The Problematic Definition of Nature

It was a gloomy, drizzling day. Started off 9 am with some logistics that made me even more excited about planning and the trip.

The two assigned articles (White “The Problem With Purity,” and Thomas “History and Biology in the Anthropocene”) really opened up some worthy discussions about crucial topics that affect all of the academic world and human perception. As a humanities-oriented person who feels too anthropocentric, I enjoyed revisiting familiar structures through an environmental history lens. Because of my classes this semester, I am used to analyzing situations where groups of people are categorized as the “Other” by more “powerful” groups, resulting in monolithic stereotypes and generalizations. We assume the normative status quo: things are the way they are just because. However, the problem with attempting to define something according to this “nature” is that everything changes with temporal and geopolitical contexts and can never be extracted from these parameters to draw huge conclusions. Furthermore, by asserting something exists as it does “naturally,” we are able to avoid responsibility and extract ourselves from this intertwined universe. While thinking about the world, we should consciously ask ourselves: what has been decided and who had the power to decided so.

The best part of today was being able to see disciplines intersect and know that nothing exists in isolation. When science and humanities can be complemented, we can reach a fuller understanding. I ended the day with a lot more questions than I had at the start of today, but hopefully, in the upcoming weeks, I will gain more tools to help me understand these issues and eventually take action.


Purity and Air Pollution

Today we kicked off the trip (prep) with some logistics and readings in our lovely Asian Studies Conference Room. It was a fun and inspiring morning to get us to think about some concepts of environmental studies(history) and how we can apply them to our projects.

Professor Matt Klingle gave us a great overview and real life examples of the lecture “The Problem with Purity” and addressed my confusions before the lecture. The argument that people’s tendency to “purify” and categorize issues ignores the complexity and entanglement of nature and human agency makes me think about the way we approach environmental issues. Taking this idea and applying to air pollution issues, I realized that when it comes to civilian response, it is convenient for average people or nonprofessionals to categorize and stigmatize the problem in order to deal with it, and this is how their “local knowledge” is formed. For example, when people see bad air, it is easy for them to blame the factories emitting smoke, or the cars emitting exhaust while being completely stuck on the highway, so the easy conclusion is that “oh, it is an industrial problem”. However, it is not convenient to think about why it happens–why it happens now, and why it happens here. Air pollution–really, any pollution–is never an easy problem. There are always political and social factors attached to the issue. It is easy to just blame the industry and “purify” the problem, but the heart of the problem is really much more complicated and we shall never simply take the easy path.

The other reading “History and Biology in the Anthropocene” makes me think about the pollution issue taking both humanistic and scientific perspectives, namely, the concepts of value and scale. As scientists can study basically everything under different scales, it is hard for them to answer the question of value and meaning. As the author suggests, science is a good tool to reach to realize the goal of answering a value question, but nonetheless, we need a question to begin with. The argument that humanists and scientists can, and should, talk with each other will help human achieve in anthropocene. And, the idea is really helpful for our projects as well, since by its nature, our trip is very interdisciplinary and has an organic blend of humanistic and scientific perspective. I think with the big question of scale and value in mind, we will be able to answer some real questions.