Category Archives: Environment

The White God 1: Kurtz

He’s been haunting me. In the past few months, he’s been following me in the books I’ve been reading: Blood Meridian, Heart of Darkness, and now The Windup Girl. The character is a little different each time, whether he shows up as Kurtz, Judge Holden, or Gi Bu Sen/Gibbons—yet there is no mistake. He is a figuration of white, European Humanism, for whom science and technology provide the instruments for the brutal colonization of non-whites and nonhumans alike. He is a white god of death, whose anthropomorphism and ethnocentrism fuel a blinding nihilism… Continue reading The White God 1: Kurtz


Marking Territory: Pollution as Appropriation in Serres’ Malfeasance

In Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? French philosopher of science Michel Serres makes a provocative argument that links our seemingly unstoppable drive to pollute and befoul our environment to both an animal instinct to mark our territory and the economic imperative to amass property. Continue reading Marking Territory: Pollution as Appropriation in Serres’ Malfeasance

What is the Grass? Watching How to Grow a Planet

A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;
How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.

—Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” st. 6

Grass short cell phytoliths in silificied epidermis from Late Cretaceous coprolites from Pisdura, India. Scale bar = 10 micrometers. (See
Microscope image of fossilized grass found in a dinosaur coprolite (i.e., a fossil feces). This specimen dates from the Late Cretaceous, about sixty-five million years ago. Scale bar = 10 micrometers. (See the short post here, from the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, Washington University.)

Last Thursday night found myself mesmerized by a documentary on TVO about grass. Like, absolutely glued to the set with my mouth hanging open. Now, I’m sure you need a moment to back up off the edge of your seat, so take all the time you need.

StewartThis was the final episode of a three-part series from the BBC called How to Grow a Planet, hosted by geologist Iain Stewart. This episode, entitled “The Challenger,” follows Stewart from the ancient cloud forests of Kenya to a South African national park, from the mid-western United States to Senegal, and, finally, Göbekli Tepe in Southern Turkey.

I strongly encourage you to check out this series, so I won’t get into all the details here.  Suffice to say that “The Challenger” follows our hero as it battles trees for dominion over the vegetable kingdom on terrestrial Earth. It’s like Game of Thrones for the horticultural set. Things start to hit close to home near the end of the episode, when grass is held up as the prime mover of hominid evolutionary and cultural development. Continue reading What is the Grass? Watching How to Grow a Planet

Life at the Fundament

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For me, if there is one thing that puts a sock in any expression of a progressive evolutionary schema that gives human beings pride of place at the top of some teleological developmental ladder and thereby stakes a claim to our biological “success,” it is the humbling fact that we are far outnumbered by and profoundly dependent upon countless species of uncanny, alien invertebrates that reside in the oceans. Indeed, many of these creatures remain unknown to biologists, and many more stand to remain unknown as global climate changes threaten their survival.

The folks over at Planet˚ have put together a great slideshow of images of a number of microorganisms, courtesy of Tara Oceans.

The Tara Expeditions project is an ongoing research mission whose goal is to investigate the effects of climate change on the world’s oceanic ecosystems and to collect samples to support scientific research.

The expeditions have taken particular interest in the study of plankton, on which Tara has this to say:

Having a detailed knowledge of this oceanic life system is essential for the following reasons:

  • Plankton biodiversity provides the base of the oceanic food web
  • Plankton is key to the survival of larger fish, sea mammals and billions of humans
  • Photosynthetic plankton produced the oxygen that allowed the emergence of mammals on earth
  • Photosynthetic plankton produce about 50% of the oxygen we breathe each day
  • It is also the major biological carbon trap of our planet
  • Planktonic organisms, in particular photosynthetic ones, play a key role in climate regulation by determining the concentrations of greenhouse gases and cloud-forming molecules in the atmosphere
  • Terrestrial life forms evolved from these organisms and some of them may teach us why we have a bilateral symmetry, how our eyes and brain evolved, and much more
  • Biomolecules from plankton have largely untapped biomedical potential

And yet . . . we know almost nothing about these ecosystems . . .

The impacts of plankton on life on earth are so broad that they are highly important for global human security.
Therefore, both from an ecological and evolutionary point of view, it is absolutely essential to get a better knowledge of plankton ecosystems, to know what their communities look like, and how the various organisms interact with each other and their physico-chemical environment.

Is our evolutionary success, our biological triumph on this world, to be measured by the annihilation of the very foundations of the Earth’s biosphere?

Pollution Hard and Soft

Let us define two [types of pollution] and clearly distinguish them from one another: first the hard, and second the soft. By the first I mean on the one hand solid residues, liquids, and gases, emitted throughout the atmosphere by big industrial companies or gigantic garbage dumps, the shameful signature of big cities. By the second, tsunamis of writing, signs, images, and logos flooding rural, civic, public, and natural spaces as well as landscapes with their advertising. Even though different in terms of energy, garbage and marks nevertheless result from the same soiling gesture, from the same intention to appropriate, and are of animal origin. To be sure, the pestilential invasion of space by soft signs does not enter into the physical and chemical calculations mentioned above, for instance those concerning climate. But in combination with hard pollution, soft pollution proceeds from the same drive. Here is the result: of course, pollution comes from measurable residues of the work and transformations related to energy, but fundamentally it emanates from our will to appropriate, our desire to conquer and expand the space of our properties. He who creates viscous and poisoned lakes or garish posters is making sure no one will take away the spaces he has occupied, now or after he is gone.

Michel Serres, Malfeasance: Appropriation through Pollution? trans. Anne-Marie Feenberg-Dibon (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011), 41-42.