6:00 PM18:00

A Thousand Dead Snow Geese: The Matter of the Non-Human in the Age of Humans

I will be offering a public talk at Harvard University's Mahindra Humanities Center discussing the latest mass killing of snow geese in the toxic waters of Montana's Berkeley Pit copper mine this past November. As the title suggests, I will examine the meaning of the non-human in this supposed "Age of the Human" or the Anthropocene. As much as the snow geese were clearly victims of global climate change, reckless mining, and other anthropogenic changes, even in death these extraordinary animals defy any anthropocentric claim to human preeminence and power. To the contrary, I argue that the snow geese teach us that we live not in an Age of Humans, but rather in an age of things, fellow creative beings both living and non-living who are constantly entangling and empowering our very existence. Today more than ever, our goal should be to escape our reflexive anthropocentrism in order to better understand the multitude of ways in which the non-human things around us make us human.

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3:30 PM15:30

An Efficient Slaughter: How the Social Intelligence of Cows Helped to Make American Beef Cheap

American Society for Environmental History, Chicago

The massive increase in the human consumption of animal flesh in the United States and other nations during the second half of the nineteenth century depended heavily upon the ability of highly social and intelligent animals to accept and adapt to a brutally efficient system of mechanized growth and slaughter. Historians have long recognized that the industrialization of the livestock industry created a powerful system for extracting energy from plants and other foods and concentrating it in the flesh of livestock. However, we have given far less attention to the many ways in which this depended heavily on the intelligent ability of the animals themselves to cooperate with human beings and their deeply disorienting industrial systems for animal growth, transport, and slaughter. This paper explores the neglected role of one ungulate species in particular, Bos taurus, the domesticated cow. Historians have explained how cattle bioconcentrated the sparse plant energy of the western range and carried the resulting caloric energy to cattle towns with their own bodies for further transport via trains to eastern slaughterhouses. However, we’ve said far less about the essential role played in all this by these extraordinary animals. Had Longhorns, for example, simple refused to cooperate with their “cowboy” handlers during “round ups” or “cattle drives,” the process of growing and extracting flesh for human consumption would have been vastly less efficient, perhaps even impossible. The same might also be said of the ability of other breeds to adapt to railroad “cattle cars” for transport to slaughter facilities that were themselves increasingly designed to manipulate their social natures. In this paper I propose to explore some of the many ways in which humans depended upon and manipulated the intelligence and adaptability of another social mammal in order to most efficiently kill it.

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7:00 PM19:00

“The Power of Things: Can We Change Ourselves By Changing Our Environments?”

Ecological Challenges Workshop, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway


At least from the time of Lynn White’s seminal 1967 paper, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” scholars have recognized that the western Christian tradition has often worked against the idea of sustainable ecological civilizations. Yet both western religion and science were similarly rooted in the belief that humans are special because they alone are creatures of spirit and intellect. In this paper, I examine the evolution of these ideas as they have persisted into the present, evident in the assumption common to both humanists and scientists that cultural phenomena—ideas, technology, power—are largely immaterial in their origins. There can be no natural history of ideas and creativity, while power is too often understood primarily solely a social construct. However, neo-materialists and post-humanists have begun to explore the ways in which human culture and society emerge from and with material environment or nature, while a growing body of scientific evidence suggest how the way we think and act are influenced by everything from the microbes in our guts to environmental chemicals in our brains. In sum, science and the humanities are now beginning to converge to offer a more compelling way of understanding the human relationship to the world, thus offering new potentials for creating a more ecological sustainable future.

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to Jan 27

Tallinn University Winter School, Tallinn, Estonia

I will be offering a public lecture and teaching a graduate student seminar as part of the Tallinn University Winter School, in Tallinn, Estonia. My public lecture on January 23rd will be on:

“The Matter of Humans: Putting Nature Back Into Culture Through the Environmental Humanities”


For much of the previous century, culture has often been defined in opposition to nature, a tendency that only deepened as the cultural and linguistic turns came to stress the centrality of human discourse in shaping and perhaps even creating reality. More recently, however, new scientific and humanistic insights have begun to suggest a far more complex view of culture, one predicated on two key propositions. First, that human bodies and minds are much more deeply embedded in the natural material world than previously believed. And second, that this natural material world is much more dynamic and creative than previously understood. These propositions, if accurate, together suggest a compelling need to develop what we might term a post-anthropocentric “deep culture” that emerges not in distinction from a passive nature, but rather with and through a dynamic nature. This radical new understanding of what it means to be human logically demands a new humanism, and the environmental humanities, post-humanism, and neo-materialism are pointing the way.

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