Thursday, April 14, 2011

Thinking With the Ecological Thought

So what am I learning from this encounter with Tim Morton's Ecological Thought?

That a thought unrelated to practice is empty. That the relation to practice, too, must be thought and developed. That practice necessarily makes room for embodied others (and not just strange strangers), who need their own room to breathe (la partage du souffle), and that the provision of such room within the text--within the practice of style--is an ethical matter.

An ethical text--one I can live with, in a strong sense of the phrase--provides a map of the positions it seeks to engage, a sketch of how they're related to one another and therefore how I expect to engage them. Such a map should allow the reader to assess both the terrain and my map, to come to an independent judgment of how persuasive or effective the engagement has been.

For instance: there are plenty of places in the literature of ecology/environmentalism that resemble, in some ways, the lines of thinking that Morton pursues. Why doesn't he engage with them, if only to elaborate differences? His thinking crosses paths with ideas about ecological modernization, and with Tim Ingold's work in The Perception of the Environment. Would it do damage to his thought to tarry awhile in the vicinity of such texts?

Traditional scholarly convention distributes the map of its engagements between primary texts, worked into the body of the text, and secondary references, confined to the foot- or end-notes. Such spatial distinctions establish, as it were, the kinship terms for academic work. Morton has endnotes, but they act more like links than references; his text is a field of wild cross-pollination. This enacts the idea that ecology means the loss of the foreground/background distinction, the evaporation of distance, but it also collapses the distinction between map and territory and, indeed, just about any epistemic distinctions whatsoever (this despite his claim to distinguish between, say, environmentalism and the ecological thought.).

Alongside these concerns, there is a question about the time of reading, an issue related to practices of attention. Traditional reading takes time, with the text being an artefact designed to orchestrate time (I think of David Miller's phrase about the Victorian novel as a "drill in the rhythms of industrial society"). It may be that virtual reality dissolves such artefacts, suspending reading in a space of lateral associations and an environment of optionality (I currently have a dozen tabs open in my browser, and can readily skip between them: the fabric of this writing is riddled with those possibilities, and the awareness that they affect the reader as well. ). In this informational space, reading "takes" no time: it is pock-marked with points, constellated but not connected. Having grown up breathing, following the marked paths, the vacant, interstellar spaces frighten and disorient me, leave me infuriated. But perhaps those raised in the upper atmosphere are acclimatized: this is what ecologists call "shifting baselines."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

THE Ecological Thought?

It's been some time since I was as provoked by a book as I've been by Tim Morton's The Ecological Thought (2010)--probably since reading his last one, Ecology Without Nature (2007) (also the name of his blogsite). Not that being provoked is necessarily bad, but my irritation risks overwhelming what is actually interesting about Morton's text. Like Slavoj Zizek, whom he cites and thanks, Morton goes out of his way to deride other people's icons ("Wilderness areas are giant, abstract versions of the products hanging in mall windows"--p.9; "These fake landscapes are the original greenwashing"-10), to caricature the thought he critiques by associating it with Things We All Despise ("Environmentalist ideology ... ruthlessly immediate, aggressively masculine, ruggedly anti-intellectual, afraid of humor and irony"--p.8), and to make off-hand counter-intuitive remarks as if they were self-evident ("Some people simply don't want to know that their water is recycled excrement"--9: a zinger too good too pass up, even though it flies in the face of basic chemistry: the All-is-connected Ecological Thought can't be bothered with petty distinctions).

Some of this can be chalked up to being an entertaining lecturer; some of it stems from the habitus of Grand Theory, where outrageous assertions are coin of the realm, always deferred for later development; some of it has the whiff of academic self-marketing, where claims to Big Think, even if under-realized, pave the way to promotion. But as a whole it feels like cybergenic ADD: it establishes an affective field of breathless association ("You could see turbines as environmental art"-9; "Ecology is a matter of human experience"-12). Although he SAYS that "We shouldn't be afraid to withdraw and reflect," this is not a contemplative text: it has only two speeds, fast and faster. And remember, "The ecological thought permits no distance" (39)

More to the point, its version of "thinking" feels radically individualized, closer to the Egotistical Sublime than to the Congress of All Beings. Morton's "Ecological Thought" seems untroubled by politics, being more intent on establishing My Correct Views on Everything (to cite Kolakowski) than on cultivating alliances or thinking in context. Its tone is, fundamentally, ungenerous ("Heidegger's environmentalism is a sad, fascist, stunted bonsai version"--27, presumably because he cherished place and home). No one else, it seems, is entitled to a voice, or a view worth respecting, at least not within the precincts of My Text: no ethics of hospitality here.

(Reading Morton brings to mind Jane Bennett's remarks in "The Moraline Drift:" what gives a text that moralistic flavor? Self-certainty, a quest for purity, punitiveness: being caught in the rip-tides of one's own judgment. Bennett calls for ethical tactics to cultivate a humbler stance, preferring to present one's "world-view as an onto-story rather than an ontology," for instance: "Weak ontologists do aim to persuade others of the value, meaningfulness, or ethical advantages of their onto-stories. But they seek to balance the moraline drift of this project with a courageous admission of weakness"--17.)

The lack of generosity, of hospitality, feels somehow connected to the formlessness of the text, its headlong quality or precipitate flight. As a reader of poetry and an aspirational asthmatic, I tend to be sensitive to the rhythm of reading, the space it allows for companionable breathing. Morton's staccato observations, patterned on Zizek, make no room, take no time, give no quarter, have no mercy-- a condition they then describe as the true existential condition. This is partly temperamental, I suppose, but it is also deliberately cultivated--no, as they say, accident.

And yet, and yet...

I have great sympathy for the open-ended, essayistic quality of the text. Beyond the verbosity, there are some interesting thoughts--I can't call them insights--into the unboundedness of ecosystems, and how acquaintance with some texts can move us towards engaging their dynamics. On his blog, Morton mentions some affinities with William Jordan's Sunflower Forest, where a related "onto-story" about the incompleteness of nature (and the psychic costs of relatedness) proposes to resolve itself into restorative ritualization. Jordan's project draws on Frederick Turner, and aims at collective action: so far as I can tell, by contrast, thinking the Ecological Thought is its own reward.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

OSU Grad Students Sustainability Summit

April 1, 2011: OSU Grad Students hosted their first (annual?) sustainability summit, to unveil a resolution to establish a set of sustainability goals--by 2015--for the university. After introductions, the event centered on a set of presentations--by James deFrance, Aparna Dial, Joseph Fiksel and Rattan Lal--covering some basics points about sustainability, including concepts like sources and sinks (Lal), natural capital, feedback loops and systems thinking (Fiksel) and the basics of OSU's planning process.

Rattan Lal spoke of the need to establish baselines for emissions and resource use, as the basis for establishing goals. Aparna noted the challenge of aging infrastructure, and the initiative to meter all the buildings, a $3.5 million project. Joseph talked in general terms about the limits of the traditional model of economic growth, and the overshoot generated by failure to take account of natural capital. One of the few moments of argument surfaced when someone asked whether capitalism needed to be reined in, and both Joseph and Aparna extolled market mechanisms as an efficient way of coordinating responses. Both of them have been trained as engineers.

The event was well-attended and promising, but had its limits as a learning opportunity, in part because it assumed a homogeneous audience, all starting from a common baseline. In future years, I hope the organizers consider how to better integrate the summit into the rhythm of the academic year, and to choreograph diverse stakeholding groups. Coordinating such an event with Earth Week activities, for one, would open out the process to a larger context. Similarly, it would be useful to have breakout sessions geared towards different constituencies (There was a stylistic microdrama in the division between the suit-and-tie reps of Student Government and the t-shirted insurgents from Free the Planet and the grass-roots types.). It was, for instance, testimony to the limitations of the political imagination that, when asked how we can make sure the goals are implemented, the primary response was to "pressure' the administration.

At an organizational level--because sustainability is an organizational problem--it would be helpful for those working on the various dimensions of the issue (operations, student life, curriculum, research, community engagement) to meet semi-regularly to share goals, questions and learnings from the year. We need to create a field--a community of practice--that can "hold" the question of sustainability and how to approach it on an ongoing basis. Holding the question, creating a container for conversation, differs from a hierarchical performance review, in that it establishes a supportive environment, one which aims to renew and deepen commitment by making room for reflection and appreciation. It should, as well, ease the burden of individualized action, which often leads to moralism and resentment.

Psychologically, the challenge of sustainability is the need for enthusiasm, the desire for "more life." How to invest what can seem like compulsory austerity and self-discipline with symbolic and affective satisfaction? From sacrifice to communion.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Long Death of Environmentalism

Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger went to Yale last month, for a retrospective on their ideas about the "death of environmentalism." I spent a lot of time on their book in the early days of this blog, so I felt obligated to look pretty carefully at their current views.

There's a lot of cogent and provocative analysis here, obviously a challenge to greens to do some hard thinking about values, priorities and strategies. As a resident of the coal-dependent Midwest, I'm keenly aware of the hole we've dug for ourselves and what it's going to take to dig ourselves out.

But while I have a lot of misgivings about "An Inconvenient Truth," I can't tell whether Nordhaus and Shellenberger think Gore was substantively mistaken about the need to "change our lives" or whether they see it simply as a strategic error. Is Gore wrong to think we need to change, or is he wrong just in saying so out loud?

This matters because N & S--no doubt in the interest of being provocative--tend to reduce environmentalism to the issue of climate change, and then to find the key to climate change in energy policy. The policy debate then gets overshadowed by the need for pragmatic action. End result: the future lies with industrial agriculture and nuclear power--the only two substantive proposals I can find in N & S's 12 Theses.

In other words: if environmentalism isn't dead, it should prove it by committing suicide. Give up your fantasies about protecting nature. Oh, and don't worry, be happy. :-) Is that the sort of "breakthrough" N & S are looking for?

N & S are certainly right to emphasize that the link between science and policy is immensely problematic, with no direct lines to be drawn. And I'm sure that grass-roots greens are at fault for harboring naive views about the scale and pace of any transition to a post-carbon economy. But I wonder whether N & S are not unnecessarily narrowing the argument, and sacrificing the trees in the name of a global view of "forest strategy."

"System justification" can be a useful concept, but it has a functionalist bias and shouldn't be used to discredit politics. Look around: lots of people are talking about change, and about how other people are afraid of change. We disagree about what needs to change, and why, but one way or another, it's happening.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Art Dept Discussion: What are We Eating?

Thanks to Jesse Hemminger for an invitation to today's Topics Table at Hopkins Hall, to talk about Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food and what we're eating.

Pollan's argument is that "nutritionism is the ideology of industrial agriculture," and that, as such, thinking in terms of "nutritional value" (rather than eating food) has led us astray. Pollan himself notices how hard it is to escape from nutritionism, since he keeps drawing on it to explain why the "Western diet" (too broad a term?) is so unhealthy. (In fact, thinking of diet in relation to health is already to slight the cultural meanings of food, to downplay pleasure, taste and sociality.) This ineluctable pull says something about the nature of ideology: it's not just a distortion, but has its own structural necessities. It is fitted to, and makes somewhat intelligible, a certain reality.

Pollan also emphasizes that food--eating--is a relationship. From this perspective, "nutritionism" is the symptom of a relationship: to industrial agriculture, but also to science and to media. A relationship, that is, to a particular way of understanding relationships, namely, through the vocabularies of scientific reductionism and industrial production. It is important to us to know the latest about diet and health, and thus to acknowledge that professional authority.

At the same time, the development of industrial agriculture in the United States is not exclusively profit-driven, but also has a particular, historical path-dependency. It was historically justified by the need to "feed the world," which was born out of the experience of WWII and the emergence of the postcolonial world (famine in India, starving children in Biafra). Even know, the prospect of demographic apocalypse--feeding the 9 billion--continues to drive the development of GMO foods and to deride romantic localism. Industrial producers and nutritionists think on large scales, ultimately in terms of calories and nutrients and energy-efficiency, rather than in terms of local cultures. From the deracinated scientific standpoint, foods ought to be fungible, rather than culturally embedded: rice is, finally, rice. This way of thinking is premised on the background of famine or catastrophic deprivation, in which hunger and survival ultimately erase and override all other, meaningful considerations.

As a goal, feeding the world means feeding it indifferently. It locates agency all on one side, leaving the "receiving end" to be fed, passively. This is monocultural thinking with a vengeance (as it were). The prospect of climate change requires a more flexible, elaborated and localized approach to resilience. For instance, here's a link to discussion of what a sustainable food system might look like.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Water Footprints

Next step in eco-awareness: calculating "water footprints."

Food Fight: Grist weighs in

Last week, the NYT ran a provocative op-ed by self-proclaimed "Liberal Curmudgeon," Stephen Budiansky.  In "Math Lessons for Locavores," Budiansky looks to debunk the "misleading and often bogus" statistics deployed to explain why eating locally is environmentally friendlier.  Writes Budiansky:

The real energy hog, it turns out, is not industrial agriculture at all, but you and me. Home preparation and storage account for 32 percent of all energy use in our food system, the largest component by far.

A single 10-mile round trip by car to the grocery store or the farmers’ market will easily eat up about 14,000 calories of fossil fuel energy. Just running your refrigerator for a week consumes 9,000 calories of energy. That assumes it’s one of the latest high-efficiency models; otherwise, you can double that figure. Cooking and running dishwashers, freezers and second or third refrigerators (more than 25 percent of American households have more than one) all add major hits. Indeed, households make up for 22 percent of all the energy expenditures in the United States.

While locavoracity may have acquired something of a self-righteous halo recently, especially among the coastal trend-mongers, some of Budiansky's own calculations struck me as suspiciously ad-hoc, mustered to score points rather than to advance understanding of the pros and cons of our current food system.  Partly it was using the club of "efficiency" to bludgeon the arguments about localism ("The best way to make the most of these truly precious resources of land, favorable climates and human labor is to grow lettuce, oranges, wheat, peppers, bananas, whatever, in the places where they grow best and with the most efficient technologies"); partly it was the smugly contrarian conclusion ("The relative pittance of our energy budget that we spend on modern farming is one of the wisest energy investments we can make, when we honestly look at what it returns to our land, our economy, our environment and our well-being.") that pretends that the interests of land, economy and environment are somehow naturally aligned under industrial monocultures.  In the role of curmudgeon, Budiansky reduces complex and textured arguments about diversity, resilience, seasonality and ecological scale to a choice between virtue and efficiency.

The folks over at Grist have taken up Budiansky's challenge and organized a series of responses, including this one from Elanor Starmer of Food & Water Watch. I'm curious to see how the debate unfolds (nothing in the NYT yet, as far as I can tell); let's hope it generates a bit more light.