Commodification and Post-Naturalism

How much is “The World,” worth to you?

Paterson. Death ed., Chapter 1; Luke, 2019, Chapter 1; Luke 1997, Chapter 3

I asked you to read three pieces this week that together demonstrate and animate the spirit of ecocritiques. We’re diving into ecocritiques as a form of writing and this can often become muddied by the dense resources mobilized to construct one. They often take a piece of the world and subject it to rigorous examination by running it through cultural, social, political and economic frameworks to exhibit connections between that part and its consequences. For example, Luke in Ecocrtitque selects a seemingly benign or culturally accepted organization, The Nature Conservancy, and examines their practices from their marketing and psychodemographic targeting campaigns to their on-the-ground conservation practices. The results of his analysis are informed by both his theoretical and philosophical commitments, as well as his political economic methodology. In this way, his chapters show us two things: (1) It is important to have philosophical and theoretical commitments not only for site selection, but also to guide the arc of critique; (2) and reflecting on the larger conditions of one’s existence is necessary to construct a global understanding of the self-in-the-world as well as the interconnections that exist as a part of global social infrastructure. I’ll unpack the above as follows: first, I’ll show you why I selected the readings and why they’re helpful for understanding ecocritiques; second, a discussion of theoretical and methodological selection follows; and third, how we can go from local to global considerations through political economics as an orientation.

Firstly, I selected Paterson’s chapter from the Death reader as a conceptual introduction to a central consideration within political economics and environmental studies – commodification. The Death reader is a useful book to keep at hand because it can be used as a sort of advanced glossary or encyclopedia for doing environmental politics. The concepts examined throughout the book – an anthology of different authors and experts in the field – are useful depending on the framework you, as an analyst, are adopting. Some concepts work better in some frameworks over others and it is important to understand how different schools of thought deploy their analytic frames within their research. Some schools, for example, emphasize hybridity and interconnections of technology in understanding the social, and the natural. Others don’t have a Natural/Social division and favor nature-cultures, or technoculture, or socio-nature as part of their analytic toolbox. Still others, like Paterson, prefer language inherited from political economics as a field and see the circulation of things as central to environmental construction.

None of the above is to say that different schools can’t be mixed and matched or that every concept has to pay homage to its origins. Part of the fun of theorizing is coming up with new combinations of terms to help flesh out analyses and give some order to one’s perceptions. My preferences fall in the Neo-Marxist camp and I arrived at these considerations in language and analysis over a period of time and philosophical reflection. My thoughts tend toward thinking about the environment through assemblages, commodities, and technologies and this trifecta points me in the direction of social complexity theory, Marxism, Anarchism, the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology and postphenomenology. These are big terms and there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia article can explain for understanding the traditions and arguments that are behind them. As a general rule, however, one can learn almost anything simply by understanding terms and vocabulary used within the subject of study. One must, of course, strive to be a practitioner of their subjects and this points to different forms of knowledge than simply know-that gleaned from understanding terms and how they operate to produce a theoretical framework. One should cultivate some other forms of knowledge such as do-how – a knowledge of how to do something, or know-how – a form of knowledge concerning the production and impetus of knowledgeable action. Mastering oneself can be done through the practice of self-discipline and it’s important to hear “disciple” in discipline as one cultivates an interest in one’s subject area. 

Rick Roderick delivers a lecture on the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and the internal contractions of modernity and the modernizing process. If you’re looking for a project for this course, try to identify an irony or a contradiction and dial in on it. More often than not, you’re putting your finger on something that can be eco-critiqued.

 I arrived at Neo-Marxism after nearly a decade of attempting to reject it through more traditional forms of liberal thought. “Liberal,” here does not refer to Democrat, or the largely incorrect and obfuscating left-right distinction one hears from the crypto-fascists on the news. It was Luke’s Chapter 3 on TNC that was the final coffin nail on my largely John Rawls infused philosophical and theoretical orientations. When Luke critiques “liberals,” he’s speaking to a philosophical tradition that has informed the formation of the U.S. and other countries. A rough and ready but all-too violent characterization of liberal and liberalism is one that adopts both a “rule of the people,” as in democracies and representative republics such as our own; as well as “free” market principles and separates (typically) Nature and Society, and Public and Private spheres conceptually and operationally (as in laws and other practices). People from “left” to “right” in the U.S. fit under liberalism as a political discourse whether or not they’re conscious of it, and one can argue that everyone from [some] Democratic Socialists to [some] “free-market” libertarians are types of “liberals” with some misgivings. In many ways, and again this is rather quick, liberalism is concerned with the balance of two ideals that are in tension with one another: definitions of “equality;” and definitions of “freedom.”

Without spending too much time on the fundamental tension in Liberalism, one can readily grasp the arc of the discussion by reflecting on how different definitions of equality and freedom circulate in our society. The tension is exhibited best in how U.S. political discourse circulates representations of freedom. More often than not, they depict definitions of freedom that also seem in tension with one another. The theorist, Isaiah Berlin split “freedom” as a term into at least two operational definitions: freedom-to, or positive freedoms; and freedom-from or negative freedoms. Positive freedoms might be something like the “right to bear arms,” or the right to assemble. If you’re in the UK, or other countries that still have an understanding of society, then you have the freedom to affordable, or tax-funded healthcare. On the flip-side, and they’re often two sides of the same coin, you have the freedom from unlawful search and seizure – at least formally, or the freedom from debtor’s prison – again, probably only formally and we’ll see how this goes when the student debt bubble explodes. 

One can witness the results of how “freedom” is operationalized within the environment by examining the differences in how society delegates and distributes power and capital. Corporations were defined, conceptualized and discussed as people earlier than black slaves and this shows an orientation not only to the notion of people or person but the networks of terms in which they are embedded. Persons are rights-bearing agents in U.S. philosophical and legal frameworks while slaves are regarded as property and are thus subject to rights-bearing agents as objects. This exhibits a tension between “freedom” and “equality” as the states argued over the status of black slaves in the U.S. slave-economies operating across the expanding nation. One can see, rather easily I think, that much of the arguments spun around whether whites had the freedom-to own black slaves, positing a freedom-from Federal intervention that would have slaves recognized as equals formally in U.S. law. Equality, in the above, suffers as a concept and practice under the governing frameworks of slave-states and it isn’t a big leap to understand how a slave-state – say Virginia – had an environment that immobilized the black body and fed it into whole living economies of governance, representation, and commodity production. The fight for “equality” through abolitionism was a fight for slaves to be recognized as people, and not property, and thus become rights-bearing agents capable of exercising “freedom” in any of its forms. Economically, the body of the black slave served as a foundation for slave economies that operated internationally as well as in the United States and the argument over “states rights” can be cashed out as states arguing for the freedom-to own people through an argument for freedom-from Federal regulations and discourses that treated the black slave as an equal, rights-bearing agent. 

The above beares on our readings from this week because Paterson starts us off with commodification – that is, the process that makes something into a tradeable object that has exchange-value – or, a commodity. Notice here that we’re concerned with the process of something becoming a commodity and not the individual commodity itself. In the above, one can think of the black body becoming commodified on the auction blocks in Richmond as buyers bid for slaves. On the flip side, the body of a particular black person within governing frameworks that posit the black body as property is a commodity to a slave master. How commodities circulate and what they are helps focus analyses of society and we can see how society pulls-in what you might call “Nature” through commodification. One can think of this clearly by recognizing that the computer you’re using to view this post is a composite (we’ll use assemblage in this course) of “natural” elements – metals, plastics derived from hydrocarbons, etc., – organized toward some “social” end – communication between peoples, education. The computer, bought and traded as it is, allows or enables this sort of social behavior and thus rethreads the need for “natural resources” – coltan is one to watch – within and through patterns of extraction all connected to the production of that computer. The computer itself is useful in that it amplifies certain desirable abilities over others, but this use-value is conditioned by the social networks that value those abilities. Regardless of who decides what attributes and abilities to value, the computer in your hands, on your desk, or in your lap holds a socially conditioned exchange-value typically represented in monetary denominations that allow for its circulation within and through social networks. 

Think of it this way: money is a social grease. It gets the gears turning and impells actions that might not otherwise be committed. It exercises a coercive and persuasive influence in our social organization and a lot of people – mistakenly – cashout happiness in terms of cash acquisition. It’s a motive force in our environments and many an environ is designed to generate, capture and channel money – just look at Land Grant Universities. Money, however, is nothing but a representation and an abstraction attached to things by people. Those things to which it is attached are commodities and concentrations of money attract and are constitutive of concentrations of things. Think of the material networks necessary for a gold mine to operate – the discovery of gold, the organization of labor to extract it, the machinery to aid in its extraction, the melting and smelting facilities and all the attendant knowledges used in the extraction of gold. All of that activity, the material changes to landscape, the carbon outputs that circulate globally, and the global draw of people and materials to a place – a mine – already shows networks interested in dragging the stuff from the ground so that it can circulate in social environs like New York’s Diamond District as rings, and other material used in the construction of more commodities. 

Luke in his chapter from Ecocritique recognizes a sort of commodification occurring through the conservation actions of The Nature Conservancy. Commodification occurs within circuits (Paterson, Death ed. p.54) and these circuits are assemblages of people, and things that interact to produce objects that are then sold for an abstract representation. This process of commodification contains the process of abstraction that underwrites a notion of equivalence among objects and buyers. This is usually, as we see it now, run through a brand that is used to condition the expectations of consumers. I have been all over the world and have had many excellent coffees but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d be getting if I went to a local coffee shop. Some coffees are terrible – a travesty against God and legumes – and, being the consumer that I am, I try to avoid the terrible ones and buy things that satisfy expectations. I’m usually never in the place unless I’m running late or road tripping but Starbucks can be a welcome sight in a foreign land because they train and regulate their supply-chains according to company procedures to produce a reliable source of caffeine and enjoyment. I don’t know whether I’ll get a good coffee in any particular Starbucks, but generally speaking, I can trust the brand to produce palatable espresso – if but too little in their servings. One can zoom out and see Starbucks traded on the New York Stock Exchange and realize that no one is buying a cup of coffee when they trade the “SBUX” ticker, but “SBUX” has a value relative to the belief that money invested in the company will have a “return-on-investment” much the same way Virginia Tech implores prospective students to consider going into debt in the hope of a good paying job and fulfilling career after graduation [Hint: you’re more commodity than you realize]. 

We’re often so bound up in commodity networks that the notions of “choice+freedom” circulates to an accelerated absurdity. Escaping the commodity nexus of society is often through a rejection of what it means to be a human and a member of society. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting probes one alternative and the notion of “freedom.” What does it mean to be free when all the world is a commodity?

We can see, in the above, that commodification often requires some sort of material input that mixes with labor to produce a tradable object. In the case of Starbucks, I can trust that I’ll get a decent coffee because the brand signifies a particular admixture of labor and resources that are guided through labor practices to produce a Starbucks coffee. In their Pike Place roast, for example, the barista chars the beans before grinding them together with old cigarette butts and hamster-cage newspaper lining before placing them into a coffee urn where nothing but the freshest tap water percolates through the urn and into a cup that is a standardized measurement necessary for grounding a sense of equivalence among particular coffees. Notice that I, as a consumer, am almost nowhere in the above example. I don’t participate in collecting the coffee beans, I don’t know where they’re coming from and I really do nothing but issue a request to the barista and then give them some numbers representing debt owed to me that I’ve accumulated throughout the course of my labor and life. In this way, one can see how commodities and commodity chains produce a sense of distance between consumers, labor and capital as I am typically ignorant of the whole story of the commodity I buy and consume except for its excretion (Paterson, Death, ed. p.54). 

This expose by The Guardian – the only news source trusted by George Orwell – traces slavery through global supply chains of shrimp (prawns in the video). Slavery, the commodification of people and the theft of their lives is still alive and well, and maybe you eat it every day. Unless you do the work, the commodity will never tell you where it comes from.

Notice how Luke applies his theoretical and methodological commitments in his chapter on TNC. He dives into their actual material practices rather than merely their ecological lip service by focusing on a commodity and the network that produces it. He’s thinking about how TNC commodifies land and the processes, and considerations that go into making land tradeable and in that sense, commodities. Again, consider that commodities are a mix of resources and labor that have an exchange value ($3 for 16 ozs of Pike Place, for example), and circulate throughout your environment. Now consider that the land you’re sitting on is a commodity but only insofar as the U.S. government recognizes land as tradeable. This means that land is a potential site of commodity production – as in a gold mine – and a commodity itself – in that we can attach an exchange value for it, and we live within a society that thinks land can be bought, owned and traded. This leads to other quandaries such as fictitious commodities (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56) and the Second Contradiction of Capital (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56-60) but I’ll leave these aside for simpler language. 

Both Paterson and Luke see commodification as central to the reproduction of a particular form of society grounded in liberalism and exhibited through the establishment of markets and circulation of commodities. Their crux is that commodity development and circulation, as practiced, is often ecologically destructive and grounded in notions of abstraction and extraction that complicate and animate social relations and exacerbate and create inequalities through discourses of market “freedom.” However, liberal thinking has generally ignored ecological and environmental damage and degradation within its economic calculi and labels these effects as “market externalities.” Ignorance of externalities is accomplished through the distancing effect that commodities and their circulation have on the perceptive faculties of consumers and reinscribes a sense of accelerated consumption and accumulation of material stuffs that are built from extractive networks. These consumptive patterns are driving (in a sense) the production of ecological destruction and it isn’t until externalities become salient within the environment that attempts at incorporation within economic calculi are made (look at the establishment of Superfund sites). This process already exhibits a relationship to that thing we might call “nature” and already shows you how “nature” and “society” are enmeshed through extractive commodity production. Social demands are and always have “natural” consequences and Luke admonishes TNC for their “conservation” strategy which reinscribes the logic of commodification within the production of the physical environments they’re supposed to protect! 

Look at it this way: Commodities are capital. They can be bought, traded, made, and circulated as a force within and through environments. They are also, according to our authors from this week, central in the production of ecological destruction because they exist and emanate from real material networks of extraction and production. Commodities and commodification are so pervasive that we often talk about ourselves and others as existing within markets – this labor market, or that labor market – and this leads to some unpleasant social consequences like the mistreatment of people, or, as in a previous example, the enslavement of others as commodities! 

We cash our hopes and define freedoms through objects and commodities but is anyone asking whether we should, or what consequences that will have?

All of the above have material effects. We can look for sites of analysis through the commodity as a nexus – a window – into a world that runs on commodification and an environment built by the circulation of things based on perceived values. More often than not, our notions of freedom are cashed out in terms of consumption – in terms that make freedom constitutive of the objects to which it is attached (watch a car commercial as above, and ask what values they’re selling you). Our social structure often includes the language of commodification and exchange!

So, here’s the dirty little secret: Luke might nail TNC for doing the very thing they claim to be preventing – the degradation of lands, waters and airways by commodification and the production of sociality – by commodifying more lands, waters and airways in service to their notions of what “the environment” should be; but commodification is a cornerstone of liberal discourse. It’s often what people turn to when presented with a recalcitrant externality showing itself through our environs. Indeed Luke’s first chapter in Anthropocene Alerts is an alert from 1980 prodding liberal thought and thinkers for not considering commodification as a central problem in “the environment (Luke, 2019, Chapter 1). They slap a technological band-aid (not the actual common term, but a brand name!) on nature’s sucking chest wound and then try to find something to sell – some sort of “market incentive” to attract more capital or make environmental protection palatable to people who can’t understand that clean drinking water is a must for everyone and people other than themselves live in this world and are fighting for their lives every single day. This collective akrasia in evidence points to – alludes – to the presence of the commodity form – a notion of collective consciousness that sees the commodity as the omnipresent model of society and social relationships (Paterson, Death, ed., p.54). If you’re paying attention, this means that the commodity form also quietly regulates conduct toward the environment and its construction. In other words, the commodity makes the machines we call societies run and are simultaneously its output creating a self-repeating system of extraction and expansion. One only needs to consider carbon markets discussed by Paterson, The Nature Conservancy’s trade lands discussed by Luke, or habitat credit swaps discussed by yours truly, to see the presence of the commodity form and its psychic and material effects.

Chozen’s “Tel A Lie Vision” talks about the circulation of commodities, of desires represented through a system reliant on passive viewership and active consumption. Here we can hear the circulation of commodities as a system of governance.

When all the world is processed, what will Nature be? If everything can be commodified and turned into capital, then where is Nature now? These questions should help you come to an understanding of the world we live in when you consider that Nature is dead and we have killed her. 

Welcome to the Critical Ethos

There are three things I discuss in this post:

  1. The critical ethos and its importance in doing environmental politics through self-reflective cultivation; 
  2. An introduction to ecocritique as a genre of writing, method of analysis and theoretical orientation that can help develop and emmenate from the critical ethos;
  3. And lastly, looking for inspiration through critical self reflection on oneself in the environment

Looking through the syllabus, you’ll notice, dear reader, that this course does not take particular case studies of global environmental change as its guiding arc. I made this decision because this class is for those already somewhat convinced of global change, and my apologies to those whom this class leaves aside. In short, “the science” has been discussing global change for centuries – if but relegated to local analyses in its early years – and we are not in the business of merely finding more information regarding our changing planet and transmitting it. Instead, this class is focussed on developing thinkers – people capable of going beyond the particulars, the phantasms of reality, and grasping the totality of interactions that make up the environment

As such, we’re engaged in developing engaging and thoughtful people through a recognition of “the self” within “the environment.” We will question and probe what “the environment” is and what it means within political discourse and we’ll try to wrap our heads around some of the more puzzling and difficult problems presented by global trends in social organization and how those trends contain not only civilizational history and its modes of living – the lifeforms it produces and has produced – but, and more importantly, how plastic “the environment” actually is in its meaning and its materiality. 

Neither myself nor any (for the most part) of our authors are trying to alarm you to the “problems” or issues in “the environment.” You’ll notice that I won’t be impelling you to “do your part,” or make some mealy-mouthed oath to “safeguard” the planet. We have no time for such arrogant managerialist approaches to our spinning orb. Instead, we focus on how deeply embedded and political the issues presented by global environmental change are within “the science,” or through the case studies and examples mobilized in this course. We live in settled societies with real material effects and consequences. These effects are the result of how we’ve built and run our societies across the Earth. As a result, we’re going to question the totalizing attitude presented by discourses of “The Anthropocene” – the geological epoch of humans – and how this discourse hinders critical environmental reflection necessary to tackle the problems presented by global environmental change. 

George Carlin expresses the attitude we should develop toward our human arrogance. It is not so much that the planet is changing and it’s “our” fault, but the results of this change. Who wins and who loses? Who gets to pollute and who lives with that pollution? Who despoils the Earth and who has to live in the rubble and the wrecks when all is said and done?

This course is a class in Political Ecology – a subfield of political science, and environmental studies (Death, Death ed., p.8). We are interested, in short, in how politics constructs and administers environments. Carl Death’s chapter from this week’s readings splits discourses of the environment into two broad categories (Death, Death ed., P. 8-9). One treats the environment as part of Nature – something that exists independent of human societies. Indeed many thinkers seem to separate arenas of action into “nature” or the natural and “society” or the social. We’ll see why this separation is problematic and why, in my opinion, we’d be better off without it as it merely clouds thinking. In short, this class questions the Nature/Society split, and we must approach this often unquestioned conceptual framework from the position of theory and theorizing. For those of you questioning that vantage point, I’ll remind you that theory is almost always animated, lived and felt regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, and that the act of splitting reality into “Nature,” and “Society,” is already a theoretical division.

Theoretical fantasias such as “pristine nature,” “untouched wilderness,” or an independent Nature akin to the Abrahamic God will not be mobilized for our discussions save as whipping posts. We will, instead, take the opposite fork of the two ways the environment is portrayed in political discourse and thus acted upon through political networks. This is one that understands the environment as made up of environs – that is, enclosures and how those enclosures are made, animated, policed, securitized and linked to the machinations of global capitalism. This is a more intuitive notion than it sounds. 

It’s often said that we wear different hats in society. Sometimes you have to put on your student hat and listen to me in my professor hat. Other times you put on your driver’s hat and have to recognize, interpret and anticipate the actions of others who are also wearing their driver’s hat. Something switches when you put on your different hats for your different functions in society and you’ll notice that your surroundings more often than not, play a role in how you behave and what hats are needed by you within different enclosures. We’ll suggest in this class that we exist within different enclosures that are textured by rules, technologies, interactions, histories, governments, sciences, and more. We’ll see that these little worlds and the actions within them make up the much larger aggregate of “the environment” at a global scale and that we humans are deeply, inexorably embedded within the functions of the planet writ large. These enclosures – these environs – are created and administered by and through politics and it is here that we focus our analyses. 

Our course is not for those in love with binge and purge style regurgitation. It will require you to think and think very hard about how your enclosures are connected to others and how this aggregation is connected to that which has cradled humanity since before homo sapien arrived on the scene. To do this, we’ll need a few tools. The first and most important tool for the task is you, dear reader. We will learn that we must cultivate a critical sensibility suggested by Carl Death in his first chapter, by Tim Luke throughout his work, and by me, your professor, in my work and throughout the course. I want to show you how this ethos is actually a way of living, one that tries to connect the little loves and lived realities of our everyday lives with the massive movements of capital, culture, society, technology, and politics – civilization

To do this, we must cultivate, as Death councils, a sensibility that questions the everyday and the things that seem given to us. Why are you reading this? Because you were told to? Who told you to do that and what gave them that authority? How is that authority connected to an environ and how is it connected to the rest of the living, breathing orb on which we live? These are the sorts of questions that should concern you. When a cruise ship that belches out a carbon output equivalent to a million cars everyday tells you that they have a “Save the Waves” environmental program, are you simply going to accept it and be on your way? Or are you going to recognize the interconnection of all things and wonder how in the fuck an industry that relies on a fuel source dug from the ground that is then burned in a furnace could possibly claim any semblance of sustainability? In short, will you call bullshit and recognize that bullshit circulates in your environments everyday but that maybe you’ve become numb to it? This is the germ of the critical ethos – a critical way of life that refuses to accept the given and wants more. Cultivate it, as you will in this course through your own research.  

This is a clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Zizek – the Jarjar Binks of critical theory. We won’t use “ideology” much as a term in our course and favor “discourse,” instead, but Zizek is alluding to the difficulty of liberation in one’s environment. We’ll circle back to this problem throughout the course, but the clip is instructive in that it shows how ideologies are environmental and how the environment is constructed by ideologies.

Secondly, you’ll need a weapon – something sharp, maybe but something you can wield with precision. We’re going to study, and sharpen a weapon that will help you cut the bullshit into manageable sizes. I suggest we learn ecocritiques as that weapon. Your weapon’s expert is Timothy W. Luke and we must learn how to use his weapon with care. Thankfully, however, ecocritiques are intuitive and customizable and we’ll continue to see example after example of ecocriticisms that demonstrate not only a mind armed with a critical ethos, but one flexible enough to make it work across disciplines. We’ll roam from critical approaches to understanding science and management, to ecocritiques as a technology of self-discipline and scholarly improvement. 

Ecocritique, at its broadest, is a genre of writing that questions the place of humans within their environments through criticising or interrogating their social organization related to the machinations of their broader operational contexts. They are about taking the familiar and making it strange; of seeing other perspectives through the connections exhibited within environs; or of coming to understand and probe positions purportedly in the name of The Earth, or The Planet, or The Environment. We’ll push the very big categories to their limits and question the actions of others in a political-environmental context. 

Try to cultivate a sensibility that sees the separation between an uncaring planet, and one that must care about the planet’s inhabitants. We can’t simply collapse into actionless nihilism that sees the emptiness of meaning. We must come to recognize our spinning orb as our home and the home for others including nonhumans. There’s no need to despair in darkness when you are the author of your own light – not in that stupid individualistic way though.

Here’s the rub. It’s not good enough to find “the science” and bring it back to your village. You need to see how “the science” is mobilized within politics and how it acts within environs. Yes, we’ll see more flooding. Yes, the Great Barrier Reef has been pronounced dead. But who cares? We in Blacksburg can’t see how the Reef is connected to our everyday worlds. We in Virginia didn’t have to live through Katrina, or Sandy and deal with the destruction wrought by those storms. We may have sent money, supplies and people, but no one lost a house because Sandy made landfall in our remote mountains. That’s what this course and its ecocritiques get to. Who wins and who loses in the global environment constructed by politics? We don’t have to look far to see racism threaded throughout our environments and one only has to go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond to see how flooding was a problem for some and not for others and that this was created and committed in and through politics. 

Ecocrtiques are about exposing the political, cultural, economic, and social forces within our environs. They are about exhuming the connections we share to one another not simply through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but how that water got there in the first place, and how the composition of the air came to be that way. Luke opens his Anthropocene Alerts by altering his readers to the radioactive isotopes circulating in the global biosphere as a result of Cold War politics and the need for displays of power within the strategy of nuclear deterrence. In other words, politics is already in the water – just ask the people of Flint, MI – our job is to bring those politics into fresh light so we, and others can see more clearly how their lives are built and run by remote interests as much as life and the living emanate from the individual. 

Lastly, and this has bearing on your final project, I want to share a personal journey with you and show you, dear reader, how you and your interests are connected throughout this amazing planet and how you can find inspiration almost anywhere. This class is for those who want to feel inspiration. It is not for people who are merely interested in sliding through their education to hopefully find a job. I have earned four degrees in my life and looking for “a job” or “money” through education is wrongheaded and expensive – we need tradespeople! I sought freedom – liberation – from the utter discomfort I feel daily in my environs. Ecocritques, self-discipline, the critical ethos are all fine and good, but the reason I’ve done this and chosen these paths is because I’ve been looking for the tools – the vocabulary – to describe my surroundings and deal with their discomforts. Critical theory, the school of thought we will examine throughout this course, deals specifically with the problems of liberation – of freeing oneself from the matrices of the status quo – and I have selected this school of thought as my philosophical home after examining a few of the alternatives in the Western canon. This journey has taken years and really begins with 9/11/01 and the shock of death that hung in the air over Long Island. I won’t bore you with the details of how my sky had ash in it for three days, or how this sent me on a long project of trying to figure out what would possess people to slam themselves and others into the World Trade Center on Manhattan but it bears mention that thoughts and thinkers don’t come from nowhere and have a material basis. 

I was getting my butt kicked by my dissertation committee. I hadn’t found my project yet and nearly 12 years of continuous education and all the money and energy spent during them were in jeopardy. My advisor told me to go home to Long Island and think seriously about what I wanted to research and hopefully come back to Blacksburg with something concrete to present to the three other scholars on my dissertation committee. I did as Tim told me and went back to Setauket, NY and wracked my brain trying to find something to talk about. The horse blinders were on though and I couldn’t relax enough to think through talking about whatever it was that I wanted to talk about. Truth be told, I couldn’t find any environmental histories of Long Island that weren’t half-assed collections of hearsay as most seemed to lack the primary sources to substantiate their claims. This was a defeating dead end, and though there’s an insane amount of things to talk about in Long Island’s history, nothing appealed to me and I was in too foul a mood (having had my ego chopped into little pieces and scattered around me by one brilliant teacher) to recognize anything worth writing about in the sort of detail a dissertation demands. 

I was sleeping most of the day because I was living for the night and happy to be back in some of my old haunts with good friends. My dad, sensing my slothful inebriation, shook me awake one morning and told me that we were going kayaking around Setauket Harbor and into Conscience Bay. The hangover was pounding in the mid-day sun and I was regretting every last drop from the night before as my sweat poured into the water surely altering the BACs of the fish populations in the Long Island Sound (I do not advocate drinking as a source of inspiration but the pains from the hangover can be quite instructive life advice). I looked up and there was an osprey on a dock pylon with a huge fish in his talons.

I did not grow up seeing many ospreys in my waters. We always had to drive East to Shelter Island or Greenport to see them. They have been making a comeback since their extirpation and raptor populations, generally, have rebounded with peregrines and bald eagles claiming more nesting sites across the island. I did not know this at the time, but found out later after we approached the beach where I had grown up and spent a significant time in my younger years.

Nesting pair of Osprey in Port Jefferson harbor.

It was moving. All of it. The sand, the water, the grasses, all of it shaking and shimmering. I chalked it up to my booze-addled brain recoiling in horror at the sun and heat, producing some sort of delirium that made everything appear more alive; just some last ditch effort by a fading consciousness to entertain and soothe a damaged ego that was again having the tar whipped out of it by physical activity and the July Sun. I was wrong – thank God. 

Setauket Harbor.

It was a march of fiddler crabs the likes of which I had never seen before nor since and I couldn’t believe their density when I beached the kayak. I had to get out and stand in them to make sure I wasn’t totally off my nut, but they were there. Shaking, moving, living, and marching in throngs that would make Christmas Island blush. They scuttled around me and I stood watching them and the whole beach move under the weight. 

I took this experience back to my advisor, Dr. Luke, and he told me to look at the removal of a synthetic pesticide from Long Island’s environments called DDT. Without going into the specifics of DDT, it had been held responsible for killing off raptor populations and crustaceans through its over application to remove mosquitoes from Long Island and elsewhere. There is a long history to its use dating back to the Second World War, but it entered our suburban environments shortly thereafter. It was the Environmental Defense Fund who spearheaded the removal of DDT from Long Island and the rest of the US and I rifled through their exploits by reading books and articles published by them and their employees. It turns out that I had grown up looking at their old headquarters behind an animatronic bald eagle on the Stony Brook Post Office and I took this as some sort of sign that they were supposed to take center stage in my work. 

I tried, dear friends, I really did, to only focus on EDF and their history as an environmental organization. I passed my comprehensive exams with a rough idea of how it would go only to find that EDF’s archives were housed at Stony Brook University in physical collections I would have to go to for any real sort of scholarship to be written about them. I couldn’t do that. I had limited funding that tied me directly to Blacksburg and I was unwilling to drive home and let my classes run without me while pouring over notes, and letters in the bowels of Stony Brook University (the archives, of course, are undergoing digitalization currently and would have made my life easier). Another dead end – maybe.

Refusing to give up can be an excellent skill to cultivate when it’s not naked stubbornness and stupidity. In my case, EDF felt right. I wanted to tell a story about a hometown hero and how a ragtag group of scientists, one old school English adventurer and a foulmouthed lawyer after my own heart failed upwards and stuck it to the US government and their corporate overlords. The problem was that story had already been told, and better by the people who were there. So, who was EDF and who are they now became my guiding question. I had to start looking at their current projects and who they had become since the DDT wars. They fired the lawyer I loved – the guy whose slogan, his personal slogan, was “Just sue the bastards,” and the current president was a Long Islander from Mineola Station in Nassau County. Leaving aside how anyone could possibly know anything natural and be from Nassau County, I started looking at the projects Fred Krupp was heading. They were trying out a new sort of environmental economics scheme called a habitat exchange and the most sophisticated and advanced instantiation of it was in Wyoming and concerned the Greater Sage-grouse. 

I had not been to Wyoming at the time, and had never seen a Greater Sage-grouse. I was a researcher living outside a temperate rainforest, not the sagebrush steppe and I had no real local knowledge to speak of concerning the state, its biota, ecotones, or environs. I was, however, trained to smell bullshit through my education in politics and philosophy (amazing disciplines for the study of bullshit and not themselves bullshit studies). Their schemes didn’t seem right to me in how they simply talked about “nature,” or Centrocercus urophasianus. I smelled bullshit and dug deeper. It grabbed me, and pulled me in and finally, I produced the first two chapters of my dissertation that would be edited, chopped up, remixed, criticized and prodded.

Yours truly combing the sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.

Kayaking. That’s all it took. It was seeing an osprey and some crabs kayaking. This led me on a journey that took me to the heart of the US and connected my birthplace with somewhere I never thought I’d go. I have since solved my problems of having never been to Wyoming, nor seen a sage-grouse and this is because I let my research take me when it felt right. The point to all of the above is to show you a small cut into doing research on the environment. Your little lives are connected to much bigger things and it’s pulling out those connections that displays your education, your creativity, and your understanding of things well beyond your local conditions. You’ll read my dissertation in this class, and I’m excited to share it with you, but you should know that ideas don’t come from nowhere and that you can find inspiration if you let it in and fight through all the dead ends and stumbling blocks in your way. I want this experience for you, my friends, and I want to see you find a little piece in this world that you’ll come to know and, hopefully, as in my case, love. 

We’re not going to be easy on the world and it’s a path that can be isolating and lonely at times, but you can find your way through it and see things in new lights and inspire other people. I’m not going to moralize anyone in their consumptive habits or blame individuals solely for the changes in our planet, but we’re going to cultivate a larger sense, something planetary that goes beyond the narrow confines of our bailiwicks to see the patchwork of connections that make our worlds. I invite you to join me in this project and I want to show you how a critically reflective way of living can open new worlds that many never see, and how simply seeing those new worlds will make your lives richer and maybe, just maybe, help us get a handle on the changes in our worlds as we make and remake habitats of the living and the unborn.

A sage-grouse hen taken through a spotting scope in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.