Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Recap: Science, Science Fiction, & Imagining Nature's Future

Currier & Ives print
Yesterday, I got to catch a joint lecture—part of the SAIC's series on the anthropocene. Dr. Chuck Cannon, botanist & director of the Center for Tree Science at the Morton Arboretum, shared some views on conservation, ecosystem thinking, and some science fictional ideas on bioengineering. Writer, artist, and Sector 2337 co-director Caroline Picard then discussed some ideas about our shifting relation to the anthropocene, and shared a brief graphic novel.

Brief notes:

Dr. Cannon started by walking us through some of his experiences studying different environments in Indonesia—Borneo & Sulawesi.

  • Compared meeting the Indonesian forests after growing up in West Texas to having the Taj Majal be your first experiences of "a house".
  • Lots of interesting quick insight into how quickly and dramatically these rainforests can be changed, how flexible and resilient  the forests actually are—although he noted that a lot of ecologically-minded people and organizations actually push back against the idea that logging can be good for conservation.
  • Showed some cool maps-over-time showing how much Indonesia has changed in the relatively recent past (timescales of just ten thousand years or so) due to both tectonic activity and the relatively shallow surrounding seas. Talked about making a conservation portfolio that results in a "pretty map" and not much else.
  • Thinking about the future, Cannon's trying to think optimistically and outside the dystopian box—referenced The Sheep Look Up, Skynet, The Matrix.
  • Thinks our idiom needs to change from preserving a wilderness (problematic, and probably extinct anyway) to thinking about a "Garden World", stewardship, using botanical gardens and similar projects to educate, experiment, spearhead new habitat-guiding projects.
  • From there, he jumped into a lot of sketches and science-fictional ideas, starting with the possibility of simple botanical techniques like grafting—referenced Axel Erlandson's Tree Circus, Sam van Aken's Tree of 40 Fruits.
  • Also mentioned Goldschmidt's concept of the "hopeful monster", thinks we need to be looking for, making more of these.
  • Sketched out lots of ideas for bio-engineering uses a variety of techniques- "home trees" that we grow to whatever shape we want, with inbuilt food-making, waste-processing abilities. 3-d printing vascularly-active wood that could then be attached to living root & canopy systems, or engineering "meatleaves" so we could get animal protein from plants.
  • He also referenced an interview with Tolkien where Tolkien expressed the desire to "come back as a tree"; Cannon wondering if we could make an entire tree-based life-support system for a a human brain.
  • Wonders why our imaginative works are full of cyborgs—machine/human hybrids, but so lacking in chimeras or "chi-borgs", humans fused with other kinds of organisms. Why is Swamp Thing such an outlier?
  • The idea that we should change ourselves, not the world. (Also referenced a podcast about blind people finding new ways to "see"—possibly Daniel Kish?)
  • We're not toxic, we're all natural.

Picard talked about the perception that we are looking at the end of the world, and this weird way we're both bystanders and implicated.
  • Talked about the rhetoric of "saving the city" as a recurring theme in pop superhero culture (The Flash, Arrow, etc.)
  • Shared her brief graphic novel "Meditation on Light and Land" that draws from Lem's Solaris and the use of atomic weapons in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.
  • Talked about a recent stage production of the Mahabharata, good and bad sides of "anthropocene lit", and the book Cannibal Metaphysics by Eduardo Viveiros de Castro.

In the Q&A, some interesting points:
  • The idea that we're "chasing individual species off a cliff" in terms of conservation, when we should be thinking about habitats—extinction is natural, but we need to think about the capacities of land for life.
  • Talking about how to make big (or rather small but extremely widely-adopted) changes, Picard had the great point "How did everyone stop smoking?" Point being that this was accomplished gradually with fairly small legislative barriers & education; how can we do something similar for, say, climate change?
  • How modern consumer culture is a fairly recent invention, owing much to the crisis of overproduction that accompanied the world wars.
  • Various strategies and questions about stewardship, including giving non-human entities legal status ("nature" itself in Bolivia & Ecuador, a river in New Zealand), and issues with that.
  • Christopher Stone's "Should Trees Have Standing?"

Very cool talk, glad I got to attend. Put me much in mind of a lot of ecologically & biologically-savvy science fiction—Kim Stanley Robinson's work most of all, which often focuses on finding a way to have societies that integrate human & non-human life—a thread of that in Le Guin's work, as well; some of Cannon's bio-engineering ideas echoed things I've spotted in diverse authors—both Stephenson in "Anathem" and Palmer in "Terra Ignota" have programmable trees that produce many different fruits and vegetables, for instance.

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