In this conversation, anthropologist Konstantin Georgiev and linguist Alexander Popov unravel speculation as a method of thinking about ecology and the possible scenarios by which we could approach the past and the future. Here, speculation appears as a necessary means to reach a more complex understanding of the world that surrounds us and which we are part of.
This material is based on a talk held on 10 May as part of the New Ecologies’ public program at Swimming Pool and is the first of a series focusing on Art and Environment. Stay tuned for more texts on this topic in the coming weeks. The text is translated from its Bulgarian version.
Konstantin Georgiev At the beginning of this conversation I would ask everyone in the room to look out the window and spot the Vitosha mountain as far as the clouds allow. In Sofia we have some view of the mountain all the time. But this is not the only nature we observe or encounter every day. Next-door is the Crystal Garden, for example, which is quite different at different parts of the day. In the morning, at sunrise, all kinds of birds sing. At night, bats sometimes fly over, but not as often as in the Borisova Garden.
For me, bats are a good starting point for thinking about ecology and nature in the city. A few years ago I worked on a project for the National Geographic Channel. Along the way I met zoologist Antonia Hubancheva. The episode we filmed then was about bats in a Rhodope cave, but I was really moved by something we talked about outside of filming. There are a lot of urban populations of bats in Bulgaria that often live in attic spaces, and it’s not uncommon for a colony to wake up one night and have the entrances and exits of its home blocked by newly installed insulation.
This opens up the question of what is actually ecological, what is natural?
Obviously, we don't have a simple divide. We can't say that Sofia as a city is a culture, and nature starts somewhere at the other end of the tram tracks, where the forest is, bears and all. In other words, the ecosystems we find ourselves in are not purely divided into nature and culture, and I'd like to hold these thoughts and bat examples as background for the entire conversation that follows.
Alexander Popov In this line of thought I will take the very words of the title of our conversation. First of all – speculative ecology. If there is such a thing, it is probably not a kind of ecology. It is a way of thinking or a desire for a certain type of thought. It would probably be more adequate to say that it is ecological speculation or eco-speculative thought. But “speculative ecology” sounds better, and it’s a phrase that is used. Various such ecologies have sprung up recently, like the book Dark Ecology by Timothy Morton, which you can also find in the Swimming Pool library.
Let’s focus on speculative ecology and unpick the two words in the phrase that is not stable. “Speculative” comes from a verb that means to observe, to reason about something. In a more contemporary sense, for most of us “speculative” probably also means someone who imagines things, as in speculative fiction, for example. But “speculative’ also means “theoretical”, or something that deduces various things based on theory, on thought, on speculation, not so much on something that has it as an actual example. In that sense, a return to the roots of this word might mean re-founding the way we think. The way we assemble our thoughts is actually the foundation on which we do everything else. Because no concept stands on its own – it exists in some plan along with other concepts. Here the speculative is perhaps more akin to philosophy, to theory. With going back and rethinking some basic things. A scientist, say an ecologist, would turn to the methods of biology and geography, which already presuppose a solid foundation.
But rarely do we ask the question ‘What is it to be human? What is it to be a separate being?’. And perhaps we should be asking that question. Without even looking at the word “ecology”, we are already moving toward a different concept of how and in what environment we exist.
It is not very easy to answer even the seemingly simple questions “What is a human being?” Do my physical limits define me as a person? Do my temporal boundaries define me? And what do I do, for example, with my phone's memory?. The data in it remind me of things that I couldn't do without. However, if one of you took my phone and looked at them, you wouldn't know anything. There won’t be any recollection. Most likely in some sense I am in myself and in the phone, but together. So the speculative takes us back a little bit in order to start over.
We would divide the second word – ecology – into two parts. On one side is the logos, the idea of speech and the order of things. Whether this order is pre-established by someone, or exists in itself, is not clear. When we think of ecology, we must also think of logos, the words and thoughts we use to express these concepts. What are the entities? How do we think about the relationships between them?
And that leaves the last word – “oikos”, from which ecology and economics and other concepts derive. In an etymologycal sense, oikos means household, family and family’s property. Oikos is a place you seek because you belong to it in some way. It is your home and without it you are not yourself.
These words – speculation, logos, oikos, ecology – allow us to set off in certain directions, to some extent also mapped out by the books we have brought here. We’re a bit like the philosophers in “Gulliver’s Travels” who bring all the things they want to talk about, and when they have to say something, they take it out of the bag and show it. The books we talk about are part of the ecosystem in which we think about ecology. They lead our thinking to expand the concept of nature and to rethink its boundaries. Where is nature really and what is nature at all?
Take this book for example: Ecology without Nature (available in the Swimming Pool’s library) by Timothy Morton. The following speculation is made, with reference to the past... For speculation can be about the future as well as the past. We have no real way of verifying whether there was a concept of nature 300 years ago in the same way there is today. We can only make guesses based on the texts that have been preserved.
Timothy Morton’s speculation is that “nature” was a concept largely invented during the Romantic Period. Its concept allowed a person to say “I end here, from here on it is nature. I use nature to contemplate, to think about the sublime, to return to some essence that I have lost in the human world, etc.” But is this separation real? Can we so easily draw the line between nature and culture in the example Konstantin gave of bats living in a world we built?
Konstantin Georgiev Let’s stick to this problem: how do the concepts we have and express with words recreate something we see in front of us. What does nature mean nowadays? What did nature mean 300 years ago? It reminds me of the anecdote about the tree that falls in the forest – does it make a sound if there is no one to hear it? The real question here is how we conceptualize this falling through naming it. Why is it a meaningless noise and not a meaningful sound? What is our assessment of meaning here?
Until you go see and name them, creating a concept, things in the world are much more fluid than at any point after that. That is, the moment we tell ourselves we have a nature outside of us, we conceptually put man outside of it, and every subsequent interpretation rests on that postulate. Man is now an observer, an explorer, and so on.
I immediately think of the anthropologist Hugh Raffles and a section of his book In Amazonia. A Natural History. He plays with natural history as a science that originated in Europe and tells how everything on earth came to be the way it is. But Hugh Raffles rejects the narrative of pure nature as distinct from culture and shows some very interesting things. There’s a wonderful moment in the book that tells the story of one particular place along the Orinoco River, where the rivers and myriad streams, as it becomes clear after much digging in the archives and gathering oral history, turn out to be former canals. However, these canals, which for generations had been dug for easier and faster transport, gradually – due to rains, erosion, seasonal changes in river level – turned into rivers and streams completely indistinguishable from the “original” or “natural” ones.
It turns out that what to one observer is a kind of pure nature is to another obviously anthropogenic, i.e. man-made.
Raffles shows an even stronger example in another of his books, The Book of Unconformities, of the fundamental disparity in the perceptions of white settlers and indigenous peoples in this encounter between different people and cultures in the post-Columbian Americas.
At the very beginning of the book, Raffles tells us what Manhattan was like a forest full of swamps and lakes where Europeans would go and say “Wow, what abundance! Lovely land, deer, fertile trees...”
But the real story of this place, as told by the Lenape people, i.e. the indigenous people, is quite different. Throughout North America, indigenous peoples have cared for what Europeans perceive as “pure nature”. Natives have conducted controlled fires; they have created places with concentrations of certain species of valuable plants that also thrive well when they are together; they have deliberately created the conditions for certain wild game populations to develop. Much of what white settlers see as wonderful “nature”, as a “natural” cornucopia, is the product of active human participation in some supposedly natural processes.
In other words, we observe a very different kind of understanding of the world and of nature. European thinking isolates an order that is on its own, while indigenous thinking describes nature as something in which we are active participants. The former understands nature as something that can achieve its own balance; the latter sees it as something with which we are constantly interacting. The two types of thinking lead to quite different processes of management and use of natural resources.
The most striking example is probably the fires of the West Coast of the United States, which are increasing not only because of climate change but also because of changed management processes. This is because the human care that eradicates certain flammable species, carries out periodic controlled fires and does not cut indiscriminately has been lacking for several centuries.
This is also indicative of a coming shift in our understanding of forests. It is also reflected in fiction. I see that Alexander brought The Overstory by Richard Powers where we observe a heroine who is inspired by an actual character from the recent history of science. This heroine fights against certain paradigms in forestry and is from that not-so-new generation of ecologists who are trying to introduce other models of forest management, where, for example, dead wood is not cleared but left to rot and so create nutrients and some actually very useful situations.
Alexander Popov The heroine Konstantin mentioned was inspired by Suzanne Simard, who published her own book about a year or two after Powers’ book came out. At one point in The Overstory, a dead tree trunk is said to be much more alive than we imagine. For when the tree dies, it becomes a host of processes that feed other diverse life – all sorts of bacteria and bugs. It even turns out that in dying, the tree can send its last resources to the other trees in the forest network, and thus death becomes some important part of that ecosystem. What we understand as dead is actually not dead at all.
I think of another book you have in the Swimming Pool’s library. It's called The Mushroom at the End of the World by Anna Tsing. It’s about a very expensive mushroom. This mushroom grows under very specific conditions and thrives in ecological spaces where change has happened. Places where the local ecosystem has been thrown out of balance in some way.
Anna Tsing calls these places unruly edges. These spaces are in the ruins created by global capitalism, where the things spring up aren’t necessarily good or bad, they’re just there. And this book explores them. Zing takes us through all sorts of dynamics related to this mushroom – starting with the small and personal (how people cook it, what legends are associated with it) and ending with the global trade of this mushroom. This trade is complex and depends on the locals who learn masterfully where and how to find the mushroom, often entering forbidden territories to find it. They are connected to some resellers, who in turn are connected to other resellers, who reach out to so-and-so traders and thus to the most expensive restaurants in the world. Out of this whole situation arise some strange objects that are neither living nor dead; neither organic nor inorganic; neither wholly material nor immaterial.
Thus we come to another term that is important: hyperobjects. This is what Timothy Morton calls those objects that are too large and spread out in time and space relative to humans. From our point of view, we cannot even perceive them as objects. Capitalism, for example, or the idea of climate – some things that are too abstract and difficult to think about in their totality precisely because they are heterogeneous and all-encompassing. In order to begin to think of the global climate as a thing by itself, it has taken a lot of scientists synchronizing in very sophisticated ways to see that there is such a complex and dynamic system that connects everything they observe.
What Anna Tsing is describing, without calling it that, is also some type of hyperobject. We don’t necessarily think of hyperobjects as some ontological structure, but I think they’re a useful construct that allows us to think about things we might otherwise have difficulty thinking about. About these gigantic scales that we sometimes see and sometimes not at all. As Morton says, “…every time I turn my car ignition key” – he lives in America and of course he would say that – “I am contributing to global warming and yet I’m performing actions that were statistically meaningless. It doesn’t really matter statistically whether I start my car or not. Therefore, am I part of global warming or am I not?”
Konstantin Georgiev Tsing also gives a strong assessment of what is happening around this mushroom. For example, she draws attention to how some immigrants are forced by economic necessity to break laws in order to take a mushroom that will be sold for a large sum of money in a restaurant at the end of the universe. And she introduces this term salvage accumulation, i.e. the accumulation through the use of waste. What Zing is telling us is that one of the many reasons why capitalism as a system expands and continues to exist is the successful absorption of territories whose existence it does not contribute to.
It does not create the conditions for the existence or reproduction of this fungus, which cannot be cultivated, but it does create the conditions under which it reaches from one forest to global supply chains.
Here again, we have a mixing of nature and economy not dissimilar to what once existed in Manhattan. We are getting into places where the concepts themselves overlap – the oikos of ecology and the oikos of economics overlap – and through that overlap I want to take us back to those words that we point to so much but hardly use. All the concepts that we are currently throwing around and playing with are, in a way, a form of speculation.
One of the things Alexander said at the beginning was that the speculative is linked to the theoretical. How does a discipline and any form of science work? We make a map of everything we know, we see what are the places where something is missing, and we start speculating, building hypotheses. Because if we know something up to point A, and then we know from point B onwards, then we can guess and speculate about what’s between A and B. This principle of sober speculation is the basis on which many of the patterns of thinking we are used to work.
When we were invited to open the public program of New Ecology, we started looking for who said what about speculative ecologies. Because we use the term spontaneously, but we also wanted to see in what contexts it had already been used. So I came across a very nice text on Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. She wrote mostly popular science texts and reports on scientific and industrial discoveries, but her big breakthrough was Silent Spring. The book begins with the image of a particular stream and a beautiful description of birds singing, insects buzzing, generally a cacophony of voices and happenings. Until, at one point, she hits you with the question, “Can you imagine that being quiet?” If it’s quiet, then it’s all dead.
It then brings in robust models: if we continue to use DDT as we currently do, this and that will happen and eventually the flow will choke. In fact, Carson was writing at a time when regulation of the pesticide DDT does not yet exist. At that time, it was being used absolutely indiscriminately, not only in agriculture, but for the forced decontamination of all Mexicans crossing the U.S. border. All of this happened even there had been evidence that DDT is a carcinogen, but the findings were still new and the industry vehemently denied the consequences.
Rachel Carson’s book is an invitation for much-needed speculation: what if we took seriously all the data we currently have? Silent Spring is based on real research, real science, and says – Imagine – speculate! – how this stream will go silent if we don’t take action. The book led to brutal court battles and a growing activist movement, and ultimately to the regulation of DDT. One of the funniest moments is that what most touches the mainstream American is that DDT enters the bald eagle’s circulatory system through water and fish, resulting in the eggshells becoming unhealthily fragile and few chicks living to adulthood. In fact, the population declined precipitously at one point, and inasmuch as this bird is a symbol of American nationalism, patriots en masse sided with environmentalists and against DDT.
Here we see a speculation that takes modern science seriously and fits its predictive models into an aesthetic narrative. Aesthetic not necessarily as beautiful, but aesthetic because it has a clear form that grabs the reader.
Alexander Popov This is also the case in the book New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson. Konstantin has already mentioned Manhattan, now we return to it. This is a book about Manhattan in 2140, when the level of the World Ocean has risen enough that Manhattan looks somewhat like Venice: instead of streets and boulevards, there are big canals. Not in all of Manhattan, but in parts of it where people travel by boat and bridges connect the skyscrapers. Occasionally, some skyscrapers slip into the water because their foundations have been eroded by the tides, etc. Accordingly, most of the rich people have moved out of here, gone to Upper Manhattan, where new supertowers have been built. Others have gone to Colorado, where there is no perspective of flooding. In flooded Manhattan, only the interesting people who are willing to experiment and live various new forms of life have stayed.
In this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson has actually taken a series of studies that model the rise in the level of the World Ocean within certain years. He hasn’t even used the most extreme prediction, but a relatively moderate one that says in a hundred, a hundred and twenty years we’ll probably have these cities...If we have them at all, because this is New York after all – there’s enough interest, will and resources to resist what might happen. Many other cities would be completely underwater or completely uninhabitable. And in that technological opposition, in fact, ecology takes on a broader meaning that includes both the natural and the build environment.
Here comes out an ecology that is curious in terms of the changing relationships between organic and inorganic, human and non-human, and so on. For example, the protagonists live in a building that is the exsisting MetLife tower in Manhattan, but in the future it is converted into a housing cooperative. This building becomes a symbiosis of all sorts of technologies that keep the building from collapsing. Attached to its foundation are millions of clams that purify the water around it, and so on.
Robinson shows very well how the hyperobjects of financial capitalism, of global warming, and of all these things that are hard for us to think about in totality because they are so much bigger than any particular example. You know how the human brain has a hard time rotating three-dimensional objects – when we rotate the object, we can’t quite clearly imagine how it changes. I think books like New York 2140 do something similar, but with more complex concepts.
A different idea of ecology appears here. This is where nature starts to take the human and model it in its own ways, to reject this separation between man and nature or culture and nature. In fact, something comes out at the end that is new not only because of the speculation that comes from the purely predictable according to scientific models, but also because of the rearrangement of our conceptual plan. The rearrangement of all the ideas we have about what it is to be human, what it is to exist with others in common world.
There is a scientific shift forward that allows us to think these processes, but at the same time we have modifications of the concepts with which we can think at all about what ecology is, what home is, what logos is.
This logos, this order, where does it come from? In the past people thought it came from God, then they thought it came from evolution. Now maybe we’re going to something third that sounds like the metaphor of Michel Foucault’s in The Order of Things, “one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea man” – and why not our concepts?
Konstantin Georgiev Somehow we close the circle and return to the beginning of our conversation about the variability of concepts and their historical dependence or contingency. In twenty minutes, all of us in this room will be out of here and we’ll be scattering like glass marbles through the streets of Sofia, through Crystal, through Borisova or South Park, past all kinds of trees and countless buildings. I would urge you to look at everything you pass and think of it not just as part of the landscape, but as a very active part of our environment, of the urban ecology that we share with bats and hedgehogs and that we are constantly creating and recreating.
I don’t mean we necessarily as individuals, but we as society, as institutions, as a whole, however heterogeneous. We as all the processes of managing this environment, from noticing it to tending it or dooming it to a slow death. And based on what it is now, let’s think about what we would like to see happen in 50–100 years? What do we want to happen not only to the people in this city, but to its other inhabitants. I’ve seen a hedgehog very nearby here and I’m curious what will happen to hedgehogs in 15–20–30 years, whether we’ll still have them around Sofia, whether there will be more or less. It’s all constantly changing and it’s a matter of subjective evaluation whether for better or worse. Often our utopian horizons as individuals diverge and don’t quite coincide, but as long as we live in a shared environment, we need to find ways to create it together and for everyone. Of couse, everyone includes more than just people.
That would perhaps be my tentative conclusion to this conversation.
Alexander Popov It sound unfinished because it isn’t, but ecological thought as you describe it at the moment is open and ever-changing, in that sense always unfinished, like any other serious speculation. In fact, one of our first ideas for this talk was to sit here and take on the roles of people from the future who are doing a retrospective on how ecological thought has taken some things to be true...
Konstantin Georgiev The reason why we gave up such a presentation is absolutely simple: we didn’t feel sufficiently prepared factually. Otherwise, our model would be based on a nice short book, The Collapse of Western Civilization by Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway, written in the form of a textbook from year 2393. From its starting point, the ecology and environmental policies of the previous 300–400 years are described, i.e. from the late 20th century to 2393. The book builds on specific existing reports and events such as those of the IPCC and adds to them imaginary and speculative new reports. To some extent the book is an academic text and there are serious notes on which model was taken from which scientist, what was done by whom and so on.
Alexander Popov This sounds a bit like Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home, a science fiction book in which the author imagines that the world has already ended and centuries later there is a new civilization in her beloved California.
These people have a very different understanding of what the world and nature are, and whether there is such a thing as nature at all. This book reads like the compilation of a future anthropologist who has researched these people from the future – which is really the past of the book, but the future of the reader. The whole book is a mish-mash of short stories, poems, plays, essays, interviews, and so on. To finish, I offer a not-so-short poem from this book. It’s called “The Buzzards”, where Le Guin introduces a favorite concept of his, that of the center.
Four buzzards, four!
Four buzzards, four, five!
They turn gyring,
High up, the buzzards
circling turn circling
on the center/
Where is the center?
This hill, that hill,
where a death is.
There is the center.
Under the circles
inside the gyre
of nine buzzards,
the center is there.
Where is the center? The center is anywhere where there is a home, where someone has a home or an oikos, whether it’s a human, a bat, or another critter. The center is not the center of the metropolis, not the center of the financial capitalism, not the center of humanity. The center is where someone has a home.
And when you’re invited into that home, you have to pivot a little bit, perhaps speculatively, before you enter that home. You have to consider the center of the other.
Maybe that would be the most important thing, if we think in a speculative ecology: to respect that anything can have a home, whether it’s something we don’t like or find incomprehensible.