400ppm: Exit Holocene, Enter Anthropocene


Water and oil don’t mix, except in groundwater

This past week has been strikingly bad for oil spills in Canada. The horrendous loss of life with the explosion of rail cars in Lac-Megantic was compounded by 5.7 million litres of oil being dumped.

In Alberta, it has recently come to light that what sounds like an in situ mining project has now leaked tens of thousands of barrels of oil into the surrounding ecosystem with no sign of abating just yet. This sort of spill is a very serious kind because there is no off switch.

The reason there is no off switch is because in situ mining projects in the oil sands superheat steam to liquefy bitumen underground and then push the slurry out under considerable pressure. So the only way for the spill to stop is for the pressure to go down, which is not something anybody has control over at this point.

Meanwhile, oil and water are mixing all throughout the groundwater and surface water areas affected. And are doing so under a category of industrial activity that Canada’s federal government no longer regulates through environmental assessments but which amounts to 80% of oil sands activity. Whoops.

Recently, Postmedia news started a new series on oil spills in Alberta and one of the most eye-popping stats is that there has been an average of 2 spills per day for the past 37 years. If you are a research type, you might be interested in the open data made available on where and when those spills took place. If you are not, then a big excel spreadsheet is probably not that interesting.

I’m on my way to Alberta this week to spend time back in my home province.

How Machiavellian was Machiavelli? Quentin Skinner answers

This is an interesting lecture some 500 years after Machiavelli wrote The Prince.

Anthropocene, art, capital

ef183b46d2a32e1fc9dac9f7c6d9029eDuke University has a new exhibit entitled “Recording the Anthropocene” and it looks quite interesting (see pic!), I’d encourage you to check it out!

Also, Jason Moore has been offering some interesting thoughts on the anthropocene over at his blog. One of his contentions is that the idea brings humanity (the anthropos) together as an undifferentiated whole. This, to me, is a bit of an odd claim. You can get away with a much weaker one – certain forms of life have come to dominate planetary systems through their increased material throughput (i.e. massive consumption and expenditure of energy/waste).

Moore claims the anthropocene doesn’t ask us to think about the relationships of power, inequality or injustice that have beset us at all. And I completely disagree. Moore goes on to explain how the anthropocene obscures these existing relationships in some detail. He does so all the while working in a Marxian vein where he never explains the difference between a “species-being” (as Marx termed it) and the “anthropos” he sets up as the target of his criticisms. I’d be interested to know where the relevant differences lie for Moore.

I have a second query for Moore, which is why he decided to work out a critique of the anthropocene using the trope of “Nature” as a touchstone and the claimed “society-nature” relationship as a foil for the argument put forth. What about doing ecology without Nature, as Tim Morton has suggested?

One year at the anthropo.scene

Since I started this blog the Earth has traveled roughly 940 million kilometers while rotating on its axis 365.25 times.

Usually we only count the latter stuff – time – the way days compound into weeks, months, years, and so on.

But we are also on a trajectory through space. A year is pretty far.

Neither space or time are independent of things, like planets.

I’m looking forward to another year sharing what I find interesting.

Thanks to everybody who visits, comments and shares the site. Suggestions are very welcome!

This is one of my favorite things to do that I’ve seen in the last year: http://htwins.net/scale2/


The myth of water abundance is back! Thanks to the Fraser Institute…

For some time now Canadian academics and policy makers have been trying to kill the idea that water is abundant. But the myth persists.

The latest go-round comes from the Fraser Institute, who recently released this report (PDF) on Canada’s water. The report was complemented by a much shorter press release that you can read here.

It is the kind of report that makes several classic mistakes:

First, it doesn’t once mention First Nations, or the fact that there is a major discrepancy between the water availability and quality between First Nations and the rest of Canada.

Second, you won’t find the words ecology or groundwater anywhere.

Third, it generalizes away local problems by appealing to national statistics. So total water use for, say, energy is but a fraction of the total water in Canada. Sure, but is it a small fraction of the places where that water comes from?

These are just a few of the many errors in the report.

This report is the kind you wish will get shelved somewhere. It may be worth an op-ed rebuttal if it gets any media attention…which it should not.

Newly appointed: next disappointment? Canada names new environment minister

Yesterday the Canadian Government announced a new cabinet minister for the environment. The previous minister, Peter Kent, was recently eviscerated as quite possible Canada’s worst environment minister ever.

He certainly has presided over a precipitous fall. But the trend towards poor environmental regulations did not start with him. In fact, a 2010 article in Ecology Law Quarterly asks: What ever happened to Canadian environmental law? (PDF).

So, all this to say, the new minister is not inheriting a particularly envious portfolio.

The new minister is Leonna Aglukkaq the former minister of health and also the current chair of the Arctic  Council. When the latter post was assigned to her, researcher’s at McGill wrote an open letter stressing the need for an emphasis on food and housing security. Unfortunately, the tone so far set is one of development as a priority and everything else as a trickle-down effect.

A rising tide floats all boats, so they say. But it can also flood a lot of people out.

Anyhow, this emphasis on the North is all being set in a broader context of Arctic security, First Nations rights and a host of geopolitical issues regarding climate, sovereignty and the like. With that said, there is an interesting new article freely available on the the “New North” – a phrase that recurs often but which is laden with a set of assumptions about for whom the area should be governed and how. You can download it here (pdf).

And here is the abstract:

References to a “New North” have snowballed across popular media in the past 10 years. By invoking the phrase, scientists, policy analysts, journalists and others draw attention to the collision of global warming and global investment in the Arctic today and project a variety of futures for the region and the planet. While changes are apparent, the trope of a “New North” is not new. Discourses that appraised unfamiliar situations at the top of the world have recurred throughout the twentieth century. They have also accompanied attempts to cajole, conquer, civilize, consume, conserve and capitalize upon the far north. This article examines these politics of the “New North” by critically reading “New North” texts from the North American Arctic between 1910 and 2010. In each case, appeals to novelty drew from evaluations of the historical record and assessments of the Arctic’s shifting position in global affairs. “New North” authors pinpointed the ways science, state power, capital and technology trans- formed northern landscapes at different moments in time. They also licensed political and corporate influence in the region by delimiting the colonial legacies already apparent there. Given these tendencies, scholars need to approach the most recent iteration of the “New North” carefully without concealing or repeating the most troubling aspects of the Arctic’s past.

Mass nouns: Where did the “environment” come from?

Have you ever wondered where the term “environment” came from or how it came to be a mass noun – a catchall for, well, everything?

I did.

And I wondered because even though you get conceptually blistered with that term today, you can barely find it in books like Darwin’s Origin of Species. Back then, organisms related to their ‘circumstances’.

Turns out, there is a really great article on just this topic from Trevor Pearce. It traces how the idea of the ‘environment’ arose in the middle of the 19th century and was established most prominently by Herbert Spencer. Yes, the same Herbert Spencer who misconstrued evolution as “the survival of the fittest.”

Here is a link to Pearce’s article and below is the abstract. Very good stuff.

The word ‘environment’ has a history. Before the mid-nineteenth century, the idea of a singular, abstract entity—the organism—interacting with another singular, abstract entity—the environment—was virtually unknown. In this paper I trace how the idea of a plurality of external conditions or circumstances was replaced by the idea of a singular environment. The central figure behind this shift, at least in Anglo-American intellectual life, was the philosopher Herbert Spencer. I examine Spencer’s work from 1840 to 1855, demonstrating that he was exposed to a variety of discussions of the ‘force of circumstances’ in this period, and was decisively influenced by the ideas of Auguste Comte in the years preceding the publication of Principles of psychology (1855). It is this latter work that popularized the word ‘environment’ and the corresponding idea of organism–environment interaction—an idea with important metaphysical and methodological implications. Spencer introduced into the English-speaking world one of our most enduring dichotomies: organism and environment.

Do chemicals leaching into your water have genetic effects on reproduction? Also, fracking.

How much effect do plastics have on environmental health and even our genetics? This is a very good and incredibly sobering explanation of the debates about chemical leaching into water through everyday items from Patricia Hunt.

After that, there is a talk from Sandra Steingraber on fracking – she is a leading critic of the practice.

If you have time, a very interesting contrast between the two talks is the ways that these respective scientists position their research and its fit with public policy debates. And, moreover, how they themselves see their contribution and the role of the scientist.

“Community” and the Alberta oil sands – special issue now out

This special issue on ‘community’ and the Alberta oil sands from the Canadian Journal of Sociology looks very good. Here is the link to the journal page.

Vol 38, No 2 (2013)

Table of Contents

Fort McMurray, Wood Buffalo, and the Oil/Tar Sands: Revisiting the Sociology of “Community” Abstract PDF
Sara Dorow, Sara O’Shaughnessy 121-140
Community by Necessity: Security, Insecurity, and the Flattening of Class in Fort McMurray Abstract PDF
Claire Major, Tracy Winters 141-166
In the Shadows” Exploring the Notion of “Community” for Temporary Foreign Workers in a Boomtown Abstract PDF
Jason Foster, Alison Taylor 167-190
Where is Fort McMurray? The Camera as a Tool for Assembling “Community” Abstract PDF
Andriko Lozowy, Rob Shields, Sara Dorow 191-210
Cautionary Tales: Making and Breaking Community in the Oil Sands Region Abstract PDF
Clinton N. Westman 211-232
Epilogue: Through the Forest of Time Abstract PDF
Sourayan Mookerjea 233-254

Review Essay/Essai bibliographique

Balises pour une lecture croisée des textes de Luhmann sur la religion PDF
Diane Laflamme 255-267