Tag Archives: Geoff Manaugh

Josh Cinner, Anna Tsing, and the Meadowlands

Three different takes on thinking about people and nature:

1) A profile of our colleague Josh Cinner in Science (a conservation social scientist):

Now a senior research fellow at James Cook University (JCU) in Townsville, Australia, Cinner studies how coral reefs and people interact in a vast swath of the Southern Hemisphere. “People often have trouble understanding why a social scientist is involved because they think it’s the realm of the marine biologists,” he says. But it makes sense in the context of coral reefs, which are host to dozens of species of fish that provide food and income for nearby villages. “You don’t manage fish. Fish swim and they do their own thing. You manage people. Managing ecosystems is really about managing people and understanding what motivates them and their behaviors.”

Cinner and [Tim] McClanahan have found that different places felt different effects of coral bleaching based on how much people depended on fish and tourism for a living and how flexible the local people were. In Madagascar, rigid taboos govern when people can fish and what gear they can use. “This actually leads to a bit of rigidity and stifles how people are able to adapt,” Cinner says. In Kenya, some people are so desperately poor that when the reefs are in trouble, they just fish harder in the same places. But in the wealthier Seychelles, people have boats that can take them farther out, to target fish that don’t live on the reefs.

These observations have led to ideas about how to protect reefs, and the people who depend on them, during coral-bleaching events. For example, if coral die and algae take over, it’s much harder for coral to get reestablished. But if the reef hosts plenty of parrotfish — which graze on algae and keep the reef clean — the coral will be more likely to come back. Spearfishing particularly targets parrotfish, so one strategy might be to buy back spearfishing gear from Kenyan fishermen to protect parrotfish and make a reef more resilient to climate change, while leaving fishermen with other means to fish.

Cinner wants to extend this work to Indonesia and Papua New Guinea, looking for other ways to help people and coral reefs survive climate change. Working in so many cultures is challenging, he says. “I sometimes have to go through four different languages to remember the word. I might say it in Swahili, Portuguese, and Spanish, and then realize I’m trying to speak Malagasy or something.” He says it’s also tough being away from home so much of the time; last year, he was outside of Australia for about 150 days. But all that is outweighed by the excitement of his research. “You never know what’s going to happen when you step off a bus into a dusty place you’ve never been,” Cinner says. “That feeling never really goes away no matter how many times you do it. It’s almost always worked out for me.”

3) The anthropology blog Savage Minds mentions well-known anthropologist Anna Tsing‘s discussion of the need for alternatives to Actor-Network Theory (which has been discussed on Resilience Science a few times). Savage Minds author Kerim Friedman writes:

Anna Tsing’s current research (or at least what she focused on in her talk) is about mushrooms, focusing on the ways in which mushroom cultivation reuses damaged (“blasted”) landscapes. Drawing on the work of Deborah Bird Rose, she emphasized the way in which these practices allow for a kind of “recuperation” for all the species inhabiting the landscape. She also talked about “multi-species anthropology” as an alternative to Actor-Network Theory. She argued that whereas ANT is useful for inanimate technologies which are animated by their interaction with humans, it is less useful for species which are already alive. Obviously, not all living organisms are relevant to every study, so once again the question of scale is important, and must be determined ethnographically. (See Juno’s Savage Minds review of When Species Meet.)

3) Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG writes about two books on New Jersey’s Meadowlands, a feral landscape within greater New York City.  He writes:

“Just five miles west of New York City,” the back cover of Sullivan’s book reads, are the Meadowlands: “this vilified, half-developed, half-untamed, much dumped-on, and sometimes odiferous tract of swampland is home to rare birds and missing bodies, tranquil marshes and a major sports arena, burning garbage dumps and corporate headquarters, the remains of the original Penn Station, and maybe, just maybe, of the late Jimmy Hoffa.” It is “mysterious ground that is not yet guidebooked,” Sullivan writes inside, “where European landscape painters once set up their easels to paint the quiet tidal estuaries and old cedar swamps,” but where, now, “there are real hills in the Meadowlands and there are garbage hills. The real hills are outnumbered by the garbage hills.”

Lutz’s book describes the region as a “32-square-mile stretch of sweeping wilderness that evokes morbid fantasies of Mafia hits and buried remains.” As Lutz explained in a 2008 interview with Photoshelter, “When I first saw the Meadowlands I was completely blown away at this vast open space with the Manhattan skyline in the distance. It was this space that existed between spaces, somewhere between urban and suburban all the while made up of swamps, towns and intersecting highways. None of it made any sense to me, still doesn’t.”

All told, the area has become, Sullivan writes, “through negligence, through exploitation, and through its own chaotic persistence, explorable again.”

Remnants of the Biosphere

BLDGBLOG, written by Geoff Manaugh, just published this blog on Remants of the Biosphere.

Photographer Noah Sheldon got in touch the other week with a beautiful series of photos documenting the decrepit state of Biosphere 2, a semi-derelict bio-architectural experiment in the Arizona desert.

biosphere1biosphere-water

“The structure was billed as the first large habitat for humans that would live and breathe on its own, as cut off from the earth as a spaceship,” the New York Times wrote back in 1992, but the project was a near-instant failure. The entire site was sold to private developers in 2007, leaving the buildings still functional and open for tours but falling apart.

Sheldon’s images, reproduced here with permission, show the facility advancing into old age. A vast biological folly in the shadow of desert over-development, the project of Biosphere 2 seems particularly poignant in this unkempt state.

The largest sealed environment ever created, constructed at a cost of $200 million, and now falling somewhere between David Gissen’s idea of subnature—wherein the slow power of vegetative life is unleashed “as a transgressive animated force against buildings”—and a bioclimatically inspired Dubai, Biosphere 2 even included its own one million-gallon artificial sea.

In this context, Biosphere 2 could be considered one of architect Francois Roche’s “buildings that die,” a term Roche used in a recent interview with Jeffrey Inaba. Indeed, in its current state Biosphere 2 is easily one of the ultimate candidates for Roche’s idea of “corrupted biotopes“; the site’s ongoing transformation into suburbia only makes this corruption all the more explicit.

Watching something originally built precisely as a simulation of the Earth—the 2 in “Biosphere 2″ is meant to differentiate this place from the Earth itself, i.e. Biosphere 1—slowly taken over by the very forces it was naively meant to model is philosophically extraordinary: the model taken over by the thing it represents. It is a replicant in its dying throes.

Ballard and architecture

Noted science fiction author J.G. Ballard died April 19, 2009. on Omnivoracious Geoff Manaugh, of BLDG BLOG, offers an architectural appreciation – Between the Tower and the Parking Lot: A Spatial Appreciation of J.G. Ballard:

J.G. Ballard, who died on Sunday at the age of 78, leaves behind far more than his status as a “cult author,” science fiction novelist, or agent provocateur. Although most of his novels are still all but impossible to find in the U.S., I would argue that Ballard is one of the most important writers on architecture in the last century. But what do I mean by architecture, and why would that be the source of much of his works’ continued relevance?

Ballard is best known for his look at the erotic nature of car accidents (Crash) and his semi-autobiographical account of a childhood spent in a Japanese internship camp during the Second World War (Empire of the Sun), but it’s also worth looking at the settings of his less well-known novels: the architectural structures and urban landscapes in which they take place. Among other things, what makes Ballard’s fiction so spatially valuable is that he explores the psychological implications of everyday non-places–like parking lots, high-rise apartment towers, highway embankments, shopping malls, well-policed corporate enclaves, and even British suburbia–without resorting to the flippant condemnation one might expect. Instead, Ballard describes these spaces in terms of their effects: how they mutate and rearrange the mental lives of their inhabitants.

It’s as if these buildings, malls, empty plazas, and parking lots do, in fact, inspire a new type of humanity–as modernism’s high priests once predicted–but Ballard shows that what they are bringing into existence is something altogether darker and unexpected. In other words, our contemporary built landscape has not ushered in the enlightened utopia once promised by Le Corbusier, for instance, with his isolated towers, or by Mies van der Rohe with his unornamented glass boxes. Instead, there is a slow-burning psychopathy here, a dementia inspired by space itself. Architecture becomes a kind of psychological Manhattan Project, so to speak: a vast, poorly supervised experiment in which new species of human personality are incubated.

At its best, Ballard’s work is a devastating and original contribution to architectural thought, articulating the often sinister impacts of our built environment with a sense of humor, and an aphoristic memorability, that is all too lacking in contemporary fiction and architectural criticism alike.

Kim Stanley Robinson on nature, architecture, and society

Geoff Manaugh recently interviewed ecological science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson about ecology, architecture and socieities on BLDGBLOG.  Manaugh writes:

Robinson’s books are not only filled with descriptions of landscapes – whole planets, in fact, noted, sensed, and textured down to the chemistry of their soils and the currents in their seas – but they are often about nothing other than vast landscape processes, in the midst of which a few humans stumble along. “Politics,” in these novels, is as much a question of social justice as it is shorthand for learning to live in specific environments.

Robinson responds to a question about the idea that catastrophe can allow new forms of social organization to emerge:

It’s a failure of imagination to think that climate change is going to be an escape from jail – and it’s a failure in a couple of ways.

For one thing, modern civilization, with six billion people on the planet, lives on the tip of a gigantic complex of prosthetic devices – and all those devices have to work. The crash scenario that people think of, in this case, as an escape to freedom would actually be so damaging that it wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be an adventure. It would merely be a struggle for food and security, and a permanent high risk of being robbed, beaten, or killed; your ability to feel confident about your own – and your family’s and your children’s – safety would be gone. People who fail to realize that… I’d say their imaginations haven’t fully gotten into this scenario.

It’s easy to imagine people who are bored in the modern techno-surround, as I call it, and they’re bored because they have not fully comprehended that they’re still primates, that their brains grew over a million-year period doing a certain suite of activities, and those activities are still available. Anyone can do them; they’re simple. They have to do with basic life support and basic social activities unboosted by technological means.

And there’s an addictive side to this. People try to do stupid technological replacements for natural primate actions, but it doesn’t quite give them the buzz that they hoped it would. Even though it looks quite magical, the sense of accomplishment is not there. So they do it again, hoping that the activity, like a drug, will somehow satisfy the urge that it’s supposedly meant to satisfy. But it doesn’t. So they do it more and more – and they fall down a rabbit hole, pursuing a destructive and high carbon-burn activity, when they could just go out for a walk, or plant a garden, or sit down at a table with a friend and drink some coffee and talk for an hour. All of these unboosted, straight-forward primate activities are actually intensely satisfying to the totality of the mind-body that we are.

So a little bit of analysis of what we are as primates – how we got here evolutionarily, and what can satisfy us in this world – would help us to imagine activities that are much lower impact on the planet and much more satisfying to the individual at the same time. In general, I’ve been thinking: let’s rate our technologies for how much they help us as primates, rather than how they can put us further into this dream of being powerful gods who stalk around on a planet that doesn’t really matter to us.

Because a lot of these supposed pleasures are really expensive. You pay with your life. You pay with your health. And they don’t satisfy you anyway! You end up taking various kinds of prescription or non-prescription drugs to compensate for your unhappiness and your unhealthiness – and the whole thing comes out of a kind of spiral: if only you could consume more, you’d be happier. But it isn’t true.

I’m advocating a kind of alteration of our imagined relationship to the planet. I think it’d be more fun – and also more sustainable. We’re always thinking that we’re much more powerful than we are, because we’re boosted by technological powers that exert a really, really high cost on the environment – a cost that isn’t calculated and that isn’t put into the price of things. It’s exteriorized from our fake economy. And it’s very profitable for certain elements in our society for us to continue to wander around in this dream-state and be upset about everything.

The hope that, “Oh, if only civilization were to collapse, then I could be happy” – it’s ridiculous. You can simply walk out your front door and get what you want out of that particular fantasy.