Panel 3: Transspecies Perspectives on Climate Justice


2018-2019 THEME FOR EHI


Panel 3: Transspecies Perspectives on Climate Change

“Butte’s Berkeley Pit: Towards Posthumanist Environmental Justice in the Anthropocene Era”

Louise Economides (Professor of English and the Director of the Literature and Environment Program at the University of Montana)

“Remember Kinglake”

Kate Rigby (Professor of Environmental Humanities, Bath Spa University and Monash University)

“Parasitic Geostories: Rabies and Multispecies Precarity in Bali”

Phillip Drake (Assistant Professor of English, University of Kansas)

Q & A

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5 replies
  1. leconomi says:

    Hello everyone,

    I’m very pleased to be involved with this innovative conference. My talk is intended to raise public awareness about the social and environmental hazards of Superfund sites such as the Berkeley Pit in Montana, but also about the critical role that more-than-human species play in contributing to such awareness. I look forward to hearing presentations and posting comments when I return from a brief camping trip in a couple of days…

  2. leconomi says:

    Hi Kate and Phillip,

    I’ve enjoyed listening to both of your presentations, and was struck by commonalities in all three of our papers such as the need to deconstruct the concept of so-called “natural” disasters (and/or “natural” mortality) in the Anthropocene era and ways the legacies of capitalist-colonialist ways of thinking still influence the narratives we encounter in popular media regarding how we should understand the “slow violence” of things such as anthropogenic climate change. When I was invited to prepare a presentation for this UCSB conference, my first thought was to address the disastrous fires that occur every summer now in the western USA as a result of climate change and the impact this has upon human and more-than-human species alike. I was (therefore) really struck by similarities in ways this phenomena resonates with what Kate had to say in her presentation. In the local and national media here in the States, we see a similar tendency to deny connections between catastrophically large fires and climate change, along with the characterization of each drought-fire season as “unprecedented” (rather than the new normal) and non-scientific arguments advanced by conservative politicians that if states like Montana allowed more logging we would have fewer fires and/or that environmentalists are to blame for these fires due to their legal challenges to logging industries. Given the similarity in such narratives in different capitalist nations all over the world, Kate’s concluding question re. “who is listening” to the protests registered by poets, scientists and scholars is, sadly, quite pressing. Given the slowness to meaningful global action on the part of countries like the US (especially in the Trump era) to respond with appropriate urgency to climate change and other global environmental problems, it’s little wonder that speculative literature regarding our eco-social future is overwhelmingly apocalyptic.

    My question for you both grows out of such dark ecological musings. I’m wondering how you both might be thinking about the possibility of ecological activism within the frameworks you outline in your talks. If we avoid recourse to denial (mis-identifying anthropogenic changes as “natural” disasters) and stop framing each new disaster via a collective amnesia that insists such events are temporally limited in scope and “unprecedented,” how might steps be taken to work towards positive change in areas such as King Lake and Bali? [a specific question for Phillip: what is the climate change connection to the spread of diseases such as rabies in Bali?]. On what scales might such activism take place and might it involve more-than-human agency on some level? Can such activism be effective even in the face of governmental inertia? Had I had more time & scope, I would have included some speculation at the end of my presentation on possible limits to the kind of networks of trans-species survival (“latent commons”) that Tsing celebrates in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Her emphasis on local collaboratives that emerge in unpredictable ways for limited periods of time is hopeful — especially when applied to ruined communities we see in places like Butte, MT — but I’m wondering about the problem of asymmetrical power, money, etc. on the part of industries and local citizens. Likewise, one can take local action to mitigate localized toxicity (such as that at the Berkeley pit and its surroundings) but something like climate change’s effects have to be addressed globally. Is Tsing’s political schema an apology for liberal capitalism continuing “business as usual” — leaving marginalized human and non-human actors to struggle to survive in the wake of ruination? I’d welcome hearing your thoughts about this.

  3. pdrake says:

    Greetings! I want to begin by expressing my appreciation to the organizers of the UCSB Climate and Environmental Justice conference for the opportunity to participate in this fascinating panel. Entering with no knowledge of either the Butte or King Lake disasters, I am working through some mixed thoughts and emotions, particularly the immediate shock at the scale of death in both incidents. At the same time, I am heartened by activists’ responses and the emergence of committed forms of art that challenge dominant paradigms for understanding and responding to disasters. What strikes me first is how enduring the concept of “nature” can be when thinking about disasters, and (as Louise notes) the ways power is expressed when disasters are naturalized in discourse. Often when teaching courses on environmental literature or politics, I’ll ban the use of “nature” in class, not only to force students to think more rigorously about their ideas, but also to illustrate that nature is often used placeholder for “not human” or “normal” in ways that frequently express violent forms of biopower.

    Louise’s question about the possibilities for ecological activism strikes at a key concern of mine, especially when looming concerns (like climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss etc.) and concepts (like the anthropocene, capitalocene, globality, etc.) force us to imagine politics on scales that present (at least for me) cognitive and practical challenges. That said, I feel that global activism will manifest (and is manifesting) via the crafting of political networks though “from below” activities like altering consumption habits, voting, mobilizing to pressure carbon emitters, and more. In his article “On Some of the Affects of Capitalism,” Bruno Latour describes a kind of pragmatic mobilization that brings politics back “to the earth,” instead of confronting entire systems, like capitalism (for Latour) or climate change (in the context of this panel and conference). Large exploitative systems, Latour argues, tend to be protected by their complexity and scale, which disempowers economic/ecological actors on an imaginative level (how does one suddenly stop capitalism or climate change?) but also masks forms of exploitation that could be overturned through means that are already available. However this activism plays out, these three presentations illustrate the necessity of involving vulnerable and disadvantaged communities in order to bind social justice to desired environmental outcomes.

    In terms of activism making space to account for nonhuman (or more-than-human) agency, I find that the use of art in both Louise’s and Kate’s presentations illustrate these efforts well. Frankly, there is already so much nonhuman agency shaping the lives, relations, and problems facing all living critters today, I find myself increasingly suspicious of any pure notion of human agency that doesn’t integrate multispecies and environmental “contamination” that disrupts any fantasy of “self-containment,” using Tsing’s words. Instead of thinking agency as something we are already endowed with, I think greater knowledge of our own biosocial status as “humans” and “agents” must involve tarrying with the various nonhuman actors and relations (within, outside, and permeating) our bodies that challenge this status. In other words, if nonhuman-ness makes human-ness possible, we must look more deeply into the processes that enable the emergence of human-ness. Of course, the “I” and “we” that appear in the above sentences, which describes assemblages of multispecies agencies that cohere around bodies capable of participating in an academic panel, also deserve interrogation. This is one of the sources of my interest in parasites these days.

    Regarding Louise’s question about the connection between climate change and rabies in Bali –I’m not sure climate change itself contributes additional tension to the issue. However, it surely affects the movement of other zoonotic diseases, particularly avian flu, which often appears in Indonesia.

  4. KRigby says:

    Hi all, I’d like to add my thanks to the conference organisers, and also to fellow panellists Louise and Phillip for your wonderful talks and for kicking off the discussion.

    Louise, with respect to your thoughtful challenge to Tsing, I agree that macro-structural/systemic changes are needed; but in the moment of crisis that is now unfolding, multiple strategies at various scales are required, any one of which in isolation is bound to be inadequate, and could become an excuse for not addressing other dimensions. As Phillip observes, recalling Latour, the conviction that nothing less than overthrowing capitalism will do, especially when combined with despondency as to how/when/whether that can be achieved, can be a real impediment to making a difference however/wherever and with whomever you could have beneficial agency here, now. As I understand it, Deleuze’s and Guattari’s rhizomatic micro-politics was framed as an alternative to the perceived failure of the Paris Spring to effect the former. Another way of thinking of this approach might be in Taoist terms: rather than seeking to tackle intransigent structures/systems head-on, looking for openings that enable alternative pathways. Sometimes disasters can afford such openings. Your encouraging story of the community of survivors emerging around the Berkeley Pit is an instance of this – my question is, when and how do survivor communities become transformer communities? I think that hope plays a role, and I’m reminded here of Rebecca Solnit’s ‘Hope in the Dark’, whereby hope hinges on the acceptance of uncertainty, rather than the conviction that ‘we’ can make everything alright.

    Yet Solnit’s stories, inspiring as they are, are exclusively human ones, as far as I recall. So I’ve been pondering your question about more-than-human agency in relation to forms of ecological activism emerging in the wake or shadow disaster, Louise, and remembered the kangaroos who sought refuge in Canberra parks and gardens following the 2003 firestorm in the ACT. The presence of these survivors from the ravaged bush created the opportunity to recognise shared vulnerabilities in the face of worsening wildfires. There was also a solitary koala who survived the devastation of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, dubbed ‘Lucky’, although this designation was questioned by those who knew how traumatised he will have been, not only by his injuries, but the loss of his entire koala community. And then there was ‘Sam’, the koala photographed being given water by a volunteer fire-fighter on Black Saturday, who features in one of my slides.

    With all of such narratives, though, framing is clearly critical as to whether or not they contribute to formation of multispecies alliances and ongoing ecopolitical activism. There is much more to be said on this, but I just want to conclude this post with an example of something somewhat along these lines: the Migration and Me programme initiated by multi-faith conservation organisation, Faith in Place, which is premised on linking human experiences of migration and dislocation among largely Hispanic and African American people in Chicago with the plight of pollinators whose habitat has been lost to intensive agriculture and endangered by climate change, and entails, among other things, the creation of butterfly gardens in urban spaces, while at the same time improving human wellbeing and social inclusion. You can check it here:

    • KRigby says:

      …which is not to say, of course, that creating more socially inclusive and bio-inclusive urban spaces is anywhere near adequate to the task of redressing the multiple violences, fast and slow, that are generating growing levels of human and beyond-human displacement and disadvantage; but such situated practices of multispecies solidarity can perhaps contribute to creating alliances across social and species divides in the face of socioecological injustice and imperilment.

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