Planning for the end of the world

By Rebecca Davis 8 February 2012

Sketching out scenarios for the future of humanity’s relationship with nature is a project normally left to environmentalists and economists. Tuesday evening, however, saw a group of Californian humanities academics brought together in Cape Town to thrash out ideas on the topic. By REBECCA DAVIS.

The Gordon Institute for Performing and Creative Arts (GIPCA) is a UCT body which oversees interdisciplinary collaborations, spanning a range of faculties, but particularly focused on the humanities. Following a workshop held in Johannesburg, its first project for 2012 involved four academics from the University of California and one from the American University of Beirut coming together in a panel discussion chaired by Stellenbosch English professor Sarah Nuttall. The title: Futures of Nature. Their daunting task: to discuss the end of the world.

That’s a simplistic way of putting it, of course. The event blurb phrased their mandate as a discussion of the implications of the “foreshortening of social and natural time”, given the recognition that “the time lines of nature are now converging with those of society in a mutual lockstep”. In other words, now that we’ve essentially made planet Earth a rapidly deflating football to kick around, natural processes and change are increasingly dependent on what humans do. What will our future relationship with nature look like, and how will it affect artistic production and conceptions of politics and justice?

This is a very wide topic, and anyone who attended the talk hoping for concrete answers would have left disappointed. The over-arching mood of the panellists’ presentations was, it must be said, pretty damn depressing. Words like “catastrophe”, “disaster”, “apocalypse” and “Armageddon” were heard frequently. In other respects there was little consistency of approach, however, with the five panellists taking refreshingly diverse routes towards tackling the subject in punchy 10-minute presentations.

David Goldberg, director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, warned against the clinical neutrality of terms such as “climate change”, suggesting that this language has the ability to efface the real sense of imminent disaster. Simultaneously, he said, to present a natural disaster as “catastrophe” may also foster a way of thinking that elides human responsibility: because it is “nature’s fault”, it cannot be ours. In reality, events like famine are never simply a “natural” event, but increasingly the results of the confluence of nature and culture. What we do to the Earth has effects, Goldberg reminded us, citing the example of fracking being linked to subsequent earthquakes.

Comparative Literature professor Ackbar Abbas made a similar point about the increasingly artificial division between human culture and nature. To illustrate the idea, he recounted the fact that when foreign diplomats come to Beijing, or important events take place there, the authorities shoot rockets into the clouds to create thunderstorms to clear up pollution over the city, seeking to control nature itself. The indiscriminate use of science by socialist and capitalist countries alike leads to climate change, Abbas said, noting drily that “pollution doesn’t follow ideological lines”. Abbas urged caution in the ecology movement’s adoption of the moral high ground, pointing out that this kind of moralistic approach is easier to take in affluent countries, while the poor are focused on immediate survival. Socialism intends the equitable distribution of poverty, not wealth, Abbas said.

The preoccupation of Beirut-based International Relations professor Karim Makdisi was waste, the by-product of industrialised processes, and in particular the manner in which waste flows from rich countries to the poor in the modern world. He quoted from a memo authored by the office of Larry Summers while he was still head of the World Bank, in 1991, which explained the “impeccable” economic logic of dumping waste in poorer countries, and suggested that “African countries are underpolluted”. Makdisi cited the horrifying example of the Khian Sea ship in the 1980s, which tricked Haiti into allowing them to dump 4,000 tons of incinerator ash on a Haitian beach by claiming it was fertiliser. Poor countries are repeatedly told to “adapt”, Makdisi suggested, as part of the rich world’s desire to have business continue as usual.

Anthropology professor Cori Hayden’s work has focused on intellectual property rights and the tussle between indigenous communities and global pharmaceutical firms as to who has the right to claim plants or other natural elements. This struggle has emerged since patenting laws began to allow for products of nature to be patented: so that one can now patent particular gene sequences. This overreach of intellectual property, Hayden suggested, gives rise to the fear that “there will soon be nothing left of nature outside of capitalism”.

In Mexico, Hayden said, enthnobiologists have been working with drug companies and local communities for some time to turn plants into drugs, with the idea being that everyone wins: the drug companies make new medicines and the local communities receive a (tiny) portion of resulting royalties. But because certain communities were vocal about their claims to various plants, scientists and authorities started circumventing the issue by naming certain areas as “public”. Her point was that the notion of “public domain” cannot now be seen as an area of freedom, or existing outside of capitalism, but can also be about appropriation. The question of how we map out and differentiate various types of domain, Hayden suggested, will become increasingly critical.

Last up for the panel was Art and Film Studies professor Dick Hebdige, who is mad about deserts, which he described as “literal and metaphorical warzones” today. Deserts are seen as “non-places”, Hebdige said, against which other places get to identify themselves differentially. We use them as screens onto which we project whatever we want: they are simultaneously seen as the starting point of human life, from the perspective of palaeontology and the likely endpoint of life – Armageddon is often depicted as resulting in a giant desert. If we think of deserts as empty spaces, we are more likely to use them as dumping grounds, or “rehearsal sites for wars in other deserts”, Hebdige said.

Hebdige forecasts the world’s next major crisis as involving water, pointing out that many of the world’s conflicts currently depicted as ethnic or religious in their source actually come down to fighting over scarce resources. In Gaza, he suggested, some of the conflict emerges from the scramble to access the River Jordan. He pointed out that half the world’s golf-courses are in the USA, with many of these situated in areas technically classified as desert, and thus requiring a million gallons of water a day to be kept lush for golfers. Golf-courses and private swimming pools will soon be a thing of the past as water shortages get more extreme, Hebdige predicted: “consigned to the scrapheap of history”. Humankind, he concluded darkly, is at a “crossroads between inertia and apocalypse”.

One undeniable feature of the mood of the presentations was the fact that there’s a certain weird cultural fascination attached to the notion of the apocalypse. As we go out in a burning fireball, there is still art to be made – Goldberg suggested that disasters like Fukushima need their artists too. And the production of that art might be curiously satisfying: as Cori Hayden summed up, there are strange pleasures to be had in contemplating the demise of humanity. DM

Photo: Is disaster looming? REUTERS.