Gerald McBoing-Boing and Links between Environmental History and Animation Studies

“This is the story of Gerald McCloy and the strange thing that happened to that little boy.”

And, let me add, the story of two ways of studying those strange things that happen.

This will be a short reflection on how animation studies and environmental history can come together. As two odd meeting spaces for all kinds of disciplinary wanderers, these two subjects have quite different origins, methods, and subject matter. But! What they share, I think, is a profound commitment to two things I’ll explore through the 1950 UPA cartoon Gerald McBoing-Boing.

These two things are:

  1. The idea that the interactions between different bodies in motion (human or not, virtual and real) are incredibly significant (along with a belief in the importance of the built environment and material things) and
  2. Methodological diversity––even, dare I say, chaos harnessed productively

I’ll spend two sentences summarizing the story of the short just in case anyone reading this can’t access the video I’ve embedded above. The short, adapted from a story by Dr. Seuss and animated by the John Hubley-led studio UPA (under Columbia), concerns Gerald McCloy, who cannot speak. When he speaks, he produces Foley sounds effects instead, and while this initially makes him a social pariah, in the end he is hired by a radio station owner to do sound effects for dramas, ensuring his place in society and giving him wealth and status.

Without diving too far into the short’s technical qualities or production history, I want to make two quick points about the short and why it makes a great exemplar for why environmental history and animation studies make excellent companions. While this exercise is certainly supposed to be fun, it’s also my effort to justify some of the ways I’ve attempted to bring these two fields together to make beautiful alchemy.

  1. An obvious point: the place of nature in the milieu of the short:

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In short, both fields would take notice of the way that nonhuman living things (trees, other plants, animals, etc.) are abstracted out of the frame in UPA cartoons, focusing on the human figures. These human figures, moreover, are often left un-coloured so that they appear as transparent drawings that share the colour field of the simple backgrounds.

Animation studies might ask the question: what were the historical views of nature and of nonhuman life that may have contributed to this style? How do UPA’s characters exist juxtaposed onto these very simple backgrounds, and how does that movement compliment the stillness, the unchanging stasis, of these natural objects? Moreover, what was the environment the animators inhabited? What did they see when looking out the window? What were the physical and labour conditions that went into the production of this cartoon with its spare moodiness and plentiful negative space? Or, finally, we might ask why Gerald McBoing-Boing tries to run away from home by means of a train, or what place the consumer culture of the 1950s has in the short.

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Meanwhile, environmental history might look at this approach as a result of the ideological modernism and anti-naturalism of the animation studio. As an environmental historian, I would ask: how does this more industrial and streamlined approach to filmmaking reflect the broader cultural trends in technology, media production, and appropriation of human and nonhuman labour? Like the animation scholar, I would ask about the environment surrounding the studio, the other films the studio produced about natural topics (like Of Stars and Men more than a decade later). Perhaps, if I’m looking to use this short or UPA’s style as a microcosmic study, I would look at how it fit into the ways paper, ink, animation tables, and celluloid were produced and distributed at this time and how those material allowed and limited an artifact like Gerald McBoing-Boing to be produced.

2. Narrative Content and “Message”

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Note that, in the frame above, Gerald has been fully integrated into a society that used to reject him. Like Rudolph’s nose in the Rankin-Bass special that has become a perennial favourite this time of year, Gerald’s peculiar way of vocalizing is akin to a disability (moreso than Rudolph’s nose, which has cultural stigma attached to it but doesn’t inhibit him in most other ways) or maybe more accurately a social inhibition. But now that an older man has swooped out of nowhere to give him a place in society, his once-hostile parents are smiling down on him from a raised viewing room, and he is well-dressed and productively employed.

(Come to think of it, the stop-motion Rudolph may have just taken this story beat-for-beat or at least drawn on the same set of values––social conformity, the value of diversity as long as it’s productive, the prevalence of children and adults’ prejudices, etc.)

In environmental history, we can ask questions about how UPA’s storytelling draws on wider or more personal views of the human body and its relationship to society. The idea that people need to have bodies that produce some kind of economic value is significant, as well as the way that technology helps to “rehabilitate” Gerald into a useful role. Even the optimistic tone of the short could come under question for, perhaps, being connected to wider social optimism and postwar prosperity.

Meanwhile, in animation studies, we might be interested in the particular ways and means by which animators construct those relationships to technology and human bodies. In what way is the animated creative process simulated or reproduced here? What is the significance, for instance, of the ways that UPA show that all of their figures are produced by drawing? We could hypothesize, for instance, that this kind of self-reflexivity and attempt to find the pure graphic potential of a medium connects to painterly abstraction also en vogue at this time. Finally, we could ask about the economic aspects of the process of animating these characters and the ways that they move. What meaning can be derived from that, either about the images themselves or the ways that process impacts the economics of animation and the later hegemony of television as a transmission form for animated stories?

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To conclude, I just want to say that the fields of environmental history and animation studies have a great deal to learn in coming together. And, I think, because of recent trends in both fields towards a consideration of the way the human body figures as a kind of environment or organic mechanism, and a consideration of how nonliving and nonhuman living beings affect history or possess some “agency” of their own (however defined) there is more opportunity for collaboration and cross-disciplinary discussion than ever.

How Guy Maddin Makes a Philosophy of History Out of Frozen Horses

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My Winnipeg is an audio film before it’s a visual experience. Its skeleton is oral poetry, mythology, the voice of Guy Maddin that manifests the pictures around it. Animation is just one medium that this documentary-fantastic poetry evokes like an incantation, freely jumping from archival footage, new footage, reenactment, colour, black-and-white film, and the illusory images of the poem’s fantasies.

I want to highlight the way the poetry of the film and its visual manifestations conjure up a kind of philosophy of history. Namely: the film’s use of animation, its creation of a “critical cartography” of space (and, I’ll argue, time), demonstrates the power of history gone intimate and non-linear.

The narrator of the film describes a scene where, on a frigid night in Winnipeg, a squirrel electrocutes itself on a power line and starts a fire with its body that spreads to the stables of the nearby horse track. The horses dart into the river where their bodies are frozen, becoming grim statues that nevertheless become hot spots for perambulators and even passionate lovers who create a baby boom the following spring. These children were “born of horses.”

When inhabiting the bodies fashioned by animators, the horses move, escaping from the fire into the ice. Their journey, punctuated by jabs of huge text on the screen, carries them through the frame, which is itself covered by footage of fire. The horses plunge into the water, where their animated bodies become frozen in a way that preserves their frenzy.

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And with a fade to black, the film shows, through a recording made by a camera, the grisly aftermath of the history that happened in animation. Animation makes the past move, while the camera records stasis, even if it is an erotically charged stasis. As the narrator calmly exposits, “the horse heads are always frozen in the same transports of animal panic, an abandonment reading unambiguously to the young lovers of Winnipeg.” Animation joins with the fire from which the horses are fleeing, the energy that animates their fear, which leaves the camera, live-action, as a frozen medium, one that signals and “records” the fear and terror but only in a cold retrospect.

Ian Robinson put it this way:
“Through the muddling of the dreamed city and the archived city, My Winnipeg defers the singularity of place to a configuration of stories. In this cartography, the textuality of Winnipeg emerges as a contested ground, a site where truth emerges through a dialogic event between spectator, film and the memory, archive and idea of the city.”(1)

And, as this sequence deftly shows, that “configuration of stories” is expressly nonlinear. It takes its form from layered, haunted wholes and double images. Animation, being expressly dreamlike and artificial, makes for an apt medium for summoning up the ghosts of old racehorses and communicating their fear and panic through graphic means.

My Winnipeg’s inclusion, and the esoteric and unreal nature of most of the “live” action footage often makes me mistake this for a fully animated film, since its textures and kaleidoscopic energy are so much more important than the medium used at any particular moment. Its actual animation and its live action scenes seem cut from the same mythological and memorialized cloth.

Even where there is no footage, no “documentary evidence” that can serve as visual confirmation of the horses’ plunge, animation can supply a flexible surrogate that has perhaps an even more powerful effect. And since much of the live action footage in My Winnipeg is fabricated/reenacted or modified anyway, animation fits seamlessly in the film’s narration.

While Robinson’s argument is primarily about the way that Maddin’s use of animation, multimedia montage, and poetry relates to place, my own argument is about how it productively disrupts the linearity of conventional histories. Although the narrator’s history does address events that have dates attached to them, sticking to something like conventional chronology (though not to empirical accuracy), its timeline winds, like the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, around and through countless places. Its timeline bends around memories, traumas, personal myths, and, as mentioned, the insistent flow of Maddin’s voiceover narration.

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Nonlinear histories like those told by My Winnipeg are crucially important because they do not trend towards some final end or towards an inevitable present. Rather, they point out how the history haunts the present, and show how the past incarnates itself in the memories, bodies, and, yes, the art of people in the present. Once again quoting from Robinson, this animated segment evokes and brings to life “the event of place.”(2) The horses racing out of the fire and into the ice, freezing under the gaze of the animator and then the camera, show that history does not march evenly forward but rather surges, locks in place, winds absentmindedly, comes crashing down like Maddin’s favourite downtown buildings.

As a historian, I am inspired by this film to take history, even if not so far into the intimacy of mythology and memory as Maddin, at least to acknowledge that the histories I am writing are all, in some sense, animated. Whether through my writing, the images in my mind as I pore through archives, or in the spectres and landmarks they leave behind, history-making has always been a form of animation.

Notes:

  1. Ian Robinson, “The Critical Cinematic Cartography of My Winnipeg,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies vol. 23, no. 2 (Fall 2014), 105.
  2. Ibid, 104.

City Egg, Country Egg: Narrow Notes on Urban Wildlife Ecology

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Steven and Krista Latta’s article on the population decline of the common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor) is less an article about the nighthawk and more about the American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos). Noting hte aforementioned decline in the population of the insectivore, migratory nighthawks, the authors attempt to find a causal link between this decline and predation of nighthawk eggs by crows. Since the crows’ population has recently ballooned in American urban areas, the authors believe this may be a “non-mutually exclusive” cause of the nighthawks’ decline.¹

To test this hypothesis, the authors devised a method that utilized artificial nests of egg clutches distributed on different university roofs, each with a different roofing (stone, large or small gravel, etc.). These were compared against another set of experimental egg clutches distributed in a rural area where, the authors hypothesized, crows would be less likely to eat the eggs. In order to reduce the chance that the crows would memorize the locations of the artificial nests, the researchers placed each new experimental set “on a different rooftop, and a rooftop was only revisited after a minimum 7-day interval between trials” in the urban areas, and moved the clutch locations in the rural area, a forest preserve, without repetition.² They watched each clutch through camera feeds for 72 hours before being inspected. If their eggs were missing, they were considered to be predated.

At the end of their experiment, they found that none of the rural ground clutches had lost eggs to predation, while 44.7% of the urban nests suffered plundering over a 72-hour span.³ Moreover, every act of predation caught on camera was the act of a crow. From these results, the authors draw the conclusion that crows “could limit reproductive success of nighthawks in urban environments.”⁴ These results are certainly striking, and, within the confines of the author’s experimentation, the significant difference in predation between rural and urban areas, with their differing levels of crow activity, they suggest there is some veracity to their claims. However, there are also some significant gaps and inadequacies in their method and in their structural assumptions that inhibit the usefulness of the study.

First, as the author’s admit, the use of artificial nests and surrogate quail eggs is a useful expediency but is nonetheless a sub-optimal compromise method. Because the experiment here concerned a species that lays its eggs on the ground without much nest structure, there could be less of a discrepancy between predation of quail eggs and real eggs than in other studies using similar methods. However, as the authors also admit, their artificial nests lacked any parental defence, which could skew results, especially in areas where the eggs are highly visible and exposed.⁵ This flaw is not necessarily fatal to their conclusions, however, because rural predation was far, far lower than urban predation despite the use of false eggs. The relative difference could, therefore, be considered more significant than the absolute accuracy of the predation rates they found.

Another difficulty with the study is a minor discrepancy in the authors’ presentation of their methods between the urban and rural settings. While the false nest sites for the eggs at the university are described in great detail, down to the density and size of the gravel lining the rooftops, the rural sites are simply presented as being “on the ground.”⁶ Though there is a note that the sites chosen were in accordance with an encyclopedia of American birds, the reader would benefit from a short description of what those sites might be, since they might be quite physically distinct from exposed urban rooftops. This is not so much a methodological as a presentation error, but it leads to an inadequate understanding on the part of (this) reader, which could be remedied in only a few words.

More importantly, the previous flaw points to a more structural problem with the experiment: the lack of a precise knowledge of the differences in crow behaviour in rural and urban areas. The entire premise of the article is that crows are more active and more numerous in urban centres, which is the reason they were identified as a potential cause for population declines in the first place.⁷ When the authors admit that their article is unable to resolve the question of why they saw such a discrepancy in predation between urban and rural areas, it shows the weakness of one of the core assumptions of the study. As Latta and Latta assert, “Differences in abundance of crows between urban and rural sites may also play a role in determining predation rates, though we expected at least some predation in rural areas given the common occurrence of crows there.”⁸

Without more precise knowledge of the differences in crow populations and behavioural patterns in the rural and urban areas under investigation, the authors can only speculate that the urban crow population is higher or more active than the rural. Relative abundance of other food sources and competition from other predators in urban or rural areas and the the greater ease of finding and predating eggs on rooftop nests could all be factors driving the differences the authors see. Because of this, although the results the authors obtained show a strong contrast between the two ecological zones, they do not give the reader a clear grasp of why this might be nor whether crow behaviour is directly causative of this difference.

To conclude, none of these flaws strip away the entire worth of the study, but the inadequacy of their method and some of the vagueness of their assumptions prevents them from deriving effective results from their data. Simply knowing that nighthawks face much higher predator pressure from crows in urban areas is certainly worthwhile. But there is missed potential here. On a broader level, though, this study illustrates the logistical and logical challenges of posing effective ecological questions that can be answered using a set time and budget. And as urban ecologies grow larger and larger, it pays great dividends to understand the nonhuman life-cycles and energy dynamics that pulse within the city. It also reminds us to be mindful and caring for every environment rather than only ones that we can designate as “wild,” since the wild is often happening right above our heads. Figuratively and literally.

Notes:

1. Steven C. Latta and Krista N. Latta, “Do Urban American Crows (Corvus brachyrhynchos) Contribute to Population Declines of the Common Nighthawk (Chordeiles minor)?” The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, no. 127, vol. 3:529.

2. Ibid, 530.

3. Ibid, 531.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid, 532.

6. Ibid, 530.

7. Ibid, 529.

8. Ibid, 532.

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Cultural Work and the Human Body: The Sad Death of Kazunori Mizuno

Script for the above video.

On March 19th, about two months ago, noted anime series director and animator Kazunori Mizuno died of overwork and chronic sleep deprivation. He took a nap and never woke up. While inhuman hours are common in all creative industries, it’s worth reflecting on what “inhuman” really means in this context. There is an environmental and biological aspect to this tragedy, one that intersects with the social and monetary pressures that drive professionals to accept these working conditions and even normalize them. At this point, unpaid overtime and other forms of anti-body (and blatantly anti-worker) labour practices are the status quo, entrenched over decades of repetition and reinforcement.

Let’s look at another example of a situation where workers were passionate about their work despite its detrimental effects on their health and general wellbeing–the asbestos mine in Asbestos, Québec. As recalled in Jessica Van Horssen’s excellent recent book on the subject, workers’ livelihoods there depended on a single industry for decades, which created a toxic and parasitic bond between workers and the company. Workers, even long after the substance they risked life and limb to get out of the ground was shown to be a risk not just to their health but to those who consumed it as well, often clung to the belief that the company and the substance were not as bad as they were portrayed. It didn’t help that the mining company, and later the Québec government, obscured evidence of the precise cancer risk for even limited long-term exposure to the fibrous mineral.

In both cases there are unusual rates of mortality–with young animators committing suicide or dying of overwork in the anime industry and an entire town afflicted by the very air they breathe and the work they do in the asbestos industry. In both cases there is an anti-body labour practice and certain material and ideological motivations for people to stay in these toxic positions. Even when workers in Asbestos mobilized and struck against the company in the 1950s, their essential dependence on the company as workers and their vulnerability as human bodies did not change. They were well-paid, but it was hazard pay. In the case of anime workers, wages are usually below minimum wage and below the poverty line.

Capitalism as a system, regardless of what is being produced, equivocates all labour as homogeneous and evaluates output in terms of financial return–an abstract indicator completely separate from the quality of the product and the workers’ health–which leads to this kind of destruction. In many ways, we as workers are stuck on the other side of the coin. For those of us who want to pursue jobs in a creative industry or in mining, we will be subjected to hierarchical, profit-driven workplaces where we are replaceable and valued only insofar as we produce more than we are paid.

To make matters more complicated still, in creative fields workers are often trapped between their material needs and the sense that they are not workers but creators who (yes) have more autonomy over their output than auto workers or miners–at least in some cases. Artists often aspire to produce great work, and are encouraged to think that demanding better wages and benefits is ill-befitting artists. Those who work in anime are often passionate fans and want to be doing what they are doing. They are taking the opportunities that the marketplace presents them, and as we can see, even those who are very successful can be driven to excesses where their bodies simply give out.

Only an end to capitalism and its inhumane, purely quantitative evaluation of productivity can ultimately ensure that we all live full and productive lives. I do think, however, that videos and articles like the ones I’ve linked to are important in simply recognizing the problem and honouring the lives of those who have been killed (murdered) by these violent labour practices. Whatever we think of Mizuno’s work, we have to recognize that his was a life early and unjustly taken, and we need to contemplate and create a better world.

Flourishing in an Impure World

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“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”

–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.

Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation  into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.

And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.

On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.

Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.

And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.

To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*

Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.

The Ecological Side of Magic: The Gathering

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Most games impose resource limits on you. Whether that be a certain number of turns, a window of time, a source of energy, or something more mysterious. Magic: The Gathering, however, probably has my favourite resource system in all of gaming, both in terms of its mechanical implications and its environmental flavour. Magic, as anyone who plays will know, casts the player in the role of a powerful wizard who taps into the land itself for mana, which allows spells to be cast, creatures to be commanded, etc. Because the game uses landscapes and seascapes themselves as resources, Magic can be a rich vein of speculation and fantasizing about our relationship to our surroundings. The very act of playing can be seen as a struggle with environmental opportunities and limitations as much as it is a human battle of wits.

To elaborate a bit further, I’ll do a quick explanation of how lands both enable and limit how players can play in Magic. There are five land cards: plains, islands, swamps, mountains, and forests. Each land is tapped, or used, for mana of a corresponding colour: white, blue, black, red, and green. Lands are cards in the player’s deck alongside the spell cards that do desirable things for you or bad things for your opponent. If you don’t have a forest, you can’t use a green spell, you need swamps to cast black spells, and so on and so on. A Magic player is, in most circumstances, entirely without power without these land cards in play. Building a deck and playing the game, therefore, involves a great deal of thinking about what lands to use, which cards to use with those lands, and how to balance the power of using many lands with the problem of potentially not drawing the lands you need.

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Mana, and the environment, are not always there for the player in Magic. In a similar card game, Hearthstone, the player gets one mana per turn until they reach ten, with mana represented by crystals. To take out some of the guesswork of drawing cards and making the game smoother, Hearthstone made it so mana is always there. Money is a good representation of this: crystals are icy blue, artificial, steady. Lands, however tranquil they might appear, are much more volatile. They require effort to tame and can be destroyed or disrupted. Losing a game might come down to not drawing an adequate number of lands, or drawing too many. Though this causes a lot of understandable frustration, I think that the mana system, drawing on often chaotic lands as mana sources, is better both for building decks and, more importantly, as a way of communicating a material relationship with resources.

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Seen in an ecological light, Magic is about exploring worlds and systems. Individuals and civilizations are present, and highly important–this is not a game about untouched wilderness, even for green–but they are nothing without their environment. Every land, every colour has a distinct character of its own, and expresses a different philosophy and ethos. Some game strategies even revolve entirely around lands, my personal favourite being a combo deck built around two cards called Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle and Scapeshift.

In essence, the entire deck is built around finding a Valakut, a fiery volcano, and using Scapeshift to put many, many Mountain cards on the battlefield in order to rain fiery death on your opponent. Though there are creatures and more stereotypical spells in the deck, the vast majority of it is not built around individual beings but rather directly using the power of the world.

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The Aetherborn are a race in Magic that are born from fuel refinement processes and live very short lives in an industrial paradise.

As an environmental historian, Magic: The Gathering is full of thematic threads and ideological fragments that relate to our ecology. Devastation, rampant growth, evolution, and the flow of seasons all exist within the world of the game, waiting to be tapped. Magic deserves closer study as a representation of environments and ecological systems, not to mention a potential way of creating stories both within the cards themselves and in the interaction between players that have fascinating implications. Magic is by far my favourite game to play, and this richness of detail and nuance in dealing with the environment is one of the main reasons why.Image-1.ashx.png

Out Like a Lamb: Day 16: Pink, Blue, Black, and Red

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As we draw close to the end of Out Like a Lamb, my thoughts turn to some more urgent and serious matters. I am talking, of course, about revolutionary left politics. By its nature, these politics have a universal scope within my life. I would be a fundamentally different person without my commitment to revolutionary politics.

Despite how obscure and general that sounds, I want to make sure that I communicate exactly how immediate these politics are. Ultimately, as arcane and contested anti-capitalist politics can appear, they emerge from the most elemental parts of life. This post will address where my revolutionary politics intersect with trans and queer issues, so it won’t cover anything. But, well, we have to start somewhere.

At its most basic level, communism is about removing every barrier between people and the resources they need to thrive. Capitalism is one system that acts as a barrier, since it bars people from accessing the goods they need if they don’t fit a very narrow profile of a “productive citizen.” It drains all the joy from work since it coerces people into jobs. It also treats people as mere factors in a machine, as a means to an end. States, as guarantors of private property and the locus of violence and conformity, enable capitalism to function while also disciplining those who are deemed, for any reason, socially undesirable. Whatever rights people have under a state are conditional and subject to being revoked at any time the state finds convenient. Fundamentally, people should be really enabled to make their own choices, to associate with whomever they choose, and to make collective decisions about issues they are concerned with.

This is why commitments to autonomy/anarchy and communism are mutually beneficial to each other. This is especially true, I think, for me as a trans and queer person. Under the current Canadian capitalist state, my right to express the way I want to, to do the work I want to without fear of exclusion and personal injury, are all at the mercy of the state. Political parties use us as a tool to gain leverage over people and to promote imperialist politics (save the gays by invading x country!) and promote tourism (especially in my home city).

Ultimately, trans people under capitalism are at the whims of doctors and a profit-gouging pharmaceutical industry who, again, don’t see us as fully human but rather as means to an end. Consumer products for trans people specifically are often expensive or inaccessible, and if they were made accessible under the current system they would continue to be used to forge a false trans “community.” In this case, it would be a community of consumers. But our worth as people, as ecological, physical beings in relation to each other, is not in our usefulness to one person or another but rather is intrinsic to us, just as it is for all other living things.

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Cover of a great zine  I can recommend heartily about this issue.

Revolution does not imply the ultimate resolution of all these problems, but rather a commitment in a particular direction. It is a method of looking at the world and a means to realize a more desirable, better world. It is necessary, unfortunately, because reforms are always recaptured by the system, as necessary as they might be. We can’t just get by surviving on scraps that other people give us forever. If trans people want to see a world where we can have a more fulfilling and less anxious life, with much less possibility of losing all of our gains, social and political revolution are what we need. Revolution is food, it’s hormones, it’s clothing we enjoy and want, its a beginning to healing rifts in our communities, and, perhaps most importantly, it’s creating a more healthful way for human beings to act within nature.

These are the ifs and needs that animate me when I think about revolution. Capitalism is a major support for transphobia, underwriting the sense that we are unnatural, that we cannot form “real” families, that we are useless to society, a “drain.” It’s far from the only barrier to our self-liberation as individuals and groups, but it forms the basic logic within which other oppressions weave and strike. Without capital, with our own autonomy, it becomes possible to build the worlds of solidarity and happiness we imagine.

Next three posts will be:

March 28: A post about femme things! Femme is a curious form of identifying yourself, and, I would say, not all that well understood. Bit of a history lesson before moving onto my own personal business.

March 29: About body image issues and ways that I try to sculpt the way I look for other people.

March 30: About my body itself, its permeability, the way I inhabit my environment, all that good stuff.

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.