Our readings over the last few weeks outlining a systematic framework in ENVS 350, Environmental Theory, proceeded from reflection on our assumptions regarding reality (case study: the Anthropocene) to knowledge (science wars) to ethics (ecological utopias/dystopias). These involved what we call descriptive (what?), explanatory (why?), and evaluative (good/bad?) questions. On Thursday we will apply these steps toward the final realm of politics, reflecting on instrumental questions of what we can do.
The word “politics” means more than what politicians do: it’s about power to achieve action. Politics is what any actor does—and in Latour’s actor-network theory (2005), actors include but stretch far beyond humans. Latour and others have repeatedly pointed out that attempts in environmental disputes to “move beyond politics” are themselves political acts; politics accompany actors as they strive to do something.
Politics thus aren’t necessarily a good or a bad thing, but they certainly are a part of action. Rather than thinking, for instance, of ridding science of politics, we could ask what sorts of politics accompany what sorts of actors entailed in science, from scientists themselves to interest groups that claim science as their authority to the nonhuman beings for whom science speaks. Then we could ask (in instrumental fashion) which politics are more/less effective and toward which ends.
The point is that politics is a huge realm, certainly a realm of conflict which makes us uncomfortable, but also a realm in which we get things done, and environmentalism is about getting good green things done. So hooray for politics!: let’s explore this final realm of systematic environmental theory, curious as to what clues we may find as to how to get things done.
Of the many dimensions of politics one could explore, we will focus on the crucial issue of spatial scale. Perhaps the most ubiquitous political framework in environmentalism has been the one you see in the featured image above: think globally, act locally (TGAL). The phrase is of disputed origin, but it’s certainly been around since the heyday of classic American environmentalism in the early 1970s.
What sort of politics is implied in TGAL? A politics of the local, certainly (Proctor 2016), and we see this in all sorts of environmentalist actions, from local food movements to a range of DIY efforts, and ultimately toward local or regional self-sufficiency, that greatest good of many ecological utopias as suggested in my last post. If politics is power deployed toward action, TGAL encourages environmentalists to deploy their action toward these sorts of ends.
But TGAL is also a politics of, for instance, incrementalism and its host of assumptions, e.g., a notion of reality as effectively the sum of its parts, and of ethics as generally proceeding from global dystopias (where think globally/act locally becomes think dystopically globally/act utopically locally!). Fundamentally, TGAL is naive in reifying the local and the global: what we learned about our better big word for reality is that places are where actors at all sorts of scales of time and space converge. Global and local become inseparable; you cannot think at the global and act at the local, as you are implicitly thinking at the local and acting at the global.
Unsettling? Yes: we may have just succeeded in removing not only nature/culture, but science/humanities, facts/values, and now global/local from their thrones, and these big words have long provided us guidance on our journeys. So where do we go? One answer, resonant with the notion of place that is also cognizant of power, is what Latour calls a cosmopolitics (2004), our collective action of making a meaningful place out of this earth.
In class on Thursday we will not explore cosmopolitics in depth, but we will explore some readings that lay its groundwork, using sustainability as a case study to consider spatial scale in how we deploy power. The readings include:
- Adams (2009), who reviews the often-cited origin of sustainability in the mid-1980s Brundtland report on sustainable development (WCED 1987), arguing that it moved far beyond the realm of the local.
- Proctor (2010), who contrasts utopias of self-sufficiency (local) vs. interdependence (local+global) in campus sustainability efforts.
- Benson and Craig (2014), who argue that sustainability is an inadequate politics for the Anthropocene.
- Stokstad (2015), who examines the most recent UN sustainable development goals and finds them methodologically (and thus politically) fuzzy.
- Massey (1990), whose “global sense of place” has accompanied our systematic journey through the four realms of environmental theory from its inception, and may yield important political lessons as well.
- Heise (2008), whose ecocosmopolitanism builds on a critique of localism to imagine action at scales that transcend the purely local.
What we may find from these readings is no clear political directive—alas, there is still a need for us to extend, clarify, and add our own ideas!—but certainly we should feel our TGAL assumptions being shaken a bit, and maybe we can imagine an approach to sustainability aware that working toward a green cosmos is a thoroughly political act, one possibly quite unlike what we learn on college campuses across the county à la AASHE.
Environmental theory can take us on a much more beautiful, far-reaching, and effective journey, but we may have to let go of some popular vehicles—big words and their accompanying practices—to get there.
- Adams, William M. 2009. “The Brundtland Report.” In Green Development: Environment and Sustainability in a Developing World, 75–81. Routledge.
- Benson, Melinda Harm, and Robin Kundis Craig. 2014. “The End of Sustainability.” Society & Natural Resources 27 (7): 777–82. https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2014.901467.
- Heise, Ursula K. 2008. Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Latour, Bruno. 2004. “Whose Cosmos, Which Cosmopolitics? Comments on the Peace Terms of Ulrich Beck.” Common Knowledge 10 (3): 450–462.
- ———. 2005. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Massey, Doreen. 1991. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today 35 (6): 24–29. http://www.aughty.org/pdf/global_sense_place.pdf.
- Proctor, James D. 2010. “True Sustainability Means Going beyond Campus Boundaries.” Chronicle of Higher Education, December 3, 2010. http://chronicle.com.watzekpx.lclark.edu/article/True-Sustainability-Means/125484/.
- ———. 2016. “Replacing Nature in Environmental Studies and Sciences.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 6 (4): 748–52. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13412-015-0259-3.
- Stokstad, Erik. 2015. “Sustainable Goals from U.N. under Fire.” Science 347 (6223): 702–3. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.347.6223.702.
- WCED. 1987. Our Common Future: Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. New York: Oxford University Press.
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