I really liked this week’s reading. So much so that I kind of forgot how grimm this class can be sometimes. The idea of music being innate to life is an interesting one. I read the third chapter, like many of the other blog posts I read. That weird coincidence aside, the chapter did the most work of any of these articles by reminding me of our general insignificance. Before you go calling me a nihilist however, this is actually a kind of relaxing thought. Through these readings we have gone over the impending doom of our species. Actually now that I think of it that was mostly relegated to our discussions but the point still stands. This chapter touched on an entirely different aspect of anthropocentrism. I left this reading feeling much better about myself then any other. It gave me a sort of break with regards to the constant stream of horror and dread we hear about climate change, pollution, PFAS, CFC’s and much much more. All of these things are so far outside of my, or really any one normal person’s, hands that it can be hard to stay positive. But sometimes its just nice to imagine a bird yelling at a clarinetist in a Berlin park.
As someone who really likes history, and really likes epidemiology, this week’s reading was especially engaging. I will start with Lewis and Maslin’s “Defining the Anthropocene”. I have always been fascinated by how carbon-14 dating and other such methods are so able to date times long past. The parts of the paper that most stood out to me were when they talked about the methods that they used to track human impact. The part where they looked at preserved Maize pollen in Europe to determine when the first cross Atlantic trading occurred blew my mind.
Onto the second paper, “From Columbus to COVID-19: Amerindian Antecedents to the Global Pandemic,” by George Lovell. I really enjoyed the way he broke down the impacts of disease location by location. I also find it interesting how much debate there is over how many people originally lived here in the Americas before colonization took off. The only records we have are of the local people writing of almost total societal collapse, and of the Spanish just treating the Native Americans like cattle. Because of this, coming to a total is very difficult. There is also a pretty big leap in the estimated number of people originally along the 1900’s. The earliest cited paper, Kroeber 1939, estimated a mere 8.4 million native Americans originally. Compare this to the figure of 60.5 million from Maslin and Lewis. History, especially this sort of stuff that we aren’t really taught about in high school, really interests me. It also begs the question, what would have happened if these societies never broke down right as the Spanish came to attack.
Lewis and Maslin, “Defining the Anthropocene,” Nature (March 2015), excerpt: “Collision of the Old and New Worlds” (p. 174-175)
Lovell, “From Columbus to COVID-19: Amerindian Antecedents to the Global Pandemic,” Journal of Latin American Geography (July 2020), 177-185
This week’s reading did not resonate with me. Not because I disagreed with it or sensed malice, but purely because I could not understand what the author was saying. Of the 22 points in Shaviro’s 22 Theses on Nature, I can confidently say I fully understood 2. These points were about Nature being everything around us (point 1) and that the laws of thermodynamics have an impact (point 13). I do not know what the other 20 points were trying to say. I have some vague guesses, but I truly couldn’t understand most of it. It was only around point 10 that I realized just how little of the information on the paper was actually being processed. At first, I thought I was just tired or misreading something, but after many attempts to parse what was being said, I was still coming up short. There were even sentences like, “All-encompassing Nature is traversed by potentials and powers, or by energy gradients and inherent tendencies” made me think that I was genuinely having a brain issue. I read this sentence probably a dozen or so times before I concluded that I have no idea what the author was trying to say here. I think I’m going to lie down now.
Shaviro, 22 Theses On Nature
This week’s read was fun for me because I really like history. It was also one of the more uplifting reads we have done recently, although that may be because it was published in the happy year of 2005. I had learned of the Viking expeditions to the “New World,” but I never really knew why they disappeared. I thought that Diamond’s take on a slow, self-imposed destruction much more interesting than the “Act of God” sudden calamity. Relating the decline of the Viking settlements to a refusal to break cultural norms also stood out to me. The local Inuit peoples survived through the times the Vikings did not, which Diamond puts in part due to a refusal to eat fish. He also points out the Greenland was settled by the Vikings for some 450 years, much longer than the US has been around for.
The idea of us walking slowly towards an avoidable cliff, in this case climate change, is on one hand terrifying and on another hopeful. Climate change is no sudden disaster, nor will its effects happen all at once. Something can be done to prevent it. And if Climate change is inevitable, or nothing is done to prevent our current trends, then something can be done about those later effects. The end will not happen quickly, it will be a gradual process of decline until some geological homeostasis is achieved. I don’t really know how to properly explain how this makes me feel. All too often it can be distressing or depressing to read about the current situation. While this read didn’t really change my opinion on the bleakness of our time, it maybe fueled some hope that not all is lost.
One of my favorite environmental quotes is from George Carlin. It’s rather long but he sums it up saying “The planet isn’t going anywhere. WE are!”. The debate between the “Gaian” and “Promethean” approaches to fixing our current problems is certainly an interesting one. As I was reading the paper by Thiele, I kept going back and forth on which side I agreed with more. It was only after reading the paper that I realized the whole point was to talk about the polarity of the two points and how to work together. By picking a “side” I am just putting myself in a position to oppose the other. The paper makes clear that the problem is not solvable without cooperation from both views.
The Gaians who talk about diseases being good or rejecting modern medicine turn me away just as much as the uber-technocratic Prometheans who want to think their way out of every problem without actually solving any. These viewpoints are in obvious contrast, but not everything about the two are. I loved the part about the Gaian perspective where they talked about nature always batting last. Climate change doesn’t really matter to the Earth. The world will adapt and there will be new life that takes the place of the old. I also resonated with the idea of holding those responsible for our current crisis to account. It would be all too easy to forget the reasons we got into this mess, and to let the oil and gas companies off the hook for lying to us for decades.
This being said the Prometheans make some sound points. Geoengineering is a last-ditch effort to do what no one else seems willing to do. We have been told for how many years now that emissions need to be reduced by this much, and what has happened? Well, we banned plastic straws for those plastic cups you still drink. And the CEOs of Shell, Exon, and BP bathe themselves in the blood money of dehydrating children, so I’d say we’ve done pretty poorly overall. Humanity is unique to the Earth, this much is true. Turtles didn’t build the car, raccoons didn’t split the atom, we did. For crying out loud we launched a person into space, a couple times at that. Humanity IS in a unique position to make changes to the Earth, but as the Gaians point out, humility is key. This, I think, is one common ground we can all agree on. All who strive to fix the environment want to live and see a better world for our children.
This week’s reading, and the accompanying video, were very interesting to me. Of course, the framing of climate change around indigenous peoples is something I’ve heard of before, but the way that Kyle white discuss the concept particularly kept me engaged. I had never really thought about how the experiences of indigenous Americans could be so easily transcribed into the lens of climate change or broader environmental change. After reading it seems obvious that the events of settler colonialism on indigenous Americans would be extremely similar to that which everyone is facing today. The loss of land, extinction of species, deforestation, and much more are all mirrored some 100 years ago or so.
I’ve always been interested in the idea of using indigenous practices to help combat climate change. The idea of bringing back the original species of rice or flowers and how that might positively impact the environment has always resonated with me. That being said it’s always been in a context of fixing the problems that are affecting me or my family group. The context in which these all-encompassing problems are played out is very important. Considering different viewpoints of those who have been living in these conditions for the aforementioned hundreds of years. These are not new problems. They are an extension of the same problems that humans have been facing for centuries, merely under a new frame. The chapter mentions that carbon emissions were not the cause of the hardships faced by indigenous Americans, but the effect it had on these people was similar to that we have today. This reading has definitely got me more interested in the concept of looking at seemingly modern problems through a context of history. Who knows what other contemporary issues could have a long-forgotten solution.
I have a weird relationship with art. Specifically that which exists to make a statement. I always feel that art for spectacle was made for someone else, and it very likely is. I have a hard time resonating with a lot of art, not because I can’t see it as art, or that I feel too smart or cool to acknowledge it as such, but more just because it doesn’t invoke within me the emotions I know that artist was trying to elicit. Maybe it’s for this reason that this reading was difficult for me. Environmental art is by no means necessarily a spectacle, but it does have a definite purpose for existing. The artists are trying to either raise awareness, or pressure change in the way they know how. A painter’s talent would be wasted trying to make a documentary, so I absolutely admire how they act in their own ways.
The book mentions how art has been around since the dawn of man. Art is such an integral way for humans to express themselves that there are surviving examples of it from millennia ago. Beliefs and values of long dead civilizations can be discovered through the art of the time. All of this is to say I get the deal with art. Last week’s reading mentioned how science was restricted to the upper class for a very long time, whereas technology was furthered by the lower classes. Art is somewhere in a happy balance between the two. The famous sculptures and paintings of the renaissance were all commissioned by the very wealthy. Poor people of course still made art, but comparatively little survived to the current day like the ceiling of grand churches or Greek statues. To me the most striking environmental art is that of photographs. Nothing else captures the reality of the situation we are all living in. Nothing else shows the beauty in the rays of sun beaming through the lush rainforests. And nothing else depicts the heart wrenching feeling when you see those same forests burning to make way for the thrumming heart of industry.
Both religion and ecology are often talked about in our modern age, but seldom are the two linked together. More specifically how the different outlook of Christianity on nature when compared to other world religions. White makes some interesting claims in his essay, The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis, especially surrounding the topic of Christianity’s impact on nature. He starts by pointing out the seemingly unrelated events that happen when, put bluntly, stuff happens. The environment is always changing, much due to its complexity and the number of organisms it holds in balance. Much like how we are taught in biology that if a predator’s population shrinks, the prey will increase to the point of famine. This alone is not too interesting, however the introduction of Christianity into the picture sheds new light.
Christianity, as with any religion, is practiced by people. It is an event which brings with it ideas and guidelines on how the world works. White’s claim that “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen.” is a very interesting one. The way he described the actions undertaken by its followers, and in the differences from earlier religions, struck me as very poignant. When White explains how technology advanced under Western Christianity, I think he is saying that this advancement came directly because of a disregard for nature. This can obviously be said of events such as the industrial revolution, but it is fascinating to me hearing about this through the lens of a commonly practiced religion. White posits that even in our modern, by his 1960’s standards, secular society, the pervasiveness of the Christian disregard for nature permeates the general mindset.
White’s claims are reinforced by the encyclical Laudato si’, wherein Pope Francis reinforces some of the domineering mindset over nature seen in Christianity. Though the Pope also recognizes this and seems to be willing to adapt to a more nature centric vision of Christianity. White makes the claim that, “Since the roots of our trouble are so largely religious, the remedy must also be essentially religious”. This seems to be the approach that the current Pope seems to adhere to. Not the rejection of Christianity, but more of a reformation of the way nature is considered.
Lynn White, Jr., “The Ecologic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” Science 155:3767 (10 March 1967), 1203-1207.
Pope Francis, Laudato Si