floating baselines and affective ecologies

I’m looking forward to the upcoming meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) and the European Association for the Study of Science and Technology (EASST) in Copenhagen on Oct. 18-20, where I’ll be participating in two panels.

One is the brainchild of Joanna Radin, who invited myself, Susanne Bauer, Andi Johnson, and Geof Bowker (as discussant) to think about “The Science of the Baseline” (Thurs., Oct. 18, 4pm, Solbjerg Plads: SP213). My contribution is a meditation on numbers and time in the conservation of everyone’s favorite polar predator:

Floating nature: beyond the baseline in biodiversity conservation
In the early twenty-first century nature seems to have pulled free of its moorings like a hot-air balloon caught by a sudden gust of wind. No longer rooted in what were perhaps always illusory certainties — divine providence, universal law, ecological equilibrium — it now presents itself as an artifact that emerges over time and in relation. Like a freely traded currency, its value is backed by nothing but a collective promise. Baselines continue to serve as ballast in environmentalist arguments for restoring ecosystems and wildlife populations to their „original“ states, but their intellectual heft is on the wane. What good is a baseline when the world it describes has already disappeared, can never be restored, and may never have existed in the first place? This paper examines the changing fate of the environmental and environmentalist baseline with respect to the conservation of polar bears from the 1960s, when a boom in trophy hunting led to concerns about the survival of the species, to the past few years, when the threat of climate change has led to the designation of polar bears as „vulnerable“ and „threatened“ by international conservation organizations and national environmental agencies. Recent discourse around the endangered polar bear exemplifies a new relationship to time and to nature: the forgetting of past nature as no longer relevant in a world reshaped by human action, the fear of future nature as unpredictable and potentially monstrous. In this floating world, ecological baselines continue to appeal even as they evanesce.

Should be fun. I’m also excited about a second panel for which I’ll be serving as discussant — actually the first half of a two-part extravaganza organized by Maria Puig de la Bellacasa and Natasha Myers around the subject of “Affective Ecologies” (Sat., Oct. 20, 9am, Solbjerg Plads: SPs13). Sadly Natasha won’t be able to make it to Copenhagen, but she and Maria have lined up a stellar group of people working on dogs, cheese, smells, birds, dirt, and other lively, affecting things, including Heather Paxson, Dimitris Papadopolous (presenting with Maria), Peter Hobbs, Kelly Ladd, Astrid Schrader, Jens Lachmund, and Stefan Helmreich (as discussant for the second panel: Sat., 11am, same room as the first).

Author: Etienne

Historian of science, technology, animals, and the environment.