Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Avatar and Bruno Latour

From Munich, Germany

Bruno Latour, the French sociologist of science, was in Munich to receive a cultural prize at Ludwig-Maximilians-University.  At the ceremony yesterday evening, he presented a talk on his efforts to create a ‘compositionist manifesto’, described as a search to construct a common world from “utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a whole, but at best a fragile, revisable and diverse composition.”  But I shouldn’t give the idea that it was completely heady stuff.  Latour playfully wove in references to the popular film Avatar, noting the thinly veiled reference to Gaia in Eywa (the deity and life force of the planet Pandora) and suggesting that Jake Sully gives “a whole new dimension to what it means to ‘go native’”.  We continued this morning with a lively three-hour informal seminar, during which Latour humbly and warmly shared his ideas with a public composed mostly of doctoral students. References to environmental issues and the recent debacle of the climate change negotiations in Copenhagen kept the discussion relevant to the themes we are exploring at the Rachel Carson Center.  The compositionist approach, as he described it, reminded me of current narratives of resilience, a topic that merits attention by sociologists of science.

Wednesday, 3 February 2010

Questioning Collapse

From Munich, Germany

One of the pleasures of being in residence at the Rachel Carson Center is finding the incentive and time to read. On 11 February, we will launch a reading group composed of research fellows, professors and graduate students. Our first book is Questioning Collapse: Human Resilience, Ecological Vulnerability and the Aftermath of Empire, which is hot off the Cambridge University Press. Although it sounds academic, the text is actually written in an accessible popular style. The various chapters challenge some of the popular ideas – including those promoted by Jared Diamond in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed – that put the blame on indigenous peoples as environmental destroyers responsible for their own demise. Remember the ‘ecocide’ of the inhabitants of Rapa Nui (Easter Island), those Polynesians who are portrayed as carelessly deforesting their isolated island in a quest to erect massive statues?
Archaeologists Terry Hunt and Carl Lipo set the record straight. It wasn’t the negligent ecological practices of local people that destroyed the Jubaea palm trees that once covered Rapa Nui, but the invasion and massive population growth of Polynesian rats that systematically ate their way through palm nuts and tree seeds, disrupting the regeneration of the forest. Although fire linked to agriculture may have played a role, it was the rodents and later sheep that bear the brunt of the blame. The decline of the human population, by the way, happened after first contact with Europeans especially from 1750 to 1800. We do have a lesson to learn from Rapa Nui, and it is that we should not jump to rash judgments about the lack of resilience and sustainability of local ecological knowledge and practice.