The Battle for Yesterday’s Nature, Next-Nature, & Whatever Comes After That

On the Anthropocene Campus, Academic Infighting, & an Orange Street Cat

This orange cat courtesy of a Flickr Creative Commons search.

I left our neighborhood coffee shop in a distracted state this morning. I’d spent the last twenty minutes giving my partner Dan Phiffer a caffeine addled recounting of the introduction to Naomi Klein’s newest book, This Changes Everything. He had to cut me short to catch the M Train to work.

Dan’s view from the M Train a few winters ago

Deep in thought about intransigence and global warming, I stepped out into the frigid winter air to start my walk home. As I cut across a side street and turned onto fast moving Myrtle Avenue, a grizzled orange street cat came gliding around the corner at a fast clip and we nearly collided. Our eyes met for an instant; he flinched momentarily, then dodged expertly around me, and out into the street. I spun around to watch him go. His fluid movement ended abruptly as he collided with the tire of an oncoming SUV. I heard the sickening thump and saw a flurry of fur, then somehow the cat was up and scuttling desperately in the opposite direction to disappear behind a ragged fence piled with dirty snow and trash bags. My stomach churned, my heart thudded, and I went in automatic pursuit of the poor animal, who no doubt wanted to be as far from me and all meddling humans and murderous cars as possible. My pursuit ended when I found he had disappeared into an inaccessible vacant lot. I had to take a few deep breaths, watching clouds of steam float from my mouth into the morning light, before I resumed my walk home, even more distracted than before.

To locate the source of at least some of this distraction, I’ll rewind to the events of last night: It’s late evening, I’m a few pages into This Changes Everything, and I keep finding reasons to set it down. I’m reading the actual book, hardcover, so there is a bit of effort involved in just keeping it propped open. But beyond that, the message feels burdensome, too. And Klein knows it. She writes initially about how hard it is to focus on the climate crisis in a consistent manner:

Living with this kind of cognitive dissonance is simply part of being alive at this moment in history, when a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face — and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place…A great many of us engage in…climate change denial. We look for a split second, and then we look away”.

I’ve been working on a sculpture proposal involving urban gardening all day. So frivolous, when faced with the looming reality of 6 degree (Celcius!) warming trend over the next century. I get up to make tea, read a few more pages, then interrupt myself again to look at twitter. @Revkin has just posted something that catches my eye:

It’s a dense 142 characters, but basically a new paper on Planetary Boundaries (an attempt to establish a “safe operating space for humanity” for the international community) has been published by Will Steffen et al., and Andy Revkin is providing a forum on his Dot Earth blog for the paper’s authors to duke it out with other academics (Erle Ellis et al.) who disagree with their approach. Ok. Nothing unusual, really. The striking part for me is that I’ve had engaging and eye-opening conversations with both Steffen and Ellis recently. Scrolling on and on through the back and forth, it looks like they and their camps disagree vehemently about the basics of the climate struggle (down to citing different “world views”). I find it disconcerting.

midway through the Dot Earth Exchange

To explain, I have to rewind even a little further: Back in November of the rapidly receding year 2014, I had an extraordinary experience at a week long event billed as “The Anthropocene Campus”. A hybrid conference-workshop series with a dose of summer camp thrown in, the gathering brought 100+ researchers and practitioners from the arts, sciences and humanities to HKW Berlin to work on new ways of producing and disseminating knowledge in this age of ever-increasing human influence on the planet. While the week fomented plenty of friction among and between disciplines, pedagogical frameworks and academic personalities, the event as a whole was empowering. In the sessions and workshops I attended, there was a rousing sense of consensus around the need for action on global climate change with a clear focus on climate justice, biodiversity, and respect for non-human lives. It was an emboldening atmosphere: like minds were out there, both in the room and beyond.

Midway through the Campus, I happened to have lunch with Steffen. A small group of us were meeting to discuss undergraduate science and art education in the Anthropocene era. The lunch room was crowded, and my group commandeered his table for our meeting; he welcomed us and joined our conversation. With a background in Chemical Engineering, Steffan comes from an Earth systems science and sustainability perspective. Widely published on climate change issues, he’s held a variety of high profile positions at academic institutes and NGOs focused on these concerns. Over the years he’s worked repeatedly on the concept of “Planetary Boundaries” — the attempt to work out the limits beyond which human activity may create “irreversible and abrupt climate change”. The paper in question on Dot Earth, Planetary Boundaries 2.0, is an attempt by Steffan & others to improve upon a 2009 iteration of the concept.

Steffan, who is a small man with a trim gray beard, can come across as reserved, but his manner is cut with an undercurrent of passion and firm resolve. He has done his research and is committed to it. As we ate and talked he indulged our questions about geochemistry and deep time and asked a few pertinent questions about pedagogical strategy in the age of the technosphere. I enjoyed his company and finished the meal feeling I could respect his judgement.

A 2009 Planetary Boundaries diagram from Dot Earth

I chatted with the much louder, more imposing Ellis over post-campus beers one evening later in the week. The simulated flat-screen fireplace in the motel lobby provided a bizarre backdrop to our discussion of novel ecosystems and the uncertain future of humanity. Coming from a slightly younger generation than Steffan, Ellis also comes from a different academic corner. As the Director of the Laboratory for Anthropogenic Landscape Ecology at the University of Maryland, his research deals not with setting limits on human activities but with searching out and elaborating on the ways in which natural systems and humans are intertwined and evolving together in productive ways. He’s co-authored papers with “post-wild” advocate Emma Marris, and op-eds in the New York Times with titles like “The Age of Man is Not a Disaster”. Aspects of this brand of thinking rile up traditional conservationists, and I understand why. But I also understand that traditional conservation hasn’t stopped our march into a sixth mass extinction; alternative ideologies can be infectious. This one opens up space for hope and intrigue in an era of dour predictions, guilt and anxiety, without turning away from the problem at hand or relying overly much on the hope of a technological fix. Ellis, with his enthusiasm and verve, is a vocal ambassador.

Even more bizarrely, the digital fire seemed to exude warmth

The argument playing out on Dot Earth struck me because both ways of approaching the problem (limiting our damage, looking for positive innovations) feel important, and perhaps naively, I hadn’t previously understood them as opposed to one and other. Maybe this whole kerfuffle can be construed as an irrelevant academic argument, but I think it’s more than that. As Klein points out in the first few pages of This Changes Everything,

“The urgency of the climate crisis could form the basis of a powerful mass movement, one that would weave all these seemly disparate issues into a coherent narrative about how to protect humanity from the ravages of both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilized climate system.”

After the failures (Copenhagen) and painfully slow progress (Cancun, Lima) seen at recent U.N. Climate Summits, we know we can’t trust our political leaders to get us there. The mass movement Klein speaks of shows its face here and there, but in my milieu, I see much more of the infighting, cynicism and turning away. Of course the movement Klein describes has to come from the grass roots level, not from academia, but we can’t just fight the status quo without a solution in mind. As she acknowledges, we need a destination to aim for, and a set of solutions to put in place once we get there. When passionate researchers like Steffan and Ellis seem so diametrically opposed in their assertions of what those solutions could look like (or seem not to even hear each other’s ideas) I wonder how we’ll ever get there.

And now I guess I’ve talked myself into the heavy task of toting around Klein’s book for the next few weeks. Coming to the topic with credibility as a widely-read, progressive (female!) voice from outside the biological and earth sciences, perhaps her argument for reworking the fundamental structure of our economic system will render smaller rifts obsolete. As she states in the final pages of the introduction,

“It seems to me that if humans are capable of sacrificing this much collective benefit in the name of stabilizing an economic system that makes daily life so much more expensive and precarious, then surely humans should be capable of making some important lifestyle changes in the interest of stabilizing the physical system upon which all life depends.”

I hope so. Or maybe I hope that she’s wrong about the severity of what we’re up against. More looking away. I have my urban gardening and ecology-focused art practice to comfort me, after all, and the barrier of relative wealth and privilege to insulate me.

In the meantime, I dwell for moments here and there (with #Beefra my writing companion at my side), on the fate of that orange tom cat with whom I crossed paths this morning. Hovering somewhere on the continuum of nature and culture, that feral once-wildcat coevolved with humans over generations only to be torn up in a short lifetime by the streets of Bushwick. Scabby-scruffy-fuzzy, simultaneously detestable and adorable, he sparked empathy in me, a desire for immediate action, a heart-pounding need to do something, that I think encapsulates much of what is lacking in my interactions with the climate change struggle.

As Timothy Morton has described in his concept of the hyperobject, climate change is one in a group of phenomena so massively distributed in time and space that they transcend our human ability to perceive and understand them, let alone act on them. If Klein is right (and we know she is- don’t look away!) this is one hyperobject we’ve just got to wrap our heads (and hearts and hands) around.

A few supplemental links that surfaced today: “Reading the Times with Naomi Klein” and “Nearly half the systems crucial to stability of planet compromised