Notes on attending Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene conference Stockholm
I am lucky enough to be able to attend very interesting conferences in the UK and Northern Europe (previously North America but now I feel that is a ‘step’ too far). I value, and to some extent at least, enjoy, these events. But I have got a bit of a nagging doubt about them, and/or an ill-formed question. Because I work in the area of geography – the study of the earth and nature-society relations is what these conferences, (or strands in larger conferences), are generally about.
Now, to cut to the chase, I think we are living through a deeply tragic period in the earth’s history. The ecological crisis – the 6th great extinction – Anthropocene / Capitalocene / Obsceneocene. These are the true Dark Ages: the wholesale destruction of life – as ecological biodiversity – within the only known complex biosphere IN THE UNIVERSE.
This is tragic for modern people too. Depression, obesity, diabetes, the horrendous stats on the UK’s collective health, and the spiralling of free health care costs, are testament to this.
So I have a “great” job – but I do spend a lot of time feeling very angry, upset, panicky. I think about being part of this tragedy every day (and maybe every hour of every day). I find personal happiness, (and successfully living with family), friends very hard reconcile. I feel isolated and unsocial; I turn to drinking; job satisfaction is a contradiction in terms.
Now, at the conferences there are often really good papers on one or other aspect of the crisis. This was certainly the case at the Stockholm event. For example, there was a truly astounding thing about plastic in the sea and chemical pollution (Life and Death in the Plastisphere, Heather Davis, Pennsylvania State University, USA). Put at its starkest, we might be sterilising the world – sterilising ourselves, through certain compounds passing through bodies, into the environment, attaching themselves to plastic micro-particles which are then ingested by organisms. OMG.
In most conferences / sessions I have been to, emotions of grief/loss/anger are not that on show. One notable and clear exception though: ‘For the Love of Nature?’ Centre for Human Ecology Conference, 24-28 June 1999, Findhorn, Scotland. But more often than not, this is just not the case.
At the Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene there was another great talk (Endlings, endings, and new beginnings; D. Jørgensen, Umeå University, Sweden) using extracts from the cutesy film ‘The Last Unicorn‘ to bookend discussions on species extinction. The substantive focus was on Swedish beavers, and their re-introduction into environments, but also on the extinction of the Marsupial wolf (thylacine).
At the end of the talk there was a collective peal of laughter, as the last lines of “The Last Unicorn” were played. This could reflect the good vibe we had in the room at the time – and more generally during the whole conference in Stockholm. But it puzzled me a bit. My overriding response to stories like these is mourning: loss of species, loss of individuals – loss of individual and species umwelt – the suffering of individuals as they were hunted – the loneliness suffered by the last of their kind. I was not laughing. At all.
Laughter, I think partly, is due to people communicating with likeminded peers; conferences are a release from pressures of teaching; an opportunity to share ideas in a rarefied atmosphere; and so on. To travel around to such conferences is a sign of professional / personal success – to be enjoyed.
But I come back to this suspicion, or question, being one of the aspects of a paper I wrote in 2008; What is the relationship between theory and world / life here? Of course no sharp line can really be drawn between these two, but, in essence, or to put it crudely, are we using theory to work on the world – and thus confront the world? (which is a very messy, challenging and upsetting process) – or are we using the world to write theory (A safer, happier, career type process)??
There were a number of great talks on mourning and melancholia in the face of the “Obsceneocene”. They were delivered with great verve and palpable satisfaction to speakers and audience. This is not an intended ‘attack’ on speakers of the conference Immortality and Infinitude in the Anthropocene. It is – just what I said at the start – a nagging doubt – an ill-formed question.