How does the race to make algae do tasks for us undermine the ability of those algae to perform their metabolic tasks?
My colleagues and I have a new article out looking at the limits of enclosed ecosystems (lab controlled algae breeding for energy/food/oil, etc). Algae live in consortia and need communities of different organisms to flourish.
How can we design our bioreactors to be more interspecies ecosystems rather than sterile systems, in order to reduce the energy use and inputs for algal photobioreactor (PBR) systems?
When we farm fish, do we think that, perhaps, we’re being farmed as well? If not? Why not?
When we bind life to fulfilling one function: delivering to us what we think we need; do we ponder whether our life also is bound to what someone else desires?
When we subordinate another, do we think that in this same process we are also being subordinated?
These are not idle thoughts, but the fruits of different ontologies. If we believed, for instance, in the Kantian Categorical Imperative – popularized as the ‘do unto others as they would do unto you’ Golden Rule – perhaps more advanced cultures, such as various indigenous peoples and cultures that still venerate wisdom, sophia, might understand it thusly:
It is not just wrong to make another your instrument (your tool) because it takes away their autonomy and agency and cheapens their life and does not develop their capacities not enable the universe to experience more flourishing which could lead to morphic resonance of higher echelons of joy for all – it is because when we involve ourselves in instrumentalism, we become tools.
Hegel basically said as much in his Master-Slave dialectic in Phenomenology of Spirit. When we outsource tasks, we also lose our ability to do things that might again become necessary. By commanding, we also become dependent. It’s like the modern white collar worker who can make you an excel spreadsheet but can’t change his own tires. That’s why when we outsource the growing of our food, we become slaves (or addicted, or susceptible) to the machinations of oligopolists providing our food. They can do anything they want, and unless we’re willing to seriously challenge their power, we’re helpless.
But the thing about instrumentalism which is so rich, is that in a relational ontology/cosmology, you are what you eat eats, to quote Michael Pollan. It’s not just that you do something and get away with it or not according to cosmic laws, but that depending on how you care for and treat yourself and the world, the laws governing reality (for you) themselves change. And when enough people make certain decisions, to enslave and instrumentalize, the planetary oversoul, or noösphere itself reflects the shared practices, calls in attractor energies, and signal boosts them.
This is part of why the relativists and constructivists are on to something. Reality does morph and transform according to how we relate. But that doesn’t mean that you can just do whatever you want with impunity. To the contrary, it becomes very clear that just the opposite conclusion is warranted. The fabric of the responsive universe (Meeting the Universe Halfway, thanks Karen Barad) folds to amplify and feedback our impulse. We have creative direction to alter – but not dominate – the relationship of the circuits of fate and possibility. So, it really matters if our heart is kind, our mind is unperturbed, and our body is feeling at peace, so that we can radiate in our thoughts, emotions, actions, intentions – extensions of these frequencies, rather than ones of rancor, hate, resentment, ressentiment, shame, guilt, regret, not-being-good-enough, imposter syndrome, etc.
In conventional reality, none of this really matters. The rules of the game are given by either nature or culture (natural law or positive law) in a fixed manner. They don’t change. So all you have to do is to learn them and stick with them. And then once you get good and getting consistent results, you can learn where you can cut corners. And as you cut more corners and cheat a little bit, you can notice where in your life the ripple effects of karma from such actions supersede on your mission, or not. Are all cheats just boons, unqualified goods? Or, does such ‘cleverness’ kick you in the but, destroy your sleep, keep nagging worry and anxiety eroding your quality of life? Or worse: do the thinks that you care about start crumbling around you, and you don’t know how to cope, so you just double down on extractive behavior?
These are things we should ponder, and get clear from the outset. This should be the first question we ask of each other before we shake hands.
In an Earth Day issue of Time magazine (April 26/ May3 2021), we have an advertisement from the RJ Reynolds (or Reynolds American) tobacco company “Natural” American Spirits proclaiming “in more ways than one, bees are worthy of our love.” Yes, we ought to love the bees, and smoke cigarettes made by BAT (the owner of Reynolds), the #2 largest tobacco company on earth. This is what we call “bee washing,” and companies use it because it works.
“Beewashing” is using “save the bees” pleas to sell more product.
It resonates with people because for some odd reason, just like early Christian monks organized their monastery on the beehive, we know deep down that the fate of the bees and our fates are intertwined. As Einstein quipped, if bees disappear from the earth, humanity soon follows.
My paper looks beyond the rational reasons for why humans seem to be so captivated by bees – why we are willing to act for them, despite their puny size and relatively difficult to anthropomorphize characteristics (charismatic microfauna, they have been called).
I look at the documentary #QueenoftheSun and novel #FifthSacredThing by Starhawk as depictions of human-bee interspecies relationships based on love & reciprocity as indicative of the spiritual undergirding driving our defense of bees, and suggest such goodwill travels to other contexts. I conclude that connecting with people’s more theological and cosmological orientations is a successful way to motivate falling in love with the earth again, and attending to those aspects of the world deemed expendable in meeting our needs through industrial means. Such care and connection is not without it’s own illusions and perils, but remains an inextricable thread to solving our global climate crisis of meaning as well as material mattering.
The thrust of the paper is that plant neurobiology aims to borrow the nomenclature of animal (including human) biology in order to boost the moral standing of plants. By showing analogs between animal and plant hormones and processes (analogs to brains in the root subapex, as Darwin originally postulated), plants can be treated as moral patients. However, this approach fails to acknowledge the difference of plants, and value that difference. In attempting to use animal biology language for plants, however well intentioned by plant neurobiologists, speaking in the master’s language fails to do plants justice, and reaffirms the human- and animal-centric moral evaluative position. Instead, I offer a (non-utilitarian) pluralistic account of value that allows recognition of plant intelligence without requiring that intelligence to measure up against mammal intelligence.
Here’s the abstract: Plant biologists widely accept plants demonstrate capacities for intelligence. However, they disagree over the interpretive, ethical and nomenclatural questions arising from these findings: how to frame the issue and how to signify the implications. Through the trope of ‘plant neurobiology’ describing plant root systems as analogous to animal brains and nervous systems, plant intelligence is mobilised to raise the status of plants. In doing so, however, plant neurobiology accepts an anthropocentric moral extensionist framework requiring plants to anthropomorphically meet animal standards to be deserving of moral respect. I argue this strategy is misguided because moral extensionism is an erroneous ontological foundation for ethics.
This Thursday, November 2, 2017, from 6-10pm, I’m very pleased to be presenting my work on interspecies seeing at the California Academy of Sciences. Their NightLife series, where the CAS becomes a 21+ venue for cocktail-fueled science, exhibits cutting-edge hands-on research to the public. Mingling scientists and community, the evening also offers access to their planetarium and living rainforest biosphere exhibit.
My exhibit will be on Interspecies Vision–a look at how other critters see the world, and how we can make sense of their sensory experience through the confines of our human-specific senses.
We’ll also be presenting the 4th yellow experiment: a yellow that only 2-10% of women can distinguish as different, based on the fact that instead of being trichromates like the rest of us (3 different types of color cones in their eyes), they actually have a fourth cone, making them tetrachromates capable of seeing a wider range of the visible color spectrum.
This after-hours museum-going made fun experience seeks to thrill with inquiry, curiousity, and the bizarre wonder of nature.
With such a provocative title as “Pet Ownership Protects Us Against Allergies,” UCSF’s Dr. Homer Boushey makes the claim that children brought up with pets inherit some of their protective microbes that mitigate against developing allergies.
While certainly the science on exposing human children and adult humans to other forms of life soundly concludes that microorganism transfer is on the whole necessary for healthy (mind and body) development, owning life for the instrumental good of health is quite a quixotic mission. Destroying the planet and then importing charismatic genetically-altered (through breeding now, later through genetic engineering) cute critters that bypass our evolutionary instincts for fear by mirroring the oversized eyes of babies and other exaggerated features, is like getting silicon peck implants instead of actually doing manual labor to help society. It puts a natural symbiotic process into the realm of money–the financialization of nature. This devalues nature as such, and sees pets in terms of their use value for boosting infant immune systems. Such a logic is hopelessly backwards. Instead, we should be concentrating our energies on rewilding our cities, returning our suburbs to parks where humans can go, and letting our wild areas get a breather from human interference for at least a few generations. Then, living everyday with healthy dirt, animals and plants, we will receive the bounty of beneficial microbes we need to stay healthy and avoid sickness. Proper farming and permaculture principles, and creating new definitions of hygiene which are integrated with healthy ecosystems, achieves to a much greater degree the goods Dr. Boushey might wish to confer on our ailing feeble-minded culture, while also solving most of our other problems along with it.
Furthermore, it’s high time humans question ownership. Ownership of other bodies for our own benefit–bringing these bodies out to use and cuddle or parade, is just another misbegotten form of biopower. Where are those Foucaultians who apply biopower to pets? How do we think humans got the beneficial microbes we needed before there was even possible ownership of pets? Perhaps we need to rethink our antiseptic western civilization, our throwaway economy, and slavery of life to realize that continuous contact with the more-than-human word is the only way we will regenerate ourselves and nature.
I’m honored to be presenting on “The Ecological Self: Harnessing the Power of Our Interspecies Nature for Good” alongside Flow author and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi this Saturday, May 13th 2017 at the Creative Edge Conference organized by West LA College.
I’ll be speaking during the Creative Space Sessionduring 10:45am – 12:20pm.
The WEST TALKS, in the spirit of the TED Talk series, aim to expose students and the public to avant-garde ideas that can help transform the notions under which we operate as a society. Creativity, thinking diagonally, will give us the tools to confront the systemic breakdowns we currently face, and allow us to create better alternatives with finesse and elegance.
The Conference is free with RSVP. Click here to download a PDF of the Conference.
This is the first time since I moved back to California last November that I’ve been able to engage a world-class group of scholars and change-makers gathered together with the sole purpose of harmonizing human systems with natural ones.
Last weekend at the 27th annual Bioneers Conference, I had the pleasure to converse with an array of people implementing the ideas of ecology and symbiotic biology so crucial to this current phase of our planetary development.
In moving out of linear, industrial factory-based models of the world and the self, the cyclical, spiral, redundant, diverse, resilient, and networked models of living organisms and ecosystems emerge as the tenable schemas best suited to life–human and otherwise.
Biological Pioneers are those who despite resistance from business-as-usual forge ahead to dream up, pilot, and implement technologies and policies that nudge our consciousness and practices towards a more equitable, sustainable, diverse, and fruitful organization.
As this work has profound resonance with my own projects, I was delighted to share company with Paul Hawken, Janine Benyus, Joanna Macy, Starhawk, Bill McKibben, James Nestor, Mark Plotkin, Bren Smith, and Vien Truong, not to mention the numerous activist artists and performers. There were many other talks and conversations I would have loved to engage in, were it not for the limitations of time.
As filmmaker René Scheltema identifies in Normal is Over, just as there are keystone species for an ecosystem, so too are their keystone individuals for movements; and in the movement towards regenerating harms from planetary anthropogenic disruptions, Bioneers is definitely a hub for bringing together the keystone individuals and groups working for an ecologically just and beautiful future.
One of the takeaway messages from Bioneers that warrants further reflection is the connection between the Beautiful, the True, and the Good–Socrates’ classic koan that repeatedly becomes the foundation for further dialogs about the metaphysical nature of the universe as well as the practical question of how ought we to live. That ecological aesthetics, a certain harmony between species, however carnivorous, dangerous, agonistic, and harsh that harmony might be, can be a guiding thread for understanding nature at a deeper level, remains with me. Bioaesthetics, or the beauty of life, the harmony of composition, is not something that permits judgment from anthropocentric–or, let’s be frank, culturally-specific and often manipulatively propagandized–aesthetic standards. Rather, bioaesthetics knits with complex systems theory as a pattern we can recognize to intuit ecological milieus inhabiting a state of resilience. The slack (buffer room), diversity, flexibility, and redundancy of complex resilient systems, proffers poigniant lessons for a planet in crisis (Gallopín 2002, 390). These patterns lead us organize and compost existing material into pathways that enable rather than undermine the development and evolution of complexity, synergy, and symbiosis.
Gallopín, G., 2002. Planning for Resiliance: Scenarions, Surprises, and Branch Points, in: Gunderson, L.H., Holling, C.S. (Eds.), Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems. Island Press.
I’ll be presenting October 5, 2016, 6:30-8:30pm at the California Institute of Integral Studies on the book I’m working on, Interspecies Politics.
The presentation, “Ensemblist Identities and the Ecological Self” is part of my larger project of decentering autonomy into situational cues (à la Kwame Appiah’s work), our biological contingency within and without, and the vulnerability and porosity of human and nonhuman life, borrowing from 4E cognitive science, autopoeisis, biosemiotics, and feminist and postcolonial critiques to democratic theory.
Please visit one of the exciting panels I’m participating in this year in Philadelphia at the annual APSA Conference.
Collective Action, Environmental Politics, and (Nonhuman) Animal Rights
Division 3: Normative Political Theory
Thu, September 1, 2:00 to 3:30pm, PCC, 107-B
Yogi Hale Hendlin, Chair
Cities, Climate Change, and Sustainability Policy
Division 30: Urban and Local Politics
Fri, September 2, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 310
Yogi Hale Hendlin, Discussant
Interrogating the Anthropocene
Division 42: New Political Science / Related Group: Green Politics and Theory
Sun, September 4, 10:00 to 11:30am, Marriott, Room 411
There is no doubt that the environment is under stress as a result of a quickly transforming climate. The increasing pressures on the Earth’s resources are linked to transformations within the population and increasing consumption, producing socio-environmental consequences that invite a reconsideration of green political thought. What perspectives within green political thought best respond to contemporary planetary challenges? And how might green political thought address an array of socio-environmental tensions? To what extent does green political thought help to address uneven geographies? And, how might differing ideologies within green political thought come together to address the challenges of our contemporary political, social, economic, and environmental climate?
It is ironic that despite our pressing concerns of environmental sustainability, humanity has yet to consult with the rest of nature. Regardless of the urgent need to address the crisis of reason in human action creating a destabilized ecological order, the contentious sustainability and climate change discourses have inadvertently neglected to query nonhuman nature as to what arrangement works best for our mutual survival and flourishing. Sure, the natural sciences have attempted to ascertain how environmental systems work objectively, but their approach has been instrumental, not communicative. Insofar as we view “instrumental” and “communicative” as discrete categories, the type of information available from instrumental investigations, more often than not, amounts largely to mirroring back our own interests and presuppositions in a feedback loop full of distortions where output reflects input, leaving little room for listening-based inquiry, leading to appreciation for the full polychromism of phenomena. Even among those working in animal studies, the tendency has been, more often than not, to treat animals as moral patients rather than communicative agents. Addressing this discursive gap in environmental political theory rectifies the oversight that nonhuman political agencies currently contribute to political outcomes only indirectly.
While democratic societies have come a long ways in the last few hundred years, extending the opportunity for political participation to non-propertied males, to the poor, people of color, indigenous groups, and women, nonetheless it seems like such progress stops abruptly at the species barrier. Whether for philosophical a priori assumptions that nonhumans do not have agency, or for more practical reasons that the communicative possibilities of nonhumans de facto exclude them from having voice as our political systems define it, with few exceptions nonhuman agents has been systematically left out of the question of political inclusion, or have been subsumed under larger phenomenological approaches that have obscured the difference between living organisms and lifeless things. Jane Bennett and other theorists allied with the object-oriented ontology (OOO) movement, for example, often collapse the ontological distance between beings and things, natural processes and the human domain of history. The agency of nonhuman organisms becomes merely representational in OOO as all things borrow their agency from human meaning, without any notion of intention, or meaning-creation or -orientation for nonhuman organisms. The implications of this is that this line of theorizing (including Steven Vogel, from a different theoretically committed direction) emphasize there is no substantial difference between field mice and trackpads, ecosystems and malls.
In order to diagnose and remedy a discursive gap involves several steps. First, the constituency being effected by negative political outcomes or lacking political involvement must be certified as a legitimate party relevant to the political process that should, because of such standing, be included. Second, it must be proved that the constituency in question actually can communicate and contribute to the already involved political actors, so that translation does not become an insurmountable problem. Third, the predominating decision-making processes must shift and evolve to take into account the unique ways in which these new relevant members of the expanded polis interact and express themselves, assuring that new polity members are not forced into political ventriloquism, speaking in the master’s dialect(ic).
Rather than just including nonhuman organisms or processes passively or indirectly through their impact on human actors—displacing their agency onto human recognition and action precipitating through their behavior—nonhuman natural beings can have direct political consequences. The inverse of the totalizing narratives of the anthropocene starring human actors monopolizing planetary environmental agency, nonhuman political agencies have long shaped cultural factors, whether acknowledged or not. Recognizing and interacting with these constituents of the ecological polis in ways eliciting their true interests, and weighing their interests in political decisions (e.g., through ambassadors or representatives, as Bruno Latour has suggested, or through granting rights, as Donaldson and Kymlicka have proposed), helps close this discursive gap. Other methods stemming from biosemiotics and democratic theory are also relevant to closing the discursive gap, and are pertinent to transforming political institutions and processes as we reorient towards sustainable environmental policy and tackling the systemic issues undergirding climate change.
It explores the linkages between certain naturalized notions of communication we have inherited and the multifarious and complex (but often overlooked or undervalued) methods in which plants communicate with each other and between species.
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