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Monday, 26 October 2009

The wolf as scapegoat

My debate article "Ulven som syndebukk" [The wolf as scapegoat] is in print today in the major Norwegian national daily Dagbladet.

A longer Norwegian version of the text is to be found in my Norwegian blog, Utopisk Realisme.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Co-editing of special issue on biosemiotics

Yesterday I agreed to co-edit a special issue of Hortus Semioticus on biosemiotics (zoosemiotics etc. included) with Nelly Mäekivi and Riin Magnus.

The special issue, which will feature articles in both English and Estonian and is expected to appear as no. 7, 2010 (after no. 5 is published this year and no. 6 is published as a regular number in the spring of 2010), will include an interview with Kalevi Kull (link inactive at the time of writing this...), conducted by Riin Magnus and me.

First semioethics interview published + "Meditationes Semioticae"

Hortus Semioticus no. 4 (2009) appeared some days ago. My contributions:

Pp57-80 "“Tell me, where is morality bred?” The Semioethics Interviews I: John Deely" PDF here

Pp81-84: "Meditationes Semioticae: Signs grow – but should they? Semioethics and the dominant semiosis of Homo sapiens sapiens" PDF here

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Proceedings of the world congress in semiotics 2007

At long last I have received the proceedings of the 9th congress of the IASS/AIS - Helsinki-Imatra, 11-17 June, 2007, "Communication: Understanding/Misunderstanding", edited by Eero Tarasti (associated editors: Paul Forsell and Richard Littlefield). And quite a work it is, in 3 volumes (Acta Semiotica Fennica XXXIV, International Semiotics Institute, Imatra/Semiotic Society of Finland, Helsinki 2009).

My text "Where I end and you begin: The threshold of the self and the intrinsic value of the phenomenal world" appears pp. 1798-1803 (vol. III). Here, for the first time in Earth history (in print), I offer "a critique of a critique", namely of semioethics: "While I agree with several of the foundational statements of a semioethics proper, i have some critical remarks as to its present manifestation." I have now been engaged with semioethics for 2 years plus, not least through this spring's first "semioethics interviews" with John Deely, the first of which will sooner-than-ever be published. The article also contains seeds to what I now call "semiotic economy".

In the article I refer to:
David Agler
Gregory Bateson
Donald Favareau
Arne Næss
Susan Petrilli and Augusto Ponzio
David Rothenberg
and myself ("Umwelt ethics")

The name of my article appears in the Contents (vol. I, p. xx). I ("Tonnesen") is further referred to in the Thematic index (vol. III) under the keywords "biosemiotics" (p. 1971) - but not under "ethics", nor "politics", nor "semioethics".

Poster presentation presentation

My poster "Mapping human impact: Ecological footprint vs. ontological niche" is on display at the second CECT autumn conference, "Spatiality, memory and visualisation of culture/nature relationships", tomorrow from 4 to 6 p.m. The 5 minute oral presentation of my poster presentation has been scheduled for 17.00-17.05. Full poster programme here.

Monday, 19 October 2009


Last week I submitted my contribution to the 10th world congress in semiotics proceedings, "The changing imagery of the big bad wolf".

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Animal play article to appear in December

I expect my article "Abstraction, cruelty and other aspects of animal play" to appear in December, in the special issue on zoosemiotics of the journal Sign Systems Studies.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Mapping human impact

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

Ecological Footprint


Ontological Niche

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). Berlin: Julius Springer.

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).

Friday, 9 October 2009

Poster presentation on the notion of ecological footprints

I am in the process of preparing my poster presentation for the CECT (Center of excellence in cultural theory) II conference "Spatiality, memory and visualisation of culture/nature relationships: theoretical aspects", entitled "Mapping human impact: Ecological footprint vs. ontological niche".

Names of all poster presentations are to be found here, abstracts of oral presentations here.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Chronicles in Norwegian media - wolf politics

October 2nd my chronicle "Den kinesiske miljøbevegelsen" [The Chinese Environmental Movement] appeared in Adresseavisen, the major regional newspaper in mid-Norway (cf. previous report).

Yesterday I wrote a chronicle entitled "Ulven som syndebukk" [The Wolf as a Scapegoat], that I now submit to Dagbladet, Norway's third biggest national daily.

The political platform of the re-elected coalition government is said to be ready for announcement in one and a half hour. According to preliminary news reports, Senterpartiet (which has around 6 % of the vote) has not succeeded in its efforts to reach an agreement with the two other governing parties according to which all remaining wolves would be shot, and no wolves would be tolerated on Norwegian land.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

New wolf essay

I have recently finished an article entitled "Is a wolf wild as long as it does not know that it is being thoroughly man-handled?". The essay has been submitted to Humanimalia.
Abstract: The animals of the recovering Scandinavian wolf population are evidently shy, but thoroughly man-handled, by wildlife managers as well as illegal hunters and others. After much wilderness has vanished, the current wolf population dwells in a so-called multi-use environment. Their interaction with human artefacts and constructions is substantial. The author argues that the long-term conservation goal should be not simply viability, but independent viability - i.e., viability independent of the continued actions of humans.