“Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”

It is a pleasure to report on the conference last week at the University of California in Santa Cruz. Along with the delights of sunshine, beaches, long daylight hours, a big moon, sea lions and redwoods, there was also the specific event that brought me there: “Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”.

Dragon, Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero (CC)
Dragon, Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero (CC)

Best-ever start to a conference! ~ Ursula Le Guin in conversation with James Clifford and Donna Haraway in a downtown theatre . It was definitely an enchanted evening! Le Guin is deeply impressive: in her eighties, serene, committed, engaged, and, in a non-aggressive way, very hard-hitting. James Clifford has been writing about culture and its predicaments for many years, and has recently published a book on Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-first Century. Donna Haraway is one of the leading thinkers in the area of science and technology studies, along with many other fields, and is a champion of multispecies becomings. Her most recent book is When Species Meet.

The Le Guin ‘conversation’ was sold out almost as soon as the tickets went on sale, and these lively conversationalists, along with an enthusiastic audience, made for a warm, indeed thrilling, evening. Le Guin read a few short prose pieces and poems, and spoke briefly. Clifford and Haraway each spoke in appreciation of Le Guin’s work, and also asked a few questions. Too rich to be summarised, the conversation ranged across matters of prose and poetry, the carrier bag theory of fiction, dragons, the need to develop stories that are commensurate with the damaged worlds we are now inhabiting, wizards, stories that might enable us to see and imagine the looping destinies of earth life, rocks, ‘decentring the west’, coyotes, and fellowship with nonhumans.

After the conversation, members of the public got to ask questions. I was particularly taken with the person who asked about Le Guin’s use of the word ‘soul’ and what she means by that. She said, with characteristic aversion to abstractions, that there isn’t any other word, and somehow people know what you mean. Maybe it just means ‘the togetherness of things’.

Redwoods, Dan Walker (CC)
Redwoods, Dan Walker (CC)

Some time, either then or later, someone remarked that UC Santa Cruz, the campus in the midst of ancient redwoods, is something of a school for wizards. I had to agree:

the whole conference was immersed in the magic of good thinking, good speaking, good listening, and respectful engagement.

Over the course of the next two days, we participants shared our thoughts and concerns in relation to the challenge set by the organiser, Anna Tsing: ‘A multi-day conference seeks to understand if humans and other species can continue to inhabit the earth together? Through noticing, describing, and imagining, we aim to renew conversation about life on earth.’

So what are some of the arts of living on a damaged planet? Donna Haraway framed the question vividly: what are the on-going possibilities for possibilities to be on-going? Speakers from the sciences, humanities, and social sciences addressed the topic from within their area of expertise. I was particularly fascinated by the biologists because I was least familiar with their material. At the same time, they focussed their speeches to address questions that scholars in the humanities are also concerned with: what is the nature of the ‘individual’; how are social groups organised; are there forms of immortality?

One term we all kept coming around to was ‘story’, along with it’s relatives such as ‘storying’ and ‘storied’. Donna Haraway referred to the previous evening’s conversation by raising again the carrier bag theory of fiction. Her point was that the stories we need now are not the big heroic  ones, but rather smaller stories that help us rethink our big questions in richer veins. William Cronon, the historian and great proponent of stories, defined history as a process of making connections across individuals, events and landscapes, telling stories in our own time. Story, he said, is the great narrative of transformation. Other scholars, who may not have been equally familiar with storying as a scholarly practice, took up the term with surprising verve. Deborah Gordon, a biologist specialising in ants’ social life, briefly discussed the algorithm she developed to analyse ant interactions across time and space, and daringly referred to it as a kind of story.

Ants, by Ceoln (CC)
Ants, by Ceoln (CC)

Another term we all kept coming back to was symbiosis. Donna brought the term into the conference by pointing out that the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis (selfish genes, organisms, populations, species, competition) was quite incapable of engaging with the new evidence arising from microbiology that shows symbiosis to be at the heart of life.

Margaret McFall-Ngai gave a fantastically engaging presentation on microbiology. In the past six years or so, she said, microbiology has been undergoing a revolution. To take an example that is up-close and personal, it is now possible to say that a human being is 90% microbes. This is such a strange thought: that the being one thinks of as one’s self is only 10% one’s self. The rest are other creatures who live with us, and who in some sense are us. It is difficult to know in what sense an individual is an individual: we are all chimeras, we are plural and symbiotic, we are animals in a bacterial world. It follows that all the damage and all the impacts that are altering the microbial world have the capacity to include us (humans) in the on-going devastation. It may be that we are changing the microbiotic world in such a dramatic way that it will collapse. If so, we’ll all go together because we all are together far more intimately than could possibly have been suspected until recently.

Microbe, PNNL (CC)
Microbe, PNNL (CC)

I won’t go into lots more detail, as the online videos will be available soon. There you will encounter speeches addressing symbiosis and flying-foxes, salmon farming, black water in the Murray River, megafaunal extinctions, the perilous future of horseshoe crabs, the emergent non-centralised social organisation of life in an ant colony, the wildly symbiotic lichen way of life, canyons as sites of trash and treasure, and much more.

A third term that ran through the conference was, of course, ‘Anthropocene’. Donna Haraway proposed the term Capitalocene more specifically to target responsibility in this era of damage. Terms are still debated and debatable, and probably will be for a while yet. For example, Eileen Crist recently wrote a wonderful argument against the term Anthropocene, citing it as evidence of the poverty of our capacity to think beyond ourselves (read here). In her words, ‘our predicament primarily calls for a drastic pulling back and scaling down of the human presence—welcoming limitations of our numbers, economies, forms of habitation, and uses of land and sea, so that humanity may flourish together with the entire breadth of Life.’

Crist’s words remind us of another of the big questions we face when examining and imagining ‘arts of living’ – can we imagine alternatives? Nora Bateson, award-winning film-maker and daughter of Gregory Bateson, posed the question in very succinct terms: ‘what is the vision?’ Her words brought us back (again) to science fiction and fantasy, poetry and poetic prose, visual arts and algorithms, chimeras and symbionts ~ who are we and what are we aiming for?

At the same time, no one seemed to doubt that we are now living in a new era.

The question necessarily arises: how would we know that we are living in a new era? Anna Tsing,  the organiser and keystone thinker in pulling together this particular nexus of interdisciplinary thought and practice, spoke of history as ‘overlapping tracks and traces of world-making’, situated in irreversible time, fraught with uncertainty and with emergent complexity. This humanities-science perspective links up interestingly with the evidence now being compiled by geologists.

One of the most informative and disturbing speeches I have heard recently was offered by Jan Zalasiewicz at the Anthropocene conference held in Sydney earlier this year. He is a professor of geology, and he started by making  the point that geologists define eras on the basis of visible evidence in the earth’s strata. From that point of view, the question of whether or not we are in a new era is answerable by considering the extent to which human activities are now making a mark on earth’s strata. This speech is available online, and is well worth watching (view here). Let me just name a few pieces of evidence: new metals unknown in nature; synthetic compounds such a plastic, the amount of which no one is measuring; new rocks such as concrete; boring and drilling to an extent of something on the order of 50 million kilometres of holes in the ground for oil; granite formed through atomic testing, and so on. His answer unequivocally was ‘yes’, we are in a new geological era.

It can be hard to pinpoint a ‘take-home message’ from such a rich and complex conference, and perhaps it is unfair even to try, but there was for me one truly novel expression that summed up many of the big ideas. The most powerful themes included symbiosis, interactions between the biotic and the abiotic, mutual interdependence, and the understanding finally emerging in western thought that life arrives on waves of multispecies connectivities, and is imperilled by threats all across the webs of life.

Lichen, James Gaither (CC)
Lichen, James Gaither (CC)

The humble lichen is a great exemplar of many of these themes. Anne Pringle’s talk on lichens, asking the question ‘why do organisms age’, was a delightful discussion of her research. This composite organism lives interactively at the interface of biotic and abiotic domains,  and is symbiotic in its  very (composite) make-up.  Understanding the patterns that connect us with lichens enables us to understand ourselves as chimerical multispecies organisms, symbiotically interdependent both within and without. That understanding leads to this great message:

“We are all lichens now!”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)


More about the conference, including abstracts of papers and bios of presenters is available at http://anthropo.ihr.ucsc.edu/. The conference was sponsored by the UCSC Institute for Humanities Research, AARHUS University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) (Denmark), and UCSC Bateson Experiments.

3 thoughts on ““Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet”

  1. Donna sent me the url. This is a very attractively written, appreciative, and intelligent little essay, and I enjoyed it so much! thanks for posting. I’ll read some more of your posts.

    I teach cultural anthro at UCSC and we met ever so briefly.


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