Below is my abstract and bionote for the "Semiotics of hybrid natures" conference to be held in Tartu, Estonia, November 8-10th, where I am one of three keynote speakers.
Current human ecology in light of Umwelt theory
Associate professor of philosophy, University of Stavanger
Umwelt theory is an expression of von Uexküll´s subjective biology and as such it is usually applied in analysis of individual animals. However, Umwelt theory is fundamentally relational, and therefore also suitable for analysis of more complex wholes. Furthermore, depending on the level of generalization, Umwelt theory is also suitable for analysis of behavioral and experiential dynamics at a group level.
A significant methodological advantage of Umwelt theory is that it is applicable with regard to both human and non-human experience and action within one of the same framework. It is true enough that mapping the human Umwelt requires making methodological specifications of various Umwelt features, but in principle this is the case with the mapping of the Umwelt of any organism.
Given the relational nature of the Umwelt, an organism endowed with an Umwelt is never truly alone. The pertinent questions when mapping Umwelten are: What other creatures does this organism relate to? And of what nature are these relations?
In our age, which many have come to call «the Anthropocene», the human species dominates many ecosystems, and has established a manifold of tightly controlled production systems and resource streams involving or affecting living creatures in both in-door and outdoor environments. In the Anthropocene discourse, the debate rages as to what level of human control is appropriate.
Big picture-notions and planetary perspectives are important, but so is the subjective animal perspective that von Uexküll emphasized. To what extent can these be combined? How are planetary boundaries related to the biosphere understood as semiosphere? Can tipping points, e.g. in climate dynamics, in some cases be understood as being of an ecosemiotic nature?
No matter what we conclude concerning such methodological questions, one can hardly overestimate the effect the human species has even on wildlife. We affect the experience and behaviour of animals by causing environmental changes in land, water and air, by influencing prey densities and the occurrence of natural enemies, and in some cases we also affect animals´ sociality or possibilities for courtship and mating. And towards many species, we behave like an unsustainable super-predator.
In the course of this presentation, I will apply notions such as Umwelt transition, Umwelt trajectory, Umwelt aggregate, and Umwelt alignment, in an attempt to outline some of the most important characteristics of contemporary human ecology. We no doubt affect animal behavior and experience on a massive scale both wittingly and unwittingly. To understand our changing relations to living beings and nature, we must be aware of the different forms relations can take on e.g. for wild, liminal and domesticated animals.
Morten Tønnessen (born 1976) is Associate professor of philosophy at University of Stavanger´s Department of social studies. He has worked with Umwelt theory since his Master degree from University of Oslo (2002), and conducted his doctoral studies at University of Tartu (2011). Tønnessen has published extensively within biosemiotics and human-animal studies, and is currently President of the Nordic Association for Semiotic Studies and Co-Editor-in-Chief of Biosemiotics. Academic (b)log: http://UtopianRealism.blogspot.com.