Expression, Ecology, Identity

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thoreau 2.0: Sharing the Environmentalist Experiment Online

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or, if it were sublime, to know it by experience,
and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

Henry David Thoreau captures his motivation for a two-year experiment in simple living at Walden Pond in these words from his essay “Where I Lived and What I Lived For,” later published in Walden or Life in the Woods. The record of his time at Walden was never meant for himself alone. Thoreau’s intention to “publish” or “give a true account” of the world as he found it show reminds his readers that he documented the experience with them in mind, understanding its shared significance as well as its personal meaning.

Though Thoreau was writing to an audience, only a handful of his readers could communicate directly with him in return and this long after his sojourn at Walden Pond had ended. The book Thoreau wrote based on the Walden years was not ready for publication for seven years after Thoreau left the pond. While it did find its way into a small circle of like-minded souls during Thoreau’s lifetime, it was not until after his death that the work became iconic in American literature and nature writing.

Like Walden itself, the idea of conducting a personal experiment in ecologically-conscious living which is then shared with others has not only survived Thoreau’s lifetime but gained popularity. A growing number of individuals, from professional writers and activists to online journalists are recording their experiments in green living in the interactive public space of the blogosphere, offering a vast array of answers to the question of what it means to be an environmentalist. They, too, are sharing the stories of where they live and what they live for. However, their words can reach an audience on a scale and with an immediacy that Thoreau never could have dreamed of. (Though, here, one blogger imagines how Thoreau’s journals would have read as a blog.)

I am interested in the contemporary, online incarnations of green living experiments. In what ways are these blogs personal projects that help to shape the writers’ ideas about certain environmental issues? In what ways are they political projects, intended as activism? How do the blogs’ digital format shape the way the writers’ stories are shared? Received? Discussed?

Perhaps the most famous example of a “Thoreau 2.0”-style green living experiment recorded via blog (and video, and eventually as a book)is Colin Beaven, A.K.A. “No Impact Man.” Here is the trailer for the documentary made about Beavan's and his family's experience.

Beavan is quite self-reflexive in his choices to make this private experiment public via the web and other media. I asked nine other green living bloggers to add their experience with these issues to the mix.

Though blogs on green living are many and various, I focused on those in which most posts were personal stories about the author’s own attempts to live more sustainably (rather than blogs that feature mostly news items, product reviews, general how-to’s, etc.). And, I included only blogs to which the authors had recently posted. You can follow my conversations with the bloggers by clicking each of the following links.

The Accidental Environmentalist
The Clean Bin Project Blog
The Crunchy Chicken
Eco Experiment
Green Bean Chronicles
It’s Not Easy To Be Green
The Last Biscuit
One Green Generation
Simple Savvy

And, MANY thanks to Cynthia of Withywindle Nature for joining this conversation! She has been kind enough to share some thoughts in the comment section below.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Pipe Dreams: The Cultural Narratives Behind Keystone XL

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline is a hotly debated project that, if realized, could have a vast environmental impact. Public discourse about the pipeline in the forms of media coverage and statements to the press speak to possible technical solutions to the project’s environmental harms: some recommend moving the pipeline’s location; others suggest replacing it with alternative energy sources. However, I propose that the root problem of the Keystone pipeline is not so much technological as ideological. The project proposal exists as a result of a set of unsustainable cultural narratives: suppositions about consumption and “the good life,” notions about science, and the perceived separation between humans and non-human nature. These tacit assumptions are the forces driving Keystone XL, the impetus of its negative environmental impact. And yet, they are virtually invisible in public discourse about the pipeline. Examining the proposed project through a cultural studies lens reveals that Keystone XL is a symptom of a deeper problem and that this problem is social, not merely technological. A lasting solution to the pipeline’s ecological dangers will mean reimagining the destructive narratives from which it springs. It will mean shifts in perception and political will, without which technical fixes will be impracticable or ineffectual.

Labor, Beauty & Sustainable Community: Needlecraft Among Latter-Day Saint Women

This is an abstract for a project I've been working on in CLST 315, Qualitative Field Research Methods with Dr. Paul Faulstich.

In this ethnographic study of knitting/crochet and sewing groups in the Las Flores ward of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in La Verne, California, I explore the communal practice of hand-making goods as it impacts participants’ relationships to material culture and consumption. In particular, I examine the differences between the needlecrafters’ engagement with the products they make and their perception of goods obtained commercially, where production is performed by invisible others. I investigate the mythic significance of needlecraft, approaching the activity as a cultural practice that signifies a set of values and assumptions about the self in relation to the material environment. Observation of and interviews yield data on three major themes: perceptions of labor, definitions of the beauty and value of material products, and the bearing that needlecraft practice has on community/human relationships. The data I gather from participants is analyzed against theoretical proposals about the importance of hand-crafted products in the shift toward a more ecologically and economically sustainable culture. I conclude that, while participants to do not frame their activities as revolutionary, creating hand-made goods in this group setting offers important points of entry for reconsidering destructive assumptions about labor, beauty and community that currently prevail in mainstream material culture and in standard patterns of consumption.

I am grateful for the way my Visual Research Methods and Qualitative Field Research methods classes have informed each other this semester, especially on this project. Even though the methods in I used were not specifically visual or digital, I found myself thinking often about theorists and discussions from Visual Research methods as I pursued this study. I began this ethnography still trying to figure out what ethnography was, exactly. That process continues, but there are some things I have learned that have made a big impact on my understanding of this work.

Initially, I felt a lot of discomfort about the ethnographic process because the inherent violence of the gaze felt very real to me. Our VRM class read some of Frances Fanon's writing about what it is to be seen as an "object," one who is the product of someone else's gaze, one who is not allowed to emanate meaning but only receives the meaning imposed by others. I did not want to perpetuate that practice by imposing my gaze on anyone in that way. I tried to mediate this by choosing a field site in a community of which I was already a part - LDS women - so that I would not be asking my consultants to be seen without also being included in the gaze by association. I thought, at the time, that simply having a connection to the community myself meant that it was more allowable for me to speak about it. Still enormously uncomfortable both with the process of seeing and being seen, I began work on the project.

Then things began to change. I was introduced - through my professors' own work and through that of others, like Jean Rouch, who pushed the boundaries of the traditional ethnography - to a way of working that was intentionally self-reflexive and collaborative. At first, I had believed that my authority to tell the stories of my consultants came from the connections we shared. I saw my job as giving voice to those stories on the participants' behalf as responsibly as possible. I thought "good ethnography" meant letting participants speak for themselves, and so was uncomfortable introducing my own interpretations of the group's activities or theoretical questions/observations into the narrative. However, I came to realize that it was as undesirable as it was it impossible to avoid my own perspective. Further, I began to see that a theoretical framework was crucial to explaining the significance and larger cultural implications that I saw in the activities of my consultants.

Instead of thinking of the study as a monologue that I was helping to facilitate, I began to understand it as a conversation: one that involved the voices of participants in the study, my own voice, and the voices of other theorists. Together, these voices would contribute to a shared narrative. Moreover, that narrative was not fixed but ongoing: readers of my study would also bring their interpretations to it. Donna Haraway's work on feminist ethnography helped me to understood that, just as the result of the study were necessarily collaborative, so too would be determining the meaning of those results.

I remember a conversation in my VRM class in which we were discussing the concept of performing one's identity. Dr. Juhasz noted that we each do this all the time, in all of our actions and interactions. None of us, she said, wants to be understood as a stereotype; we do not want our identities to be a projection of the assumptions and labels of others. Performing one's identity on one's own terms manifests and reinforces one's own ideas about the self. It can even help to change perceptions of others about oneself. This helped me understand my ethnography as a potential site of power. Originally, I saw it only as a place where the stories of my consultants and myself would be made vulnerable by becoming objects of the gaze of others. And, I suppose that is still true, in a sense. But, now I also see the study as a locus of authority as a collective, interactive performance of our identities. It is a vehicle to that we can use to share something of ourselves with the world on our own terms.

Of course, this is all much easier because I like the people with whom I conducted this study and I concluded that what they're doing has value. It is easy to collaborate with people to whom you already feel connected and whose activities I see as positive rather than harmful. How would this experience have been different if I had felt otherwise? What will happen when this is the case? What will it be like to try to forge a collaborative narrative when the participants in your study are hostile to my presence? When they are doing something I feel is misguided or harmful? I do not believe the answer is to always shy away from experiences like this. In that case, I could only ever study people who were not very different from myself -- and that seems very undesirable. The honest effort to learn from others who are not like me is important too - and too important to avoid out of discomfort. These classes have helped me to see that critique and even deep disagreement can indeed be a part of an open, respectful ethnographic process. Perhaps my next ethnographic project will be an opportunity to put this conviction into practice.