“Ocean.” Original painting by Long Beach, California artist Tela Long (1)
“I was twice drawn to think about hope recently. In both cases the context was extinction.”
– Deborah Bird Rose
We are in the midst of the sixth great extinction of life on our planet. It is good to remember that this is not the first mass extinction. Worlds of all different scales and kinds have ended before.
If I were a natural scientist, I would be ringing alarm bells about the confluence of social and environmental factors that are diminishing life and the chances for future life for the vulnerable living organisms my work is concerned with. Since these are young people we are talking about, however, we only worry about them as individuals but do little about the social/environmental ecologies of which they are a part. It is like caring for individual wildlife devastated by environmental pollution while ignoring the environmental pollution itself. Or trying to make the wildlife tougher, modify them so as to be able to endure worsening realities.
A sort of alarm bell is being rung by surveys that tell us young folks in Hong Kong are increasingly depressed, even suicidal, although the urgency of these often fade away in the course of daily news cycles. A recent survey, conducted jointly by the City University Applied Social Sciences Department and Caritas found over 30 percent of primary school students at risk of suicide, and 40 percent of secondary school students. This is just one study among many with similarly dire results. (2) Surveys, though inadequate to the task of telling us anything like a full picture of the life ecologies in which young folks are situated, do at least say “something is quite wrong.”
As I write this, an estimated 50 – 100 shipping containers of E-waste from the United States arrived in Hong Kong today, as it does every day. It will be transported to some of the poorer and more remote parts of the SAR, where it will be dumped and dismantled on around 150 – 200 illegal but government-tolerated bare-ground sites. The main areas where this ecologically-disastrous activity take place are Yuenlong/Tin Shui Wai, where I do most of my fieldwork, and Sheung Shui. Lead, mercury, and other toxins enter ground water and some go airborne, silently but surely poisoning the area’s people, plants, animals, microbes, soil and vital coastal, wetland, and estuarial waterways.
I will write more about the complex story in which Yuenlong is but one disaster stop along a route of ruin-ing in an upcoming post. For now I want to think about what I call ecologies of livability (or unlivability). Thinking this way allows me to avoid two common rubrics of knowledge which limit our ability to make relational sense of the worlds in which we are situated. Firstly, thinking ecologies of livability works across what we too-often think of as distinct social and environmental realms. In the case of E-waste in Yuenlong, for example, relative poverty, social and geographic distance from affluent areas, and environmental catastrophes are the entangled relations that those of us concerned with life and livability there must be attentive to.
Secondly, thinking ecologies of livability helps us avoid dichotomizing the global and the local. Indeed the planet itself, as landscape geographer Kenneth Olwig points out, is not in any way characterized by the isometric space of a globe, and is, in fact, functionally anisometric.(3) Broadly and less-broadly circulated material and symbolic forces entangle in diverse, inequitable, and concretely-situated intersections and dispersions. The example of Yuenlong’s E-waste makes this clear as well.
An important recent collection by natural and social scientists provides an example of this, putting aside unhelpful disciplinary divisions and epistemological rubrics while using different strengths to imagine ways in which survivability might be possible. It begins, however, by laying out the the enormity of our largely human-made dilemma.
““Anthropocene” is the proposed name for a geologic epoch in which humans have become the major force determining the continuing livability of the earth. The word tells a big story: living arrangements that took millions of years to put into place are being undone in the blink of an eye. The hubris of conquerors and corporations makes it uncertain what we can bequeath to our next generations, human and not human. The enormity of our dilemma leaves scientists, writers, artists, and scholars in shock. How can we best use our research to stem the tide of ruination?” (emphasis added).(4)
Two things separate the mass extinction we are now undergoing from those previously. First, the activities of one species alone are responsible for bringing about cascading effects of multi-species death and extinction. Humans, however, are not all equally responsible, nor is all human activity. Although this epochal shift is increasingly referred to as the “Anthropocene,” this is not a species act. It is, rather, the outcome of particular, and, within the time-frame of human life on earth, historically-recent projects to produce, extract, and circulate forms of value that can generate capital. This has meant the elimination, either directly or through neglect, of those forms, rhythms, and ways of life that do not – complex interspecies interdependencies, heterogeneous temporalities and spatialities. The foundational model for this sharp elimination of diversity may be the mono-crop plantation.
Secondly, and importantly, while the current extinction is resulting in the death of a great deal of existing life, as did those prior, it is also destroying the conditions for future life, namely the symbiotic relations that make life possible, and the geographic areas into which some life could retreat and re-emerge to become new and different life over time. Natural scientists call these retreat zones of livability refugia.
I think about refugia when young people tell me about what, for lack of a better term, we might call their hopes. Places they would like to go, lives they would like to lead. These stories often sound familiar, like other tales of unlikely hope I have heard over the years. I have written about some of these before: cruel optimisms; melancholic refusals; deferrals of hopelessness, which are often called, misleadingly, detachment.
Yet, surface familiarities can be deceiving. “Everything already appears to be about something,” anthropologist Marilyn Strathern reminds us.(5) This prevents us from understanding what is in front of us, unless what is in front of us is already a variation on what we already think we know. We must learn then to trick ourselves into receptivity to what we do not understand, which would otherwise be unknowable since we do not have frames of reference with which to make sense of it.
This is a specific form of attentiveness, one which is not just a state of lack (of knowledge), but more importantly a continuing overturning of the forms and conditions of knowing itself. I like to think of it as mulching.
Well-meaning social workers and social scientists find the things that they value, and discard the rest as waste and weeds. This is a plantation economy of knowledge. Young people themselves are shifted into and out of of visibility to the extent that they do or do not reflect back what we expect to see.
Hope Without Progress
Hope, as we normally think of it, is a relationship between the present and a desired future state or object. It can be difficult to think hope otherwise. This orientation is, among other things, the basis of cruel optimism, the desire for a goal whose pursuit damages present life, just as it is of melancholy, a refusal to release an object of desire even knowing it will not be realized or is lost. Even what I have described as deferral is a distancing relation between the present and what is believed to be a (a bleak) future.
Anthropologist Deborah Bird Rose suggests another way of thinking hope, one that arises from the very indeterminacy of the future, another twist on temporal relations. Because we live in linear time, we cannot know the future. Hope is life’s energy of uncertainty.
I have learned to hear something else from young folks, though, what I am coming to think of as present stories of livability. These strands of melody can be difficult to actually hear. They sound like and are in fact often woven together with many other strands, including other kinds of cruel hopes, melancholy reflections, and ways of not thinking about or distancing the future. Hearing this within polyphonies of familiar-sounding stories became possible first with a few discordant notes.
Karen works nowadays in a tiny, 12 seat cafe. It is one of the gentrifying mushrooms fruiting up around the taller, pale clusters of private housing estates that nestle around the Yuenlong station and the massive YOHO shopping plaza. Karen is 21 and has worked in the service industry since she was in secondary school. Her mother, with whom she often fights, has also worked in restaurants for many years, while her father lives elsewhere with her older brother and sister. Karen works 6 days a week from around 11am to 10 or 11 pm at night. Her income is important for supporting the household she and her mother share.
Karen speaks Cantonese, Mandarin, and quite decent English. She always speaks English in a whisper, so I often have to ask her to repeat what she says. We usually end up speaking in Mandarin. Karen’s Mandarin is too colloquial to be locally-learned. She at first denied that she had spent some time growing up on the mainland but has since told me about primary school there, and what it was like starting school in Hong Kong and being made fun of because of her non-local Cantonese.
During the day, there are few customers, so Karen can tell stories. One day she was telling me about a recent fight that she had with her mother. It was complicated, involving her father and other family, and nuanced issues of responsibility and reciprocity, and many hurt feelings. Karen’s stories usually last quite a while, interrupted only occasionally by a stray customer or delivery person.
While telling her story, Karen’s voice suddenly dropped to a whisper, which she had never done before when speaking Mandarin. Out of seemingly nowhere, Karen started to talk about Taiwan. She talked about how the life there was more natural, not just slower but more healthy for people, less stressful, happier. The food. The weather. The beautiful natural environment. The rhythm and pace of life, and the way people lived and interacted with one another.
She continued talking in an enthusiastic whisper, like she was sharing a secret.
“People there smile at each other. They know how to enjoy life. They are happier, not like Hong Kong people. They don’t always work and work! And compare with each other. Do you know? Their life is more relaxed. In Hong Kong people always criticize or tease you if you have a different idea. That’s why I fight with my mother often. Her thinking is very traditional. In Taiwan things are relaxed and open. They love the nature too. And the food is incredibly delicious!”
I asked Karen how she knew these things. Had she been to Taiwan? She said that a friend of hers had visited there for two weeks. And she had read about Taiwan and watched Taiwanese documentaries and TV shows online, mainly during the day when there were few customers there and no anthropologist gathering stories. “Are you planning to go there?,” I asked. “Of course I want to go there, but it is not easy. I have to work, I have no money. I have to help my mother. If I leave she will be alone. And we both need to work to live. Who knows later?”
She continued talking about Taiwan with the same enthusiasm. It sounded like hope, and at first I took it for another story of cruel optimism, like those I had heard before. But listen again. Karen told this with the full and readily acknowledgement that it would likely never happen. Yet this was not melancholy! It was in fact the most joyful that I had seen her in many conversations.
Imagine for a moment this juxtaposition. Stories that weave delicate strands of cultivated care for a lovely and quite reasonable but still unrealizable imagination of life together with the thick threads of future improbability. Held tightly and sometimes shown to others. Like a gift.
I was not hearing about Taiwan, of course, either as an object of naive hope or of sad longing, or at least not merely those. I was hearing livability. Other temporalities and rhythms, other ways of being in nourishing relation with people and the world.
It is not strange that when progress narratives have collapsed, we hear narratives of the present. The precariousness that has for so long characterized the lives of many has now expanded to include almost all of us. Stories without progress don’t tell us about the future. They are imaginations of other ways of living now.
We are all familiar with the energy of the present. A visit to a place that leaves us, for no obvious reason, with optimisms we can’t explain. An encounter with someone – a human friend, another animal friend, a path lined with familiar trees, a stranger – that leaves us with unexpected encouragement. A conversation that awakens things in us that we didn’t know were there.
These are like what Isabelle Stengers calls “mutual capture,” fruitful encounters in which one does not overcome the other but both are changed. Even a relation between the self and imagined other ways of being in the world can be mutual capture. Stories about ecologies of livability are present sources of inspiration and continuance. More, they are clues, beneath surface familiarities, as to what livabilities in worlds that are not where we have been, or where we are now, might be like.
Progress talk sounds almost archaic. We now wonder about sustainability and survival. It should not surprise us, then, that young folks are looking around and not forward. They do this in part through ordinary-fantastic stories of flourishing life. We should not dismiss them. Like being attentive to the patterns of other life in relation to the ecologies of which they are a part, they are telling us things that we need to know.
- Acrylic and multimedia art on stretched canvas by Long Beach, CA, USA, artist, Tela Long. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
- South China Morning Post. “One in Three Primary School Students in Hong Kong at Risk of Suicide. May 16, 2017
2011. “The Earth Is Not a Globe: Landscape Versus the ‘Globalist’ Agenda.” Olwig, Kenneth. R. Landscape Research, Vol 36, 401 – 414.
2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Tsing, Anna et al. eds. University of Minnesota Press.
Presentation at University College London. “Tricking Oneself: The Cultivation of Surprise.” Strathern, Marilyn. https://vimeo.com/173458356