Don’t Call me Earthling, I’m Terran: Toward a Salvaged Planetary Future


  I asked you to review a few chapters from Daniel Wildcat’s Red Alert! Saving the Planet with Indigenous Knowledge (2009) this week to introduce a deeper connections between people and a changing planet. Learning from Wildcat can help craft a new political-environmental imaginary to possibly avoid broken world futures and highlight some dynamics within thinking that are driving the production of those futures. Wildcat introduces a few elements that have hindered thinking about environmental futures, locating them, as Luke and Mulgan did, in ‘modernist,’ ‘liberal,’ or ‘enlightenment’ thinking that have helped produce patterns of living across the planet which he ties to specific forms of socio-political arrangements. In particular, Wildcat prompts us to think about how indigenous knowledges have been swept over in the history of scientific thought which has and is influencing political decision-making. He believes that by shifting attitudes toward ‘the natural’ by collapsing both ‘the natural’ and ‘the social’ into one another, we can avoid a collective akrasia of self-harm through better relationships to ourselves, our communities, the planet and its futures. Removing the nature/culture dichotomy embedded within Enlightenment thinking should help produce new material futures by upending the rule of artifice that has guided civilizational discourse which has historically led to removals and erasures of people, and non-human lifeforms. Essentially, however, his Red Alert is not a call to leave the scientific project completely but to adjust it and contextualize it to produce a view seeing experiential and experimental knowledge stereoscopically in a view of the Real. Wildcat’s book, thus, represents both a warning and remedy from people who have lived with and through Broken World conditions, as many have and continue to across the planet, for those living under the rule of artifice generating broken world futures. 

Staying Grounded and Producing a Planetary Worldview:

Wildcat begins with an overview of indigenous removal in the United States. He not only discusses the infamous Trail of Tears removal that led the Five ‘Civilized’ Tribes to inhabit Oklahoma, but also a lesser known removal of children to boarding schools from their reservations as yet another dimension of nation-building in the United States. One of those schools may be familiar to you if you drive the I-81N corridor, as I do, the Carlyle School in Carlyle, PA – and this was a site where Western Native American children were to become ‘civilized’ and taught the ways of US living. In this process, they and their communities were stripped of their identities, often cast as barbaric, and indeed, this removal also constitutes the attempted erasure of indienous worldviews as ‘science’ became an increasingly salient discourse in public knowledge and reasoning. The Carlyle School served as a major influence in Vine Deloria, Jr.’s writings, a friend and mentor of Wildcat’s and the two published a book on education and indigenous identity in 2001 called Power and Place: Indian Education in America, and the connections Wildcat makes within Red Alert! carry their projects further as Wildcat attempts to pry open scientific discourse to avoid what he thinks will be another removal reminiscent of the broken world conditions discussed by Mulgan. 

My appreciation for Wildcat’s remarks are grounded in the political imperatives signaled, but not fully articulated by Mulgan. Particularly, Wildcat’s alarm bells are that regardless of political affiliation, or belief structure, climatic shifts will produce the need for systemic political responses. This is a deep recognition that alarmism – or simply trying to scare people – may be something needed to spread the word about how current relationships are producing conditions that threaten those very relationships, but that those threats must be accounted for and understood politically such that they can be governed. If one takes a moment to reflect on one dynamic predicted by climate science – sea level rises – then the political imperatives become clearer. New York, Miami, Rio, just to name a few major cities in the Western hemisphere must figure out how to respond to sea level rises, if the scientific communities examining and predicting their rises are to be believed. Dealing with the New York City metro area, for example, would necessitate planning for climatological shifts for around 20 million people and could include massive, capital intensive geotechnic projects, such as building better drainage and capacity to deal with sea level rises, and more turbulent and destructive weather. 

Massive geotechnic projects, such as dam constructions, have historically displaced people from their communities. One can think about the city sunken under Smith Mountain Lake, VA, the massive damming and electrification projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, or go more global and recognize that it is typically the poor, colored, and indigenous who are displaced and removed for ‘national need.’ The possible removals Wildcat has in mind are already connected to people’s lives in the circumpolar North and he, in 2009, is discussing the death and failure of indigenous lifeways, such as hunting societies, that have existed for thousands of years and are now feeling the effects of global change more acutely than many living within urban environments. These dynamics worry Wildcat not simply for the future of polar hunters, but in recognizing that the changing landscape and seascape; easily seen in how ice thickness is decreasing, thus introducing more danger into the everyday lives of people dependent on seal populations, implies changes in lifestyle which can be felt in degrees of magnitude depending on how close one lives to the Earth. 

Wildcat is not about using abstract categories to scare people into ‘correct’ action for addressing global change, but is advocating for a new worldview which he calls indigenous realism. In a nutshell, this is a criticism of how ‘science’ as a discourse has functioned through its evidentiary standards. His adjustment is to help refocus the scientific project to understanding the intersections of experience and experiment and it looks like his real project is to sound an alarm in scientific communities to possible myopias stuck in their optics. Though he calls scientists ‘hard-headed’ or ‘objective’ thinkers, his critiques reveal a more nuanced view in his calls for a more grounded understanding of our changing worlds and relations. ‘Science’ as a discourse is grounded within philosophical projects dating back to Hellenic Athens and really getting its wheels going within the European Enlightenment, the Victorian Era, and now, the era following the Big Physics of the Atomic Age. Over time, the discussions about ‘science’ as a method for knowing and understanding the world, fragmented into ‘sciences’ each with their methodological toolkits for producing facts, and thus ‘knowledge.’ Both Wildcat and his friend Deloria, Jr. are generalists with philosophical training in the occidental cannon, and those bodies of literature have typically thought of ‘knowledge’ as ‘justified true belief.’ How that cashes out as scientific projects is related to specific scientific fields with each supplying methods for stabilizing the production of ‘facts.’ 

Facts are statements portending to truth that can be justified against specific investigative frameworks grounded within communities of representors you probably refer to as scientists. If one, for example, is investigating an ‘electron’ then one is looking for evidence that guarantees their existence under specific observational conditions. One can then subject the theoretical postulate of ‘elections’ to experimental conditions that can, in principle, be repeated by other observers under similar conditions and this repeatability helps sediment observational veracity. If you get a whole bunch of people doing this and agreeing that there are such things as ‘electrons,’ then one can ground a scientific community and recognize one linguistically through their specific theoretical objects. Political Science, for example, typically is not investigating the existence of ‘electrons’ but usually takes ‘power’ as one of its central theoretical objects and one can see the historical development of political scientific discourse through how ‘power’ has been understood and articulated throughout time.       

Attending to the object of ‘power,’ Wildcat recognizes its intersection with another object, ‘place,’ and takes this as a productive space to mount a criticism against ‘objectivity’ typically thought of as a condition within ‘scientific’ analyses. If you’re following the above, every scientist is operating within a specific community to produce these things called ‘facts.’ Facts can be thought of as reports from a specific context about a specific thing or phenomena under observation. Thus, when a scientist reports a ‘fact’ they can be reporting something very specific about their context and kicking it to a broader community for verification while simultaneously positing the existence of that thing and the field of relations from which it emerged. You’ll notice, if you read widely, that not all scientific communities run experiments the same way and some eschew experimentation favoring longitudinal studies, for example. If one looks at rangeland management, or terrestrial ecology, for instance, it becomes apparent that while experiments can be run in both, one may require a lab and the other an open field to ground a control and thus experimental variables (notice how landscape functions in the production of knowledge, here). Conversely, history, as a study, is intensely empirical in how historiographers usually ground their claims and marshal evidence but it has not usually been regarded as ‘experimental’ within its communities of representors – historians. Regardless, both discourses attempt to anchor facts within the observable and both ‘science’ and ‘history’ produce ‘facts’ that can be verified or rejected by specialized communities. The difference is that one uses laboratory equipment and experimental reasoning in one space, and one might talk about the interactions of laboratory equipment and experimental reasoning in another and this is a difference in archives and what objects are under investigation by whom, with what instruments, interests, and at which time.

The laboratory has typically gone unmentioned in public discourse about facts. These are supposed to be highly controlled spaces that allow for the production of control variables necessary to experimental thought which helps isolate variables under observation and discusses changes within systems. The scientist does not speak from an ‘objective’ place. They are not speaking and producing facts from a place on high with a God’s Eye view. They’re humans, using human reasoning to arrive at conclusions that can help ground ‘facts’ but those facts come from very specific contexts and out of different scientific methodologies which have changed and do change depending on the theoretical objects one is trying to observe and discuss. In other words, ‘science’ is a discourse that is intersubjective at best but, in its earlier days, at least, has been taken as an ‘objective’ discourse with rigid methods for producing ‘objectivity’ as an effect. Wildcat, and others such as Don Ihde, Tim Luke, Michel Foucault, Thomas Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend and Vine Deloria, Jr., recognize implicitly C.S. Peirce’s position that ‘science’ as a discourse, cannot pretend to make objective facts, but that the facts produced by specific communities can speak to the context of those scientific communities, which are using rigorous methods to produce them intersubjectively. This is opposed to merely ‘subjective’ reports that may only speak to the experience of one person and not anyone else. In short, while intersubjective facts can’t pretend to be ‘God Given’ or ‘absolute’ or ‘objective’ they are some of the best stories available for understanding changing empirical circumstances but must recognize that those stories are shot through with power relationships as a matter of their being produced within places. 

Perhaps in a more grounded register, Wildcat shows how place can be an object, project and product of power and this is part of his criticism of scientific discourse. It’s simple: the United States was built, in part, under and through indigenous removals. Those removals historically account for the contours of the US landscape and it is important to mention that removals still happen across the planet. Complexo da Maré, Brazil, for example, has a history of both government geoengineering of tidal zones into flat ground, and forced removals of other favela residents to Maré under the aegis of ‘modernization,’ ‘civilization,’ or ‘progress,’ and residents of Maré have seen removals and absorbed more displaced people as recent at 2016 for the Rio Summer Olympics. A friend of mine relayed a story about her grandmother’s forced removal from the South Zone of Rio to Maré, in Rio’s North Zone and it is clear that power and place are thread through everyday lives of people in Maré connected to the histories of colonial elitism, racism and poverty. My friend’s grandfather built their home in the South with the help of his community and through his own know-how. While her grandmother was pregnant, he built a small shop and service window connected to their home so she could raise the children and contribute to her community. They lived there for years before her grandfather was struck and killed by a bus, leaving his widow and children to care for the house. Without a man and under a chauvinistic government, they were forced out at gunpoint by their own government, refusing to recognize land title and use as their authorities sought to develop Rio as a tourist destination. According to my friend, her grandmother never quite recovered from that removal despite raising her children and surviving in Maré. This story is only two generations old and the removal above signals space as an object of power and the forced reorganization of it is an example of how populations can be invisibilized under discourses of national need in the production of territory.   

Here’s a question one can ask about the above: is my friend’s story a fact? Should it be given the same status as, for example, ‘gravity’ and its existence? I think yes, and I believe Wildcat to be advocating for that position in the sense of asking ‘science’ to recognize how facts are and can be produced about what, whom and when. In other words, Wildcat, is asking ‘science’ to respect, understand and work with ‘experience’ in the sense that experiences should not be brushed aside as merely anecdotal evidence but can, like all facts, be investigated empirically and thus operationalized into governing frameworks. Power and knowledge are intertwined within technocratic claims to legitimacy as we learned with Luke and studies, such as Steve Lerner’s Sacrifice Zones (2010) have shown that scientific legitimacy is necessary for community redress against misgovernment and technocratic failure. Simply put, without the right information coded in the right ways (i.e. problems clothed in ‘scientific’ language portending to the status of ‘fact’) governing agencies may simply not ‘see’ a problem occurring in the lives of the populations they govern. Lerner’s work, for example, shows the difficulties in identifying cancer clusters which can, as scientific objects, speak back to the persistent problems associated with toxic exposure in fence-line and brownsite communities across the US. Last week, as we learned with downwinders in US, people and their problems can be pushed aside by abstracted discourses favoring national need and it may be decades later that ‘the science’ catches up with the side-effects of nuclear testing, for example, allowing for problems for persist for decades without redress. In short, this is a problem in how problems are articulated and understood technologically, scientifically and politically. 

Trigger Warning: the video above contains graphic images you might find highly disturbing. The story above has a longer history than the Second Invasion of Iraq and discussions about radiological toxicity have been had since at least the first Gulf War. The above points to the difficulty of coding experience in experiment and the production of knowledge about place. How knowledge is produced matters and laboratory experiments with depleted uranium may not speak to the field effects of long-term exposures such as breathing uranium particles or ingesting irradiated water.

Producing a Real and the Counter Real of Wildcat

‘Science’ as a discourse does not operate independently from ‘technology’ and philosophers of technology as well as sociologists and anthropologists of science have observed the enmeshment of both within the production of worldviews. Don Ihde, for instance, argues that technology is most likely materially prior to ‘science’ and that ‘science’ as an activity requires some sort of technological apparatus to support it. If one takes the simple problem of measurement, a function that most sciences have and perform, it becomes easy to see that without technologies external to the observer themselves, that scientific communities would have difficulty communicating information and formalizing studies. Furthermore, how phenomena emerge and how problems are understood and articulated within scientific communities is often indexed to the function of specific instruments. Wave-particle theory in quantum mechanics, for example, was refined through experiments using Stern-Gerlach apparatuses and showed the curious behavior of elections under observation which was then refined into the famous ‘double slit experiment’ shooting electrons and later photons in a straight line at two slits cut into an insulator with a photosensitive sheet behind it to observe the impact of elections going through those slits. The phenomenon above was both a problem and product of the technologies used to produce and observe it and further experiments were conducted to understand quantum spin. The repeated interactions of observers with similar apparatuses across the planet under similar experimental conditions allowed for the sedimentation of knowledge fed through an intersubjective community of representors bound by research methods all interested in discussing the phenomena under observation. In other words, the notion of knowledge about the behavior of elections under specific observational conditions was built not simply from the ether, but from real material things such as instruments used to notice and articulate the phenomenon. Thus, ‘science’ has a deeply technological component such that separating ‘science’ from ‘technology’ is only analytically helpful in the abstract and does not properly speak to experimental nor experiential activity of scientific communities. 

You’ll notice that the host does a good job of sweeping away details for the purposes of explanation and theoretical parsimony as well as appealing to standard interpretations of the phenomena he is discussing. This shows how scientific communities can operate in the production and communication of data across disciplines and also the sticky problems inherent in building worldviews simply from ‘science.’ His exposition of the double-slit experiment and its history shows the evolution of the theoretical postulate under observation and constitutive of experimental contexts.

Wildcat notices the above and is keely aware of the influence of technology within and through scientific communities. His calls to reconsider the scientific project do not reject ‘science’ outright but adjusts it through recognizing its technological contexts. In a way, the above is reminiscent of Don Ihde’s notion of instrumental realism in a book by the same title (1991). In short, instruments help build worldviews and those worldviews take lives of their own such that they are thread into broader environments – such as social environments – that then change depending on broader relationships and how those relationships can be rearticulated. If one thinks about it, scientific communities have added to and changed things like contemporary language and technologies have done similarly. For example, ‘gravity’ as a term can function relating to specific experimental conditions, but also helps one understand everyday life: objects don’t usually fall upwards because of gravity; water typically flows downhill because of gravity; or it can function figuratively as in: do you understand the gravity of Ihde’s instrumental realism? In this sense, science as a discourse has functioned to help produce understandings of reality while at the same time downplaying that it makes those reals through instrumental mediations. Going a bit further, Ihde, for example, understands scientific communities as addressing problems detected through technology and the behavior of instruments under observation, by creating more instruments to mediate the production of knowledge about systems under observation. In this sense, ‘science’ as a discourse, cannot and should not be understood without the material dimension of ‘technology’ that not only guides observation, but disciplines observers both bodily (think about how you have to adjust yourself to look through a microscope) and by disciplining inferences about ‘The Real.’ 

Both Ihde’s instrumental realism and Wildcat’s Indigenous Realism recognize the contours of scientific thought embodied within and given life through instruments – technologies – used to produce views about ‘The Real.’ Science as a descriptive discourse has sought to tell its adherents about ‘Nature’ since Sir Isaac Newton was called a ‘Natural Philosopher’ but the explosion of ‘science’ as a vocation has signaled the rise of ‘scientists’ as specific classes of people, speaking to specific communities to advance specific projects. Those communities have historically brushed aside, or simply haven’t been exposed to, North American Indigenous worldviews and knowledge ways. In this way, the discourse has produced willed blind spots in how it understands, interprets, communicates and investigates reality. One insightful element in Wildcat’s critique is that there is no real distinction between ‘natural’ and ‘social’ as science is an activity born of specific contexts from within specific communities and embodied within specific instruments. How a community understands and addresses a problem is often mediated through their technological accouterments and how that community has understood those instruments relative to theoretical and methodological discourses in the production of ‘fact.’ Thus, facts are materially conditioned by the contexts from which they emerge and do not come from anywhere ‘on high’ but speak back to the intersubjective understandings of communities observing their emergence. In this sense, a blindness within worldview can be dangerous for the scientific enterprise and larger fields of relations as facts come to populate and stand in for ‘the Real.’ 

If you notice, the above means that much of what is known is materially conditioned by technologies and their uses. Wildcat says that more technology is not going to help anyone understand and mediate their environments and may simply be a distraction for people. In this sense, he speaks to a technological fetishism inherent within the ‘civilizational’ discourses he criticizes. Simply, ‘technology’ as a term, has functioned in a messianic way to quell real political action when problems arise and the sedimentation of technological worldviews is not only culturally and politically specific, but can be a nexus sucking people’s thinking into a space that values and promotes technological development as a panacea for all of humanity’s problems. For Wildcat, this won’t do, not simply because it has the potential to distract from real political issues, but because the discourse brushes aside opportunities to learn from other sources of wisdom that do not fit into high-tech understanding. Scientific articulation of climate change, for example, is bound to specific measurement practices that do not adequately understand information not relayed and stabilized through technological contexts. Elders, for example, are often treated as quaint but not real sources of wisdom and knowledge through anecdotal evidence. If, for example, one wants to know about polar ice sheet thinning and then bring the findings to a governing body, one cannot simply ask an elder about their life experiences and then bring that to a governing body as evidence of a process or phenomenon. One must code information in the right way and there are things outside of scientific remit that seem to exist. For example, we can look at all the fMRI brain scans we want, but one cannot show me the manifest thought ‘I am thinking,’ as I experience it. Similarly, scientific discourse has trouble understanding how change occurs without rigid standards of measurement – how does one measure a story? This leads to a growing gap between scientific knowledge and justified true belief that does not follow the same methodological guidelines. 

Les Stroud, AKA Survivorman, might have a white savior complexy introduction to his show, Survivorman: Beyond Survival, but he does an excellent job of connecting people, knowledge and technology to landscape. His series above showcases indigenous lifeways and the worlds within which they exist. His narrative, though perhaps problematic, recognizes climate change as a threat to those who have lived and developed close to the land and the challenges they face. His survival training, to be clear, is not based within military survival like some other survival show host, but North American Indigenous lifeways and he has produced volumes of video showcasing survival and relationships to the land. One thing I love about him is that his thinking is not ‘Man vs. Wild’ but how to survive on a landscape indifferent to you. How will the people he showcases survive in a changing world indifferent to their survival?

In the above ways, Wildcat’s advice is practical: look closer to the material worlds you inhabit and listen to those who have been there. Methodologically, stories can have similar elements and one could, in principle, understand circumpolar ice melt by talking to lots of different elders across a similar space while keeping their narratives to a similar timescale. Doing so could produce similarities that could then be collected, correlated and checked for veracity. How one verifies is the sticky problem and this would require a delicate treatment that recognizes experience within scientific communities such that those communities can understand, communicate and articulate those experiences. In a sense, this is what science already does in the production of understanding, but Wildcat differs in the sense that he thinks the scientific project needs an overhaul in how it incorporates and articulates experience. This is not a call for ending ‘science’ or even doubting it, but for correctly articulating its projects such that it speaks back to and beyond laboratory life and ceases masquerading facts as ‘objective.’ Frankly, it doesn’t need to call its facts ‘objective’ because it’s already one of the best ways for producing narratives about ‘the Real,’ the real danger is letting ‘the Real’ produced by scientific communities take a totalizing and dictatorial position in the production of meaning, experience and understanding. It can do lots of things but can’t do others and his call is really one for humility and recognizing that ‘civilization’ and its ‘progress’ have been grounded within self-verifying frameworks and cannot, and should not take an imperialistic absolutism in its claims. This absolutism has dominated the production of scientific discourse and the marginalization of other knowledge communities speaking truth but falling on deaf ears because those truths haven’t been coded correctly. Joining Mulgan, the answers to climatological problems aren’t more technologies but simpler ones that put people in touch with their worlds.

Echoing Luke, we live in and through technological networks in the G-20 countries, at the least. Ihde has gone as far to say that all societies and cultures display a technological texturing (Technology and the Lifeworld, 1990). This means that our worlds differ in the degree of that technological texture and Wildcat’s advice is to become more proficient in seeing how simple technologies meditate and speak back to lifeworld conditions. A coat, for example, mediates the experience of the cold, and Wildcat discusses how people living within arctic communities respond to the cold such that their lifeworlds are populated by technologies supporting their lives that specifically address the cold as a common feature in everyday life. Conversely, one can understand how corporate bodies, such as governments, stabilize and produce worldviews through the simple (really complex when you think about it) technology of writing. Just looking at how corporate persons have been thought of and articulated, one must attend to how corporate charters have been solidified and sedimented within law. Similarly, how law is enacted and enforced in lots of different contexts across lots of different spaces is typically through and in reference to writing or written policy. 

Oftentimes, as Ihde says, technologies seep into the background such that one takes them as ‘givens’ or simply environmental features or even the background operating conditions for behavior. In this sense, this is a quiet governance of and through technologies operating at different times and across different scales that form the networks for life in the G-20 as we know it. One fundamental technology of global development has been the modern corporation as Luke mentions and those bodies have been given life through governing frameworks contemporaneously with oil and fossil fuels becoming the dominant material for living ‘in a civilized manner’ across the planet. Wildcat’s calls point to problems of inherited worldviews that speak back to the artificial conditions of living for specific segments of one species on the Earth:

Modern societies are too infatuated with the powerful technologies humankind produced to serve our ends of comfort, convenience, and the control of nature. Too many of our leaders unrealistically think humankind stands above and independent of the rest of the natural world. This misguided notion holds that humankind can always rise above the forces of nature through our rationalities and use of technology (Wildcat, 2009, page 2 of ‘A Modest Conclusion’).

This thinking, however, will only produce an anthropocentric hubris as current calibration for massive technologies such as corporate bodies speaks back to the extractive worldviews that created and animated them in the first place. How many ideas do you have that were ‘given’ to you by corporate persons – technologies – and how do those things, in a sense, create environments and rule your being?  

The video above is presentation by Daniel Wildcat at a Bioneers conference in 2015. In it, he goes beyond survival and attempts addressing ways to improve life and living conditions on the planet. He fosters a more spiritual connection between Earth and human that suggests a Terran indigeneity away from Nature/Society dichotmoies.

The anthropocentric hubris Wildcat points to in the above is a phantasm of high-tech cultures embedded within mass consumer societies, and, as both Luke and Mulgan have argued, technological fixes won’t address the changing conditions faced across Terra. The high floating dreams of space colonies, for example, do little more than distract from addressing the problematic worldviews that have created the issues they seek to address and are now threatened by. Rather than control and dominate ‘Nature’ one must see the enmeshment of Nature and Society within the Real and work to upend thinking leading to broken planetary futures. More than technology, we need technological understanding, more than scientific ‘progress,’ we need technoscientific humility, more than salvation, we need to stay grounded and look for earthly solutions to terran problems. 

The above can be accomplished through recognizing oneself as of and from landscapes supporting the webs of life upon which those landscapes depend. A changing world, in other words, requires changing worldviews to adapt and anticipate rather than neutralize and dominate. This is a call for a different relationship to The Real and a more sensitive understanding of how reals are produced. As Wildcat writes about how Indigenous Realism could produce better futures and possibly help others survive breaking or broken worlds:

Unlike the military-industrial system of homeland security many now seek, indigenous traditions suggest the development of an urgently needed experience-based homeland maturity: life-enhancing knowledges emergent from experience in the rich contours of the nature-culture nexus, a maturity that shows we respect our Mother Earth and the rich diversity of life that we humans are one small, but important, part of. We have reached a place and time where hopefully humankind will acknowledge that we cannot expect much security on this beautiful blue-green planet until we, humankind, demonstrate some much needed homeland maturity (Wildcat, 2009, page 3 of ‘A Modest Conclusion).