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n May 10, 2013, the NY Times reported that the daily average concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere surrounding the Mauna Loa Observatory broke 400ppm. Days later, scientists would revise that measurement to only 399.89, but the number itself was insignificant. The originally reported milestone drew engaged attention to concentrations of carbon dioxide and the realization that they continue—and will continue—to elevate, producing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that scientists estimate are higher than at any time since the Pliocene.
This recent media blitz has magnified discourses of anthropogenic climate change and provided a depth often absent in the popular press. That these discourses are finally gaining traction suggests that society at large and the academic community are just beginning to face the immense task of articulating the significance of the transformations to which we are bearing witness. “Immense”, because it is clear that the threat of anthropogenic climate change forces an uncomfortable encounter with materialities that outstrip lived experience, compelling us to rethink life—and attendant paradigms of thought and organization–amongst a now strange mixture of social, natural, and socio-natural processes.
Two collaborative events this spring sought to begin an ongoing and earnest address of the contemporary conjuncture of climate change and threats of ecological catastrophe. The University of Minnesota Workshop on Critical Climate Change Scholarship (3-5 April, 2013) and sessions at the 2013 AAG conference entitled “Re-evaluating the Anthropocene, Resituating Anthropos” together attempted to catalyze a dialogue in geography (and beyond) on the emerging lexicon and practices of climate research, mitigation, and threat of catastrophic futures. The CfPs for the events posed distinct provocations, but asked overlapping questions. The Workshop on Critical Climate Change scholarship asked how “climate change demands a rethinking of the nature of critique and how critical scholarship is more necessary than ever for efforts toward just and sustainable ecological futures.” The AAG sessions called for inquiries into how the “introduction of global, geological humanity as a singular subject challenges, complements, and/or modifies discourses of critical environmental thought,” and its “the implications for considering issues of environmental ethics, responsibility, and politics.”
Both events were intentionally interdisciplinary, based on the conviction that the problems posed by climate change demand new forms of knowledge production and collaboration. In all, fifty-four scholars and activists from across several disciplines – Geography, Anthropology, Geophysics, Political Science, and Sociology, among others – contributed diverse and critical perspectives on some of the more urgent political-ecological and philosophical issues appropriate to an era underpinned by environmental uncertainty. Nevertheless, throughout both events many participants expressed the critical role that Geography plays as a space for exploration of these emerging debates, by virtue of its central focus on the co-productive and co-evolutionary relations between society and environment (or more specifically, among human/nonhuman and animate/inanimate materialities).
The conversations that took place over the weekend workshop in Minneapolis and the following week in Los Angeles bled into one another and helped to open fruitful avenues of dialogue and research across the social and physical sciences. A driving concern of both events was the cultivation of an interdisciplinary experimental practice adequate to the political, ecological, and geophysical realities that attend irreversible climate change. Participants identified the importance of cultivating spaces of experimentation in various contexts: they experimented with new theory and ideas, were unafraid to pose questions and make propositions that might seem outlandish, and tested new vocabularies of geophysical relations. Throughout the contributions and subsequent conversations, several notable themes emerged that we feel mark crucial directions for ongoing research. They include:
1. Critical Political Economy of Climate Change
These events demonstrated the strength of existing research on the political economy of climate change and climate change policy, and also the need for new alliances between critical scholarship, policy, and political action. Further research into, for example, the power and privilege at the heart of emissions trading, the complexities involved in determining national responsibility for CO2 emissions, and the constitutive role of uncertainty in climate science are all crucial for the development of critical environmental thought and its mobilization in practice. These are only a few of the areas in which critical scholarship shows great potential to broaden the conversation on policy responses to climate change.\
Participants also examined relationships between traditionally humanist categories of psychoanalysis and aesthetics to explore ways of encountering and re-imagining ecological subjectivity. Of particular importance is how current socio-ecological configurations necessarily pose challenges to well-worn humanist perspectives and call for a radical questioning of selfhood, identity, and the atomistic individual. Thus rather than the clean and comfortable categories of old – ones based on substantive divisions between Nature and Society – in the present geological epoch one finds a conceptual and material messiness which demands a more-than-human humanities.
Throughout the week, our questions intersected with the growing subfield of geophilosophy. Climate change and the supposed advent of the Anthropocene put pressure on traditional philosophical concepts, as we are made to account for ourselves within the ‘deep time’ of geological change. Participants asked, for example: What happens when we are the cause of the earth’s processes? How does it make us responsible for the earth in new ways? What happens to authorship when humans become a part of geological processes? What infrastructures and dispositifs of the human and nonhuman do climate change mitigation and the dawning of the Anthropocene produce? And how does the emergence of a “techno-planetary” form of capitalism present and value the world in new—and often highly limited—ways? What happens if/when we begin to privilege the Earth’s inherently destabilizing processes? Such questions present a cascade of necessary challenges to the categories with which Geography and other disciplines think. Accordingly, they reveal the need for new questions and avenues of experimental research.
4. Critical Eco-politics
Building on the challenges posed by geophilosophy, several key contributions explored the changing political configurations presented by rapid and uneven climate change. Many inquired into the political and material histories that made the Anthropocene, “Capital-o-cene”, or simply the “Epoch of Oil”. Others inquired into how the contemporary political and technological fixes to an eco-crisis (real or imagined) have transformed the relationship between life, matter, and politics with implications for previously salient categories such as labor and agency. The role of catastrophe in imaging a political present and future was a constant refrain, as was the potential of abrupt ecological crisis to obfuscate less spectacular forms of violent dispossession. Of particular concern was also the ease with which past forms of environmental critique have been so easily recuperated in the service the very political and economic logics they once sought to interrogate. This is evident in a marked shift of mainstream environmentalism away from ideals of pristine Nature, towards an attention to the co-evolutionary relations among social and ecological processes and an emphasis on the deliberate production of desirable socio-natures. This shift has, as critical scholars have demonstrated, been primarily oriented toward the creation of new opportunities for capital accumulation. But the fact that, in mainstream environmentalism, nature appears increasingly as a set of dynamic, creative, and resilient social-ecological processes is symptomatic of a moment of real possibility for the creation of alternative future natures – and one that, we would argue, a critical project must actively embrace.
Both of these events brought to light the growing need for critical scholarship to build alliances with both physical scientists and activists – which can only begin with the difficult work of defining a common vocabulary and investing in experimental, and perhaps uncomfortable, collaborative endeavors. This is a considerable challenge, but we nevertheless remain confident that the diverse and manifold voices that emerged over the course of these two events demonstrate a shared capacity and desire for a transdisciplinary critical practice, and provide a strong basis for the work necessary to pursue this goal.
As a forum for expanding on these themes and the conversations that emerged from these events and furthering the alliances among junior and senior scholars that resulted from them, we have established a collaborative blog at www.geocritique.org. We hope this online space can serve to share resources, voice provocations, and explore incipient disciplinary terrains. The CfPs and schedules for both events can be found on that site. For further information or materials related to these events, or if you are interested in contributing to geocritique, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.