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The ecocidal moment

Rowan Williams, the guardian
How do we live in a way that honours rather than endangers the life of our planet? Or, to put it slightly differently, how do we live in a way that shows an understanding that we genuinely live in a shared world, not one that simply belongs to us? This would be a good question even if we were not faced with the threats associated with global warming, with the reduction of biodiversity, with desertification and deforestation, with fuel and food shortages.

In his splendid book, Hell and High Water: Climate Change, Hope and the Human Condition, Alastair McIntosh speaks of our current “ecocidal” patterns of consumption as addictive and self-destructive. Living like this is living at a less than properly human level – McIntosh suggests we may need therapy, what he describes as a “cultural psychotherapy” to liberate us. That liberation may or may not be enough to avert disaster. But what we do know – or should know – is that we are living inhumanly.

We must begin by recognising that our ecological crisis is part of a crisis of what we understand by our humanity; it is part of a general process of losing our “feel” for what is appropriately human, a loss that has been going on for some centuries and which some cultures and economies have been energetically exporting to the whole world. It manifests itself in a variety of ways. It has to do with the erosion of rhythms in work and leisure, so that the old pattern of working days interrupted by a day of rest has been dangerously undermined; a loss of patience with the passing of time so that speed of communication has become a good in itself; a loss of patience which shows itself in the lack of respect and attention for the very old and the very young. It is a loss whose results have become monumentally apparent in the financial crisis of the last 12 months. We have slowly begun to suspect that we have allowed ourselves to become addicted to fantasies about prosperity and growth, dreams of wealth without risk and profit without cost. A good deal of the talk and activity around the financial collapse has the marks of what Alastair McIntosh calls “displacement activity” – it fails to see where the roots of the problem lie; in our amnesia about the human calling.

We have seen growing evidence in recent years of a lack of correlation between economic prosperity and a sense of wellbeing, and evidence to suggest that inequality in society is one of the more reliable predictors of a lack of wellbeing. It looks very much as if what we need is to be reconnected rather urgently with the processes of our world. We shouldn’t need an environmental crisis to establish that the developed world has become perilously out of touch with the experience of those living in the least developed parts of the world and with their profound vulnerabilities and insecurities…
(13 Oct 2009)

“All will be done again as it was in far-off times”

Tom Holland, The New Statesman
An urge to tell foreigners how to live their lives while getting rich from their labours has long been a characteristic of the west. “You say that it is your custom to burn widows,” the British general Sir Charles Napier is reported to have told a group of Hindus who were on the point of consigning a woman to a pyre. “Very well – we also have a custom. When men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and hang them.” Good, robust stuff. And maybe those concerned today with saving the women of Afghanistan from patriarchal bullying might, in their most secret fantasies, imagine themselves addressing the Taliban in similarly forthright terms.

It was not, however, as a campaigner for gender equality that Napier served in India. Rather, what ended up winning him his Order of the Bath and a statue in Trafalgar Square was his achievement in conquering Sindh, a region so fabulously wealthy that the East India Company had long dreamed of little else but getting it in its clutches. Napier, like the British empire that he served, gave with one hand but took away with the other. Good news for widows; less so for anyone obliged to cough up taxes to the Raj.

Not that the west has been alone in this. Perhaps it is the very definition of a successful civilisation that it should balance an aptitude for violence with a deep inner conviction that its morals are superior to those of everyone else. The Persians and the Romans, the Chinese and the Arabs: all of them blazed this trail. Where the west has been exceptional, however, is that both its greed and its ethical presumptions have been so destabilising to other civilisations that they have served to transform the entire world. For centuries, the face of globalisation was European; even now, with Europe itself in eclipse and the United States in relative decline, this seems unlikely to change. So deeply embedded in western presumptions are the structures that govern world affairs, from diplomacy to finance, from technology to the law, that it would take a truly prodigious effort to reset them on new foundations. Those who do dream of making the attempt, whether in the back rooms of the United Nations or in the badlands of Pakistan, largely lack the power to impose their will. Those who might have the power also tend to have other priorities. The Chinese, for instance, unlike the Americans, appear to have little interest in exporting their way of life around the world. As dramatic as the shift in the balance of power between east and west may be, it seems unlikely that Confucius will ever come to wield the influence in Washington that Marx and Adam Smith have done in Beijing…
(15 Oct 2009)

(Re)Imperializing Anthropology and Decolonizing Knowledge Production

Maximilian Forte, zeroanthropology
In promoting a “long war” against so-called “extremism,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has spearheaded initiatives to assimilate social scientists into the so-called “global war on terror,” with culture and ethnography being the two most salient areas of interest that drive the renewed military creep into universities, coupled with the expansion of military activity into areas previously dominated by civilian efforts, such as relief work (also see this, this, this). The result is a realignment of academic research with the imperatives of the national security state. Canada is by no means immune to this, it is merely a latecomer, as I will discuss later.

For the past two years the Pentagon has actively sought to recruit anthropologists, and now other social scientists, in its twin wars of occupation and counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan, taking the form of the Human Terrain System and now the much broader Minerva Research Initiative. The Human Terrain System, or HTS, embeds academics with military units, with the purported aim of mapping local cultural formations so that U.S. military can better understand who the local power brokers are, the prevailing customs, and material needs that can be satisfied to win local loyalty and collaboration with U.S. forces. HTS claims that its aim is to save the lives of U.S. troops first and foremost, and to lessen the need for directing firepower at local populations. Critics have argued, among many points, that social scientists are being used to better refine targeting, given that the Assistant Undersecretary of Defense, John Wilcox, noted: “the human terrain enables the global kill chain.” The embedded academics wear American military uniforms and carry weapons if and when they conduct interviews.

My belief is that it was created above all for domestic consumption, as part of a domestic propaganda effort and a public relations war conducted through the mainstream media. The aims include, in my view, quelling the homegrown intellectual insurgency of critical academics, by luring academics with salaries up to $300,000 when they are in the field, while at the same time promoting a new image for increasingly unpopular wars by emphasizing that smart people [and smart power] are replacing smart bombs, that a new intellectual elite is at the helm as personified by General David Petraeus, and that wars are now winnable because they are being fought within the cultures of the occupied. Ethnography is the shiny new tool in the armory of intellectual counterinsurgency. While the Pentagon takes over civilian developmental efforts elsewhere, it is bringing in more outsourced civilians into the war zone, contracted by British Aerospace in the case of HTS, and celebrating their counterinsurgency effort as an increasingly civilian affair…
(19 Sept 2009)

Do Increased Energy Costs Offer Opportunities for a New Agriculture?

Frederick Kirschenmann, The Monthly Review
Let us accept the current challenge — the next great energy transition — as an opportunity not to try vainly to preserve business as usual (the American Way of Life that, we are told, is not up for negotiation), but rather to re-imagine human culture from the ground up, using our intelligence and passion for the welfare of the next generations, and the integrity of nature’s web, as our primary guides.

— Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything1

One of the great missteps in most of the future energy scenarios propagated in the popular media is the notion that we can transition to “alternative, renewable energy” and thereby “wean ourselves from Mideast oil.” The underlying assumptions in this scenario seem to be that energy supply is an isolated challenge that can be solved without major systemic changes, that we can meet that challenge by simply switching from one energy source to another — from fossil fuels to wind, solar, biofuels or a host of other alternatives — and that our current industrial culture and economy then can continue on the present course.

Probably nothing could be farther from the truth. As Richard Heinberg points out, “Making existing petroleum-reliant communities truly sustainable is a huge task. Virtually every system must be redesigned — from transport to food, sanitation, health care, and manufacturing.”2

As Heinberg implies, the transition we now must contemplate is a shift from an oil dependent society to an oil independent society. Such a transition must include, but is clearly not limited to, our food system. The transition must be comprehensive. We must “re-imagine human culture from the ground up.”

The “transition movement,” which was launched by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture teacher schooled in ecological design, acknowledges such a comprehensive approach, and the movement is designed to help communities make that transition. Originally focused on transitioning towns, the movement has now expanded to transitioning islands, peninsulas, and valleys, and it may serve as a model for the kind of transition we need to contemplate in our food and agriculture systems…
(October 2009)