Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society


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Student Research: Permaculture – Alternative Agriculture, part 4

Last year, students of the RCC Environmental Studies Certificate Program had the opportunity to attend a three-day workshop with Jochen Koller, Diploma Permaculture-Designer and Director of the Forschungsinstitut für Permakultur und Transition (FIPT). Students gained an insight into the ethics and design principles of permaculture, the diverse spheres of activity, and the practical possibilities. In this short series of posts, students reflect on their experiences at the workshop and on permaculture as an interdisciplinary approach to thinking, planning, and designing.


“Science and Permaculture”

By Theresa Kuhl

There is only one wrong view: To believe that your view is the only right one.” (Nagarjuna)

Permaculture is a holistic concept of sustainable agriculture developed by Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgreen. It includes the essential principles of caring for the Earth, caring for people, limits to consumption and growth, and redistribution of surpluses.

The study of natural science, especially agricultural science, contrasts with the approach of permaculture. “Science” is often mentioned as the big “evil” compared to permaculture. But it is important to distinguish between different scientific disciplines. On the one hand, there is biotechnology, which tries to alter ecosystems to generate the highest possible yield by using genetic manipulation of plants and strong chemical toxins. For example, glyphosate is a potent herbicide that kills any plant that lacks genetically engineered resistance. On the other hand, the discipline  of environmental science also focuses on productivity of soils, but in a more sustainable way, because environmental scientists also know that permanent exploitation of soils has no future. Continue reading


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Worldview: Regressive Research Policy in Argentina

By Samantha Rothbart

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The National Scientific and Technical Research Council is in trouble. This was in the email sent to the RCC blog team by Carson alumna María Valeria Berros on 21st December 2016. She was standing alongside her fellow colleagues and scientists in Santa Fe, in dialogue with research fellows all over the country—particularly outside of the Ministry of Science in Buenos Aires—and describing the dramatic events as they unfolded.  The Council (Concejo Nacional de Investigaciones en Ciencia y Tecnología—CoNICeT) ordinarily consolidates all funding related to research in the country, from PhD scholarships to postdocs, research and travel grants, and, crucially, the carrera del investigador—a permanent researcher position. With certain exceptions, research and higher education institutions do not have their own research budgets, but their staff is funded via CoNICeT. “With budget cuts, social sciences and humanities will be the first to suffer the effects, as usual,” Berros said. Continue reading


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Paradigm Shifts in Environmental Thinking: Autonomous Nature by Carolyn Merchant

by Yan Gao

Carolyn Merchant’s book Autonomous Nature traces paradigmatic shifts in environmental thinking from a long-term perspective. Derived from her ever-enduring interest in and perpetual investigations of chaos and complexity theories, Merchant probes into the roots and evolution of the terms natura naturans (“Nature naturing,” or nature creating, evolving, and changing) and natura naturata (“Nature natured,” or nature as experienced in the everyday world) from ancient times through the Scientific Revolution. In so doing, she argues that we should re-conceptualize the human-nature relationship not as one of order and predictability but as one of unruliness and unpredictability. This beautifully written book not only offers a new way to understand the interdependencies between the human and non-human world, but also provides insights into tangible issues such as climate change and environmental justice in the twenty-first century.

The book has two parts. Part I is entitled “Autonomous Nature,” in which Merchant examines natural disasters and the roots of a dualistic Nature—Nature as an unpredictable, disorderly, ever-changing force and Nature as predictable everyday events—in Greco-Roman philosophy, medieval Christian thought, and the Renaissance. Each of the three chapters in Part I starts with a catastrophe, including the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE, a major earthquake in northern Italy in 1348, and the bubonic plague outbreaks of the fourteenth century, and then she proceeds to examine how key philosophers, artists, and writers have conceptualized Nature and how the contemporaries of the catastrophes she explores understood the dialectical relationship between natura naturans and natura naturata. Merchant notes that the economic, technological, and intellectual advances in the period from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance gave rise to human confidence in controlling Nature, which sets the stage for Part II.

The Destruction of Pompei and Herculaneum 1822, restored 2011 by John Martin 1789-1854

John Martin; The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Photographic Rights © Tate (1822, restored 2011), available under a CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) licencehttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/martin-the-destruction-of-pompei-and-herculaneum-n00793.

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Snapshot: Human Evolution Workshop

By Christian Schnurr

The evolution of the genus Homo was influenced in part by the landscape in which early hominins lived. Important archaeological sites are often located in areas with very rough terrain and a rich supply of nutrients and trace elements. These two features could have led wandering animals on paths where early hominins could track them down and hunt them. Furthermore, the rough terrain made it easier for our ancestors to find shelter from predators.

The Lonetal area in the Swabian Alb is famous for its many artifacts from the Aurignacian culture (ca. 40,000–30,000 years ago). Among the discoveries are the oldest sculptures ever found, including a mammoth as well as a lion sculpture, both made out of mammoth ivory. Other findings include fragments of flutes that belong to the oldest humankind has made.

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The workshop group: (from left to right) Christian Schnurr, Simon Kübler, Frank Brown, Geoffrey King, Geoff Bailey, and Anke Friedrich.

These photos were taken during a workshop held by the Rachel Carson Center and LMU’s Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences for students of the Environmental Studies Certificate Program. The field trip to the Swabian Alb included talks by Frank Brown (University of Utah), Geoffrey King (IPG Paris), Simon Kübler (LMU), Geoff Bailey (University of York), and Anke Friedrich (LMU).


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Worldview: Anthropocene: A Non-Concept?

by Amélia Polónia

A concept should serve to create a common understanding between scholars, a common language to facilitate communication among disciplines. Does this apply to the term “Anthropocene”?

The “Anthropocene” is without doubt a widely used term, not only among academics—from geologists, Earth system scientists, ecologists, and physicists to philosophers, anthropologists, and historians—but also increasingly in the media. It appears in scientific journals and a wide variety of papers, and at exhibitions and conferences. A quick web search leads to a wealth of interdisciplinary approaches. The humanities, social sciences, and “hard sciences” all seem to be discussing macro-realities or epiphenomena derived from this new concept: the “Anthropocene.” And all this has happened in a very short period of time since the term was coined by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer about 15 years ago (Crutzen and Stoermer 2000, Crutzen 2002).

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Fires along the Rio Xingu, Brazil, to clear forest for agriculture. Photo from NASA Earth Observatory.

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Bookshelf: “What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?” by Vinciane Despret, translated by Brett Buchanan

In this special “Bookshelf” post for Women in Translation month, RCC fellow Amanda Boetzkes reflects on Vinciane Despret’s recently published What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions?


I cannot think of a more appropriate author to consider during Women in Translation month, than Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret, whose work speaks to some of the most pressing issues in the environmental humanities with rigor, force, and even humor. What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? is a compelling account of the terms and conditions under which scientists—from sociobiologists and cognitive psychologists to geneticists and ethologists—interpret animal behavior. More pointedly, it locates the serious gaps in scientific method which cause animal behavior, at the individual and collective level, to be profoundly misunderstood. Yet, it also identifies new forms of questioning that yield surprising insights. Continue reading


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Student Research: Working in the Eye of the Storm

By Jeroen Oomen (Doctoral Candidate)

When the COP21 Paris climate agreement was announced in December 2015, much of the world reacted with relief, disbelief, or skepticism. For the first time since the Kyoto Protocol, after many monumental failures, the international community seemed to have managed to commit to decisive action on climate change. This was the best we could hope for, wasn’t it? Or is COP21 just a symbolic agreement that won’t change the geopolitical reality?

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