Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #7, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa.
[Green reading from her new book “Rock | Water | Life”]
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic.
I’m Lesley Green, I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and I’m also director of Environmental Humanities South, which is a collective of social scientists and humanists and troublemakers (laughs), who like to do research that matters and that matters politically. And a lot of what we do is tackle neoliberal assumptions about climate change and urban metabolism, urban ecologies. We are people who really try to work at the interstices, the mud between solid and liquid and the mist between liquid and gas. You know, those are the spaces that we really inhabit. And those are often the kinds of spaces that are not inhabited neatly or easily by environmental management sciences. Not that they’re not part of environmental sciences, but not part of environmental management sciences. And that’s a key distinction to make in the work that we do here.
So, I was delighted recently when I was meeting with a city official and he said to me I was, “I was a little cautious of meeting with you.” I said, why is that? He said, “Well, your reputation in the city is feisty!” (laughs)
That left me roaring with laughter! But, uh, you know, I did read them seven paragraphs from the constitution the last time I met with them. All of which had to do with freedom of information. (laughs).
04:34 TEACHING THE ANTHROPOCENE
There’s two courses I teach that I absolutely love.
The first is “Researching the Anthropocene”, which I’ve taught since 2015. And that’s been a project of thinking with, and introducing students from the global South, mainly Africa to what it means to think in and of, and with this era that some call the “Anthropocene” and that’s been absolutely fascinating. And it’s been a really interesting project to be teaching the theory, which largely comes from the global North. You know, most Anthropocene writing has come from the global North. And “What does that mean in Africa?” is the question that we’ve been thinking through and, you know, having taught this class now for six years in a row it’s been just fascinating because at this point, we have students in that class from fifteen different African countries.
And that’s been just wonderful and at the same time, really sobering, which is a light word to use. I could use a much stronger word to think about the effects of this Anthropocene in Africa, and what to do about it, and the short fallings of the kinds of climate sciences as environmental management sciences formulated within a neoliberal economy, and the kinds of difficulties that they make. So, all of our students are writing as if they would like to make some kind of policy intervention. That’s evolved, that wasn’t what we started out trying to do.
The more we’ve done that, the more we began to realize that to do policy intervention work as a researcher is about paradigm shift—and what that paradigm shift is and what it might be is the core of what we do. It’s not easy-going because a lot of colleagues in the environmental management sciences are not willing to engage. I was told recently by one that my H-index was too low for him to speak to me about racism in the sciences (laughs). So, he sent back to me and said, “Your H-index is such and such, I’m not prepared to have this discussion with you.” So, the H index has become a big match in the family. We discuss everything, prior to any discussion, we interrogate our respective H-indexes! (laughs) So, yeah, you know, you’ve got to learn to laugh a lot, and paradigm shift work is not easy. But it is a whole lot of fun because we can laugh, and we don’t have to take seriously the language of neoliberal thinking in the environmental management sciences. And I think that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun.
But at the same time, it’s really sobering to hear what our graduate students are experiencing and addressing in the areas where they, for the most part have grown up, and working in the languages, that for the most part, is their first languages and realizing the extents to which climate change is affecting Africa, not just as a climate event, but as an event of capitalism. That’s the key.
08:12 TEACHING SCIENCE, NATURE, DEMOCRACY
The second is a graduate course called “Science, Nature, Democracy”, in which we work with students around case studies of policy change or situations where science is really important in governance. Now, you in the US are busy dealing with COVID and the science of COVID, in Kansas, you’re dealing with creation science. Well, you know, a couple of years ago, we dealt with a president who was not prepared to accept virus science, you know, virology, who argued that HIV was a syndrome, not a virus. And of course, we had all those struggles around HIV and AIDS treatments. So fortunately, that, through a huge political struggle, was defeated. But at the same time, there was a huge backlash because that introduction to science being questioned within parliament was really about a very poorly formulated intervention in the name of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge studies, which really saw and situated science as a matter of identity and while matters of identity might have a great deal to do with how you do your science and what questions you choose. Your identity doesn’t change, whether you’re dealing with a virus or a syndrome, you know, if there’s a virus you’re dealing with a virus, and it needs to be treated as such. But because indigenous knowledge got such a bad rep through that, it fomented this most extraordinary reaction from a very hardline hardcore science, what I would call a scientistic approach as opposed to a scientific approach, you know, where scientistic approaches, ironically, do precisely what they criticize the indigenous knowledge folks of doing, which is creating an identity-based politics.
So, you know, scientism, by contrast to science, is what I would situate as a very authoritarian approach to doing science. The assumption that there is only one question that can only be answered in one way—and that is it, without understanding that the context of your questions determines the answers that you’re going to get. The objects that you look for determine the numbers that you get. And the question is always, are you looking for the right things, in what you’re looking at, and, you know, what might matter to one person and be the definitive concern, would not be that of much of a concern to another person. And so, you can get very different scientific pictures of the same situation. And when that’s not in discussion, you have a real problem in democracy because you end up having people accusing one another of doing facts versus values. Before you know it, you’re in the old land of objectivity versus subjectivity, which is an unwinnable argument on those terms.
So, the course “Science, Nature, Democracy” is about teaching graduates to look at contests and conflicts over sciences in democratic spaces. And to begin to understand that the concerns shape the questions, and once you understand what the concerns are, you can understand why particular kinds of questions are being asked. And then you’ve got a hope of actually being able to mediate and understand that what matters to a fisher is not necessarily what matters to a scientist, and it can be that the most extraordinary range of things. What matters to a scientist, for example, might be a thirty- to fifty-year timeframe. What matters to the official might be spending their budget within a twelve-month cycle. The political masters might be thinking in a five-year electoral cycle. And, you know, they have these concerns, which are not tabled. And so, you often end up talking about very different things, using the same language. You might be talking about water or fish, but your concerns and your questions and your agenda is very, very different.
The work of Isabelle Stengers and the work of Bruno Latour have been particularly important in that. But also, the work of Aimé Cesaire, postcolonial thinker, who was the high school teacher of Frantz Fanon, and the kind of work that had to be done to challenge a particular version of the real, that the early postcolonial thinkers had to do, and which in many senses we’re up against right now, because we have what I would call “colonialism mark two,” which is a global neoliberal discourse and the financialization of the natural world.
“Science, Nature, Democracy” is a course where students really have to address very particular challenges of science and decision-making in relation to science and to understand how conflicts come about in the name of science and how to try to resolve them without getting into the familiar terrain of I’m speaking the truth, and you’re not, or the alternative that, which is that your identity makes your version untrue, which is where things get stuck in the Indigenous knowledge versus science dichotomy.
14:07 HISTORY OF DAMS, BODIES, LAWS
In this particular historical moment, I think we have come full circle. In the 1650s, when the Dutch settled here in Cape Town to create a refreshment station. It was in the aftermath of many decades, if not a century of battles between seafarers and local people. You know, we have a history of battles going on and their first intervention…in fact, their first plan, which was drafted in the 1630s was to create a dam—a walled dam. That would be the place at which the barrels would be filled for the passing ships. But the issue with the dam is that when water is not being cleaned by the reeds and the natural ecosystem, when the water’s not filtering, when you take water out of its filtering system, what you have to replace that with is law and policing and soldiers. And in order to get the water out of a dam, unless you’ve got a very careful infrastructure, which they did not plan for, you have to be able to roll barrels up and down, in this case some stairs and who was going to roll those barrels. But the drawing that was created by the Dutch was that of a black body rolling a barrel up and down. So, in order to get water out of this structure that they were going to build from the very beginning, they were going to rely on law and labor and policing and cement, you know, creating this hard boundary between liquid and solid to govern the water that they wanted to extract, which of course was a shocking thing to the local people, the Kwe.
South Africa is a very, very dry country. And the Western Cape, this place where I live, have got a number of rivers and a number of lakes. So, it’s a tiny corner of the country that’s very green and very wet. And so, to waste water is a shocking thing. In order to extract you needed a global company. So, the Dutch East India Company, so you had a global multinational acquiring water by building infrastructure to extract in a manner that was going to drive out local people. And indeed, what they had built was not in the end, that particular dam, what they built was a fort—and the fort was around a well.
What we have here at the moment is a struggle with global multinational companies who are supposedly assisting the municipalities to design and manage utilities like water utilities. And you have a neoliberal government, which is very, you know, sometimes I feel like the Western Cape is run by the Republicans. It’s the equivalent kind of politics. There’s a willingness to cover over realities using anything from fake advertising, social media to spin doctoring companies because you’ve got an oligarchy that is driving up costs of water hugely.
And so, since the drought, climate change—since our drought in 2018, where Cape Town was almost, the line went, the first major city in the world to run out of water. You know, there’ve been huge infrastructure bills taken up by international, multinational corporates, which means the costs of water have become prohibitive. And so, there’s this burgeoning struggle over the increasing costs of water. I know of — through the research that I’m doing — fourteen places in the city, and eleven of those, where communities have either led criminal charges against the city, or have got a court case, you know, civil suit for environmental damage. So, there’s the most extraordinary pollution of water bodies that comes from these wastewater treatment plants, where they discharge water into the rivers. So, they’re poisoning the rivers, which, at every level, is problematic, from the health to ecosystems, to ocean health, and algal blooms.
One of the places around which the struggle has really come to the fore is around the desalination plants, because desalination plants were brought in to produce water very, very quickly against the advice of the World Bank, which said, do not build small projects. So, the desalination plants were built against economic advice and against scientific advice because they were built on one side of the city, very close to a marine sewer outfall, which puts between forty and fifty megaliters of untreated sewage into the ocean every day. And on the other side of the ocean, you’ve got multiple wastewater treatment plants feeding into rivers, which then go into the ocean, causing gradual, but significant increase in algal blooms. So, you know, those projects pushed water prices up significantly. They were hugely expensive. And they didn’t actually succeed because there were so many periods where the desalination plants were not able to work, and they were closed at one point for two whole months in the summer because that was when the algal bloom was most intense. And so, if you look at the figures of the outputs, the actual figures of the output are quite low compared to what they were expected to output. So those were, um, the one that is subject to litigation, and the other two closed a month early, and a whole lot of spin doctoring went around that.
20:19 CAPITALISM AND CLIMATE CHANGE
This whole process is teaching me a huge amount about the relationship between capital, infrastructure, and climate change and the new forms of extractivism, which are very much in the ascent. And I think that, you know, much as the Dutch sent the Dutch East India company, an international company, to colonize the Cape to get its water, so we’re up against a whole lot of international companies of various descriptions that are involved in the water trade. And that water trade is now listed on the global stock exchange. And whereas for the previous couple of years, you’ve been able to invest in water funds, now as of September this year  water is now listed as a commodity on the stock exchange. So, we’re entering a very, very different era. And a great deal of that has to do with disaster capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene.
One of the major interventions that we are really trying to make in the research that we do is to put the case that climate change is not the only thing we need to be attending to. If we’re dealing with the Anthropocene, we need to be dealing with capitalism and extractivism, that is putting matter out of place of all kinds, not just carbon, but our nitrogen cycle is out of whack. You know, sewage is full of nitrogens, which are like fertilizers and they do extraordinary things to different species. I mean, the algal blooms are a case in point. Many of these algal blooms, not all of them, but many of them are fantastic little creatures that have the characteristics of both a plant and an animal, in the sense that they can both ingest microbes and make a meal of the bacteria and viruses that are around, and they can photosynthesize. So, they can do both in terms of securing nutrition. So, if you put them in a situation where there’s sewage, they go crazy because they’ve got all the microbes they could possibly want to eat, and you’re giving them the nitrogen, which comes from urine, which acts like a fertilizer. And they bloom. So, an algal bloom that should be quite small then can get completely out of hand. So, you know, in the last four or five decades, Cape Town has really been struggling with increased algal blooms.
The scientific study of the oceans that is done in the area tends not to want to look at the circulation of nitrogens. You know, they want to look at social ecological systems, which is such a problematic concept, you know, empirically, where is the system? You know, there isn’t a social ecological system that you can work with. So, what the desalination situation has taught us is that climate change closes the loop in absolutely unexpected ways, because the idea that you can have a pipe going to sea, that’s going to carry the sewage, you know, the intestinal wastes and pharmaceutical wastes and factory wastes and shop floor wastes of billions of people. And that pipe goes to a place where it just disperses is ludicrous because we live on this planet and matter circulates, I mean, Lucretius spoke about this in ancient Rome, right?
We have a science that is attending to objects, not to relations. I mean, that’s a very broad statement, but the focus has been on what you can count. And so, the paradigm shift that we need to be making, and that I think really can and should come from much closer working relationship between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences has to do with saying, hold on a minute, we’ve been so focused on counting objects, um, in the kind of work that we do, in the kinds of sciences that are, that have been done, we’ve been so focused on counting objects.
What about the relationships?
25:17 WE ARE NOT EXTRATERRESTRIALS!
The idea that you can put a pipe in an ocean and disperse of sewage, and it’s not going to come back to you, or anyone is what I would call an extraterrestrial proposition. It is managing a city as if you’re an extraterrestrial. We’re not extraterrestrials. So, you know, along with Bruno Latour and others, you know, we need a paradigm shift that is about coming home onto this earth and living in this earth and part of its systems. And yet our cities for the most part have been designed as if we are extraterrestrials, that we can live and our wastes, whether they’re plastic wastes or intestinal wastes, are just going to go somewhere that won’t bother us. But, you know, the Anthropocene is about recognizing that that is not the case and recognizing that, “Oh my goodness, the plastic waste that I throw out, you know, the plastic straw that I use for three minutes to get liquid, twenty centimeters from a cup, to my mouth has got a geological lifespan of, you know, 10,000 years or more. I don’t know what it is, but you know, it’s going to be around for 10,000 years.” You know, we need to be thinking about these kinds of temporalities, these kinds of relationships.
26:44 RELATIONSHIPS, TEMPORALITIES, PROCESSES
Thinking relationally means we start to introduce time and processes, geological processes in particular, to our thinking about policy and our thinking about society. Now, you know, I’ve spoken a lot about scientists, but I think social scientists for the most part are as guilty of this, you know, writing about society as if we have no need to think about water, as if we have no need to think about nitrogen or carbon. And you know, the exciting thing about working in the Environmental Humanities is there are so many wonderful scholars who are thinking about precisely those things. Let’s look at the flows. Let’s look at the circulations, let’s look at the material relations that arise from social interactions. And that changes the game completely.
And I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear colleague who’s a chemist. And we were talking about teaching science to first years. And he said, “Well, you know, when I teach science to first years, I show them, there’s a website where you have a sliding scale from the smallest known particle of the universe, right through to the scale of the known universe, right? And there’s a sliding thing and it starts with the figure of a human and that human of course is a man. So, it starts with the figure of a man. And then you can slide down one side into the tiniest particle, and you can slide up to the biggest scale of the known universe. And he presents that to his science students and says, “That’s what we study. We study anything from that scale to that scale, but nowhere in that is relations.”
And so, you know, right from the get go, science is not thinking about relationships and relationalities. And I think that’s where it becomes very, very exciting to start to work with Environmental Humanities and bring them into dialogue with some of the postcolonial thinkers like Aimé Cesaire, whose dictum was, “colonization is thingification.” You know, colonization is the absence of the relation. Everything becomes treated as an object and as an extractable.
29:54 THINGS HAVE HISTORIES, ONTOLOGIES, AND POLITICS
I think that governance and the beautiful literature on ontologies are really important to bring together. I think that’s one of the fields of really useful intervention that I can see environmental humanities graduates taking a lead, and as they graduate, and go into worlds of consultancy or professional research, to be able to show a scholar who is set in a particular way, that your way of thinking about pipes isn’t neutral and doesn’t come from nowhere. But it has a particular history to it. The pipe has a particular history, and it has a particular way of thinking about a world, you know, and to be able to show a governing official who believes that they are operating in the name of neutrality because they use the language of neoliberalism. To be able to show that official, that there’s, the ideas that they’re thinking with are not neutral, that they have a history and that they come from somewhere. That is critical and very, very generative because at the moment, at which you can equip somebody to recognize that this idea of neutrality, this idea of universal truth, is part of the problem. And that just empirically, what you see blocks your sight. You’re not able to see past what blinds, that’s the basis of the idea of occults and astronomy. When the moon occults Venus, you can’t see. So, to occult means that what you’re seeing prevents you quite literally from seeing what’s behind it.
One of my greatest hopes is that the work of the environmental humanities, globally, will be able to shift the knowledge frames that governing officials bring, because those are political and cosmological in themselves, as Isabelle Stengers has written so beautifully about cosmopolitics. So, to be able to say to an engineer: Hold on a minute, you want to use cement, which has a 50-year lifespan to hold fracking liquids in one place and prevent them from mixing with an aquifer in perpetuity? Well, you know, that cement only is viable for 50 years before it needs to be replaced. And I know that, so what’s wrong with this picture? You know, can you see that you have an unreasonable faith in cement? And so, does an environmental regulator who’s making laws for regulating on the basis of, of thickness of cement or thickness of pipe or whatever, without thinking of, of the timeframe of permanence.
And so to be able to point out to attorneys or, you know, through a drafting law, there’s a belief system at work here. There’s a cosmological fiction in your faith in cement. There’s a cosmological fiction in your assumption that the pipe goes nowhere. You know, these are moments I think of tremendous power because that’s when people can really stop in their tracks and think, and, you know, learning to think is key. The route to that is through the imagination and laughter.
I think that the risk with some of the ontological debates is that they risk becoming culture mark two. So, Derrida’s idea of hauntologies becomes interesting for that reason. You know, what, what histories haunt ideas, what histories haunt ways of thinking. It also introduces a temporal dimension and because the moment at which ontologies become culturalism mark two, we are in deep trouble. You know, then we’re back in all the old traps.
33:54 CULTURALISM AT THE CORE OF APARTHEID
Culturalism is something that in South Africa we had to really grapple with in the 1980s when I was a graduate student and 1990s, in my defense, I was actually still a graduate student in the 1990s, not only in the 80s! But anyway, in apartheid South Africa, the worldview that was given was that apartheid is benign. That it’s for the good of people. And that it’s godly, you know, this is the sort of stuff I grew up with as a white South African kid, it’s godly, it’s what God wants. You know, Noah’s sons, you know, Shem and Ham or however that story goes with, you know, that God wants whites to be separated from Blacks, you know, so that was kind of my early years. And then, encountering Newsweek at the dentist, you begin to realize that actually there’s another way to see the world! Why are these people so opposed to us? What have we done wrong? Can’t they see that we’re right? You know, and then, you know, slowly, through reading King Lear, beginning to realize that there’s political ways of seeing the world, there’s realities, there’s madness, there’s insanity, there’s sorcery.
I spent my first year at the University of Port Elizabeth, which was one of the bastions of apartheid. It was one of apartheid’s great universities. Remember the 20-story building in the middle of a nature reserve? You know, you were not allowed to talk politics if you spoke anything about even parliamentary politics, parliamentary opposition politics. Now, remember this was in the time when the ANC was banned. African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party.
Anthropology per the Afrikaaner apartheid system was Volkskunde, which built on the German romantic culturalist, fascist idea of separate cultures, right? And, and so German-inspired Volkskunde anthropology was all about the study of cultures. And anthropology was central to the apartheid state. And so, it was justified scientifically, scientific racism. And the central idea of apartheid was that there were these different cultures: Casa, Zulu, Venda, Swazi, et cetera, et cetera. And that God’s mandate (laughs) to the Afrikaaner people was, and of course the English, went along for the ride was to keep the races and the cultures separate.
Culturalism was at the core of apartheid. And a huge amount of the work of critical scholarship in South Africa in the 1980s was working with postmodernism to unmake the idea of bounded culture. So, in South Africa, we’re particularly sensitive to the idea of culturalism, coming back as, you know, separated ethnic groups as if they are meaningful concepts, which of course they’re not. You know, they have some use, but only a very limited kind of a use. I think one of the risks of some of the ontological debate is to recreate, reinvent culturalism by other means, because it’s such a deeply rooted idea.
The way that ontologies get appropriated is at times risky. And so, I think one has to guard against that. And so, it’s easier for me to think ontology in relation to neoliberalism and cosmopolitics. So, Bruno Latour’s idea, for example, he talks about the three goddess sisters of reason. Why must they be goddesses? I don’t know, but I called them the three gods of reason, which was technical efficiency, scientific objectivity, and economic profitability. You know, those are the three gods of reason in what he called the knowledge economy, which of course is the neoliberal moment. I think a huge part of the work that we can do very usefully, is to draw attention to that as a sorcery of its own. And so, in that sense, the language of ontology is very useful. So, you know, and I think that far too much of the environmental management science literature is encumbered and enamored of processes of governance, bureaucratic technoscientific governance, which of course, reduces everything to data objects enmeshed in algorithms. And one has lost the relational in politics. And I think that’s part of the backlash against the left. It’s not so much the politics of the left, but the brutalization of public life under technoscientific governance. And you know, I think this swing to the right is an attempt to recreate political relationships, which have been erased by technoscientific governance.
For me as a South African, one of the fascinating things about post-apartheid South Africa is the ways in which neoliberal governance has made us all equally worthless. Post-apartheid governance does that. And the scale of corruption in South Africa is testimony to the lack of political discourse and debate and discussion and thought about what it means to have redistribution outside of modes of territory and property and the modes of capitalism that have destroyed, and which were central to racism. So, the need really, again, is for paradigm shifts everywhere. So, we’ve got a long multi-decade struggle ahead of us, all of us to build a better presence on this planet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to see so many graduates being able to work with these ideas productively.
40:00 DREAM TEAM OF BIOGEOSOCIOCHEMISTRY
There’s this fabulous field called Biogeochemistry. And I want to put the social into that. Could we do a biogeosociochemistry? Or how do we begin to link life and non-life and society, you know? I mean, Beth Povinelli beautifully brings together the, problematizes the life/non-life distinction in her book Geontologies. And Michel Serres brought together “Biogea” in one of his last books. You know, if I had no constraints at all, if I had a huge budget to create a research team, I would create it outside of any of the particular faculties not only for the disciplinary space, but also because universities are so stuck in financial systems that operate within the faculties. You know, these become impossible situations to try to operate outside of them. So, you know, to me, it has to operate outside of a faculty. Outside of humanities or outside of science, law, commerce, you know, it needs to stand as its own. I mean, Leeds University, for example, has got a wonderful Dean of interdisciplinary studies. You know, what a wonderful thing to do, to create a Dean of interdisciplinary studies whose brief is to imagine and think with scholars about how to address the challenges.
I think looking at matter in its, across the spectrum of life and non-life is key. To have a team that can think politically, that can think with rigorous empirical science, asking questions with activists who are struggling around particular challenges, and to be able to be critical of the extractivist moment, and not just critical of, “Oh, they shouldn’t do this, mine here, or there,” but to actually, think globally in terms of global financial flows in the manner that, David Graeber did, in the manner that, Thomas Piketty does to criticize the global flows of capital where resources ended up in shell companies, in Panama Islands and stuff, and British Virgin islands, which then has a hurricane and gets no support from the people whose back it’s providing a tax haven for, to really be able to rethink economics.
So who would a dream team be? I would put in Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics. Beth Povinelli, who would compel people to think outside of life and non-life binaries. I would want to bring in environmental chemists who can think with us on toxic flows to bring in ecologists who are thoughtful about the ways in which ecologies are being changed by temperatures, changed by chemicals, by traumas, as you mentioned. So that we’re thinking not just in terms of matter, but we’re thinking in terms of relations and what does it take to support and enable local habitability?
I’ve been doing some work recently with the wonderful Steve Banwart at Leeds university, who is a critical zone theorist, soil scientist by training, but a critical zone theorist who’s also worked with Bruno and Bruno’s exhibition on critical zones. And, our question together is how do we link critical zone theory, which is a beautiful interdisciplinary space, but in the sciences? So, it brings together biology and geology, to put it crudely. It’s looking at what makes habitability in a particular area from bedrock to treetop. So, it’s looking at climate change in a local way, rather than at a global way. I think that’s wonderful because you’ve got a scale that is not colonial, but you’re not part of the globalizing climate movement that, it’s not beholden to those. I mean, obviously it’s in dialogue with those, but it’s agendas and research are not beholden to them. It’s looking at local issues, but it’s also looking in very, very thoughtful ways at the state of contemporary capitalism and things like tree cover. So, you know, what’s the relationship between economics and tree cover? What’s the relationship between tree cover and flows of water? Are the streams, have the streams stopped flowing because all the trees have been cut down? And so, you’re really looking in very thoughtful ways at the relationship between climate and capital and habitability. All of those things are engaging with the biological, the geological and the societal together and making very thoughtful policy interventions at multiple levels. And we could work for example, at an African Union level. You know, that also means that it’s decades before that is at the local level. So, to try to work at the local level is also key. But at the same time, if my city politics is anything to go by, that’s also very, very difficult terrain to work in, but we have to work in it. So, I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that I’m going to be the witch, the bad girl, the fiesty one. (laughs)
I think that a big part of this kind of a team would also include a very, very strong Paolo Freirian adult education person who can really ensure that in working with communities, whether it’s a geologist or a chemist or a social scientist that we’re learning together with the communities that are addressing the problems that they face. And there’s a very real temporal aspect to that. And that is that climate change has us all in situations that our models don’t prepare us for. The climate models don’t always work. Those yearly forecasts don’t always work because climate change is so real. So, it’s those that are really at the forefront of dealing with changes in an environment that are the people that have the most to say.
So the locus of expertise of knowledge has shifted. And I think it’s really, really important to work with that. So, I think more and more, we academics are methodological specialists who can facilitate the creation of arguments that can persuade people in policy arenas by doing really solid, rigorous sciences, but our questions need to come from elsewhere.
We need to be sure that we’re defining the questions that we’re posing, and are questions that local people understand. And, and it makes sense to them, because if it doesn’t make sense to local people, you know, it’s not necessary. It’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to be just another consultancy that ends up, lording it over people in this new feudalist situation we find ourselves in that calls itself neoliberalism.
47:05 CLOSING CREDITS
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Angelica Calabrese, Basil Soper, Rashida Kamal, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #8, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa. This is the second of two parts.
00:20 GROWING UP IN THE EASTERN CAPE
I came from a part of South Africa called the Eastern Cape, which is obviously on the other side of South Africa and come from settler stock, in the sense that on both sides, both my maternal and paternal lines, go back to the 1820s when the British settled the Eastern Cape and colonized the Eastern Cape. And somehow in the history of South Africa, there’s something about the Eastern Cape that it’s really always struggled. And I think part of the situation there is that it’s always trying to be a big city. So, it’s always trying to build itself to look like Los Angeles or, you know, it’s got a campus that at one point was the biggest campus area in the Southern hemisphere. In the middle of a nature reserve, you’ve got a 20-story block with four elevators going up and down at high speed because that’s what you do in a big city. My experience of growing up there was that we were never central to the country, we were always the parochial cousins. Coming to Cape town to study, it took me years to actually feel like I could actually understand from an inside way, what was being spoken about.
Part of that was coming from Port Elizabeth. But part of that was also because a lot of the social theory that we were speaking of and engaging in again, came from the North. My experience of it, and I have many colleagues who may disagree with me: it becomes quite dogmatic because you read, you know, the big names of scholars in the North, and you must think like they do. And my experience of the way that social science was being spoken of was often that it became quite dogmatic. It wasn’t grounded. So people would be talking of things in ways that are about using words fashionably and sounding very erudite, but I couldn’t make the connection between them.
Particularly come 2015, the year we launched Environmental Humanities, was also the year in which that was the beginning of the students’ decolonial struggles here in Cape Town. I had to rethink everything about who I am as a white South African, what it is to teach as a white academic, what it is to listen, and learning to listen to how people piece things together was really transformative. I learned slowly, I was taught in fact by my students quite slowly, how important it was to be able to tell stories. And that social theory is a way of putting the world together much as a story does.
03:23 TEACHING AND STORYTELLING FROM THE SOUTH
My teaching became more and more confident in using a classroom space or seminar space as a space in which people could ground themselves and tell their stories. And one of the practices I would have was to say, okay, remember, when you walked in here, you walked in with your feet. Can you feel your feet? You’re sitting here in this class, feel your feet. You did not walk in here as a head and leave your body at the door. You know, you’re here as a whole person, you’ve come with experiences, you’ve come with knowledge. Let’s work with that.
And one of the most astounding classroom discussions we had was with my very wonderful PhD student who is from Lesotho. We were reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007). She was reading all about the dogs. At one point she just roared with laughter and she said, you know in Lesotho, a dog is a dog. She said, I can’t cope with this. This is not where I come from. That was the funny part of things.
But then there was also the more serious thing, which is, you know, some of the students saying, you know, as a black person living in South Africa. I have another former PhD student who’s now teaching anthropology in Namibia—he said, you know, I’ve spent my whole life as a black man trying to prove that I am human. And now you want me to speak in the language of the posthuman. I can’t do that.
So, we together had to learn to speak from our experiences and over time, teaching has become more and more a case of, of storytelling, much as we’re speaking now, telling stories about people. And it really has become a fundamental practice for me in teaching to say to students: I do not ever ask you to learn a theory for the sake of a theory. How does this connect with your world? How does it connect with what you’re studying in your dissertation? We enter into texts from the point of view of a person’s experience. What stories come up for you when you read this text, what does it connect to? Is there something, and, you know, somebody might have a vague piece of something that’s vaguely connecting, and then you work with that. And suddenly the work of theory has opened up something that they hadn’t seen before. The social theory, particularly in the environmental humanities is about learning to see differently. I mean, the arts of paying attention, as you and Anna and others have spoken about so wonderfully. Learning to tell stories, learning to speak about what you see, learning to name what you see. When you can do that, people begin to say, “Oh my goodness, I can actually speak about the world in my own way.”
Helping people find their own voice as a writer, writing a dissertation, has become fundamental to what we do. Some of my best moments have been working with students who come into the program having gone through some kind of social ecological systems training, and they’re full of economic theory, economic words, the language of neoliberalism, sustainability, development, you know, all the discourse and jargon that goes with that systems, et cetera. And I said to them, but where do you see that system empirically? Show me where you see that. So what are we talking about? So you get them to rethink the paradigm with which they’ve come in, and get them to start piecing together what they see—tack from the macro to the micro, you know, or the other way around, start with the micro and situate that. Situate, situate, you’re situating everything. And so it becomes this process of connecting. That’s incredibly empowering to see people begin to be able to do that in their own worlds and with our life experiences.
07:40 CAN’T YOU SEE THE WIDER PICTURE HERE?
These are really powerful moments where African students, graduates, can engage with theory and both speak back to it and say this fits, no that doesn’t fit, but also fundamentally experience that the way that the environmental humanities work is often written in the storytelling mode. I’m thinking of Thom van Dooren’s work, for example, or Donna Haraway’s stories, you know tell stories that take you into the big picture that enable you to speak of the macro in relation to the micro. That’s fundamental. And then also that’s politically crucial because one of the ways in which neoliberal consultancies disempower people is to send out social science research consultants who ask them to speak of their perceptions of reality. Now, I can’t say that without wiggling my head in dismay! It’s so insulting! What is your perception of reality? The assumption there is that I have the truth, you know, I have the facts and you have the perceptions. And then what that consultant is able to do for a very large fee is enable the city council or whoever has commissioned them to tick a box to say, we’ve consulted the people whose experience of the world and its brutalities in this extractivist moment and this wasteful moment — I mean, the opposite of extraction is deposition and dumping.
Many of the folks that we work with live either in one extractivist space or the other, and often the two connect. We need to say to social scientists who are involved in that kind of research: “This is deeply insulting what you’re doing and it’s disempowering,” and to teach a cohort of graduates to say, “help people to speak of their experiences.” Imagine you’re sitting at the table with the conservationist over there, the local people that you’ve worked with over there, you’re the only one who speaks a common language. Imagine that you are conveying what the one is experiencing to the other. The most extraordinary work is coming out of that. I mean, someone working in Mozambique has been working with a community that’s been the guardians of a mountain for decades and decades and decades since the Mozambican war. The mountain gets discovered by conservationists on Google Earth. And the next thing, there’s this whole huge suite of NGOs that gets created to protect this mountain from who? From local people, you know, not from the local plantations or from the GM seeds which come with the herbicides and pesticides, but from local people. And so the conversation there for an Environmental Humanities scholar, to me is to say: “Hey, conservationists, we really appreciate what you’re doing. We share your concern for this world, but can you see that the pesticides that come with these GM seeds are killing the butterflies, they’re killing the bees, they’re killing the ants. The frogs are disappearing. The fertilizers making algal blooms and the ponds and streams, you know. Can you see that there’s a wider picture here?
11:18 ROCK | WATER | LIFE
Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020) is a book that I started writing in 2012. And at the time, I was cycling a lot around the peninsula and I would cycle quite long distances around the peninsula whenever the weekend weather permitted. And the thing about a bicycle is, its wheels are going round and round. You know, every inch, the wheels are touching and there’s something very grounding about this. And I would cycle past the baboon monitors or cycle past the ocean breaking into the beach.
It was striking for me how integrated the experience was of cycling, being in place. As I cycled, I was so aware also that I was cycling through histories. You know, there would be the huts where there were forced removals, or there would be sites that I knew were archeological sites or historical sites. And that if we didn’t have a way of bringing into one conversation, those different temporalities, and we didn’t have a way of bringing into conversation, all those different experiences of place, which are typically spoken about as different disciplines. So, you know, even to think about a fence crossing a peninsula from one ocean to the other. You know, when you start to actually look, what is connected here? My question to myself was, could I write about the connections, the relations, that were not making it into contemporary political discourse or scholarly discourse or environmental management discourses?
This is an extract that I’m about to read from my book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020). And the introduction is “Different questions, Different answers,” and it begins this way:
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic. A fence crosses from one ocean to the other, marking the edge of Cape Point Nature Reserve. The fence stops the eland, the bontebok, the rooibokke, the ostriches, and the law-abiding. To pass through the gate into the reserve, I need an annual Wild Card that costs me more than a ten-year U.S. visa, plus an extra card for my bicycle, and extra if I were snorkelling or fishing or staying overnight. When I applied for my Wild Card, I was also invited to marry a staffer of South African National Parks, since the online system had no variable for a solo parent with children. The staff member on the line from Pretoria suggested that I put in the identity number of the desk attendant under “spouse.” I declined the offer of nuptials, however generous, so according to South African National Parks records, I’m married to my sister.
She [Lesley’s sister] was horrified when she learned that that was in the book! That was really my tongue-in-cheek poke at those who really believe data to be true!
17:28 ABOUT THE BOOK’S CHAPTERS AND TEMPORALITIES
So the book has six chapters, each of which is a different case study. I divided those case studies into three different timeframes. And those timeframes are really about not just past, present and future because that would be ludicrous because I want you to think about the present past and the present futures. So I called Part One “Pasts Present” to try to think ecology, the everything-ness that I was cycling through in relation to histories. The second part I called “Present Futures” where I wanted to focus on emerging approaches to thinking, to scholarship, to political discourse that seem to me to have really something very important to contribute to how we form a better future, you know, ways of getting through this Anthropocene with its terrible histories of extractivism, as they have manifested here in the Cape of Storms, which is also the Western Cape. And the third part is “Futures Imperfect” where I’m really commenting on the environmental management sciences as I see them being played out in city policy.
The first chapter was about baboon management. And the second chapter was about shifting from a management of the ocean as if it’s separate from humans and as if sewage goes nowhere into the ocean, to thinking about what does it mean to actually manage the ocean as an integrated space? What is an urban ocean when it’s receiving human waste, it’s alongside the city and you’ve got changes in ocean ecologies, algal blooms which are impacting lobsters and fish. How do we bring all of those together?
Each of the chapters is a chapter that tries to explore the work that you would find in every aspect of a university library. So for example, if I’m writing about water in Cape Town, I want not just the ecological literature or the historical literature, but I want to have known that I’ve consulted some of the engineering and infrastructure literature. There’s health there. There’s histories. There’s law. There’s contemporary commerce and business. So, you know, what would each faculty be bringing to each chapter in a way was my challenge to myself. How could I actually think about what I would call “extradisciplinary” in the sense of the knowledges that coloniality has completely passed by. So throughout, I sought to make a space in which there was a serious engagement with what might be described as Indigenous thought or African thought. So, I really tried to approach each question from multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, but also what would not be in the university library as well.
So Cape Town’s water has a strong engagement with the Kwe. The second chapter “Fracking the Karoo,” I really wanted to go back to again, the Kwe and San, accounts of what it is to live in that semi-desert and what it might mean to frack that Karoo. Because I was unhappy with the presentation of the Karoo by environmentalists as a pristine landscape, when it was clearly a dramatically disturbed landscape, disturbed by settler colonialism and disturbed by sheep farming which has overgrazed it. And so I felt that they were setting themselves up for rebuttal in their argument. It was an argument that might sound romantic, but at the end of the day, it was not going to be an argument that had succeeded. So, you know, in each case I’m trying to withdraw from the prevailing environmentalist dogmas, try to think outside of the prevailing views and offer a different perspective.
22:30 PRESENT FUTURES
In Part Two, “Present Futures,” I thought about the struggle to think with Indigenous knowledges as a way of working towards what Bernard Stiegler would call the neg-Anthropocene, what negates the Anthropocene. Of course the problem was at the University of Cape Town, there was this huge conflagration around Indigenous knowledge as part of the decolonial student movement. And again, it was a failed argument. And so again, I wanted to try to understand what is so problematic about that argument, what is useful in it, but what was flawed in it? Where was it falling into a trap? And so how can students who are engaging with decoloniality and want to think with and about Indigenous knowledges, how can they do so without falling into the familiar traps of truth versus falsehood, Western versus Africa. That’s about shifting, changing the concern through which one addresses a particular situation.
Chapter Four is a chapter on struggles for land and farming. What puzzled me is that the ways in which land and farming is being addressed in South African political discourse, is through land as property and territory and ownership, and yet so much of that farmland that is now contested and needs restitutive responses nationally from government and individuals and corporates to resolve the fact that 90% of black South Africa was dispossessed of their land by 1913. You can’t go forward without some kind of restitution on that, and yet the restitution is being thought of territorially and those farms have got such severely damaged soil. So again, there’s a trap there. What is called in South Africa an “emerging farmer,” i.e., a Black farmer who has been able to get access to farmland on the basis of restitution, where that farmer is then going to be faced with degraded soils, emptied aquifers, and unable to farm. And then you’re left with a situation where the answer is: ah, black farmers can’t farm, which is, you know, frequently said. And so again, it was the question of, how do we turn this question? How do we turn this discussion around with, and a focus on soil working with some farm activists from the Cape Town farms and others who’ve fought court battles over soil and aquifers here in Cape Town. So, you know, learning with and from them about what it means to think as a person in and of the earth, rather than just as another potential owner of land.
26:00 FUTURES IMPERFECT
Part Three, “Futures Imperfect,” was an attempt to really take issue with the current baboon management protocols in the city of Cape Town. Baboons are troublesome animals. They always have been, they always will be, but they’re also animals that do not have to live in enmity with humans. And there’s a strong history of them living in societies from the, you know, recorded as far ago as the Egyptian pyramids, where there’s some hieroglyphic images of baboons that are serving as police to stop a thief, stealing fruit from a market or something. And San rock paintings of baboons as part of society, and many San stories, which say be careful of a baboon, a baboon is a tricky fellow. But which offer guidance in terms of ways of thinking about living with and alongside baboons in lively, neighborly relationships with a troublesome being, much as one would do with a troublesome neighbor, right? And the city’s current policy has paid hardly any attention to human behavior, and they have this most absurd ludicrous system of creating a monthly inventory of baboon crimes. So, I called this zoo-criminology! Where they have this monthly sheet, and each baboon is assessed by the monitors on a daily basis, and gets a tick or a cross or a code on their daily performance sheet. Did they enter a car? Did they enter an occupied car? Did they break and enter into a home? Did they enter into an occupied home? So you’ve got these different baboon crimes, which have never been explained to the baboons, right? And, when it comes up against this conundrum of how do you persuade a baboon not to cross the road? I mean, as you know, if you’ve ever tried to explain to a chicken, why not to cross the road? Why does the baboon cross the road? The baboon can’t be told not to cross a road! A baboon doesn’t understand that a road is something that can’t be crossed, but, you know, so you’ve got this masculinist, militarist bunch of primatologists advising baboon management without having ever read Donna Haraway, or any of the other feminist primatologists. Despite decades of feminist primatology, you know, I don’t think they’ve ever exposed any of their students to any of that because it doesn’t come up in their primatology dissertations. That they’re advising the city on how to manage these baboons with paintballs along roads, because it’s easy for them to get along those roads with their vehicles rather than working in a more difficult terrain, which is keeping the baboons up in the mountain where they would have access to mountain food.
There’s no baboon crimes for humans. If you leave your trashcan full of lovely food and not locked, you know, a baboon is going to open it and then the baboon would get ticked off as a bad animal. You know, if a baboon gets three strikes, three crimes listed in a month, it’s then sent to a committee to assess whether or not it can be culled. So that is an assessment of baboon killability. And, you know, besides the masculinist patriarchal primatology behind us, it’s just ludicrous! It’s a joke. A couple of years ago I was in Kruger Park, which is a huge nature reserve up north in South Africa, and looking at the baboon troupes, I was astonished because they were so calm and it made me realize the extent to which these baboons are permanently traumatized with paintball guns and so on. Paint balls hurt as you know, anybody’s ever played paintball knows. So, you know, that was about questioning the reigning assumptions about baboon management, fire paintball guns, and where that came from.
30:10 DOING SCIENCES DIFFERENTLY
What I tried to do in all of those chapters was think through what does this say about how we could do Environmental Management Sciences differently, how we could think of a human and humane ecological suite of relationships and practices. And so the conclusion is where I really sought to, I suppose, sketch a new book which was really sketching what I’d learned from across all of the different chapters. So the questions that I had about this paradigm of social ecological systems in which social de facto remains separate conceptually from ecological and through financialized ecologies, you get this economic logic mediating them. You know, I’ve offered a critique of that rethinking scientific authority. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which White power, White authority, White political authority in South Africa has regrouped itself around nature. So White authority, White political power is almost unassailable in the name of green for all the reasons that Bruno Latour talks about where he says, science stands outside of parliament and comes and tells parliament what is going on. And there are no questions asked. And so the absolute necessity in South Africa of democratizing how we do science, particularly environmental management, not because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do, but because science needs it, it’s good science to think through your situatedness. And it’s good science to be publicly accountable and to think with publics rather than over them.
32:25 ECOPOLITICS: REFUSING NEUTRAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
So much of environmentalism subsists in the little prefix “en-” which means what is around you. I want to say, ‘je suis terrain,’ you know, “I am earth.” From that perspective, it does not make sense to only consider environment to be that which exists behind a nature reserve fence. And “green” in South Africa overwhelmingly means nature reserves behind fences.
I guess I got to a point where I just began to feel that I could never atone for the sins of the word “environment.” It wasn’t a redeemable word in any way. I needed to find something different. And “eco” sounds interesting because we’re thinking about ecological relations, I’ll come back to that. It’s always political. There is no environmentalism that is not political. It’s always a matter of political struggle to address these things. To say ecopolitics is to refuse to be the neutral environmentalist. As someone once said to me, a PhD that someone gave up on, she found herself measuring the bites of a certain bug on leaves, when she said, “why am I measuring the bites of this bug on leaves? I can’t do this anymore!” And she walked away. This is so ridiculous! I refuse to be the neutral environmentalist and to be the good girl that plays that game. So it’s always political. And particularly in South Africa, where land has always been a space of intense contestation. Let me just dispense with this word environmentalist, it’s too loaded.
There’s so much environmental struggle, ecopolitical struggle in South Africa that’s not even recognized by mainstream environmentalists as environmental. And that is the struggle of largely Black rural people, mostly women who are at the forefront of that, given the gender politics of the rural areas. And who are struggling against mining companies who want to come and destroy some of the only Black-owned farmland that’s left in South Africa to mine coal or to mine titanium.
And when I say political struggles there, you know, there’ve been two assassinations, one of which was two weeks ago. A woman who’s just a grandma but who found herself fighting a coal mining company that wants to expand into her fields, leaving a gaping open cast pit where she has known fields and plants and cattle roaming and streams, you know, this dust pit. So she was assassinated in her home with five shots direct to the chest on a Thursday evening. Fikile Ntshangase.
I think that the inability of the South African Green Movement to recognize those as environmental struggles says everything I need to say as to why we need to dispense with the word “environmental,” you know. One more reason. And that is “eco” comes from this word oikos you know, the Greek word oikos, which many, including myself, have written about in quasi-romantic tones about how oikos means household, but I’m thinking more and more about this. I’ve finally come to realize — post-publication, darn, didn’t make it into the book! — but finally came to realize that the oikos for the Greeks was the opposite of the polis. The polis was the place of men in their togas laying on the stairs discoursing with Socrates. That was the polis. The oikos was the space of who? Of women, slaves, and animals. The excluded. And we still struggle with that, the legacy and inheritance of the distinction between oikos and polis. So we have to find a way to bring them together. And again, the word ecopolitics does that.
38:05 PARTIAL CONNECTIONS & EQUIVOCATIONS
Possibly one of the most important scholars whose work assists me and many of our students here to think that through is Marisol de la Cadeña. Because I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a new world without binaries by imposing binaries. It’s this or it’s that. What Marisol does so beautifully in her engagement with Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers and others is to offer this idea of partial connections. And that also builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of equivocation that we can be talking about the same thing, apparently, water, but actually be talking about very different things. The one is talking about hydrology and megalitres, and the other is talking about what it’s like to be able to sit down and have a Sunday picnic in a nice place, right? They’re very different things. And yet, you know, sometimes you’re not aware that you’re talking about different things.
39:30 FIRE, MUD, MIST
Modernity has persuaded us that we live among solid, liquid, or gas, right? Perhaps the next book would be kind of, you know, fire, mud, and mist or something like that! Because those are all the apocalyptic imageries. Why? Because they’re so alien to modernity, you know, where we think we’ve got these states of matter controlled, but we don’t.
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe.
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Thank you for listening!
ZHENG Bo + Steven LAM
You’re listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
For this episode, we are delighted to host a conversation between two dear friends that took place in September 2020 in the middle of the global pandemic: artist ZHENG BO based in Hong Kong, and calling in from Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, and curator STEVEN LAM based in Canada, and calling in from Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver.
It’s a conversation that touches on three timely questions for the arts and humanities in the growing fields of Multispecies, Environmental, and Queer Studies:
First is how the materiality and sensibility of plants, weeds, and cross-species sex challenge ideologies of reproduction and extraction; second is how the historical specificities of the Chinese and north American contexts offer different and important lenses for rethinking relations between people, plants, colonies, and modern nation-states. For example, how might we reimagine Western conceptions of health as a multispecies balance between social and environmental justice? And the third is practices of pedagogy, or how might we teach and how might we learn methods for living and dying with more-than-human or all-too-inhuman worlds.
Here are Steve Lam and Zheng Bo.
These days I’ve been thinking about ideas of white botany, really inspired by the work of Katherine Yusoff and her “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None” where she’s trying to underwrite or perhaps reroute or de-roots ideas of geology as a white formation and currently working in the art world and also working in art education specifically, so many of my students are really interested in plants. They’re just interested in agriculture. I think they’re also interested in maybe the artisanal possibility of making as a way to think about parables of de-growth. And for me, botany might be this place where animals are othered and classified and named. So there’s this whole kind of epistemic creation that places man from an outside and nature as a place, a subject of classification. So if there are ways to sort of think about how this mode of scientific inquiry is racialized and as a way to sort of think about how there’s two reproductions, right? A reproduction of a capitalist logic of mastery, but also reproduction of whiteness as a center, right? So I’m really interested in how botany might have that potential from an art pedagogical place, but also a place of resistance in a place of understanding the world differently.
Also there’s a larger research project that I’m trying to do. I think it’s going to be a 50-year project where I’m trying to think about the legacy of Dow Chemicals. And, Bo, we talked about this too, back in 2016. For me, I was born in Michigan—specifically Midland Michigan, which is one of the large plants of Dow chemicals and born, you know, a few years after the construction of napalm and my dad is a chemist and he worked at Dow Chemicals. So I’m really interested in this kind of confluence of chemistry and complicity and trying to understand the Asian American experience on top of that. And then recently I came across the work of Michelle Murphy who’s been writing about what she calls the Chemical Valley, really thinking about Ontario, Canada, and how it kind of linked down to Michigan and into the States as a precursor of some form of petrochemical dominion. So I’m really interested in how toxicity gets kind of reproduced and looking at that sort of geography. And again, sort of looking at that long tail of historic formation where it’s linking settler kind of conquest to industrial capitalism to the diaspora. I mean, those are huge questions and I don’t know what form this research project is. Right now I’m just sort of foraging the archives of Dow Chemicals and looking at advertisements from the sixties and seventies, but also looking at the student protests that happened in various kinds of public universities around Dow around 1968 to 1972, these sort of anti-Vietnam war protests. It’s almost like a detective story in so far as I’m sort of looking at these archival documents to try to create a narrative in reverse, but like a big narrative, a narrative that’s not just 20 years, 30 years, but perhaps 300 years.
Yeah. Steve was talking about 50 years. I think what I’m working on now probably will take longer. I’ve been working on how to bring plants into our political imaginary. Right now in Berlin, I’m starting to talk to scientists to learn sort of on the micro level, on molecular genetic level, how plants behave and, you know, that’s what scientists study, but usually with a utilitarian purpose linked to agriculture and economy. But I want to learn from their research, but recast those learnings in a political paradigm. How do we understand plant physiology and behavior as political acts rather than just biological reactions? So I think the larger intention is, you know, this idea of multispecies equality. That’s been present in my practice, but now I’m trying to approach it from a micro-level. So that’s a new project.
There’s another project that’s still going on, the film I’ve been making in Taiwan. It’s an ecosexual film between men and ferns. So I’ve been doing that slowly since 2016. I’ve been going every year to make one episode, usually about 15 to 20 minutes in the same forest, but with different men and different ferns. That has been very enjoyable. This year, I was going to do another chapter, but because of the pandemic, I was not allowed to go to Taiwan, but I’m hoping to be able to do the next chapter early next year. So that project, I’m interested in sex, I’m interested in eroticism and that project came about kind of randomly, but now I feel like it’s also important because I think, you know, in addition to thinking very theoretical or scientific questions, the filming really allows me to be there in the forest and to really be very bodily involved. And there’s, you know, it’s really fun. It’s very, it’s very visual. It’s very performative. So, it’s a different flavor of experience.
Bo it’s so awesome to see how “Pteridophilia” has evolved, because I think last time we spoke, that was right when you finished the first episode. And just sort of looking at the evolution and the language and how it’s become more sort of explicitly about queer, an eco-queer way of living. So my question is about plant sex. I wrote in my notes, “ask Bo about plant sex,” and I crossed it out, not, not plant sex. Let’s talk about fucking plants. And then I crossed that out. Actually, no, it’s not about fucking plants. It’s if I was a plant, I’d be like, it’s about fucking humans, those fucking humans! So my question is, in that film, is there a kind of allegory to a radical understanding of reproduction here? I mean, certainly there’s like this multispecies ways of being together, but this being together is little bit more than just us holding hands together right? Or holding leaves with hands. My question is, is there really a kind of pointed critique about what gets reproduced, who gets reproduced, how does it get reproduced, and what is the logic of reproduction?
Yeah, I mean, I started the project without thinking about why I was doing it, right. I was in Taiwan in 2016. I’m from mainland China. So I, you know, I’ve learned about Taiwan through mainstream media and also through propaganda. So when I went to Taiwan, I thought I needed a way to really, to feel Taiwan in a way that’s beyond what the media told me before. And I went to an exhibition in the City Art Museum. It’s about how Japanese artists, when they went to Taiwan in the 19-teens and twenties, when Taiwan became a Japanese colony, the Japanese artists went to Taiwan and they were attracted to tropical flowers. I think as humans, we are attracted to flowers. And then they painted a lot of the tropical flowers. But I walked around Taipei and also in a forest. I noticed there are many ferns, but they were not represented in the Japanese artists’ practice. That’s one thing that I noticed. Then second thing I noticed is, Taiwan was then occupied by the nationalists after 1945. The nationalists went to Taiwan from mainland China. So they brought a lot of the cultural symbols, as well as their interests in plants from mainland China into Taiwan. They also didn’t pay so much attention to local plants, to ferns. But when I went to a celebration by one of the indigenous tribes at Sun Moon Lake, a very famous lake in the middle of Taiwan, I went to their new year celebration. The tribe, the tribal members, they were decorating themselves with fern leaves. I noticed these three things, and then I thought as a visitor to Taiwan, I better get to know ferns, in order to really get to understand the local history and ecology a little bit better than what the media told me.
So that’s how I chose to work with ferns, but I, you know, I did other projects mainly sort of historical, but also paper-based works. The sexual film came later because like I said, I wanted to get more physical with ferns, the plants. You know, I’m gay. I watch a lot of gay porn. So I asked gay, I didn’t ask gay men, but I asked men to come and perform. I think most of them are gay, but actually the cinematographer is not, but he, you know, I can tell you how interesting he felt doing the film. So, you know, I started the film with men, but I actually didn’t consider the film to be a queer film because it’s men having sex with plants. Of course now I understand the project as eco-queer, right. Because queerness is, it’s not just about human sexual behavior.
I mean, it almost seems like the fern then doubles as technologies of ceremony, technologies of survival technologies of perhaps from an indigenous context, some sort of sustenance for the collective. I raised the question about reproduction because I think the film offers a really interesting, I mean, outside of it’s its sheer kind of joy and kind of like the pleasure. It does sort of talk about ideas of not individual joy, but maybe collective flourishing, you know, and, and really sort of thinking about ways of survival perhaps, and the fact that it does become a way for the BBSM community to kind of common together, you know, is also interesting, especially if you kind of overlay the fact that there is a very kind of locally specific indigenous symbol of the fern in that context, you know. So it’s like a doubling of many kind of networks.
I mean, I’ll just add one more thing, because we are somewhat less familiar with the sexuality of ferns. I think most of us understand it a bit better with flowers, with flowering plants, right? So we understand there male parts and female parts of the flower, and we understand the pollination, sort of as the meeting of the egg and the sperm. Ferns reproduce somewhat differently. You know, we know, I think many people know ferns reproduce through spores, but they actually also have a phase where they produce eggs and sperms. I only learned this by doing, so now I’m also interested in the sexuality of plants and how by sort of thinking about the sexuality of plants can really expand our understanding of queerness.
I did a performance lecture last winter for the Venice Biennale’s public program. You know, in the description I say, you know, if you want to follow Donna Haraway’s idea of “Make Love, Not Babies” then you know, my film project is kind of a perfect illustration of her idea. I think it’s, you know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t explicit, but perhaps because I, I don’t, you know, I never really started thinking about sex as a reproduction behavior. So I think, you know, for me, sex really started with sexual pleasure, erotic feelings, and also watching pornography. So, creating babies is never really part of that formula.
The film also pushed me to think about, you know, what is sex? What is eroticism? What is reproduction? I was just talking to a scientist yesterday in Berlin, and one thing she studies is species barrier. How come there are some outcrossings: different flower species they can pollinate and then create the next generation. And then the following generations are all healthy, but how come there are some sort of species barriers genetically or phenotypically, so that the species don’t cross. You know, it’s both a biological question, but it’s also a political question. Perhaps there’s a very explicit history in the U.S. about cross-racial relations. Now I think, you know, of course the film deals with cross-species relations, then it’s a different level of challenge, right? If we don’t think about reproduction, what’s the meaning of a cross-species sexual encounter.
Let’s segue to teaching and learning because I immediately kind of went there as well because I think your practice Bo, kind of models, I don’t know why I’m talking about reproduction these days! But I’m sort of thinking about the ideas of creativity that need to be completely changed. I think these days as an educator, I’m less interested in how students can master and cultivate their voice. And I use cultivate you know as a botanical metaphor, but I’m thinking about like: continuity, communion versus dominion, ideas of resurgence versus erasure. I mean, I think those are the questions for artists, you know. How do we make sure that there is a multispecies intergenerational kind of commoning that is sort of articulated through form, through freedom, through matter, you know? How does your work kind of translate into pedagogy?
I actually feel this is something really important, actually more important than my practice in a way, because I feel a lot of art projects I’m doing are kind of the way for me to learn by experimenting in these works. But once I learned something, how do I teach it, right? So that’s actually, for me is actually more difficult. I just want to echo what you just said. I wrote something about Art Asia Pacific, precisely on this issue: of not using the word “creating.” So I try not to use this word anymore, because we don’t create. We inhabit, we live and then we learn, we grow, we cultivate, like the word you use. As, you know, one of the many living beings on the planet, that’s what we do. We don’t create as God.
When I teach studio class now I ban students from doing metaphoric projects. You know if they come and submit a project and say, Oh, I’ve made this sculpture, you know, this piece represent this and this the other piece represent this, I’ll say, you know, you have to redo this work. I think metaphors have become so dominant in sort of advertising in sort of capitalism, in our economy, precisely we lack sort of, our tangible experience with matter. So this also happens to students I think. Also to me, I think, you know, like I mentioned, I started working with plants with weeds and with ferns, mainly through language, through sort of symbolic works. Then I realized, this is so inadequate to expand my understanding, expand my sensibility with plants. I talk a lot, I appreciate reading and writing, but now I tell my graduate students: Try not to read too much. You really need to go walk in the forest and sleep in the forest and smell things. That’s how we learn. That’s how we develop senses. I think the hegemony of language and text, particularly in so-called contemporary art is hampering our relations with plants in particular.
That’s really, beautifully put, Bo. I liked your ban as well. I mean i think, refusing to reproduce telegenic short-circuit short-hand representations of the world. You know, maybe this is about the distributionist potential of metaphors. They can be quickly kind of distributed. And therefore that kind of quickness may mean surface understanding, the kind of fantasy of translatability globally, while undermining a more nuanced, local way of understanding and of knowing the world through matter.
There’s such a turn for practice these days. This is why I loved your recipe in Frieze Magazine, Bo. You know, sort of thinking about, how cooking can also be an allegory of knowing, right? Cause you sourced the materials. There is an alchemical kind of, or just the physical co-mingling of all of these materials that are rife with history. And then voila, there’s something that’s cooked and that can be shared. I think that there’s something quite lovely about this idea of culinary practice as a form of understanding the world in contradistinction to maybe the speed of digital consumption and sort of telegenic modes of Instagram in a way, you know. And I even see a lot of my students are also interested in that kind of approach.
But I also believe in like synecdoche and metonymy, you know. Metonyms, ways in which it’s really important to think about, like when I think about the Golden Spike, you know, how that is an emblem of all of these historical lessons that are again also kind of erased. So I think maybe there’s this preciousness of trying to make sure there is a publicity, a resurgence and making sure each creative act is a way to ensure that forgetting doesn’t happen, you know, through matter through poetry, through stories, through a local understanding of knowing the world. Yeah. I think those are really the crucial ways of making art now. A sort of future telling as well.
I completely agree with you. We do it ourselves, but we also start to help students to shift away from that way of describing art.
One of the things that I’ve been, so in awe, but also, so radically unlearning myself is since moving to Canada, is how to think about an Indigenous resurgence to life and to how we common. In parts in British Columbia, many first nations sorta see art as a form of medicine. It really is a form of immunity. It’s a story. You know, art is a form of telling a story. And I think right now with the world in a type of perpetual panic, it’s so important to be able to tell stories, you know, to quote our beloved Donna right. Stories that matter. And I think that’s such a interesting thing. The challenge then is always whether or not the students have the same desire, right? And of course that desire is based off of perhaps misidentification of professional advancement. So, but, you know, I think ways to kind of rearrange that kind of expectation, rearrange that sort of desire is really interesting. And thinking about the botanical turn, you know, with so many artists working with soil, with plants, with gardens, I think it can perhaps broaden that imagination so we’re not always just thinking about ourselves as individual units, right. And how we can start to think about systems of care, systems of continuity, you know. Ideas of survival, I think is really important these days, you know, certainly with the pandemic.
Can we talk about weed?
There was an interesting essay or an interesting kind of performance lecture about the Japanese knotweed. Specifically sort of thinking about how the knotweed has become this figure of invasive species, right? The Japanese knotweed has invaded property in the United Kingdom, has sort of devalued a lot of home ownership there because weed would kind of pop up. And then there’s also this kind of anthropomorphosized projection of the weed actually being the culprit of breaking open the cement. But in reality, probably what happens is the foundation just sucks from the beginning, right? And then these weeds just happened to cultivate in these places. So it was really interesting to sort of see how the weed becomes the culprit of invasion, as sort of this wildness that is also devaluing suburban property. Another allegory to try to master nature, to sort of contain it and to isolate it and to clean it and cleanse it. And the lecture also talked about how the knotweed basically helps fuel these sort of cottage industries of pesticide.
I know that weeds pop up in your practice for the past decade–thinking about the weed party, thinking about the cookbook, the sort of survival guide that you’ve also done and also your current kind of tours, like walking tours. What does the weed represent to you? What is the sort of potential of the weed when it comes down to thinking about creativity?
So I was fascinated by weeds not because of property value, but actually because of the political symbolism in Chinese history. During cultural revolution, the right wing of the Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party was described as poisonous weeds. It’s actually very well known among the Chinese, among us. So I think when I started to make artworks about weeds in China to show those works in China, people immediately understood those words as sort of commenting on the authoritarian control of our political system. But of course, I’m also interested in urban control. In China, as we built our cities and also built a lot of the middle class or upper middle class neighborhoods, people want to get rid of weeds. People want to have very homogeneous grass, which will make their neighborhood look posh and sort of similar to what we see in advertisement or TV or film from the U.S. and from Europe. So to me, you know, working with weeds really disrupt that aesthetics. But recently, you know, I haven’t done any work on this, but I am also fascinated by the survivability, you know, the super strength of weeds not only in cities, but also, you know, even in countryside, along the roads. I mentioned that I was talking to a scientist yesterday. She studies plasticity and she used one particular plant Arabidopsis, but that’s kind of the standard plant, kind of like the little white mice as well that’s used to study animals. So, weeds are also interesting for scientists because they have very short life cycles and they take very little space and then they survive very well. I just want to add, I think a lot of the art institutions ask me to do projects because, you know, I work with weeds. And weeds usually come for free that also reduces the cost of these exhibitions.
I think it seems so important to really kind of locate both of us contextually. And it’s so fascinating to hear that kind of story within the Chinese context Bo, you know. I think in silly sophomoric binary terms sometimes, you know, I need to make like dialectics to make sense of things. So I’ve been thinking about the weed, and the revenge of the weed, right. Whether or not it’s making the landscaper upset or how the weed may be a witness to other things. But I’m sort of thinking about: What is the weed in relationship to colonial conquest? And this may be more of a new world context Bo, but what is the weed in relationship to ideas of “Nobody’s Land,” you know, of “Terra Nullius,” you know, the weed always existed. The weed has always been present. It has this crazy survival quality to it, right.
I’ve been thinking: is the opposite of the weed, the Golden Spike? You know, I’m sorta thinking about the Golden Spike as like railroad expansion and the West and the States, you know, the Golden Spike as this sort of emblem of Manifest Destiny. The golden spike as this emblem of how manmade infrastructure has sort of expanded from the East to West in the States. And I think, I may be wrong here, but I think the Golden Spike has also been an index for the Anthropocene as well. Can we think about the weed in relationship to the long time of civilizational expansionism, also the revenge of it, you know? How do we, and maybe this goes back to pedagogy as well, like indexing histories into these everyday kind of observations that we just sort of see when we walk down the urban landscape, and we see the weed kind of busting out of the cement, like how do we kind of overlay these other kinds of stories and overlay these witnesses, I guess. When you think about the weed, I mean, is the weed specific? Or would it be problematic to think about the weed and these kinds of broader terms of global domination?
I think both. To perhaps broaden this point, I think one of the challenges is to be both very locally specific but also to kind of think in planetary scale. So that’s actually, you know, going back to the pedagogical issue, that’s also, I think one of the challenges I’m thinking about: How do we really work on very local histories, very local plants, at the same time, thinking about the large planetary shifts and demands, and crisis and movements.
Your project sounds to be very historically situated. I mentioned one thing I did a project in Shenzhen, and then there’s one particular plant. It went to Hong Kong in 20th century, and then as soon as China opened up in the late 1970s, that plant jumped from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, to mainland China. So there’s a lot of potential mapping that’s possible to link sort of botanical shifts and expansions with political shifts. And I’m sure that’s what you’re looking into in colonial botany. I think in China too, there’s a lot of work still to be done, to really look at our history through plants, through animals, and through bacteria, etc, through fungi, to really see that our history is never really just human history. Even in very progressive social movements, how do we work with other living beings?
I’ve been copying these books, I call the entire project survival menus. so I’ve been finding these publications called edible weeds. For example, there’s one published in Shanghai in 1961 because we were experiencing huge famine in China due to some crazy political utopian program that Chairman Mao put forward. So the book was published in 1961, edible weeds, hopefully to help people to alleviate hunger. So I copied that book. And then later on, I also, encountered other similar books in different regions on different occasions. I thought those books will help me to survive, but now you know, I have this feeling that the likelihood of our survival is so low. We should really talk about the survival of other species, not so much focusing on the survival of ourselves. This is actually something I’m thinking a lot about these days. How do you feel Steve? How do you feel about the likelihood of our extinction these days—in your life and also in teaching, I guess.
I mean being in Canada, I’m always reminded of an apocalypse that happened to indigenous nations here, right? So the apocalypse has already happened. Maybe the question is, how do we create life practices? You know, where you know, we’re not reproducing sort of like settler colonial assumptions of the dominion of land or reproducing a certain type of sect of individuals that are so hell-bent on reproducing their own might-and-right. I think learning how to die is really important and understanding a life practice is also really key.
Here’s another weird thought I’ve been having Bo, and I don’t know how to make sense of it yet. I’ve been sort of really curious about these two words “rooting” and “looting,” right. And of course the word looting has become I think I was reading an article after the uprising of George Floyd. The word looting was like the most popular word that was Googled. And I realized that the etymology of rooting has Latin Germanic roots. And also one thing I forgot about the root is that it’s underground. So maybe we can talk about fugitivity and being underground and how that connects with ideas as survivalism or survival. Is there another way to think about bunker life, that’s not about paranoia? But then I realized that the word looting, it doesn’t have a Latin Germanic etymological root. I think the roots of looting is actually Hindi, and it was rooted in sort of colonial strife in the mid 1800s. So I’m wondering with this sort of botanical turn, as we think about how can artists give roots, create life practices, create alternative forms of sustainability and survivorship, or survivance right? How might looting also be part of that picture right? Cause to loot means that you take, one takes things away, there’s a theft, there’s a kind of erasure of cultural sovereignty and identity. Like how, how might rooting and looting be thought of side-by-side?
I never see plants as only you know, friendly, romantic, graceful kind. you know, plants can also be competitive, combative, even vicious. So I think it’s also not good to sort of idolize plants and to worship plants, to the degree of harmony. I don’t know the answer to what you were trying to suggest towards, but of course you know, the roots of plants are so strong and so powerful. I think this can also be a political metaphor.
Oh yeah because it’s also, I think it, the roots also implicate a whole network. There’s a whole infrastructure that is not seen.
One thing I’m interested in is how plants do things that we can do, but they do it differently. Plants actually, when they are subject to stresses, they also learn, they also remember, so the next generation will try to do it better. They do it through genetic or epigenetic mechanisms. I think we also do it, but probably much slowly. We tend to focus on learning and remembering by language, by our sort of cultural practices, you know, I’m starting to speculate whether we could do things more physically, more on the biological level rather than just on the cultural level. This is only a starting thought. It kind of goes into the earlier bio art practice.
sort of these post-human modes of making.
I have this desire to actually move away from thinking too much about human issues. You know, I moved to a village now I have less people around me. I stopped going to see many exhibitions. If I have time, I just go to Botanical Gardens where I go to national parks, etc. So I think I’ve deliberately tried to move myself away from human concerns, even social concerns. And sometimes I feel guilty about this. I may sound a little bit removed from even Hong Kong’s current political movements or political struggles, but on the other hand, I really feel this desire to really make up the time I lost in the, you know, I’ve lived 40 some years. I really didn’t pay attention to plants or other beings before. I really don’t know how they live. I don’t know how they survive, how they collaborate. So I really have this desire to learn as much as I can in the whatever number of years I still have to live. So I think that to me is sort of personal. But in terms of politics, I feel sort of perhaps as artists, what we can contribute is to really even move beyond the sustainability movement, to move beyond sort of current social movements to really try to imagine different questions. And you know, even crazier ideas, hopefully that will be useful down the road.
Yeah. I think I’m just inherently an institutional figure, you know, where reform is still part of my mode of operation rather than the utopian vision that Bo has found refuge in, you know. Bo has left the damaged world of human institutions. I’m still stuck in it. I can’t get out. And maybe that does kind of make our practices be radically different.
Yeah. I mean, at some point I also feel like I said, sometime I feel guilty, whether or not, you know, maybe I’m not paying enough attention to what’s actually happening in Hong Kong. Right. So on the other hand, I do feel these ecological crises are really important. It’s also my job to talk about these issues in addition to the current political struggles in Hong Kong. So I also feel ambivalent sometimes how to balance the two.
I think what COVID has laid bare to me is that, I’m still trying to understand why does an extractionist logic still exist? Who’s always being erased? I went back to the human because of the covid crisis. I mean, that’s not to say that a multispecies mode of understanding of the world is not relevant. Of course it is. I think I just had to not forget about alienation and dispossession, I guess. I just couldn’t let that go with the past six months. I still don’t understand, you know, like the habits of, from crisis to crisis. Why do we always fall back to unmaking and remaking the world in the likeness of proto-capitalist, colonial dominion? I think it gave me a sense of dread. It gave me a sense of more dread than hope. And that’s why I kind of returned to sort of those conversations. How about you, Bo? How, how has your thinking changed in the past several months?
First I need to say that because I live in the village in Hong Kong, I haven’t been personally impacted by the virus and my mom she’s in Beijing. She is in a senior community and the authoritarian control in China has in some way been very effective in fending off the explosion of the virus in China. You know, I will sound a little bit too impersonal, in saying that. To me, the virus, the pandemic has been in a way, showing me that perhaps we need other species, we need other living beings to help us address the ecological crisis, the extraction, the extractionist logic. We are so addicted to capitalism, to comfort–you know, me also being guilty to traveling around the world. It’s almost impossible for us, for ourselves to stop ourselves from, to pull ourselves away from the addiction. So we really need other species to force us to stop and to get onto a different track. I feel the virus is not doing that, you know, not yet, but perhaps the ecosystem together, will find ways to force us to change our behaviors and systems and worldviews, etc. But of course, you know, I think I’m also very conscious of what you were saying about how situations like the pandemic always make the lives of the disenfranchised, the marginalized harder. How do we build sort of multispecies alliances, while building movements that will not make the lives of the disenfranchised even harder, right?
Yeah. After COVID, I started becoming really re-invested in critical race theory, again, you know, as not only as a way to sort of think about the marginalized and the vulnerable, but also thinking about legal institutions, and how the law is literature as well, and that can be kind of tweaked and changed. Maybe one multispecies alliance is thinking about how legal institutions can kind of create. Like there’s a rights to nature conversation in there as well. Perhaps tactically giving water legal protections as if they’re at the status of humans. Maybe this is what we need to teach in art school, where that type of formation, you know, not only are they dealing with matter and metaphor right, and telling stories, but bending the logic of institutions too, I think is also could be really important.
I think it will be really interesting to look at public health policies, to see how these public policies have been formulated without the ecological justice, without the social justice being critically embedded or examined. I think in China, for sure, I haven’t seen anyone doing that critical reflection.
Yeah that’s a really good point. And thinking about environmental exposures, right. I mean, I think all or many viral outbreaks are connected to issues of planetary health as well, and, and sort of environmental exposures and how that gets recirculated.
One specific thought, you know, for example, in the university, we can teach online, but the cleaning staff, they have to be physically on campus. So they actually need much more protection than we do, but I don’t think the university has put in, you know, resources for support or even compensation to differentiate the level of risk for people who would take on different jobs in different risk areas.
Bo, your point about health and sort of rethinking health environmentally seems to be really important. Who gets to die, who gets to live. I think the facade of never-ending expansionism, everyone knows, is not working, you know? So the question of environmental justice: is it a moment or would it be a movement, you know, whether or not it will be kind of more lasting? Um, the interesting thing about when COVID first struck, there’s so many, like boosterist conversations, “Hey, saying, Hey, this is what it means to live the simple life.” You know, look, there’s more plants around our institutions, but it seems like we have not yet witnessed how it’s completely going to undo the kind of infrastructure of what we’re used to. It’s like the broken earth, how might there be sort of counternarratives to the broken earth, right, because of COVID. And I’m not sure, I’m sort of thinking about Naomi Klein’s current social justice work, where she’s thinking about care workers now, not just thinking about blockadia, right. Sort of blocks of the extraction empire, but also making sure that recognizing that care work is also a kind of low carbon footprint and making sure those relationships and those relations are supported. Whether or not that type of care work can also intersect with the multispecies platform, I mean, that seems really kind of exciting.
I had a conversation with Natasha Myers and now she’s working very energetically with first nation communities, native indigenous communities. So that, to me seems to be an incredible source of wisdom in Canada. I’m curious how you and the art school, the students: What are some of the ways now that institutionally you really start to incorporate that source of wisdom, not just symbolically.
This is why I wanted to connect, rooting to looting. I think there’s something there. Right now there was as part of the truth and reconciliation governmental mandate, you know, is a restoration. It’s about kind of cultural sovereignty, you know, making sure that stories are not erased. Like I’m sort of thinking about Max Liboiron’s work right because Canada is one of the largest countries that is highly dependent on extractionism. I always thought it was like growing up in Texas. I always thought it was the States, but it’s actually not. Canada’s petrochemical output is really, really high. I think the history of the Hudson Bay Corporation, which existed prior to the formation of Canada as a nation-state is a telling kind of story of Canada’s kind of origin story. It kind of started out as a company that thrived off of fur trading and then it turned later on into a petrochemical kind of enterprise. So I think that linking of cultural sovereignty, cultural identity to health is really exciting, you know? Maybe that’s like the future of some of these activities, not just strictly from an insistence on indigenous resurgence. I think it needs to be an indigenous resurgence and how it kind of connects to a project of suspending extractivism in Canada, really connecting these ideas of environmental health with ways of living.
I was in a seminar in Australia, with medical humanities people. I think planetary health has been a very hot topic. Also in China. Because the term “planetary health” is actually very digestible for politicians in China. So when you talk about health, no one would say no to a project on that. Maybe I’m thinking about the Chinese translation of health, right? Because the term in Chinese, I never really link it to indigenous practice. In our pre-modern discourse, we would not use the term health. We would use something like harmony or Tao or perhaps balance or the middle way. So, even this term health to me is not so affective in a way. Maybe it’s very different in Canada.
I think it’s similar, but I mean, that’s a good point, like really trying to rename health. Cause I think health still has that technocratic instrument of population management. So maybe by saying health, it does sort of reinforce a story of like, everyone’s going to be great, but maybe we need to name it in a more forceful way, like alleviating harm from perpetual environmental violence. You know, I think maybe that’s perhaps another way to reframe it.
You know, a lot of the colonial issues, you know, the racial issues can also be cast with multispecies perspectives. So I’d love to hear more from you.