Muzzling scientists in Canada: an interview with Gordon McBean

Yesterday on CBC Radio Michael Enright interviewed Gordon McBean about federal policies regarding how Canada’s scientists disseminate research findings. The interview can be listened to here (18 minutes).

Gordon McBean is a professor of Geography and Political Science at Western University, policy chair at the Institute for Catastrophic Loss Reduction, a former Assistant Deputy Minister at Environment Canada and, though this certainly will never be on any other introduction, one of the readers on my PhD examination committee.

Here are some of the background notes on the interview from CBC’s website.

“Last summer, a rare but telling event occurred, when scientists left their labs to vent their frustration on Parliament Hill.  They marched in a mock funeral procession, mourning “The Death of Evidence.” More and more, Canadian scientists employed by the federal government say they are being muzzled by Ottawa. They are being told when, if, and how to speak to the public about their research.

For journalists, the ability to speak directly to researchers is essential to correctly convey complex ideas to the public. The federal government rejects the accusation that it is muzzling scientists.

Now the Information Commissioner of Canada has been asked to investigate. The request was made by the Environment Law Clinic at the University of Victoria last week. It alleges the government is systemically obstructing the right of the public and the media to speak to government scientists.” READ MORE HERE


Environmentalism 2.0(12, 13…) and nature v. nature

Slate published an article recently by Keith Kloor on the “battle over nature” in mainstream environmentalism. It starts out from a now well-rehearsed departure point: Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s declaration that environmentalism is dead.

Since then, as Bryan G. Norton so nicely put it, environmentalists are at best mourning a movement past. As the opening gambit of one of his major works states, the obits have been written. Of course, Norton doesn’t think this is exactly right. For him, what is dead is a particular version of environmentalism, one pitched between the preservationist (i.e. hands-off nature) view anchored in John Muir and the conservationist (i.e. use nature wisely) view anchored in Gifford Pinchot. Norton’s view is that it is this version of environmentalism that is dead.

So what comes next?

According to the Slate article, environmentalism 2.0 is the new battle for nature where the remaining preservationists are confronted by pragmatic modernists. If those are the two options, it looks to me like conservationism in a new outfit. And not, as Norton would have it, a new environmentalism characterized by a thorough-going pragmatism – which is a philosophic view where the test of truth is what prevails in the long run and in which experimental policies drive assessments of how to relate to nested and complex social and ecological systems. It is a philosophy, for Norton, of adaptive management.

But if this is so, of what interest is “nature” in the Slate article?

As I’ve noted here before, following some of Tim Morton’s work, working without nature is the way to go. But it is not quite accurate to say that we can do ecology without nature, as Morton asks us to do. I’m not interested in emphasizing differences, but my view is that ecology is entangled with nature. And that it will be so for the foreseeable future. Which is to say, even if we think that the concept, worldview, or proposition of “nature” is outdated, wrongheaded, or empty, it remains the case that the social and ecological systems we inhabit have been actively shaped by it for quite some time. So while we need philosophic work on doing ecology without nature, we also need a practical philosophy for an ecology entangled with it. We need something like transition ecology.

Back to Slate. It seems fairly clear that most of our existing environmental policies and institutional structures took shape at a time when environmentalism was alive and kicking, and when “nature” figured as the backdrop for plays of human drama; let’s say, mid to late 20th century. Putting things in this context clarifies where the Slate article goes off track: it is that environmental folk are already worried that regulations and institutions are too lax, yet they cannot admit that the kind of institutions we now have are inadequate. So on the one hand they want better regulations, but they have a poor foundation to build on. They have built their house on the sandy land (which, yes, is intended both as biblical metaphor and aimed at an interpretation of Leopold where he fits neatly into the preservationist’s building).

And this is where the Slate article gets it wrong in its idea that environmentalism 2.0 is right, or even a palpably new option suitable for 2012, 2013 or 2xxx. Or for any time in the Anthropocene for that matter. The mistake is that it pits failed preservationist ideas against an amplified and globally extended anthropocentrism, cloaked in the idea of ecosystem services (i.e. that the entirety of Earth Systems can be valued in terms of human well-being). And this is not a moral anthropocentrism (in some versions, yes, but that is not my point) but a social, scientific and technological one; where all that counts as the “world” is what befits our current and contingent understanding of our relationships with complex systems. But this is not a new foundation; this is building an ever teetering edifice.

And when you paint a wall white and decide its too bright, you don’t put on a new coat. You change colors.



How the ocean got its genome

MIT’s Stefan Helmreich gave a very interesting talk here last Monday titled “How the ocean got its genome.”

It was a blend of his work in Alien Ocean: Anthropological voyages in microbial seas and the new directions his research is taking. If you haven’t come across Alien Ocean yet, it is an excellent book. Here is the blurb from the publisher (UC Press):

Alien Ocean immerses readers in worlds being newly explored by marine biologists, worlds usually out of sight and reach: the deep sea, the microscopic realm, and oceans beyond national boundaries. Working alongside scientists at sea and in labs in Monterey Bay, Hawai’i, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Sargasso Sea and at undersea volcanoes in the eastern Pacific, Stefan Helmreich charts how revolutions in genomics, bioinformatics, and remote sensing have pressed marine biologists to see the sea as animated by its smallest inhabitants: marine microbes. Thriving in astonishingly extreme conditions, such microbes have become key figures in scientific and public debates about the origin of life, climate change, biotechnology, and even the possibility of life on other worlds.”

The one aspect of Helmreich’s new work that I found particularly fascinating was the trouble that ocean microbes present for definitions of species. In particular, the evolutionary ‘tree of life’ idea (where parents pass on their traits to progeny) gets very confused in the lateral transfer of genes amongst microbes. And this presents a big problem for identifying species as different “branches” that link to a common “trunk” in the tree of life.

It seemed to me that this lateral transfer essentially shifts the philosophy of biology from an inductive enterprise to an abductive one. This is not a really new argument, since the very idea that inferential bases for species classifications are abductive has already been proposed. But what is interesting is that when we give up on the inductive project of mapping individuals to general classes, that it is not just our ordering schema that gets confused. In the case of the oceans, for instance, where the great depths are frequently imagined to hold the earliest life forms (not always the case) what we get is a new set of problems over life itself.

I asked Dr. Helmreich what he made of this logical shift given his work interviewing scientists and following these debates. His answer was very interesting: that explanations for species were increasingly being sought based on what works – a functional, perhaps even pragmatist view of things. Latour’s new book “Modes of Existence” starts out with a similar anecdote, where a scientist responds to a skeptic not by an appeal to what is or is not the case, but with an appeal to the institution of science.

Canadian Senate hearings on Navigable Waters

I’ve been following the senate hearings on changes to Canada’s Navigable Waters Protection Act (NWPA). Under the proposed changes, which are part of a massive omnibus bill currently making its way through parliament, there will be a substantive rewriting of the law with significant changes both to the scope of water protection (only 62 rivers and 97 lakes out of ALL of Canada’s freshwater are covered in the new law) and in the type of protection afforded to water.

I was very pleased to learn that I could stream parts of the democratic process to my laptop earlier this week, and so now have the testimony of both November 20 and November 22, which can be viewed here and here. These two hearings of the Environment Committee have a total of five witnesses. On November 20, Tony Maas from the WWF and the Forum for Leadership on Water (FLOW Canada), Rachel Forbes from West Coast Environmental Law and David Labistour who is the CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op (Canada’s largest outdoor retailer). On November 22 there was testimony from the Assembly of First Nations and from Mark Mattson of the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers.

If only to appreciate the degree to which calls for clarity and the technicalities of both the law and political processes affect decisions, the sessions are worth viewing. For instance, the questions to witnesses often ask for specific examples that will back up their testimony. And then the conversation turns to examining the examples provided, with the strange inference supplied that if that example doesn’t demonstrate, in toto, the superiority of the witnesses proposed amendment, then the new bill should be passed as is. Of course the Canadian senate isn’t known for its activism; and with this sort of public reasoning it is not hard to see how procedural rightness overshadows consideration of substantive goods.

As a result, this emphasis on specific instances really changes both the epistemic targets and the ontological grounds for public reasoning. That is, rather than reasoning about a broad and diverse set of instances (which science typically treats statistically) or about ecological systems as objects that have sets of relationships that do not reduce to specific, closed examples, the questioners treat the witnesses as though what is at stake is a specific reading of the new law. But clearly that is not the only thing at stake. So in the Canadian imagination where the Senate is the “sober second thought” to parliament, democracy has some further pangs to go through if it is to fit itself to reality rather than vice-versa.

Nevertheless, my hat is off to the witnesses themselves, who took the time and spent the energy to present compelling grounds for amendments to the new legislation on topics of science, the right of the public to information, ecology, First Nations rights, recreational economics and environmental assessment.

VIDEOS: The future of water conference online

The full videos of “Cloudy with a chance of solutions: the future of water” conference held at the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard are now available on youtube. There are some excellent talks; some frightening details; some inspiring ideas. The list of speakers and talk titles can be found here. For the most part each youtube segment has two, sometimes three speakers, so you may need to fast forward if you don’t have time to view them all. I’ve also embedded them in order (I hope) below.

I hate to do this, because the entire day was excellent, but if I had to pick just one or two that really stood out I would recommend the talk by Patricia Hunt on environmental contaminants and reproductive health and the talk by Charles Tyler on endocrine disruptors and other emerging contaminants.





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.

Tim Morton Keynote: Underground Ecocriticism

Tim Morton’s keynote for Western University’s Underground Ecocriticism conference can be listened to on his blog here. The talk is around 40 minutes with another hour of Q&A. It is all worth listening to if you are interested in the predicament that ensues when human history intersects with geologic time.

Henri Giroux at Western: Public intellectuals and the common good

Earlier I posted about Henri Giroux’s lecture at Western University’s Public Humanities program. That lecture is now available on youtube.

Activism and the environment

I had the chance to watch the celebrated documentary If a tree falls: a story of the Earth Liberation Front yesterday. The film documents the story of one ELF member being tried for both criminal and terrorist charges as part of an investigation into the string of arson activities the ELF claimed responsibility for. In the discussion after the movie, one person raised a very interesting question: is articulating how far you are willing to go (in terms of direct action) to protect the environment taboo? That is, is it the kind of question that even among friends you would be uneasy giving an honest answer to?

The question intrigued me. Partly because there is a lot of rhetoric in Canada about being branded a ‘radical’ if you support environmental policy; that label was indiscriminately applied to anybody concerned with the environment (i.e. moms, small-businesses, municipalities) by Canada’s minister of natural resources, Joe Oliver, earlier this year. But another part of the intrigue was that on Thursday I attended a lecture by David Harvey at Boston Univerisity. Dr. Harvey is an expert on issues of political economy and social revolutionist thinking and a leading authority on how to interpret Karl Marx.

Harvey’s argument was really centered on how three things hang together: (1) the accumulation of capital; (2) class struggle, and; (3) urbanization. This short video provides the quickest explanation of his general thoughts on accumulation and the ways that economic processes create crises regarding what to do with surplus (i.e. profit).

But the bulk of Harvey’s argument was really about the ways that urbanization has been a site where a large struggle exists between building an environment based on economic principles versus building one based on human wants, needs and values. He gave the argument that crises exist when you have surplus capital and surplus labor side-by-side, and that the way to solve this problem has often been found in urbanization. He cited China’s building of ghost towns as a way to put capital and labour to work – in this case building cities and malls where nobody lives.

These arguments are detailed more closely in his latest book: Rebel cities: from the right to the city to urban evolution. There are also interviews with Dr. Harvey on this book available here and here.

David Harvey Rebel Cities

Okay, so where is all this going? Well, one of Harvey’s contentions was that the Occupy Movement represented a sort of direct activism regarding the spaces in, and rights to, the city. And, secondly, that this form of direct action stuck around for awhile. But did it change much? Well, no, it didn’t.

Since I don’t have any reason to distinguish activism regarding so-called ‘natural’ environments from ‘built’ environments, this all got me thinking that perhaps part of the reason direct action may not change much is that there are a lot of social taboos surrounding it. For instance, protest regarding these sorts of things can be complex if regulating or eliminating certain activities eliminates sources of income for families or even entire communities. So finding a common language to work them out in society is a real challenge. You don’t have to look far to find articles asking questions about this lack of social vocabulary. Just google things like: what was Occupy even about? what were its goals?

But more importantly, there aren’t many training sites where one can learn about how to effectively take up a political stick and start talking, let alone start walking. So I was really very pleased to see Bob Huish get a profile in the Globe and Mail recently on the courses he has developed at Dalhousie University (Halifax) that actually teach activism. This short video shows how some of his classes get at these issues in a way that tries not only to take direct action out from under the taboo umbrella but also to begin the process of developing a common language of action for a citizenry whose rights matter.

Henry Giroux: The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals

Henri Giroux, cultural critic and Global Television Network Chair at McMaster University, gave a talk this past week at Western University’s Public Humanities Initiative. I’ve been informed there will be a video up shortly. But until then, this article is a shorter version of the talk. It appears in Counter Punch.

The Disappearance of Public Intellectuals

With the advent of Neoliberalism, we have witnessed the production and widespread adoption within many countries of what I want to call the politics of economic Darwinsim. As a theater of cruelty and mode of public pedagogy, economic Darwinism removes economics and markets from the discourse of social obligations and social costs. The results are all around us ranging from ecological devastation and widespread economic impoverishment to the increasing incarceration of large segments of the population marginalized by race and class. Economics now drives politics, transforming citizens into consumers and compassion into an object of scorn.  The language of rabid individualism and harsh competition now replaces the notion of the public and all forms of solidarity not aligned with market values.  As public considerations and issues collapse into the morally vacant pit of private visions and narrow self-interests, the bridges between private and public life are dismantled making it almost impossible to determine how private troubles are connected to broader public issues….[read more]