Knowledge Culture Ecologies

The Knowledge Culture Ecologies conference was co-organised by the University of Western Sydney, Australia and the Universidad Diego Portales in Santiago, Chile. Participants were mostly scholars working on environmental issues, with comments such as 'I'm writing a book about the anthropocene – who isn't?' typical. Marisol de la Cadeña said: 'If there is a place where I can make a bold presentation, this is it.' In this review I will start with the material anthropocene and continue into the work presented that looks forwards, for the planet and for scholarship. Apologies for the many excellent thoughts and talks that I was not able to attend or did not have space to include here. Direct quotes are what I heard verbatim, but much of the text of what I report people to have said is using their own words. Any mistakes are of course my own (please let me know if I have misquoted you!).


So, to start with the material anthropocene. Eric Swyngedouw said in his keynote that he wants to chart the anthropocene's underbelly. Although I think he meant relations of power, a focus on the materials that characterise the anthropocene can perhaps achieve part of this. Although materials are famously apolitical, this is, to use la Cadeña's phrasing 'not only' what they are. Materials such as cement and plastic have been the background [i.e. for scholarship looking at the world], seen as lacking social depth and substance, said Denis Byrne in his introductory remarks to the panel on cement (I was on this panel). As Cris Simonetti said, concrete is a 'familiar stranger'. But, said Denis, now we are feeling overwhelmed by these materials, and they are emerging into the foreground. In his paper he went on to say that it is understandable that people reach for concrete, for instance in constructing sea walls in a time of uncertainty because of the imagined qualities of fixity and solidity associated with the material. Speaking from an imagined future Rachel Harkness spoke about 'building against [as] replaced by building with,' imagining new building materials and styles which are maintained in an ongoing manner. Anna Partierra spoke to this theme of construction over time, describing how people near Manila would stack their sacks of cement for staggered building of rooms one at a time. But it is not only in one lifetime that concrete use persists, it has even become part of the archaeological stratigraphy, an underground layer in metro tunnels, filled mining shafts and elsewhere, as Matt Edgeworth observed. In her keynote, Gay Hawkins talked about the spatial ambience of plastic – that we can no longer speak about its 'impacts' because now it is part of the environment, the water, air and land. 'how we become managed by plastic' in everyday lives. The #breakfreefromplastic and #singleuseplastic hashtags curate ongoing conversations on this topic for those interested. Continuing on the theme of toxic anthropocene materials, Nick Shapiro observed that while indoor spaces are 'charged with the responsibility of shelter', they are beset with formaldehyde (a byproduct of petroleum processing) poisoning. The air, as Harshavardhan Bhat noted in a comment, has no recourse when we throw things at it. Tim Neale observed something similar with the forest fires in Australia where smoke kills many more than the fire itself. So much for the world we live in. The remainder of this review will bring together thinking on how to move forwards with a range of approaches and thoughts.


Juan Salazar said in his introduction to the conference that there is a history of strong questions, and weak answers in ecological research – we need strong answers. We also need, he said, to tread softly and build worlds together. The conference ended up speaking to both these themes – with exceptionally future- and solution-oriented keynotes. Arturo Escobar quoted a Mapuche woman saying: we must 'relearn to walk the world as human beings.' Nick Shapiro said that we need to cultivate dreamworlds, imagining how things can be (rather than fighting nightmares). In practical terms he is developing a plant kit with bacteria who live in the roots who consume formaldehyde.


Eric Swyngedouw said that we need more horizontal human-non-human relations in order to interrupt the anthropocene. Natasha Myers brought a strong focus on plants as an instance of how to achieve these kinds of relations, suggesting a ten step process of 'how to grow liveable worlds'. She suggested we dream worlds otherwise and 'break this world to make other worlds possible.' We don't need to wait for the end of this world to make the next one. More specifically, we shouldn't see plants as machines, she said, but live with, allow for and listen to them. And we must learn to deny a future that reproduces colonial forms because 'plants hold the whole world with them.' Anne Pasek pointed out that plants eat CO2, we need more of them (her own work is on wood cycling to biochar as a form of ecological carbon practice).


Many conference participants took up these threads in their papers to speak of the future, of the kinds of actions we should be taking moving forwards, and of how we can think differently about the change emerging. Stine Krøijer's paper on Sequoise people in Equador, for instance, described them clearcutting trees and doing away with the associated tree spirits because outside companies would do it anyway and they might as well grow palm oil there themselves and gain the income. This also is the anthropocene. In contrast to this is Marisol de la Cadeña's talk: Cutting mountains off from people, she said, is a colonial action started by 16th century spanish friars who saw locals as 'humans whose continuity with stones was enabled by the devil' and continued today by mining companies and others. She provides a clear example of what kind of thought is colonial (as Myers called for) – i.e. conceiving of persons as cut-off. A potato plant doesn't pull itself up, said Maxima (la Cadeña's key informant whose land is under threat), she would have to be pulled up by someone else. It's not about being outside the environment to protect it, but about being in the place in the way that the potato plant is in the place.


In tune with Myers's work on plants and la Cadeña's on place, Katherine Gibson made the case for unmaking the pervasive economy/environment distinction/'assemblage'. If you think about it, she pointed out, considering for instance jobs as being outside of the planet system makes no sense. We need to get past the idea that everything needs to start with capitalism, she said. We need to think with interdependence to build ecological livelihoods. She suggests commoning for de-anaesthetising for 'humans and earth others [to] live together.' 'How are we sustained by others? How do we sustain ourselves?' she asked. We need to build on and from other lives already existing 'I refuse to be certain that they will not be enough.' One way to take this forward is using her co-authored book  'Take back the economy' with exercises in – homework for the world-building. She ended with an exhortation to 'listen with every non-human fibre of your being'. Similarly, Eric Swyngedouw suggested that 'earthly politics must attest to the heterogeneity that cuts through the social... forging new egalitarian human-non-human entanglements'.


Although Eric Swyngedouw said: 'Few believe... that a zero carbon urbanity is possible', Arturo Escobar asked: how to build a 'non-anthropocentric habitability'? What we design, he argued, will design us back. City blocks, he suggested, should be designed with agricultural production built in. Architecture creates society – we must design to make sense of the world. Lionel Epiney's work on architecture in Chile found that buildings were built differently in different parts of Chile in 1973 because of the oil crisis, there was a necessity to be aware of climate to reduce fuel use. [i.e. instance of forced change] He also noted that 'a building is not a fridge' which resonates with the earlier discussion of cement and other anthropocene materials. Here (this is me, not Epiney talking) the use and characteristics of materials remain fully social, but also fully within our control to mould going forwards, incrementally and systematically.


How to shape our research to make it fit for purpose and work towards the futures we are envisioning? Useful thoughts included Marisol de la Cadeña's: 'many times explaining is explaining away' – we need to inhabit the astonishment. Eric Swyngedouw thinks we as researchers have paid too much attention to the social, at the cost of the political. What can we learn from political movements like Occupy, the Arab Spring and so on as keys to sociopolitical transformation, he asked. More specifically, Juan Carlos Skewes said: 'I would love to have a museum of development failures'. Eric Swyngedouw criticised post-human ontologies and the new natural science of radical uncertainty as being part of the techno-managerial process of planetary capitalism. (In this he agrees with several other of the keynotes who are calling for how we can get outside of capitalism in our research work). We risk, he said, a future earth which is terraformed with ethical manicuring to make a new capitalist reality. 'How can we account for our worst enemies taking our best thoughts', he asked. How indeed.


The world-building futures were not conceived of as a single trajectory, either analytically or ethnographically. Eduardo Gudynas, for instance, spoke of the pluriverse, gathering the multiple worlds: 'we are in effect knitters of the mesh of life.' Michaela Spencer brought together three approaches to the conversations we face, using the example of a water tower erected in the forest near Darwin in Australia:

  • universalism from Kant, i.e. that the changing climate is a threat to all to be managed by experts

  • pluralism from Beck, i.e. that traditional owners of the land are legitimate, but that the different worlds (of local people and external experts) are unable to interact

  • composition from Latour, i.e. that all actors come together to negotiate.

Lucia Arguelles Ramos spoke on what she called Alternatopias – enclaves/safe pockets/organic food – all associated with privilege. That is to say she described a world in which efforts are partial and piecemeal and do not necessarily connect. There is a need, in this world, for improvisation, and to accept entanglements that link us to the capitalist system. Also, we should not just hang around and wait for the apocalypse.


Knowledge Culture Ecologies was made up of ecologically interested scholars who came together in the southern hemisphere summer of late 2017 to build a fantastic and constructive atmosphere of searching for solutions and oriented towards bettering scholarship. Much of the conference was focused on thinking about where we are going and whether we can get there with the tools we are developing, or whether we need to break the mould and start again.