Upcoming conference on a “good Anthropocene” June 2015

This has quite a number of scientists, social scientists, and philosophers. Looks like an interesting event put on by the Breakthrough Institute if you are in Bay area come June: http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/dialogue/agenda/

Here is the description:

Over the last few years, ecomodernist thinkers have articulated a vision of a “good Anthropocene,” one where humans use our extraordinary powers to shrink our negative impact on nature. They have argued for the embrace of modernization processes to ecological ends. It is a vision of: urbanization, as people in cities have more opportunities and use resources more efficiently; intensified food production to increase yields and leave more room for nature; the expanded use of nuclear energy, which has zero emissions and the smallest land footprint of any energy source; greater development of GMOs to reduce chemical use and increase yields; animal-free meat; “re-wilding” former farm and pasture lands with wolves, buffalo, mountain lions, and even formerly extinct species — all the while supporting universal human dignity.

But the very discussion of a good Anthropocene triggered a critical response from some who see modernization processes and the age of humans itself as inherently risky and destructive. Since it is only under Holocene conditions that we know human civilization can survive, there can be no “good” Anthropocene, only less bad variants, they say. Raise global temperatures two, four, or six degrees and all bets are off. As such, critics of the good Anthropocene say, ecomodernism doesn’t adequately consider the potential for civilization-ending catastrophe or for a stronger societal connection to nature. Technology cannot correct for human greed, hubris, and profit-driven development, they say.

In light of this debate, Breakthrough Dialogue 2015 will focus on the question: “What is our vision of a good Anthropocene?” And it will ask related questions: Given global complexity, inequality, and ideological diversity, should we speak of many Anthropocenes rather than a single Anthropocene? How do these visions draw on and break from traditional environmentalism, on the one hand, and the status quo, where modernization processes seem to be proceeding? Given declining visits to national parks, the popular preference for pastoral landscapes, and the suburban backlash to increased wildlife, is more wild nature really what anybody really wants?

Keepers of the Water: Day 2

The second day of the Keepers of the Water VI picked up where day 1 left off. Literally, an extra time slot was made before the official program to pick up on the debate I referenced yesterday. That debate is essentially about whose numbers to trust (and why) when it comes to the links of groundwater, surface water, and hydraulic fracking. Unfortunately, this debate wasn’t followed through to its conclusion, but it did end up being between two hydrologists, which was highly informative.

Once the program kicked in, Jon Waterhouse, executive director of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council gave introductory remarks to a superb video explaining the collaboration between many nations that rely on the Yukon River in Northern Canada and Alaska. There are numerous links to videos and other multi-media projects from these efforts here. The main principle of success that Jon built his remarks around was: include everyone on their own terms.

The video itself gave a history of the Yukon river and its peoples; a river that is the 4th largest North American watershed and which discharges (at times) more water than the Mississippi. The result of abandoned gold mines, cold war military installations and environmental neglect have seriously damaged this once pristine river within the time of immediate recollection for those living there. My favorite line from the movie was spoken by a First Nations elder: “I haven’t really heard anybody hollering, ‘Hey! I want dirty water over here!’ Haven’t heard that from anybody.”

A very interesting theme that emerged in the video was that of social ecology – the idea that ecological problems are social problems. And the solution was a vast network of partnerships, engaged citizen-driven science, and a commitment to future generations. As one participant in the video put it, what is at play is a clash of systems between an industrial (i.e. fossil) economy and alternate (i.e. traditional) systems connecting law, land and people.

The next presentation was entitled “Thinking like a watershed” and in it, Grand Chief Stewart Phillip offered remarks on the truly different ways of ordering ourselves with respect to the world. Many of his reflections were interwoven with his own stories in B.C.’s water planning processes and I was so interested in what he was saying I failed to take notes.

After a quick break, we had four sessions that essentially primed us for breakout groups that followed. Ted White, who is working on B.C.’s new Water Sustainability Act provided an overview of the policy reform processes currently underway. He’s got a number of videos and further information here. I had the chance to sit with Ted most of the day and he has a great perspective on the challenges of getting on-the-ground dynamics into broad and far reaching policy reforms.

My talk was next. I tried to offer a history of western water norms and their initial roots in a conception of community. I traced that history, showing how the idea that water serves a community excluded those who didn’t count within the moral sphere of that community (i.e. First Nations and the natural world) and how that idea of community ultimately fell away in Canada by the 1980s. I offered the point that if we want to lead in water policy reform across Canadian nations we need to recover a commitment to community and then extend that commitment to an inclusive group. I based a fair amount of my talk in Luna and Aldo Leopold and my own work on the important ways that issues of territory evoke dimensions of land (and what counts as “land”) and power.

After lunch there were talks on the on-going sub-mission of this conference to develop an accord for water stewardship in the Arctic Ocean Basin. The Yukon model provided a shared basis for what can be done, and the talk focused on how to develop a shared vision for something similar here in Canada’s north.

A final talk touched on environmental monitoring; but I was less impressed with this talk. Only because it worked on too easily setting up science as a neutral arbiter and this, in my view, does not reflect what we know or our relation to complex systems.

The day concluded with break-out sessions along the four talks, with a great spirit of collaboration infusing discussions regarding how to go forward. I was thrilled to be a part of one on water governance, ethics and leadership, which drew a large audience and really needed much more time! But that is also what today is for.

I met Maude Barlow and others for supper here at the hotel, which was really nice. I had not met Maude previously, but of course know her work and we had a nice talk about our engagements with Jamie Linton’s work, What is water? The history of a modern abstraction.

While we were eating a group arrived from one of the blockades currently standing up against the Northern Gateway Pipeline (the pipeline is proposed to run from Northern Alberta to Kitimat, B.C. but is really just the most symbolic piece of 8 pipelines currently proposed to form a northern energy corridor across the land). Quite frankly, these guys were inspiring! I listened for several hours as their conversations with the local nations here ranged over how to recover their own concepts of territory, many of which were undermined by a government program of assigning trap-lines in the 1930s and people coming to use these external markers for their own imaginings. The conversation also brainstormed ideas of new ways to connect people to their land and to persist, so that after this iteration of western civilization runs its course, future generations will have a connection to their ancient roots. A powerful vision.

In addition to strong personal commitments to preserving their ways of life, there was an exceptional sense of solidarity between this group and indigenous peoples in Chile and New Zealand, made all the more poignant by many of their struggles being against the same companies. They have a great blog site to help get their message out to the world.

And I will leave the last words to what it says on the back of their business cards:

“Stop all proposed pipelines, LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] and Oil Pipelines. Stop the Tar sands and hydrofracturing shale natural gas. No unwanted mining, open pit or strip mining. Decolonize and free your mind, body, and spirit. Time to stand up and assert our laws and responsibilities.”

Keepers of the Water: Day 1

The first full day of the Keepers of the Water VI conference set out the stark contrasts over what to do with water and about the link of water and energy. As may be expected, the bulk of the discussion focused on Northeastern B.C. with additional places getting some attention (i.e. northern Alberta and the N.W.T.).

The day started off with welcomes from several folks and a short video that brought the concerns of Fort Nelson First Nations elders on water to a larger audience. Then Wade Davis presented. His main argument was twofold. First, he argued that the ‘modern industrial carpet’ of the western world does not hold the monopoly, or even the majority stake, in understanding water or our obligations to the planet. It only does so in one cultural imagination where other cultures represent failures at becoming modern. Second, he argued that all cultures be given equal consideration for the adaptive insights they give into the human condition. He referred a number of times to the ‘sacred geography’ that comes about when individuals make sacrifices of time, energy and goods to sustain particular places. These themes were interwoven in numerous stories about peoples and practices the world over. And his message was warmly received. What was additionally interesting to me were his conclusions regarding how climate change is a psychological problem for individuals and groups who believe they have a personal responsibility for taking care of the earth. He argued that, when viewed through a cultural lens, many non-western cultures are doing more to fight climate change than the west, particularly by changing their long-standing rituals for sustaining good earth relationships. They are making changes (too many to detail here) because they see themselves as failing to prevent rapid global environmental changes and this is causing severe psychological distress.

The rest of the day focused more on practical problems in the Arctic Ocean Basin. And a particularly interesting debate emerged between a hydro-geologist from Victoria and B.C.’s Oil and Gas Commission. The hydro-geologist made several arguments regarding the potential long term problems with fracking. These included the use of old wells from the 1950s and 1970s for disposing of wastewater and the industrial slurry from fracking operations. His view was that these old wells had the potential for leakage at multiple points that could affect groundwater. His second big point was that, because the effect of hydrofracturing can be to lower subsurface pressure of different bedrock formations, there exists a possibility that higher pressure groundwater nearer to the surface could been drawn down to areas of lower pressure. This could, in his view, draw down the water table considerably either through existing pathways in geologic formations or through manmade conduits, such as old wells. This seems an important consideration since western Canada has somewhere around 500 000 wells. So he made the case that the long-term effects of fracking include the possibility of dewatering many tributaries and rivers where these pressure gradients exist. A final point was the approvals for water use in fracking were made based on mean annual flows while rivers fluctuated drastically from the spring freshet to low winter flows.

The B.C. oil and gas representative argued that the hydrogeologist got the facts wrong, particularly on the mean annual flows. He argued that, in fact, water withdrawals are tied to actual surface water availability and that withdrawals are stopped when water levels are low (for instance, no withdrawals have been allowed since July of this year).  Along the way he gave some really interesting facts. For instance, 2/3 of B.C.’s natural gas already comes from unconventional sources (i.e. they come from wells made active by fracking). In 2011 the Oil and Gas regulator approved the withdrawal of 3.7 million cubic meters of water for these activities. Some of that water comes from surface water sources, but in other cases from deep saline aquifers. Interestingly, these deep aquifers have water with high contents of carbon dioxide and sour gas (H2S). The sour gas is removed before the water is used because it has market value and is too dangerous to pressurize for fracking. The carbon dioxide is off-gassed into the atmosphere in what is presently an unaccounted for dimension of greenhouse gas emissions from fracking that uses this water source. Privately, I asked if this would amount to very much carbon. The answer was yes. But no figures were given.

Ben Parfit, from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, made some really nice points about how to increase water oversight of fracking operations and in policy more generally. One I found particularly interesting was that, at present, the Oil and Gas industry in B.C. is the only sector with its own regulatory commission. Every other sector (forestry, mining, etc.) has to go through an independent body for water licenses (whether they are long-term licenses or short term permits). On the face of it, it just doesn’t look good because it has the appearance of special treatment. Further, B.C.’s oil and gas commission both issues permits and does the enforcement. It was interesting that in the question period it came out that only 1% of the Oil and Gas regulator’s staff are dedicated to issues affect water. In real terms, there are two people.

I will give the last comment on the day to Sam Gargan, a former Grand Chief of the Dene Nation. I doubt he has ever read John Wesley Powell’s 1888 article titled, “The course of human progress” where Powell argues that man “adapts the environment to his wants”. But Sam railed, in virtually the exact same language against the notion of adapting the world to us. His view was one of us adapting to it.

I am up today, right after the manager of Water Strategies and Conservation from B.C.’s Ministry of Environment. Then I have the pleasure of leading a working group session on issues of water, ethics and leadership. My presentation and the workshop will focus on the role of norms in complex systems and how our background assumptions lead us to characterize systems that we have incomplete understandings of (and which are changing in ways that make an objective view of them impossible) in ways that reinforce particular narratives, or conceptions, of overall systems dynamics. I’ll be drawing on my own work and on Luna Leopold’s short 1977 essay “Reverence for Rivers”.

Leopold panel at American Society for Envr. History

Just received confirmation for a panel on Aldo Leopold at the ASEH meeting in Toronto next April. I’m looking forward to it. Here is my title and abstract:

Leopold’s classification of things: ecology, nominalism and obligation(s)

Aldo Leopold argued for an extension of moral consideration to the entire community of things that comprise ecological systems: collectively, the land. Foregrounding the extension of ethics to this collectivity, however, was a shift that required reordering ethical obligations, and human participants to them, in ecological terms. This paper explores the re-ordering of humans as a different kind of thing—Leopold’s movement of humans from ‘masters’ to ‘plain members’ of ecological systems—which opens up ecological understandings of relationships among things more generally. It finds that Leopold anticipates critiques of modernity made by later social theorists, such as Bruno Latour, and the recent turn towards the ontology of things. But does Leopold offer an alternate path out of modernity? This is the key question of this paper. Investigating this question is taken along two paths. The first considers whether Leopold held to a version of nominalism regarding how things are classified. It queries whether he perhaps even held a type of dynamic nominalism where classification systems ‘loop-back’ to affect what are considered to be concrete possibilities for governing ecological systems at a given time and place. The second considers how Leopold grounds, in an interactive way, what kind of ethical and political duties are extended to what kinds of things. It concludes by considering how Leopold trades on collectivities of things—the land—and the notion of community through which he augurs for an extension of ethics.

Live symposium webcast October 12: Cloudy with a chance of solutions

From the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studyat Harvard:

“The Radcliffe Institute’s annual science symposium will focus on the important and challenging topic of water. Water is a theme that encompasses issues as varied as environmental contamination, public health, agricultural shortages, and geopolitical disputes. “Cloudy with a Chance of Solutions: The Future of Water” will focus on the ecological and human health hazards of environmental contaminants, the threats to drinking water of fracking, the promise of new technologies for water treatment, the need for national water policy, and the role of urban and other areas in conservation. The majority of the talks will focus on the “hard science” of water-related issues; others will offer the perspectives of experts from the policy, business, or urban-planning worlds to put the scientific discussions in a broader context and to link them thematically.

The event is free and open to the public. Registration is required by October 5. Register now.

The symposium will be webcast live on this page, in its entirety, on October 12. Registration is not required to view the webcast. Videos of the symposium will be available the following week on this site and on Harvard’s YouTube channel.”
More information, including a line up of speakers and times is available here.

Charles Taylor at Ryerson September 20, 2012

If you are in or around Toronto, the eminent political philosopher Charles Taylor will launch the Jack Layton Lecture series at Ryerson University in 10 days time. Details here or here.

It will be interesting to hear (second or third hand most likely) what Dr. Taylor covers under the listed title: “Reimagining, Restoring and Reclaiming Democracy”.

“Love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than
despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.”
– Hon. Jack Layton

Precarious Alliance: schedule for water ethics conference now online

The conference is titled “The ethics of water: everything flows from here” and will be held at Delaware Valley college Oct 11-12. An interesting line up of speakers; details on paper and presentation topics here.

Protect the Mackenzie River: Int’l experts meet in Vancouver

The Rosenberg International Forum on Water Policy, based in California, has partnered with Canada’s Walter & Duncan Gordon Foundation, in a policy workshop presently going on in Vancouver (Simon Fraser University) regarding the Mackenzie River Basin in northern Canada.

Several news reports have backgrounders and interviews: Ottawa Citizen, The Globe and Mail, Triple Pundit, The Tyee (a favorite site of mine and the place where I grabbed the cool pic) and the Vancouver Sun.

The Mackenzie is a critical site for energy development, now being called the “Amazon of the North” both for its size and the way its cool waters moderate Arctic temperatures, so I’ll be watching the outcomes of this closely and will post an analysis of the final report when it appears. It will also be interesting to be in Northern Canada so soon after, since the Keepers of the Water is just a few weeks away.

The conference runs until tomorrow, Septmeber 7, so there should be additional media content appearing in major dailies and environmental outlets.

Keepers of the Water VI: Schedule now available

I am excited to be a part of Keepers of the Water VI, a conference to be held this September in Ft. Nelson.

Much more can be learned about the Keepers here. As a bit of summary, here is a short passage from that at link: “The Keepers of the Water movement was born during the first Keepers of the Water Gathering in Liidlii Kui, Denendeh/Fort Simpson, NWT, held on September 7, 2006. This Gathering was called because the people of the northern Mackenzie River Basin were becoming alarmed with reports of increased turbidity and toxicity, and decreased volume of water in their watershed.”

This September’s conference will also focus on water stewardship in the Arctic Ocean Basin, which is fast becoming the crux of northern energy development, particularly on issues surrounding the Northern Gateway Pipeline (which an independent board of engineers declared yesterday as too risky given the likelihood of tanker spills)  and hydraulic fracturing (Apache Corp. claims to have done the world’s largest frack nearby, using 256 milion gallons of water for a single frack, and then besting that record by more than half a short time later).

The details of the conference – which include a cross-section of activists, policy makers and academics – are now available here.

I am scheduled to speak on the Friday morning and to lead a workshop that afternoon, both are working from the title of my session: Recovering community: water governance, leadership and ethics. Additional lectures in Alberta are planned for just after the conference, the details of which are still being worked out.

I will also try to blog as much as possible during those days as I learn more from others.

Conference CFP: Grabbing ‘Green’: Questioning the Green Economy.


Grabbing ‘Green’: Questioning the Green Economy.

17 May – 19 May 2013
University of Toronto, Canada

Abstracts due: Nov. 7, 2012
Papers due: March 1, 2013

Over the past two decades ‘the market’ has increasingly been represented as the solution to issues of sustainability and conservation, leading to a reimagining of ‘nature’. Market forces are now deeply embedded in the policy, planning and practice, of environmental management and conservation leading to constructs such as ecosystems services (and payments for them), biodiversity derivatives and new conservation finance mechanisms like REDD, REDD+, species banking, and carbon trading. These changes reflect a larger transformation in international environmental governance—one in which the discourse of global ecology has accommodated an ontology of natural capital, culminating in the production of what is taking shape as “The Green Economy.” This “Green Economy” is not a natural or coincidental development, but is contingent upon, and tovarying degrees coordinated by, actors drawn together around familiar (UNEP, States, World Bank, etc) and emergent institutions of environmental governance (TEEB, WBCSB, investment companies, etc). While case studies have begun to reveal the social and ecological marginalization associated with the implementation of market mechanisms in particular sites, this conference seeks to explore the more systemic dimensions involved in the production, circulation and consumption of “The Green Economy,” and the neoliberal ‘logics’ within environmental policy, conservation, development, and business that are mobilizing it.

We seek papers focused on the formation of associations,articulations, alignments, and mechanisms of circulation andimplementation that produce the social relations and metrics that markets require to function. We also seek papers that identify the ‘frictions’ that inhibit the production of these social relations.  This is not meant to avoid the empirical value of case studies but is an effort to link particular cases to the scalar configurations of power that mobilize and give them shape.

This conference builds on ‘Nature™ Inc.’ held at the Institute of Social Studies in The Hague from 30 June – 2 July, 2011 and a number of earlier workshops and conferences that have addressed market engagement with environmental policy and conservation in the context of neoliberal capitalism.  In this meeting we want to build dialogue around substantive papers.  However, rather than host a conference based only on short presentations, we are encouraging moderated discussion sessions with panels of authors, whose papers have been circulated in advance of the meeting. Panels will consist of 4-5 authors. Half of each session will be dedicated to discussion among the authors, and the remainder will consist of engagement with the audience. There will also be round-table discussions and a poster-session to compliment the panels.

Paper Workshops: panels that will focus on a moderated dialogue around 4 full papers.  Papers will be circulated to authors and audience in advance of the sessions so that the session will take the form of a moderated discussion among the authors, opening into a dialogue among the authors and audience.  Proposals for complete panels are encouraged.

Presentation Sessions: 90 minutes sessions of four papers.  Each presentation will be 15 minutes leaving 30 minutes for audience discussion and dialogue.  Proposals for complete panels are welcome, but individual submissions will be accepted, reviewed and organized into sessions.

Round-table Sessions: 90 minutes. Round-table sessions can involve a groups of panelists and are best-suited to address issues that do not necessarily lend themselves well to standard paper or presentation session – e.g., dialogue over innovative methodological practice required to study transnational governance.

Posters: poster sessions will be best suited to the presentation of case study research.  Posters will be allotted a regular conference session allowing authors to engage with the audience.

Topics include but are not limited to:

  • Accumulation by dispossession, property regimes, and “new” enclosures
  • The role of institutions in the production of “The Green Economy”
  • Alignment and articulation in environmental governance
  • Spatial variations in market relations    
  • Scales of environmental governance and biodiversity conservation
  • Configurations of Transnational Institutional Space
  • The green economy and spectacular consumption
  • Points of friction in the circulation and implementation of market mechanisms
  •  Strategies and practices of organizational alignment
  • Practices of institutional enrollment and capture
  • New conceptualizations of property and waste
  • Financialization and performativity in producing markets for nature.
  • The production of metrological regimes for ‘natural capital’.


The conference website will be available soon, with more information on registration and online submission of abstracts. 

Abstract and panel proposals are due by November 7, 2012. Abstracts can be submitted online at http://ocs.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/CDTS/GrabbingGreen under the “Call for Papers” section. Click on ‘Log In’ in the menu bar. This will prompt you to create an account. After you create an account you will be able to log in, submit abstracts, register, view accepted abstracts, and access the conference program. Abstract submission will open Sept. 16, 2012. 

To help us in planning please preregister at:http://ocs.library.utoronto.ca/index.php/CDTS/GrabbingGreen

Conference language is English. Authors will be notified of acceptance by Dec. 7. Complete papers are due by March 1st.

More information can be found on the conference blog and on the Facebook page:



The conference is sponsored by:

  • Centre for Critical Development Studies, University of Toronto, Scarborough
  • The Centre for Diaspora and Transnational Studies, University of Toronto
  • Department of Geography, University of Toronto
  • Department of Human Geography, University of Toronto, Scarborough.

Conference Organizing Committee:

Ken MacDonald (Chair)

Scott Prudham

Matt Hoffman

Thembela Kepe

Marney Isaac

Ryan Isakson

Neera Singh

Zach Anderson

 Advisory Committee
Jun Borras (ISS, Erasmus University)
Bram Buscher (ISS, Erasmus University)
Noel Castree (SERG, Manchester University)
Catherine Corson (Mt Holyoke College)
Ashley Dawson (CUNY Graduate Centre)
Jim Igoe (Dartmouth College)
Melissa Leach (IDS, University of Sussex)
Tania Li (University of Toronto)
Jason W. Moore (Umeå University)
Alejandro Nadal (El Colegio de Mexico)
Nancy Peluso (University of California, Berkeley)
Robin Roth (York University)
Sian Sullivan (Birkbeck College)
Erik Swyngedouw (SERG, Manchester University)
Sudha Vasan (Delhi University)
Paige West (Columbia University)
Peter Wilshusen (Bucknell College)
Anna Zalik (York University)