Interviews

How Humans Can Be Better Neighbors

More than 20 scientists and writers on ways to be better co-inhabitants of Earth.

As our planet increasingly suffers from human-caused pollution, climate change, and mass extinctions, some experts have begun to replace our current epochal descriptor, “Holocene,” with “Anthropocene” — a word derived from “anthropo,” meaning “man.” But the new name reinforces the idea that humankind reigns over the natural world, and according to many of those same experts, that perception is what put us in the Anthropocene to begin with.

So how should we think of ourselves in relation to the damaged world around us? Are we its destroyers? Its saviors? Or are there other ways to imagine inter-species relationships?

With Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, four anthropology scholars from Denmark’s Aarhus University — Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt — collected some of the most urgent, insightful, and philosophical writing that responds to those questions. The volume is divided into two provocatively titled sections, “Monsters” and “Ghosts,” and features writing by scholars, activists, artists, and creative writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin.

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Each piece seeks to re-imagine different ways, or “arts” of living between humans and non-humans. Some read as more anthropological, others as philosophical. This collection, more than any other I’ve read on the subject of climate change, bridges the divide between the sciences and humanities to offer some truly original thinking on how to we might be better co-inhabitants of Earth.

This interview was conducted via email so that all four editors could collaborate on responses to my questions. We discussed the book’s origins, its unusual two-cover format, and how it might help re-shape some of our most fundamental ideas about the natural world and our relationship with it.


Amy Brady: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet compiles the work of many different kinds of writers: scholars, artists, activists, novelists, and others. How does such a collection come to be?

The Editors: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is popping with long-held dreams, and to trace each one might take us to many beginnings. Still: some of those dreams were nurtured across intersections between communities of scholars in Aarhus, Denmark, and in Santa Cruz, California, as the creative openings made possible by a Danish Niels Bohr Professorship allowed Santa Cruzian input into European conversations. The result was Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene, a program bent on refusing the gulf between the human and natural sciences through attention to the wonder and terror of the landscapes around us, human and nonhuman. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet emerged from our first wild, exuberant experiment: a gathering in Santa Cruz, California in 2014 that included just scientists and humanists but also activists and artists, students and community members, and, uniting us, Ursula Le Guin.

Most academic conferences are small, mild affairs; this one was passionate and overflowing. Unexpected magics emerged, as humanists and scientists found common interests. After all the excitement of the conference, we couldn’t compile the papers in an ordinary scholarly collection. We aimed to channel the spirits that pervaded the conference: generous listening across fields; attention to the too-often buried work of women scientists; care to highlight the philosophical insights of scientists and the empirical findings of humanists, as well as the other way around.

Amy Brady: Volumes dedicated to climate change are becoming more prevalent. How does your collection differ from others on the topic?

The Editors: Our book is unusual, merely for trying to work across the “two culture” divide in the academy, humanities and natural sciences, without sacrificing the best insights of either side. To tell readers about the strange and powerful confluence we have made, it did not seem enough to collect the papers.  First, we needed to build a spirit of play to urge readers to explore different genres without a priori judgements. Thus, for example, we offer the topsy-turvy presentation of the two-cover format. Second, we needed to show the urgency of this confluence for understanding the intractable problems of our times, the ones we call “Anthropocene” to mark their era-shaping seriousness. Livability is at stake for both humans and the other species we all need to live on earth. The rift in the academy between humanities and natural sciences gets in the way of appreciating, less dealing with, these problems.

Amy Brady: The collection is divided into two provocatively titled sections: “Ghosts” and “Monsters.” How do these titles represent the work found in each section?

The Editors: Our anthology grew out of urgent concerns for livability: can humans and nonhumans continue to inhabit the earth together? There is no single answer, no innocent point of view, no high gods to banish evil to hell. At the same time, it’s not enough anymore to say that things are complicated and dire beyond repair. How are “we” going to survive the Anthropocene? The anthology calls on biologists, anthropologists, historians, and artists who, for many years, have been deeply committed to expanding this “we” as different kinds of multispecies relationships, different “arts of living” with which humans and nonhumans engage. Across the essays, there is a radical willingness to think through bodies and landscapes in refreshingly creative ways that take us beyond conventional divides between nature and culture, place and time. We articulated bodies through the figure of Monsters, or what we describe as “bodies tumbled into bodies.” And we articulated landscapes through the figure of Ghosts, or what we describe as landscapes haunted by histories and made through multiple temporalities.

Monsters and Ghosts are not two halves of one book. Rather, they offer a dialectical intervention into powerful tropes that emphasize human mastery over nature. Taking the Anthropocene seriously interrupts these tropes both because humans and nature can no longer be separated and because we now know the messes that they’ve made through projects of conquest.

Amy Brady: Tell me more about these “interruptions.”

The Editors: Monsters trouble the notion of the self-made Individual as the engine of progress. Instead of the Individual, we ask: what if all organisms, including humans, are tangled up with each other? New biologies show us that no organism develops or evolves without other species. It is about time to honor—or at least notice—our companions before we kill them off. Ghosts attend to the lively and timely ruins of human industry. Instead of the future-oriented forward march of modernity, we ask: what kinds of disturbance can life on Earth bear? To assess the difference between bearable and unbearable, we look to human and nonhuman histories. Many species are entangled in the making of livable landscapes, and in their undoing.

Amy Brady: The editors call the notion of “progress” a “fable” in the introduction to “Monsters.” Can you expand on this idea?

The Editors: The effects of human activity on the Earth’s systems and all lifeforms – those effects that together characterize the Anthropocene – are the result of a particular organization of technology, economy, production and consumption, an organization that one might call modernity. But what “fuels” modernity? What drives it? Of course, the great accelerations of the last century have been fueled by oil, coal, and gas.  But the burning of fossil fuels is in turn driven by the fuel of something else: a certain desire, a particular dream of Progress, of human betterment, of “more.” At the heart of this desire for more, so it seems to us, is a particular fable, one that organizes our society but also our relation to each other and ourselves. To say that modernity is organized by a fable is not to ridicule it, but a way of trying to understand it by putting our own society on par with all others in history.  Human society has always been organized by particular myths and fables, through which distinct forms of subjectivity, hopes, and modes of production are made to make sense.  Progress is a particular kind of sense-making, an organizing principle in modern economy, science, production, and politics. It is through expectations of “more” that we are encouraged to judge our politicians, our national economies, our schools and our children, our careers, our relationships, ourselves. In anthropology, we sometimes speak of “total social facts” to refer to phenomena that are simultaneously economic, moral, political, and religious. “Progress” is the founding fable, the “total social fact” of modernity. We can criticize it and try to distance ourselves from it, but its “totalizing” grasp means it is very difficult to obviate. So, often in spite of ourselves, we spend more, travel more, work more.

Our approach to the great accelerations of the Anthropocene, the exponential growth of all parameters that we care to measure (CO2, urbanization, energy consumption, air travel), is to understand them not merely as global facts, but also as the outcome of this particular fable. The reason why growth continues to be exponential, even against our own better judgment, is because of the totalitarian character of the fable, its reach into every aspect of our lives and our desire.  We have to understand this reach, and the structures and powers that maintain it, if we are to tackle the effects of Anthropocene. There is therefore also a politics to calling progress a “fable.” Fables are narratives that are made – and thus can be made otherwise. They can be changed, in part, by beginning to understand the mechanisms and histories of their making. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet is an attempt to question the fable of Progress by highlighting other fables, other stories, about more-than-human life.

Amy Brady: The ancient Greeks viewed science and philosophy as two sides of the same coin, but in more recent traditions of Western thought, the two are clearly—and often rigidly—delineated. Given this volume’s inclusion of many different kinds of writing (personal essays, scientific explanations layered with philosophical musings, even poetry), would it be fair to say that it’s an effort to reconcile science and philosophy? If so, to what end?

The Editors: Our book attempts to bring a wide range of disciplines into dialogue with each other. We seek to work across disciplinary divides, rather than to reconcile disciplinary differences, per se. Indeed, we find inspiration in different disciplines’ unique practices of noticing and writing.

The opening pieces by [Ursula K.] Le Guin and [Lesley] Stern at once open imaginations and pull us into questions of genre. In the atmospherics created by creative writing, the arts and sciences become further genres for showing us how to notice. By treating disciplines as genres, rather than as intellectual philosophies, we aim not for conversion to a single disciplinary creed or the development of a unified form of scholarship, but instead for the expansion and remixing of genres.

Genres, for us, are modes of practice, not just modes of writing. From the beginning, our group has sought to enact interdisciplinary engagement as genre experimentation. Sometimes it has worked. One example we describe in the book is an encounter between historian Kate Brown and biologist Margaret McFall-Ngai – both contributors to our volume. Brown spent many years researching the plutonium landscapes of the 20th century in the United States and Russia and has included serious attention to the shifting and diffuse health challenges of workers and residents, who have been exposed to radiation over many years. At the conference, she spoke with McFall-Ngai, who studies the essential role of bacteria within all multicellular life. McFall-Ngai suggested that the symptoms Brown described – chronic fatigue, pain, and digestive, circulatory and immune disorders – might be caused by radiation-induced mutations of human intestinal bacteria. Such an interpretation might explain the dilemma of sufferers, whose complaints were dismissed by doctors who looked primarily for radiation illness in the form of established maladies, such as cancers.

Neither Brown nor McFall-Ngai would likely have thought about such a possibility alone. It was their interactions that generated a fruitful space for new questions and investigations and stretched both to think in new directions. This kind of cross-talk and the possibilities it opens are central to this volume.

Amy Brady: The one thing that all the pieces in this volume seem to share is an investment in “connection,” whether achieved through literal symbiosis, something more philosophical like the aboriginal notion of “shimmer,” or the eradication of man-made boundaries that have been artificially demarcating the landscape. When compiling this collection, did the editors make a conscious decision to explore this theme? Or did it emerge more organically?

The Editors: Connections and entanglements are key to the book. It is important to note that the collection represents many substantive conversations that have unfolded over many years. This makes the terms, arguments, and key concepts of the book truly collaborative. So, our answer is both: the concept of connections emerged organically and the co-editors have made a conscious effort to emphasize it throughout.

The format and design of the anthology reflects the entangled nature of the contributions and their subjects. The two parts, “Monsters” and “Ghosts,” open from separate covers; the essays in one part appear upside down with the essays in the other part and both parts eventually meet in an entangled centerfold. We worked closely with Brooklyn-based artist Jesse Lopez whose precise and delicate pencil drawings work as visual motifs that weave together the interrelated parts. Interspersed between the essays in “Monsters” are drawings of octopus tentacles, inspired by Donna Haraway’s attention to the tentacular practices and powers, or what she calls “life lived along lines—and such a wealth of lines—not at points, not in spheres.” Interspersed between “Ghosts” essays are drawings of knotted vines and branches, inspired by co-editor Anna Tsing’s attention to arboreal, rhizomatic, and mycorrhizal socialities. Drawings of tentacles and branches represent entanglements and meet at the centerfold.

Amy Brady: This book made me re-think much of what I thought I knew about how we use metaphors to describe the natural world. Indeed, the essay “Ladders, Trees, Complexity, and Other Metaphors” was especially eye-opening. Please tell me about the metaphors in your book’s title, Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. What do you mean by “arts”?

The Editors: We need more than the tools of Progress to live on this planet. What arts for living otherwise are already around us, and how might we expand them? In our use of the term, “arts” are embodied modes of engagement; they reach out to include carefully honed practices both scholarly and vernacular. At the heart of this book are “arts of noticing”: techniques of observing entangled and haunted worlds – of sensing both monsters and ghosts. The contributors to our book are keen observers who have cultivated distinct modes of description that we think are important for inhabiting Anthropocene worlds – from artist Jesse Lopez’s intricate pen-and-ink drawings to biologist Anne Pringle’s tracings of lichens.

Our book aims not merely to describe an existing range of arts, but also to illustrate the need for multiple arts all at once. No one discipline is enough – not science, art, or history. We need many, and we need them together. Many of our chapters are written by scholars who already move beyond singular disciplinary boxes: Donna Haraway is both a biologist and cultural theorist, Karen Barad, a practicing physicist and feminist critic, and Andrew Mathews, a forester and anthropologist. We are inspired by their examples as we seek to explore how different practices of observation and description can interrupt and enrich each other, forming new entangled genres for living on a damaged planet.

The second part of the book’s title “living on a damaged planet” is intended to evoke the life and death that simultaneously surround us – the riotous liveliness as well as the profound destruction. Our book aims to stay with the ruination without ignoring the wondrous co-species life that emerges, persists, sometimes even thrives, in its midst. The book’s arts of noticing address this planet: they ask how we might learn to live together on a compromised earth.

NONFICTION
Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
Edited by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Heather Anne Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt

University of Minnesota Press
Published on May 30, 2017

Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing is professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Niels Bohr Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark.

Heather Swanson is assistant professor of anthropology at Aarhus University.

Elaine Gan is a postdoctoral fellow at Aarhus University.

Nils Bubandt is professor of anthropology at Aarhus University.

Contributors: Karen Barad, U of California, Santa Cruz; Kate Brown, U of Maryland, Baltimore; Carla Freccero, U of California, Santa Cruz; Peter Funch, Aarhus U; Scott F. Gilbert, Swarthmore College; Deborah M. Gordon, Stanford U; Donna J. Haraway, U of California, Santa Cruz; Andreas Hejnol, U of Bergen, Norway; Ursula K. Le Guin; Marianne Elisabeth Lien, U of Oslo; Andrew Mathews, U of California, Santa Cruz; Margaret McFall-Ngai, U of Hawaii, Manoa; Ingrid M. Parker, U of California, Santa Cruz; Mary Louise Pratt, NYU; Anne Pringle, U of Wisconsin, Madison; Deborah Bird Rose, U of New South Wales, Sydney; Dorion Sagan; Lesley Stern, U of California, San Diego; Jens-Christian Svenning, Aarhus U.

About Amy Brady

Amy Brady is the Senior Editor of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Dallas Morning News, The Awl, Literary Hub, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.

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