#FLthecity: Re-enchanting the city (2)

Weeks 3 to 5 covered things architectural, green and technological, while the final week zoomed in our old friend, human scale. Weeks 1-2 here.

Architecture in the city

What role do architects play in the city? How do architects engage with the development process? Exploring the question of design diversity and the ‘starchitect’ phenomenon.

Diversity in architecture in the city means having different types of buildings designed for different activities and realised in different historical times with a diversity of materials…when you visit a European city like Venice, Rome, Paris, London, at first you see a uniform, old city with a few contemporary buildings standing out. But on a more in depth reading, you realise that the story is quite different.

Urban design encapsulates the process of designing the broad infrastructure for our cities, towns and villages, while architecture focuses on individual buildings. However, often architects act as urban designers, contributing to broader plans of city-making.

Key considerations of urban design:

  • understanding of topography, solar access, wind, transport, people and connectivity
  • floor space arrangement and massing
  • (the key) challenge of diversity and consistency (cohesion, shared purpose, embodied social values)

In looking at how we could transform the masterplan for Central Park we carefully studied the buildings that existed already, the buildings that were under construction, and we tried to see whether we can pull this sequence together in a different way, in a way that created more meaningful open space, that actually created a more generous interface with the adjacent community.

…making roads that could connect heritage items to give people a sense of memory so they could understand that it’s not all new. That as you turned a corner, you could see something old that you knew from before the site was developed. That idea of building in time is an important part of urban design processes.

Two examples of how heritage items were integrated at Central Park:

  • designing with heritage architecture – the Australian Hotel, a key listed building from 1938, created challenges for Foster+Partners (critique); heritage considerations were addressed through the idea of a city datum line, “expressed as a recess in the building that acknowledges and expresses the Australian Hotel’s original height”; the design process considered sensitivity to scale, a response to a sense of place, and influences of function and light for the facade (very reminiscent of that hotel in Rotterdam, where F+P were also involved – see the Gdn’s out of place city buildings feature and contributions)
  • adaptive reuse – the Irving Street Brewery (award citation) ties Central Park back to its early history, with the redevelopment influenced by the technology of the building and merging new, in the form of the trigeneration plant, with old; the trigeneration is expressed and designed into the building, including its distinctive roof

How do architects strike the balance between responding to context and pursuing the dream?

Starchitects are criticised for rolling out their habitual style on any site in any country without genuine response to the individual place, climate, or culture, and getting away with bigger (or higher, different use) buildings than governments would otherwise allow. Their buildings are frequently controversial. Do they have an unfair advantage, or is it a reward for fine design? See documentary.

Is the distinction between star and other architects spurious? The question of what is local, what is specific, what is regional is a very elusive thing…we work (increasingly) in a truly global context (critique).

Discourse from comments: “global design…befits Australia’s identity…inspirational…a fitting tribute to Australia’s multicultural identity”…

(St)architecture’s role in city creation is to engage with what exists while also taking people toward a future they cannot imagine. It does this both by fitting in and standing out, considering the nature of place from outside in, and from inside out. It must accommodate the individual and the larger group, pursuing beauty, economy, and structural integrity with architects, both servants and shapers of the planning system.

Diversity – except when it comes to buildings:

Many postmodern urban theorists have argued that the essence of the traditional city is uniformity, yet Australian cities, being relatively young and brash, are distinguished by their diversity, with terraced houses next to warehouses next to skyscrapers, and so on. Even in their oldest and most uniform parts, they’re still way more expressive than most.

The result is a sort of diversity within uniformity. At best, this could be very successful – more interesting than the rigid uniformity of say Georgian London, and more coherent than the random placement that modernism often encouraged.

How should a contemporary city precinct like Central Park replicate that balance? Should there be one design hand or many? If many, should they be briefed to fit in or to stand out? The design excellence requirements for Central Park specified visual diversity. This was to be achieved by using a variety of local and international architects and urban designers…The creative tension that resulted is one of the secrets of Central Park’s succes

Two Padlet exercises:

  • Different or popular? – take a closer look at the town or city in which you live and locate an example of diversity (range of different architectural styles in one location; you’ll be lucky) or starchitecture
  • Iconic architecture (disappointing directory) – a symbol of a city, a statement about its history, ambition or how it wants to be seen; what buildings are iconic in your city or town; what make it a signature building? (how many are new, how many heritage)

The weekly summary highlights:

  • a green grid as an additional layer to urban design representing the ecology of the city
  • modern vs post-modernist approaches to ornament for buildings
  • the relationship between residents and green space, including the balcony plantings.
  • sensitivity and respect to heritage – what represents successful integration of old and new
  • the value and drawbacks of starchitects

Being green

Focuses on significant sustainability initiatives, on sustainable urbanism and the inclusion of nature into the city. It examines design innovations in green technologies, and environmental building services.

Being green is:

  • about integrating nature into our cities and constructing our urban habitat in ways that mimic natural systems and remembering that human beings are just one of the species that lives in the cities – includes renaturing the city, bringing more plants and green landscape elements into urban areas
  • involves using green building materials and technologies for better water management, reducing temperatures associated with the urban heat island effect, and remaking post-industrial sites to create new urban precincts for living, working, and recreation
  • as residential neighbourhoods get more dense it will be increasingly important for people to have access to nature, outdoor green space for exercise and recreation, and even views into green areas that provide visual relief – designed urban landscapes are cultural products that reflect shared social values and attitudes

“Landscape architects work basically on the horizontal plane. And architects are working on the vertical plane. The outdoors not the indoors, materials that change over time not static, natural not cultural”. More trees, water features and quiet places, obvs, but see also the landscape architecture padlet – it doesn’t have to mimic ‘nature’ in a tamed way. I’m thinking  the High Line, Central Park’s vertical gardens; and from my own experience the gardens in the Walkie Talkie and Copenhagen Towers in Ørestad. Last but not least, the Green Walkway (architects) behind Rigsarkivet, at the moment CPH’s most enchanting place for me.

Some comments re the absence of the sustainability word. Back to resilience, which feels rather less agenda driven and more multi-dimensional. The Gdn’s recent article on Vejle (“the Manchester of Denmark”), with lots of references to Rotterdam, highlights issues around social resilience with some stonking comments.

The weekly summary was perhaps a little on the defensive, stressing that “many different approaches will be required to implement ‘green’ planning, designing, and building for cities of the future” – I couldn’t agree more. A number of comments centred round cultural differences and the need for a “‘both and’ not ‘either or’ approach to culture” – ditto.

Technology in the city

What role does technology play in creating an enchanting liveable built environment? We will explore this question via our case study, the Central Park development, and look through the lens of industrial design and its connection with other design and planning professions.

There’s a section on 3D printing, but nothing on smart cities. Padlet activity: Identify your favourite product or object that you love and cannot live without. The product should have been designed for a specific purpose. Tell us why this product or object is indispensable for you.

More interesting, a section on the poetry of technology and “the role of technology in making cities beautiful”, which at Central Park consists of a wind driven public artwork called Halo, living walls and the heliostat. Activity: Identify a vital technology in your environment. It could be visible or hidden. Discuss what ways it enhances your life.

Largely skipped. The comments are going to be centred around Central Park being technology driven, there’s not going to be a meeting of the minds. It’s an important theme though – tech ain’t going away and we can’t wind the clock back. See the sections on re-storying nature from #FLremaking.

The weekly summary took the “technology embraces a broad sweep of topics and concerns” line, with an interesting point around technical obsolescence.  In Central Park the overall site (landscape), buildings and technological elements (Heliostat, Trigen and green walls) will all experience differing lifespans, of which the tech’s “no doubt” will be the shortest.

The human scale: the relationship between the inside and the outside

“In Week 6, Inside Out, we zoom to the human scale and talk to the concepts of the interior room vs urban room (exterior).” I was so excited about this, implying as it does that not everything has to be human scale (that’s anthropocentric talk!) that I got stuck in a week early. Inevitably it was a bit of a disappointment.

Three themes are central to interior architecture:

  • interiority – all the pieces that shape an interior and the way that interior coherently and creatively is ‘place-making’ through its setting of interior; the way we operate and live in these places; encompasses all the facets that unite to form great interior environments
  • human scale – a relationship created of people to purpose to rooms, and the appropriateness of a scale to a purpose; public space versus private space, a town hall versus a lounge room; the scale of a private place is usually more related to human scale and people at a fine-grain level, the way people engage with a space through the level of touch, and at a relationship of hand scale; public space is a scale that relates to cities or urban proportions, a much larger grain, large meeting places for many people
  • circulation – the patterns that people move along in life, and specifically how these patterns are crucial to the success of interior spaces that we conceptualise and design; also relates to scale and how people circulate vertically and horizontally in an effective and poetic way in our interior spaces

A discussion of the One Central Park apartments, interior versus urban, presents a view of the nature of scale and how the room is defined from the scale of people to the scale of a city and how these relationships of scale to ideas are utilised by interior architects as underpinning qualities of these rooms:

The corridors of One Central Park are an example of the way poetry is being used in the conceptualisation of the design. They build a drama and an enchantment to the way that people would experience those corridors as they move through them. The theatrical nature of the corridors of One Central Park have been used as a design device to really amplify the difference between the public spaces and the private spaces.

Passing over the “the approach of raw, organic luxury” and “high speed luxury design approach influenced by sports cars and yachts” in the apartments brings us to a Padlet exercise: “Thinking about your own home or an interior you like, the materials and finishes, describe the character that it represents. Does this space correspond to a raw, organic luxury like Koichi’s design, or the contemporary and sophistication of William’s approach, or something very different?” That’ll be the last then.

Moving on, a discussion of interior and urban rooms:

Each type is defined by boundaries. However, the interior room is about shelter, order and comfort, the urban room is about civic activity.

Padlet exercise: “Drawing on what you have learned, select a building with which you feel a close connection, and share the experience of moving across the inside-out threshold. Do you sense a change of scale? Do the materials and lighting influence the experience? What emotions does the circulation pattern evoke?”

Finally, how do we make hyperdense cities of the future green, liveable and poetic? Can you identify the parts of your city that are green, liveable and poetic, as you now understand these considerations in light of this course? What if you had the power and influence to change things, what would you propose to make your city more green, liveable and poetic?


The course glossary (see week 1) highlighted issues of discourse. The content and hence tone of the course was different and wider than prevailing sustainability dogmas, leading to some discontent. But just what is enchantment?

The course team may have taken their enchanting inspiration from Jane Jacobs, who got a nod in week 1, but the rest of it certainly didn’t feel classic Jane. Some participants’ expectations of enchantment were not met, and many criticised the emphasis on one, rather gentrifying, site. For me the course challenged Gehlite Danish discourse in a refreshing way, although the end result did not enchant.

Enchantment is a recurring theme in UK place and nature writing as well, kicked off perhaps by Towards re-enchantment: place and its meanings (2010; The Ecologist).

In his essay in the book, A counter-desecration phrasebook, Robert Macfarlane calls for “a vast glossary of Enchantment that would comprehend the whole earth, that would allow nature to talk back to us and would help us to listen” (source), while in Landmarks (2015) he expresses his anxiety for the way that technology “has bequeathed to us an inadequate and unsatisfying relationship with the natural world, and with ourselves too”. Read him on Generation Anthropocene, and see The Big Interview with Adam Scovell.

David Cooper took issue with some of this on the Poetic Places launch event, and convened an event on Digital re-enchantment (Eventbrite) on 11 June to explore whether digital technologies can, for writers and readers, facilitate a re-enchantment with the world, looking at how landscape writers have drawn upon digital technologies in their creative practices. Examples:

  • experimental use of Twitter as a literary space, viz: take a photo of where you are in the Peak District – sum it up in one word – tag with #enchantthepeak – tweet
  • creative use of digital technologies to reimagine the Peak District

See also Richly Evocative’s review of the Balham Literary Festival. And, in another approach, can ‘gamifying’ cities help improve them?

#FLremaking: eco-criticism, re-storying nature

Updates: Green gentrification, ha! Why ‘green cities’ need to become a deeply lived experience: “Urban greening provides an opportunity to recast the relationship between people and environment…Rather than simply cultivating green spaces for a narrow set of anthropocentric benefits, we pose the question: who are the participants in urban greening?”…Anthropocene reading: literary history in geologic timesEnvironmental history workshop (Sep 2018; virtual workshop)…Cii-fi companion coming

Back half of Remaking nature – see front half.

Composing new natures

Having now introduced some of the reasons why nature must be remade, this week we move on to experiment with different ways of composing new natures.

How do we translate our concerns about nature into interventions that will make a meaningful difference? How can we both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think) and materially address questions of politics and ethics, history and justice, facts and values?

Starting points:

  • what do you want to achieve – to address a specific problem, celebrate nature, acknowledge our interconnections with the wider world, or advocate for a particular outcome?
  • determine how you want your audiences or participants to respond – what do you want them to think, feel, or do?
  • what is your creative idea that will achieve your desired responses?
  • what will you actually do – will your intervention be artistic, discursive, or performative?

Four modes of intervention aka creative eco-activism:

  • challenging or disrupting ways of thinking about nature – increases mainstream awareness, but can you achieve what you want by creating a shared sense of collaboration, or open up public agendas and opportunities for action?
  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • creating a public sense of identification with nature – #some opens up possibilities for interventions that resonate with your audience’s concerns, values, and attachments: seek ways to create emotional connections and use everyday language that your audiences will identify with – no jargon!
  • motivating action – advocacy and activism
  • plus from comments: embedded and participatory


  • how to talk about environmental problems in ways that will resonate with your audiences
  • how to intensify and mobilise concerns about the more-than-human world
  • how to establish meaningful mechanisms for navigating and intervening in decision-making processes


  • artistic representations – eg Nuclear Futures
  • eco-criticism and re-writing nature – see below
  • bio-art – artistic interventions at the nexus between plant science, art, plus earth jurisprudence (bioethics, or nature rights), reflecting on the possibility of plants and other entities having a different way of thinking, a different form of sentience and ultimately different rights, calling for a radical rethinking of humanity’s place in the world (Prue Gibson)

Next, drawing on the concepts developed in this course post a link to an inspiring example of an intervention, possibly relating to your topic. Why does it inspire you? Hmm…it just all goes back to reading Peter Singer aged 14. Any trees stuff? #labbeagles? See Walking with the more than human (and blog). I have an issue though with being anthropomorphic re animals. (From the week 5 discussions: Re anthropomorphism, aka the “*unwarranted* use of human-like characteristics in our descriptions of others. As such, the term tends to largely be used in question begging ways – as an insult that assumes that the animal doesn’t have these characteristics, when that is precisely what is at issue…[see also] anthropodenial…human chauvinism and human exceptionalism. They need not travel together”.)

And now create your own intervention based on yer week 3 issue – say something interesting, provocative, perhaps eye catching, about your issue and its possible futures, ideally in a way that might make a difference to how people understand and live with this environmental issue. Then add it to the creative interventions padlet, with details of  the theoretical context for your intervention – why do you think this is a good approach, and what have you hoped to achieve with it?

Eco-criticism and re-writing nature

Eco-criticism, a field of study that explores the inter-relationships of literature and the environment, is a tool for intervening in the way nature is understood, imagined and made – not simply as a mode of critique but also as a means of effecting change. How can, and do, literary and poetic forms help to trouble mainstream thinking about the environment?

Eco-criticism is a subfield of literary studies and cultural studies that looks at representations of the more-than-human world in poetry, film, and fiction. In the early days of the 1980s and 1990s, eco-critics didn’t have a very complicated idea of nature, but since then the real problem of naturecultures has been taken on.

Eco-critics can help in the project of reimagining nature in numerous ways. One important way is the historical perspective, looking into the history of artistic representation to show up how nature or the more-than-human world has been represented across time…there have been other ways of reading and understanding the more-than-human world in history, and that can help denaturalise the present.

There’s something quite apocalyptic about the mainstream imagining of climate change. We need to take the challenges of climate change seriously, but at the same time we can’t just imagine it in apocalyptic terms. Eco-criticism can show us how the apocalypse has had different incarnations across history. Every generation has had its own apocalypse story – our present crisis is just a part of this bigger history. But at the same time we need alternative visions for the future, and poets and artists, particularly operating in a speculative fictional sense, can help us to get out of this apocalyptic vision and think differently about the future.

Storytelling, and particularly narrative storytelling, is emerging as central to the EH project because it offers a different way of representing information. Eco-critics look at the structure of stories, the formal techniques, the history of different modes of representation and use story as a way of presenting and disseminating their research.

As Donna Haraway said in her recent article in Environmental Humanities it matters which stories tell stories. The stories we tell about the world, matter the world, and actually have an impact on the way that we behave, and the way that we live, and the way that we imagine the future. And so stories, both fictional and non-fictional are really important to this broad project. (Jennifer Mae Hamilton; from transcript)

  • narrating possible natures – documenting and re-storying/writing nature, inc digital stories; discursive, but can be dualistic; how can we represent nature and make a voice for it?
  • storytelling, particularly speculative forms that offer alternative visions of the future, is an important tool for engaging with environmental challenges, see article by Margaret Atwood, reflecting on the growing rise of speculative fiction, principally ‘cli-fi’; a way of educating young people about the dangers that face them and helping them to think through the problems and divine solutions, or just another part of the ‘entertainment business’?

Eco-criticism linkage:

Have to say, so far none of this does as much for me as I feel it ought to,  and others’ creative intervention projects don’t appeal either. Still, I wrote a bit on what now turns out to be EH in October 2014, summing up two events in Copenhagen from Energy Futures at ITU (@EnergyFutureITU; gone a bit quiet since). On Pynt eller politik?:

The debate on engagement stuck out, with participants highlighting the need for new forms of communication, perhaps reducing the dystopian angle on climate change in favour of something more positive. More idealistic was a call for more of the aesthetic, which in turn would emphasise the ethical in society and education (this works better på dansk), more solutions and positive stories, less of the victim, endless facts and figures – current discourse is too functional and economically driven. What is needed is collective action rather than passive individuals, a lifestyle and value system change away from consumption.

New narratives for new natures

This week we looked at the power of storytelling in composing new natures. We encountered the recurring idea that telling stories draws us into new connections, accountabilities and obligations. You invented your own creative stories about the future through the Game of Global Futures, which illustrated how different connections, or coalescences, lead to different environmental outcomes.

Sadly, this is where I lost the plot and reached my personal tipping point. Games don’t appeal, but thanks to a fellow students for posting some material re the dominance of storytelling, specifically  Galen Strawson in Aeon and Tyler Cowen via the medium of TEDx (really), who went from Christopher Booker’s seven basic plots to the three problems with stories (they’re simple and manipulative, they end up serving dual and conflicting functions, markets and politicians don’t always send us the right stories) – embrace mess!

We were also introduced to the concepts of re-making and re-worlding, “used within EH and a range of other fields which acknowledges that our understandings of the world are made and re-made through encounters between different imaginaries…art interventions and other forms of research — as forms of worlding — can envision new worlds that demonstrate greater ethics of care and concern, and can potentially open up more responsible imaginaries and ways of knowing”.

Moving on, there are four different modes or lenses for telling stories within EH:

  • justice – the social justice expression of environmental ethics; breaks down the division between the social and the environmental and acknowledges the role of social and political power in shaping environmental outcomes
  • care – affective, ethical and practical (a vital affective state, and an ethical obligation, and a practical labour), but care not without risk; what kinds of emotional, political, and epistemic frames orient our caring acts? what am I really caring for, why, and at what cost to whom? (come in, CPH Zoo)
  • art – what are the implications for knowledge and public engagement in environmental issues, when an artistic mode is adopted?
  • democratising knowledge – questioning existing public engagement approaches that concentrate on public acceptance of pre-determined, technology-driven responses to environmental problems and engaging with complex issues around who has access to framing environmental problems and driving change; what counts as facts and what counts as values? We’ve tended to value facts, which we assume are objective, over values, which we assume are sort of subjective or sort of irrational (comment from co-student: “the general public has ‘values’ right enough but these are often of the NIMBY variety or based on sentimentality…there is a whole industry grown up around public participation which keeps everyone in a fine state of ferment”)

Each of these storytelling modes offers a different framework for understanding and working through the stories humans tell — and hence the relationships we establish, with their world-making consequences. Together, these modes can help us to tell new stories that exhibit greater responsibility towards humans and the more-than-human world.

Where do these new natures take us?

Final week, a conclusion? Discussing the importance of care and responsibility in future-making, introducing the notion of ‘staying with the trouble’, and why it’s important to base our accounts in situated experiences of the world.

Forget utopias – the lure of hope as a form of denial or distraction can be very strong. Engage in practical and concrete modes of care and responsibility for possible worlds – what’s needed is a critical lens on, and more attention towards, what it is that we’re specifically hoping and working towards.

Forget apocalypse – use optimistic stories that provoke a sense of agency, rather than focusing on apocalyptic visions of the future. If the communication does not resonate with social norms, values or attachments that influence audiences’ sense-making processes, it cannot succeed.

We now leave you with a final provocation: What is your next step? How will you use the knowledge and connections that you gained in this course to influence change in a situation that you care about?

Overall, too many new concepts, too much jargon, too many earnest academics talking to each other – a rather more high minded MOOC than many.

EH linkage:

From the Walking Encylopedia (2014), walking as a way of expressing environmental concerns and tracking climate change – see for example Jess Allen’s All in a day’s walk and Tilting at windmills. Jess is exploring the concept of tracktivism, “utilising walking and moving and talking in rural landscapes to address issues of environmental, social or political concern”. (Update: on Talking Walking. Aug 2o14; see also on Academia.edu.) Also Peter Ward’s Pebble Ridge and BIOsphere. Steph Bradley is involved in with the Transition Network – see her blog – and uses storywalks to tell Tales of our times.

#FLremaking: environmental humanities, nature and anthropocentrism

Remaking nature (#flremaking), FutureLearn’s Environmental Humanities MOOC from UNSW Australia, started 11 January for six weeks. Around 6.5K enrolled, with a great intro vid.

Learn how the new Environmental Humanities (EH) field is shaping how we understand environmental issues. You’ll get a broad overview of an emerging area of interdisciplinary research that reframes contemporary environmental challenges using approaches from philosophy, literature, language, history, anthropology, cultural studies and the arts.

EH places scientific knowledge in dialogue with the key concerns of the humanities: how people think, feel, protest, vote and create. Our main aim in this course is to consider and create new narratives about how humans and the environment relate to one another.

We’ll begin this course by identifying historical ways of thinking about the environment. Through a range of examples, we’ll illustrate how ‘nature’ is a human invention. We’ll then look at how the role of humans has been conceptualised in opposition to notions of nature, and assert that we were never at the centre, nor in control of the environment.

Having questioned these common ‘modernist’ conceptions about nature, we’ll examine some of the ways in which the natural world is being ‘remade’, both discursively (in the way we write, speak and think about it) and materially (for instance, in the alteration of DNA and the wholesale transformation of ecosystems).

Finally, we’ll ask you to join us in creating new narratives about nature that demonstrate greater care and concern.

EH at UNSW (Facebook | Twitter) has four main strands:

  • environment, technology and the politics of knowledge
  • multispecies studies and politics of life
  • social change, participatory politics and community engagement
  • rethinking the humanities through the environment

Of the eight course guides the work of Susie Pratt (artist and researcher, does sound walks; not traced), Paul Munro (Twitter; background in political ecology and historical geography) and Judy Motion (public discourses and engagement, inc #some but not self; investigating urban spaces) are of the most interest. Plus Matthew Kearnes, who doesn’t appear on the vid but blogstweets and is a co-editor of Environmental Humanities (@EnvHumanities).

What is environmental humanities?

The entanglement between facts and values, science and humanities, is at the heart of the emerging EH field. An activity in the first week asked participants to critique a newspaper article looking at the stakeholders, the kinds of knowledge being drawn upon (eg scientific, legal, aesthetic, cultural) and how scientific facts and human value systems interacted therein. This “generated some great conversations about clashes of value systems, the interaction between facts and values, and the rights of different human and non-human stakeholders”.

Next, an article by Stephen Muecke, drawing on the work of philosopher Bruno Latour, explained the shift from ‘matters of fact’ to ‘matters of concern’ as an important step in taking action to counter ecological crises:

EH investigates the relation of facts to values – no fact is born without a set of values attached, and the separation of facts from values is an artificial separation. There was something quite artificial in the way that modern Europeans separated nature off from human society and made it the domain of science. The new story we tell about nature is not about its pure scientific facts, as if they are ‘just there’, but that facts come into being for reasons like curiosity, need, concern and necessity: human emotions and needs! ‘Matters of fact’ are also ‘matters of concern’ – we can’t necessarily prioritise the one over the other. What one can do is rank matters of concern in order of importance.

Examples of EH research:

  • Eben Kirksey on Living with parasites
  • speed bumps and other traffic calming devices as anti-modernist, a technology that enforces a morality and illustrates the embeddedness of scientific facts, technology and human value systems (and the ethics of pedestrian crossings, which can be extended to shared space and related)
  • remaking nature – the humanities can help us better understand and respond to contemporary environmental challenges, and the more-than-human world offers us a new lens for rethinking some of our core understandings about humanity; creative projects such as multi-species imaginings and an awareness of the liveliness of things  (eg built environment) can remake our understanding of ‘nature’ and our place within it.

A poll then asked “how do you understand nature”? A subset of response choices hinted towards humans as having a ‘stewardship’ or even Godlike relationship towards nature, with morals and duties. Looking forward to this being addressed in week 3.

Summary of key ideas in the EH field:

  • facts are interwoven with values
  • environmental challenges are wrapped up in ‘matters of concern’
  • the humanities can aid in remaking our ideas about environmental concerns
  • ‘reinstituting the collective’ is an ongoing process for EH researchers
  • the more-than-human environment can aid in remaking our ideas about humanity and ‘nature’
  • humans are interwoven with environments

Further reading:

The invention of nature

This week, we will explore ‘nature’ as a conceptual category, introducing the idea that nature as we understand it in the West does not actually exist — it is, in fact, a European invention. We then go on to discuss some of the implications of a nature-culture division in historical and contemporary situations.

First, a “fun activity that takes you on a walk outdoors” introduced by Susie Pratt, aka Padlet time. Not a fan – this kind of stuff creating doesn’t do much for this type of learner, who prefers to take notes. We were asked to go for a walk and search for and collect (or photograph) six small objects, then sort them into two piles: natural objects and cultural ones, or place them on a continuum. “What complexities occurred when you started to divide your objects into a nature/culture binary? Dividing these items into a nature-culture binary may actually contribute to some of the complex environmental crises that we currently have today.”

On to nature as a conceptual category. Raymond Williams famously said that ‘nature’ may be the most complex term in the English language, but there are two main ways in which the term is typically used:

  • nature as essence – the fundamental or inner character, or proper functioning, of anything and everything, the essential or proper features of a thing, eg human nature, the ‘nature’ of modern architecture.
  • nature as nonhuman –  the collection of nonhuman entities in the world, eg wilderness as the purest form of nature (see William Cronon, then Dan Allosso)

Moving on to:

  • confused natures – eg  if someone says that genetically modified foods are ‘unnatural’, what do they mean? to call something ‘unnatural’ implies that it is not proper, not how it ought to be
  • the nature/culture dualism – in Western thought nature has tended to be understood as dualistically opposed to culture or humanity, those parts or places that are (relatively) unaffected by people, positioning humans as fundamentally outside nature: “the foundational delusion of the West…a dangerous doctrine, strongly implicated in the environmental crisis…the love-child of the old dominant narrative of human mastery and centrality mated with the much younger circumstance of human experience of commodification in the global city” (Val Plumwood)

Next, a vid summed up the position that rather than a dualism there is a continuum, summing up neatly (again!) what as a vegetarian I have always perceived, plus touching on speciesism. But if nature never existed in a dualised way, how far can we go with J Baird Callicott: “We are animals ourselves, large omnivorous primates…We are therefore a part of nature, not set apart from it. Hence, human works are no less natural than those of termites or elephants. Chicago is no less a phenomenon of nature than is the Great Barrier Reef.”

I’m pretty much with JBC – climate change is hence natural, stop flapping.

Other dualisms relate to eg gender, sexuality and race, include male / female, mind / body, master / slave, civilised / primitive, human / animal. Obv.

Next, four implications of the invention of nature and the nature/culture dualism:

  • mastery over nature – different examples of forms of mastery of environmental and climatic systems, from grand visions such as the construction of the Hoover Dam, to everyday mundane forms of mastery — for example, the use of air conditioners to control temperature
  • nature and power – colonisation inc British appropriation of Australian lands, justified on the basis of terra nullius (no one’s land) and the racist conception that Indigenous people did not manage and occupy the land and therefore did not have rights over it
  • nature as wilderness – a protected, romanticised area separate from and excluded from human activities, exploring how notions of wilderness are bound up in the emergence of national parks, and the problems that occur when protected ‘natural areas’ are created
  • environmental determinism – the problematic claim that environmental conditions determine the character and attributes of (geographically distinct) cultural and ethnic groups, “a thin veil for a virulent form of Euro-centric racism” – overcooked for me, usual HE discourse

The end of ‘nature’ as a conceptual category might just be the beginning of a more sustainable and ethical engagement with our nonhuman, or more-than-human, world. OTOH, has the case really been made for the damage it does? See ‘Pristine’ landscapes haven’t existed for thousands of years.

So far the course as a whole is of a way higher level than most ‘baby steps’ style FutureLearn courses, but perhaps too much philosophy and rather trad academic in style – the four implications felt like each instructor’s pet peeve. Where’s the hums? Plus too little activity or ‘stories’ to maintain interest as a MOOC. And who would ever have thought I would have said that…

Beyond anthropocentrism

Anthropocentrism characterises a position which accepts human beings as being the most significant species on the planet. Implicitly, humans are considered to have a moral status or value higher than that of other animals due to their level of sentience, their presence of a human soul, and notions of human dignity.

Such anthropocentric perspectives are deeply embedded in many modern human cultural and conscious acts, with human considerations being at the centre of environmental concerns. Nature, seen as an external environment, is generally viewed as having instrumental values. And thus, its preservation or conservation is premised on its value for human needs, such as its use as a resource or the ecosystem services that it provides.

Anthropocentrism is often contrasted with ecocentric perspectives, a term for a wide variety of beliefs that see humans as a part of, rather than as separate from, nature. In this conception, nature is understood as having an intrinsic value, value irrespective of its use to humans, and therefore human decisions must take this into account

There are, of course, shades of grey between these perspectives. For example, a custodian approach, where humans are seen as having some obligation to protect nature for its intrinsic value, yet human concerns still remain central. A form of human exceptionalism still exists. Perspectives can also vary in terms of subjects of study and across time.

In the Environmental Humanities, we seek to unsettle strong antropocentric perspectives, challenging the assumption that humans and society are somehow being distinct and separate from nature. We explore new stories and understandings of the world and the ways in which we can start to imagine different social and environmental futures.

Summed up in this handy framework:

  • Ecocentric – nature-centred. People with an ecocentric viewpoint tend to see nature as having its own intrinsic value, with a right to exist for its own sake.
  • Custodian – being responsible for the maintenance of something. People with a custodian or stewardship approach to environment tend to feel that humans have a moral obligation to protect nature, both in the present and future.
  • Anthropocentric – human-centred. People with an anthropocentric viewpoint tend to see nature based on its value as a resource to be exploited by humans for human benefit.

Now, is this a continuum, ie do the ecocentric perceive themselves as morally superior, even to the custodians? the poll found a trend of people tending to cluster around either custodian or ecocentric perspectives. Some see humans as having a moral obligation to protect nature; others want to see humans more part of nature. If it’s the moral aspect I have trouble with, Dan A suggests splitting the middle ground into Custodians, who believe humans have a moral obligation to protect nature for its own sake, and Stewards, who want to insure nature’s continued ability to meet our needs.

Next, An ecomodernist manifesto (32pp), as an example of anthropocentrism through a contemporary example of a nature-culture dualism. The manifesto supports “nuclear power, intensive agriculture and genetically modified crops — together with the suggestion that ‘positive decoupling trends offer hope for a ‘good Anthropocene'”.’ Its central claim is that humans need to de-couple from nature:

Humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature…Intensifying many human activities — particularly farming, energy extraction, forestry, and settlement — so that they use less land and interfere less with the natural world is the key to decoupling human development from environmental impacts…Decoupling raises the possibility that societies might achieve peak human impact without intruding much further on relatively untouched areas. Nature unused is nature spared.

It’s a modernist concept of nature: the intensification of human activities will enable humans to extricate themselves from relations with nature.

  • can ecomodernism decouple itself from environmentalism?
  • can humanity decouple itself from nature?

See responses and Dan A (one | two | three | four): “an example of contemporary perspectives that continue to advocate a human-focused understanding of the world, perpetuating nature-culture divisions”. Piqued my interest, but sadly tl:dr.

Then a video on the Anthropocene, addressing some of the problems of this grand-planetary-scale narrative, inc what non-human agencies are also implicated in Earth futures. The concept of the Anthropocene is used as a means of raising environmental consciousness and highlighting the scale of human impact on environments, but if we wish to move beyond anthropocentric frames of inquiry is it wise to name a geological epoch after ourselves?

Next, pick a topical issue and link to an interesting news article, video or online commentary that engages with it. Do you see evidence of the nature/culture dualism and anthropocentrism at play in your issue? Two examples from the instructors, multispecies communities and liveliness (or agency) of things, are presented to offer a means of understanding or responding to your issue. There’s a dog owning thread (can’t find!) and nice accompanying article, (plus another on shared space), but you really need to engage straight away before things (and you) move on.

My issue of choice could have been Denmark’s public dissections, but couldn’t face it, particularly this week. (Plus would be going through the motions – know already how it would play out in this arena. Exhibit A: Pels-avisen.) Never mind anthropocentric, here it’s danocentric (see ethnocentrism, the belief that ‘our way is the right way’).

Generally, still pretty heavy on the theory, but from week 4 things got a bit more practical – see second post.