The statistician's guide to Utopia: The future of growth, published in TRAMES in 2008, is now featured on MPRA (abstract, references). The full pdf paper is registered as MPRA paper no. 19644.
MPRA = Munich Personal RePEc Archive
UTOPISM. *** In the long run, nothing else is realistic. *** Welcome to the English language blog of Morten Tønnessen, Associate professor of philosophy at University of Stavanger's Department of Social Studies.
Semiotics of Being and Uexküllian Phenomenology
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“Uexküll and evolution” for many sounds like a topic that spells out a contradiction in terms. That, I believe, does not necessarily have to be the case. Whereas some biosemioticians (e.g. Stjernfelt 2001) have asserted that Uexküll was anti-evolution, others (e.g. Salthe 2001; Kull 2004) have concluded that he was anti-Darwinian, but not hostile to the idea of evolution as such. Here I must agree with the latter group, as I hope will shine through in the rest of this exposition. And not only do I think Uexküll was not anti-evolution (though, as I explain in Tønnessen 2009, he was programmatically not historically-minded) – more than that; I believe that an Uexküllian perspective might actually prove to be enriching within the field of evolutionary theory. There’s proof that Uexküll did not only have negative, but also positive, thought about evolution in his dictum (1928: 198) that “each new appearing functional cycle verifies [the appearance of] a new animal species” (my translation).Meanwhile, the committee for the UiA Philosophy Forum has held its first meeting (this Monday).
Morten Tønnessen, Institute of Philosophy and Semiotics, University of Tartu, Estonia:
An Ageing GiantIt is hard to summarize what Arne Næss has meant to me—first of all because he has been so decisive in forming me as a practicing philosopher. For years I had difficulties seeing where, at all, I would disagree with him (a problem I have now to some extent overcome). I was early on inspired by his interpretation of Gandhi’s political ethics—that’s how I made the leap from activist to student of philosophy. As is the case for so many Norwegians, it was his work that introduced me to philosophy. A course in deep ecology at Åkerøya in Norway in the late 1990s was central in giving me a more solid basis for eco-philosophical reasoning (a couple years later Knut Olav Fossestøl, another course participant, and I founded the “Eco-philosophical colloquium” at the University of Oslo). By then Arne was already a familiar face for me as a philosophy student—30 years after he retired as professor, he was still around offering public lectures. In 2001 and 2003, I arranged public events with him myself. By 2003, however, it was clear that this brilliant mind struggled to remain intellectually alert and coherent. A request to partake in a proposal (concerning the Norwegian Petro-fund) from the Green Party of Norway, for which I was the national secretary at the time, was therefore revoked.
I interviewed him a couple of times. After the Åkerøya seminar I sent him my first booklong philosophical manuscript, Dialog. He had agreed to comment it, but now I got it returned, with an exact explanation: “372 pages!” I never knew whether to call him Arne or Næss. Despite having met him around a dozen times, he never appeared—with certainty—to recognize me (I wish he had). Today I have the fortune of being in contact with some of his closest colleagues at the eco-scene. The last time I was in contact with him (through Kit-Fai) was in 2006, when I was conducting a survey of attitudes in the Norwegian environmentalist establishment—partly inspired by his own little survey on attitudes to nature among Norwegian bureaucrats and others carried out a generation or so earlier. As I heard the news of his death, I pondered home to our house in Magé, Brazil, where we were at the time, and stepped into our outdoor swimming pool, as the day darkened. A couple of bats joined me. I retreated to a corner, offering the two nocturnal creatures (ecological!) space enough to rejoice undisturbed in their playful bath.
My poster presentation for the Oct. 22-24 Tallinn conference on Spatiality, memory and visualization of human/nature relations (text only):
Morten Tønnessen: Mapping Human Impact
In this presentation I compare my ecosemiotic concept of a human ontological niche (cf. Tønnessen 2009) with the concept of an ecological footprint, with respect to how either of these can be applied as tools in mapping human impact in nature. An ontological niche – a concept derived from Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt concept – can be defined as the set (or whole) of ecological relations (or ‘contrapuntal relations’, be they somatic, social or ecological) a being or life form partakes in at a certain point in natural history (figure: early version (1920) of Uexküll’s functional cycle).
The ecological footprint concept, on its hand, first introduced in 1996, is now being used by WWF (Living Planet Report) and developed methodologically by the Global Footprint Network. Claimed to be a tool that makes sustainability measurable, it condenses a complex array of consumption down into a single number.
The developers of the ecological footprint model stress that it includes only those aspects of resource consumption and waste production for which the Earth has regenerative capacity. What it does is converting consumption into the land used in production, along with the land theoretically needed to sequester the greenhouse gases produced. By dividing ‘Humanity’s Ecological Footprint’ (currently 2,7 ‘global hectares’ per person) by ‘World Biocapacity’ – which is (oftentimes) modelled as being constant – we arrive at the conclusion that humanity as a whole has been unsustainable (accumulating ‘ecological debt’) since the late 80s. When the footprint of a country does not surpass its biocapacity, it is said to be sustainable.
As we can see in the WWF figures below, global biocapacity is modelled as being potentially decreasing (in case of sustained/accumulated ecological overshoot) or increasing (in case of proper management).
The ecological footprint model has several limitations, not least the fact that there are many environmental problems it cannot represent. It further says little or nothing about the intensity of land use. From an ethical point of view, it is biased toward anthropocentricism in assuming that ‘sustainability’ entails that humanity can exploit the Earth’s biocapacity fully. It is also anthropocentric from a methodological point of view, since it represents human consumption and ecosystem services only – both being purely human interests.
The human ontological niche concept, in contrast, is designed in order to display the ecological relations in which humanity partakes. As Nathan Fiala (2008: 519) remarks, “better measures of sustainability would address [environmental issues] directly”. Whereas the simplicity of the ecological footprint is not only its greatest advantage but also its greatest disadvantage, the human ontological niche concept is better suited to account for variety within and across ecosystems, because its biggest advantage is its (qualitative, rather than quantitative) specificity. It further allows for disparate ethical assumptions.
I will now model selected global environmental data to demonstrate how the human ontological niche concept can be applied as a modelling tool scrutinizing human impact in nature. The basic problem is this: How can we model human impact in nature – a crude, aggregate measure – based on a theory of the phenomenological experiences of individual creatures (be they human or non-human)?
Above the global populations of selected livestock groups are represented in numerical terms (data taken from Livestock’s long shadow, FAO 2006). How could we represent these global data in qualitative terms?
Here a few differences in the size of circles (3 categories) and thickness (3 categories) are chosen to represent the relative importance of livestock groups and the character of our relations to them. In more general terms some crucial traditional features of the human ontological niche can be represented as depicted below (note that a positive attitude to conservation can change the quality of our relation to big carnivores as well as to “wasteland” species).
A few simple comments:
Resources/individuals: While an ecological footprint approach tends to focus on biomass (natural creatures qua resources), an ontological niche approach will tend to focus on individuals/subjects, wherever there are individuals.
Relative/Absolute: From a phenomenological point of view everything is relative to the subjects. But absolute numbers (i.e. the totals relative to the entire Earth system) matter too.
Qualitative/quantitative: Quantitative data must be analyzed in qualitative (oversight) terms. But qualities alone tell as little about a concrete empirical situation as quantities alone. Volume matters – and so does the quality (nature) of our ecological relations!
Simplifying/re-presenting complexity: All modelling entails simplification. What is decisive is that qualitative analysis at all steps is to guide quantitative representations, and that alienating decontextualization is to be avoided.
→ Livestock’s long shadow: Environmental issues and options. FAO 2006.
→ Living Planet Report 2008. WWF.
→ Fiala, Nathan 2008. Measuring sustain-ability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science. Ecological Economics 67: 519-525.
→ Tønnessen, Morten 2009. Umwelt transitions: Uexküll and environmental change. Biosemiotics 2.1: 47-64.
→ Uexküll, Jakob von 1920. Theoretische Biologie (first edition).
This poster presentation has been carried out as part of the research projects The Cultural Heritage of Environmental Spaces: A Comparative Analysis between Estonia and Norway (EEA–ETF Grant EMP 54), Dynamical Zoosemiotics and Animal Representations (ETF/ESF 7790) and Methods of Biosemiotics (ETF/ESF 6669).