Friday, June 12, 2015

6/2: Meeting at COLEF on Environmental Justice

Tuesday two weeks ago, we concluded this 2nd year of IFER with our traditional visit to the Colegio de la Frontera Norte (COLEF) in Tijuana. As usual, the reception at COLEF was very warm, and the talks led to an engaged, interdisciplinary discussion of the topic.

That topic was "environmental justice," and each of the speakers addressed it from their unique perspective. David Carruthers provided a good foundation for the session by explaining what environmental justice is, and then by providing a number of case studies of environmental justice on the Mexican-American border. What I found remarkable about his talk is that his case studies represented victories over big corporations by local people, something that I don't dare to hope for sometimes.

Yazmin Ochoa González then further zoomed in on the place where we were. She proposed three scenarios for a more environmentally responsible TJ. TJ quickly needs to protect its natural resources, not only for the purpose of ecological conservation, but also to protect itself from environmental disasters like flooding. The explosion of the city's urban residents has not been kind to green areas, and Ochoa provided remedies for this problem.

Heber Huizar Contreras went on in a similar vein, presenting an investigation of the access Tijuana residents have to parks, the quality of those parks, and whether this access represents a class division (e.g. the rich having more and better access than the disadvantaged parts of society). He concluded that access in Tijuana is very poor, but it is poor for everyone regardless of class (in the course of the discussion after, Kyle Haines suggested that this might be due to the fact that TJ only recently became a large city. If you'd go to older megacities, he argued you'd find the class division as to access to green areas would exist). In the course of his talk, Huizar questioned established environmental notions, for example the United Nations' definition of a "park" as a "flat space," an model not difficult to realize in more hilly regions like TJ but also leading to misperception of how many "parks" are actually there.

The discussion, as usual, was lively, with a lot of the debate focusing on environmental justice movements in Mexico, and the role of governments (Mexican, American, United Nations) in protecting our ecological heritage. After the discussion was over, many of us enjoyed a wonderful reception at COLEF, followed by a tasty Mexican dinner in downtown Tijuana. All in all, it was a fitting conclusion to a good year.

A video of the whole meeting is available here.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

IFER 5/19 Science Fiction in Ecology

Continuing our more humanities-oriented series this quarter was last week's session on Science Fiction. As with the session on Animals, Ike Sharpless gave a broad introduction to the topic, opening up the topic for discussion. Then, author and now UCSD MFA graduate Ethan Sparks close-read a short story by Octavia Butler, "The Book of Martha."

Discussion began fairly quickly and ranged from this specific short story to the genre of "science fiction" in general. It was objected by some that the name "science fiction" is a misnomer, in that such fiction is not necessarily scientific, something shown, I would add, by the "Book of Martha," which by its Biblical setting reminds one more of fantasy than SciFi. The relation between Fantasy and SciFi was also questioned by Ike, who told us that some authors, like the amazing Ursula LeGuin, prefer the term "speculative fiction" to talk about their work, rather than the standardized "science fiction" and "fantasy."

Another question that occupied us was the matter of utopia and dystopia. What purposes do such fictions, portraying ideal or non-ideal futures, serve? Does it make a difference, for example, when we see a vision so dark as that proposed by the second episode of the BBC series Black Mirror (one that I highly recommend you watch)? Does it make us get off our couch to cure the many symptoms of a burgeoning bleak disease that the dystopic mirror has shown us? Or does the fiction merely remain such, something to entertain us through a boring night when we cannot sleep? Although none of the participants had answers to such questions, talking about them within our multidisciplinary, binational frame was very interesting. I say "binational" because our colleagues from COLEF were present again in great numbers. We thank you for crossing the border to join us, again and again, and for adding your voices to the debate.

The matter of "science" fiction came up again in a different context: in "The Book of Martha," the short story Ethan read for us, the main character, a black female writer called Martha, can change humanity for the better. She just needs to tell God (hence the title: "Book of Martha," as if this was a book in some new bible) how she wants to change humans, and it will happen. After careful deliberation, her solution is to give humans very vivid dreams that would make us less greedy and violent in actual reality because anything we want we would get in these dreams. Martha's solution was heavily contested by the group. Alternative solutions ranged from the purely technological ("giving people cat eyes so they can see in the dark") to the idealistic ("making humans more social and less egocentric"). What struck me was that in doing these things, we were actually writing a science fiction of what science might be able to do in the future. If we had the capacity to choose whether humans can have cat eyes or not, would we? What about making all of us more social through surgery? The debate thus somewhat eerily echoed the one we had during the geo-engineering session, the question of which boils down to: "what are we, humans, allowed to do to our environment? Can we intervene at all?"

Again, there's no definitive answer to these questions, but IFER meetings have allowed us to deepen our knowledge on such debates. Next Tuesday afternoon
, we will go to the other side of the border to explore the theme of environmental justice. We hope you'll join us in Tijuana!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

5/5: "Discussing the Lives of Animals"

Last Tuesday at the Sustainable Resources Center on UCSD's Main Campus, Ike Sharpless, a PhD Student in Political Science, led a discussion centered around two texts dealing with "animals:" J.L. Coetzee's The Lives of Animals and John Berger's "Why Look at Animals." Taking a comprehensive approach, Ike first introduced the larger context of - mainly philosophical - debates on the nature, rights, ethics involving our relationship to the non-human other we collectively call "animals:"  Can we use them for medical tests? Can we eat them? Or are their lives equal in value to ours? Such were the questions for which Ike introduced the theoretical framework, which he then explored through a reading of the two texts mentioned above.

Members of the audience continued the exploration Ike started by placing their own views on animal lives in the larger context that was introduced. Arguments varied from saying that environment-wise, eating imported vegetable materials is as harmful as eating animals, to the proposition that, if humanity really wants to move forward, we have to find a manner of eating without killing. Overall,  it was particularly nice to have our colleagues at COLEF join us for this session for a different perspective on this matter.

Two sessions remain in this second year of the Forum. Next week, on Tuesday 5/19, we will continue in the direction Ike took us in by exploring more environmental literature, this time in the cast of Science Fiction. A short, but very stimulating, short story by Octavia Butler, namely "The Book of Martha," will be the centerpiece for this session, together with the film Snowpiercer. Finally, on June 2nd we will conclude another productive year with our traditional visit to COLEF and dinner in downtown Tijuana.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

IFER Session on "Geo-engineering our Climate"

Last Tuesday, two speakers addressed the problematic of "geo-engineering" from two very different angles. By "geo-engineering," we meant a large problematic that can be summarized as "What to do if the measures against global warming proposed in the past - mainly cutting carbon emissions - cannot be applied in time? How else can we avert the predicted climatological catastrophe?" Apparently this topic has been taken up in some science circles already, and Jack Pan (SIO), our first speaker that evening, gave a witty and clear introduction to some of the issues involved. Some of the measures (like putting mirrors in front of the sun to reflect light back) seem clearly ridiculous, whereas others (putting extra clouds in the sky to shield us) reminded me of a science fiction film where such measures did not turn out to achieve the desire effects (Highlander II: The Quickening).

After Jack's lucid introduction to the issue from a scientific perspective, Kyle Haines (UCSD Political Theory) talked about the ethical and political implications of such technologies. Specifically, Kyle pointed to the fact that if we ever obtain technology that can fundamentally "protect" our climate, we still don't know who gets to decide to use it. If we already have problems curbing carbon emissions globally, then how can we make a global decision to use climate-altering technologies? Worse, it is probably that some of us, namely the global poor, will not be involved in the decision-making process at all! Kyle then explored this argument via a historical parallel: the peaceful use, by both the US and the Soviet Union, of nuclear arms to alter the shape of the environment.

Kyle and Jack's diverging positions on the subject brought about a lively, roundtable debate with the audience. People from widely varying disciplines, such as economics, biology, climate science, and literature (me) brought their perspectives on the issue to the table. Some argued that no global geo-engineering is necessary, and that all measures will be local (for reasons of cost alone). Others talked about a small token government tax on gas that may cause people to rethink using their vehicles too much. The debate took place in a friendly, welcoming atmosphere, which allowed people to really listen to what others had to say, softening the disciplinary boundaries that so often separate our work.

In summary, this was a very successful session, and I can only hope the session the rest of this quarter proceed in a similar manner. Thank you Kyle and Jack for presenting!

Monday, April 13, 2015

IFER Session on April 6: "Engaging the Everyday: the Challenge for Environmentalism and Political Theory"

Last week, John Meyer, a political science professor at Humboldt State University, came and talked to us about his new book, Engaging the Everyday, which addresses the question: why is there such a lack of political action on environmental change. In his talk, which was thankfully free from jargon so a lay person like me could understand, Meyer first debunked the idea that Americans don't care about environmental change, or think it doesn't exist. An overwhelming majority do think it exists, and do care, but it's simply not the first thing on their list of things to solve. The challenge for American politicians concerned with global warming is thus not to tell people it's important (they already know) but to connect the issue to more urgent "everyday" issues that rank as more important with the American people (issues like wages, employment, safety, etc.).

Meyer's focus on "everyday" concerns allows us to see that any demand for urgent action on climate change needs to be coordinated with equally important changes. People want to eat, want the ability to afford rent and other common expenses without going into debt. Such issues are not separate from those of climate change: indeed, global warming might exacerbate many of them. But an exclusive focus on "global warming" can lead us to forget other political and social problems the resolution of which is at least as urgent as taking action on climate change.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

IFER's Winter session at COLEF

Last Tuesday about ten of us went down to Tijuana, where we were given a warm welcome by our friends and colleagues at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte. This quarter's session featured the following talks:
  1.  Dr. Zayre Gonzalez (CICESE) & Jocelyn Gonzalez Troncoso (MAIA): "Use of a Rapid Impact Assesment Matrix to evaluate environmental impact in a geothermal-electrical project."
  2. Luis Garcia Hernandez (MAIA): "Feasibility of using wind power in Mexico."  (in Spanish) 
The first talk presented a mathematical model (a "Rapid Impact Assessment Matrix") to analyze the complete impact of a geothermal project on a site near Mexicali. The result, after a consideration of the social, environmental, and economic effects of such a project, was negative, implying that such a project would have more drawbacks than benefits. In the process of the talk, we were introduced to geothermal energy as an alternative energy source, and how it is potentially more dangerous than conventional energy sources, depending on the place.

The second talk gave a general overview of wind power in Mexico, and the potential energy that could be exploited.

Although both talks were thus squarely framed in a science/engineering context, the discussion brought up some interesting issues very relevant to social sciences and humanities researchers. For example, apparently all of the wind power generated in a field in Northern Baja California is meant for exportation to San Diego. Moreover, the wind turbines are built by foreign companies, and barely create employment opportunities. Though one of course has to applaud the Mexican government's investment in renewable energy, the laudatory tone that accompanies such projects needs to be nuanced by a close look at who benefits from such projects.

As for the geothermal energy, it was strange for some of us to see social, environmental, and economic factors framed in the same calculation, with every "area" being assigned an equal value. In a humanities context, equating social with economic importance would be a heavily criticized move.

These thoughts do not subtract at all from the quality of the presentations, and the openness with which the presenters addressed people's concerns. We got to talk more about this afterwards, during a well-catered reception at COLEF lit by sun setting on the ocean. The parting was bittersweet, as Gabriela Muñoz, whom we've worked so closely with these past years, is withdrawing as leading coordinator for COLEF, being replaced by Carlos Vazquez. Although we are sad to see Gabriela go, we look forward to working with Carlos in the future.

As is traditional on such visits, after leaving COLEF all members of IFER enjoyed the culinary offerings of Tijuana, in the process discussing themes ranging from environmental politics to literature. It was a wonderful conclusion to a productive quarter.