Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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From the Stable to the Table—What Do We Eat When We Eat Raw-Milk Cheese?

By Lena Thurn and Maria Fixemer

The question of which cheese to buy is not simply a question about what to eat for lunch—at least not for the US cultural anthropologist Heather Paxson and other so-called post-Pasteurians who set a specific value on their food. Post-Pasteurians don’t believe that pasteurization—which means to heat treat raw milk in order to kill all the microorganisms, the good and the bad, that naturally live inside milk—necessarily enhances the quality of food. For them, the Pasteurian age—and Paxson claims that US citizens in general still live in a Pasteurian world—is the industrial age of sterilizing everything in order to avoid potential “biohazards” and legal vulnerability, while accepting the loss of all the healthy, naturally occurring microbes and germs. Pasteurization is the simple option for ministries and health departments, which is why specific rules on milk products exist. In the USA, these rules are slightly stricter[1] than in the EU—which proves that raw-milk cheese plays a specific role in the cultural traditions surrounding food in countries like France, Switzerland, or Germany, where raw-milk products only have to be labeled. Still, the question of whether to buy raw-milk cheese or not also exists in Europe. It is a question that ranges between two contrasting poles: safety and freedom. And this, in turn, makes the question about the cheese a genuine political question. Drawing on Foucault’s “biopolitics”[2], Paxson refers in her articles on raw-milk cheese to “microbiopolitics.” Continue reading


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Uses of Environmental History: Stefania Barca

This is the second in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by the Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


“On ‘The Political’ in Environmental History”

By Stefania Barca

“Only mass social movements can save us now.”

Naomi Klein makes this point in This Changes Everything, and I couldn’t agree more. Since their emergence in the global political arena in the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream environmental organizations have devoted more attention in the past three decades to governmental politics, corporate greenwashing, and lobbying, and less to popular pressure and coalition building from below. But it’s time to realize that this strategy has failed and that a new, stronger wave of popular mobilization based on a solid articulation between environmental and social justice claims is badly needed to produce radical ecological politics.

Environmental historians have been part and parcel of this story. Even when they have practiced this field of inquiry with politically detached attitudes, rejecting the idea of environmental history as an environmental-ist approach, they have in fact participated in the broader counter-movement of the 1980s and 1990s, shifting scholars’ attention away from “the political” and towards environmental “policy,” “governance” or “management.” In other words, it is impossible for environmental historians to be left alone in their academic ivory towers (or even in their favorite fields): they are inevitably involved in what is going on in society. Like all history writing—and much of science making itself—environmental history cannot help but be political. Continue reading


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Worldview: One Piece at a Time

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. This is a  follow-up post to last week’s Snaphot on Seeing the Woods. All photographs are courtesy of the authors.

For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang with “Trophy Fish.”

Our story is one of human inventiveness and metamorphosis. It is about how the simple act of picking up trash landed us on national TV, with money in our pockets to continue the work we love, to begin a marriage, and to lose ourselves in a compelling vocation. All of this forged in the crucible of trying to make a visual blight into something good to look at. So, yes, it is about art making. But we wish to point out that in this era of everything standing in for everything else, a world made meaningless by the glut of meanings, something of consequence happened. Bending over, picking up, bending over, picking up one piece at a time. Several tons of plastic collected—one piece at a time.

In 1999, information about a mysterious patch of garbage in the middle of the North Pacific was just beginning to roll in. Charles Moore, a boat captain returning from the Transpacific Yacht Race, came across a befuddling density of plastic. He engaged the help of oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, and their research showed some alarming results. On the planktonic level, plastic particles numbered six-times the number of living creatures. Plastic does not “biodegrade”—as it floats in the ocean, it is simply broken down into smaller and smaller pieces, wearing down to the molecular level. Plastic enters the food chain with some ugly results. Albatross chicks have died by the thousands with their gullets filled with plastic. Chemicals leach out of debris, creating a disruption in the sensitive endocrine systems of birds, fish, and mammals. Dangerous levels of toxins are showing up in humans. Continue reading


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Making Tracks: Anitra Nelson

“Goolengook and Guernica”

By Anitra Nelson

In the Guernica of today’s universal threat from future climate change, environmental campaigners fight for light-bulb suns, such as the ecologically precious “Goolengook.” In the southeastern state of Victoria, Goolengook was the site of the longest-running forest blockade in Australia’s history. From January 1997, activists kept vigil for more than five years until a final, successful, raid in March 2002 by the government agency responsible.

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Mural of Picasso’s “Guernica” made in tiles and full size. Photo: Papamanila (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons. {FoP-Spain}

During this period, Goolengook became an icon and battleground to protect the old-growth forests of East Gippsland, forests said to have given birth to the eucalypts of southeastern Australia. Covering more than one million hectares, the forests of East Gippsland harbor hundreds of rare and threatened species of plants and animals. Such forests are villi in the lungs of the planet, significant carbon sinks. If, and as, they are cleared—for timber, settlements, agriculture, and even monospecies plantations—the entire planet suffers. Continue reading


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Snapshot: Plastic Beach

Guest post by Judith Selby and Richard Lang

Judith Selby and Richard Lang are artists who collaborate in an ongoing project to collect plastic along Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore. They also recount their adventures in Plastic Forever, the blog they jointly manage. Stay tuned for the follow-up post on their work on Seeing the Woods.

A casual diversion—an amusement—turns into an enthusiasm, turns into a life’s work.

Why create art out of the tons of plastic we’ve found? Why make these objects and show them in an art context? And since we want our art to engage the polity, to inspire action, are we simply making more propaganda?

At first glance, our project is about evidence gathered to address the consequences of marine born plastic garbage in our oceans. The evidence, in this case, has been gleaned from just one beach: Kehoe Beach in the Point Reyes National Seashore, Northern California. But it is about more than that. It is the story of being witness to how a creative life is lived. It’s not about creative arts, per se. That yes, but it’s also about the implications creative energy has for any endeavor.

Sometimes, beauty can be a call to action. Here the call to action is to follow some simple rules of planetary housekeeping; but in a larger sense, the call to action is to follow those strange voices of inspiration each of us possesses, if we dare to listen. We know after years on the beach and in the studio, the real opposite of beauty is indifference.


This is part one of a two-part post about Judith and Richard’s ongoing work collecting and transforming waste into art. For related content about the journey and transformation of waste, take a look at our RCC Perspectives volumes: Out of Sight, Out of Mind and A Future without Waste?


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Nurturing My Greens with High-Tech? Reflections on Vertical Farming and the PlantCube

by Marlen Elders

When I first saw designs for the plantCube, a smart, fully automated machine for producing perfect vegetables, it seemed more like a high-fashion kitchen device than a sustainable alternative for growing vegetables. The plantCube was created by Munich-based start-up agrilution, whose cofounder, Maximilian Lössl, spoke with us at a Tuesday Discussion at the RCC last July. The company is developing and manufacturing an automated small-scale vertical farming machine meant to enable urban citizens to grow their own food at home. With the plantCube, you don’t need a balcony or garden—not even sunlight or soil. The only thing you need is a white machine that looks like a freezer, electricity, an Internet connection, and a mobile phone. Via app you can remotely control everything from ordering seed mats to the development of your plants inside the cube.

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The plantCube developed by agrilution. Used with permission.

Although it has obvious benefits—it avoids long transportation, is free of pesticides, produces little waste, and is nearly non-perishable (thanks to a “holiday mode” that allows you to put your plants to sleep for a while)—I was skeptical about this invention. I was concerned by the idea that the fresh healthy vegetables I eat would not have touched juicy chilly dark soil, nor felt fresh breezes; I was concerned that they are not even able to experience a single ray of real sunlight. Could a plant growing on a nutrition mat in a clean white cube that automatically provides it with LED light, maintains a suitable temperature, and dispenses water in precise doses really be healthy at all? Continue reading


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The Uses of Environmental History: John R. McNeill

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the uses of environmental history. The series has been adapted from contributions to a roundtable forum published in the first issue of the new Journal for Ecological History, edited by the Renmin University’s Center for Ecological History.


 “As Useful as We Want to Be”

By John R. McNeill

Environmental or ecological historians do not “need to become more useful and practical” in anything. They should feel free to be useless as regards global problems if they wish. If their motives for engaging in environmental history are nothing loftier than curiosity, that is no sin.  The great majority of historical work, like the great majority of work in general, makes little to no contribution to addressing global problems. Just because environmental historians work with the environment, and the environment is the locus of some global problems, does not create any special obligation for environmental historians. Historians of slavery do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing human trafficking, just as labor historians do not need to become more useful and practical in addressing mass unemployment.

Indeed, for some environmental or ecological historians, it would require considerable retooling to be able to become more useful in addressing current global problems. Those whose expertise  focuses on the depiction of nature in late medieval Spanish texts or water management in the Chola kingdom[1] probably have no better basis for addressing such global problems as climate change or biodiversity loss as the average citizen. But that should not mean that their topics are illegitimate because they are not deemed “useful.” Usefulness in the context of today’s problems should not be a requirement for historians. If it were, very little history, even environmental history, would be justifiable. Continue reading