All posts by cramerni

Song of the Nightingale 🐦

In an anthropogenic worldview, nature will often take on an otherwordly or fantastical quality. When humanity is no longer considered a part within nature, nature becomes a detachment that inspires and mystifies. As mentioned by David Rothenberg in the third chapter of his book Nightingales in Berlin: Searching for the Perfect Sound, perhaps this is why the nightingale and other singing birds have entranced humans over the centuries. It has no external musical instruments, nor any methods of recording its songs. And yet these birds have a wondrous gift of melody, capable of constructing unique and complex songs singlehandedly. They contribute to the overall complexity of nature by proving that the production music is not restricted to humans, and that such complex processes as melody can be reproduced without sapient thought.

But even if we consider the alternative worldview, that places humanity inside of the larger concept of nature, the nightingale and its music still holds true as a beautiful thing. Making humanity of subservient importance to nature actually makes more sense in the context of music-making. It would explain how both birds and humans can create and share music. Humanity’s obession over the nightingale’s music and replicating it to some capacity would also make sense here. Seeing the two species as equals and mutual benefactors allows for unique discussion on the transfer of ideas. Music could be considered an example of ideas that can transcend a single species of animal, as humans seek to copy the singing birds, and vice versa.

Either way, it is important to realize that humans have uniquely altered the landscape, and the resulting loss in biodiversity and underappreciation for nature’s wonder has led to the nightingale and its kind to dwindle. They are less noticeable in the dense urban soundscape of cars and industry, and they are less present in the minds of men and women who have less time to think about nature. They were once important enough to be referenced by name in Shakespearean poetry and Romantic literature, but now it feels like as a society we worry more about anthropogenic problems. The road to repariring our relationship with nature is long and arduous, but by listening to the birds sing and understanding the significance of their music, perhaps there will be more incentive to starting the long journey.

A Worrisome Warning ☠️

In the current moment, it can feel like what we’re experiencing this year is totally new and unexpected. A global pandemic has caught us completely by surprise, and we’re reacting to it in a totally new and unique way. But a closer look into history will reveal that this is by no means the first, or even deadliest pandemic we have faced, and it will absolutely not be the last. The Spanish flu. The bubonic plague. These were terrible diseases that wiped out massive populations of people in a fraction of the time COVID-19 has had to do the same. But even these deadly plagues, with all of their historical impact, can’t compete with the myriad of disease and destruction that befell the native American civilizations once Europe arrived to the continent.

Nowadays, diseases like smallpox, measles, typhus, or cholera are still scary, but we have antibiotics and other medical things to negate the damage. Smallpox itself was entirely eradicated in the natural world. But to the varied people of the Americas, it was a death sentence. Having been separated from their Old World ancestors tens of thousands of years ago, they had no knowledge or comprehension of these diseases, and never developed any sort of immunity towards them. This isn’t to say the Americas were bereft of sickness, but the bacteria and viruses that Europe and Asia spent centuries getting used to were unknown to them at the time. So when Columbus broke the barrier between them and reintroduced the Americas to the Old World, there was nothing they could do to prepare. Exact numbers are impossible to know, and predictions range anywhere from just 60 thousand to over 8 million. Either way. it was an apocalypse. Entire cities and societies were eradicated, and by the time proper exploration of the land by the Spanish and English began, whoever remained represented a remnant of their former prosperity.

It saddens me to think about all the great and powerful empires that dotted the American continent that once existed, as motivated by trade and war as any European power. The Spaniards who plundered these lands had a great advantage over these people for many reasons, but none moreso than the cultural and societal bravado they possessed. But this was merely a de facto, as whatever strength the indigeonous had left was splintered into chaos and a vaccuum of power. While the world may be connected together more than ever before, this type of natural threat still exists. We may understand how viruses work, and how best to prevent them, but still they remain, and wreak havoc on our societies. COVID-19 is not the greatest adversity our species has ever faced. Nor will it be the last. But it serves as a worrisome warning to what may come, and to whatever natural calamity may overpower our anthropogenic worldview. The native Americans had no idea what was coming for them. And we might not either, until it’s too late.

Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180.

Lovell, W. G. (2020). From Columbus to COVID-19: Amerindianantecedents to the global pandemic. Journal of Latin American Geography.

Inside a Box 📦

There’s an recurring theme across all of the materials we’ve gone through this term, and it’s not just the discussion on the anthropocene. Rather, it’s the debate over humanity’s position in the world, and whether the anthropocene is a fair and accurate description of that position. Many contemporary criticisms have put the blame on top of humanity. Our aggressive push towards industrialization and progressive technologies has led to an incredible amount of damage to the environment, but the discussion always seems to create this dichotomy of humans and nature. Humans have destroyed nature. It is a separation that makes us as a species seem distant and detached from nature. But what is nature exactly? And are humans not part of nature as well? Are we not made of the same materials, created out of a similar process, and exist in this world alonside every other living and nonliving thing? The debate we should be having is not if humans are damaging their environment or not. They most absolutely are, and there is very little room left to deny it. The debate should instead be focused on humanity’s role within nature itself.

Humans seem to find joy in categorizing. We love to organize everything we see into neat boxes of “this” and “that.” The entirety of history can be summarized to groups of humans creating a separation, be it arbitrarily or from a genuine difference, and reacting to that separation in an intense way. From wars to slavery to democracy to globalization, the boundaries we have made for ourselves have shaped the world. These boundaries are sometimes good, and sometimes bad. But ignoring these boundaries entirely is not a wise decision, as is forgetting that they are ultimately defined by our perception of reality. Nature, as argued by Steven Shaviro, is at such a fundamental base level in the universe, that to think of humanity as an equal counterpart overvalues our existence and also undervalues nature’s existence. He believes that we must cease to define nature using humanity’s informatic and anthropocentric sensibilities.

In many ways, I agree with Shaviro. I find it so strange to hear people argue over dominance over nature. Do we really find nature to be so powerless that a single species within its realm can overcome it? Humans are not that omnipotent, and nature is not that weak. I am reminded by a quote from C.S. Lewis in his book The Abolition of Man, in which he analyzes this topic to some degree. “What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” It’s like attempting to win a duel against yourself. It’s a paradox, it makes no sense. We are a part of nature, and it a part of us. But at the same time, I fear that this mindset takes away from the damage we have caused to the envrionment. Perhaps this damage is only a risk to us, not to nature, but it is a risk nonetheless, and this idea makes it far too easy to disregard these concerns. And while humanity is surely a part of nature, it is important to recognize that we are still apart from it in at least some capacity. We are not only conscious, but sentient. We are aware of our existence, and somehow that gives us an influence over our existence in a way nothing else in existence really can. So, what is nature? And are humans a part of it? As in most things, the answer is complicated.

A Balancing Act – Cultural vs. Environmental 🐟

I was very excited to dive into this topic for the week, as this kind of discussion into ancient cultures and societal reasons for change is exactly what I find so fascinating about history. How people interact with their environment, through the use and misuse of resources and other additional factors, helps me better understand how our modern world works, and how humanity has gotten where it is now in terms of society, geopolitics, and ideology. I am actually very familiar with the book that is being reviewed, Jared Diamond’s “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed.” The anecdotal evidence of collapsing societies found in these Greenlandic settlements caught my attention, especially the geographic significance of their location.

Since I am currently pursuing a geography major, it’s no surprise that I gravitate to these kinds of analyses. I am well versed in the Norse history of exploration and colonization, and it’s impressive to think about how they settled even the most inhospitable of locations, such as Greenland. Of course, it is also abundantly clear that these adventuring men and women did not place the care or sustaining of their environment at the forefront of their concerns. They did not realize that as they chopped down all of the trees for construction materials and for the warmth they sealed their fate. They did not realize that by replacing the forests with fields of grain the soil was ruined, and each subsequent winter became harder. Or maybe they did, it’s hard to say for certain. But even if they did, Diamond argues that they would most likely have continued their practices. And it wouldn’t be out of spite or a genuine distaste of the environment. No, it would be because they valued the preservation and unique identification of their culture over any sense of adaptation or intermingling with the native Inuit population.

Learning how empires rise to greatness is all well and good, but seeing how they collapse and vanish into nonexistence is equally if not more fascinating. But it’s important to realize that not every civilization or culture collapses in a fiery burst of magnificence (for example, the Roman Empire). More often than not, it is a slow burn, taking decades or even centuries of gradual decay and decline. Many historians attribute the collapse of late Bronze Age civilizations in Western Asia and North Africa to a sudden invasion by mysterious “sea people” from the Mediterranean, or earthquakes and other natural disasters. But some, myself included, posit that in addition to this there was a slow decline, as mass migrations, changes in warfare, and a general change in the political systems of the time led to the defeat of these once-great societies.
Diamond has a similar approach to the Greenland settlements. While some would say it was due to the Little Ice Age and decreased temperatures, he believes that the cultural abstinence of the Norsemen led to their downfall. They refused to eat fish, despite it being plentiful. Even as the last cow was devoured, and they starved to death, they refused to break their taboo. Why this taboo existed, no one can say for sure. But it clearly existed, and shows that cultural and sociological processes are far stronger and more influential than many would realize.

It’s an interesting picture to paint, and upon taking this mindset and glancing at the world around us, some concerning conclusions can be constructed. How powerful are our societies and cultural processes? Are they powerful enough to overwhelm the necessity of preserving our survival and the persistence of a sustainable ecology? Are we doomed to a slow and unavoidable collapse? I can’t deny that the threat exists, but as long as we remain aware of the danger, and balance the preservation of our humanity with the preservation of the environment, neither will be at any risk of destruction.

Gladwell, M. (2004, December 27). The vanishing. The New Yorker. Retrieved October 26, 2021, from

Healing the World (with the Things That Broke It) ⚙️

Geoengineering is an interesting concept, to say the least. It’s also surprising that any reference to this idea has persisted as long as it has. In just the last few decades, we as a species have become alarmingly aware of our negative impact on the environment. So suggesting that the only solution to this is even more human involvement and influence seems a little bit counterintuitive.

While I have not heard the specific terms of the “Gaian” and “Promethean” perspectives, I am nonetheless familiar with their basic ideological tenets. One is overtly spiritual and focused on nature, believing that humans have done enough, and should totally abandon any geoengineering efforts. The Gaians consider any attempt to physically shape the earth, regardless if it’s for the benefit of nature or not, to be a severe tragedy. They have a strong distaste for proponents of geoengineering, particularly those who fail to properly factor in the delicate yet powerful forces of nature.

The other point of view is quite the opposite. Prometheans see geoengineering as inevitable, and perhaps required, to save our species from extinction. Instead of condemning those who would abuse these systems, incentivize them to enact programs that assist the environment. Human development and alteration of the environment have been going on for millennia, long before even the Industrial Revolution.

Both points are endlessly fascinating, and yet Thiele hesitates to identify either one as the true answer. Both have value, and both miss the mark on a lot. I find it interesting how similar both viewpoints are. Like a lot of arguments concerning the relationship between man and nature, a distinct separation is made. The Gaian perspective holds that humanity should step back from the natural process. But they fail to recognize that humans, and even human development, are an integral part of nature. The Promethean perspective holds that humanity has the wisdom and power to enact whatever change we deem right. But they fail to recognize the far greater power of nature itself, and how as members of nature we would inevitably destroy ourselves.

In the end, both choices are subpar, and instead I would choose to side with Thiele. She recognizes the important ethical and ontological perspectives of both sides and believes that in order for them “to become engaged in a more productive dialogue, their viewpoints must be clearly articulated and some common ground forged… [they] can address how they might best conserve core values and relationships by managing the scale and speed of change. (Thiele 476)” Both perspectives must adhere to the more expansive tenets of sustainability, and find ways to work together in the context of humanity’s place within the larger world.

Leslie Paul Thiele (2019) Geoengineering and sustainability, Environmental Politics, 28:3, 460-479, DOI: 10.1080/09644016.2018.1449602

Dystopia Now 🍂

Whenever people begin discussing climate change and the ecological impact humanity has played on the earth, conversation will often naturally approach the topic of dystopian systems. Dystopian literature and media has become incredibly prevalent in our modern society, which makes sense. Considering how much increased awareness we’ve gained on the world and its problems in the last couple centuries, it’s no wonder these apocalyptic scenarios emerge at the forefront of our imaginations. Political dystopias have always been popular and thought-provoking. For example, George Orwell’s 1984 is a chilling description of a totalitarian state that feels all too real in countries like China, and even here in the US with constant surveillance and a lack of privacy. Even more pressing is the environmental dystopia, such as is mentioned in Octavia E Butler’s Parable of the Sower.

And that is why the readings for this week stood out to me so much. According to professor Kyle Whyte, indigenous Americans have experienced a dystopia themselves. The idea of dystopias happening before my time is certainly not news to me. Many cultures and civilization throughout the ages have experienced collapses of their worlds, especially due to political upheaval or even extreme ecological change. And I suppose I intuitively understood that native Americans have gone through a similar process. But to specifically label it as a “dystopia,” and to have it be caused not by natural or environmental factors but through human colonization and destruction is all the more shocking.

But calling it anything other than a dystopian situation would be oversimplifying at best. Entire forests cut down, wild herds of buffalo culled, and civilizations as impressive as anything to be found in the Old World ravaged by disease and war. The culture of these indigenous cultures, which were so attuned to the natural world, has been crushed under the heel of technological progress.

Dystopian literature speaks to our imaginations, of what could go wrong. So realizing that things have already gone wrong, and that these people have already been through the worst, can help raise awareness for what happened. Whyte suggests a myriad of solutions, all of which prioritize the inclusion of native tribes into discussions of environmental preservation and research. These people were here before us, and understood the importance of their natural environment long before any American citizen did. It is imperative we include everyone into the conversation, so that this anthropocentric world we live in can be reevaluated. The dystopia is now, and in fact to some people it has already happened. Now we must rebuild, and fix our mistakes before the dystopia comes for everyone.

Whyte, Kyle. Our Ancestors’ Dystopia Now: Indigenous Conservation and the Anthropocene. Routledge Companion to the Environmental Humanities.

Croakey, director. Talking #JustClimate and Decolonising Climate Science with Professor Kyle Whyte. YouTube, 24 Feb. 2017.

Art for Environment’s Sake 🎨

On the grand scale of humanity, our modern industrial world has only just begun. Our obsession with technology and advancement is only a few centuries old at most. But tens of thousands of years ago, we did not have the luxury, or the capacity, to worry about the environment and our impact on it. Ancient humans were hunter-gatherers and nomads who as they wandered the vast wilderness left behind marks of their existence on the surfaces of stone. Most of their simple yet evocative paintings were ashed away by time, but some persisted, preserved in caves as memorials to their unnamed creators. They represent the physicality of humans, of our place in the physical world. They used pigments made of natural materials, and the physical locations they painted on were used for shelter and protection from wild animals. They celebrated nature, lived in nature, and relied on nature to signify our creativity and conscience thought.

But as the centuries went on, humanity grew stronger. We adapted, we innovated, and we conquered nature despite it being an integral part of our self. Our art changed too. Placing humans within nature was less important than humanity itself. The tending of nature outpaced itself, as progress for the sake of progress became the dominant worldview. Nature was still revered, of course. Romanticism and the rise of conversationalist sentimentality continued the tradition of cherishing the natural world. But humanity was separated, distant. Materials were still taken from the earth itself, as all things are, but any sort of appreciation was directed towards the composition of art pieces. Not what specific elements were used to make them.

And now, in the modern day, as climate science improves and the gravity of what we have done to our poor earth is wholly evident, a call to return to the old ways of seeing art has emerged. Sculptors use the earth’s surface itself to tell a story, and the ways humanity has altered the environment have taken center stage. However, interestingly enough, there are also many examples where this mentality, this desire to inspire us and make us think of the planet, have very little to do with the planet at all. Abstract constructs made from cold concrete and portraits made out of grass seeds are novel and fascinating to look at, but they don’t offer anything that has not already been presented by hundreds of years of artful experimentation. As such, the question must be raised: what is art for environment’s sake? Is modern ecological art done so as a celebration of the unity between man and nature, or does it merely continue the romantic ideals of the industrial era? Hailing back to this era of art is not necessarily a bad thing, but if this is the case, why is there still a distinction? But if there is a proper recognition of humanity’s cultural connection to the environment, how best do we display it? Such questions are being explored in modern art and sculpture. But the beauty of art is not its ability to answer such questions, but to explore every avenue, and display every step in the process, in ways that can be both strange and incredibly fascinating.

Brown, Andrew. “At the Radical Edge of Life.” Art and Ecology, 2014, pp. 6-15.

The Nature of Nature 🍃

When one is attempting to define time periods on the geological scale, it’s important to find both very broad and wide-reaching similarities that separate them from other periods. As a result, it is often best to use geological functions, such as the changing of the climate, or an extinction-level event like an asteroid impact, to define an era of Earth’s history. However, prior to the development of humans, all periods were defined by natural phenomena, or blind chance. This is what makes the idea of the Anthropocene such a fascinating idea. The idea that we as a species have become so wide-reaching that we have fundamentally altered the very composition of our planet’s surface is both awe-inspiring and terrifying. The moment humans began creating stone tools and laying down the seeds of agriculture, we have been changing the planet to suit our needs. But never before has this become so wholly apparent. As industrialization forces us to utilize greater and greater percentages of the natural world, we must stop and ponder the question: Have we gone too far?

The two articles which we have been presented analyze this question, and offer solutions to a world crushed by the weight of humanity and technological “progress.” The first is a scientific journal entry by Lynn White, Jr. He mentions how “it was not until about four generations ago that Western Europe and North America arranged a marriage between science and technology, a union of the theoretical and the empirical approaches to our natural environment. (White 2)” For generations people had been studying the world in a scientific manner. And for generations people have been adapting and creating new technological tools with which their lives could be improved. Their fusion and ubiquity in our modern society is a newer process, heralded by the Scientific Revolution and similar processes, but such industrializing efforts have been going on much longer, such as the invention of the water mill in the first century BCE.

In any case, White correctly points out that what we often think of as the “Western world” has arrived at the conclusion that the domination of nature is necessary for humanity to prosper. Such ideas have perpetuated, although alternative ideas have since emerged. He believes that the influence of Christianity in Europe may be the primary culprit for this, claiming that “Christianity, in absolute contrast to ancient paganism and Asia’s religions, not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends. (White 4)” The idea that we are allowed, if not encouraged, to exploit nature for the sake of man thus appears to be Christian in nature. It is therefore interesting to approach the second article, which deals with the same problem of humanity’s destruction and abuse of nature, yet is written by the head of the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis speaks of the ecological plight humanity faces due to its actions, just as White did. They both even speak of the same historical figure, Saint Francis of Assisi. However, what fascinates me the most is that while White considers him to be a radical who challenged Christian ideas with his spiritualism and devotion to nature, Pope Francis celebrates him and regards him as his inspiration, for precisely the same reasons. He also responds to the claim White supported, that Christianity encourages this domination over the earth. His response: “Although it is true that we Christians have at times incorrectly interpreted the Scriptures, nowadays we must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures. The biblical texts are to be read in their context, with an appropriate hermeneutic, recognizing that they tell us to ’till and keep’ the garden of the world. (Papa Francesco 49)” As sentient beings, he believes it is still our duty to command over the earth, but it is important that we do so in a benevolent and caring way, providing for the earth so that it may provide for us.

Whether or not Christianity is to blame for the destruction of nature, it is abundantly clear that something must be done to repair the damage. Both authors concur that a solution must be actively sought. Social, political, and economic incentives for perpetuating this ecological process must be analyzed and redirected to better alternatives, lest the problems become too great and we drive ourselves to extinction. The Anthropocene era is defined by human activity and transformation of the earth, but perhaps with the right circumstances, such processes can benefit both humans and nature.

Lynn White, Jr., “The Ecologic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155:3767 (10 March 1967), 1203-1207.

Pope Francis,**Laudato Si