First volume of Environmental Humanities now available

The new, open-access journal Environmental Humanities has just released its first volume. The Table of Contents is below; pdfs are available here.

Volume 1



Deborah Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes and Emily O’Gorman (Editorial Team):
Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities




Timothy Morton: The Oedipal Logic of Ecological Awareness


Eben Kirksey: Living With Parasites in Palo Verde National Park

Tom Lee: Burrows and Burrs: A Perceptual History

Libby Robin: Global Ideas in Local Places: The Humanities in Environmental Management
View Abstract

Laurel Peacock: SAD in the Anthropocene: Brenda Hillman’s Ecopoetics of Affect

Natalie Porter: Risky Zoographies: The Limits of Place in Avian Flu Management


Alex Lockwood: The Affective Legacy of Silent Spring

Anna Tsing: Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species




Water on this day in history: November 19

An interesting read for World Toilet Day:

This Day in Water History

November 19, 1914:  Operation of Sewage Disposal Plants. By Francis E. Daniels. “A man in charge of a sewage disposal plant should know what each unit of his works is doing every day. A skilled observer may detect faults and short-comings with some degree of certainty by mere inspection; and if the output is bad and a heavy pollution is occurring or a local nuisance is resulting, it is not at all difficult to recognize the trouble. If the break-down has been sudden and due to a wash-out, a broken bed or wall or some other equally obvious cause, an expert is not needed to diagnose the case. But suppose the output of a plant or of some of its units is gradually falling below the requirements. In that case the gradual decline cannot be detected by observation and in order that one may know what is actually happening…

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Anthropocene radio series on the BBC

A four part radio series on the Anthropocene with Gaia Vince.

Anthropocene radio series on the BBC.

Water ethics and First Nations

A couple of recently published pieces examining issues of water, justice, policy and First Nations in Canada. In addition, here is a 2003 article from Glenn C. Reynolds that is not specific to the Canadian case, it was free to download on the web so here is the  PDF.

(1) The first is by Kenichi Matsui, who also authored Native Peoples and Water Rights in 2009 through McGill-Queens Press.  It is published by the International Indigenous Policy Journal and is available under a Creative Commons License so here is the pdf of: Water Ethics for First Nations and Biodiversity in Western Canada, and here is the abstract:


The increasing division of academic disciplines and bureaucracy has led to the compartmentalization of knowledge on water security, biodiversity, Indigenous rights, and traditional ecological knowledge policy. The attempt to re-establish links among these issues in academic studies can shed light on integrated water governance and the establishment of water ethics. In order to facilitate this effort, this paper discusses three propositions: (1) the establishment of strong legal and ethical frameworks is needed; (2) policymakers and scientists alike need to recognize links between biodiversity and water security; and (3) they need to improve cross-cultural understanding and communication in using the traditional knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local people. This article examines these issues in Western Canada (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba) because this region has invited cross-cultural and inter-jurisdictional conflicts since the twentieth century.

(2) The second is a book that came out this past summer by Michael Mascarenhas titled: Where the water’s divide: neoliberalism, white privilege, and environmental racism in Canada.

Here is the blurb from the publishers website:

This timely and important scholarship advances an empirical understanding of Canada’s contemporary “Indian” problem. Where the Waters Divide is one of the few book monographs that analyze how contemporary neoliberal reforms (in the manner of de-regulation, austerity measures, common sense policies, privatization, etc.) are woven through and shape contemporary racial inequality in Canadian society.Using recent controversies in drinking water contamination and solid waste and sewage pollution, Where the Waters Divide illustrates in concrete ways how cherished notions of liberalism and common sense reform — neoliberalism — also constitute a particular form of racial oppression and white privilege.
Where the Waters Divide brings together theories and concepts from four disciplines — sociology, geography, Aboriginal studies, and environmental studies — to build critical insights into the race relational aspects of neoliberal reform. In particular, the book argues that neoliberalism represents a key moment in time for the racial formation in Canada, one that functions not through overt forms of state sanctioned racism, as in the past, but via the morality of the marketplace and the primacy of individual solutions to modern environmental and social problems. Furthermore, Mascarenhas argues, because most Canadians are not aware of this pattern of laissez faire racism, and because racism continues to be associated with intentional and hostile acts, Canadians can dissociate themselves from this form of economic racism, all the while ignoring their investment in white privilege.
Where the Waters Divide stands at a provocative crossroads. Disciplinarily, it is where the social construction of water, an emerging theme within Cultural Studies and Environmental Sociology, meets the social construction of expertise — one of the most contentious areas within the social sciences. It is also where the political economy of natural resources, an emerging theme in Development and Globalization Studies, meets the Politics of Race Relations — an often-understudied area within Environmental Studies. Conceptually, the book stands where the racial formation associated with natural resources reform is made and re-made, and where the dominant form of white privilege is contrasted with anti-neoliberal social movements in Canada and across the globe.

Research Ethics and Scenes of Justice

Chris Tenove wrote a very thought provoking reflection on ethics and research. Highly recommended. Research Ethics and Scenes of Justice.

Economentality: how the future entered government

Today I made the classic sort of mistake that comes when you’re doing fairly focused reading: I read a word I was used to seeing instead of what was written. Fortunately for me, it landed me in a great talk by Tim Mitchell, the author of Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil.

What was my mistake? I read the title of his talk as ECO-mentality when it was ECONO-mentality. Fortunately I at least got the subtitle right: how the future entered government. But, whereas I was expecting a talk on how time entered ecological governance, what I was treated to was how the future entered economics. I must confess, given the way that ‘ecology’ is often couched in narratives that beg some hard to stomach assumptions (like nature being the washing machine in which the language of ecology is wrung through), this talk may very well have been better.

It was interesting because it was about how the economy became an object, and how that object bent time to fit it. Mitchell didn’t make the connection I would have to Einstein, who first pointed out that neither space or time are independent of things. And so my driving question – what kinds of things? – was not what Mitchell was interested in.

Rather, his argument was that the broader project of development, christened in Truman’s famous post-WWII speech, was part of instantiating the economy as an object that was not just a set of material processes. That is, as the sort of thing that had its own relations that could be measured, correlated, put into metrics, but not directly known.

As a bit of background, the reason time became so important to the “economy” (as an object)  was that the first calculations of national economic activity took place shortly after WWII and worked retroactively to generate a growth curve from the late 19th century (1875 I think, but don’t quote me). That growth curve showed 3.75% annual growth. And that meant that when it was put on a graph with time on the x-axis and productivity on the y-axis it formed an exponential curve that went almost vertical in the very near future. So these economists were stuck with the problem first identified by Malthus: geometric growth in an arithmetic earth. The solution was to create a logarithmic scale: one that would turn growth into growth rates. In this way they brought the future into the object called the economy because future time could be credited or debited by arranging all of the things that measurements of  the economy correlated with (i.e. the metrics of GDP) into ascending or descending rates of growth. The economy, and its time, became governable. So the cyclical notion of time in Keynesian economics – where the market cycles through periods over overproduction and too much effective demand – was replaced alongside a new thing: the economy.

I am of course not doing justice to the nuance or scope of his argument, but hopefully I have not lost too much of it. Mitchell worked out these arguments in a fascinating bit of history of oil development where the predominant problem of the 20th century has always been abundance and where the task has been to make it scarce (and to keep it that way). The parallel to be drawn was that the abundance of time – the exponential curve that accompanied the economic object – required discipline in a manner similar to the way that an abundance of oil required discipline; by governing these objects through techniques that made them scarce, and which would endow them with a certain kind of anthropocentric (more accurately Eurocentric) value. He had lots of other great examples that I am churning over (specifically how the Aswan High Dam in Egypt is a pivotal instance where the future value of money in the new object “economy” first intersects with World Bank Loans that tie “development” to financial speculation).

His arguments touched on and off of modernity (that period Heidegger spoke of as, “defined by the fact that man becomes the center and measure of all beings. Man is the subjectum, that which lies at the bottom of all beings, that is, in modern terms, at the bottom of all objectification and representation.”). I tend to think modernity isn’t only about time, since neither space or time are independent of things.

But quibbling to yourself is a good way to stop thinking about a superb talk. And this one gave me lots to chew on.

Stockholm water week conclusions

The overarching report from the World Water Week held in Stockholm this past August is now available in this PDF.

It touches on a number of themes: economics, food/water security, land grabbing.

Also, preparations are underway for next year’s conference details here (including opportunities for young professionals).

Powerful interests: fracking and Sandra Steingraber

This is an interesting interview posted at Sage Magazine (Yale). I heard Dr. Steingraber speak a few weeks ago in Cambridge on her work in New York as an activist against fracking. Since I was also recently in northern B.C. talking with people there about similar technologies and their responses to environmental risks, it caught my interest.

Powerful Interests: A Conversation with Sandra Steingraber

By Jason Daniel Schwartz

Sandra Steingraber, PhD is an ecologist, writer, speaker, and cancer survivor who left an academic job in 1994 to pursue advocacy full-time. Heralded by the Sierra Club as ‘the new Rachel Carson,’ and recently named by Utne Reader as one of the ’25 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World,’ she has recently taken up the fight against hydraulic fracturing in New York state, writing vigorously against it in her column at Orion magazine. She is the author of six books, including Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis and Living Downstream: An Ecologist Looks at Cancer and the Environment. The latter was made into a critically-acclaimed documentary by Canadian filmmakers Chanda Chevannes and Benjamin Gervais. The film will be making its American broadcast premiere on Outside Television on November 22 at 8 and 11 PM EST.


Sage: In the film, and again in your recent pieces in Orion about fracking, you challenge the tendency among researchers to call for evidence, to see more data, before society acts. How do you see this manifesting in environmental challenges?

Sandra Steingraber: There’s an internal conflict, I think, of two conservative strains within science, both of which I believe in. First, scientists would rather err in saying “we don’t know” than claiming they’ve made a discovery they have to retract. I really believe in that—I’m very skeptical when I see suspicious data. But then there’s this other strain in public health that says that when people are put at risk of injury or death, you have to err on the side of removing them from harm’s way early. The default should be action, and you don’t need absolute proof for it. We managed to avoid a cholera epidemic in the 19th century in the United States in a way that the Europeans did not because we guessed—correctly—that shit in the drinking water was a causative agent, even though we didn’t prove that until years later.


Canada without the commons: federal gov’t undermining water protection

This is an op-ed I wrote that was published in The Mark News yesterday. I’ve included pdf attachments (on Ripl’s 2003 essay and a legal backgrounder from Ecojustice) and embedded videos in this version where possible.

Canada Without the Commons

Jeremy Schmidt

Post-doctoral fellow, Harvard University.
Published: November 5, 2012

Back when excessively complicated legal documents were bound together with red cloth, “cutting through the red tape” became shorthand for reducing unnecessary complexity. Today, in the shadows of successive federal omnibus budgets that “streamline” laws on fishing and navigation, Canada is rapidly cutting through its green tape – the complex mesh of social and ecological relationships supported by water, which are vital to Canadian society and its economy.

While red tape is expendable, green tape is necessary. Yet, cuts to both typically work to the advantage of those with power and at the expense of most everybody else. In this sense, the idea that waters for fishing and navigation are part of a shared commons has often served as an ethical placeholder for a much deeper empirical fact: We are bound together by the water that supports our social and biophysical communities. And this makes the current assault on water – the lifeline of our bodies, and the bloodstream of the biosphere (Ripl 2003)– a particularly negligent move by any who could stop it: legislators, senators, or Canada’s governor general.

Waters for fishing and navigation have been part of a common law heritage across many societies since late Roman times. But the proposed amendments to Canada’s 1882 Navigable Waters Protection Act will mean that the total protected water in Canada will go from nearly nine per cent of the total global supply of freshwater to 62 rivers and 97 lakes. These changes are a continuation of the dramatic changes to Canada’s fisheries laws accomplished this spring. Together, these omnibus bills result in a Canada without a commons, and ignore the fact that protecting water is not an option, but a necessity, for a healthy economy and a flourishing society.

Since the late 1960s, environmentalists have warned about a tragedy of the commons. But they always had something very different in mind: They expected that, without checks on profit maximization, individuals would keep taking more for themselves until the carrying capacity of an ecological system was exceeded and the shared resource base collapsed. In classic Greek style, the early arguments regarding such tragedies saw humans as locked into purely self-seeking behaviour where their fate is cast. More recently, there have been numerous studies of how communities create and foster rules that stop individual behaviour short of collective demise. But the collapse of Canada’s commons is no tragedy. It is not the outcome of personal proclivities, but of a political pen. In fact, 90 per cent of the water that remains protected under the proposed changes will lap against the shores of Conservative ridings.

The choice to abdicate jurisdictional oversight for the water commons at the federal level is one thing. To do so without consulting, or presenting the opportunity to, other levels of government or First Nations who may not be so cavalier about stewarding water is another. Problematically, as Green Party leader Elizabeth May has pointed out, other levels of government are limited in how they may fill the void left as the Conservative government ignores its constitutional responsibilities, because of the way the division of powers operate between different levels of government. So, as the Conservative party crusades against the commons, the best counter appears to be from society itself: the mothers, fathers, health-care providers, and everybody else who recognizes the wisdom in protecting our waters, and who expects the federal government to execute its constitutional duties as a requirement of democratic legitimacy.

There are two possible reasons for the government’s decisions, and they both fail. The first is that a constitutional holiday is needed because of strict, overbearing environmental laws. But Canada’s water laws are decidedly weak, and its capacity to develop evidence-based policies is weakening: Canada is one of the only developed countries in the world without drinking water quality standards (we like “guidelines”). Canada has no national water strategy, even though expert groups have been seeking one for years to stem policy gaps, and after the 1987 Federal Water Policy went nowhere. As of Sept. 30, 2012, there were 116 First Nations communities under drinking water advisories. And the government has recently pulled the plug on its Experimental Lakes Area, a unique world-class facility for developing policies based on evidence at a cost of around $2 million per year. Rick Mercer dedicated his Oct. 30 rant to water, noting that shutting the ELA down will cost around $50 million.

A second possible reason is that perhaps the Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA) was never about water itself, but about navigation. This is also false. As Ecojustice has noted [in this NWPA_legal_backgrounder] the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in a case over the Oldman Dam controversy in Alberta that the NWPA is “aimed directly at biophysical environmental concerns that affect navigation” and particularly so because of “the broader common law context in which it was enacted.” In that broader context, Jason Unger of Alberta’s Environmental Law Centre has suggested that litigation may be possible to challenge the proposed changes in the courts.

Once water is seen in the broader context of common law, Canadians should also be concerned with the moral audacity of a six-year-old government acting against the collective wisdom accrued through centuries of protecting common waters. Furthermore, the Conservatives are undercutting water protection at a time when other countries are increasingly prioritizing water. Just last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared water a security issue for the U.S. The European Union’s Water Framework Directive states as its first principle that, “Water is not a commercial product like any other but, rather, a heritage which must be protected, defended and treated as such.” And in New Zealand, a river was recently granted legal status as a person. So, while other countries are prioritizing their most precious resources, Canada is going against the current.

How should we prepare for a Canada without the commons, and for policies that cut through the green tape of ecological complexity that support our society and our economy? We should push provinces to maximally execute their constitutional powers in the protection of water. This will not solve federal problems, but it will further lay bare the failure of MPs to represent their constituents while fortifying what we can of our democratic heritage. Thankfully, many provinces and territories already have water strategies as a place to start from, and B.C. is even in the midst of modernizing its water law.

A second lever to pull would be to create democratic pressure elsewhere, such as in the urban municipalities, where 80 per cent of Canadians live. It is these places, particularly the rural municipalities that support our large energy sector, where the downstream costs of failed water protections – costs that will be borne by taxpayers – will be felt acutely as water treatment becomes more costly. Some movement is already afoot on this front, such as with the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association’s recently released water policy. Canada’s senate has taken up water-related concerns in the past, and the governor general should also hear the voices of Canadians.

Finally, what should the message be? Canadian water experts are calling for a new water ethic to replace policies that do not respect water’s constitutional role in sustaining our lives and livelihoods. This new ethic would introduce norms that reflect our interdependence and shared responsibility to steward water for health and well-being. And in this process, we do not need to start from scratch. We can draw on the lessons learned in Canada and abroad regarding how to govern shared resources. Many of these are the outcome of treating water as a common resource, so the current plan to abandon that path without an alternate framework is unacceptable.

Resilience as an operating system in the anthropocene

Garry Peterson’s recently re-circulated this post at the resilience science blog; very interesting, especially as a response to the New York Times article on replacing ‘sustainability’ with ‘resilience.’

Resilience as an operating system for sustainability in the anthropocene

Chris Turner, author of Geography of Hope: A Tour of the World We Need, writing in the Walrus about the Anthropocene and the coral reef crisis in his long article Age of Breathing Underwater:

I first heard tell of “resilience” — not as a simple descriptive term but as the cornerstone of an entire ecological philosophy — just a couple of days before I met Charlie Veron on the pages of Melbourne’s most respected newspaper. I was onstage for the opening session of the Alfred Deakin Innovation Lectures in an auditorium at the University of Ballarat at the time. The evening had begun with a literal lament — a grieving folk song performed by an aboriginal musician. I’d then presented a slide show of what I considered to be the rough contours of an Anthropocene map of hope, after which a gentleman I’d just met, a research fellow at Australia’s prestigious Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation named Brian Walker, placed my work in the broader context of resilience theory.