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.

Thursday 28 January 2010

From Paris, France

Although I promised myself to limit my travels during the first three months of 2010, I couldn’t resist the temptation to attend - with the generous support of the Rachel Carson Center - a meeting this weekend at UNESCO about a new Japanese conservation initiative. Having a ‘no-fly time’ is aimed at reducing my carbon footprint and increasing my writing productivity, but the Global Workshop on the Satoyama Initiative – organized by the Ministry of the Environment of Japan and the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies – promised to be stimulating experience for the special issue of the International 
Journal of Heritage Studies I am co-editing on “Preserving Biocultural Diversity on a Landscape Scale: the Roles of Local, National and International Designations”.  Satoyama is a Japanese term for ‘human-influenced natural environments, such as farmlands and secondary forest, that people have developed and maintained sustainably over a long time.’  As the Japanese are hosting the 10th Conference of Parties of the Convention on Biological Diversity in October 2010, this will be their flagship initiative to demonstrate their international commitment to protecting the environment.

Monday 18 January 2010

Arrival in Munich

From Munich, Germany

I have arrived in Munich to take up the first part of a research fellowship at the Rachel Carson Center, a joint initiative of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and the Deutsches Museum. The GDF Board granted me ‘mini-sabbaticals’, and I was fortunate to have my proposal accepted to spend the first three months of 2010, 2011 and 2012 here in residence - my first northern winters in a long, long time. The Center is a ‘think tank’ that brings together researchers from Austria, Canada, China, Finland, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Romania, Switzerland, the United States and the United Kingdom who are involved in the field of international environmental studies. I am looking forward to dedicating time to various writing projects that have been on the back burner as I spent time teaching and traveling to GDF field sites over the past years. The sojourns in Munich will allow me to broaden my intellectual horizons as there is a focus at the Center on the role of the humanities in the current political and scientific debates about the environment. After witnessing the decline in government support for universities in the UK, I am impressed that the German Ministry for Research and Education has provided generous support for the Rachel Carson Center and its academic projects.

Monday 4 January 2010

A New Year of blogs

From Marrakech, Morocco

After an experimental year writing The GDF Director’s blog, I have made a resolution to become a regular blogger in 2010. This renewed enthusiasm comes not only from a desire to communicate the rapidly evolving developments of GDF’s field programs, but also through my reading of Friends with Benefits: A Social Media Marketing Handbook. Authors Julie Szabo and Darren Barefoot, whom I met when they were traveling in Morocco, provide an accessible and entertaining introduction to the world of web 2.0, from blogs to interactive websites, and from Facebook to Twitter. They inspired me to follow good blogging practice, including posting at least two reflections a week.  With the help of GDF International Program coordinator Erin Smith and new intern Heather Leach, we have been revamping the GDF-UK and GDF-US websites, sending eNewsletters and becoming present on Facebook through a GDF page and cause. Our Biocultural Diversity Learning Network, launched in October 2007, has a content-rich website and now sports a FB group that is growing daily.  Twitter is up next…

Sunday 6 December 2009

Internet and microhydro power in Buayan

London, England

I have just received perhaps the first email sent from Buayan, one of the communities where GDF is active in Sabah, Malaysia. Sent by Adrian Lasimbang, who works with the indigenous NGO Partners of Community Organisations (PACOS), it was a test of a satellite connection installed as part of an ‘e-Buayan’ that is dissolving the digital divide that once separated the Dusun people of this village from the rest of the world.  Adrian reports that the community is working hard to finish by Christmas (this is a Catholic community) an e-Buayan building that will house a classroom with eight PCs and Netbooks all linked by LAN cables. This will allow training in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to go forward.  These developments follow on the launch of a microhydro power station that is providing the electricity that will power the computers.  What is planned next? There will hopefully be a Buayan website through which community researchers can share the results of their studies on the resource catchment areas and community use zones that are key to maintaining their livelihoods in and around a government protected area.  Then perhaps there will be a community radio that will transmit to households within a 5 km radius.  All of this progress towards enhancing a sustainable community will go to naught if plans to create the Kaiduan Dam on the Papar River proceed: a few steps forward erased by a major leap backward.

Tuesday 1 December 2009

Rachel Carson Center

London, England

The Rachel Carson Center launched its new website today. A joint initiative of Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich and the Deutsches Museum, the Center is an international think tank whose goal is to ‘further research and discussion in the field of international environmental studies and to strengthen the role of the humanities in the current political and scientific debates about the environment.’ In mid-January, I will be joining 14 others fellows who are taking international, comparative and historical perspectives on topics such as agrarian and post-agrarian landscapes, natural disasters, cultures of risk, and knowledge societies.

I am particularly pleased to be a Fellow at an academic centre named in memory of Rachel Carson. Silent Spring, which I read almost forty years ago, influenced my choice of a career that blends academia, applied research and social awareness. In a few pages in the middle of the book, Dr. Carson evoked the consequences of pesticide use on the biodiversity of a small community in Michigan. East Lansing, my hometown, was the focus of a DDT spraying program initiated in 1954 against the elm bark beetle that was destroying our boulevard trees. By 1959, Prof. Emerson, ornithologist of nearby Michigan State University, discovered a dramatic drop in the robin population. This story, just one of the compelling case studies that Carson evoked, had a particular impact on me as it hit so close to home.