Anthropocene re-writes: democracy, economics, liberalism

Peter Brown, from McGill University, has published a couple of new pieces on, respectively, democracy and economics in the Anthropocene. These work in some interesting ways to the piece I noted earlier from Andrew Dobson on whether resource abundance wasn’t what allowed liberalism to become, as Immanuel Wallerstein put it, “triumphant”.

Here is the opening salvo from Peter’s article on democracy in the Anthropocene, it came out from the Center for Humans and Nature. The other is a pdf download on ethics and economics in Anthropocene that came out in the fall issue of Teilhard Studies.

“Contemporary science radically reframes a fundamental idea at the heart of democratic theory and practice: that each person is free to act as he or she wishes so long as that action does not harm other persons. Two important sources of this idea are John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859). Locke held that our religious beliefs are internal matters and hence should be beyond the legitimate reach of the state, whose principal tasks are external—to secure “life, liberty, and property.” Mill held that the state has no right to interfere in what he called “purely self-regarding acts”—though interpreting this phrase has proved contentious, even for Mill. Despite the pedigree of these two philosophers, the assumptions their ideas contain have become problematical.”

Tim Morton on Hyperobjects: new book from U Minn Press

Tim Morton has a new book coming out with the University of Minnesota Press. The cover really caught my eye; here it is with a draft blurb, for the back cover, I believe, that I scooped from Tim’s blog.



The world as we know it has already come to an end.

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us as it does with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding. Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place. In this book, Morton explains what hyperobjects are and what they mean for how we think, how we coexist with one another and with nonhumans, and how approach and understand our politics, ethics, and art.

Moving fluidly between philosophy, science, literature, visual and conceptual art, and popular culture, the book argues that hyperobjects mean that the end of the world has already occurred in the sense that concepts such as world, nature, and even environment are no longer a meaningful horizon against which human events take place. Instead of inhabiting a world, we find ourselves inside a number of hyperobjects, whether climate, nuclear weapons, evolution, or relativity. Such objects put unbearable strains on our normal ways of thinking.

Insisting that we have to reinvent how we think to even begin to understand the world we now live in, Hyperobjects takes the first steps, outlining a genuinely postmodern ecological approach to thought and action.

Timothy Morton is Rita Shea Guffey Chair in English at Rice University. He is the author of many books, including The Ecological Thought and Ecology without Nature. He blogs frequently at Ecology without Nature.


Upcoming talk at Acadia University: Valuing water

I’m delighted to be heading to Acadia University next week to give a talk just ahead of World Water Day, which is held annually on March 22. The talk is on valuing water resources. Here is an overview:


Water is neither only physical nor wholly social. As such, its value is intractably linked to how it is classified, and this informs much of the debate over how it should be valued. Is it a good? If so, is it an economic or a public good? Are those things at odds? If it is not a good, is water best classified in terms of a heritage of mankind, an individual human right, or something else? This presentation examines how water is valued at the intersection of society and ecology and, specifically, how the widely held idea that water is a resource inflects the dominant ways in which its value is understood. I provide historical context regarding the cultural notion that water is a resource and then trace four periods of water resources valuation. These set the strong social norms of early 20th century planning against the rise of individualist forms of valuation that subsequently gained prominence in both economics and social policy. I also track the gradual rise of ecology as a locus for competing social and economic claims regarding the value of water resources, a process now culminating in the idea of ‘ecosystem services’. By mapping these two dimensions of water policy, and their intersections, the attempt to value water resources can be explained in terms of the difficulty water presents to idea that it is merely H­2O or that its value is wholly socially constructed. Further, it also helps to explain why we are faced with our current water policy challenges and not others.

Ecological economics: for and against

Historically, the logic of straw polls was that people care about the environment when the economy is doing well, not so much when it tanks. Remember those halcyon days of 2005 and how the environment fell off the map in 2008? Well, economics probably had something to do with it.

This makes the writings, lectures and debates about ecological economics of late very interesting. They are jostling for elbow room, you might say, as environmental and economic issues rise to prominence in public discourse at the same time. For instance, debates over pipelines are intertwined with debates over how to kickstart sluggish economies.

Last summer, Mark Sagoff (George Mason) wrote an interesting piece criticizing ecological economics as carrying over too many metaphysical assumptions about “Nature” into both ecology and economics. He also gave the interview below back in 2011 on the twin failures of ecological and environmental economics.

More recently, the Center for Humans and Nature has been running a series on ecological economics and scaling the economy to the biosphere. This series by the CHN focuses on resilience. Resilience, long a mainstay in ecology, is the new buzzword for economics after having gained significant momentum at the last Davos meeting. Anyways, I highly doubt the ‘resilient dynamism’ making the rounds over cocktails amongst the worlds richest folks resembled much of the ecological resilience pioneered by C.S. Holling in the early 1970s or now being carried on by the Resilience Alliance.

At any rate, here is the the lead off video from the Center for Humans and Nature from Peter Victor (York):

Modern water ethics: implications for shared governance

Received the proofs of a forthcoming article in Environmental Values. It was co-authored with Dan Shrubsole and should be out in the August issue. Here is the abstract:

“It has been suggested that water and social values were divorced in modernity. This paper argues otherwise. First, it demonstrates the historical link between ethics and politics using the case of American water governance. It engages theories regarding state-centric water planning under ‘high modernism’ and the claim that water was seen as a neutral resource that could be objectively governed. By developing an alternate view from the writings of early American water leaders, J.W. Powell and W.J. McGee, the paper offers a way to understand the project of state-centered governance without the claim that water falls to the latter half of a society/nature dualism. Second, the paper reviews how the emerging ‘water ethics’ discourse helps organize both the ethical and legal norms at play within contemporary political shifts towards decentralized governance. The review identifies how McGee’s early influence may warrant more attention, both in terms of water governance and environmental ethics. The paper concludes by arguing that, given the arguments presented, success in decentralizing water governance turns not only on political considerations, but also on fairly ordering normative claims as part of fostering and extending the reach of coordinated water governance.”


Dancing on our Turtle’s Back: Leanne Simpson lecture and new book

Leanne Betasamosake Simpson is a writer, scholar, artist and activist. She is a powerful voice. Her latest book is Dancing on our Turtle’s Back and I have posted information on it below. Here is a lecture she gave at the University of Victoria with the same title:

Many promote Reconciliation as a “new” way for Canada to relate to Indigenous Peoples. In Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re-Creation, Resurgence, and a New Emergence activist, editor, and educator Leanne Simpson asserts reconciliation must be grounded in political resurgence and must support the regeneration of Indigenous languages, oral cultures, and traditions of governance.

Simpson explores philosophies and pathways of regeneration, resurgence, and a new emergence through the Nishnaabeg language, Creation Stories, walks with Elders and children, celebrations and protests, and meditations on these experiences. She stresses the importance of illuminating Indigenous intellectual traditions to transform their relationship to the Canadian state.

Challenging and original, Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back provides a valuable new perspective on the struggles of Indigenous Peoples.

“This work is alive with insight and creativity. Simpson’s words dance through the heart of Anishinaabe resurgence with hope, grace and beauty. It is a must read for everyone interested in re-energizing Indigenous movement throughout Turtle Island.” John Borrows, Robina Professor in Law, Policy, and Society, University of Minnesota Law School

Re-municipalisation. Translation? The reclaiming of water from private enterprise

I received news of the video and information below recently, and see there is also a new essay on water privatization available from the Global Water Forum.

Remunicipalization: Putting Water Back into Public Hands
The video is a 5 minutes motion design documentary about cities reversing water privatization to regain public control. It explores water ‘remunicipalisation’ in Buenos Aires and Paris, looking at the challenges and benefits of reclaiming public water. It calls on citizens worldwide to mobilize around this option. The video was produced by Transnational Institute (TNI), Municipal Services Projects (MSP) and Corporate Europe Observatory(CEO). Credits: Dent De Cuir

The version with Spanish subtitles is available at
The version with French subtitles is available at

Find more case studies on the transition from private to public water provision (Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Hamilton, Canada; and a national-level experiment in Malaysia) in the book available for free download at:

The Spanish edition of this book is now available at:

Also visit TNI and CEO’s Remunicipalisation Tracker at


Short remarks on Latour’s final two lectures

I watched the final two of Latour’s Gifford Lectures, which are helpfully arranged and available here. On Latour’s site you can also just download the pdf notes for all of the talks (Or click here to download them). I’ve already posted a few thoughts on the earlier lectures (here, here, and here, for instance).

These last two lectures were also interesting, particularly because Latour’s attempt to ‘face Gaia’ in the Anthropocene leads him to cherry-pick from Carl Schmitt a notion of politics as contests between enemies. I’m not convinced this is all that ecological. Schmitt’s idea that politics originates from the possibility of annihilation, of there being no over-arching set of rules for adjudicating between genuine combatants, is not one I find compelling. It is itself a very modernist idea to think that genuine political possibility proceeds from this basis; and it is odd that Latour does not consider how cooperative exercises are required for contests to happen at all. Call me old fashion, but abandoning to either ‘competition’ or ‘cooperation’ is not an easy fit with ecology. Both happen.

Latour did make a very interesting set of statements about how we may have tried to unite ‘humans’ too quickly under a common banner, and that part of dealing with the Anthropocene will be to step back from globalized ideas of humanity. This isn’t going to sit well with anybody who thinks that self-constituting individuals are what underlie the sovereignty of self-governing societies. Latour didn’t push the line very far on this issue; but he should. It would be a good way to decolonize ideas about autonomy, rationality and so forth. It would also confront some of the incongruity between the Anthropocene and liberalism. On this last topic, an interesting paper by Andrew Dobson came out in Environmental Values yesterday on whether liberalism depends on resource abundance.

Under Western Skies: conference videos now up

The complete videos of the keynotes and plenaries at the second Under Western Skies conference held at Mount Royal in October 2012 can now be accessed at the conference website–

Donald Worster, “Facing Limits: The Limits-to-Growth Controversy Since 1972″

Alanna Mitchell, “Finding Hope in the Carbon Crisis”

Canada Parks Panel, “Ecological Integrity in Canada’s National Parks”

Gary Paul Nabhan, “Prophetic Agrarian Visions of the West”

Louise B. Halfe, “Green Earth–The Wounded Healer”

Tom Radford, “Making a Film About Science and the Oilsands”

Scott Denning, “Responding to Climate Change in the Third Millennium”

Mishka Lysack and Preston Manning, “Is It Possible to be a Green Tory?”

Final Keynote Roundtable

Jessica Ernst and Peter Von Tiesenhausen Panel, “Secrets of a Frac Cover-Up” and “Alternative Strategies”

Stationarity, ecology and law: which decisions are final?

There is a very interesting post over at Law 2050 on stationarity and climate adaptation in law. And it makes reference to a new 2013 paper in the Duke Law Journal.

The idea of stationarity is well-known in hydrology as the assumption that natural variability fluctuates within an overall envelope of stability. So we might have more or less precipitation or water availability in a given year but outer limits of variability exist such that, year over year, things are relatively stable. This is what allows planners to build for 50- or 100-year floods. But as many people will notice, we seem to have 50- or 100- year floods more often than fifty or one hundred years. And this has led to a sustained questioning of the assumed stability of things and to a 2008 by a paper in Science claiming that stationarity is dead. The argument is that human forcing on climate and hydrological systems has taken natural variation out of the envelope – there are now no clear limits to variability.

I used the rejection of stationarity in a recent paper to show how we need to rethink policy concepts in the Anthropocene. For instance, the idea of “renewable water” is common in policy discourse, but it relies on the idea that there are annual stocks and seasonal flows of water and this assumes that water variability is relatively stable over time. Take away that assumption of stability and the idea that water is “renewable” is not so straightforward (if it remains workable at all).

If we consider the idea of stationarity as it pertains to law, it raises anew a question asked in the early 1990s by legal scholar Dan Tarlock in his essay “The nonequilibrium paradigm in ecology and the partial unraveling of environmental law.” In that paper, Tarlock argues that the idea of a stable, natural world is what links science to law in a relevant way. This is because in a stable world the outer limits of things are more or less fixed. This is helpful in law because we need to be able to bind a case somehow in order to reach a final judgment – binding a case in certain ways is what allows certain things to be evidence and other things not to be. Similarly, the idea of outer limits in early ecosystem science suggested that what we need to do is develop environmental laws that would keep us from pushing things off balance. Think of early ideas of a “maximum sustainable yield” in forestry. There the idea was that we can keep taking a certain harvest because the forest as a whole was stable over time – things were in equilibrium.

It is now common, however, to think of complex systems as being at a distance from equilibrium. Think of your body. It hums along at 37 degrees C and works hard to keep it that way regardless of the temperature in your room, building or the environment. So your body is at a distance from equilibrium. If it was not, you would be ill; possibly dead. Similarly, the nonequilibrium paradigm in ecology suggests that broader systems, even the earth itself, work not by seeking stability or equilibrium, but by not doing so. So too in the forestry example. It is not the case that we can develop maximum sustainable yield models that assume the forest itself is always oriented towards stability. Forests are changing and adapting, as Nancy Langston’s classic book on the topic makes clear (Forest Dreams, Forest Nightmares).

The idea of nonequilibrium systems troubles the fit of ecological science and the law. In brief, the law will need to catch up to what we are learning about complex systems and to formulate other ways of reaching decisions that do not presume that things will remain relatively stable over time. The paper out in the Duke Law Review is really a nice contribution on how we might begin to think of the fit between environmental law and complex systems without the assumption of stationarity and, in addition, how we might use what we have learned from non-stationary systems to adapt to surprises both in ecological systems and in social systems, like the law itself.