Owain Jones: “It’s the end of the world as we know it – and I feel ….fine!?!” (REM)

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).

2_Last Unicorn vs Red Bull

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.

/Owain Jones

15 thoughts on “Owain Jones: “It’s the end of the world as we know it – and I feel ….fine!?!” (REM)

  1. Dolly Jørgensen

    Thanks for the post, Owain. I was actually very surprised at the laughter at the closing clip of my talk. To be honest, I always get teary-eyed at the end when the unicorn says she will try to go home and the song plays ‘I’m alive’. It’s a triumph story, but it’s also a very sad story about loss and regret. I wonder if the laughter wasn’t also one of those ‘uncanny’ moments when people laugh instead of crying as an emotional response. Maybe it proves how complex our responses to the extinction all around us is.

  2. Michelle Bastian

    yes, thanks for the post. Just in case it helps there was some punching in the air at the “I am alive” so I think for me it was actually more about the triumph than the loss. We only saw clips of the film after all, and perhaps seeing an 80s children cartoon was a kind of funny juxtaposition to the standard academic talk. There was quite a different tone when the unicorn was talking about how she couldn’t be the only one could she? It might have been different if we’d seen the whole movie through, in the full context.

  3. Astrida Neimanis

    Thanks for this post, Owain. I am equally confounded by the contradiction in terms that is building a successful career out of spectatorship of a massive planetary crisis… which is why it is a challenge, every day, to refuse to instrumentalize that which we write about – to engage in yet another form of ‘resourcing’ the world. But in terms of the laughter, i don’t really find it surprising at all. We know it can be a very common response to crisis and disaster, as Dolly notes, and I don’t think its pathological. One of the real issues we face (that big planetary ‘we’) is mobilization in the face of something so depressing and apocalyptic. I don’t think anyone is *happy* about the disaster we are in – but laughter =/= happiness, necessarily, nor is it a mere coping mechanism. It can also be a deliberate tactic for another kind of worlding. I have a standing (deadly serious) joke with my friends Brett and Ashlee, that in the face of mourning i choose joy. Joy can be a privilege (i.e. only for the privileged) but that’s too simplistic, and also probably patronizing. And, for the record, there were many funny things about the clip – not least the retro aesthetic, the music, the Unicorn’s syrupy come-hither voice, the fact that ‘we serious academics’ were watching children’s cartoon – I imagine that’s where a lot of the laughter that day came from. But that aside, I think there is still a lot to explore in terms of different kinds of emotional responses to the ‘obscenocene’ as part of a radical imaginary. (Wasn’t Dolly’s Open Space question about alternatives to ‘crisis narratives’? I would have liked to have joined that conversation).
    (And all that said – killjoys and depressives are still warmly welcome.)

  4. Owain Jones

    Ok, thanks Dolly Astrida and Michelle. Yes that all makes good sense. Sorry to be a killjoy. I have great faith in the good intentions and emotions of everyone at the conference and, in general, working in this kind of stuff more widely. I really just going through a tricky ‘being upset’ phase at the moment, and getting yet more upset that there is not enough upset generally about what is going on, rather complete indifference in mainstream culture and politics. There is a review of a new, very interesting book call ‘Underlands’ by Ted Nield in the TLS. – about geology. It says “Ted Nield says our refusal to heed clear message in the rocks amounts to a global tragedy” (about anthropogenic climate change). I going to quote this more fully tomorrow. Will pass it on.

  5. Thom van Dooren

    Thanks for the post Owain, and to Dolly, Michelle and Astrida. It’s lovely to see the event still generating discussion. I share many of your concerns about putting the dead to work, for political purposes and certainly for career advancement. The alternative, however – to keep silent or to tell bad stories that refuse to travel – seems more problematic still. Looking forward to meeting with you all again one day to talk further.

  6. Sara Penrhyn Jones

    Thanks for this Owain, and others,

    I feel a similar emotion about such events. I would be very worried about myself (and others) if pain was not ghosting such a symposium. However, as others have suggested, I wouldn’t read to much into the ‘laughter’. People’s responses can not always be read accurately, and laughter can be nervous or defensive. I think that an opportunity to reflect across personal areas of interest and research, and to find recurring themes and motifs is very helpful. It can also be strangely comforting- not to support apathy, but a renewed feeling of solidarity for necessary battles. Personally, I couldn’t attend such events, and then not ‘do’ something physical, creative and practical in whatever other ways are possible too. It feels necessary to tire the body as much as the head and heart. I wouldn’t impose this as a condition for others, but a wide gap between what we believe and ‘do’ can lead to hideous feelings of desolation and even self-loathing. I mentioned this idea to another participant: I always do imagine in the audience a non-academic sitting at the back. A humble non-academic from a nation at the frontline of climate change (in a very direct way), and wonder: would I say what I’m saying if I had to look them in the eye? I think that we could all remember that it’s better to say something clever in the simplest way, and never forget how much is at stake and in such uneven ways. So for example, we may be able to give up on the idea of a ‘secure’ future, but we should never ’embrace’ it. Cue the accusatory expression of that individual in the back: ‘what would you know, you appalling, privileged mega-emitter’? Others may prefer to imagine a specific species- the crow perhaps? It’s a helpful limiter. So the “queer” welcoming of plastics de-gendering capabilities is tempered with a good dose of real-world ethics which also considers the rights of the non-human world (although I’m not sure if ‘rights’ were mentioned, and it may be the wrong word).

    It’s when it gets too abstract that it can sometimes seem inappropriate or callous. Then it is just a matter of cautious framing, as intellectualism is a privilege we can perhaps still afford, and that edge is something we all value too. Where would we be without it?

    On a more practical note- the flying….what can I say? The flying across continents is really dodgy. Directly contributing to the problem we are meeting to discuss. I haven’t really worked out how to negotiate that one, as I don’t ‘really’ believe my own spin on it. But I think that admitting that it’s a huge problem is a step in the right direction.

    I’m really grateful to all the participants at this event, as I though there was such generosity and sharing, and it felt like a bunch of very ‘good’ people.

    That’s more than enough from me…. but I’m very privileged to be working with you on a ‘tangible’ project, Owain!!

  7. Sara Penrhyn Jones

    Ha ha, as a further aside, I can confidently assert that I really am managing to NOT build a career out of these interests!!! If that helps!!!

  8. Jess Allen

    Thank you so much Owain and Sara for such honest articulations… I don’t feel there’s anything I can add (and irony of ironies, my solar-powered battery is fading – though your thorough questioning of your selves here, also has me now questioning whether even living ‘off-grid’ isn’t, at times, actually more of a conscience-pleasing or distracting Thoreavian escapism than an actual embodied commitment to change!) but I just wanted to thank you for being brave and self-questioning enough to challenge academic/intellectual privilege in such times of crisis. (Though on the subject of embracing the emotional aspects of all this – Owain, maybe you should treat yourself to a Joanna Macy Work That Reconnects workshop?! I did the Emergence Walk That Reconnects in September http://www.artswales.org.uk/71548) Sometimes it does indeed feel (to me, at conferences) as though we (academics) are rather like the orchestra on the Titanic – not so much playing our instruments as attending plenaries as the ship sinks…though, even greater irony, as the possibility of there actually BEING an iceberg to take us out might even be diminishing.

  9. David Nilsson

    Dear Owain and all,
    This kind of debate was just what we had hoped for when we started this page. So thank you all for making it live!!

    Now, I wasn’t at the conference. But there must be some kind of connection between the sense of sadness emerging as we witness these injustices and atrocities – be they carried out on man or nature – and our own incapabilities to act on it. Incapability, or unwillingness? And this disturbing feeling that not only do we build careers out of this misery; as Jess says, the orchestra playing as Titanic sinks. We all assume (but do we say it out loud?) that there’s most likely going to be a life boat tucked away somewhere for us to board at the end. We’re not the one’s going down with the ship. The third class passenger are in less privileged corners of the world. And of course, our children and grand children, for whom there might not even be a ship to board.

    Before I joined academia I was working (and still do part time) with environmental stuff in East and Southern Africa. In the expat community we used to shed a tear now and then, get sad about the state of affairs (extinction of species, eco-disasters, children dying like flies, corruption, violence, what-have-you). And then we left for Europe on our paid leave. While the mzungus cried and got upset most of my African friends would turn to laughter. As a psychological relief partly, also as an act of defiance on this unjust world. After all, laughter makes life a little easier.

    So, the cat is out of the bag. Is this hypocrisy, as Jol Thompson argues?
    We know our travelling is part of the problem, and now we find ourselves trapped. Or..? I mean, really, it doesn’t have to be this way does it? But where to start?

  10. owain

    OK cheers all for further comments. Thanks Sara!! and Jess. Glad it’s been of use David. Joanna Macy – yes I am familiar with her work from many years ago. I not that sure if what she practices is exactly people like Dobson call “ecological self” – post Arne Naess , Deep Ecology, etc, but I imagine it is similar. The basic line taken there is, unless some kind of ecological senses of self can replace modern liberal senses of self, now constructed/coerced out of consumption and state power, we are in deep s**t. The challenge with anything like ecological sense of self is that, at the moment, that is going to be a deeply painful form of becoming. We know what we know. I really don’t think I am tough enough. I am not making any claim to a privileged or wiser position, but I think I am extra-sensitive to, and quite damaged by, loss of home, place, nature because of my childhood/family experiences of having our very old and beautiful family farm compulsorily purchased so the city of Cardiff could build 100s of acres of low quality suburban sprawl and .. a large landfill site on it. (We were in effect forcibly displaced). (I have written about this). I now love where I live and spend a very large amount of time at home – not even travelling to my Uni – which is v nearby anyway. I feel uneasy about travelling of almost any kind – (except walking, and trains maybe??). Certainly I do about flying. The further the worse. It is not so much a clear narrative about emissions, more a deep unease about – is this not pathological form of existence? or something like that. (I note how the route in and out of airports (each state) is forcibly through “consumption filters” – the duty free sprees). Again I don’t want to claim any moral high ground – parts of this might well be hard wired into me. My mum’s fav character in literature was Mr Woodhouse in Emma (Jane Austin), who’s general advice in any situation was – “stay at home”. Ironic for someone whose home – which she loved deeply – was destroyed). (I have idly speculated about writing a book based upon staying strictly in my parish for 1 year).

    I posted on a few forums recently that it is 25 years since Guattari’s Three Ecologies was first published. The opening says it all for me, and applies even more so now. It is free pdf on line – will tweet the link

    Here is one quote – “In both the Third World and the developed world, whole sections of the collective subjectivity are floundering or simply huddled around archaisms, as is the case, for example with the dreadful rise of religious fundamentalism’. (1989!!!!!)

    And on travel (tourism) – “Otherness tends to lose all its asperity. Tourism, for example, usually amounts to no more than a journey on the spot, with the same redundancies of images and behaviour”.

    Guattari claims that conventional politics is not only dead in the water (probably quite literally soon), but part of the problem – so being active in that sense seems a bit pointless. He calls for nothing less than global transformations of individual and collective sensibilities, a fight back against the forces that are overwhelming the Three Ecologies – self; non-consumer (other) culture; nature. I guess we need “good stories that travel” – as Thom says, a part of that, and we really need communities – friends – networks, so I guess is where the need for travel (to some conferences and the like) comes from??

    Other thoughts from the conference experience – now I am at it – the hotel some of us stayed was lovely, very welcoming, comfortable, well run, clean, much like others I have stayed in for similar events. The breakfast was wonderful (but also pretty standard for that type of place) . A quick count showed that there were approx. 100 types of food stuff – cereals, bread, meat, fish, cheese, fruit – to choose from!!!!!!. The level of consumption now routinely built into (affluent(ish) modern everyday live is very extreme – as my exhibit at the conference tried to show. (The Guardian Sat magazine – which is really a lifestyle/consumption porn mag) Travel is part of that.

    And Jess, the Titanic analogy is one I have used on a number of occasions. Some (Modern – “the unsinkable ship!!”) situations do end very badly. I sort of fear that is where we are. Modernity ‘won’ the battle of empires – the victors write the history and the ethics and they think – the future, they we/have no sense that loss is also possible – inevitable. (I’ll shut up now and go and fill up the bird feeders in our garden – another way of gathering friends around one).

  11. Jess Allen

    Hi Owain – I too have just been thinking a lot about the idea of ‘opting out’ of systems of consumption, and living entirely within one’s ‘personal horizon’ (Ballard), in writing up a recent draft essay about my performance All in a Day’s Walk (http://allinadayswalk.org.uk) in which I did both those things for two months. I’m sure you have reams to read, but will email you a copy if of interest…

    Meanwhile, two things – bizarrely coincidentally I just pinned this blog in my ‘reading list’ tab on my computer,and notice that the very last thing I pinned was a recent NY Times article about Paul Kingsnorth and Dark Mountain titled ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It… and He Feels Fine’. I know there are many, many debates around Dark Mountain but I personally find great solace in their manifesto which has bizarrely rebuilt my activism in a new way. The article is here http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/20/magazine/its-the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it-and-he-feels-fine.html?_r=1 if of interest…

    And, I think what I was getting at with Macy, was that her ‘Work That Reconnects’ allows a space where one is expressly encouraged to acknowledge, feel, embrace *emotion* as an essential part of a wider ‘ecology of response’ to crisis.

    I find that very helpful, and doing this in a wholly embodied way on foot in the Walk That Reconnects was particularly resonant.

  12. Steve Bottoms

    Owain have you read Timothy Morton’s new book Hyperobjects? I think it sort of obliquely and rather brilliantly gestures at some of what you’re driving at. The “viscosity”, as he calls it, at living in times like these, “after the end of the world”… That is, after we can no longer look at what’s around us in that Heideggerian sense of a world outside us that we discover perceptually – instead we know we’re inside the impossible Hyperobjects that we’ve made and that changes everything…. Makes innocent conversations about the weather a source of anxiety and guilt – the background is the foreground and there’s no distinction, even at academic conferences… (He defines Hyperobjects as things massively distributed in space and time in relation to human experience… So global warming, nuclear contamination, plastic bags….) the book is beautifully written and may provide a kind of therapy, if therapy itself isn’t another form of what Morton calls “going meta”… Abstracting the issues as a way of escaping the reality of them… But seriously my friend, go easy on the drinking…?

  13. owain

    Cheers Steve. I will check that out. I really working hard not to drink too much (seriously). (Another part of this is celtic gloom (a real thing – see Bruce Chatwin’s On The Black Hill – and love of booze)

  14. owain

    So having started this strand I feel a bit responsible – so I been thinking / worrying about it on and off

    Firstly I still feel a bit shamed faced about my ‘outburst’. But I am grateful some took interest in it.

    So this is where I am now at,

    I am still pretty sure all this – modernity – will end badly (meaning radically reduced eco-social systems as we know them – in quantity and “quality” – richness/flourishing).

    But – as people have suggested – a ‘politics of despair / misery ‘ is not going to achieve anything. So we need to cling to hope – and positivity – happiness – for multiple reasons. As political potential – who knows what might crop up and be joinable? And for reasons of personal, family, community, peer group (human / non-human) well-being.

    Having said that – I think one reason for recent despair is just how long I have been in this “game” of environmental politics philosophy. I have been teaching / researching in environmental politics since approx. 1995 – so two decades, and worrying about such things from teenage years – when I witnessed the grubbing out of hedges on my family’s farm in the 1970s – four decades – and then the loss of the entire landscape.

    So at “Im/mortality and In/finitude in the Anthropocene Perspectives from the Environmental Humanities” Rob Nixon’s 2011 book, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, http://www.amazon.co.uk/Slow-Violence-Environmentalism-Poor-Nixon/dp/0674049306 was quoted a few times; appropriately so as it very much about time and ecocide.

    The other day my eye alighted on the spine of a book in my ‘library’ that I had not looked, at or thought of, for some years. Slow Reckoning; the Ecology of a Divided Planet by Tom Athanasiou. Although quite different from Nixon’s book is many respects, its thesis is similar about the challenge of our ongoing / worsening environmental predicament, and it temporal qualities.

    Athanasiou quotes Susan Sontag

    Apocalypse looms, and it’s does not occur [it’s] happening and not happing – the irreparable ruin of the environment, [] has already happened. But we don’t know it yet. [] Because we don’t have the right indexes for measuring the catastrophe. Or simply because this is a catastrophe in slow motion’.

    Slow Reckoning was published in 1996! Sontag’s words in 1988!! This is one reason why things are so challenging – the clear eyed have written as forcefully as possible about the challenge we face for decades.

    Felix Guattari’s “The Three Ecologies” was published 25 years ago (1989). I urge everyone to read the Introduction – at least – to the main text – free pdf here. It sets out the situation and the failure of modern society to react all at. Since then modern society has not only failed to react almost entirely but accelerated into the abyss of degraded environmental futures.

    It is difficult to keep cheerful in such circumstances – but I will try as I know it is important for reasons set out above.

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