“Nature” We kicked off discussion today by examining a plastic Godzilla toy. We were asked, are we looking at nature? Some of us argued that it is nature because the creature arose from nature. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, so it has to be from nature regardless of whether we are talking about the toy or Godzilla itself. Conversely, others in the group argued that it was not nature because humans interfered. Humans are the ones synthesizing plastics from oil and splitting atoms, and is that part of nature?

After this fascinating introduction, Professor Matthew Klingle in the environmental studies department led our group discussion on the following readings:

  1. The Problem with Purity by Richard White
  2. History and Biology in the Anthropocene: Problems of Scale, Problems of Value by Julia Adeney Thomas

Objective categories are pretty much impossible. White argued that adhesion to purity is a problem. But why? When we start to define what is “pure” and what is not, we forget the social context that these definitions carry. For example, we talked about the problematic view that gender is biologically determined. The societal norm is that the XX chromosome combination will result in a male and XY chromosome combination will result in a female, and those who do not fall into either of those categories are “unnatural.” But if it is genetically possible, i.e. through nature, for people not to fall into those categories, is that really against nature? This reminded me of Caster Semenya, the South African runner who was put under scrutiny over her gender. And also Dutee Chand (click here for more information–the person who wrote that gave a talk in a class I took two years ago), the teenage Indian runner who was banned from competition for having too much testosterone. It is not like she was taking steroids; that is what her body produces. There was just some policy put in place to define what it means to be a woman (under the notion that having more testosterone means better athletic performance, which is actually not that well-correlated.*) The people who make these policies use biology to sound objective but really it is laced with social implications.

Think about scale and value. Using Thomas’s paper, we focused on agency, structure, and power.

  • Agency: acting on our own behalf
  • Structure: ideology, norms, etc that are in place
  • Power: the extent an individual can exercise agency or put structure in place (prevent or do something)

Does nature have agency? Is it historically significant?

It was especially interesting to see the connection between biology and history. Science always exists in political and cultural contexts, though scientists sometimes fail to see that. Actually, it probably would not be too much of an assumption to say that all disciplines fall into the trap of ignoring the influences they do not focus on.

All in all, this was a great first day! These readings tie in nicely to each of our projects, and they made me think critically about definitions and categories while also highlighting the importance of interdisciplinary work.

*Karkazis K, Jordan-Young R, Davis G and Camporesi S (2012) Out of Bounds? A Critique of the New Policies on Hyperandrogenism in Elite Female Athletes. The American Journal of Bioethics 12(7):3-16

“Nature is Good to Think With”

While today’s readings:
– The Problem with Purity by Richard White
-History and Biology in the Anthropocene by Julia A. Thomas
were curled up in a tight knot of ideas the night before, this morning they unraveled as the discussion took place.
Professor Matt Klingle led the discussion by presenting us with an action figure of Godzilla, and prompted the question: “Is this Nature?”
There isn’t a right or wrong answer because it all depends on which approach you decide to take. While Godzilla’s value or representing is that of an angered force of nature-we could argue its natural. But since its an action figure, an item one would not typically find naturally in nature-we can argue its not. But since the materials from which it is made are technically supplied by the earth-its natural. Which brings us to the problem of PURITY-There is no such thing; there is always going to be an exception. Nature and culture are deeply entangled and it is almost impossible to separate. The concept of nature or the natural is usually invoked in order to try to eliminate a bias or to eliminate responsibility  by stating “it is natural, and it JUST is.” Meaning, we tend to see nature as separate from us, humans. The discussion encouraged us to think not as nature vs humans, but as a hybrid world in which we influence each other through our agency, structure, and power.

Furthermore, we discussed the richness of an interdisciplinary approach between the Humanities and Sciences. As an Asian Studies major and pre-med student, this reading and discussion were encouraging to not only my project surrounding illness in Japanese culture, but to the rest of my Bowdoin Career. Overall, Today’s discussion was extremely engaging and thought provoking–Professor Klingle asked questions that seriously got our mind-wheels spinning and the chosen readings encouraged us to be open and critical about our findings and the pathways that lead to them.

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.