Tomas Cole: The fetish of Entanglement: An anthropological engagement with the Environmental humanities.

And every natural being is making communication
And we’re just sparks, tiny parts of a bigger constellation
We’re miniscule molecules that make up one body
You see the tragedy and pain of a person that you’ve never met
Is present in your nightmares, in your pull towards despair
And the sickness of the culture, and the sickness in our hearts
Is a sickness that’s inflicted by this distance that we share
Now, it was our bombs that started this war
And now it rages far away
So we dismiss all its victims as strangers
But they’re parents and children made dogs by the danger
Existence is futile, so we don’t engage
But it was our boats that sailed, killed, stole, and made frail
It was our boots that stamped
It was our courts that jailed
And it was our fucking banks that got bailed
It was us who turned bleakly away
Looked back down at our nails and our wedding plans
In the face of a full-force gale, we said
“Well, it’s not up to us to make this place a better land
It’s not up to us to make this place a better land.”
Justice, justice, recompense, humility
Trust is, trust is something we will never see
Till love is unconditional
The myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost, and pitiful

Kate Tempest: Tunnel Vision

I would like to begin with post with a small caveat: My background is in the social science (psychology and anthropology) and as such I am still somewhat of a newcomer to the Environmental Humanities.  As a result, much what I present here is based on a rather limited reading on this burgeoning new field. That said, it is my hope here that my relative newness may also bring with it the kind of productive naivety that allows me to pose questions that are not usually asked, or at least spur a fruitful debate as to where exactly I have gotten the wrong end of the stick. My intervention then comes in how the fine-grained and context dependent ethnographic materiel, so called ‘thick descriptions’ (Geertz 1973), generated by anthropological fieldwork can both support and also productively challenge some of the concepts and theories emerging from the work of researchers who identify with the environmental humanities. I do this though previous ethnographic accounts and my own fieldwork on conflict and conservation in Southeast Myanmar.

What I find is perhaps both the greatest strength of much of the research allied to Environmental humanities, but also a possibility of its undoing, is how it identifies and the attempts to ameliorate the divide, common in much of the Euro-American sciences, between nature or ‘the’ environment on the one side and culture or humankind more generally on the other. Much of the work coming out of environmental humanities, in my mind quite rightly, locates people from (post)industrial societies’ sense of disconnection and alienation from their environments as both a crucial issue on our overheating planet and a central way to address this (eg. Neimanis, Åsberg, & Hedrén 2015; Cooke et al. 2012; Emmett & Nye 2017). In Kate Tempest’s words “the myth of the individual has left us disconnected, lost, pitiful’. In reorienting scientific research towards connectivity theories on entanglement and co-becoming are married to the notion of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, have come to take centre stage. The environmental humanities then posit that foregrounding connectivity and entanglement between people and their environments can then help militate against a sense of alienation and the de-politicisation of environmental issues this produces, that Erik Swyngedouw calls ‘post-politics’ (2007). By labelling this geological the Anthropocene, the age of man, where catastrophic planetary climate change threatens to wipe out most life on earth, it becomes apparent that humans cannot be considered separate from their environments, not occupying some exceptional positions above all other animal, separate from nature. Yet, this raises a pair of interconnected questions that I wish to interrogate in the rest of this piece.

The first point I would like to raise is that this sense of kinship between humans and non-human beings is not as uncommon when one leaves the post-industrialised world. One now classic example can be found in ‘multinatualism’ where Amerindian peoples see bodies as simply an envelope, ‘clothing’, that conceals an internal form, a soul or spirit, that is shared by humans and non-humans alike (de Castro 2004). What differentiates humans from other beings is simply their specific clothing/bodies (ibid).  A parallel anthropomorphism was very much in effect in my own fieldwork in Southeast Myanmar where the indigenous Sgaw Karen understood themselves as co-inhabiting their landscapes with spirits, mountains and some animals that were seen as persons, with souls (g’la), families, houses and villages much like humans. Indeed, these beings were the true owners of the land such that for human persons land was something they could merely borrow and acts as stewards to. In this way we see that ‘relations between human species and most of what we would call “nature” take on the quality of that we would term “social relations”’ (de Castro 2004, 465).

Following on from this, while there is little evidence to cast doubt on the assertion that contemporary use of fossil fuels and industrial agricultural has had profound and potentially irreversible effects on the ecosphere, for the “enormous minority of peoples that have never been modern” (Danowski and Viveiros de Castro 2017) such as indigenous peoples it has long been understood that human actions have geological and climatic effects. As Nils Bubant shows for example, for the peoples of certain parts of Indonesia the activity of mud volcanos is an index of the human moral behaviour, exploding in reaction to ethical transgressions such as political corruption (Bubant 2017). Moreover, in southeast Myanmar I found that Sgaw Karen talked of how the very earth itself warmed up, like in a fever, in reaction to ethical transgressions (c.f. Hayami 1993). This, in turn, caused crops, livestock and even people to sicken and, if not attended, to die. In many Sgaw Karen myths I heard rivers would flood or a whole mountain would collapse in reaction to what was considered immoral behaviour such as premarital sex and, in one myth, bestiality. In short, the notion that people, geology and climate are entangled is not something surprising for many indigenous peoples around the globe. Indeed, as Amitav Ghosh puts it, “only in one, very brief era, lasting less than three centuries, did a significant number of their kind believe that planets and asteroids as inert’ (Ghosh 2016, 3).

A corollary of this can be found in James C. Scott’s (2017) notion of a ‘thin’ Anthropocene. Here he argues that human activity can be evidenced in the earth’s permanent sediment already some half a million years ago when people first began to use fire to landscape their worlds, that is to say shifting cultivation/horticulture. What we are experiencing now, the slow unravelling of our ecosystems, that some say will be evidenced in the future by the worldwide layering of radioactivity following the dropping of the first atomic bomb, is what Scott calls the ‘thick’ Anthropocene. A similar point is made by biologist Jens-Christian Svenning (2017). He shows how there is increasing evidence that as humans began to colonise the globe they annihilated much of the megafauna. This not only changed much of Europe’s ecosystems from savanha-like to a densely wooded systems (ibid, 76) but also, though trophic cascades, likely even affected biogeochemical cycling and climate (ibid, 74).  What we learn from paying attention to both indigenous peoples and biologist is that human activity has had profound effects on our planet’s climate and geology for most of our existence. Perhaps we social scientist might be a little rash in out pronouncements of a ‘New Ontology’ (e.g. DeLanda 2017). What is at stake here then is not whether or even, I might add, how ‘thick’ the Anthropocene has become. Nor is it whether we must ‘thicken’ our notions of humanity and the humanities (Rose et al. 2012, 2; Neimanis, Åsberg, and Hedrén 2015, 70) but rather the quality of these entanglement between humans and their environments.

My second point emerges from these findings that while an ‘enormous minority of peoples’ around the world have long grasped their lives as deeply or thickly entangled with and indeed interdependent on non-humans and their environments, this understanding does not automatically lead to them all being ‘ecologically noble savages’ (e.g. Raymond 2007). Much as is the case for most other subsistence farming and gathering and hunting peoples around the world, I found that Sgaw Karen people in southeast Myanmar still needed ‘meat for the curry’ as one middle age man put it for me. In the face of an ever more unstable climate, plagues of insects and rats and poor returns many people looked to other ways to support themselves. Some of these livelihood strategies involve capturing and hunting key stone and rare species such as pangolin, sun bear and gibbons, ‘for the curry’ and to sell to traders. This conundrum is well exemplified by Forsyth and Walker (2008) who show how Sgaw Karen in Thailand are often trapped between conceptions of them as either forest destroyer or as forest guardians that starkly flatten their lived experiences. Thus, it is the wager of this blogpost that with an undue focus on thickening entanglement between humans and their environments, of interminably expanding and ramifying networks of connection, a more fine-grained analysis of the quality (and we might add here the political-economy) of these entanglements falls to the wayside. I, paraphrasing Morten Axel Pedersen (2013), would call this ‘The Fetish of Entanglement’, that would seem to posit that the panacea to many of the ills wrought by climate change following the industrial revolution is more entanglement, radiating endlessly outwards. This is not to say that all studies allied to the Environmental humanities are not interested the quality of these relations, on difference and on politics. Rather, my point here is that in their fever to, quite rightly, challenge and write against dominant Euro-American notions founded on the Cartesian binary of nature-culture they often tend to over emphasise the centrality of entanglement in climate change.

Indeed, as we have seen, the thickening of entanglements does not have any one to one relation to how equitable these relations are. The colonial period, for example, led to a thickening of pre-existing connections between Europe and Asia, yet, it also led to a situation in which ‘it was out boats the sailed, killed, stole, and made frail. It was out boots that stamped, it was out courts that jailed and it was out fucking banks that got bailed’ as Tempest so vividly put it. What was (and still is) at issue with the colonial relationship was not so much its magnitude as its quality. A quality that I would argue could best be described as parasitic.

The literal meaning of para-site is eating alongside or at another’s table. A parasitic relation is nonetheless a relation. One in which two beings are deeply entangled, albeit one part of the relation, the parasite often ends up killing the host. Louis Dumont was acutely aware of this dynamic already over 50 years ago when he argued that although we may see them as something negative and strongly disagree with them, even the strictest hierarchical systems remain forms of social relation, where each part of the relation is mutually obliged to the other (Dumont 1970).  In this light we are left question whether that the current looming climatic catastrophe is fully captured in the notion of the Antropocene, of humans affecting the geological and climatic make-up of the planet. If this is something that has being going on for thousands of centuries and people have long been aware of this perhaps we would be better served in seeing the current very real planetary ecological collapse as one in which formerly (mostly) symbiotic relation between humans and their environments have turned parasitic. And we are now slowly killing the host, one species and one forest at a time.

For some researcher such as Alf Hornborg (2017) all these heated discussions on ontologies and entanglements is form of ‘dithering’ that eclipses any assertive political action whist our planet slowly burns. Yet for him these means a withdrawal back into this very nature-culture dualism that are the main object of ire for most researchers who identify with the Environmental Humanities. Rather than taking an either-or position here I believe the anthropological intervention may be able to open a middle ground. In the fined grain and situated descriptions produced by anthropological fieldwork, along with new research coming out such fields as biology and archaeology, we can move away from a fetish of entanglement to provide clear accounts of how and why the relations between humans and their worlds have and are becoming steadily more parasitic. In this way, rather than being ‘caught up the specifics’ as Tempest puts of these entanglements we can more studiously study the politics, economy and poetics of human’s relations to their ecologies.


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