“This madness has to stop!” Indigenous Voices on the Destruction of the Amazon

Against Integration © Heloisa Bortz

By Teresa Millesi

Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on Indigenous groups in Latin America, especially in Brazil, where the president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed its severity, with his ministers calling it an “opportunity” for illegal logging in the Amazon. Horrifying videos of hospital corridors lined with corpses and pictures of mass graves in Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, are a shocking indicator of the toll the pandemic has taken on Brazil and its people. Bolsonaro’s response has been equally shocking. He is reported to have cavalierly said, “So, what?” in response to the crisis. As a visiting doctoral student at the Rachel Carson Center in Munich, I have had the opportunity to listen to various members of Indigenous communities living in Manaus, who have shared their experiences of the pandemic and who are threatened not only by the virus but by the actions (and inactions) of Bolsonaro’s government.

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Flows, Histories, and Politics of Pollution in Europe (17–20 Century)

Conference Report

Dates: 28–29August, 2020.

Organizers: Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society (RCC)

Conveners: Andrei Vinogradov (RCC) and Professor Julia Herzberg (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München).

The online workshop started with welcome remarks by the conveners, who outlined the key methodological framework of the event. Pollution is one of the earliest topics in global environmental history, but developments in the humanities and the current state of research in the field has allowed us to look at it from a new perspective. First of all, the history of environmental pollution was mainly considered within the national borders of European countries: there are still very few attempts to study the subject on a larger scale or from a comparative and transnational perspective. The topic is an important impulse for transnational research on the history of pollution abatement. The existing research on pollution-related conflicts in European history allows us to shed more light on how different societies conceptualized, measured, described, and attempted to control pollution.

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Studying Scientists in their Natural Habitat

The author interviewing Monika Schillat (Photograph courtesy of Fern Hames)

By Melissa Haeffner

Growing up in a small suburb in the United States, my dream was to move to the big city, to agilely navigate through shoulder-to-shoulder masses of humanity and revel in the clashes between cultures. I didn’t pay attention to the “environment” or “nature,” and it was not a central part of my sociology studies in college. It wasn’t until I was accepted into a transdisciplinary exchange with soil scientists and ecologists that I realized how divorced my social science training was from the natural sciences and how foreign mine was from theirs. After teaching me how to take transect surveys through a creek, the other scientists recommended educating households in order to reduce downstream pollution. Using my sociological training, I observed that the residents in the neighborhood in question were mostly renting and did not speak English as a first language. I argued that English-only brochures aimed at encouraging tenants to make changes to the owner’s property (which would be illegal) would unlikely result in the desired behavior changes the scientists expected. In other words, the scientists looked at the creek, and I looked at the people living by the creek. I realized there was a need for social scientists to engage with natural scientists to make better, more actionable changes if we are to achieve sustainable conservation and environmental justice.

I also learned that I knew very little about the natural world and went on to pursue a PhD in ecology (specializing in human-environment interactions). In the year before graduating, I received an email from Homeward Bound recruiting women scientists to promote leadership to fight climate change. It didn’t escape me that the Antarctica announcement was distributed to the natural science students and not the social science students despite the mounting evidence that climate change is caused by human behavior. If I had stayed on the social science disciplinary track, I would have missed the opportunity to apply. And in fact I almost did not apply. I thought a strong candidate would be someone who studied penguins or glaciers. But I wanted to study scientists, and where better to find scientists than in Antarctica?

Antarctica is species-rich when it comes to scientists—meteorologists, oceanographers, geologists, plant physiologists, you name it. And the ship full of scientists was a contained population of prime specimens! When I landed on the ice, scientists pointed their cameras at penguins and seals; I pointed my cameras at scientists. They were in their natural habitat—in full observation mode. I recorded their sounds and documented their movements. I listened to how they named the stratifications in the rocks and carefully inspected fossils on the land. “There are only two vascular plants that are native to Antarctica,” they said. I nodded and took notes. There was the periodic exclamation of seeing something they had only read about. They pointed to the ice knowingly, confidently. My dataset overflowed.

Two scientists making observations in the field (Photograph courtesy of the author)

I don’t think scientists are used to being data. When I shared my transcripts, they grammar-checked them, not realizing they were introducing bias into the sample. They were surprised that they could be considered subjects of research. Their first question was, “Is this data?” Their second question was, “Can this be replicated?”

I have worked with the members of the team featured in this series over the last four years. It should go without saying that scientists are not objective-obsessive robots, but people who care very deeply about precision and accuracy. The scientists I worked with fall on a spectrum of how much they think subjectivity shapes their research.

I can’t describe in words how innovative, open, and courageous they were to take this journey with me. It is not every day scientists are willing to take time out of their own research to do something completely different. I challenged the team to push past their comfort zones. And there were many points of discomfort. I asked the team to attempt what (to my knowledge) no one has attempted to do—to take a group of hardcore positivist scientists through the method of collaborative autoethnography. And you know what? We did it. It was amazing.

There was a moment, sitting around a round table in a conference room at the Rachel Carson Center listening to each other’s recorded interviews from Antarctica. First, we were nostalgic. We were transported back in time to the icy, cold expanse of the Western peninsula. The whipping wind overtook Lindsay’s words, but we listened to her recording all the way through—twice. A boom from an avalanche from a distant cliff interrupted Nicole’s interview. We listened to a snowball fight forming behind Fern as she tried to get her bearings, “What time is it?” “Who knows, the sun never sets, and who cares anyway?” Antarctica is timeless. We listened to Jess scoop a handful of snow into her mouth and proclaim “this is what cold tastes like.” We laughed when Margaret sniffed the air and realized she could finally smell saltwater instead of the dank aquatic scent of penguin colonies. When Ghislaine talked about touching her fingers inside her gloves to feel them, we did the same, remembering the cold.

All photographs courtesy of the author

As we listened to the interviews, I asked everyone to tally the number of words into coded themes because it seemed like a way to work with data that was familiar to them. But I still didn’t think they were convinced that this was research. I nudged them towards seeing the full transcript as a narrative and we thought of words to characterize it. Someone suggested the word “grounded.” Then someone said, “that’s funny that it’s “grounded” because that’s the soil scientists’ interview.” The lights went on. A breakthrough. We flipped through our pages of interview notes and someone made a connection between how our educational training shapes what we choose to focus on. And if our very language is shaped by our perceptions, then it is possible that the research questions we ask and the way we go about answering them are also influenced by what we ourselves bring.

This isn’t to say they became social scientists. I tried to push them further to consider how race and gender also influenced their perceptions—to mixed results. I also learned to question my methods and try to become even more precise and accurate in my data collection and analysis. Autoethnographers have long held that looking in the proverbial mirror is hard and not a one-time shot. It’s a daily practice. And sometimes there are things that you would rather not see—your past biases, assumptions, and attitudes. But this is all part of the process. You see them and you learn from them. And I think that the best way to convince yourself is to collect evidence. We systematically and rigorously documented our work, checking and rechecking for accuracy. We walked through Guba and Lincoln’s (1989) [1] qualitative evaluative criteria and made sure everyone in the team agreed that we met the highest standards of authenticity and trustworthiness.   

This experience helped me generate new research questions for transdisciplinary science. How can scientists see themselves in their work? How can we see the perspectives we bring to our research questions and designs? Instead of trying to remove bias from our studies, how can we see them fully for what they are and use them as opportunities? Will doing so allow us to generate more innovative solutions for sustainable conservation?

There is still a persistent and deep divide between quantitative and qualitative researchers. I hope that this experience piques the interest of scientists from all disciplines to step outside of their comfort zones. Maybe they wouldn’t necessarily do an autoethnography, but maybe they would take the time to participate in a completely different method. If they are a sociologist, maybe they could take a transect of a creek. If they are a meteorologist, maybe they could conduct an interview. I don’t know if what I am proposing would help scientists generate new research questions to help us grapple with problems that cross social and ecological systems. I don’t know if it would make scientists more amenable to each other’s methods. However, I do know that there are still considerable barriers separating the social sciences from the natural sciences when it comes to addressing social and environmental problems.

But there is hope. An article was published in Science only very recently arguing that the historical structural racism of urban segregation has changed flora and fauna patterns in cities, and therefore ecologists and evolutionary theorists have to pay attention to social theories and methods [2]. Maybe scientists will never study theories of environmental justice, but knowing they exist helps to ask questions about the relationship between social inequalities and their impact on phenomena studied in the natural sciences. This is exactly what needs to happen.

After returning from Antarctica, Melissa published a book about the Homeward Bound trip. For more information on her book, Antarctica Becomes Her, see here.

Melissa is available to work with transdisciplinary teams on water-related research that integrates climate and societal interactions, especially those that address justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion.  

[1] Egon G. Guba and Yvonna S. Lincoln, Fourth generation evaluation (Newbury Park, CA: Sage, 1989).

[2] Christopher J. Schell, Karen Dyson, Tracy L. Fuentes, Simone Des Roches, Nyeema C. Harris, Danica Sterud Miller, Cleo A. Woelfle-Erskine & Max R. Lambert, “The ecological and evolutionary consequences of systemic racism in urban environments,” Science, 13 August 2020, doi: 10.1126/science.aay4497.

Noticing Tiny Things

By Ghislaine (Platell) Small 

I have always been drawn to the environment and to understanding how living things work. My parents are both plant molecular biologists, and I had a limited understanding and familiarity of DNA and photosynthesis long before it was taught to me at school. I would breathe on plants to give them carbon dioxide in the school yard, although I can’t seem to remember what my friends thought of this at the time. I have always loved having pets and attempting to make friends with wildlife, be it snails or butterflies. I learned to be quiet when observing birds, would make a special effort to avoid stepping on ants, and learned to capture spiders and release them outside (not without some apprehension). I was delighted when my grandad, a heather expert in his free time, named a novel species after me, and when I got to play around with pipettes in my mum’s lab while she worked. My brother and I imagined that we were combining penguin and dinosaur DNA to make wonderful new creatures. Little did I know that I would meet exotic penguins once I moved to Western Australia, where the smallest penguins in the world live, and then again on the frozen continent itself.

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We Are All Antarcticans

By Fern Hames 

As a teenager in the 1970s, I was shocked by the environmental destruction described by Rachel Carson in Silent Spring and entranced by the idea of living in the forest and studying animals, as demonstrated by Jane Goodall in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. These two highly influential women influenced me to study science and, in particular, biology.

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Not All Penguins Are Clean

By Lindsay Stringer

Geography always made sense to me. I’d learn about how a river meanders in a lecture, for example, and then I’d go outside, find a river, and see it for myself. There’s far less reliance on imagination in geography compared to other subjects where you learn about the small or the large at scales you can’t see for yourself.

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A Geologist on the Rocks

By Jessica Reeves

I am not someone who ever dreamed of going to Antarctica. Many of my friends are, and most have succeeded in those endeavors. So when the opportunity came for me to take part in a 3-week leadership course on the Antarctic Peninsula, I was…cautious. The people I knew went there with purpose: to understand ice stress and strain, examine the formation of our planet through studying the geology, interrogate the influence of humans on the environment of Antarctic base stations, and recovering ice cores, which I refer to in my research to look at global climate change. But I was only going for a “jolly.” Did I really need to go to the end of the earth to do a leadership program? How could I justify the time and expense—not to mention greenhouse gas emissions—involved in getting me there? What right did I have to go?

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Plant Blindness

Photograph courtesy of Melissa Haeffner

By Margaret Barbour, Dean of the School of Science, The University of Waikato, New Zealand

I’m a plant physiologist, and I study how plants respond to the environment and how plants have shaped the earth’s biogeochemical cycles. I’m interested in both natural ecosystems, like forests, and managed ecosystems like crops. Antarctica is not at all an obvious place for a plant physiologist to want to go. There are very few plants on land, and most of them are lower plants like mosses. Life in Antarctica is built on microscopic photosynthetic organisms that live in the sea, and this is the case even for animals that live on the land for part of the time, like penguins. When you think about it, this type of ecosystem is incredibly rare for our planet. Recent work by Bar-On et al. [1] estimated that green terrestrial plants form 80 percent of all biomass on earth, on a carbon basis. The land is mostly green, and I’m sure that aliens would comment on plants first if they were to visit earth.

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Soil Down South?

By Dr Samantha Grover, Lecturer in Environmental Science, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Once upon a time there was a little girl who spent all her days at kindergarten down at the back of the garden playing in the mud. Fast forward 20 years and you will find her up the front of the class, eagerly discovering a new way of looking at the world, called soil science. Science that takes her outside, that empowers her to solve environmental problems with chemistry. That is my story, and soil science is inextricably linked with my experience of Antarctica. My disciplinary background shaped what I saw, smelt, heard, tasted, and felt during our incredible three-week exploration of ourselves and the Antarctic Peninsula. These experiences have consequently impacted on how I feel about Antarctica and my journey since December 2016. Let me share my soil story with you.

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What does it mean to live a “not quite fatal” existence?

Feature image (top) courtesy of Otwarte Klatki via Flickr

By Sadie E. Hale

Rachel Carson offers us a concept for understanding the poor lives of factory-farmed chickens.

Lockdown in most European countries ended two months ago; but as I write this, cases are rising again, and the sense of impending confinement informs my thoughts. Questions of what constitutes a “good life” and, more chillingly, a “good death” have become more urgent during the pandemic. Yet there is a strong imperative to think about this question from a more-than-human perspective.

In Silent Spring (1962), Rachel Carson asks:

Why should we tolerate a diet of weak poisons, a home in insipid surroundings, a circle of acquaintances who are not quite our enemies, the noise of motors with just enough relief to prevent insanity? Who would want to live in a world which is just not quite fatal? [1]

In Carson’s memorable phrase, the not quite fatal is characterized by dissatisfaction and deprivation; various pains pushing at the threshold of what is bearable. Despite the material comforts of the Global North and other wealthy regions of the world, the disease known as Covid-19 has brought populations closer to the reality of mass, unpreventable death, with a world full of invisible, not quite fatal threats.

But millions of animals have not quite fatal existences inflicted upon them by humans every day. At least 70 percent of broilers (chickens raised specifically for their meat), for instance, are estimated to be reared in an intensive manner worldwide. Even under “ordinary” circumstances without pandemics, they are living in what we might call a suspended state of death. And this matters for several reasons.

All farmed animals deserve consideration, but the broiler is a distinctive species particularly worthy of our attention. Firstly, as the creature whose meat is being consumed at a faster-growing rate than any other, and the species with the largest total biomass, possibly in the Earth’s history, I believe there is a moral imperative to understand how it lives and dies. Secondly, intensive farming is commonplace and also very cruel, with direct implications for diseases like Covid-19. Thirdly, as a species that evolved (and survives) only because of intensive human and technological intervention, the broiler chicken exists at the nexus of capitalist interests that commodify and isolate it as a product and, at the same time, within a myriad of entanglements with other beings and forces. It therefore offers unique opportunities for reflection on the spread of disease.

The dreadful details of factory farms will be known to many. Echoing Carson’s not quite fatal, philosopher Peter Singer in his book Animal Liberation (1975), Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Eating Animals (2011), and activist Bruce Friedrich have all made the point that factory-farmed animals are kept in conditions as close to death as possible without actually killing them. As these animals are destined for slaughter anyway, so the logic goes, making their short lives comfortable constitutes an unnecessary expense. Genetically, broilers on any given farm are very similar, so the flock has fewer defenses against disease. Partly because of this, contact with the potentially-contaminating outside world (and other animals) is deliberately cut off. Feed is dispensed automatically and laced with antibiotics as a preventative rather than a responsive measure, so that ill health is already “priced in.”

As Bruce Friedrich put it in an interview on the Ezra Klein Show podcast:

The conditions that farm animals are kept in in confinement is a breeding ground for disease. Massive numbers of them would die. But with antibiotics used prophylactically, so used on animals who are not sick, it allows them to live their conditions that would otherwise be lethal. Then you can cram 100,000 laying hens into a shed. You can cram 50,000 breeder broilers into a shed.

Not only are the links between this kind of agriculture and new diseases, especially variations of flu, well-known [2], but so are connections with antibiotic resistance, which has been called “one of the biggest threats to global health” by the World Health Organization (2018). What is important here is that billions of chickens are given little chance to carry out their natural behavior, and every impulse—to establish a pecking order, to form small social groups, to lay eggs, to roost, to brood, to fly, to eat worms and insects—is denied. Furthermore, broilers are not equipped to survive one day longer than the “optimum” slaughter age of around five weeks: selective breeding has left their bodies so deformed that “if left to live to maturity, broilers are unlikely to survive.” [3] They are bred for death.

The chicken and its entanglements

Keeping animals in such intense conditions cannot be seen in isolation; it is in fact integral to understanding the current pandemic and ecosystem entanglements more broadly. How can we bring to light the multiple entanglements a broiler is part of, despite the fact that it never sees a field or even the sun?

One way of thinking about this is conjured by Anna Tsing in her book The Mushroom at the End of the World. Tsing describes the state of alienation inherent to anything detached from its “lifeworld” under capitalism [4], understood to be the dominant global system that prioritizes financial profits over all other outcomes. In other words, sentient creatures and natural resources, like chickens or trees or the dead bodies of billions of fossilized plankton, become alienated “products” or “private assets” through a process of violent extraction from the “latent commons, human and not human” from which they grew [5]. This cordoning off might be “an emblem for commoditization more generally: the continual, never-finished cutting off of entanglement,” she writes [6].  

For a broiler chicken, this “cutting off” is twofold. As Carys E. Bennett and her colleagues outline, the chicken is a species already far removed from both its geographical and morphological heritage [7]. It has been simultaneously transplanted from its ancestral origins and is denied access to any environment that could be called natural, spending its entire life in a dim, airless barn. Descended from the red jungle fowl native to tropical southeast Asia, it has since spread across the world and become the most numerous bird species, with a standing population of more than 22 billion in 2016 [8].

In addition to this species-level severance, the “modern broiler” has a distinctive body type. As chicken consumption ballooned in western Europe and North America in the 1950s, aggressive selective breeding methods to improve output, efficiency, and the proportion of breast meat have fundamentally altered its physical appearance and biology. Indeed, in Eating Animals, Safran Foer describes farmers in the United States who mourn the loss of “heritage breeds” with distinctive characteristics [9]. Domesticated chickens in the twenty-first century instead suffer from unnaturally wide bodies and respiratory problems due to their confinement in a small space with air reeking of ammonia. They are kept in unstimulating, uncomfortable conditions devoid of opportunities for play or movement to promote rapid growth; the average chicken is now four to five times bigger than its ancestor of just 60 years ago [10].

Returning to Tsing, broilers can be read as alienated products of industrial capitalism, wrenched from their common origins and, nowadays, kept apart from any natural system—social or organic—that might bring them pleasure, and in which they would form a part of “multispecies entanglements” with worms, insects, natural predators, and other birds. Nonetheless, entanglement does exist—with other chickens, with technology, with human food supply chains, and with deadly pathogens. Removing something from its commons is always a risk, even if that risk is outsourced to the environment at large.

Our bodies are not boundaries

It has long been known that viruses can mutate and make a “species jump,” for example from bats to pangolins to humans, in a process known as zoonosis, as is suspected in the case of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The porousness of human skin, eyes, and orifices, as well as our undeniable entanglement with (and reliance upon) other species, is laid bare in the face of an infectious disease outbreak. As Rachel Carson implored us to understand, “our bodies are not boundaries.”

The spillover of diseases is entirely predictable in factory farms as well as other contexts where animals are kept unnaturally close together in confined spaces, such as “wet markets.” Like the avian and swine flu outbreaks before it, the jump of Covid-19 from animal to human “hosts” was made more likely by these practices. Ordinarily, much of this process is hidden, as is the shared biology that makes many mammals and birds susceptible to the same diseases. Yet as viral outbreaks have shown, broilers are not sterile commodities, and animal bodies threaten us precisely because their immune systems are similar (enough) to ours. We would do well to make kin with chickens, pigs, and pangolins [11].

Conclusions: You are what you eat

Humans have created a Frankenstein’s monster in which broiler chickens are perversely, tragically, dependent on humans for their survival, even as their existence is meted out to five weeks only for the purpose of killing them. Thinking about chickens as already dead products detached from diverse lifeworlds is not an unfortunate side-effect: it is essential to intensive farming. Yet if we are eating carcasses that were never truly alive, at least not in a sense humans would find meaningful, then is it not reasonable that some of that death—that disease—would enter into our bodies, too?

Conditions of confinement have brought a new cognizance with death. As Covid-19 has shown, our bodies cannot always protect us. In the porousness of cell membranes, human skin, and human psychology, we see the impact of one decision, one cough, one prejudice. Our choices matter. Cheap chicken comes at a massive cost—a cost that is mostly hidden, until something like the pandemic confronts us. If we continue to treat chickens as just another “consumer good,” and subsidized meat consumption as an ever-expanding right, then the membranes between health and disease, humans and animals, will become ever more permeable. Renewed knowledge of the artificiality and cruelty that characterizes the lives of industrially-farmed animals should represent an opportunity to re-establish our common biology—and interests—with them.

Photograph courtesy of the author

Lockdown may have taught some of us to appreciate the freedoms we are fortunate enough to have. The striking withdrawal of individual freedoms to move, socialize, and entertain ourselves cracks open the darkened window into the not quite fatal lifeworlds of the animals we exploit. As Carson wrote in 1962, no one would choose that diminished, terror-filled world for themselves. And yet, it is a world that humans inflict upon billions of chickens and other animals across the planet on a daily basis. There is no “good life” or “good death” for them.

[1] Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (1962) Narrated by Kaiulani Lee (Audible, 2007).

[2] Michael Greger, Bird Flu: A Virus of Our Own Hatching (New York: Lantern Books, 2006).

[3] Carys E. Bennett et al., “The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of a Human Reconfigured Biosphere,” Royal Society Open Science 5, no. 12 (2018): 7.

[4] Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015): 271.

[5] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End, 271.

[6] Tsing, The Mushroom at the End, 271.

[7] Bennett, The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of, 3.

[8] Bennett, The Broiler Chicken as a Signal of, 8.

[9] Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals (Penguin, 2011).

[10] Foer, Eating Animals, 7.

[11] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).

Further Reading

Jørgensen, Dolly. Recovering Lost Species In The Modern Age: Histories Of Longing And Belonging. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2019.

McKenna, Maryn. “Big Chicken: The Incredible Story of How Antibiotics Created Modern Agriculture and Changed the Way the World Eats.” National Geographic, 18 August, 2017.

Mukherjee, Jenia and Amrita Sen. “Is Covid-19 A “Capitalocene” Challenge?Seeingthewoods.org, 2020.

Olson, Eric R. “#3 Is Big Chicken A Symbol Of The Anthropocene?Sciencentric Podcast, 2018.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals. New York: HarperCollins, 1975.