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.