Unsettling Landscapes and Imaginations

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

By Tony Weis

*All images courtesy of the author

I come from the settler-colonial nation of Canada, in a part of southwestern Ontario that sits upon the traditional territories of the Attawandaron, Anishnaabee, Haudenosaunee, and Leni-Lunaape Peoples. Today, nine First Nations reserves together control just over one percent of all land in southwestern Ontario. The landscape must have been beautiful, and still is in small patches, especially along river valleys and lake shores.

The one hundred kilometers between where I grew up, in Waterloo, and where I now live, in London, lies mostly in the Carolinian ecozone, which is severely threatened and home to a disproportionate share of Canada’s endangered species. Most of the large animal species were extirpated long ago with European conquest and farming, and the landscape is now dominated by suburban sprawl, highways, factories, strip-malls, and, most of all, large grain and oilseed monocultures and sheds full of intensively produced pigs, chickens, turkeys, and cows, which people rarely see alive—unless its in the backs of transport trucks, when these animals are on their way to slaughter. Growing up in middle-class suburbia, I thought little of the environment that surrounded me, the history of dispossession it was built on, or the social, ecological, and interspecies relations it concealed. Suburbia is an intensely alienating place in many ways.

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In my youth, I largely thought of “nature” as something that was beyond the city and its surrounding farmland, like the parks where my family went camping and wilder areas further north, and gave little thought to the interspecies relations in my life, apart from adoring our cats (though from a fairly young age I remember struggling to reconcile “why we cuddle some animals and put a fork in others,” as the famous animal advocate Henry Spira put it). In high school, I came to think about environmental problems through a seemingly distant problem gaining a lot of attention at the time: the destruction of tropical rain forests and the crisis of biodiversity loss, which was often presented in simplified tropes of overpopulation and poor farmers slashing and burning on the forest frontier. I bought into the call to “think globally and act locally” in naive terms, with little sense of what acting locally meant other than that I should try to consume less, recycle, and turn down the thermostat.

Throughout my undergraduate degree (in history and geography) I began to take small steps as an activist and knew I wanted to find some sort of work where I could make a contribution to environmental and social justice struggles—but I struggled to imagine where this might lead. I did have a few epiphanies though. First, I was exposed to Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation (1975), which challenged me to stop consuming animals and to start continually thinking about interspecies relations as part of environmental change and everyday life. Second, I encountered Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), which helped me begin to see the “permanent war” on nature unfolding in the agricultural landscapes around me, as well as the importance of compelling narratives in moving people to action. Still, as I began my master’s degree in environmental studies, I did not foresee a future in academia and had little sense of where I was heading, other than wanting to get more involved in activism and maintaining a vague hope that I might someday find work that involved fighting good fights.

4_weisMy master’s research drew me back to the subject of tropical deforestation with fresh eyes. Having found guidance and inspiration from some classic works of political ecology like Blaikie and Brookfield (1987), Watts (1983), and Hecht and Cockburn (1989), I set off for the rugged terrain of eastern Jamaica on the edge of the Blue Mountains. My interest in Jamaica was sparked by high rates of deforestation and the blame being heaped on small farmers as the primary agents, and was further stoked by reading Small Garden, Bitter Weed: Struggle and Change in Jamaica (Beckford and Witter 1982). This book convinced me that the problems facing small farmers could only become legible by considering long periods of time, like the enduring legacies of colonialism and slavery, and wide spatial scales, like Jamaica’s position in an uneven world system.

The more I worked with small farmers on their steep hillside plots, overlooking the plantations that dominated the coastal lowlands and river valleys below, the more convinced I became that inequality was at the heart of the story of tropical deforestation. This grounding directly flowed into my interests in land reform, cooperatives, neoliberal policy restructuring, and the competitive pressures associated with global market integration. It also indirectly challenged me to reflect upon my own settler-colonial inheritance in Canada. Why did I feel the legacy of slavery seething in the plantation landscape, when I had for so long failed to sense the legacy of indigenous dispossession at home? Why could I envision land reform for plantations yet struggle to imagine what it might mean to unsettle the industrial monocultures and livestock operations surrounding me in southwestern Ontario?

For more than a decade now, I have been grasping at answers to these questions, because as my research has moved upwards in scale to global agriculture and food systems, it has simultaneously led me to focus more on the nature of industrial agriculture. A core argument of this work is that the productivity gains achieved in industrial monocultures and livestock operations—and the expansive competitive pressures they generate—rest upon a precarious biological and physical foundation: worsening problems are never resolved but instead are continually overridden through an array of resource- and pollution-intensive inputs (Weis 2007). This orientation drew me towards an increasing focus on the soaring scale of global livestock production and consumption and a case for why this trajectory must be confronted (Weis 2013).

One of my basic objectives has been to analyze how productive environments are organized. In the context of animals, this not only means thinking about the biological and physical problems posed by industrialization and the ways they are overridden, but also about the interspecies relations involved. This focus, first planted in my thinking two decades ago and germinating ever since, has led me to my current project, Ghosts and Things: Animals and the Violent Narrowing of Life. Here, I use the language of “ghosts” and “things” to try to evoke two of the great trajectories of animal life—de-faunation (the growing scientific recognition that severe population declines are unfolding across a wide range of species) and commodi-faunation (to describe the nature of animal lives in industrial production). Viewed together, I believe this can provide a powerful lens for understanding contemporary environmental change, pushing at the limits of prevailing depictions of animals within mainstream conservation and opening onto a much wider sense of what needs to be acted on, in a similar spirit to what Rachel Carson sought to do (Foster and Clark 2008).[1]

A pig-gestation crate.

I am now in my fifteenth year as a university professor, and so have at least partly resolved the question of work from my student days, but I continue to wrestle with the bigger concern behind it: namely, what is to be done in this age of cascading crisis and relentless violence? By this, I don’t mean to diminish the importance of intellectual labor, or the great privilege of research, teaching, and mentoring. Rather, it reflects the difficult challenges of scale in analyzing problems and possibilities (Where do we begin?), and of communication amidst the complexity and cacophony of everyday life (How can compelling narratives enliven oppositional imaginations and action?).

These challenges were a big part of what led me to the RCC, as I wanted to learn from different ways of thinking and communicating in a creative interdisciplinary atmosphere, and what I found was even better than I had hoped. I have cherished the comradely spirit of constructive criticism and dialogue and will dearly miss both individual friends and the organic intellectual community that is continually renewed in spite of (or because of) the steady flux of people coming and going. Though I am as unsettled as ever about the nature of my work, I leave the RCC with a bit more peace that this is not necessarily a bad thing, and with a lot of new ideas and energy for the journey ahead.

[1] Rachel Carson was acutely aware of the problems of industrial livestock production and its connections to the same “perpetual war” she confronted with pesticides (see the Foreword she wrote in Ruth Harrison’s Animal Machines: The New Factory Farming History, 1964).






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