Prelim 3: The Ecological Dimensions of Politics

Today’s question really stretched me to think about the ways in which the environment, as a set of materialities, affects the types of politics in which I am interested. I will be very interested to get ideas and suggestions for further exploring this question:

Question 3

You have been quite attentive in your writing to various possibilities for how the details of technologies might matter to the social, to subjectivities, and to the making of knowledges. I would like to ask you to reflect more on the ways in which ‘the environment’ [in the Arctic] may matter (or not) to the social, to subjectivities, and to the making of knowledges. Or, perhaps: What difference, theoretically and contextually, might it make for you to study something involving ‘the environment’ and/or something involving the environments of the Inuit Arctic, versus studying subjectification and technology in a way where matter doesn’t ‘matter’ or Nature remains fully bracketed away from (or subordinated to) the objects/subjects of proper Social Scientific study?

Introduction

Given the popular adoption of the term Anthropocene across the social sciences (e.g. Johnson et al. 2014), there is no doubt that research on the environment and on Nature/Society interrelationships is viewed by social scientists as increasingly important. However, politics over the name Anthropocene itself reveal concerns over placing “bloated emphasis on the Anthro as the primary force of change in the global environment” (Johnson et al. 2014, 1). More broadly, many researchers have expressed concern that social science forays into environmental studies often lead to research which prioritizes social processes associated with nature, while downplaying analysis of the material realities which compose the natural world in the first place. For instance, Walker (2005) worries that the adoption of poststructural theories of discourse in the late 1990s has led to the marginalization of studies of biophysical ecology within political ecology, a discipline expressly produced to study Nature/Society relationships. Taking a wider, multi-disciplinary view, Scoones (1999) confirms that a “lack of attention to ecological views and to the dynamics of environmental change remains a significant gap [in the social sciences], resulting in the exclusion of a range of important strands of enquiry.” (488)

Critiques of the bracketing of natural processes could easily be extended to my own area of interest, digital studies. Just judging from a few studies, it is clear that an important relationship exists between technology and the physical environment (Dodge and Kitchin 2005; Kitchin and Dodge 2011). On the one hand, one must consider “the relevant biophysical constraints on technical systems.” (Bergmann 2012, 519) The physical landscape greatly impacts the geography of technological infrastructure (Forlano 2009), which can lead to highly differential access to technologies like the Internet depending on geography. For instance, many indigenous peoples live in locations with little access to the Internet, at least partially due to the inhospitable nature of the physical environments for technological development (Young and Gilmore 2014).[1] On the other hand, it is also clear that technological development can greatly shape the environment. At a local level the installation of communications infrastructure can directly alter physical landscapes, and at a global level “the long-run trajectories of both carbon emissions and economic well-being are significantly influenced by the level and type of economic investments and capital accumulation today […] including […] software, buildings, vehicles, and infrastructure” (Bergmann 2013, 1351). Discarded technologies, too, unevenly impact the environment through the leaching of toxins (Carroll 2008). Yet, despite these important interrelationships between technology and the environment, the vast majority of scholarly work on digital technologies tends to bracket the ecological world in favor of an exclusive focus on social processes. In fact, online environmental politics is only now emerging as an area of study composed of relatively little literature (e.g. Askanius and Uldam 2011; Büscher 2013; Büscher and Igoe 2013). As a result of this gap, it is important to better consider the importance of the environment, as a material reality, to the social, to subjectivities, and to the making of knowledge.[2]

Environment as an Object of Politics

Of course, whether highlighted or not, the content of all politics and processes of subjectification involve a material component which is ultimately rooted in the environment.[3] Therefore, the environment remains a critical component of all social scientific inquiry, even if this dimension isn’t explicitly highlighted. For instance, Marxist analyses are founded on understandings of the scarcity, uneven distribution, and exploitation of material resources (Harvey 1996, 2005; Marx 1994). Even the discursively-oriented theories of Foucault rely on the material dimensions of bodies and their physical environment; the process of surveillance, for instance, “consists of the materiality of the prison on and through, and in tension with, the materiality of the body.” (Butler 2004, 186) The importance of the environment is particularly evident in my own proposed study, since ecological change is both the motivation and object of the politics in which I am interested. Therefore, for instance, the material and ecological dimensions of climate change, and its effects on the Arctic, very much matter for me. A range of scientific evidence has revealed that the concentration of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere has dramatically increased, due to a globally-connected range of human activities (Bergmann 2013), and that this increase is causing atmospheric and ocean warming (IPCC 2007, 2013). Effects have been dramatic, particularly in the Arctic, which many scientists regard as the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for climate change (NRDC 2005). Already the Arctic is experiencing warming, ice melt, a decline in permafrost, increased precipitation, and increased climatic variability and extremes (Barber et al. 2008; Haalboom and Natcher 2012; Pfeffer 2011). Many scientists find that there exists a high probability that these changes in the physical environment will have dramatic effects on Arctic organisms ranging from the smallest microbes up to charismatic megafauna such as seals and polar bears (Amstrup et al. 2007; Arrigo 2013, 2014; Hallowed et al. 2013; Post et al. 2013; Stabeno et al. 2012). It is likely that the disruption of the life cycles of primary producers in the Arctic Sea, the disruption of migration cycles and animal movements through ice melt, and the introduction of new species will have effects which ripple through the highly complex food web (Amstrup et al. 2007; Arrigo 2013, 2014; Hallowed et al. 2013; Post et al. 2013; Sakshaug and Walsh 2000; Stabeno et al. 2012).[4]

These effects are already driving various local and global politics. At a local level communities have sought to explore and mitigate their vulnerabilities to the disruption of infrastructure and transportation networks, the decline in the health of local populations, dramatic changes in regional economies, the increased difficulty of subsistence harvesting, and the decline of many traditional and indigenous lifestyles and knowledge systems (Ford et al. 2012; Haalboom and Natcher 2012; Harvald and Hansen 2000). At a global level political organizations are interested in issues ranging from the environmental management of polar bears (Freeman and Foote 2009) to the expansion of trade and exploitation of natural resources (Borgerson 2008). These various ecological interests have therefore directly spurred a wide range of politics which are spilling into digital spaces. I am interested in these environmental politics, particularly as they relate to Inuit knowledge and identity politics related to polar bear management (Freeman and Foote 2009). My study, and its analysis of the social, subjectivities, and the making of knowledge, would therefore not be possible without these environmental processes. However, if I only treat the environment (or, more specifically, the effects of climate change on polar bears) as the object of interest for the political movements I am examining, then I risk allowing it to fade out of my own analysis. Specifically, then, I need to explore what my analysis might lose if I were to bracket the environment and focus, more exclusively, on the purely social aspects of these politics. In other words, what does my analysis miss if I reframe the politics related to polar bear management as purely a form of livelihood, identity, or knowledge politics? In the remainder of this space I explore the environment not merely as an object of politics, but also as an actor that shapes the form and structure of those politics (Clark 2011).

Environmental Production of Worldviews

First, environmental variation may affect how different individuals think about and relate to the world. While wanting to avoid the pitfalls of environmental determinism, I will argue that the material environment does have some effect on the production of ontological and epistemological views, and thereby affects processes of knowledge politics and subjectification. This stance is supported, for instance, by Haraway’s belief that “there is something in our everyday engagements with other kinds of creatures that can open new kinds of possibilities for relating and understanding,” (Kohn 2013, 6) and by Gandy’s (1996, qtd in Scoones 1999, 35) desire for a “greater sensitivity to the agency of nature in social and scientific discourse.” A comparison of Inuit and Western engagements with the natural world may be useful in illustrating this point. Many theorists have pointed out the deep connections between Western views on property and economic exchange, on the one hand, and ontological and epistemological views of the environment, on the other (e.g. Morton 2010).[5] For instance, access to highly productive natural environments has made it easy for Western societies to transform environmental resources into private property, to store this property in excess of amounts necessary for survival, and to trade this excess as an economic commodity. This relationship with the environment not only reinforces a view of nature as a separate and inexhaustible resource for exploitation, but the ability to separate commodities from nature and assign them discrete economic value also mirrors positivistic inclinations to use reductionist models of the environment as a closed set of perfectly describable variables (Morton 2010).[6] The general view of nature as separated from society is also highly compatible with an objectivist science which emphasizes neutral, remote measurements of the environment (Jordon et al. 2008). In contrast, the Arctic is one of the least productive and least hospitable environments on the earth. General scarcity tends to make communal sharing a more viable strategy for survival than commodity exchange, and the lack of productive vegetation and mobility of animals makes it important for Inuit hunters to be constantly moving through the natural landscape. Furthermore, the rapid changeability of conditions on this landscape makes it vital that these hunters always consider their position within and as a part of that landscape. I would therefore assert that these environmental scarcities and dangers have historically disciplined the Inuit to consider their world as complex and ever-changing, and to develop an epistemological view which stresses holistic[7] and experiential knowledge gained on the landscape. The environment may therefore have affected the historical development of differing understandings of the world, and therefore the subjectivities and knowledge systems which hold those understandings.[8]

From here one could simply shift attention to some of the social and political theories[9] which describe how these different subjectivities and knowledge systems are empowered or disempowered through digital practices. This leads to an exploration of the ways in which different technologies and practices are more or less effective at highlighting different aspects of the material world, and different ways of knowing that world. For instance, one might explore the implications of social media emphases on visual media (Young and Gilmore 2014), simplicity of content, and efficiency of online exchanges (Turkle 2011). I believe a strong case could be made that these aspects of digital practice are particularly conducive to representing the material world as simple, immediately knowable, and discrete. Thus, for instance, despite the complex views on polar bears offered by post-positivist sciences and Inuit traditional knowledge, I have found that many popular media representations of polar bear conservation tend to prefer simple (and decontextualized) empirical facts and to draw on outmoded (and, once again, simpler) views of ecological theory.[10] More complex views tend to be omitted or, at best, provided through linked material. Even more broadly, the very view of the Internet as a source of knowledge about nature but also separate from it may support Western tendencies to acquire knowledge from expert, written sources over Inuit tendencies to gain ecological knowledge through experiential encounters. This aspect of digital practice may feed back into future orientation toward the natural world. For instance, some worry that the Internet can become problematic if it reduces Inuit desires to directly experience nature by becoming a substitute “for a detailed knowledge of traditional navigation and understanding of environmental conditions” (Ford et al. 2012, 292-3).[11] In this way we can see that environmental conditions, human subjectivities and knowledge systems, and technological practices and structures have deep interrelationships which affect the ways in which environmental politics play out across the Internet.

Environmental Effects on Political (Dis)Connections

However, environmental conditions affect political negotiations in ways other than the initial production of differing knowledge systems. Second, then, it is important to think about the ways in which the environment produces specific connections and disconnections, and how this affects the terrain in which political relationships between different subjectivities and knowledge systems emerge. On the one hand, the deeply interconnected nature of socio-ecological systems means that all local human actions directly impact the well-being, to a greater or lesser extent, of the entire world (Morton 2010). Traditionally, though, Western logics have thought of nature and society as separate systems (Braun 2006), resulting in blindness to many of these deep relationships and interconnections (Kohn 2013). Only recently have technological developments and the event of climate change helped us to reach a global perspective of our vulnerability (Morton 2010), and of the importance of the natural world as the shared but fragile ground upon which we have developed all social and political institutions (Clark 2011; Connolly 2013). While it is no doubt vital to understand this shared risk, the complex and global connections which have produced it also present unique problems which impede action by traditional political institutions. For instance, because ecosystems cross geopolitical and jurisdictional boundaries, it becomes difficult for individual nation-states to deal with the management of these issues on their own. Instead, they must turn to mechanisms, including bilateral agreements and multilateral policies, which require much greater political will, collective framing of responsibility, and consideration of complex political issues (Olausson 2009; Young 1996). Even within countries, domestic policy may be impeded by feelings that actions to prevent climate change are useless because other countries will simply continue producing ecological damage. Based on this logic, climate change mitigation efforts will only produce economic harm without solving the global problem. This is framed as a classic economic free-rider issue. Furthermore, the nature of causality in complex systems prevents us from localizing ‘blame’ for climate change in any individual institution, thereby complicating the direct cause-effect relationships which are often sought by policymakers (Bergmann et al. 2009; Clark 2011; Ruhl 2004). These issues are clearly seen in politics surrounding polar bear management. Because polar bear populations extend across Canada, Greenland, Norway, Russia, and the US, complex international negotiations, agreements, and management plans are necessary to provide the animals with comprehensive forms of protection. This factor is amplified when one considers that it is actually greenhouse gas emission which poses the greatest risk to the bears. Even when the various governments reach international agreements or domestic decisions, they are often limited in important ways. For instance, when the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) listed the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA), it was quick to emphasize that this listing could not be used to regulate greenhouse gas emissions. This was because, as Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne pointed out, “[t]he best scientific data available do not demonstrate significant impacts on individual polar bears from specific power plants, resource projects, government permits or other indirect activities in the lower 48 states” (Walsh 2014).

These issues of political will created are amplified by disconnections produced by local variation in the physical environment. In particular the peripherality[12] and harshness of the Arctic have politically marginalized those individuals that are most experiencing change in the Arctic and that hold the most political will to mitigate those changes. For instance, the harsh conditions and lack of infrastructure in the Arctic make travel difficult and costly, which restricts the mobility of the Inuit in their attempts to travel to important, international political meetings (Watt-Cloutier 2014). Similarly, the inhospitable environment has helped to minimize sources of income in the Arctic, which limits the ability of Inuit to overcome these travel restrictions (Penikett and Goldenberg 2013). Thus, environmental factors limit Inuit views of the Arctic from reaching global audiences. On the flip side, they also reduce the ability of this global audience from traveling to the Arctic to gain their own perspective of climate change issues. Many Canadian politicians, for instance, rarely travel to the Arctic despite making many decisions which affect Arctic residents. Instead, they are forced to rely on media representations of the Arctic (Penikett 2014). Similar conditions hinder the ability of scientists to spend significant time performing fieldwork in the Arctic. For instance, many Inuit complain that Southern scientists will only ever have limited knowledge of polar bear populations because their research is often temporally and geographically limited to a few sites during the summer months (Freeman and Foote 2009). These critiques of scientific studies are somewhat supported by the fact that much remains unknown about the full dynamics of polar bear populations. For instance, long term data on polar bear populations does not exist, current population counts remain fairly inaccurate for global populations (ranging from 20,000-25,000), and counts are missing for 5 of 19 subpopulations (Polar Bear Specialty Group 2013). Both the connections and disconnections of the environment may offer a political opening for digital technologies, since these technologies may allow political actors to overcome disconnections to produce the necessary global reimaginations of our relationship with the natural world (e.g. Young and Gilmore 2013). However, it is important to remember that these ecological conditions also shape Inuit access to these technologies. Despite relative access to the Internet compared to many remote indigenous groups (Pasch 2008, 2010), most of this access is limited to larger Inuit communities (Christensen 2003). There thus exists a politics of peripherality, and thus of whose voices reach broader audiences, even amongst the Inuit themselves.

Representations and Ethics

Finally this research presents unique challenges surrounding how the environment is listened to and represented by political actors, which may not be fully explained by traditional social science research. What strategies are politically effective at representing ecological actors and processes which speak a language very differently from ours, and what strategies are effective at supporting communication between knowledge systems of the environment which also speak differently from one another? The stakes here are quite high, because the misinterpretations of certain views will not result only in the marginalization of human actors, but will also risk undermining the global ecosystem. These concerns find support in postcolonial theories on the representation of the subaltern. Spivak (1999), for example, argues that attempts at re-presenting (darstellan) the subaltern, or speaking for the subaltern, leaves them voiceless and obscured. Instead, she advocates for representation as political advocacy (vertreten), whereby we use our privilege to create spaces in which the subaltern can speak for themselves and be heard. This political work is primarily one of trying to listening, rather than speaking. This normative stance is echoed in ecophilosophy, for instance, in Kohn’s (2013) belief that we need to develop better techniques for understanding trans-species communication and for listening to how forests ‘think’. The question then becomes not only one of how digital technologies facilitate different human knowledge systems, but also how the human use of those technologies then affects the ways in which nature is heard. Here, then, is a reminder that my analysis must return full circle to how political shifts achieved through technological engagement feed into the functioning of ecological systems. To normatively judge the effects of technologies, then, I cannot end my work with discursive analyses of what social actors are marginalized or empowered. I must also explore how these political processes continue on to disrupt complex ecological systems, which may require the adoption of (or collaboration with those capable of) scientific and quantitative methods relating social actions to material consequences within complex biological systems (see, for instance, Bergmann et al. 2009).[13] It is only through a combination of ecological and socio-political analyses that we can begin to grapple with “the question of what kind of natures we wish to inhabit, what kinds of natures we wish to preserve, to make, or, if need be, to wipe off the surface of the planet… and on how to get there” (Swyngedouw 2007, qtd. in Clark 2011, 9-10).

Finally, ecological work also requires some recognition that nature is unpredictable on its own. Clark (2011) argues that ecological work requires acknowledgment of “the existence of forces which cannot be subsumed into the predominating model of social critique and the moral economy it imagines” (66). In other words we must recognize that we, as researchers, may not be able to find direct causal links between events within socio-ecological systems and the actions of social actors. While this does not mean that we should ignore issues of responsibility or stop seeking political solutions to the problems that we identify, it does mean that our research cannot be limited to these pursuits. Instead, it may be necessary to also view our research as an opportunity to form new ethical relationships of care, which exceed strict moral economies of blame.

Endnotes

[1] Of course, many other social factors play into uneven development (see Lawson 2007). Indigenous politics of self-determination, and their relationship to national broadband policies, also likely play into these dynamics of accessibility (Duarte 2013).

[2] In my view, this question seems to complement my other prelim question on hegemony quite nicely. Where that question led me to think about the implications of political systems for environmental resiliency, this question forces me to think about the implications of the materiality of the environment for politics. It will be interesting to discuss the two answers in relation to one another.

[3] This isn’t to say that traditional bracketing of the environment hasn’t taken place in Western thinking, or that there haven’t been effects of this practice. Braun (2006) points out the ways in which such separation of Society and Nature produce destructive orientations toward the world. Rather, it is to say that many of these theories do have material components to them which can and should be further explored and expanded.

[4] The preceding discussion, quite unfairly, places an exclusive emphasis on Western/Southern understandings of environmental change. This, already, points to the knowledge politics of climate change at play within the academy—it is very easy to become exposed to scientific understandings of climate change, but one must put much more (independent) work into finding Inuit knowledge of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, I feel relatively comfortable sharing this scientific narrative at the generalized level of climate change, since this narrative mirrors that of the Inuit. Additionally, the Inuit often use this science in support of their own causes (e.g. Watt-Cloutier 2005). It becomes more critical to recognize the different knowledge politics in narratives about more contentious and specific issues, such as in discussions of polar bear population dynamics and management. In this area Western/Southern scientific views and Inuit views of the material reality differ quite dramatically (Freeman and Foote 2009).

[5] This stance, I believe, parallels Marxist understandings of the ways in which ideological superstructures emerge from the sphere of material labor.

[6] Of course, most recent scientific models are based on post-positivist principles which disrupt these early reductionist tendencies (Bergmann et al. 2009; Berkes 2012; Ruhl 2004). Nevertheless, the predominate Western view of nature held by policymakers and citizens continues to conform to much older scientific principles (Nabhan 1995; Rosamarino 2002; Ruhl 2004; Tarlock 1994). This, perhaps, makes sense if their perception of the material environment and their economic relationship to that environment continues to convince them of the common sense of positivist and reductionist principles.

[7] The fact that resources are not ever-present, but rather seem to appear by chance, also provides reasons to adopt a spiritual view of nature. If the management, for instance, of whale migration is not possible in a physical sense, it may make sense to look to look to spiritual techniques (such as instituting rituals of respect) to attempt to control them. This may provide more support for the efficacy of holistic views in climates like the Arctic.

[8] Once again, I should stress that this is not a deterministic relationship. The evolutionary processes of socio-economic systems are complex and contingent, and the identified environmental factors only affect tendencies in this evolution. Other paths are possible. For instance, many First Nations developed along alternate social and economic paths prior to contact, despite living in similar temperate environments to European civilizations; many individuals within modern Western society are calling for a shift in our view of nature; and many Inuit have adopted some relationships with nature mediated through capitalist orientations.

[9] Again, I would like to recognize that these ‘social’ theories often include highly material dimensions to them. For instance, see Latour (2007) for a description of the role of materialities in knowledge production and politics.

[10] These observations come from a current pilot project, which uses a critical discourse analysis approach to explore environmental politics across five different websites (Young 2014).

[11] Of course, other technologies like GPS can be quite useful in encouraging Inuit to travel through the natural landscape more often (Aporta 2003, 2009; Aporta and Higgs 2005; Ford et al. 2012).

[12] Of course, geopolitical conditions and colonial processes also influenced this peripherality. See Penikett and Goldenberg (2013).

[13] Again, I seem to be privileging Western scientific methods over, for instance, long term engagements with indigenous methods for knowing the world. This is something I need to work through more thoroughly.

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