Tag Archives: environment

Peet & Watts: Liberation Ecologies

How did I go so long with learning about liberation ecology, or reading Arturo Escobar or understanding the ways in which they renovate Marxism with the plethora of new ideas emerging from struggle in the developing world, particularly around environmental justice. The context?  ‘…a new emphasis on nature-society relations in fin-de-siecle atmosphere…’

— collapse of many actually-existing socialisms
— resurgence of environmentalist concerns articulated explicitly in global terms
— rise of political ecology (2)

I found this introduction incredibly rich, incredibly brilliant, and quite hard to get through. But in a nutshell, it was worth it entirely as this is the goal:

Looking to help create ‘a more robust political ecology which integrates politics more centrally, draws upon aspects of discourse theory which demand that the politics of meaning and the construction of knowledge be taken seriously, and engages with the wide-ranging critique of development and modernity particularly associated with Third World intellectuals and activists such as Vandana Shiva, Arturo Escobar, and Victor Toledo. … new theoretical engagement between political ecology and poststructuralism on the one hand, and a practical political engagement with new movements, organizations, and institutions of civil society… (3)

I love Vandana Shiva — she transformed by thinking, and Arturo Escobar is doing the same. Victor Toledo is now on my list. So back to the origins of political ecology:

Political ecology — the effort begin in the 1980s to “combine the concerns of ecology and a broadly defined political economy… [which] encompasses the constantly shifting dialectic between society and land-based resources” (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987: 17).

Key scholars: Susanna Hecht, Harold Brookfield, Anna Bramwell, Susan Stonich, Michael Redclift and Ram Guha. A key text for future reference is Blaikie and Brookfield’s Land Degradation and Society. for all of them, poverty is the central variable in ecological deterioration, not population, market distortion or mismanagement. I though simultaneously ‘hurrah’, and also ‘it’s not rocket science’, but apparently for many people it is. I suppose poverty is not nice to look it, and its solution demands structural change.

What I love most about this chapter is how it summarises various currents of thought, containing wonderful matrices of the phases and major figures in the literature — here is development, which I am still fairly ignorant of:

Peet and Watts Development discourseThere is also a good summary of social movement theory, one that is so much more satisfying than say, Tarrow, Meyer & Tarrow or Gamson, not least because it finally gives a good summary of the traditional Marxist view:

‘The productive transformation of nature is the primary activity making possible the whole structure of human existence… from a dialectical view, societal dynamics emerge from contradictory oppositions in the material reproduction of existence, conflicts between the forces of production and a limited natural environment for example, which result in crises. These moments of contradictory crisis are, for classical Marxists, the contexts in which class existing “in-itself” engages in intensified political struggle and becomes class “for-itself,” that is a group with collective identity, a collective agent which forces necessary social and environmental transformations. In Marx’s own words, class is the main form of social engagement, and control of the means of production its primary terrain of struggle (Marx 1970). (28)

Because, after all, the point of all of this is liberation.

They look at the ways in which Gramsci broadened its theoretical power, first through idea of hegemony, state force and ‘common sense. Second, in describing that:

transformative human actions do not result automatically from material contradictions; they are mediated by subjective meanings and conscious intentions. Material changes… may create higher propensities for transformative action and limit the range of it possible outcomes, but ideological and political practices are relatively autonomous and are literally the decisive moments in the transformation of material conditions into political practices. (28)

They point towards Cohen (1982) and (1985) for a good critique of both. Summarise part of Marcuse’s (1964) contribution through his search for a substitute revolutionary subject to play the leading role previously assigned to the proletariat. The way that this challenge was taken up by the “new working class” theorists — Aronowitz (1973), Gorz (1967 – this is sitting in my piles), Mallet (1969), who see welfare state capitalism providing new strategy for labour. These contrast with Poulantzas (1973) and Wright (1979) who reject humanist Marxism to concentrate on classes defined as effects of structures, as well as those theorising the “new intellectual class” — Gouldner (1979) and Szelenyi and Konrad (1979) who look beyond workers to critical intellectuals as the motor of revolutionary change. For all of them, however, Cohen argues that their

presupposition remains production relations key to society and social movements (29)

This helps fit everyone in to a bigger picture, but you can imagine the density of the text. A chapter you will want to keep coming back to.

On to the Post-Marxists, who:

argue that production is only one arena for collective resistance, that groups other than the working class are now significant sources of social movements, that greater attention has to be given to active processes of human agency. (29)

The ways that these are

Very different from ‘resource-mobilization paradigm’ (Gamson, Oberschall, Tilly), where ‘conflicts of interest are built into institutionalized power relations. Collective actions involve the rational pursuit of interests by conflicting groups.

I have an immense frustration with that kind of analysis, it feels so good to have it put within this much broader context as just a small current — because it feels such a big current in much of the social movement literature itself.

On Habermas…I have to read more

Habermas (1984) differentiates system, in which people operate under strategic rationalities following technical rules, and lifeworld, with its communicative rationality oriented towards consensus, understanding, and collective action. For Habermas social movements of resistance emerge when commodifying systems colonize lifeworlds: resistance struggles are as much against dominant rationalizes as they are against institutional control. (29-30)

and the strain of social movement theory focusing on the urban — that community, housing and urban movements are now the drivers of change rather than the workers, particularly Castells (1977):

urban social movements respond to the structural contradictions of the capitalist system; but these contradictions are of a plural-class and secondary nature, involving various deprivations, rather than the working class struggling to control the productive apparatus. Thus protest movements organize around common interests on a variety of terrains of struggle, often in opposition to the state and other political and sociocultural institutions, rather than the economically ruling class directly.(30)

This describes how Castells argues in The City and the Grassroots (a magisterial work that I really loved, have yet to really grapple with) that social movement as agent of transformation is unthinkable in Marxism (Peet and Watts disagree) and

‘that social change happens when a new urban meaning is produced through conflict, domination, and resistance to domination.’ (30)

Here too we have Laclau and Mouffe, Castoriadis, modified by Touraine. All people I need to think about more — especially Castoriadis and Touraine also sitting in piles as yet unread.

This is a broad brush look at primary theorists in these different areas, the articles that follow a rather fascinating look at struggles around the world through a political ecology lens.

Theory for liberation.

[Peet, Richard and Michael Watts (1996) Liberation Ecologies: environment, development, social movements. London & New York: Routledge.]





Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)


Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.


Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)


Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)


The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]




Sprawl, Health, and creating better cities through Smart Growth

Urban Sprawl and Public HealthPart 2 on Urban Sprawl and Public Health looks at potential interventions and theories that can help reduce the impact of sprawl (read part 1 here). For authors Howard Frumkin, Lawrence Frank, and Richard Jackson, hope lies in the new strategies being put forth under the terms Smart Growth and New Urbanism, arguing for Smart Growth at least as a public health strategy. I have a lot of issues with New Urbanism and Smart Growth as they are so often removed from issues of equity and spatial justice, but it’s interesting to think of how to rebuild and rework our cities as part of a plan around improving health.

They trace a lineage of people working on the connections between health and cities — Dr. John Henry Rauch (1828-1894) in Chicago arguing for land use policies to improve public health, cemeteries at a remove from dense neighborhoods being one of them. Frederick Law Olmstead, and garden cities. Edwin Chadwick working sanitary regulations, housing standards, public water and sewage systems in the UK, Thomas McKeown at Birmingham, who

showed that many of the health advances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries resulted not from better medical care, but from ‘upstream’ improvements such as better urban infrastructure–better housing, neighborhoods, water, food, and transport. (203)

They also name psychiatrist Leonard Duhl, who has looked at connecting mental health with urban design and community involvement. His ideas have been broadened by physician Trevor Hancock. In 1987, the World Health Organization jumped on the bandwagon, initiating a Healthy Cities Network, which I confess I had never heard of.

There are of course many who could be added to this list, and in the UK at least you have the Marmot Review among others, trying to move health care providers to think more broadly about wellness and how it connects to social and environmental factors.

So…to return to the strategies they promote, we start with Smart Growth. The Environmental Protection Agency itself formed the Smart Growth Network in 1996 together with a number of other nonprofits and governmental organizations. The Networks’ ten Smart growth principles (the whole document ‘Getting to Smart Growth: 100 Policies for Implementation’ can be found here):

1. Mix land uses
2. Take advantage of compact building design
3. Create a range of housing opportunities and choices
4. Create walkable neighborhoods
5. Foster distinctive, attractive communities with a strong sense of place
6. Preserve open space, farmland, natural beauty, and critical environmental areas
7. Strengthen and direct development towards existing communities
8. Provide a variety of transportation choices
9. Make development decisions predictable, fair and cost effective
10. Encourage community and stakeholder collaboration in development decisions

The book goes on to give a more elaborate set of principles in full…they’re interesting, so I do the same — the full text can be found here:

Community principles

  1. All planning should be in the form of complete and integrated communities containing housing, shops, work places, schools, parks and civic facilities essential to the daily life of the residents.

  2. Community size should be designed so that housing, jobs, daily needs and other activities are within easy walking distance of each other.

  3. As many activities as possible should be located within easy walking distance of transit stops.

  4. A community should contain a diversity of housing types to enable citizens from a wide range of economic levels and age groups to live within its boundaries.

  5. Businesses within the community should provide a range of job types for the community’s residents.

  6. The location and character of the community should be consistent with a larger transit network.

  7. The community should have a center focus that combines commercial, civic, cultural and recreational uses.

  8. The community should contain an ample supply of specialized open space in the form of squares, greens and parks whose frequent use is encouraged through placement and design.

  9. Public spaces should be designed to encourage the attention and presence of people at all hours of the day and night.

  10. Each community or cluster of communities should have a well defined edge, such as agricultural greenbelts or wildlife corridors, permanently protected from development.

  11. Streets, pedestrian paths and bike paths should contribute to a system of fully connected and interesting routes to all destinations. Their design should encourage pedestrian and bicycle use by being small and spatially defined by buildings, trees and lighting; and by discouraging high-speed traffic.

  12. Wherever possible, the natural terrain, drainage, and vegetation of the community should be preserved with superior examples contained within parks or greenbelts.

  13. The community design should help conserve resources and minimize waste.

  14. Communities should provide for the efficient use of water through the use of natural drainage, drought tolerant landscaping and recycling.

  15. The street orientation, the placement of buildings and the use of shading should contribute to the energy efficiency of the community.

Regional Principles

  1. The regional land use planning structure should be integrated within a larger transportation network built around transit rather than freeways.

  2. Regions should be bounded by and provide a continuous system of greenbelt/wildlife corridors to be determined by natural conditions.

  3. Regional institutions and services (government, stadiums, museums, etc.) should be located in the urban core.

  4. Materials and methods of construction should be specific to the region, exhibiting continuity of history and culture and compatibility with the climate to encourage the development of local character and community identity.

Implementation Principles

  1. The general plan should be updated to incorporate the above principles.

  2. Rather than allowing developer-initiated, piecemeal development, local governments should take charge of the planning process. General plans should designate where new growth, infill or redevelopment will be allowed to occur.

  3. Prior to any development, a specific plan should be prepared based on the planning principles. With the adoption of specific plans, complying projects could proceed with minimal delay.

  4. Plans should be developed through an open process and participants in the process should be provided visual models of all planning proposals.

Of course, in years of community work around development, I have never seen anything actually work like this.

The authors look at how this compares/ overlaps with New Urbanism and its principles (see the Congress for the New Urbanism for more…):

walkable neighborhoods, a range of housing choices, a mix of land uses, participatory planning, revitalization of urban neighborhoods (206)

They talk about some of the critiques. They come from wildly different directions…

  1. the public doesn’t want it
  2. it limits consumer choice — it’s a form of coercive social engineering
  3. can exacerbate traffic congestion by creating greater density
  4. smart growth projects are isolated enclaves, not integrated
  5. encourage gentrification (213)

Then go on to look at a public health approach to Smart Growth. It’s a very different perspective though concerned with all of the same things. They begin with constructing a community health assessment — paralleling the medical assessment. One method they believe has great promise is the Health impact Assessment, as a way to measure the health benefits from a Smart Growth approach. Nor is it surprising that many of the potential indicators would be the same as for sustainability — transit ridership, percentage of population living within ten minutes of a park, incidence of asthma, extent of recycling. (217) A few useful checklists exist already that could serve, one is the Built Environment Site Survey Checklist in London (this is news to me, this BESSC).(218)

I like how numerous things are coming together — concerns for the health of individuals and communities and neighbourhoods, issues of sustainability and the health of the land and environment. I think, again, there’s a lot more to think about in terms of equity. People’s own power in the process is always the first thing to go — if it ever was on the table. The cold hard facts of development and politics are not amenable to such things, so progress has been made where it helps certain kinds of development become more marketable. But criticism to come…




Urban Sprawl and Public Health

Urban Sprawl and Public HealthUrban Sprawl and Public Health —  a great book! It was amazing to see urban planning and public health brought together in this way — a solid primer on both for each, along with a plea for professionals to start working together to fix this. Because sprawl is killing us.

I myself would throw in a soupçon of sociologists and geographers and community organizers to the health and planning mix as well, because what was missing? More analysis on the nature of development and how the drive for profit drives this urban form, more analysis on the struggle of everyday people to fight for and against some of these dynamics, and the ways in which race and land have long been linked (but there is more of this second aspect than in many another book). Still, despite these critiques, I confess that few things get me going the way that talking about the city and health in the same book do.

Health & Sprawl facts:

In the last 15 years, the US has developed 25% of all the land developed in the past 225 years of its official existence. (xii)

Between 1960 and 2000, average American’s yearly driving more than doubled — 4,000 to nearly 10,000 miles per years. “rush hour” spread over seven, not 4 and a half, average driver’s time spent stuck in traffic each year: 6 to 36 hours in Dallas, 1 to 28 hours in Minneapolis, 6 to 34 in Atlanta. (xiii)

On Sprawl

Sprawl — a term from William H. Whyte! Did I know that? He wrote an article for Fortune in January 1958, titled ‘Urban Sprawl’. There are a variety of definitions and measurements of sprawl, here they follow those that incorporate both land use and transportation as intrinsic. They focus on four main aspects — density, land use mix, automobile dependence and connectivity (or how destinations are linked through transportation systems (7). (5)

I particularly like how much they use illustrations, this is a good one:

Source: Drawing by Duany Plater Zybek as shown in F. Spielberg, ‘The Traditional neighborhood Development: How will traffic Engineers Respond?’ ITE Journal 1989 (59) 17-18

I also liked the ‘transect’ — a look at the continuum between sprawl and compact neighbourhoods (16)

Transect 03-03-03" width="1572" height="530" class="size-full wp-image-7010" /> Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03
Source: Image courtesy of Duany Plater-Zybec and Company (2003) Transect 03-03-03

Chapter 2 looks at the origins of sprawl, and it is based almost in its entirety on Kenneth Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier. So it summarizes the multiple factors that have lead to spraw, and it is a very long list. He heads it with the pull of the suburbs and the (European) cultural values Jackson believed underlay that pull — domesticity, privacy and isolation (28). In addition you have land ownership as a mark of wealth and status, alongside (partly driving perhaps, but I’m a cynic that this drove development rather than sales) a love of land itself and antipathy toward cities. (29) The Garden City movement feeds into this, embodied by Frederick Law Olmstead, along with the new technologies and construction methods and lots of cheap land (no mention of conquest here of course). There is a little here on the willingness of cities to spend taxes on providing infrastructure like roads and sewers — directly subsidising this kind of development as opposed to improving older neighbourhoods or public housing. The rise of the automobile and destruction of public transportation. The rise of zoning. The HOLC and the FHA, federal policy and money going towards new housing for whites (I do wish, though, that they had read Freund).

Still, I like the simplicity of their conclusions though:

Sprawl, as we know it today, appears deceptively chaotic. In fact, it is a highly ordered and predictable form of development. An edifice of public and private instruments erected over the past three-quaters of a century reinforces and extends sprawl. (42)

There is a little on financing here, and that real estate financing now works on an expectation of profits within 5-7 years — more built-in obsoleteness. I wish they had connected this to Harvey’s ‘spatial fix’ but that’s complex I guess. This is my field though, and this is a good summary.

Urban Health

Urban health is not my field, though I have a good deal of practical organising experience on the subject.

Frumkin et al compare the evolution of urban health with public health through ‘epidemiologic transition’ — and these titles really do inspire the SF writer side of my brain: The Age of Pestilence and Famine, The Age of Receding Pandemics, and where we are now: The Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases. In cities, infectious diseases once dominated, but sanitary infrastructure ended that to a great extent. But industrialisation introduced pollution, and mental health and violence are not forgotten here, with growth in poverty, social dislocation and crime. (45)

From a public health perspective, the critical problems that grew as cities did were: garbage, commercial activity (tanning and other nasty things), sewage, water, air, and housing. (46)

An interesting aside:

In New York, Assemblyman Aaron Burr [founding father and profiteer] obtained a charter for the Manhattan Company, a private firm that was to hold a monopoly on piped water for the next quarter of a century. (51)

Privatised water is nothing new. Nor are the images from Jacob Riis in How the Other Half Lives. My family for example, hanging out with the other half in Pittsburgh, probably looked much like this, though they were never in this particular alley.

Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888
Bandit roost (59 Mulberry Street in New York City), Jacob Riis 1888

 The Results: A Plethora of Infections

Their heading, not mine. I had not read of the yellow fever epidemics that swept through Washington D.C. — as President Washington fled in 1793 leaving over 5,000 dead, or over ten percent of the city’s population. (55)

The book quotes a citizen group in Philly writing:

if the fever shall become an annual visitant, our cities must be abandoned, commerce will desert our coasts, and we, the citizens of this great metropolis, shall all of us, suffer much distress, and a great proportion of us be reduced to absolute ruin. (56)

it continues

Cholera, Typhoid…Cities in these early days were ‘incubators of infectious disease’ (57)

Now this is Pittsburgh just as my great-grandparents were arriving:

1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA --- Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS
1890s, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA — Smokestacks from factory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, belch black smoke into the atmosphere, 1890s. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

But slowly this would change…

During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The heading for this section is ‘The Social Pathology of City Life’. (61)

during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as sanitary challenges were met and as industrial pollution was managed, the toxicity of cities–the factors that most threatened residents’ health and well-being and even helped drive migration out of the cities–came overwhelmingly to revolve around social circumstances. (61)

The urban crisis — it is interesting, perhaps a little troubling how the social is here linked with the epidemiological, but I am often troubled by the public health gaze at poverty. Foucault was too, so I’m in good company. The book here  notes the riots of the Red Summer of 1919 — yet it doesn’t distinguish these horrifying white killing sprees where literally hundreds of people were murdered with ‘riots’, what inhabitants themselves described as ‘uprisings’ in protest of police brutality and living condition in Watts in 1965, LA again in 1992 and etc (62).

It is interesting to consider the ‘urban health penalty’, however:

a complex of environmental conditions such as deteriorating housing, inadequate access to nutritional food, and scant medical care, and health consequences such as untreated hypertension, cardiocasvualr disease, intentionala dn unintentional injuries, and infectious diseases. (63)

Interesting to read of a 1990 article in New England Journal of Medicine showing that men in Harlem had lower life expectencies than in Bangladesh.* They write:

A literature of urban health arose, focusing on these conditions and how to provide health care to the victims. (63)

From here on to the nitty gritty.

Air Quality:

I like this chart:


‘As the model illustrates, land use patterns affect each category of athropogenic emmissions–their location, their quantity, their dispersion in the air, and how people are exposed. (66)

And a summary of what air quality means for health:

Air pollution threatens human health in four principal ways. The two most important are by increasing mortality and by threatening respiratory health. In addition, air pollution can damage cardiovascular function and increase cancer risk. There is evidence for some other health effects as well. (80)

Physical Activity:

The ‘epidemic’ of obesity must be well known to anyone doing community work, or even who just reads the paper.

Being overweight is itself a well-established risk factor for a number of diseases. people who are overweight die at as much as 2.5 times the rate of non-obese people, and an estimated 300,000 Americans die preventable deaths each year as the result of being obese. (96)

So sprawl obviously has some share of this, creating environments where no one walks. Where it is dangerous to walk even if you wanted to, and there were somewhere to go. What features of the environment help people become more active?

Frank, Engelke and Schmid** identify three dimensions of the built environment…. land use patterns, design characteristics and transportation systems. (99)

Pikora et al*** expand on this, primarily in area of design — functional factors, safety factors, aesthetic factors and destination factors. So — a mix of different land uses, availability of sidewalks and footpaths, enjoyable scenery, the presence of other people in the space being physically active, safety.

Fucking rocket science, this is.

Injuries and Deaths from Traffic

Holy Jesus, this will make you never want to get in a car again. Over 40,000 people a year die by automobile. (110)

Water Quantity and Quality

So, you got your microbial contamination of water, your chemical contamination. You have your water scarcity. Sprawl affects all of these — thus the section titled ‘The Hydrology of Sprawl’. The rain falls, it percolates through foliage, roots and soil — cleansing itself as it does — to recharge groundwater and the water table. About half of us drink water from surface sources, and the other half from groundwater. My family drank from groundwater once, now we’re on a list, because it was contaminated. But that’s a longer story.

Forested areas are best at capturing and cleaning water, paved streets and rooftops, as you can imagine, fail completely. It all becomes chemical and pollutant-rich run-off. They give a view of what development’s effect is on this process:

Schematic view of water balance before and after development -- Center for Watershed Protection
Schematic view of water balance before and after development — Center for Watershed Protection

The stormwater runoff from suburban development contributes to microbial contamination as it ‘includes large loads of waste from pets and wildlife and nutrients from such sources as fertilizers’. Heavy runoff also carries sediment, these can protect dangerous bacteria like giardia as they sit in filters and drains. And then you have your further suburbs using wells and their own septic systems. The final way is unexpected — the continued growth of suburbs means the focus is on building new infrastructure, not repairing and cleaning out the old, which desperately need it. So our own pipes and things are poisoning us.

The chemical contamination is more obvious I think, all the toxic things we uses every day as well as those deposited by cars and exuded by factories all get swept into the water supply as well.

Mental Health

this is good to see here, I think it is left off of such analyses far too often. They remind us that sprawl is partly caused by a desire to get away from the city, into nature, into all that is good for mental health. Yet this is only one aspect of the suburbs — possibly offset by highways, sameness, box stores, speed, large scales, and just the amount of time people spend driving.

There is a whole of information on just how bad for us driving is. How it increases stress, makes us angrier. Studies on road rage. All of these things could, most likely do, contribute to morbidity.

Social Capital

This comes from community. They define such a sense of community as a

“feeling that members have of belonging, a feeling that members matter to one another and to the group, and a shared faith that members’ needs will be met through their commitment to be together.”**** There are four aspects of this sense of community: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection. (161)

They look at the many ways community psychologists, human ecologists, and sociologists have talked about community and social capital, but much of it is based on Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, so I won’t go on too much more here except for the ways it affects health. I’ll be dealing with Putnam too. Everyone quotes him.

Research has focused on two broad aspects of the social environment: structural features and social support. Structurally, people look at the density of relationships and extent of social networks. Social support is described as the the amount of emotional support (and other kinds?) in times of need (166. In a nutshell: People with strong social networks live longer. Lots of studies confirm it (you can see the Marmot Review on the UK). (166) The same correlations hold true for social capital.

Sprawl, on the other hand, tends to to diminish both networks and capital in several ways:

  1. Cars have much to do with this, the amount of time people spend driving restricts free time for civic engagement.
  2. sprawl ‘reduces opportunities for spontaneous, informal social interactions’ (173)
  3. ‘sprawl privatizes the public realm’, people who spend all their time at home don’t value public space, green space, suburban voters almost always vote to limit government programs with social goals or for public transportation
  4. sprawl divides people into homogenous communities.
  5. sprawl disrupts continuity of life as people age — can’t move into smaller house in the same neighbourhood (173)
  6. 1998 report from the Transit cooperative Research program found that ‘sprawl weakens households’ connection both to their immediate neighbors and to the larger metropolitan community. (174)

But it turns out that some sprawl better than others — the built environment and design can affects this, so there is some hope. But this first post is on all that is wrong, the second on what can be made right…

Health Concerns of Special Populations

I do like that there is focused attention on how sprawl impacts different groups, acknowledging that the costs of it are not even. There is a long list…Given that women are usually doing most of daily chores and chauffeuring of kids, the burden falls disproportionately upon them.

Children breath more rapidly, have narrower airways — thus pollution has much more impact on them than on adults. The lack of physical activity affects them more — and yet when they are physically active in polluted areas, it is more dangerous for them. Part of childhood is exploration of the world and the self away from parents — yet we have built spaces where that is not safe, impacting the mental health and development of kids. They are isolated, and don’t have the wealth of networks and adults watching out for them that a health community might have.

The elderly, too, are severely impacted. Communities that aren’t walkable require cars — so people drive long past the time they should not. Elders are isolated, unable to exercise, unable to have meaningful connections that improve their health and quality of life. This is often also true for those who are disabled. How dare we create cities without sidewalks.

Then, of course, there are the poor and people of colour. A reprise here for HOLC and FHA regulations, the racism that confined people into inner cities (I don’t think they quite realise how prevalent this continues to be). The steady concentration of poverty and its related health impacts in areas of higher pollution. The disparities of race in class so visible in health and morbidity statistics.

The connections are multiple and strongly evidenced. Enraging really. I like that they don’t stop there, but include a final chapter on possibilities for changing our cities and our future. That will follow in the next post.

*McCord C., Freeman, H. Excess mortality in Harlem. New England Journal of Medicine 1990; 322: 173-179.

**Frank, Engelke and Schmid (2003) Health and Community Design: How Urban Form Impacts Physical Activity, Washington D.C.: Island Press.

*** Pikora, T et al (2003) Developing a framework for assessment of the environmental determinants of walking and cycling. Social Science and Medicine 56: 1693-1703

**** McMilland and Chavis




Masanobu Fukuoka: Sowing Seeds in the Desert

Masanobu Fukuoka - Sowing Seeds in the DesertMasanobu Fukuoka…I have now read his first book, One Straw Revolution, and his last, Sowing Seeds in the Desert. There is such a distance between eastern and western ways of knowing and thinking, I like how provocative it is to explore the spaces between them. I like how this book sets them in dialogue. Reading Fukuoka reminds me of seeing the Dalai Lama talk at the LSE — they seem so idealistic, they speak using familiar words but in such different ways, seem so removed and unworldly and thus so easily taken advantage of by a capitalist system that thrives on co-opting everything and turning it into profit. Yet really, seems to me their points are needle sharp in deflating the engorged balloons of western, capitalist ways of knowing and valuing. If you listen.

It also, of course, resonates so much with indigenous systems, with permaculture, with struggles for biodiversity and tradition as against monoculture and many another relationship between generations and the land they are connected to.

From the editor Larry Korn, who also helped bring the first book into the world:

The most conspicuous of the cultural difficulties is that the Japanese way of telling a story or developing a complex argument is different from the approach that is generally taken in English. In Japanese, the author typically begins with the theme or the point he wishes to make, then he offers an anecdote or an argument that helps to take that story or bolster the point before returning to the theme, which is restated. Then the author goes on another loop, again returning to the theme. One might say that these side stories or arguments form the petals of a flower with the theme as its center. (xxx)

In Western writing, however, the linear is preferred. The character arc. The beginning ramping up to a climax and then a tidy conclusion. Even in our non-fiction.

There has never been a generation like the present where people’s hearts are so badly wounded. This is true of every are of society–politics, economics, education, and culture. It is reflected in the degradation of the environment, which comes about through the material path humanity has chosen. Now we have the ugly sight of industry, government, and the military joining forces in the struggle for ultimate power. (14)

I don’t know that this linear thinking can be blamed for our current world, but it is part of the larger pattern I think. Curious that old certainties about cause and effect, our capacity to know everything, so many simplifications are being increasingly challenged by new thinking in biology — and this sounds remarkably like the kind of thing Brian Greene writes about in terms of new directions in physics:

Time does not simply flow mechanically in a straight line in a fixed direction. We could think of time as flowing up and down, right and left, forward and backward. As time develops and expands, multifaceted and three-dimensional, the past is concealed within the instant of the present, and within this instant of time is concealed the eternity of the future. (26)

All made of the same things, connected at the base like a chain of islands whose tops are above the ocean

In the past, present, and future, the true disposition of nature is toward abundance for human beings and for all species. Therefore the question should not be “Why are there too many people?” but rather, “Who has created the scarcity into which they are born?” And then, finally, “How can we heal the earth so it can support future generations?” (42)

On the equality and interconnectedness of all things…

Plants, people, butterflies, and dragonflies appear to be separate, individual living things, yet each is an equal and important participant in nature. They share the same mind and life spirit. They form a single living organism. to speak of creatures as beneficial insects, harmful insects, pathogenic bacteria, or troublesome birds is like saying the right hand is good and the left hand is bad. Nature is an endless cycle, in which all things participate in the same dance of life and death, living together and dying together. (43)

It is in using massive interventions to destroy parts of the cycle, with very little understanding of it and driven by motives of profit, that we have arrived at the point of destruction. This lack of holistic understandings is endemic, seen in many a western method for solving things.

When the specialized Western medicinal approach is used, the question of what gives life and health to the whole body and mind is put off. In other words, modern Western medicines puts the human body ahead of the human spirit. This separation is a starting point for emotional anxiety among people today. (44)

Fukuoka keeps them together:

Gradually I came to realize that the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating the actual desert is actually the same thing. (47)

This is all talking about land and spirit and some of us (not me, especially not any more) will be rolling their eyes. But this understanding of the capitalist economy, the ‘Money-sucking Octopus Economy’ (50) as he calls it, is interesting,  it definitely breaks things up in a different way than I am used to. At the heart of the octopus? politicians and the military-industrial-government complex. The legs?

  1. maintenance of the transportation network
  2. control of agencies administering transportation
  3. supervision of communications
  4. establishment of an economic information network
  5. education and administrative advising
  6. control of financial institutions
  7. control of information
  8. control of citizens’ personal computers and registration (53)

I like this list, it’s funny that control of land and resources is not on it.

There is nothing I don’t agree with about consumption and our economic model though:

I have often said that value does not lie in material goods themselves, but when people create the conditions that make them seem necessary, their value increases. The capitalist system is based on the notion of ever-increasing production and consumption of material goods, and therefore, in the modern economy, people’s value or worth comes to be determined by their possessions. But if people create conditions and environments that do not make those things necessary, the things, no matter what they are, become valueless. Cars, for example, are not considered to be of value by people who are not in a hurry.

Economies that aim at production and consumption of unnecessary products are themselves meaningless. (51)

Yet that is our economic model of development. And it is all about control and the marketing of products — whether luxury goods or Monsanto’s technologies:

When I went to apply for a visa from the Somalian government, I was flabbergasted when they told me that any kind of instruction that agitates the farmers and encourages them to become self-sufficient would not be welcome. If such activity went too far, they said, it would be considered treason. (76)

Colonial agricultural policies…Big money into big damns, big irrigation, drawing water from aquifers leading to salinization of land, cash crops, ending nomadic cultures resulting in massive stress on one area of the land and damage to a culture and a people, national parks that its former indigenous residents must leave, and suddenly go all the way around in their movements. The are sudden insights, like the ways that the irrigation of water in high dikes controls the people who surround it, cuts them off from free movement and free access to water. And it puts blame where blame is due:

I started with the recognition that the causes of desertification in most areas are misguided human knowledge and action. If we eliminated them, I believed that nature would certainly heal itself. (87)

It examines the real costs of our current agricultural practices of GMOs, monocropping and etc — Fukuoka writes ‘Agricultural “Production” is Actually Deduction’ (88):

If you really count all the inputs of cost to the environment, mining and fossil fuel extraction, construction of machinery, damage from cash crops etc, we have the most inefficient agricultural systems possible…

It is not just in Africa that these problems exist.

About half of the land in the United States is, or is becoming, desert. I felt that the expanding American desert was at least as great a problem as the deserts of Africa, but most Americans seemed totally unaware that their country is becoming more arid. (123)

We don’t talk about those kinds of things, but it threatens the communities, like New Mexico’s acequia farmers, most likely to offer hope and the capacities to sustainably grow food in increasingly arid condition.

I do like that he toured the US saying this kind of thing:

Everywhere I went I preached the abolition of lawn culture, saying that it was an imitation green created for human beings at the expense of nature and was nothing more than a remnant of the arrogant aristocratic culture of Europe. (129)

This philosophy is a very particular way, very Japanese way of embracing the world, of changing it.

When people are released from the idea that they are the ones who have created things and have abandoned human knowledge, nature will return to its true form. The rebirth of nature is not simply a return to the primitive, it is a return to the timeless. My method of natural farming aims at liberating the human heart… (140)

I loved this final quote, partially a reminder that even if we are not the ones who love land and roots as farmers, we still can live in sustainable ways. But mostly it is good to encounter — to know — that radically different ways of being are still possible in this world:

I still remember the words of an Ethiopian tribesman who at first rejected my ideas of natural farming. “Are you asking me to become a farmer?” he asked. “To be attached to the soil and to accumulate things are the acts of a degraded person.” (52)










Enrique Salmón: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience

13226644I came to Enrique Salmón’s Eating the Landscape through The Colors of Nature, this covers some of the same territory, but I learned even more about the Colorado Plateau that we had just been driving through. The landscapes of my baby-self, and so many of my dad’s stories. But no one in my family ever had anything as awesome as this:

I recall the many plant-related lessons I learned in my grandma’s herb house. this latticed structure was filled with hanging dried and living plants as well as pungent and savory smells from the many herbs hanging from the ceiling. The roof was no longer visible through the layers of vines that draped over its eaves to the ground. (3)

I love this connection between food and landscape, so obvious and yet I had not quite seen it in this way before.

…because so much of the food we are discussing in this book comes directly from the land, food landscapes remain intact when old recipes are regenerated. The food itself, and the landscapes from which it emerges, remembers how it should be cooked. This can happen because the food itself activates in us an encoded memory that reminds us how to grow, collect and prepare the food. (9)

Thinking about what our food teaches us about our landscape…well. I have learned a lot through my short time on smallholdings, through growing up in the desert, but I don’t know enough.

An essential lesson for us, as we continue on our current self-destructive path of monocropping, genetically modifying our food using artificial irrigation, and overfertilizing, will be to relearn how to cook our landscapes: the manner in which we sustainably steward our food crops, relying on a process that began in our home kitchens. (10)

It is not just loss of knowledge through city living or supermarkets, I think of Vandana Shiva writing about just how much the proponents of monocropping have actively destroyed. Yet there is so much happening that gives me hope. Like Emigdio Ballon, come from the highlands of Bolivia to Tesuque Pueblo of New Mexico. Working now with the Pueblo to grow fruit trees and beans, and maintaining a seed bank of heirloom crops.

I think too of settler and scientist arrogance, the kind that has driven unsustainable agricultural practices through the fields and lives of small farmers on the land for generations. Not seeing the complex systems these farmers were often embedded within:

For the longest time, the conservation and environmental movement had assumed that the human-environment equation would always result negatively for the land…until recently, researchers had not considered the possibility that humans could actually enhance their landscapes; that human communities might actually play a role in enhancing diversity; or that humans could be a keystone species of some ecological systems. (75)

In southern Arizona the Hohokam are everywhere, I remember hearing stories, imagining their presence across the land. There is a chapter on the Sonora desert and this:

The word Hohokam from the Pima language — always translated as ‘”those who have gone,” or “those who have vanished.” Archaeologist Emil Haury, who has studied the Hohokam, provided a more literal translation of “all used up.” (82)


Up near Phoenix, along the salt river, they built extensive irrigation systems. Left them. Salmón writes that this is possibly because they became salinized, silted up. Instead of upping the ante, the people returned to a simpler agricultural system, one that was more beneficial to their landscape and more sustainable over the years.

Damn. I can’t imagine that conversation, our current reality is worlds removed from that kind of thinking. Perhaps this is a great part of the problem. One other thing I never have experienced, but so want to:

The diversity of the Sonora Desert seems more obvious the farther one travels through its namesake Mexican state. (128)

There are lots of stories here of the Colorado plateau, the fields in canyons and along washes hidden from sight — oh, I wished so much we caught just a glimpse. He writes of Peabody Coal’s draining of the aquifer and the drying up of springs. An enterprise bringing death to extract energy, destroying place to facilitate movement. A mindset alien to the people here, and to me. I loved the description of a concept from Juan Estevan Arellano:

Hispano querencia: that which affords his people a sense of place. Querencia is also simply the love for the land and place. (118)

Salmón continues:

To Hispanos, querencia is a blend of mental spaces not only involving bioregionalism but also including emotional, spiritual, cultural and ecological health. When people think of land the concept is enmeshed with notions of cultural memory. These and other mental spaces merge into a multidimensional blended space… (118)

This is the space of resilience, of community, of words. The thing evoked so powerfully in Jimmy Santiago Baca’s poetry describing these same places. It is strange finding the language of development I am so familiar with rewritten, recoded in this way:

Story is at the core of community resilience. It comprises the matter, substance, and adhesive of human capital. Stories communicate our values through the language of our heart and our emotions. Stories are what we feel. In northern New Mexico, enough of the viable land remains in which the story of querencia can be housed. (121)

More ways to reframe development debates, from The Declaration of Seed Sovereignty that came out of the Traditional Agriculture Conference held March 10-11, 2006 in Alcalde, New Mexico:

Sustainable stewardship and cultural resilience are neither decisions nor rights. Nowhere in the Declaration of Seed Sovereignty does the notion or term of rights arise. Instead, the associations conferred to include in their “living document” concepts of relationships, generational memory, embodied practices, spirituality, caring, respect, traditions, and celebration when declaring their revival and survival of their way of life. Together, these concepts reflect identity connected to responsibility towards one’s place in a community within a landscape. (150)

Everything is relational and connected.

Salmón, Enrique (2012) Eating the Landscape: American Indian Stories of Food, Identity and Resilience. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

The Colors of Nature: Deming & Savoy

The Colors of NatureI loved The Colors of Nature, edited by poet Alison H. Deming and scientist Lauret E. Savoy, one white and one Black. I took it with me as mum and I drove through the desert, read pieces of it in Tuba City, Chama, Mountainair.

Both women understand that human history and natural history are braided strands in the weave of their existence. This, too, is a common ground given to them by their differences. But no monochromatic sens of human history will suffice to express their certainty that the pain at the foundation of American culture–whether one’s ancestors have been on the side of the wounding or the woundedness–informs our sense of place on Earth and our connections with each other. And so the women begin a new conversation. (5)

First things first though:

…nature writing remains, for the most part, the precinct of the Euro-American privileged class. The editors of this anthology are convinced that the “lack” of nature writing by people of color reflects the limited perspective of both the defining audience and the publishing community more than the lack of interest in the natural world by writers of color. (6)

So now that is out of the way, I loved the conversation between the editors that serves as introduction:

Savoy: What I’ve seen as a great potential strength of writing about nature is that narrative inquiry of a larger world extending beyond human institutions could refocus our attention outward, situate us, and ultimately help us understand better how to live in that world responsibly and ethically. Such writing, and the visions created in story,  can inform and illuminate the processes of understanding ecological relationships, pattern and community within and beyond the human realm. But I also see this strength as only partially realized in that too many experiences of people not of Euro-American descent–experience that transcend history and point to deeply embedded cultural values and conflicts on this continent–seem to lie outside of the genre’s domain. (7)

Yet these are vital. Again and again it all comes back to where white experience is rooted. From Savoy:

The fulfillment of Euro-America’s exploration and empire–of land acquisition and use and expansion of a new nation on what was believed to be a clean slate of wilderness–owed much to the processes of colonization, of slavery, of dispossession and forced removal from homeland to reservation. (9)

From Deming:

Deming: Because the American past is stained with the ugliness of genocide and slavery (“No nation,” wrote James Baldwin, “has ever made so successful and glamorous a romance out of genocide and slavery”), most Euro-Americans continue to prefer seeing their lives as stories of rugged individualism rather than of culture making. And yet, just as every day of one’s life is embedded in nature, every day of one’s life is also embedded in this complicated cultural legacy. (12-13)

So these are writings that re-embed us, in community, in world, in culture. They do it beautifully, and so these selections — as so many of my ridiculously lengthy selections — are what happened to resonate most with me just now.

‘In History’ by Jamaica Kincaid (16-27) — a visceral reminder that our world was once so different. A reminder just how much has changed. A wondering about how we deal with that, think about that, write that.

What to call the thing that happened to me and all who look like me?
Should I call it history?
If so, what should history mean to someone like me? (16)

Before Europeans brought slaves to these Caribbean islands, the genocide was almost complete…

It is when this land is completely empty that I and the people who look like me begin to make an appearance, the food I eat begins to make an appearance, the trees I will see each day come from far away and begin to make an appearance, the sky is at is always was, the is as it always was, the water surrounding the land on which I am just making an appearance is as it always was; but these are the only things left from before that man, sailing with his three ships, reached the land on which I eventually make an appearance. (21)

I have Kincaid’s book on gardens sitting in England, still unread. But a taste, here, of this tension filled love of plants and acknowledgment of the brutal history behind so many gardens and our botanical knowledge:

The botanists are from the same part of the world as the man who sailed on the three ships, that same man who started narrative from which I trace my beginning. And the botanists are like that man who sailed on the ships in a way, too: they emptied the worlds of things animal, mineral and vegetable, of their names, and replaced those names with names pleasing to them; the recognized names are now reasonable, as reason is a pleasure to them. (22)

From ‘At the End of Ridge Road: From a Nature Journal’ by Joseph Bruchac (49-66):

What European cultures call “wilderness,” carefully separating it from “civilization,” remained an intimate part of human nature in indigenous cultures. Rather than pasting human masks over the faces of the animals, we recognized the animals as people with nations of their own. (55)

I learned that all turtles have 13 large plates on their carapaces, and 28 smaller ones ring them!

There are thirteen full moons in any given year, roughly twenty-eight days between one full moon and the next. So it is that native people of the northeast say that the turtle’s back is a lunar calendar… (58)


From ‘Earthbound’ by bell hooks (67-71):

Humankind no matter how powerful cannot take away the rights of the earth. Ultimately nature rules. That is the great democratic gift the earth offers us–that sweet death to which we all inevitably go–into that final communion. No race, no class, no gender, nothing can keep any of us from dying into that death where we are made one. To tend the earth is always then to tend our destiny, our freedom, and our hope. (68)

I loved this story, loved the strength to be found in the land.

My sharecropping grandaddy Jerry would walk through neat rows of crops and tell me, “I’ll tell you a secret little girl. No man can make the sun or the rains come–we can all testify. We can all see that ultimately we all bow down to the forces of nature. Big white boss may think he can outsmart nature but the small farmer know. Earth is our witness.” This relationship to the earth meant that southern black folks, whether they were impoverished or not, knew firsthand that white supremacy, with its systemic dehumanization of blackness, was not a form of absolute power.

This reminded me of some of the thoughts of Wendell Berry, some of the ways I’ve been struggling with this difference between city and country.

…when black people migrated to urban cities, this humanizing connection with nature was severed; racism and white supremacy came to be seen as all powerful, the ultimate factors informing our fate. (69)

From ‘Sharing Breath: Some Links Between Land, Plants, and People’ by Enrique Salmon (72-89)

All of these authors are now on my list to be read more fully, to inquire deeper. I loved this exploration of the meaning of plants in indigenous world systems. Again, we are back to the wholeness, the interconnectedness of everything.

Iwígara is the soul or essence of life everywhere. Therefore, iwígara is the idea that all life, spiritual and physical, is interconnected in a continual cycle…. Iwígara is the total interconnectedness and integration of all life in the Sierra Madres. (85)

We are back to throwing out that distinction between us and world, that idealization of pristine nature that permeates Romanticism and continues into our present.

When the people speak of the land, the religious and romantic tones so prevalent in Western environmental conversation are absent. to us the land exists in the same manner as do our families, chickens, the river, and the sky. No hierarchy of privilege places one above or below the other. Iwígara binds and manages the interconnectedness of all life. Within this web there are particular ways that living things relate to one another. All individual life plays a role in the cycle. (86)

Salmon briefly describes how through gathering techniques, plant dispersal, controlled burning, and selective pruning and coppicing, the Rarámuri have enhanced their ecosystem, increased diversity … all of these things theorised and practiced through permaculture, and the same knowledge found around the world in indigenous and peasant communities. It isn’t rocket science to understand that such communities have developed immense stores of knowledge that can only come through daily work in the same landscape over generations — but it is only recently, slowly, becoming recognized ‘officially’. Generally, where those groups aren’t getting too much in the way of quick profits.

Cultural survival can be measured by the degree to which cultures maintain a relationship with their bioregions. Ecologists and conservation biologists today recognize an important relationship between cultural diversity and biological diversity. (88)

A more foundational text from one of the founders of environmental justice theory — ‘Confronting Environmental Racism in the Twenty-First Century’ by Robert D. Bullard (90- 97). I find this useful:

The environmental justice framework attempts to uncover the underlying assumptions that may contribute to and produce unequal protection. It brings to the surface the ethical and political questions of “who gets what, why, and how much.” (91)

From ‘Dark Waters’ by Yusef Komunyakaa (96-112), a different view of Bogalusa than I am used to, I am looking forward to reading poetry, but I loved this:

I realized that I had attempted to present how toxicity taints the social and natural landscape. (101)

From ‘Burning the Shelter’ by Louis Owens (142-145), again back to deconstructing euro-american understandings of nature, of distance and difference:

Gradually, almost painfully, I began to understand that what I called “wilderness” was an absurdity, nothing more than a figment of the European imagination. An “absolute fake.” Before the European invasion, there was no wilderness in North America; there was only the fertile continent, where people lived in a hard-learned balance with the natural world. In embracing a philosophy that saw the White Pass shelter–and all traces of humanity–as a shameful stain upon the “pure” wilderness, I had succumbed to a five-hundred-year-old pattern of deadly thinking that separates us from the natural world. (144)

‘Becoming Métis’ by Melissa Nelson (146-152) was so useful in thinking through how to move forward, how to decolonise the mind of old ways of thinking, how to embrace other ways of thinking without appropriating. It is a fine line, no? One you hope to walk well:

To indigenous people, the basic tenets of deep ecology are just a reinvention of very ancient principles that they have been living by for millennia before their ways were disrupted, and in many cases destroyed, by colonial forces.

Decolonizing the mind is not disregarding rationality or European heritage. It is transcending the self-centered, ethnocentric, and exploitative patterns of Western hegemony. It is explicitly questioning the so-called objectivity and universal character of the Western scientific paradigm. decolonizing the mind allows other more diverse and mysterious ways of knowing the world to enter the field of perception. (149)

It is not an essentialised kind of thinking, does not depend on blood though it is certainly conditioned by culture. For many, it means abandoning much of what we think we know. It certainly requires great humility.

…there are no special spiritual “goodies” in being part Native American. Traditional knowledge is really a deeper knowledge of the self within a wider ecocultural context. It comes with patience, hard work, and sacrifice.

The reality is that white, academic culture does not teach this or even respect it. It does not demand the inner knowledge, nor the ways in which we must wrestle with history, fight current injustices, make our stands. It is also, to a great extent, about place.

‘They must learn to honor the local, the distinctive, in the place where they live.’ (150)

I want to think more about that.

Environmental justice is so much about place — how certain people are pushed into places, other trapped in places, and everyone fighting for those places where toxicity abides because they are not just places — they are homes, communities, relationships. In ‘Hazardous Cargo’ by Ray Gonzalez (163-170), he describes El Paso, and the I-25. We were driving the I-25, but a little further north. This opened my eyes to a different aspect of this freeway — the running of trucks up and down it to dump hazardous waste. Did we see the HC signs in white on green backgrounds? I did not know to look. We just knew it was beautiful. I suppose corporations only see emptiness, not the beauty, the life.


From a 1997 report on the waste generated by the maquiladoras that fills many of these trucks — Mexico insisted that it be dealt with north of the border when they signed NAFTA. But in 1997, only 12 percent of 8 million tons were found to be adequately treated (167). 8 million tons. I can’t even imagine where this quantity stands now. Where it is dumped, buried.

And finally from ‘Crossing Boundaries’ by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston (171-180), this description of the concentration camp at Manzanar.

…we finally emerge into glaring light, Mount Williamson rising before us in the distance, my spirit’s life, as I remember how that peak inspired us during our imprisonment. Solid and steadfast, it remained immovable through all times. (176)

Manzanar monument

There was so much more here, so I have an expanding list of people to read more of — Al Young, Sandra Jackson-Opoku, Gary Paul Nabhan, David Mas Masumoto, Diane Glancy.

A wonderful book.

[Deming, Alsion H and Lauret E. Savoy, eds. (2002) The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity, and the Natural World. Minneapolis: Milkweed.]




Linda Hogan: Dwellings

3592266A beautiful meditation through a series of essays on the world and our place in it from Linda Hogan…our place as part of it, and our place sharing it with a host of other things full of wonder. A world that is greater than our comprehension, though dominant ideology attempts to constrain it within words and models of profit and loss.

Even wilderness is seen as having value only as it enhances and serves our human lives, our human world. While most of us agree that wilderness is necessary to our spiritual and psychological well-being, it is a container of far more, of mystery, of a life apart from ours. It is not only where we go to escape who we have become and what we have done, but it is also part of the natural laws, the workings of a world of beauty and depth we do not yet understand. it is something beyond us something that does not need our hand in it. As one of our Indian elders has said, there are laws beyond our human laws, and ways above ours. We have no words for this in our language, or even for our experience of being there. Ours is a language of commerce and trade, of laws that can be bent in order that treaties might be broken, land wounded beyond healing. It is a language that is limited, emotionally and spiritually, as if it can’t accommodate such magical strength and power. (45-46)

The world continues to be greater than our small understandings.

There is so much here that resonates with the very theoretical work emerging around the crisis we face, the working through in academic ways of the meaning of the anthropocene. Dwellings emerges from the bottom up, from earth and people and out of a tradition whose attempted destruction demanded the rationalisations emerging from immense intellectual work. The theorising that justified genocide, that continues to justify the world’s destruction, shares much the same abstracted kind of language as that of academics now working in their own ways to understand this moment of crisis we are in. This is not entirely a critique, people speak in the language that they know. I love some of this work. It is just a dissonance I always feel, an alienation that is always there. Because in many ways, academic language cannot really cope with what matters, and what it learns it hides away behind an impenetrable wall of words in books as heavy as bricks.

We are looking for a tongue that speaks with reverence for life, searching for an ecology of mind. Without it, we have no home, have no place of our own within the creation. (60)

I’m not sure English can cope at all, the way we have stripped it. Funny how words that try to grapple with meaning and emotion too often just sound cheesy, like Hallmark cards packaging things for slick consumption. This should not damage the quality of those meanings, but our language seems to try.

We have no home, have no place.

Hogan quotes Lynda Sexson from the article ‘What do Stars Eat?’ in Left Bank, which expresses so much of the barrenness I find in the imagination, that works like Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape highlight through their rich textures and hopes, no coincidence that language should also be a focal point of her work.

We are so accustomed to myths (sacred stories) of extinction, that we are not as practical at imagining that greater gap–continuation. . . .  Would the earth or our existence be in such peril if we did not harbor a profound desire for extinction? “They lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick,” resonates Isaiah. The crisis of Western culture is ecological. The source of that crisis is in Western culture’s own version of reality; the myth of the urge to eradicate: earth and images of earth, body and song. (94)

Everywhere we see the smoking charred proofs of this urge to eradicate.

It manifests partially, I think, in simple arrogance, so deeply ingrained people don’t even know its there. I guess centuries of Colonialism, Imperialism, Slave-owning and genocide haven’t been too good even for those at the top of the chain. Academics especially always need to be discovering, inventing. Need to be owning, taking credit. The establishment demands it, we are caught up in a system just as Marx described manufacturers, and so too many of them (us) bluster through the world not listening, but extracting and abstracting and generating money and status from what other people already know, when they are not busy working on things that probably don’t much matter.  A poem by Jimmie Durham, Cherokee writer: The Teachings of my Grandmother

In a magazine too expensive to buy I read about
How, with scientific devices of great complexity,
U.S. scientists have discovered that if a rat
Is placed in cage in which it has previously
Been given an electrical shock, it starts crying.

I told my grandmother about that and she said,
“We probably knew that would be true.” (55)

all these things that are ‘discovered’, and  — we probably knew that would be true. There are meditations here on Cortez, conquistadores, and I think that’s a big part of where all of this started. That attempt to completely destroy other ways of knowing, other ways of being. In an article on Ishi (last of his tribe), Linda Hogan writes:

A change is required of us, a healing of the betrayed trust between humans and earth. Caretaking is the utmost spiritual and physical responsibility of our time, and perhaps that stewardship is finally our place in the web of life, our work, the solution to the mystery of what we are. There are already so many holes in the universe that will never again be filled, and each of them forces us to question why we permitted such loss, such tearing away at the fabric of life, and how we will live with our planet in the future. (115)

On the opposite side of a culture that creates holes in the universe is one that celebrates people, strangers, potential, and welcomes them inside:

The lands around my dwelling
Are more beautiful
From the day
When it is given me to see
Faces I have never seen before.
All is more beautiful.
All is more beautiful.
And life is thankfulness.
These guests of mine
Make my house grand.
–Eskimo song







Rob Nixon: Slow Violence

Rob Nixon Slow ViolenceI love this book, and not just because this term ‘slow violence’ encapsulates so brilliantly what I have been fighting my entire life — particularly visible in fighting slum lords who made their money by providing tenants with rats, roaches, lead-poisoning, mould, asthma, rashes, depression, harassment, fear, overflowing toilets, uncertainty and a horrible dingy water-stained shade to life twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for years. But this kind of violence becomes visible in so many ways in the lives of people and communities where I have lived and worked. It has shaped so much of who I am, it is the violence of poverty and powerlessness — until a stand is made against it. Nixon writes:

…we urgently need to rethink–politically, imaginatively, and theoretically–what I call “slow violence.” By slow violence I mean a violence that occurs gradually and out of sight, a violence of delayed destruction that is dispersed across time and space, an attritional violence that is typically not viewed as violence at all. Violence is customarily conceived as an event or action that is immediate in time, explosive and spectacular in space, and as erupting into instant sensational visibility. We need, I believe, to engage a different kind of violence, a violence that is neither spectacular nor instantaneous, but rather incremental and accretive, its calamitous repercussions playing out across a range of temporal scales. (2)

Given how media and public attention works, how do we gain attention for slow-moving accumulating disaster? Especially important and requiring both thought and action because:

it is those people lacking resources who are the principle casualties of slow violence. Their unseen poverty is compounded by the invisibility of the slow violence that permeates so many of their lives (4)

This is also complicated because such environmental struggles are never ‘pure’, but form part of larger social and cultural struggles.But again, returning to their scope and duration, one of the greater challenges is that of scale:

how can we imaginatively and strategically render visible vast force fields of interconnectedness against the attenuating effects of temporal and geographical distance? (38)

…slow violence involves more than a perceptual problem created by the gap between destructive policies or practices and their deferred, invisible consequences. For in addition, slow violence provides prevaricative cover for the forces that have the most to profit from inaction…doubt is… a bankable product. (40)

It is this terminology and thinking through of slow violence that I find most useful, but I enjoyed the varied stories through the book as Nixon explores how slow violence is described and made prominent through

the complex, often vexed figure of the environmental writer-activist. (5)

He looks at their work as a way in to this, a way to act upon this:

To confront slow violence requires, then, that we plot and give figurative shape to formless threats who fatal repercussions are dispersed across space and time. The representational challenges are acute, requiring creative ways of drawing public attention to catastrophic acts that are low in instant spectacle but high in long-term effects. To intervene representationally entails devising iconic symbols that embody amorphous calamities as well as narrative forms that infuse those symbols with dramatic urgency. (10)

On the nature of slow violence

I love this quotation from Edward Said:

“the normalized quiet of unseen power.” This normalized quiet is of particular pertinence to the hushed havoc and injurious invisibility that trail slow violence. (6 — quote from ‘Wordly Humanism v. the World Builders, Counterpunch 4 August 2003)

and adds an interesting comparison this with Fanon’s work on violence, and how different this understanding of violence is as it

addresses environmentally embedded violence that is often difficult to source, oppose, and once set in motion, to reverse. (7)

Not that it is anything but complementary. In both

For if the past of slow violence is never past, so too the post is never fully post: industrial particulates and effluents live on in the environmental elements we inhabit and in our very bodies, which epidemiologically and ecologically are never our simple contemporaries. (8)

It is this very time scale that makes it so difficult to grasp and force action around. Others who have sought to grapple with it include Johan Galtung who coined the term ‘indirect or structural violence’, and sought to widen understanding of what constitutes violence from personal violence to include and ‘foreground the vast structures that can give rise to acts of personal violence and constitute forms of violence in themselves.’ (10)


structural violence is a theory that entails rethinking different notions of causation and agency with respect to violent effects. Slow violence, by contrast, might well include forms of structural violence but has a wider descriptive range in calling attention, not simply to questions of agency, but to broader, more complex descriptive categories of violence enacted slowly over time. (11)

Just one example is how we too often look at, talk about, understand war. It is bracketed in talking of casualties between firm dates, but things like land mines, agent orange, depleted uranium all stretch out those casualties through years and decades. A whole chapter here describes Gulf War Syndrome — much of this violence is ‘invisible’ to certain or all views, purposefully hidden or erased while other views and perspectives are privileged.

Slow violence of landscape and maps:

In the global resource wars, the environmentalism of the poor is frequently triggered when an official landscape is forcibly imposed on a vernacular one. A vernacular landscape is shaped by the affective, historically textured maps that communities have devised over generations, maps replete with names and routes, maps alive to significant ecological and surface geological features. A vernacular landscape, although neither monolithic nor undisputed, is integral to the socioenvironmental dynamics of community rather than being wholly externalized–treated as out there, as a separate nonrenewable resource. (17)

This made me think so much about writers like Oliver Rackham describing the changing countryside of England through processes of enclosure, and of course this is equally true of conquest and colonialisation around the world. Nixon continues:

I would argue, then, that the exponential upsurge in indigenous resource rebellions across the globe during the high age of neoliberalism has resulted largely from a clash of temporal perspectives between the short-termers who arrive (with their official landscape maps) to extract, despoil, and depart and the long-termers who must live inside the ecological aftermath and must therefore weigh wealth differently in time’s scales.

More than material wealth is here at stake: imposed official landscapes typically discount spiritualized vernacular landscapes, severing webs of accumulated cultural meaning and treating the landscape as if it were uninhabited by the living, the unborn and the animate deceased. (17)

There is so much here, the imbrications of the cultural, spiritual, physical, environmental, political…I like this poetic acknowledgement of different relations to the land.

Our perspective on environmental asset stripping should include among assets stripped the mingled presence in the landscape of multiple generations… (18)

I also love this, more resonant with indigenous struggles but also with asset-stripped inner cities and barren countrysides:

I want to propose a more radical notion of displacement, one that, instead of referring solely to the movement of people from their places of belonging, refers rather to the loss of the land and resources beneath them, a loss that leaves communities stranded in a place stripped of the very characteristics that made it habitable. (19)

Slow violence of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism’s proliferating walls concretize a short-term psychology of denial: the delusion that we can survive long term in a world whose resources and increasingly unshared. The wall, read in terms of neoliberalism and environmental slow violence, materializes temporal as well as spatial denial through a literal concretizing of out of sight out of mind. (20)

There is some (but I would have looked forward to more I think) about walls, boundaries, what can be imagined and what can be said.

From a postcolonial perspective, the most startling feature of environmental literary studies has been its reluctance to engage the environmental repercussions of American foreign policy, particularly in relation to contemporary imperial practices. (33)

Some smart things about capitalism, that I have found echoes of in Jason Moore’s work (Capitalism and the Web of Life, which I am only partly through and also love)

capitalism’s innate tendency to abstract in order to extract, intensifying the distancing mechanisms that make the sources of environmental violence harder to track and multinational environmental answerability harder to impose. (41)

And then a number of profound thoughts around various writers and struggle and how connections have been and can be made between them. Perhaps my favourite is this mural found in County Mayo of Ken Saro-Wiwa, connecting the struggle of both communities against Shell Oil with his poetry translated into Gaelic…



Dance your anger, Dance your joys, Dance the guns to silence, dance, dance, dance…

Nixon writes:

A quarter century ago, Raymond Williams called for more novels that attend to “the close living substance” of the local while simultaneously tracing the “occluded relationships”–the vast transnational economic pressures, the labor and commodity dynamics–that invisibly shape the local. (45)

A call I hope to respond to alongside (but probably not nearly as well) as the many writers looked at here — which has generated a whole new list of books I hope to read (and numerous essays, and the below is by no means the full list but this gives you a brief idea of the scope):

  • Animal’s People by Indra Sinha, in a context of the Bhopal distaster, how this compares to Chernobyl
  • Abdelrahman Munif Cities of Salt — five novels exploring petroleum industry and deal between Saudi Arabia and the US
  • Genocide in Nigeria (and others) by Ken Saro-Wiwa, on Shell Oil in Nigeria
  • Wangari Maathai’s Unbowed on Kenya’s Green Belt Movement and the planting of trees
  • Anna Tsing – Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection
  • Richard Drayton — Nature’s Government, on Kew gardens, and network of imperial gardens, and the ideology of improvement
  • Jamaica Kincaid on gardens! Woot!
  • Ramachandra Guha – Environmentalism: A Global History

There is more on megadams, the American pastoral and its problematic nature, wandering and etc etc.





Gilbert White: The Natural History of Selborne

White's_Selborne_1813_title_page_(detail)I have been meaning to read the Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White for ages as a classic of natural history. Classic it was, so some things I found fascinating, and there was a surprisingly great deal that surprised me immensely — though I know it shouldn’t have. This mostly had to do with how much ‘science’ of the time involved shooting a multitude of things (is it rare? Let’s kill it!) and having some or all of them stuffed.

I am finding it amazingly comforting (apologies to the shade of Gilbert White) that he was disappointed in his career, never receiving the post he wanted and relegated to live alone as a curate in the village of his birth. In that place, despite all the weight of his crushed dreams and hopes, he spent his time doing some of what he loved, wrote at great length and is better known than almost all of his contemporaries. I was sad to come to the end of this, I rather missed him.

All that said, it opens with poetry of the kind that I really like least…


See, Selborne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic ! What is all the pride,
Of flats, with loads of ornaments supplied?—
Unpleasing, tasteless, impotent expense,
Compared with Nature’s rude magnificence.

But he regains some respect through the curiosity that drives his growing depth of knowledge of the natural world around him. He is rarely humorous or witty it is true, but this I quite enjoyed. At first I did find it humorous, but really it explains what he most felt the lack of in his place and positions — and actually lack of companionship is what I should worry about most leaving the city:

It has been my misfortune never to have had any neighbours whose studies have led them towards the pursuit of natural knowledge; so that, for want of a companion to quicken my industry and sharpen my attention, I have made but slender progress in a kind of information to which I have been attached from my childhood.

It is very cool to see how much of his thought is shaped by Linneaus and the work he inspires — which explains the constant references to Sweden I think (made me even sadder we didn’t get to Upsala in our recent trip, but there is next time perhaps), but they puzzled me just a bit at first:

Selborne parish alone can and has exhibited at times more than half the birds that are ever seen in all Sweden; the former has produced more than one hundred and twenty species, the latter only two hundred and twenty-one. Let me add also that it has shown near half the species that were ever known in Great Britain.* (* Sweden, 221; Great Britain, 252 species.)

He continues, and this made me laugh because there is indeed a very distinctive style to his writing:

On a retrospect, I observe that my long letter carries with it a quaint and magisterial air, and is very sententious: but, when I recollect that you requested stricture and anecdote, I hope you will pardon the didactic manner for the sake of the information it may happen to contain.
–2 Sept, 1774

I like too this point, which I confess I agree with:

Men that undertake only one district are much more likely to advance natural knowledge than those that grasp at more than they can possibly be acquainted with: every kingdom, every province, should have its own monographer.
— 8 Oct 1770

There are some hilarious digs at other branches of natural history as well…

Faunists, as you observe, are too apt to acquiesce in bare descriptions, and a few synonyms: the reason is plain; because all that may be done at home in a man’s study, but the investigation of the life and conversation of animals, is a concern of much more trouble and difficulty, and is not to be attained but by the active and inquisitive, and by those that reside much in the country.
–1 Aug 1771

This focus on ‘the life and conversations of animals’ is I think why Gilbert White is still remembered and read with pleasure, and sets out what he hoped to do.

I think part of what surprised me most, though again, it really shouldn’t have, was the offhand references to shooting absolutely everything, both for study and for sport. Thus there are comments like this one:

But there was a nobler species of game in this forest, now extinct, which I have heard old people say abounded much before shooting flying became so common, and that was the heath-cock, black- game, or grouse. When I was a little boy I recollect one coming now and then to my father’s table. The last pack remembered was killed about thirty-five years ago; and within these ten years one solitary greyhen was sprung by some beagles in beating for a hare. The sportsmen cried out, ‘A hen pheasant’; but a gentleman present, who had often seen grouse in the north of England, assured me that it was a greyhen.
— Letter VI

I’ll write more about hunting in a second post, because the relationship between human beings and the world around them, and how they understand that relationship, is so interesting. He describes it in great detail, which is in itself interesting. But he thinks in terms of systems, how things fit together, why animals should behave as they do. One of my favourite sections comes near the end of his letter-writing career, where he writes:

The most insignificant insects and reptiles are of much more consequence, and have much more influence in the Economy nature, than the incurious are aware of; and are mighty in their effect, from their minuteness, which renders them less an object of attention; and from their numbers and fecundity. Earth-worms, though in appearance a small and despicable link in the chain of nature, yet, if lost, would make a lamentable chasm.
— 20 May 1777

This is much nearer the beginning transformations of the industrial revolution, the beginnings of thinking about the rights of man and the nature of society and economy — I quite liked this analysis of how this particular system works, and the language used to describe it:

A circumstance respecting these ponds, though by no means peculiar to them, I cannot pass over in silence; and that is, that instinct by which in summer all the kine, whether oxen, cows, calves, or heifers, retire constantly to the water during the hotter hours; where, being more exempt from flies, and inhaling the coolness of that element, some belly deep, and some only to mid- leg, they ruminate and solace themselves from about ten in the morning till four in the afternoon, and then return to their feeding. During this great proportion of the day they drop much dung, in which insects nestle; and so supply food for the fish, which would be poorly subsisted but from this contingency. Thus nature, who is a great economist, converts the recreation of one animal to the support of another!

He is also writing at the beginnings of natural history as we know it:

A little bird (it is either a species of the alauda trivialis, or rather perhaps of the motacilla trochilus) still continues to make a sibilous shivering noise in the tops of tall woods. The stoparola of Ray (for which we have as yet no name in these parts) is called, in your Zoology, the fly-catcher.

I perceive there are more than one species of the motacilla trochilus: Mr. Derham supposes, in Ray’s Philos. Letters, that he has discovered three. In these there is again an instance of some very common birds that have as yet no English name.
— 4th Aug 1767

Reading it, it feels that he has found two kindred spirits to send his letter to describing what he is uncovering about the world, but that everyone in his congregation knows that he is collecting things dead and alive. It feels like there is a host of boys out there combing the countryside. In the progression of knowledge, Reverend Gilbert White has few compunctions:

One of these nests I procured this autumn, most artificially platted, and composed of the blades of wheat; perfectly round, and about the size of a cricket-ball; with the aperture so ingeniously closed, that there was no discovering to what part it belonged. It was so compact and well filled, that it would roll across the tame being discomposed, though it contained eight little mice that were naked and blind.
— 4 Nov 1767

He shoots things (or has things shot, mostly in the early letters), and eagerly cuts them open:

Many times have I had the curiosity to open the stomachs of woodcocks and snipes; but nothing ever occurred that helped to explain to me what their subsistence might be: all that I could ever find was a soft mucus, among which lay many pellucid small gravels.
— 15 Jan 1770

There are amazing notes like the one below — often these letters are just more or less lists of observations and tales recounted of interesting things:

Some intelligent country people have a notion that we have, in these parts, a species of the genus mustelinum, besides the weasel, stoat, ferret, and polecat; a little reddish beast, not much bigger than a field mouse, but much longer, which they call a cane. This piece of intelligence can be little depended on; but farther inquiry may be made.

A gentleman in this neighbourhood had two milk-white rooks in one nest. A booby of a carter, finding them before they were able to fly, threw them down and destroyed them, to the regret of the owner, who would have been glad to have preserved such a curiosity in his rookery. I saw the birds myself nailed against the end of a barn, and was surprised to find that their bills, legs, feet, and claws were milk-white.
— 1768

There is more than one animal shot and nailed to a barn door as a curiosity, which in itself I find so curious. We have come a long way from that, it is hard to even imagine it.

Just as curious is this odd account of a stinking snake:

When I wrote to you last year on reptiles, I wish I had not forgot to mention the faculty that snakes have of stinking se defendendo. I knew a gentleman who kept a tame snake, which was in its person as sweet as any animal while in a good humour and unalarmed; but as soon as a stranger or a dog or cat, came in, it fell to hissing, and filled the room with such nauseous effluvia as rendered it hardly supportable. Thus the squnck, or stonck, of Ray’s Synop. Ouadr. is an innocuous and sweet animal; but, when pressed hard by dogs and men, it can eject such a pestilent and fetid smell and excrement, that nodding can be more horrible.
— 30 August, 1769

I think perhaps what sets this apart is that for the most part Gilbert White is observing the habits of living creatures, patterns in their behaviour. He does shoot quite a lot of things, but I suppose before cameras or binoculars, some details could only be checked at close hand.  He has his own small collection of animals and birds stuffed and mounted — mourns lack of access to bigger collections and always writes with some humility:

Your partiality towards my small abilities persuades you, I fear, that I am able to do more than is in my power: for it is no small undertaking for a man unsupported and alone to begin a natural history from his own autopsia! Though there is endless room for observation in the field of nature, which is boundless, yet investigation (where a man endeavours to be sure of his facts) can make but slow progress; and all that one could collect in many years would go into a very narrow compass.
–12 April 1770

An autopsia! More on the mania for collecting things (as well as the strange habits of swallows):

A certain swallow built for two years together on the handles of a pair of garden-shears, that were stuck up against the boards in an out-house, and therefore must have her nest spoiled whenever that implement was wanted: and, what is stranger still, another bird of the same species built its nest on the wings and body of an owl that happened by accident to hang dead and dry from the rafter of a barn. This owl, with the nest on its wings, and with eggs in the nest, was brought as a curiosity worthy the most elegant private museum in Great Britain. The owner, struck with the oddity of the sight, furnished the bringer with a large shell, or conch, desiring him to fix it just where the owl hung: the person did as he was ordered, and the following year a pair, probably the same pair, built their nest in the conch, and laid their eggs.

The owl and the conch make a strange grotesque appearance, and are not the least curious specimens in that wonderful collection of art and nature.*
–29 Jan 1774

The * refers the reader to the existence of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum — more about that very fascinating place here and here — reading Gilbert White, the impulses of knowledge and wonder come more to the fore despite the gory methods, but this collection is rather different, based on things brought back by Captain Cook on his travels, which connects to a darker legacy of conquest and violence, and the cataloguing of things to be able to calculate their market value.

Two more curiosities — an entire day where the air was absolutely full of cobwebs raining down from the sky:

About nine an appearance very unusual began to demand our attention, a shower of cobwebs falling from very elevated regions, and continuing, without any interruption, till the close of the day. These webs were not single filmy threads, floating in the air in all directions, but perfect flakes or rags; some near an inch broad, and five or six long, which fell with a degree of velocity which showed they were considerably heavier than the atmosphere.
— 8 June 1775

Also echoes! A whole section on echoes:

The true object of this echo, as we found by various experiments, is the stone-built, tiled hop-kiln in Galleylane, which measures in front 40 feet, and from the ground to the eaves 12 feet. The true centrum phonicum, or just distance, is one particular spot in the King’s-field, in the path to Nore-hill, on the very brink of the steep balk above the hollow cart way.
— 12 Feb 1778

and another amazing word, to end on a high:

this village is another Anathoth, a place of responses or echoes.