Ecological Dis/Continuity and the Ethics of Forests-to-Come

It was an honor to be a part of the Anthropology and Environment Section's 2016 Rappaport Prize Panel and to present alongside a number of talented anthropologists. Congratulations to Amy Zhang of Yale University, whose paper "Ecologies of Enclosure: Reconfiguring the Black Soldier Fly for organic waste management in Guangzhou" won the award! 

Below is the full text and images of the paper I presented. 

Ecological Dis/Continuity and the Ethics of Forests-to-Come
Lizzy Hare

The Nature Conservancy site at Kankakee Sands Indiana includes a large greenhouse on the edge of an empty field. A narrow woodlot separates the greenhouse from the greying stumps of last season’s corn in the field next door. The air inside the greenhouse was warm and humid on this brisk winter morning; stepping inside felt a bit like time traveling to a different season. The greenhouse was filled with long tables and each tabletop was covered with little plastic cups filled with soil arranged in trays of 20-30. Small plastic flags identified species in cryptic shorthand. A number of them had begun to sprout, their delicate baby leaves as eager for spring as the rest of us.

In later visits I would be caring for the young plants, but today's activity was simply planting more seeds. It was a task that would be familiar to any gardener. Start with a little plastic cup. Moisten. Make an indentation with a pinkie finger.  Place two to three seeds in the indentation. Lightly cover with soil. Place in a tray with others of its species. Repeat. While some of the seeds had come from commercial seed vendors, others were harvested on site. The seemingly empty field next to the greenhouse contained a large center pivot irrigator, like almost every other field in the area. (This is the machinery responsible for the large circular patterns in crops that one can see when flying over the Midwest.) The field also had tile drainage, which is a system of permeable pipes that move water out of the rootzone of plants and divert it into ditches at the perimeter of the agricultural field. Drainage infrastructure, such as this are a significant anthropogenic intrusion into the landscape, and one that has far reaching ecological consequences. Tile drainage reduces habitat for wetland species and negatively impacts stream quality, and ultimately is a significant contributor to the Gulf hypoxic zone.

That empty field, upon closer inspection, revealed rows of plants about six feet wide and about half the length of a football field. They were clustered by species and I recognized several of the names from the plants we'd been working with in the greenhouse. Carex, Echinacea, Coreopsis. The field had been owned by the Nature Conservancy for over twenty years. They had drilled the well and installed the irrigation and tile drainage system – a tremendous investment in infrastructure, but one that allows the land manager to precisely control the amount of water in the field so as to emulate the wide range of historic conditions that could have found at this site: wet prairie, xeric prairie, oak scrubland.

Once or twice a year, depending on what species they had planted and the growing conditions, they would use a combine tractor to drive through the field and mechanically harvest the seeds for native prairie plants – exactly the same process used by neighboring farmers to harvest corn. After sorting and storage for a season or two, many of those seeds would then be planted using a tractor-pulled planter, again, the same process used by neighboring farmers.

This field is located in Northwest Indiana – greater Southeast Chicago, for those who are unfamiliar. This region stretches across the southern edge of Lake Michigan and south into the Kankakee River basin. Chicago rose to prominence in the frenetic rush of nineteenth century manifest destiny. Built out of the mucky wetlands of Lake Michigan, it became a point of consolidation for resources extracted not just from the surrounding areas, but all across America’s “great west”; a pinnacle of American modernity and progress. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the region was one of the most productive industrial centers in the world, but the area underwent dramatic economic changes in the early 1980s, when the United State’s steel industry went into rapid decline. Driving through the streets of Gary, once a bustling middle class city, one sees abandoned warehouses, empty factories, and vast brownfields where active industry once stood. That the greater Southeast Chicago region, formerly so rich and vibrant, is now seen as a wasteland tells us something of the ways in which capital transforms landscapes. The discarded by-products of the tremendous wealth generated in the long twentieth century remain on the landscape in many forms.

Historian Bill Cronon has suggested that early twentieth century Chicago was seen as “an exemplar of the urban-as-removed-from-nature”, but the separation of urban and rural is a carefully constructed illusion. Like anywhere else, Chicago is and was deeply and richly connected with its hinterlands. And it was the Chicago hinterlands that played an outsized role in development of American ecology. As the environment of the greater Chicago region provided the natural resources necessary for the economic transformation of the turn-of-the-century Midwest, the rapidly changing environment caught the attention of researchers at the University of Chicago, resulting in scientific ideas that would forever change the environmental sciences.

Landscape restoration is predicated on deterministic linearity that emerges from theories of ecological succession. One of the earliest American ecologists, Henry Chandler Cowles', developed his theory of successional ecology in the Indiana Dunes – just a few miles north of this field, and about an hour or two east of Chicago. These towering sand dunes line the southern shore of Lake Michigan. These dunes are successional, meaning that the dunes closest to the water are the youngest, and moving away from the shoreline, the dunes are progressively older. With this variation in age, the composition of the soil and plant species varies slightly. Cowles studied the succession of species across the dunes. He thought of the succession of the dunes as analogous to a sequence through time. In other words, according to this theory, the dunes furthest away from the lake, the oldest, are predictive of what the youngest dunes would look like in 12,000 years.

This space-for-time substitution came to be instrumental in American ecological theory, as did the notion of ecological succession, which was carried forward by Cowles’ students, and also through the more well-known work of Frederic Clements. Clements developed his theories of ecological succession in the American Midwest not long after Cowles. For Clements, there was a single ideal state of vegetation for any given location, based primarily on climate and secondarily on soil conditions and terrain. This ideal state was called the “climax state”, and this theory formed the basis for most ecological thought in the early twentieth century. In theory, ecologists and environmentalists have moved beyond Cowles’ and Clements’s theories of succession, however, in practice, there is often a firmly held, if only tacitly acknowledged, assumption that there is a single ideal ecosystem type for any given place. Cowles’s ecological theories are one of the reasons why the historic baseline is used to inform contemporary land management practices. It is one reason why the Nature Conservancy has gone to such great lengths to restore prairie at the Kankakee Sands site. It is assumed that the future will continue to unfold based on the progression seen in the past. A Whig history of the natural world, as it were.

Donald Worster has long argued that metaphors used in ecology reveal underlying political and philosophical ideologies, and that ecological theories track the social contexts of their production. Major shifts in early ecological theory tracked broader social changes in the early twentieth century, but the idea that ecosystems act in predictable, somewhat deterministic ways has held. In the last 30+ years, policies that promote agonistic individualism have proliferated: reduced regulatory frameworks, expansion of private property, promotion of free trade, to name a few. It is therefore not surprising that this same time period has given rise to a suite of ecological ideas that emphasize dynamism, resilience, and the freedom of individual species to move across the landscape, unfettered by social connections. The science behind the “new conservation” suggests that our current and previous forms of conservation are not going to be sufficient to handle the challenges of climate change. At the same time, these alternative frameworks for conservation depend on certain assumptions about the world that allow for the continuation of the same environmental and social practices that have caused these crises in the first instance. The “new conservation” science thus gives rise to a certain set of controversial policy proscriptions, namely that environmental destruction does not need to be avoided because reparations can be done after the desirable resources have been extracted. This has caused many environmentalists to be skeptical of any revisions to conservation science.

However, there is reason to believe that the ecological theories that support these “neoliberal” forms of conservation do so because those political and economic ideologies have become so pervasive in our lives that they have tacitly infiltrated ecological theory, informing the ontological and epistemological basis of environmental thought. That scientific knowledge is shaped by the context of it’s production is a basic point of science and technology studies, but when brought to bear on the topic of contemporary ecological and conservation theory, it makes an important point, that is: true alternatives to existing conservation practices will require ecological theories that take fundamentally different epistemic and ontological assumptions as their starting points.

In my fieldwork in Northwest Indiana, I encountered many different groups of actors making very different claims about what the landscape is, what it was, what it could be. Given this range of perspectives, might we be able to question our reliance on the notion of deterministic linearity?

In her article “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance” Karen Barad challenges the idea of continuity. Continuity - the idea that the world is stable, predictable, determinate, quantifiable, knowable – is the foundation upon which modern science rests. Building on the results from metaphysics experiments that have shown that the past is not a distinct state that can be accessed through scientific inquiry, but rather, it is a performative state of matter that is open to reconfiguration through the act of inquiry. Barad takes this to be empirical evidence that identity, even of an atom, is not inherent but dependent on circumstances. Those circumstances are material entanglements. – literally, the material stuff of the world. That material is and entails the traces of prior configurations. The world is memory, is the past.

Barad, it should be mentioned, is using empirical examples drawn from experimental metaphysics, which, though it sounds incredibly complex, uses experiments that are much more tightly constrained than real-world ecosystems and landscapes. So this is not a perfect metaphor, but merely a provocation. Still, if continuity can be disrupted at this most miniscule atomic level, why not deterministic linearity? What if the future state of landscapes was not so specifically determined by the current and past state, but instead, was open to reconfiguration, to accountable associations of pasts and futures?

Karen Barad tells us “the past is always already open to change” but it is not the case that we can fully repair past damage as if it never occurred. Rather, the scars and the burdens are carried on as reminders of injustices past. Take the carefully cultivated prairie with the pivot irrigator – there we see so many material traces, memories, of pasts. We also see hopes for the future. The former lakebed, the machinery that made drainage possible, the young plants – all these things both represent and physically are the traces of pasts and futures intra-acting. Moving away from a focus on determinism and linearity from past to future could allow for theories of dynamic ecosystems in ways that get beyond neoliberal framings of the world. We can think about contingencies and the collective; about assemblages that foster inter-generational, multi-species justice. We might be able to start to think about land management practices that aren’t about “bringing back” a long-gone landscape – A reconfiguration of memories that is less dependent on resource and carbon-intensive restoration practices that are ultimately undermining long-term stability. A reconfiguration of practices that is less rooted in progress narratives and market economics. Nostalgia for the past landscape in Northwest Indiana is inextricably linked to the economic prosperity that caused its destruction. Instead of trying to restore it (and make it great again), the region could foster conservation based on postcapitalist ecological theory.

Theories that help us make sense of the world emerge from particular places at particular moments in history. Northwest Indiana helped generate the successional, linear framings of ecology and history that have dominated so much twentieth-century thought. However, the region offers already-existing alternatives. In the mid-century period, the Chicago School of Sociology was directly engaged in productive dialogues with local ecological theorists which focused on about symbiosis and mutuality in ecological and sociological worlds. My final thought is this: Perhaps those conversations could be reinvigorated as the region, and the world, grapples with the overlapping economic and ecological crises that mark this Anthropocene period. 

works cited

Barad, Karen. 2010. “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come” Derrida Today 3(2):240-268.

Barbour, Michael G. 1995. “Ecological Fragmentation in the Fifties: Work and Nature”. Pp 233-256. Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. W. Cronon. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Cronon, William. 1991. Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.  

Worster, Donald [1977] 1994. Nature’s Economy: A History of Ecological Ideas. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.