Weaving collective imaginaries in the anthropocene

This is the sixth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

Our connections within a multi-species web are what make us part of earth’s living ecology, and arguably what make us human. Strengthening these connections, and becoming integrated into the life and death cycles of nature seem to be key in ensuring the future of our ecosystems, by way of binding our human fates more closely to the fate of the nonhuman species of the planet. Yet the humans that are already the most bound within the multi-species web, often poor and rural populations, already feel ecological effects with disproportionate severity compared with those who have more of a buffer. Forging tighter multispecies connections may not need to entail becoming more vulnerable to ecological impacts, but it may mean that through collective imaginaries, we allow ourselves to become sensitive to existing vulnerabilities to the collective web that we exist within.

Jacob E. Lange, Flora agaricina danica, 1935–1940, Volume 1, Plate 7A,C from Tsing
From Tsing: Jacob E. Lange, Flora agaricina danica, 1935–1940, Volume 1, Plate 7A,C.

According to Tsing, her goal in writing about connections between human and non-human well-being is to open “new spaces in the public imagination”. What does this space do? This public or collective imaginary seems to be the birthing ground for the future. For example, Rose uses an example of the desire for destruction to also be a product of an imaginary e.g. without dingoes. According to the Australian aboriginals, their country (land) comes into being through dreaming creation. It is through this dreaming creation that connections are made across species boundaries. Rose’s implicit message is that these two imaginaries (that of death and destruction, compared with connection and creation) are antagonistic to one another. Furthermore, her assertion is that the imaginary of destruction creates a double death- as corpses pile up, connectivities in the web are destroyed, which takes away the ability for death to nurture new life. This process of double-death is demonstrated by the poisoning of dingoes in Australia (Rose) and of vultures in India (van Dooren).  In both of these cases, dead bodies which formerly offered nourishment to the ecosystem are transformed into further agents of death. In the case of India, these deathly effects ripple out into the human and social realms, with the societal function of the vultures no longer able to keep disease at bay. In this case, we see the interdependence between humans and the multi-species web, and also the disproportionate impacts that this ecosystem disruption has on the country’s poor and rural communities. We see a similar trend in Fiorella’s article about the fish-for-sex trading industry around Lake Victoria. In this case, the linkages between humans and fish is quite direct. We see declining fish populations not only disproportionately affecting the poor, but also women.

Conservation biologists offer an alternative imaginary, with rewilding projects. These propose to restore earth’s ecosystems through reintroducing animals to areas where they have been extirpated, or to introduce analogous animals to perform similar functions as extinct animals. Soulé and Noss assert that the greatest roadblock to these rewilding efforts actually happening is the “unwillingness to imagine it,” and that this might be able to “save nature”. Perhaps they are right, but I wonder whether potential unforeseen (and foreseen) consequences of rewilding would also disproportionately burden the poor populations in the regions where species are introduced. Quammen illustrates that one cannot remove one piece of the ecosystem without it fraying. I would extend his metaphor to caution that putting all the pieces back in one place does not necessarily reweave the web either. I would agree, however, that weaving this web of multi-species connections is work for the collective imaginary, and that making these connections visible and understood publicly will be necessary in order to live in the best way for the future humans and nonhumans of earth.

Works Cited:

  1. Tsing, Anna. “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom.” Australian Humanities Review, 50 (2011): 5-21.
  2. van Dooren, Thom. “Vultures and their People in India: Equity and Entanglement in a Time of Extinctions.” Australian Humanities Review, 50 (2011): 45-61.
  3. Rose, Deborah Bird. “What if the Angle of History were a Dog?” Cultural Studies Review, 12, no. 1 (Mar 2006): 67-78.
  4. Quammen, David. “Thirty-Six Persian Throw Rugs.” Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. New York: Scribner, 1996.
  5. Soulé, Michael and Reed Noss. “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Complementary Conservation.” Wild Earth 8, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 19-28.
  6. Donlan, Josh et al. “Rewilding North America.” Nature 436 (18 Aug 2005): 1-2.
  7. Danielsen, Finna … Justin S. Brashares…, et al. “A Multicountry Assessment of Tropical Resource Monitoring by Local Communities.” Bioscience 64, no. 3 (Mar 2014): 236-251.
  8. Fiorella, Kathryn… Justin Brashares, et al. “Transactional Fish-for-Sex Relationships Amid Declining Fish Access in Kenya.” World Development 74 (2015): 323-332.

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