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Toying with Animism

How Learning to Play Might Help Us Get Serious About the Environment

Timothy Stacey

Abstract

Scholars increasingly stress that getting serious about the environment will require a shift from Abrahamic and naturalist imaginaries that distinguish between culture and nature to, variously, “ecospirituality,” “dark green religion,” or animism. The first part of this article critiques this work on the grounds that it reifies rigid distinctions between “belief systems” or “ontologies,” and thus misrepresents both what needs to be aimed at and how to get there. In search of an alternative, the next two parts of this article draw on autoethnographic findings with non-Indigenous people involved in resisting resource extraction. I suggest that playfulness is an important component both of the imaginaries to be found among resisters and of the means of arriving at those imaginaries.

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When Environmental History Goes Public in China

Na Li

Abstract

This article starts out from looking at what is missing from environmental history in China today, and then goes on to ask a particular set of questions: How does one interpret environmental history with the public? How does one present environmental history in public space? How does one engage with an environmentally conscious public? And ultimately, is it possible to establish public environmental history as a new mode of knowledge? In answer to these questions, it focuses on relationships, including the relationships between nature and culture, the environment and people, and history and memory. Using the dredging history of West Lake in Hangzhou as an illustrative case, it explores nature as material culture, calls attention to the rhetorical power of nature, and argues that environmental history should be interpreted and presented as public memory.

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Contact with Nature as Essential to the Human Experience

Reflections on Pandemic Confinement

Alan E. Kazdin and Pablo Vidal-González

Abstract

Human contact with nature is more important than ever before considering the global confinement brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the increased urbanization of society, and increased rates of mental disorders and threats to human well-being. This article conveys the importance of contact with nature from three perspectives: historical, sociocultural, and scientific. These perspectives convey the many ways in which contact with nature is essential to human life, the multiple ways in which this is expressed, and the broad range of benefits this has. The case for preserving the natural environment continues to be made in light of the dangers of climate change, the deleterious effects of pollution, and the importance of habitats. We add to the case by underscoring how human well-being has depended on contact with natural environments and how the need for this contact is more salient now than ever before.

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Ecological Restoration in “Liquid Societies”

Lessons from Eastern Europe

Ștefan Dorondel, Stelu Şerban, and Marian Tudor

Abstract

This article tells the story of possibly the first ecological restoration project in the postsocialist world (1994), which is an example of a broader set of ecological restorations carried out in Eastern Europe. By exploring the two intertwined processes of the ecological restoration of an island in the Danube Delta and the advancement of neoliberal economic ideas through land reform, decollectivization, and land privatization, we contribute to the understanding of ecological restoration in societies in turmoil. We engage a social sciences perspective in order to show the entanglement between ecological restoration processes and institutions, political arrangements, and various forms of land tenure. This theoretical perspective also shows a model all too often present in ecological restoration projects: a proclivity for adopting a neoliberal approach toward administrating natural resources at the expense of local ecological knowledge and the local administration of natural resources.

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Narratives of Socioecological Transition

The Case of the Transition Network in Portugal

Vera Ferreira and António Carvalho

Abstract

This article explores narratives and characteristics of sociological transitions displayed by members of the Transition Network (TN) in Portugal. It is informed by scholarly work on grassroots innovations, sociological transition narratives, and environmental engagement in Portugal. It furthers this research in three ways: (1) it analyzes an original case study—the Portuguese TN; (2) it identifies and defines the various socioecological narratives conveyed by its participants; and (3) it interprets the TN's sociopolitical appeal as a grassroots innovation in the context of environmental mobilization in Portugal. Drawing on 20 semistructured interviews with current and former members of the Portuguese TN, three narratives of sociological transition were identified—utopianism, inevitability, and pessimism—as well as seven characteristics that motivated interviewees’ engagement with the TN.

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Sustainability Metamorphosis

An Inconvenient Change

Erland Mårald and Janina Priebe

Abstract

The institutionalization of sustainability agendas on the local and global levels has largely failed to deliver the promised change. In this essay, we develop the idea of sustainability metamorphosis as a way to break with the pathological paradigm of sustainable development that weakens society's capacity to transform in the face of global crises. Sustainability metamorphosis, in our understanding, draws on the Bakthian perspective of carnivalization and dialogical truth. In this sense, sustainability metamorphosis is an outlook on change in society and a source of strategies for long-term societal change. Our understanding of metamorphosis is inspired by the historical and literary understandings that saw ungraspable forces, acting upon both inner and outer worlds, and suspended hierarchies as the sources of necessary but inconvenient change.

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Transition as Cultural Revitalization

Exploring Social Motives for Environmental Movement Participation

Anna J. Willow

Abstract

This article explores the Transition movement for climate change resilience as a cultural revitalization movement that is unfolding in response to the unique problems and prospects of the Anthropocene era. Drawing on ethnographic research, I suggest that personal well-being and community cohesion are essential motives for environmental movement participation. As Transition participants work to generate more satisfying cultural options, they relieve existential angst, reclaim the possibility of a positive future, create a safe space for radical resistance, and engender a simultaneously local and global sense of community. Ultimately, I argue that embracing environmental and (inter)personal action as both complementary and inextricably intertwined is essential if we are to catalyze the broad behavioral changes needed to evade catastrophic climate change and socioecological collapse.

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Facing a Toxic Object

Nuclear Waste Management and its Challenges for Nature-Culture-Relationships

Christiane Schürkmann

Abstract

Over the past decades, industrial societies have produced a range of substances whose effects humans increasingly identify as toxic—a prominent example is radioactive waste and the question of its disposal. This fabricated “object of modernity” not only calls for the knowledge of the natural sciences, it also affects society at large in its immense challenge of figuring out how to dispose of this material and altogether “detoxify” society from its hazardous activity. The contribution develops a heuristic perspective on toxic objects, exemplified by analyzing documents with a focus on how different societal actors in Germany problematize high-level radioactive waste (HLW) in the context of finding a repository site. The perspective on toxic objects aims to strengthen a more nuanced view of “modern” relationships between human action and material activity with regard to hazardous socio-chemical fabrications as a consequence of an objectified nature.

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Humans “in the Loop”?

Human-Centrism, Posthumanism, and AI

Nandita Biswas Mellamphy

Abstract

More and more scholarly attention is being paid to the challenges of governing artificial intelligence and emergent technologies. Most of the focus remains on questions of how to preserve the human-centeredness of increasingly advancing machine-driven technologies. I problematize discourses of “human-centered AI” that prioritize human control over nonhuman intelligences as a solution for the challenges posed by emergent technologies like artificial intelligence. Posthumanism provides a compelling theoretical basis for this line of questioning and for reimagining alternative ethical constructs. I outline and consider three distinct scenarios in which (a) humans are at the center of command and control, (b) humans and nonhumans share control, (c) human oversight is completely removed. I suggest that more attention could be given to critical and speculative ways of reimagining the concepts of “human,” “nonhuman,” and human/nonhuman relations.

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Introduction

Posthuman? Nature and Culture in Renegotiation

Kornelia Engert and Christiane Schürkmann

Abstract

The contributions in this special issue focus on different phenomena and conceptual approaches dealing with “the Posthuman” as a discourse of renegotiating nature-culture-relationships that has emerged over the past decades. The selected articles from fields of sociology, political science, and social anthropology demonstrate how to work with and discuss posthumanistic and post-anthropocentric perspectives, but also how to irritate and criticize universal assumptions of particular posthuman approaches empirically and theoretically. The introduction aims to position the particular contributions in a field of tension between de- and re-centering human beings and human agency.