Agrarian Ecology

One might wonder whether any twenty-first-century preoccupation with agrarian values, agrarian ecology, and agrarian ideals comes as too little, too late. Less than 2 percent of the North American public lives in rural areas outside towns, cities, and suburbs, and less than half of the world’s population now lives outside cities. But the New Agrarianism, which is emerging globally, is not restricted to the rural domain, nor is it necessarily a romantic desire to reenact social behaviors and mores associated with rural populaces in bygone eras. Instead, a New Agrarianism is emerging within urban as well as rural communities, and may indeed be the set of values and operating principles that can obliterate the rural-urban divide that, in many ways, characterized and crippled North American and European cultures during the second half of the twentieth century. But what exactly does “agrarian” mean? Why are the concepts associated with it being …

Animal

One English word, one Western concept—“animal”—somehow encompasses a vast array of creatures—sponges, spiders, capybara, camels, eels, eagles, ticks, tigers, octopi, orangutans, dinosaurs, and slugs—but it rarely contains humans. Western philosophy and everyday conceptual frameworks define the human against the animal, forcing the multitude of beings other than Homo sapiens into one category. Jacques Derrida notes the absurdity and violence of this ostensibly neutral term:

Whenever “one” says “The Animal,” each time a philosopher, or anyone else, says “The Animal” in the singular and without further ado, claiming thus to designate every living thing that is held not to be human (man as rational animal, man as political animal, speaking animal, zōon logon echon, man who says “I” and takes himself to be the subject of a statement that he proffers on the subject of the said animal, etc.), well, each time the subject of that statement, this “one,” this

Anthropocene

The world today is undergoing rapid environmental change, driven by human population growth and economic development. This change encompasses such diverse phenomena as the clearing of rainforests for agriculture, the eutrophication of lakes and shallow seas by fertilizer run-off, depletion of fish stocks, acid rain, and global warming. These changes are cause for concern—or alarm—among some, and are regrettable if unavoidable side effects of economic growth for others.

How significant are these changes in total? How might they evolve, and what might their ultimate consequences be? One way of studying these changes is to consider them as the latest phase of the many environmental changes that have affected the Earth since its origin, a little over four and a half billion years ago. Humans may be considered as geological agents, and anthropogenic environmental change may be compared with events in Earth’s deep history.

Such analysis dates, perhaps surprisingly, from the …

Biomimicry

Biomimicry is a relatively new design methodology that studies nature’s best ideas, abstracts its deep design principles, and then imitates these designs and processes to solve human problems. The term “biomimicry” comes from the Greek words “bios,” meaning “life,” and “mimesis,” meaning “to imitate.” Related to yet also different from terms in earlier use, such as “bionics” and “biomimetics,” biomimicry—an approach popularized by Janine Benyus in her 1997 book Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Natureentails the “conscious emulation of life’s genius” (Benyus 1997), utilizing design strategies that have been fine-tuned through 3.8 billion years of evolution. Whether in the areas of energy, material manufacture, recycling, chemistry, engineering, transportation, or computing, other organisms have managed to do many of the things humans want to do, without depleting fossil fuels, polluting the planet, or mortgaging their future.

The concept of looking to nature for design ideas is …

Biopolitics

The term “biopolitics” has four distinct but overlapping meanings in modern scholarship. According to Lemke’s history of the term (Lemke 2011), political scientists used “biopolitics” in a variety of ways as early as the 1920s, and the Third Reich used it to describe their eugenic plans. But the term really found common usage first among 1960s political scientists interested in the relationship of evolutionary biology and politics (Caldwell 1964). Forming the Association for Politics and the Life Sciences (APLS) in 1981, they defined “biopolitics” as any investigation of the effect of biology on politics, from the primate origins of hierarchy to infectious disease impacts on warfare to the influence of the health of leaders on their decision making (Somit and Peterson 1998).

Biopolitics scholars argued against the prevailing social science model that human beings were a tabula rasa shaped by socialization. During the fights over sociobiology (Wilson 1975) in the …

Bioregionalism

Bioregionalism is a social movement and action-oriented field of study focused on enabling human communities to live, work, eat, and play sustainably within Earth’s dynamic web of life. At the heart of the matter is this core guiding principle: human beings are social animals; if we are to flourish as a species, we need healthy relationships and secure attachments in our living arrangements with one another and with the land, waters, habitat, plants, and animals upon which we depend. Unfortunately, we have lost our way. Humanity’s collective capacity to nurture healthy relationships and secure attachments is not being realized. Thus, bioregionalists argue, we need to establish new, just, ethical, and ecologically resilient ways to reconnect with one another and with the land.

Bioregionalism’s core commitments include (1) rebuilding urban and rural communities—at a human scale—to nurture a healthy sense of place and to secure attachments and rootedness among community inhabitants; …

Biosemiotics

Biosemiotics, or semiotic biology, is the study of qualitative semiotic processes that are considered to exist in a variety of forms down to the simplest living organisms and to the lowest levels of biological organization. Biosemiotics can be seen as an alternative to the mainstream approaches of contemporary evolutionary biology that use reductionist quantitative methodologies and tend to objectify living processes. Emphasizing the role of sign processes in nature makes it possible to restore the “subjectness” or agency of living organisms that in turn are considered to influence larger ecological and evolutionary processes. Here, a sign process or “semiosis” is defined as a process, in which something—a sign—stands to somebody for something in some respect or capacity (Peirce 1931–1935, 228). A simple example is a bird song that indicates to the singer’s species mates that he is guarding his nesting ground. In biosemiotics, processes taking place inside an organism, such …

Biosphere

All forms of life and the three environmental matrices of atmosphere, soils, and oceans form a closely integrated network that can be called the “biosphere.” Thus the biosphere is the system with four main internal, interacting components: air, water, soil, and life. Considering this system, what makes the biosphere dynamically distinct from other layers of Earth, such as lithosphere, mantle, or core, is undoubtedly the presence and influence of life.

Alternative uses of the word “biosphere” in environmental writings, both technical and popular, are (1) the zone that life inhabits or (2) simply, the sum of all of life. Regarding the first, because bacteria are found in deepest ocean sediments, and even floating in air currents, there is little to gain by trying to distinguish it from the definition used in this essay, in terms of where the biosphere begins or ends. Regarding the second, there is an adequate and …

Built Environment

A term of comparatively recent origin, though a phenomenon of great antiquity, “the built environment” generally refers to those elements of the physical environment that are constructed by and for human activity. The built environment might thus include not only structures and sites such as buildings, roads, bridges, parks, and playgrounds but also (and more broadly) land-use patterns, transportation systems, architecture, and design (Saelens and Handy 2008; Bartuska 2007). Closely identified with cities but not exclusively urban, and often regarded in the modern era as separate from or even opposed to the “natural” environment—epitomized by Lewis Mumford’s formulation, “As the pavement spreads, nature is pushed farther away” (Mumford 1938)—the built environment did not figure prominently in early currents of environmentalism either in the United States or globally. In the last decades of the twentieth century, however, theorists and practitioners alike began to question this absence. “Why is it that we …

Climate Change

Climate change is a significant shift, over a long period of time, in the statistical profile of weather patterns. For most of geologic history, natural factors—solar radiation, continental drift, oceanic circulation, volcanic activity—have forced these shifts. In the period since the late nineteenth century, anthropogenic global warming (AGW) displays the impact of industrial activity, largely through the concentration of greenhouse gases generated by the burning of fossil fuels. AGW can be seen as one component of the “Anthropocene,” an unofficial chronological term that acknowledges the significant influence of human behavior on the Earth’s ecosystems. Most scientists who favor the naming of this new geological era date its onset to the commencement of the Industrial Revolution, but some backdate it to the rise of agriculture, when humans began to transform land use and biodiversity on a large and global scale.

While many human activities are destructive of local ecosystems, emissions of …

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