(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘ecology

“Be not the one who debunks but the one who assembles, not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers but the one who offers arenas in which to gather”*…

From Stephen Muecke, an appreciation of the late, lamented Bruno Latour (see here, here, and here)– an exploration of his ideas and of their sources…

A humble virus, the Dead Sea, oil pipelines, Wonder Woman, a voodoo doll, Escherichia coli, the concept of freedom, monsoons, ‘extinct’ languages, and tectonic plates. All are real. All are active. And, in their own way, these and myriad other nonhuman entities are actors, enrolled in the production of our world. We’re still in the opening paragraph, but this is where Bruno Latour might have stopped us to make a slight correction: the production of worlds.

For Latour, who was one of most influential and provocative thinkers of the past century, the world is always multiple. Above all else, his thought is pluralist – this is his legacy. He died on 9 October 2022, leaving behind a pluralism that accommodates non-Western worlds but also, remarkably, the worlds of nonhumans, which are not just things or forces, but ‘actors’ with the potential to change their worlds. However, this pluralism is not an ‘anything goes’ relativism. In an age when worlds are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, its stakes are life and death.

Latour’s approach is radical because it shows just how active nonhumans have been in human affairs. His work calls for new political strategies that can acknowledge humans aren’t the only ones enrolled in the production of truth. In his view, forms of ‘nature’ – including nonhumans such as mountains, voodoo dolls, policy documents or door stoppers – are woven together in political networks. To use his phrase, they form a ‘political ecology’. If this is ‘ecology’, it is a particularly French kind. Among Latour’s many actors we find none of the piety of the North American wilderness tradition associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who sought spiritual transcendence in pristine nature. The ecology Latour was developing is practical, earthbound and problem-oriented. So where did he get his ideas?…

Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms: “The generous philosopher,” from @MonsieurMouche in @aeonmag.

* Bruno Latour

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As we cultivate curiosity, we might send traditionally-cultivated birthday greetings to Vandana Shiva; she was born on this date in 1952. A scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author, she is often referred to as the “Gandhi of grain” for her activism associated with the anti-GMO movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“The intelligence of the universe is social”*…

From the series Neural Zoo by Sofia Crespo

Recently, (Roughly) Daily looked at AI and our (that’s to say, humans’) possible relationships to it. In a consideration of Jame Bridle‘s new book, Ways of Being, Doug Bierend widens the iris, considering our relationship not only to intelligences we might create but also to those with which we already co-habit…

It’s lonely at the top, but it doesn’t have to be. We humans tend to see ourselves as the anointed objects of evolution, our intelligence representing the leading edge of unlikely order cultivated amid an entropic universe. While there is no way to determine any purpose or intention behind the processes that produced us, let alone where they will or should lead, that hasn’t stopped some from making assertions. 

For example, consider the school of thought called longtermism, explored by Phil Torres in this essay for Aeon. Longtermism — a worldview held, as Torres notes, by some highly influential people including Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, tech entrepreneur Jaan Tallinn, and Jason Matheny, President Biden’s deputy assistant for technology and national security — essentially sees the prime directive of Homo sapiens as one of maximizing the “potential” of our species. That potential — often defined along such utilitarian lines as maximizing the population, distribution, longevity, and comfort that future humans could achieve over the coming millennia — is what longtermers say should drive the decisions we make today. Its most extreme version represents a kind of interstellar manifest destiny, human exceptionalism on the vastest possible scale. The stars are mere substrate for the extension and preservation of our species’ putatively unique gifts. Some fondly imagine our distant descendants cast throughout the universe in womb-like symbiosis with machines, ensconced in virtual environments enjoying perpetual states of bliss —The Matrix as utopia. 

Longtermist philosophy also overlaps with the “transhumanist” line of thought, articulated by figures such as philosopher Nick Bostrom, who describes human nature as incomplete, “a half-baked beginning that we can learn to remold in desirable ways.” Here, humanity as currently or historically constituted isn’t an end so much as a means of realizing some far greater fate. Transhumanism espouses the possibility of slipping the surly bonds of our limited brains and bodies to become “more than human,” in a sense reminiscent of fictional android builder Eldon Tyrell in Blade Runner: “Commerce is our goal,” Tyrell boasts. “‘More human than human’ is our motto.” Rather than celebrating and deepening our role within the world that produced us, these outlooks seek to exaggerate and consummate a centuries-long process of separation historically enabled by the paired forces of technology and capital. 

But this is not the only possible conception of the more than human. In their excellent new book Ways of Being, James Bridle also invokes the “more than human,” not as an effort to exceed our own limitations through various forms of enhancement but as a mega-category that collects within it essentially everything, from microbes and plants to water and stone, even machines. It is a grouping so vast and diverse as to be indefinable, which is part of Bridle’s point: The category disappears, and the interactions within it are what matters. More-than-human, in this usage, dismisses human exceptionalism in favor of recognizing the ecological nature of our existence, the co-construction of our lives, futures, and minds with the world itself. 

From this point of view, human intelligence is just one form of a more universal phenomenon, an emergent “flowering” found all throughout the evolutionary tree. It is among the tangled bramble of all life that our intelligence becomes intelligible, a gestalt rather than a particular trait. As Bridle writes, “intelligence is not something which exists, but something one does. It is active, interpersonal and generative, and it manifests when we think and act.” In Bridle’s telling, mind and meaning alike exist by way of relationship with everything else in the world, living or not. Accepting this, it makes little sense to elevate human agency and priorities above all others. If our minds are exceptional, it is still only in terms of their relationship to everything else that acts within the world. That is, our minds, like our bodies, aren’t just ours; they are contingent on everything else, which would suggest that the path forward should involve moving with the wider world rather than attempting to escape or surpass it.

This way of thinking borrows heavily from Indigenous concepts and cosmologies. It decenters human perspective and priorities, instead setting them within an infinite concatenation of agents engaged in the collective project of existence. No one viewpoint is more favored than another, not even of the biological over the mineral or mechanical. It is an invitation to engage with the “more-than-human” world not as though it consisted of objects but rather fellow subjects. This would cut against the impulse to enclose and conquer nature, which has been reified by our very study of it….

Technology often presupposes human domination, but it could instead reflect our ecological dependence: “Entangled Intelligence,” from @DougBierend in @_reallifemag (via @inevernu and @sentiers). Eminently worth reading in full.

* Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations

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As we welcome fellow travelers, we might recall that this date in 1752 was the final day of use of the Julian calendar in Great Britain, Ireland, and the British colonies, including those on the East coast of America. Eleven days were skipped to sync to the Gregorian calendar, which was designed to realign the calendar with equinoxes. Hence the following day was September 14. (Most of Europe had shifted, by Papal decree, to the Gregorian calendar in the 16th century; Russia and China made the move in the 20th century.)

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 2, 2022 at 1:00 am

“What’s in a name?”*…

“Copi” (nee Carp)

How to rid the Midwest of an invasive aquatic species? As Sarah Kuta explains, the State of Illinois hopes that it can convince its citizens to help…

For decades, invasive species of carp have been wreaking havoc on lakes and waterways in the American Midwest. One way to help tackle the infestation is simply to catch, cook and eat the fish, but many diners turn up their noses when they hear the word carp.

Now, the Illinois Department of Natural Resources and other partners hope that giving the fish a fresh new image will make them more appealing to eat. They’ve given the invasive species a new name, “copi,” in hopes that people will order copi dishes at restaurants or even cook up the fish at home.

… carp began to spread widely when the other four carp species were imported to the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s to eat algae in wastewater treatment plants and aquaculture ponds, as well as to serve as a source of food.

The fish escaped into the Mississippi River, then continued their spread into other rivers and beyond. Their population grew quickly, and they began to crowd out native fish species, outcompeting them for food (different carp species feed on plants, plankton, on up in size to endangered freshwater snail species). Invasive carp are also thought to lower water quality, which ultimately harms underwater ecosystems and can kill off other native species like freshwater mussels. (The fish were once collectively called “Asian carp,” but state governments and federal agencies now refer to them as “invasive carp” because of concerns over bigotry toward Asian culture and people.)

Federal, state and local officials have since spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to keep the invasive fish in check, and most importantly, out of the Great Lakes. If the fish swim into Lake Michigan, they could threaten the commercial fishing and tourism industries, which together are responsible for billions of dollars of economic activity…

The new name comes from the word “copious,” a nod to the sheer abundance of these fish…

From the Annals of Marketing: “Can Rebranding Invasive Carp Make It More Appealing to Eat?,” from @SarahKuta in @SmithsonianMag.

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet

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As we dig in, we might recall that on this date in 1862 (88 years after the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Second Continental Congress on this same date), Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a young Oxford mathematics don, took the daughters of the Dean of Christ Church College– Alice Liddell and her sisters– on a boating picnic on the River Thames in Oxford.  To amuse the children he told them the story of a little girl, bored by a riverbank, whose adventure begins when she tumbles down a rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called “Wonderland.”  The story so captivated the 10-year-old Alice that she begged him to write it down. The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pen name “Lewis Carroll,” with illustrations by John Tenniel.

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“Got a big dream, from a small town”*…

Aerial view of John Day, Oregon

Take one isolated, High Desert town (John Day, Oregon), add an abused river, a dying timber industry, and a hotter, drier climate. Then mix in a local leader’s grand, out-of-the-box ideas about rural sustainability. What do you get?

One day in October of 2021, a handful of city leaders in John Day, a small town in rural Oregon, gathered to watch a crane operator set a new bridge. Fashioned from a repurposed railroad car, the bridge spans the John Day River, just blocks from downtown.

Not much else was there that day, aside from some heavy equipment, a freshly poured sidewalk, and piles of concrete and crushed mining tailings. But to the small group that came to watch, the bridge forged connections both physical and symbolic. It was a small piece of a grand vision called the John Day Innovation Gateway—an uncommonly ambitious, multimillion dollar blueprint for a town of just 1,750 residents.

The plan, several years in the making, aimed to restore the river, revive the town’s riverfront, and rebuild the local economy. In doing so, town leaders hoped, the Innovation Gateway would propel John Day into the 21st century with a resilient infrastructure that anticipates the massive changes and challenges brought by climate disruption.

For John Day and many other communities in the western U.S., those challenges include hotter, dryer summers, more intense heatwaves, and dwindling snowpacks, so crucial for water supplies during dry months. These trends are already worsening. In fact, a recent study found that the West’s 22-year “megadrought” is making the region drier than it has been in the last 1,200 years.

To prepare itself for this future, the city of John Day has acquired $26 million (and counting) for its various projects—a staggering amount for a town so small it doesn’t even have a traffic signal. A local newspaper article from 2019 listed no less than 23 projects in various stages, from sidewalk and trail upgrades to plans for a new riverfront hotel and conference center.

All of this activity has excited hope among many John Day residents. Others, however, have been alarmed at the scale of the changes afoot, and the way they’ve been handled. And, as projects have moved from the drawing board to groundbreaking, the protests are growing louder…

Trying to reconcile process with action, the present wrestles with the future; in the middle it all, a determined small town City Manager: “The West’s Rural Visionary,” by Juliet Grable (@JulietGrable) in the always-illuminating @CraftsmanshipQ.

* Lil Wayne

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As we face the future, we might send foresightful birthday greetings to Vilhelm Bjerknes; he was born on this date in 1862. A physicist turned meteorolgist, he helped found the modern practice of weather forecasting. He formulated the primitive equations that are still in use in numerical weather prediction and climate modeling, and he developed the so-called Bergen School of Meteorology, which was successful in advancing weather prediction and meteorology in the early 20th century.

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“Human nature scares the hell out of me”*…

Henry Gee, paleontologist and senior editor of Nature, argues that we Homo sapiens are setting ourselves up for collapse. He cites population decline, a lack of genetic variation, our socioeconomic fixation on growth (and the way that that’s plundered the planet), among other factors. But he singles out one phenomenon in particular…

 The most insidious threat to humankind is something called “extinction debt.” There comes a time in the progress of any species, even ones that seem to be thriving, when extinction will be inevitable, no matter what they might do to avert it. The cause of extinction is usually a delayed reaction to habitat loss. The species most at risk are those that dominate particular habitat patches at the expense of others, who tend to migrate elsewhere, and are therefore spread more thinly. Humans occupy more or less the whole planet, and with our sequestration of a large wedge of the productivity of this planetwide habitat patch, we are dominant within it. H. sapiens might therefore already be a dead species walking.

The signs are already there for those willing to see them. When the habitat becomes degraded such that there are fewer resources to go around; when fertility starts to decline; when the birth rate sinks below the death rate; and when genetic resources are limited—the only way is down. The question is “How fast?”…

Eminently worth reading in full: “Humans Are Doomed to Go Extinct,” from @EndOfThePier in Scientific American (@sciam).

For chorus effect, see also “Headed for a sixth mass extinction? MIT geophysicist warns oceans are on the brink.”

And for a look at the (possible) aftermath, explore “The Earth After Humans.”

* Neil deGrasse Tyson

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As we remind ourselves that “hope is a discipline,” we might send expansively-creative birthday greetings to Freeman Dyson; he was born on this date in 1923. A theoretical and mathematical physicist, mathematician, and statistician, he made material contributions– both processes and concepts— in quantum field theory, astrophysics, the mathematical formulation of quantum mechanics, condensed matter physics, nuclear physics, and engineering.

He will forever be remembered by SciFi fans as the originator of the idea of (what’s called) the Dyson Sphere (or Dyson Shell): he proposed that a highly advanced technological civilization would ultimately completely surround its host star with a huge shell to capture 100% of the useful radiant energy. This Dyson Sphere would have a gigantic cluster of artificial planetoids (“Dyson cloud”) with billions of billions of inhabitants who would make use of the energy captured by the Dyson Sphere. He also made the intriguing speculation that a Dyson Sphere viewed from other galaxies would have a highly distinctive, unnatural light. He suggested astronomers search for such tell-tale colored stars, which should signify advanced, intelligent life.

Dyson was skeptical of some climate science, believing that the advantages of global warming (e.g., greater crop yields) were underweighted and that climate models were underdeveloped (and thus untrustworthy). Still he sounded the alarm (in a way resonant with Gee’s, above) as to the possibility of humanity poisoning its own future:

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells’s vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins’s vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo’s vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future…

Biological and Cultural Evolution– Six Characters in Search of an Author

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