Writing the Environmental Humanities – workshop

On Wednesday 25th February the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network will host the second in our series of workshops on key areas of academic practice within the Environmental Humanities.

Writing the environmental humanities

Wednesday 25 February 2015, 50 George Square, Room 1.06, Edinburgh, 14:00-17:00, followed by wine

In conversation:

  • Hayden Lorimer, Geographical and Earth Sciences, Glasgow
  • Maria Fusco, Edinburgh College of Art
  • Fraser MacDonald, Institute of Geography, Edinburgh

Discussion topics: The ethics of story / Writing nature well / Writing across disciplines / Can words change worlds?

This half-day workshop, the second in a series organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, will reflect on scholarly writing and its role in responding to ecological crisis. Short readings from our three guests will be followed by extended group discussions addressing topics including the ethics of story, craft, audience, transformation.

To book a place email franklin.ginn@ed.ac.uk

via Writing the Environmental Humanities – Edinburgh Environmental Humanities NetworkEdinburgh Environmental Humanities Network.

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The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm

Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time | The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm.

You are cordially invited to a special evening performance and dialogue with Bronislaw Szerszynski (Department of Sociology, Lancaster University) this Thursday, Nov 27 at 6pm in the Martin Hall, “The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene: Commission on Planetary Ages Decision CC87966424/49″:
 
“Earth scientists have proposed that the Earth may be entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the human species is the main geological force. In this performance for voice and animated graphics we will hear the declaration of an official decision from an imagined body which has the legal power to determine the names of the ages of all planetary bodies or ‘worlds’ across the galaxy. The decision considers the claim from Homo sapiens that the new geological age of the Earth should be named after their species.  It places this claim in the context of what is known about the evolution of worlds and what it means to be decreed the onomatophore or ‘name-bearer’ of a planetary age, and concludes with a dramatic rewriting of the future evolution of the Earth.”

Seating is limited, so we recommend that you obtain a free ticket through event brite at this link.

Interstellar: Not cosmic

Spoiler red alert: this is an assessment, not a review, of

Interstellar. A film in which:

Michael Cain is revealed as cinema’s least convincing science-genius. Retire already!

Matthew McConaughey pushes his grufflo-whistly-voice into the red zone. McConaughey’s character, Cooper, also undergoes total consistency fail to make sure we get to Act V.

Jessica Chastain channels steely-beauty energies in order to overcome abandonment and solve the “problem of gravity”. A lone genius scribbling on a blackboard.

Anne Hathaway claims that love is empirically verifiable. That’s science, don’t you know: methodical, logical, emotionally void. Like Hathaway’s acting.

Matt Damon appears. Impersonates Bourne gone loopy. Re-enacts classic fight scene from Arena. Why, oh why?! Don’t wake him up!

He's behind you!
He’s behind you, Coop!

The robots, TARS and CASE, don’t go mad. They save the day. Multiple times. They totally steal the show.

Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland
Good monolith! Tars saves Dr Bland

Interstellar is not original. It’s not a homage to 2001. It’s a mish-mash of The Fifth Element, Close Encounters, Contact, ET, Solaris, and 2001; a dash of Prometheus, Alien, The Tree of Life. Most of all it reminded me of Danny Boyle’s much under-rated Sunshine, and the 60s family show Lost in Space. Interstellar is a high-brow wannabe girded with lashings of sentimental twaddle.

The low point: When they arrive at Saturn’s black hole, and the science guy explains to Cooper that faster-than-light travel “is like folding a page”. Argh! As if ashamed at their clichéd exposition, the producers decided to make the black hole a sphere. “A sphere? I thought it would be a hole,” says Cooper, speaking on behalf of the dumb audience members. Science guy slaps forehead: “4D, man, 4D!”

The low, low point: When they wake up Dr Mann and its Matt Damon.

The low, low, low point: more physics exposition. I half expected Brian Cox to enter stage left and start bumbling on about how this or that new planet was billions and billions and billions of light years away.

As with all Nolan’s films, aggressive sound pummels you into submission. Like a giant, all-encompassing dust-storm, the score waxes so loud it fills all plot holes, corrodes all lumps in pace, suffocates all shonky dialogue, and forces you to retreat to the deepest recesses of your cinema seat. Noise power can be exhilarating – the post disaster docking sequence is genuinely awesome – but it is also obvious and tiring.

The low, low, low, low point: the Final Act. Deathbed scene with your decrepit daughter? That’s just base sentimentality worthy of Hanks/Spielberg.

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Still, Interstellar looks good

I don’t get why critics call this film incomprehensible. Its obvious.

George Monbiot’s analysis is totally on the money: “This fantasy permits us to escape the complexities of life on Earth for a starlit wonderland beyond politics.” He is so right it leaves little to say. Except that the film isn’t about life beyond earth. The film never even gets that far, really; it just transmutes space exploration into ‘love dilemmas’. Dear Mariella, I’m one hundred and thirty years older than my daughter due to a temporal anomaly, what should I do? Dear Mariella, my boyfriend crash-landed on a planet, but I don’t know if its habitable – should I call him?

Interstellar doesn’t explore the cosmos – it retreats into heteronormative, US small town, family drama.

Item 1: The team are all American. Small point, but it flies against the internationalism of, say, Sunshine, or the post-national techno-asceticism of 2001. They are also obviously American – the old school NASA logo, the corn-farm as ground zero. And all the humans going to be saved in Plan A, or in the eugenic-tastic Plan B are – we can only presume – American. Just as Dr Bland describes the arch-pioneer of the first mission as “the best of us,” we can only assume that this American embryo bank represents the best of us too.

Farm with veranda? Check. Dust? Check. Pickup truck? Check. Interstellar coordinates confirmed: US Midwest, the centre of the universe

Item 2: The robots steal the show. The human characters are totally shackled to Earth by the messy ties of love, unable to think about the cosmic importance of their mission. Coop bleats on about his children, who he sort of liked but are estranged and annoying (and billions of billions of billions of miles away anyway). Brand Jnr is prepared to alter the mission to chase after her squeeze – it takes Coop to remind her that ‘love’ is not generally an acceptable parameter in hypothesis formulation. I’m not quite sure whether Dr Mann (Matt Damon) is trying to save the mission or himself.

By contrast the robots are faster, stronger, smarter. They are able to crack jokes (even if they are weak sf-homage/rip-off ones about setting the auto-destruct sequence they bring much-needed levity…). They save people on multiple occasions.

Why was the mission not run by the robots? Matt Damon tells us that this is because they “can’t improvise.” But since all the mission problems come from people improvising and changing their minds having a few more robots around might have been a good idea! The real clincher is the way that TARS and CASE are prepared to go into the singularity to collect data (Coop’s motives make no sense here). The robots are still doing science long after the best of humanity have descended into dribbling sentimental idiots.

The final Acts reveal that instead of dwelling in deep space and infinite time, we are caught in claustrophobic, recursive loops: love, love lost, love regained. That isn’t uplifting. It’s boring, because it’s a drivelly kind of cinema schamltz writ cosmic.

The only wormhole traverse here is Nolan’s yearning for a parochial, apolitical, happy-family mythic world that can’t exist. It’s a retreat, a surrender in the face of a challenge to do good science fiction.

inter

Marder’s vegetal philosophy

Plants: we know them. Green stuff, just hanging out.

Not really. Though there are lots of places to read about plants’ full craziness, two recent books are really very good. One is Matthew Hall’s Plants as Person  (2011, SUNY Press). The other is Michael Marder’s Plant thinking: A philosophy of vegetal life (2013, New York: Columbia University Press). Hall’s book is the more accessible and the more predictable, though by no means lesser of the two. Marder’s is undoubtedly more ambitious, more original, more self-consciously clever: by turns one of the most irritating and one of the most head-bangingly brilliant books I’ve read this year.

Both are courageous attempts to think plants. They also both make much more sense read alongside the work of scientists like František Baluška and Stefano Mancuso (e.g. Plant-environment interactions; plant robots in space anyone?), key thinkers in the emerging plant intelligence paradigm. Or a short-cut via this essay in the New Yorker by the Michael Pollan.

Anyway, here follows some not-terribly-coherent-or-edited thoughts on Marder’s book. Cutting room floor sweepings from a book chapter………

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Michael Marder proposes a far-reaching ‘vegetal philosophy’. Most of his readers will agree when Marder argues that ‘metaphysics and capitalist economy are in unmistakable collusion’: both, we are told, reduce plants to a meaningless mass – Aristotle and Riceland Foods Inc in unwitting nefarious alliance. Marder spins it that we humans have interposed ourselves between the plant and its environment, taking the place of the sun in the prospects for plant growth. (These humans remain unmarked by specificities of time or place in Marder’s book; the nadir arrived on p149 with the phrase ‘in African cultures’ – I threw the book down in disgust at such racist, sloppy, scholarship, but picked it up straightaway again as he is citing someone else/he’s a philosopher).

Marder argues that life is less developed in plants than other creatures, that plants are distinctly other with their own ways of being and that this is their message. Marder wants to reclaim plants from the realm of biology; he wants to ask not just what philosophy can do for plants, but also what plants can do for philosophy. Brilliant! He calls for a weakening of the self in line with the weakness of self in plants.

DSC05464

Life’s principle is still too weak in the plant, the soul of which is neither differentiated in its capacities nor separate enough from the exteriority of its environment. But what is weakness for metaphysics marshals a strength of its own, both in the sense of passive resistance it offers to the hegemonic thinking of identity and in the sense of its independence from the fiction of a strong unitary origin” (Marder 2013, 34).

The plant is radically open to its environment and lacks any interiority. In contrast to human and animal life, the plant does not ‘stand under the injunction … to cordon itself off from its surroundings, to negate its connection to a place’ (p69). This injunction to differentiate self from other is the basis for non-planty subjectivity. Such subjectivity begins (Marder channels some Levinas) from this cordoning off, and then proceeds to pull the energies of others to its own formation. Subjectivity involves imposing will on matter, changing matter and folding what lies beyond into the self (Marder channels some Deleuze/Grosz). Since indeed life is seen in this way, as underwritten by a will to power, an impersonal drive to enhance the self’s capacities and connections, as well as secure the means to subsist into the future, then, as Marder writes, plants have classically been seen as ‘weak’ for several reasons.

First, plants are not really unified, autonomous beings, but rather emergent entities made up of many parts. The unity of a plant is comprised of a ‘non-totalizing assemblage of multiplicities’ (p85), by which Marder means that bits can be removed without reducing the unified whole. A cutting can be taken, but the plant remains whole; roots can die, but the plant remains whole; leaves can be shed, but the plant remains whole. Moreover, the parts of a plant are not in hierarchy: there is no ‘brain’ or ‘head’ command and control centre; roots and shoots communicate in complex ways but neither is in charge (one of the current questions in plant science is therefore: what mechanisms enable the plant to operate as a whole organism?).

versus
But how do plants know????

Second, plants lack any kind of interiority. They rely completely on others for their existence, endlessly vulnerable to the elements and to light. The role of light and elements remains external to the plant, but yet they remain utterly and irreducibly dependent on these external forces; external forces which remain completely disinterested in the plant. The plant fails to bend the energy and matter of others to its own will, in other words. ‘The plant’s self’, Marder writes, ‘bound to the universality of the elements and of light, is always external to itself’ (p89). Because they are sessile plants are embedded in their milieu, reliant on the other with only very limited capacities to shape their circumstances [though yes, plants are sessile they can move in reproducing or colonising bits of the earth if you look at it over a long time-scale (Angela was animated on this point)].

Third, even though plants resemble humans by existing in webs of body, place and narrative memory, their time is that of the other. Their time is made up of their actual growth out of the possibilities presented to them for growth. The past is inscribed in plant tissue and morphology, and they can ‘remember’ – continuing to react to past stimuli – in ways not yet fully understood. But plant time is the time of the other: the seasons, the diurnal rhythm of sun and cloud. Plants live in cycles of growth and decay determined by forces external to themselves; thus they do not have a time of their own. More, plants do not – like subjects with a will to power for enhancing themselves – struggle against this repetition, but inhabit it fully. Plant temporality is the outcome of ‘the absence of identity that forces it to obey the law and the time of the undifferentiated other’ (p105). Others like goats:

Goat in tree, Morocco. Why NOT ALL PLANTS ARE THE SAME AND GEOGRAPHY MIGHT BE IMPORTANT!

Plants, then, are traditionally seen as weak in life. Marder’s philosophy is to turn this own its head and argue that the plant is indeed weak, but that instead of thinking that this makes them inferior, we should instead marvel at their powerlessness and ‘primordial generosity’. If plants lack any interiority or self, then they enjoy true freedom. Yes! Neither passive nor active, in responding to forces beyond them, they express an intention without intelligence or goal. Not having a telos or a self to perpetuate should not be seen as a lack, but rather as part of the plant’s gift to the earth, a gift that makes life on earth possible on a large scale. The way plants tend to light, to nutrients, to other plants in an intentional but unconscious way, Marder suggests, is their particular ‘sagacity’ (p12). The plant can shake up our ideas of self, by weakening our idea of the self’s boundaries, by showing life lived post-relationally without boundaries: plants offer a different metaphysics of being from which we should learn. What critique needs, Marder concludes, is not ‘a more powerful criticism, but an infinite loosening up, a weakening of the self’s boundaries, commensurate with the powerlessness (Ohnmacht) of the plants themselves’ (p150).

Ultimately, while compelling, Marder’s work teaches us more about what Levinas, Aristotle and Michael Marder think of plants than about plants themselves. I know he’s a philosopher, not an empiricist (Jim), but I couldn’t get Haraway’s critique of Derrida’s failure to be curious about his cat out of my head. Why is Marder not curious about the diversity of plant morphology and life ways? He lumps them all together as a green, planty, mass:  the plant kingdom reduced to the model of a deciduous tree! Parasites, epiphtyes, insectivorous, sea-dwelling, evergreen – none of these and their particular ways of converting external energies and materials to perpetuating their own particular forms of plant subjectivity are mentioned.

Marder also draws on very selectively on the new plant biology, which indicates that plants do perhaps have rudimentary ways of distinguishing self/non-self (their roots especially), and ways of transacting nutrients between individuals – if so some of his claims would need to be modified. He also ignores the long-running intertwining of plant and human life. The history of wheat, for example, shows how plant and certain poltico-economic collectives have mutually calibrated through the last 11,000 years.

Finally, following from the way he eschews the worldliness of plants, Marder’s critique of human/plant politics is both odd-verging-on-naïve and rather opaque. Marder argues that capitalism has inserted humans in the place of what is ‘other’ to plants – namely sun and all the other material ingredients for growth: ‘Standing in for the other, in which the plant’s being accomplishes itself without reflectively returning to itself, capital eclipses the sun and power the the nutrients contained in the earth’ (p102). He seems to prefer autonomous plants growing in classic wilderness over their domesticated kin. He argues against genetic modification and plant breeding for no clearly articulated reason. Elsewhere, in “Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?” he’s written that we can eat plants, but that we should minimize violence, harm and death. This sounds just like an extended Peter Singer position: in which case, why the detour?

Now, if I understand him correctly (not sure I really do), and plants do have an irreducible openness and primordial generosity, then really what is the case to oppose their use for human needs? Without a self to be appropriated, what is to be appropriated? Surely it then becomes all about us humans and what we do – thus ‘we’ have to become more like plants – but we can’t, argh! we’re move-y…  The prescription seems to be that we shouldn’t mistake plant’s generosity for an eternal reserve that can never be depleted, but should attend to the plant and leave it to its autonomous interaction with the natural environment. Again this doesn’t make sense as there is no plant, only plants, and no natural environments left! One can only conclude he’s left this for other people to think through properly.

DSC05415

Marder seems to eschew relational ties and mutually intertwined histories in favour of recognising and widening the gulf between planty and human earthlings. Recognising the plant as being ‘weak in life’ should lead to deeper and more entangled relations and not, as Marder wants, to withdraw and leave plants alone.

Ok, I’ll stop the grumbling! The central thesis of Marder’s work – that plant are subjects much more radically open to flows of energy and matter than animals – is convincing and radical. It meshes well with the new plant biology paradigm; plants are subjects with their own breed of intelligence and a complex semiotic life. We also now realise that much of what happens in a plant’s life is happening in a virtual sphere, beyond our senses’ capacities to track or apprehend directly. But we no longer have the luxury of what Marder would like us to do: to pull back, to retreat, and to let plants alone to live autonomous, independent lives. They may be different to us animals, but across that gulf our fates nonetheless entwine.

‘Flight Ways’ by Thom van Dooren reviewed

Flight WaysBen Garlick and I were asked to review Thom van Dooren‘s lovely book, Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction, for Progress in Human Geography. Here’s the uncorrected, pre-proof text.

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We live in an era of great loss. A growing number of creatures and species hover between life and oblivion, and if trends continue the world will soon grow quieter in their absence. Van Dooren situates his work in the ‘shadow’ of this period of great loss. Taking his cue from Donna Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose, he understands species as storied ‘life ways’ unfolding amid embodied, situated ‘ways of life’, rather than as natural kinds. Creatures, he argues, are less representatives of than participants in their species story. Flight Ways keeps one eye on deep, evolutionary time, and the other on the work of the living, whose labour holds together the long chains of intergenerational species being. Since species are knotted ways of life, it follows that extinction is not some singular event but the slow unravelling of a particular geographically assembled ecology, as the work and relationships necessary to continue the species become harder to sustain. This is established in chapter one, where we learn how consumer plastics floating in the Pacific garbage patch clog up albatross digestive systems. These plastics – along with DDT, PCBs and the toll of death levied by fishing by-catch – disrupt the vital work of rearing the next generation of birds. This is Flight Ways’ central thesis: extinction is far from an acute event (the asteroid sealing the fate of the dinosaurs); extinction is more often a drawn-out process, a ‘slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life’ (p. 12).

The book contains five extinction stories of varied length and depth. Each draws on field visits, natural history, ethology, and biophilosophy. We meet crows that mourn their partner’s passing with an ‘inconsolable moaning’ (p. 125). We meet Sydney’s urban penguins: little birds so faithful to their remembered breeding grounds that, stubbornly, they return each year to brave roads, dogs and concrete sprawl, even as their colony dwindles towards local extinction. The longest and (as the empirically richest) most successful chapter tells the story of North America’s whooping cranes. Van Dooren exposes the violence inherent in conservation efforts to ‘hold space open’ for this endangered species: the violence of imprinting, artificial insemination, the sacrifices made by conservationists, and the violence of birds reduced to sperm and egg factories. We see how acting to ‘dull the edge’ of extinction for some usually entails harm for others.

The author stresses that ‘flight ways’ do not denote a generalised, holistic web of life, but historically and geographically situated knots of relating. This comes through most forcefully in the chapter on vultures. India has lost 97% of its Gyps vultures, largely due to the vulture-toxic antibiotic (diclofenac) used in rural areas to prolong the productivity of cattle, which is ingested by scavengers feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. The resulting disease and increase in rabid dog populations is felt hardest by the poorest in society, who become drawn into ‘amplified patterns of death and suffering’ (p. 58). Not all are bound up equally with other species, and this chapter proposes that we might think politically about just who is most at risk when life ways begin to unravel.

Yet at the same time as being grounded in specific lives, Flight Ways – like much work in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism – often invokes an abstract, universal ‘we’: extinction ‘remakes us’ (p. 5); if ‘we’ learn more about nonhuman place-making it might provide more space for ‘species’ (p. 85); ‘our responsibility for a shared world’ (p. 147); crows can remind us that if ‘we’ mourn we do not so alone (p. 143). The ‘we’ here seems not to refer to a pre-existing human community, but to want to call into existence a new form of Anthropocene species being. While many geographers remain skeptical of invocations of the universal human for the way they efface political difference, there might yet be some use for a human ‘we’ that emerges out of an epoch defined by great loss.

But if so then there needs to be much greater clarity about how this community comes about and how it relates to particular knots of humans and other creatures. Is a new ‘we’ formed among all those who read Flight Ways or similar books? By those who are caught up in painful, unravelling ways of life? Are conservationists involved, or do they cleave to the old stories of wild Nature? Such questions require detailed empirical investigation as well as artful eco-writing; too much is hidden, we fear, by tacking quickly between particular human knottings and a universal ‘we’.

Flight Ways parallels work in animal and more-than-human geographies (we say ‘parallels’ because the book doesn’t really engage with any of the rich geographic scholarship on nonhumans). This is unsurprising since the environmental humanities and covalent parts of geography both ply the winds of post-naturalism. Geographers will not be surprised by the book’s familiar conceptual arguments: overlapping circuits of care and violence, the entanglement of human and nonhuman lives, the idea that animals ‘story’ the earth. But the overlap shows the exciting potential for geographers working at the entangled fringes of the human to draw from the interdisciplinary project of environmental humanities, and vice versa.

Van Dooren writes appealing and uncluttered prose; we found Flight Ways both moving and profound. The book’s argument – that extinction is a slow unravelling of entangled lives – is compelling, novel, and important. Academic studies of the nonhuman too often get caught up by their own cleverness. Van Dooren, by contrast, has written a book that appeals to the heart as well as the mind and, we might hope, to the soul of the human to come.

Ben Garlick & Franklin Ginn, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh

 

Fossil free

via http://theconversation.com/hit-fossil-fuel-firms-where-it-hurts-and-support-divestment-33129

My piece on the inspiring rise of the fossil fuel divestment campaign!

Fossil fuel companies use their economic clout to sow doubt about climate science. They lobby for generous subsidies and flout indigenous rights. They commission toys and sponsor art at the Tate, the British Museum, the Royal Shakespeare Company and other cultural institutions to normalise the presence of big oil in our everyday lives … The divestment movement confronts the core logic – license, extract, profit – of fossil fuel companies. One key tactic to make it harder for companies to extract carbon is to erode their political legitimacy.

The Word for World is Forest

Ursula Le Guin is a goddess; her work, the antidote to dumb, techno-imperialist science fiction.

I’ve just finished The Word for World is Forest, published in 1976. While less well known than the sublime Left Hand of Darkness (1969) or the epic The Dispossessed (1974), it has all the characteristics that make her writing so compelling. Even if it suffers from two big flaws…

thewordforworldisforest

The setting: Earth, we learn, is a barren, treeless wasteland. Humans have set up a military-industrial colony on a vast ocean- and forest-covered world, which they have dubbed ‘New Tahiti’. (Yes, it’s a bit like James Cameron’s Avatar, but without body transfer, blue aliens, Sigorney Weaver, or those silly flying critters).

The colonists want the planet’s priceless trees; they have enslaved some of the indigenous humanoids to help them. Driven to desperation, the indigenous people eventually rise up and wage a guerrilla war.

The Word for World is Forest is one of Le Guin’s more allegorical works: the Vietnam parallels are obvious. In a lesser writer this would mean you could stuff the book in its pigeon hole and forget about it. Not so with Ursula! While allegorical, the commentary is not laboured. Le Guin’s work, while always of its time, usually transcends its time too.

Durburow-UKL-SigmaTauDelta2013_300x323Her prose is disarming: prosaic, yet moving; precise, yet ethereal. Her feminism is consistent, political, anti-essentialist – a far cry from Margaret Atwood’s more recent, compromised concoctions (more on that soon!). Thematically, Le Guin worries away at the prospects for trans-species friendship, for fleeting but real connection across a gulf of difference. In this book a friendship, at once insubstantial and capable of transcending death, emerges between the indigenous humanoid, Selver, and the human coloniser-scientist, Lyubov.

Lyubov is one of the colony’s ‘speshes’ (silly neologisms are one of the book’s forgivable of-its-era minor weaknesses), specialist scientists sent to learn about the indigenous people and their planet’s ecology. Lyubov is no detached, objective scientist however. He forms a friendship with his alien informant. He is aware of the political umbrella safeguarding his work space, and of his own meagre political capital. Alone, isolated amid military and company men, he breaks down in tears at a meeting where the future of the indigenous inhabitants is being debated.

Lyubov is an admirable scientist: meticulous, curious, polite, but also engaged, emotional, caring, angry and passionate. He shows science transcended the strictures of personal objectivity, willing to lay bare the ethical and personal investments required to make knowledge. He is the ‘good guy’ if you hadn’t guessed.

Lyubov explained to Selver why the humans had come. Selver, as far as he is able, recounts this explanation to his kin.

“He [Lyubov] said they had come from another place which is not the forest; the trees there are all cut down; it has a sun, not our sun, which is a star. All this, as you can see, wasn’t clear to me … It does not matter much. It is clear that they want our forest for themselves. They are twice our stature, they have weapons that outshoot ours by far, and firethrowers, and flying ships … They have left their roots behind them, perhaps, in this other forest from which they came, this forest with no trees.” (p56)

Like all the planet’s indigenous people, Selver hasn’t experienced violence until the human colonists arrive. Le Guin errs here: she gives the planet’s people no history or politics; they exist in a dream-state of innocent balance with their dark forests until the humans show up. It is borderline unforgivable, really: an anachronistic throwback to 1960s noble-indigenous-living-in-harmony type guff. This is Big Flaw No.1. Her other books don’t reproduce this mistake.

1st Edition cover - inexplicable since the indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (above), not green nymphs     276767

1st Edition (left) and later edition cover. The indigenous people are described as simian and fur-covered (right), not green nymphs (left)

Early in the book we learn that the arrogant military administrator, Davidson, raped and killed Selver’s wife. Davidson is very clearly the bad guy. Lyubov = good, Davidson = bad. This is Big Flaw No.2: in-your-face moral ciphers. The book reminded me of another forest-world fiction, Oliver Stone’s 1986 film Platoon. The good/evil dynamic in this Le Guin novel really is alarmingly similar to the fight for Charlie Sheen’s tortured middle class soul between the evil Barnes and good soldier Elias.

The more I think about it the stronger the parallels. Did Stone read this book?

Lyubov vs. Davidson / Elias vs. Barnes

In Platoon, as Sheen flies away in the chopper he realises that evil Barnes and good Elias will forever wage war in his soul, and that he is a “child born of those two fathers”.

The outro in The Word for World is Forest has Selver reflecting that both Davidson and Lybov will haunt his world forever, even if the humans were to leave. For once one has learnt killing, one cannot forget it:

“’Sometimes a god comes,’ Selver said. ‘He brings a new way to do things, or a new thing to be done. A new kind of singing, or a new kind of death … There is no use pretending, now, that we do not know how to kill one another.’”

The humans arrived and from them Selver’s kin learned violence, aggression and authority. Yet some hope – even if ultimately dwarfed by violence – lies in the trans-species friendship between Selver and Lyubov.

At once an anti-colonial polemic, a plea for respecting difference and a dirge for lost innocence, The Word for World is Forest might not be Le Guin’s best work. But that still puts it in the science fiction top 10. Because Le Guin is a goddess.

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

On Tuesday 16th December the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network will host the first in a series of workshops on key areas of academic practice within the Environmental Humanities.

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities

16th December 2014, 12.30-5.00pm
50 George Square, University of Edinburgh

Speakers:

  • Richard Kerridge (School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University). Author of Cold Blood (2014); Writing the Environment (1998)
  • Francoise Wemelsfelder (Animal and Veterinary Sciences Group, Scotland’s Rural College)
  • Peter Higgins (Outdoor & Environmental Education, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh)

As the sense of ecological crisis builds, a new field of interdisciplinary enquiry has developed in the form of the Environmental Humanities. This half-day workshop, the first in a series organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, will address the issues faced by teachers in this new field, including the competing demands of diverse bodies of knowledge, both theoretical and practical, and the ethical contradiction between the need for urgent action and the need for spaces of reflection. In doing so it will bring together academic teachers and practitioners from literary studies, animal studies, and outdoor education, to reflect on what constitutes effective and innovative teaching in the Environmental Humanities.

The workshop will feature a keynote from Richard Kerridge, followed by responses from our two other speakers, all of which will form the basis for group discussion. The workshop is free to attend (lunch included) but spaces are limited: anyone wishing to attend should book a place via event brite.

Future workshops in 2015 will look at other areas of key academic practice in the environmental humanities:

  • Writing in the Environmental Humanities
  • Creating in the Environmental Humanities
  • Collaborating in the Environmental Humanities

For more information, keep an eye on the EEHN webpage. To join the network mailing list, please email david.farrier@ed.ac.uk.

Feeling the Anthropocene: Air, Rock, Flesh

An event I’m organising in the Autumn with the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network

Symposium: University of Edinburgh

11:00-17:00 Friday 28 November 2014

Not only has the Earth become sensitive to the activities of humans, or least certain strata of humanity, but increasingly, ways of life­—human and more-than-human alike—under late capitalism have become increasingly sensitive to Earth forces.

How do we sense the Anthropocene Earth? What does it mean that the Earth feels us? What might a politics that feels the Earth look like? The symposium will examine such questions—and others—through three elements that tie life together: air, rock, and flesh.

via Feeling the Anthropocene: Air, Rock, Flesh.