Thursday, 30 April 2009

Abstract to X Congreso mundial de semiótica

The Changing Imagery of the Big Bad Wolf

Morten Tønnessen

The current work is part of the author’s ecosemiotic analysis of Norwegian/Scandinavian wolf management in the period 1855-2010. In Norway, as in several other countries, wolf management is controversial. For some on the countryside it has come to symbolize the ignorant hostility (and imperialistic tendencies) of the urban elites. There is a wide gap between perceptions on the conservation side and in the antagonistic camp, and the proper role of folklore – which is considered by wolf ecologists as unscientific – has never been agreed upon. Field observations confirm that the political and cultural strife has little basis in actual wolf ecology – sheep, for instance, which play a marginal role in Scandinavian wolf diet, are currently major players in popular imagery (and, ironically, management policies) only.

As symbols have grown and developed, cultural representations of wolves appear, at least in part, to have decoupled from ecological reality. In what ways have our conceptions of wolves changed from the extermination campaigns of the 19th century to the conservation efforts of our generation? To what extent have wolves, in modern times as well as earlier, symbolized human traits, religious ideas etc., and to what extent have they represented actual phenomena of nature? By offering a series of examples of animal representations involving wolves – in fiction and popular culture, in myths and in legends – I will inquire into these questions, aiming at approving our understanding of how human cultures has co-evolved not only with wolves, but further with a rich human imagery of these creatures, the infamous ancestors of man’s best friend.

Keywords: Animal representations, cultural imagery, zoosemiotics

Reminiscences on Arne Näss

I have contributed with a little piece of text, entitled "An Ageing giant", to the forthcoming May issue of ISEE (International Society for Environmental Ethics) Newsletter - which will include a special section in memory of Arne Näss.

Monday, 27 April 2009

World Congress

I have registered for the 10th World Congress in Semiotics, to take place in A Coruña, Galicia (Spain).

I will be participating on behalf of the research project Dynamical zoosemiotics and animal representations.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

New biosemiotic research project in spe

I am involved as a principal investigator in an application for the research project "Biosemiotic models of semiosis", to be held by my supervisor Kalevi Kull. The project will - if granted funding - span over the years 2010 to 2013.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Food vs. Nature

I have submitted my article "Food vs. nature: How Human Taste Has Shaped Nature as We Know It" to The Trumpeter - Journal of Ecosophy.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Climate survey in The Guardian

'World will not meet 2C warming target, climate change experts agree' is the headline of The Guardian's article summarizing a survey/poll the british newspaper carried out.
The survey follows a scientific conference last month in Copenhagen, where a series of studies were presented that suggested global warming could strike harder and faster than realised.

The Guardian contacted all 1,756 people who registered to attend the conference and asked for their opinions on the likely course of global warming. Of 261 experts who responded, 200 were researchers in climate science and related fields.
I belong to the 61 on other fields.

My answers were as follows:
(1) Given the current growth in carbon emissions and range of mitigation options available, do you think that global average temperature rise CAN be limited to 2C?
If we took the right measures today, that would quite likely be possible. The chance of that happening, however, is remote. While there has been an emerging concensus the last couple of years that 'something has to be done', the discourse about what measures are the right ones has not progressed, but rather worsened - not least as a consequence of the green-washing of any conceiveable form of energy production (from nuclear energy to 'clean coal'), which has all been re-branded as 'climate friendly'. As for now it seems like all major energy sources will keep growing. With such a development, it is not remotely realistic to limit global temperature rise to 2C.
(2) Do you think the world IS currently taking the necessary action to limit the rise to 2C?
No. Some energy practices have to be excluded. Fossil fuel has to be phased out. It doesn't matter how much renewable energy we produce, as long as it supplements, rather than replaces, dirty energy. The world does not need 'more energy'.
(3) Given the scale of current action and the likely political response over the next few years do you think average temperature rise WILL be limited to 2C?
Probably not. A more fundamental societal change is likely to take more time to occur - though 'tipping points' exist in human societies as well, I don't see the constructive tendency in thought and attitudes that would be required.
(4) If yes, then what will bring about the required reduction in carbon emissions?
(CCS is not likely to be a solution. First of all, it continues our fossil era, meaning that IF it doesn't work out, we will lose valuable time, and in the meantime we will have increased the problem and grown even more dependent on fossil solutions. Even if it did work out, it could only be applied where there are big sources of emissions, meaning that a CCS strategy will favor big business and centralization of infrastructure, and all the same legitimize smaller sources of emissions, which taken together represent too high emissions already.)
(5) If no, then what do you think is the most realistic average temperature rise we can expect this century?
The real lesson from our climate awareness should be that nature is not something we can perfectly well predict and control. Is there a chance for a 2 degree increase? Yes. Is there a chance for a 5 degree increase? Maybe. With the lack of caution in today's climate policies (where many see climate change as a great business opportunity), we can only leave this question to future historians.

Is there a chance for a 1 degree increase? - Maybe - but that wouldn't necessarily mean that 'all environmental problems were solved' - it is conceiveable indeed that we can solve 'the climate problem', one way or another, and yet, a hundred years from now, have more substantial environmental problems than today. With current policies (and current thinking), we are likely to see increased environmental pressure, overall, regardless of what happens with the climate.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Participation in research group

I am listed as one of 19 personnel in the Center of Excellence in Cultural Theory (CECT) semiotics research group 'Meaning-generation and transdisciplinary methodology of semiotic analysis of culture' (there's also 14 'senior personnel'). All in all 34 semioticians are involved, principal investigator Kalevi Kull included.
The scientific theme is based on the need of bringing the development of social and human sciences to the level of higher congeniality with the developmental speed of culture and society. This task implies that (1) the analysis of complex or hybrid cultural phenomena (identities, events, different types of artistic synthetic activities, texts of new media and multimedia) be updated, and (2) the cooperation capability of disciplines studying culture, society and nature be increased. Amongst the main goals there is shaping principles of semiotic analysis of culture for such transdisciplinary methodology that would ensure the integration of the diversity of research objects and methods into a complex analytic strategy. In order to analyse the set of signification, communication, representation and translation mechanisms as meaning-generation, there will be united three areas of semiotic analysis: (1) semiotics of culture, (2) sociosemiotics, and (3)semiotics of nature. The empirical material of the project forms of chronotopical identities in culture, society and nature.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Three texts

Yesterday I finished my compulsory course essay (in 'Ethics and Methodology of Science') 'Essay on Induction' (2 pp).

This night/morning I finished my compulsory course essay (in 'Aristotelian Physics and Biology') 'On the Mathematician and the Student of Nature' (8 pp).

Right now I finished my abstract for the CECT conference 'Spatiality, memory and visualisation of culture/nature relationships: Theoretical aspects', 'Mapping Human Impact: Ecological Footprint vs. Ontological Niche '. Abstract:

In this presentation I will compare my ecosemiotic concept of a human ontological niche 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. 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 is 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 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.

The ecological footprint model has several limitations, not least the fact that there are many environmental problems it cannot represent. It further says 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. Also from a methodological point of view it is anthropocentric, as 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 these issues [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. Unlike the ecological footprint, it will hardly result in an illusory certainty while in fact misrepresenting ecological reality. After assessing the ecological footprint concept, I will 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.

Fiala, Nathan 2008. Measuring sustainability: Why the ecological footprint is bad economics and bad environmental science. Ecological Economics 67: 519-525.

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Umwelt Transitions: Uexküll and Environmental Change

My article 'Umwelt Transitions: Uexküll and Environmental Change' is now awailable online in full-text, courtesy of Biosemiotics/Springer.

Html-version here.

Thursday, 2 April 2009

Rescheduling of wolf presentation

My presentation 'Estranged, Endangered, Extinct. Lessons from the Extinction of the Scandinavian Wolf', to be held at The First World Congress of Environmental History (Copenhagen, August 4-8), has apparently been rescheduled to the session 'Using and abusing wild animals. Terrestrial and aquatic case studies', to take place August 5th.

Other presentations in the same session:
- Cultural Behavior and Animals’ Life: The Relationship between the Tribute and Asiatic Lions’ Crisis (1400-1600)
Lei Kang
- Wild Animals and Humans in Asia before 1900
Peter Boomgaard
- Global Whaling Politics in the North Atlantic and South Pacific
Karen Oslund

Full programme of the WCEH congress here.

Update on Abram/Estonian media

My blog post entitled "Estonian media", from February 13th, has been updated. It now includes my brief, Estonian language introduction to David Abram's text, printed in Roheline Värav (GreenGate).

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Abstraction, cruelty and other aspects of animal play

I have finished my article on animal play, for the special issue on zoosemiotics of Sign Systems Studies.

Abstraction, cruelty and other aspects of animal play
Exemplified by the playfulness of Muki and Maluca

The fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation […] Here we have to do with an absolutely primary category of life, familiar to everybody at a glance right down to the animal level […] Animals play so they must be more than merely mechanical things. We play and know that we play, so we must be more than merely rational beings.
Huizinga 1986 [1938]: 3-4.
Play behaviour is notorious for constituting a much debated, yet little clarified field of research. In this article, attempts are made to reach conclusions on the relation between human play and the play of other animals (especially cat play), as well as on the very character of play. The concept of Umwelt is reviewed, as are definitions of animal play, categorization of animal play and the role of meta-communication in playful behaviour. For some play is a symbol of everything that is good. The author of the current article does not deny that social morality may have originated from play behaviour, but stresses the existence of cruelty play, which leads to additional assumptions. Another notion that is treated in some detail is perceptual play, which proves to demonstrate complex semiotic play that is related first of all to signification. At the end of the article an alternative categorization of animal play is suggested, in which the fundamental role of mind games is emphasized. Throughout the text examples of play behaviour are offered by the two domestic cats Muki and Maluca.