water consumption. To quote the leading line: “A big Tamarisk can suck 73,000 gallons of river water a year.”. This is relevant because 1. there is an incredibly persistent drought (Big Daddy Drought) and 2. California has rights to all of the water flowing through the Colorado river. This means that every gallon sucked up by a Tamarisk is a gallon the state of California loses. Because of this, bounties are paid to anyone who can show proof they have removed a tamarisk tree from the Colorado river bank.

The conflict of this story comes from the fact that Lolo is not an honest tamarisk hunter. Instead of simply removing the tamarisk, he carefully finds places to replant the trees so that he has more to harvest later to earn more bounty. This is a big deal in the story because he is effectively stealing water from California, but it is also worth noting that tamarisk trees are an invasive species to the United States and cause considerable harm to the ecosystem (discovermoab.com). The oversight of this information is not particularly surprising considering the attitude toward “enviros” who want to give water to the plants and animals when there isn’t enough for humans. It seems that Lolo feels guilt about what he is doing, but it is not tied to damage toward the ecosystem. Lolo’s guilt lies in his dishonesty to his wife Annie.

Everything that happens in the story feels as if it’s setting up Lolo to get caught by BuRec (Bureau of Reclamation?) for his tamarisk crimes and sent to do manual labor to repay the fortune in water he has stolen. This continues up until the last moment in which he discovers the big scary government men (which he is prepared to murder in cold blood) were simply here to tell him that BuRec is not paying bounties anymore. Instead they are basically shutting down the entire area and sealing the river with carbon fiber to prevent evaporation. Lolo’s crimes are meaningless, not only to him, but in an ecological sense as well. The impact of planting some more invasive species pails in comparison to completely sealing off the water supply to an entire ecosystem. The message that I gather from this story is that in general, systematic harm is much more impactful than individual.

Also worth noting that in my attempt to learn what a tamarisk is I discovered the biblical connection. Tamarisks trees are native to the middle east and are mentioned multiple times in the bible. I was curious to learn more about this and I expect that there may have been some sort of juxtaposition surrounding the symbolism of the tree in the bible versus in this story. I however did not feel I had the bandwidth to look into this any further tonight, but hopefully I’ll find something about it before next class.

Cultural Death

In “The Vanishing” Malcom Gladwell walks us through Jared Diamond’s book “Collapse” while giving his own take. The common thread throughout the whole article is the story of the Vikings who lived in Greenland up until the 15th century. The old story that was always told of why the Vikings died out was aptly summarized as “It got too cold, and they died”. This narrative is one in line with the way in which the demise of societies has been understood for quite some time. The analysis of why a society collapsed is rooted in a single event. For the Vikings it was a mini ice age that wiped them out. While this certainly played some role, the narrative that Jared Diamond give is much more nuanced.

The Vikings that settled in Greenland were able establish agriculture and flourish in Greenland, but the seed of their destruction was sowed as soon as Norse culture made contact with the fragile ecosystem of Greenland. Simply put, they were incompatible and the Vikings had no intention of changing their ways. Gladwell uses the comparison of Inuit to explain this. The Inuit have sustained for much longer than the Vikings did in very in a very similar environment. The key lies in the way in which they get get their food and live. The Inuit relied much more heavily on getting food from the sea. The would eat fish instead of livestock and burn walrus blubber for heat instead of lumber. These practices are not only much easier on the environment, but more time and energy efficient to do. Despite this the Vikings were set in their cultural ways.

When looking back on the Vikings it’s easy to feel as though they were dumb and shortsighted for not adapting their ways, but the changing of things as simple as diet can mean cultural death. Thinking about the ways in which culture may not be advantageous to our survival is becoming a more pressing issue everyday.

Beautiful Garbage

The specific art piece that I examined was “Sandstars”. This piece consisted of a myriad of man made artifacts off the coast of Mexico neatly arranged by color laid out in a rectangle on the floor. Some of these items included lightbulbs, bottles, driftwood, helmets, and toilet paper. This artwork clearly draws attention to the environmental issue of huge swaths of garbage floating around in the ocean. While this is not a unique statement, the way in which “Sandstars” demonstrates that is unique. I think we’ve all seen some variety of the ad that shows birds being choked by the plastic pieces that hold soda cans together and tell you to stop littering. That kind of message is very direct and makes you feel bad and guilty to see, but “Sandstars” doesn’t do that. The art piece is pleasant to look at and is disconnected from the adverse affects of these artifacts in the ocean. And they truly are artifacts; as opposed to random pieces of plastic the items in “Sandstars” are interesting. We already know that all the trash we dump in the ocean is bad, but “Sandstars” gives scale to that. It makes you ask, if there are this many intact lightbulbs, how many shattered and living inside sea creatures? or If there were this many interesting things, how many boring pieces of plastic are out there?

I don’t think this art piece lends itself toward a scientific approach. The objects and arrangement of them is very clearly aesthetic and they don’t communicate scientific findings or a hypothesis to be tested. We already know that there is a huge amount of trash in the ocean and this doesn’t objectively quantify that, but rather shows it to you in a very personal way. I also find it difficult to pinpoint exactly what the call to action is here. We are presented with an issue we know is an issue in an interesting and unique way, but there is no new solution offered, except possibly to simply go pick up trash off the beach. It seems that the piece does much more to make the viewer think about the issue. One of the ways I think this piece does that is with the toilet paper rolls. If viewed out on a beach instead of as part of this art piece, one might look over them completely. As was said in the video, they look like some sort of natural object, but upon closer inspection they are not. It’s clear the roll has been degraded, but in considering how much toilet paper we flush down the drain, it’s alarming.

One of the best things about “Sandstars” is that it does a great job in terms of environmental cost. Gabriel Orozco literally cleaned up a wildlife reserve to gather the materials for the art piece. Furthermore it seems fair to assume that a lot more was picked up than just the items used in the piece. The only possible environmental impact I can see from this is the fuel cost of shipping the items. This seems like it would be relatively small considering the small amount of objects.

Oh how we’ve screwed ourselves

A unique feature of this excerpt of climate change and society is that it starts every subsection with a new term. Each of these terms is made up of words that I have heard before, but my in-depth understanding of the definition of each varied significantly. While some combinations were intuitive, like environmental colonialism, some were much harder to grasp and I felt a loss of specific definition. Some of the more challenging terms included approximately 12 different types of justice. I don’t mean to criticise the writing style of the piece so much as simply expressing a central feature of my experience reading it. I think that the development of these terms is a useful step in the process of expanding the conversation about these topics in our culture, but I feel that I was quite bogged down in my process of trying to grasp the message of the piece.

The thesis of this chapter is, one, that dominant, Western (colonialist) culture has caused irreparable, long lasting, and self sustaining damage to indigenous cultures by means of environmental damage. And, two, that this is uniquely bad because the means to get human kind out of this crisis is deeply interconnected with the very cultures the crisis is disproportionately harming. The first point alone is already a terrible injustice that should be addressed, but it provides no incentive for a self interested culture to make a change. Those with compassion will want change immediately, but if compassion is lacking or one’s own strife is too dominant to allow sufficient compassion, the first point will be unconvincing.

The approach to solving our climate crisis in the western world has been largely based in technology. The sustainable future that many envisioned was one of solar powered technological advancement. The concept of coexisting with nature is one that is notably absent from these concepts of the future. This cultural vision combined with a (at best) condescending attitude toward indigenous people all around the world has blinded us from acknowledging the value of indigenous cultures in the process of fixing our ecological disaster. The attitude of colonialism that says having the biggest empire automatically means your ideologies are right has caused catastrophe.

“Modernity’s Destructive lure”

The article “Sustainability” does not offer much in the way of offering a way forward but rather attempts to widen the reader’s perspective. This is done through an unusual route: language. It is clear and at least agreed upon within the audience seeing this post that something needs to be done to curb human damage to the planet. Often the answer to that problem is ‘sustainability’. As the first sentence of the article states: sustainability is an English word. To understand the significance of this we have to examine what language is a little closer.

When you begin to learn a new language at the basic level, the first thing you need to do is build a vocabulary. What are the simple objects and actions that I need to describe called? Usually it is easy to get these. If you want to know the word for food in another language there is usually a direct translation. As you start to learn more words you may discover that there are words in English that don’t translate, have many translations, or the translation is simply a modified version of the word in another language. Sometimes the languages just don’t line up, but often there is a bigger reason.

There isn’t a word for sustainability in Mam because the concept itself is foreign to Doña Marta and other Mam speakers. This feels paradoxical in a sense because the simple farming lifestyle of Marta is much closer to the way that humans went about living for many thousands of years without wreaking havoc on the environment. The definition of sustainability is loosely the quality of being able to be sustained, but it’s connotations are much more nuanced. Sustainability exists as a solution to the symptoms of the ‘modern world’s’ lust for progress without addressing the root. Modernity’s destructive lure is thinking that the way we are moving is the way things should be. The worst part is that this mentality is contagious. The isolated pockets that are protected from it shrink as generations turn over.

Why I’m converting to Catholicism

From the age I could comprehend the concept of religion I have been a firm atheist. When I was only ten I got into arguments with religious people about their beliefs. And although I have softened quite a bit on that front I certainly was, and at least partially am still, that kind of atheist. A big part of the reason I am/was this way was because of a fascination with science. To me, science was true and undeniable and religion was blindness to the truth. Another large factor in my avid rejection of religion (especially Christianity) was its conflict with my progressive social views. This coincided with my views on climate change. Largely religious climate change deniers were the big bad that was killing the planet while scientists were the champions of truth that fought for what was right. While my views have shifted and become more nuanced, these sentiments hold a place inside of me. Because of this, I felt like I knew what to expect in Lynn White’s article.

The relationship between Christian ideals and our ecological crisis personally doesn’t feel like a very hot take. Although I haven’t spent a whole lot of time fleshing the concept out, it fits my ingrained tribalistic binary system. Furthermore, the idea of Christianity considering humans as the most important is something I am familiar with. The heavy emphasis on the concept of science and technology in the midst of this was what really made me think.

I spent kindergarten through my 8th-grade year at a self-proclaimed environmental school. A big thing that I got out of this was a belief in renewable energies for the future. The concept of creating better technology to solve the world’s problems was very appealing. Lynn White literally writes: “More science and more technology are not going to get us out of the present ecological crisis.”. Middle school Griffin would have a lot of things to say to this. Despite my past beliefs, I do believe that a global attitude change is a necessary part of solving not only our ecological crisis but many of our social problems as well. The idea that this change could be at some level religious is quite novel.

I would first like to mention the relevant fact that our current Pope is named after the very Saint that Lynn White describes as “the greatest spiritual revolutionary in Western history”. This is a huge piece of common ground that I did not expect. I think that ultimately the views conveyed by both authors are near identical. Not only do they both believe that we have a big ecological problem caused by our misguided attitudes toward nature, but also that the solution must be religious rather than technological. Really the only point of disagreement is the role of Christianity in this. Lynn White believes Christianity is largely the cause of our misguided attitudes. He acknowledges Saint Francis as an exception to this, but really no more. Pope Francis believes that the misguided attitudes may connect with incorrect interpretations of the bible, but that the true Catholic ideals are just the opposite.

If my title didn’t make it completely obvious, after reading both perspectives I agree with the Papal Encyclical more. I think where Lynn White gets it wrong is in his unitary view of Christianity. I think he makes a very strong case that Christianity of the middle ages played a big role in developing many of the attitudes we have today. The views of Catholicism today (I cannot speak on other branches of Christianity) clearly hold near opposite view. Christianity is nowhere near singular. Even reading from the exact same text, interpretation is everything. When it comes down to it, I like Pope Francis’s interpretation of the Bible. I convinced my roommate to go to a Catholic church with me as some point, so I’ll update the class when that happens.