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Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, May 2014


Bettina Aptheker and Anna Tsing opened the Anthropocene Conference May 8-10, 2014 at Santa Cruz, USA and introduced keynote speaker Ursula K. Le Guin.

Keynote speech by Ursula K. Le Guin

The talk by Ursula K. Le Guin was the first event in the three days Anthropocene Conference: "Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet". The acclaimed science fiction author gave a talk about her work in front of a completely sold out theatre. A panel discussion with Donna Haraway and James Clifford followed after her talk.


On the first official day of the Anthropocene Conference Anna Tsing gave the opening speech and introduced the program.

Donna Haraway: 'Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Staying with the Trouble'

Sympoiesis, not autopoiesis, threads the string figure game played by Terran critters. Always many-stranded, SF is spun from science fact, speculative fabulation, science fiction, and, in French, soin de ficelles (care of/for the threads). The sciences of the mid-20th-century “new evolutionary synthesis” shaped approaches to human-induced mass extinctions and reworldings later named the Anthropocene. Rooted in units and relations, especially competitive relations, these sciences have a hard time with three key biological domains: embryology and development, symbiosis and collaborative entanglements, and the vast worlds of microbes. Approaches tuned to “multi-species becoming with” better sustain us in staying with the trouble on Terra. An emerging “new new synthesis” in trans-disciplinary biologies and arts proposes string figures tying together human and nonhuman ecologies, evolution, development, history, technology, and more. Corals, microbes, robotic and fleshly geese, artists, and scientists are the dramatis personae in this talk’s SF game.


Margaret McFall-Ngai: 'The Post-Modern Synthesis in Biology'.

The Changing Landscape in Light of Advances in Molecular Biology, Genomics, and Microbiology    The impact on biology of major advances in technology cannot be overestimated. Since 2006, the cost of sequencing of genomic material has decreased from ~$6000 to ~$0.10 a megabase, enabling the field of biology to explore aspects of the form and function of the biosphere never before possible. Most notable has been our new found ability to identify and characterize the diversity of the microbial world. The data to date demonstrate that microbes are extremely diverse and that the historical focus of biology principally on animals and plants does not provide an accurate view of the biological world. This presentation will examine our current views and how the field might make the transition to a more integrated conceptual framework.

Kate Brown, "The Radiogenic Shadow".

The experience of carrying the radiogenic legacy of the nuclear arms race is akin to the shadowy existence of radioactive isotopes itself. People who lived downwind and downstream of the world’s first plutonium plants (in the American West and the Russian Urals) have had an extremely difficult time making themselves heard or seen as victims of the plants’ massive issuance of millions of curies of radioactive isotopes into the surrounding environment over four decades of the arms race. These bystanders of nuclear exposure rarely showed up in medical and environmental studies. They were overlooked in the post-Cold War declarations of the plutonium plant territories as national sacrifice zones slated for clean-up. Courts have dismissed them as plaintiffs and denied many compensation. Recently, at the 70th anniversary of the Hanford plutonium plant, celebrants will enjoy a “James Bond theme evening,” and a Casino Royale with plutonium passes, but nothing on the program refers to downwinders or the health effects of long term exposure to low doses of radioactive isotopes. The uses of interdisciplinary research and experimental narrative forms goes part way toward figuring out how to observe and describe the existence of people whose biological existence, and that of their off-spring, are irretrievably entangled with the radioactive waste of the 20th century nuclear arms race.

Deborah Bird Rose, "Shimmer: When All You Love is Being Trashed".

The politics of greed are doing their best to ensure that love for life’s symbiotic gifts and pleasures is denigrated and ridiculed, if not utterly destroyed. I have been working with those who are vulnerable, particularly with endangered animal species and their human defenders. In this paper I seek to open our hearts to the beauty of multispecies love in the midst of plunder.

Jens-Christian Svenning, "Future Megafaunas: A Historical Perspective on the Scope for a Wilder Anthropocene".

A new approach to nature management is increasingly discussed and implemented, namely rewilding. It emphasizes the re-establishment of self-managing ecosystems, with species introductions to restore ecosystem functioning as a key facet. Large animals (megafauna) has received most emphasis in rewilding, reflecting the disproportionate and often dramatic losses of megafaunas around the world within the last 50,000 years and historical shifts in human-megafauna relations. I will first provide an overview the reasons for these losses and their ecological implications. I will then discuss rewilding in the context of the shifting human-megafauna relations and their current dynamics. Finally, based on these considerations I will provide a future-oriented perspective on megafaunas in the Anthropocene.

Jessica Weir, "‘Caring for Country’ and Ecological Restoration".

Amongst the irrigated rivers of southeast Australia, Indigenous people engage in ecological restoration projects so as to build momentum for a management change that invests more in ecological and cultural integrity. Here, Indigenous people have long been marginalized in the institutions of land and water management, and the assertion of their rights and responsibilities to ‘Care for Country’ can often be confrontational. This paper considers the strategies that Indigenous people use to both fit into this space, as well as transform it, so as to create better conditions for their own knowledges and practices, including greater respect for Country. Much more than social justice, this work is about resituating humans within their environments, and more-than-humans within cultural and ethical domains (Plumwood 2013), and provides insight into one experience of articulating a rethink of nature so as to change understandings of fact and governance.

William Cronon, "The Portage: Time, Memory, and Storytelling in the Making of an American Place".

In a lecture drawn from the first chapter of the book he is writing on the history of Portage, Wisconsin, William Cronon meditates on the roles that memory and storytelling play in human place-making. A natural ecosystem or an abstract geographical space becomes a human place, he argues, through the endless accretion of narratives that render that place meaningful for those who visit or live in it. Curiously, although Portage is virtually unknown to most Americans, it has played a surprisingly important role in shaping American ideas of nature.

Deborah Gordon, "The Evolution of Collective Behavior in Ant Colonies".

An ant colony operates without central control. No ant can assess what needs to be done. Each ant responds to its interactions with other ants nearby. In the aggregate, these stochastic, dynamical networks of interaction regulate colony behavior. I have been studying a population of about 300 harvester ant colonies in the desert in southeastern Arizona for more than 25 years. A colony lives for 25-30 years. Harvester ant colonies regulate foraging activity according to food availability and current humidity. Colonies differ in how they regulate foraging behavior. Recently we have been able to match parent and offspring colonies. We used this to learn about colony life history and to measure colony reproductive success, to ask how collective behavior is evolving in current drought conditions. Colonies that regulate foraging so as to conserve water are having more offspring colonies. Ants are extremely diverse, and species differences in collective behavior reflect relations with diverse environments.

Anne Pringle, "Life and Death in a Petersham Cemetery: The Life Histories of Lichens".

Lichens are ecosystems, typically formed from an individual fungus, associated photosynthetic partners, and myriad other fungi and bacteria. In October 2005 I began a survey of Xanthoparmelia lichens growing on tombstones of a New England cemetery. Each year I record the births, growth, and deaths of near to 1,000 thalli. I am using data to explore a series of questions, including: is the probability of death equivalent across years, or is death more likely at older ages? Can a lichen be immortal? I am also using genetic data to explore the demographic histories of these species, testing a hypothesis that Xanthoparmelia experienced a massive increase in numbers in the recent past, coincident with the advent of intensive farming across New England and construction of miles of stone walls. Data collected to date suggest the life history patterns of these symbiotic, modular, and indeterminate organisms may be poorly served by traditional demographic models.

Carla Freccero, "Wolf/Men".

This paper considers the genealogy of the relationship between humans and wolves, both in material encounters and in imaginative figurations. In Jacques Derrida’s seminar on The Beast and the Sovereign, the wolf figures prominently as “wild” double of the sovereign. Both the wolf and the sovereign represent exceptions insofar as they are a law unto themselves, the one on the outside of the polis, the other mirroring him as the “tyrant” inside. From Hobbes’s famous deployment of Plautus’s phrase, “homo homini lupus,” onward, the wolf has been asked to stand in for something particularly “savage” about mankind, even as female wolves walk their own path of figural maternal mirroring. Finally, wolf-human mergers also carry with them atavistic fantasies about racial difference that continue to impress modernity with their spectral effects.

Marianne Lien, "Escapee, Homeless, and Those That ‘Wander Off’: Salmon as Rubble in Norwegian Rivers".

In Norway, which is home to the largest living population of wild Atlantic salmon, human and salmon have guided each others’ lives in a fluid evolutionary tapestry that predates historical records. More recently, industrial development, hydroelectric power, and salmon farming have added new layers to this tapestry, and we see some salmon flourish while others are under threat.
My paper traces salmon stories from the shores of the Vosso river, where the original Vosso salmon are returning in great numbers, as a result of recent cultivation efforts. Salmon provide not only prey for anxious anglers, but data too, and as such they help to ‘domesticate’ a river, making it legible for biologists in charge. What emerges from these efforts are multiple propositions about the nature of the river, couched within a paradigm of what John Law calls a ‘one-world world’.
In my paper I will search, instead for the cracks, and the openings where the data become less certain, more indeterminate, and don’t add up. Tracing the movements of salmon that ‘wander off’, the misfits, and the ones that never quite make it, I will try to tell a story of the river which is not over-determined, but remains sensitive to the generative capacity of underwater lives. My concern is how to tell a story that allows the messiness, the damaged, and the incidental rubble, and my stories are an attempt to answer, ethnographically.

Lesley Stern, "A Garden or a Grave? The Canyonic Landscape of the Tijuana-San Diego Region".

We stand on a dusty ledge on the edge of a canyon near a freeway and a long snaking wall, the wall that divides Tijuana and San Diego, Mexico and the U.S. On one side we look down to preserved wetlands—on the other side to a slum city. These two landscapes are forged out of one canyon, Las Laureles Canyon, through which sometimes flows (and sometimes flows disastrously) the Tijuana River. The entire Tijuana-San Diego area is built on, around, and in spite of canyons. Some, in a spirit of ecological progress, are now being Edenically restored, some are being progressively destroyed. But they are all linked. Los Laureles Canyon has served as a laboratory for various disciplinary investigations—ethnography, ecology, urban planning, border studies. …This paper, while mindful of these approaches, asks, rather, how might we write the story of the canyons and their inhabitants in that space where ideas of ‘landscape’ and conceptions of ‘the garden’ intersect. Not always harmoniously.

Roundtable Discussion with Nils Bubandt, Margaret Fitzsimmons, Peter Funch & Nora Bateson

The roundtable discussion ended the Anthropocene Conference in Santa Cruz, May 8-10, 2014.