Academic Research: The Pursuit of Ignorance (aka Farting Around In The Dark!)

“You’re a perfectionist with an inferiority complex!”

That about sums up the standard response to my moping about not being ‘cut out’ for academia, despite being a consistent high achiever. Sometimes, I angst that my grades reflect nothing more than a capacity to ‘bullshit my way through’ assignments, and have little to do with how much I actually know. I put off pursuing an academic career for a long time because of this, believing wholeheartedly that I was a fraud. There are times when I still truly feel this way, despite many achievements, acknowledgements and glaringly obvious realities demonstrating time and again what rubbish that notion is. There’s never enough reassurance…and I am told that even with a PhD in hand, feeling like a professional fraud never really stops popping in to say hi from time to time.

Imposter-Syndrome-Doodle.png

Where does this come from? What impact does it have on us and the research work we generate? Well, Barcan (2016) suggests that academia is the perfect environment for feelings of professional fraudulence to flourish. Why? Because we operate in a realm that generates lots of new knowledge and information very quickly, and we think that if we don’t digest it all, we won’t stand up to scrutiny. It’s almost as if we, for some strange reason, think that we should know it all.

So, many of us become know-it-all’s.

In a tremendous effort to hide our perceived fraudulence, we employ what Barcan calls ‘academic bluff’ and pretend to know a whole lot more than we really do, relying on rigid knowledge structures to protect us from the unknown – and perhaps also the inherently unknowable. We avoid the messy unknowns.

I am personally guilty of this. In an effort to conform to the rigid thought I once believed was expected of a professional scientist, I accepted facts and knowledge without question. Along with several of my undergraduate peers, I accepted facts as absolute rather than as knowledge emplaced in unknown spaces. To me, all things became ultimately knowable, it was just a matter of time, effort and funding. If it couldn’t be scientifically established and quantified, then it probably wasn’t real. The result was a hurtful suppression of my spirituality and cultural traditions, personal realms from which a great care and curiousity about the world around me had always welled like a desert spring. It stifled the freedom to wonder about the stuff beyond human comprehension, and to believe in possibilities. No one forced me to think this way, and frankly, it is ridiculous to have done so. Just ask all of the deeply spiritual and cultural scientists out there! But studying science amongst the uphill battle for evolutionary biology to be recognised as fact, not opinion, and the loud voices of Atheist scientists can be overwhelming and confusing. Particularly when one already feels that they are an academic fraud.

Mayim Bialik – who not only stars on The Big Bang Theory as a neuroscientists, but actually is a scientist in real life as well – talks about how she navigates being both a scientist and Jewish. Mayim shares very similar spiritual views to me in a lot ways.

But what about the value of what we don’t know? Are we not ‘researchers’, and does not that title implicitly suggest that our role is to seek out the unknown? Or perhaps – as in the case of much cultural and more-than-human geography work – establish why some knowledge(s) cannot and should not be known? In challenging the discourse of academic mastery, expertise and knowledge, Barcan believes that an important strategy is to not be a know-it-all, and instead embrace the unknown by recognising the limits of our own knowledge and capacity to know. In my field, this is crucial. Geography is all about challenging what we think we know by recognising what we don’t.

In his astounding, thought-provoking, and utterly incredible TED talk, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein (2014) challenges the idea of a ‘pursuit of knowledge’ and instead suggests that research-based investigation is more of a “farting around in the dark” sort of process, a pursuit of ignorance: that which we don’t know. Taking the popular models of knowledge accumulation – like puzzle pieces, onion layers, and ‘the tip of the iceberg’ – Firestein skilfully rejects them as implying that there is a knowable body of facts that we will eventually uncover in totality. That everything is ultimately knowable. Firestein disagrees. He thinks that knowledge is more like a ripple, where every new piece of information generates new questions, and thus an endless cycle of acknowledged ignorance and unknowns.

What I love about this is that it so eloquently, yet so simply, highlights one of the key characteristics of, and perhaps the thing I love most about, science. That science cannot prove anything, its function is to disprove. The rest is unknown. We know what is not, but what is remains open to possibilities. I trained as an ornithologist under one of Australia’s most reputable avian biologists. He was brilliant, highly published with a huge impact factor, and a name that everyone in the field knew. And yet, despite all his arrogance and academic pomp, he quietly said to me one day, “a good scientist isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ – in fact, it should be a requirement to do so”.

I couldn’t agree more. The role of research is to investigate research questions, and Firestein argues that it is continual acknowledgement of our ignorance that gives rise to questions of increasing quality. By engaging with the unknown – and the unknowable – we generate a more meaningful understanding of knowledge. Or, more appropriately, knowledge(s). If geography has revealed to me nothing else, it is that there is a lot that I do not, cannot, and should not know about others – human and more-than-human alike. By recognising that ignorance, nurturing it and acknowledging it, I make myself a better geographer. I realise that my knowledge – and all knowledge – is forever incomplete, and that this enriches our world. It grows plurality, where different ways of knowing and doing can contribute to what Star Trek-ian philosophy so beautifully describes as ‘infinite diversity in infinite combinations’.

So, the next time that I feel like an academic fraud, perhaps I will now endeavour to put Firestein’s advice into practice and rather than agonising over ‘what do I know about it?’, instead embrace my ignorance to consider ‘what can I ask about it?’. After all, research is all about the unknown – perhaps it could benefit from a little more ‘farting around in the dark’!

References:

Barcan, R., 2016. ‘Feeling like a fraud: Or, the upside of knowing you can never be good enough’, in Academic life and labour in the new university: Hope and other choices. Routledge.

Firestein, S., 2014. The pursuit of ignorance. TED. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nq0_zGzSc8g

Advertisements

What’s The Correct Answer? Learning More-Than-Human.

I hate maths! But I love animals, plants, elements, ecology and understanding how systems work, and what they mean to us as humans. I’m a nature person, maybe even a science person, but definitely NOT a maths person! Basic mathematics has always been a problem – my autistic mind works in sensations, affective (not geometric) patterns, observation, imagination and written words. Ask me to do a sum – even a simple one – and I will either laugh or cry.

math_person

One of the most difficult disciplinary concepts that I work with in geography is ‘more-than-human’. Much of this concept is either ‘felt’ (embodied) or challenges dominant, entrenched discourses around how we think about the non-human world, making it difficult to express adequately without sounding utterly fanciful. However, in these days of snow-balling ecological crises and the persistent denial of our seemingly obvious inclusion with and dependence upon the environment for our very survival, it is a critically important worldview that requires a lot more spotlight time and serious consideration than what it quietly demands. The words of Joan Countryman, quoted in Zinsser (1989) resonated profoundly with me more than once in this regard. In speaking about the ways in which we are complexly, and often beautifully, a part of mathematical worlds, she lamented that

“unfortunately, most people don’t see the world that way because they’ve been alienated from mathematics and told that it’s something apart from what they’re able to do.”

More-than-human is a lot like mathematics in this regard. Despite being very much apart of everyone’s daily lives, it seems like only those in the loop are privileged to the ‘special’ knowledge of what it’s really about. And yet, as a globally embodied reality, we all have the ability to (really!) know the more-than-human as much as mathematics. Both are all around us, all of the time – often without us even noticing. Indeed, more-than-human is all about challenging alienation and separation by recognising that human lives are intimately part of a far broader arrangement of species, forces, and existences than our own – a more-than-human world.

Amazing photographic artworks by Christoffer Relander that blend human and non-human images. Beautifully suggestive of humans as part of a more-than-human world, and carrying that awareness in our lives and being.

When considering how to communicate ‘more-than-human’ to those outside of my discipline, I found the urgency in Joan Countryman’s commitment to re-establishing the connections between students’ lives and mathematics poignant. She suggests that by doing things a little differently

“…you begin to make connections. Unless you make those connections, children will always think of mathematics as somehow ‘other than me – not part of my world’”.

Such ‘othering’ and separation is precisely what more-than-human seeks to challenge through building connections with our broader ecological contexts. But how can we convey such disciplinary concepts to the uninitiated? And should we?

I can’t help but think of my ecological humanities tutorial group – a diverse mix of disciplines, many who have never ventured into the ecological or social sciences, coming together to engage with human relationships with a more-than-human world. The major assessment task is to keep a journal that reflects on how you ‘get to know’ a particular non-human ‘other’. What I love about this task is that it is so simple, and yet so baffling at the same time! Students are approaching the task with caution, uncertainty, and sheer distrust of their tutor! I understand – the freedom to write reflectively, subjectively and even wildly hypothetically is not the usual way things are done at university – and often with good reason. Countryman comments on a similar phenomenon within mathematics, noting that

“there’s a heavy emphasis on…numbers as the sole language and the right answer as the sole objective.”

When I read this statement, I recall the approval-seeking that was rife as students shared their early thoughts about their journaling task. I also noted the lack of variety in ways that students were planning on ‘getting to know’ their non-human associate – almost all had planned rudimentary objective investigations in order to find out a specific answer to a specific question. While there’s nothing wrong with that approach, I felt that it missed the point of the task in a lot of ways, because there is no specific question, and certainly no specific answer. The task is about relating and reflecting as a way of ‘getting to know’, of learning ‘with’ rather than ‘about’.

41A4bai

The students were baffled – and possibly alarmed. What were the precise instructions about how to do it?” What are we going to be graded on here? What exactly are we supposed to write about?” I wonder if such responses have anything to do with the dualisms of approval – right/wrong, pass/fail, yes/no – so entrenched in education? Countryman spoke of this in relation to mathematics as a question/answer based binary, one that I see reflected often in the ways that university students are trained to think.

8623824_orig

But then I consider that we are trained to think that way for a reason. In some disciplines, like science, it is critically important to implementing one’s craft. While disciplinary jargon may not be engaging to the uninitiated, isn’t that the point of the word ‘discipline’? Despite my commitment to make academia a service to those we do research for and with, I can’t help but wonder if there is a danger of losing commitment, skill and discipline in one’s field of speciality by opening it up to too much of the ambivalent? For me personally, I shudder all too often at the misuse of ecological knowledge by over-zealous conservation activists – a stark reminder that ‘discipline’ means the investment of years of time and effort to learn your field deeply. Or is the ‘ambivalent’ exactly the kind of messiness that some disciplines – like geography – need in order to unsettle entrenched ways of thinking? Certainly some food for thought there.

Interestingly, as the ecological humanities class began to realise that no, I wasn’t tricking them, and yes, I was serious, a beautiful eruption of ideas began to flower. Some students drew strength and inspiration from their science-based hypotheses and experiments, and that was great! Some planned to casually blog their observations as daily reflections, while others considered writing narrative stories about their experiences, drawing pictures, or taking photos. They had begun to realise that they were free to engage on their terms – and perhaps also on the terms of their non-human associate. Throughout Zinnser’s (1989) chapter, there is a real sense of the interdisciplinary – realising that we are not islands floating alone in space, but inescapably linked and bumping into each other, whether it be to assist, support or challenge.

This is dynamic, and useful. It is needed.

References:

Zinsser, W.K., 1989. “Writing Mathematicsin Writing to learn. New York: Harper & Row.

Academic Writing: Being of service…but to whom?

Long have I agonised over what we are doing here, as academics. Five years of writing within the restrictive, opinion-less neutrality of science left me feeling so disenchanted that I had to question what it meant to the world we were supposedly setting out to assist through knowledge sharing. If I – after years of training – struggled to be engaged by the writing I and my colleagues were producing, how on earth could science as a discipline expect to share anything but confusion? Interestingly, things are not much different in the humanities once you get past the bedazzlement of the decorative language in abundance! When I think about the past year in my new disciplinary shoes, I feel a certain empathy with Helen Sword (2012) when she talks about not  knowing if she was cut out for this, the imposter syndrome sneaking in a little more with every disciplinary buzz word, jargon term, or confounding sentence. I, too, wondered for a long time if I was knowledgable enough to be a legitimate contributor to my discipline.

brain cheese

Admittedly, as a higher degree research student, I hold myself to a set of standards that are largely governed by not quite being there yet. Like Howard Becker’s (2007) stunned research student unable to consider simple, clear language as sufficiently ‘academic’, I often feel my writing contained, imprisoned by disciplinary standards and the pressure to prove oneself so often encountered by lowly students. But we aren’t lowly! We have made it this far for a reason, and that success requires ownership of our unique styles and the inherent self-confidence that comes with it. Easier said than done, though, right?

Academia, to me, has always been about knowledge-sharing and challenging ‘the way things are’ alongside suggestions for ‘the way things could be’. It’s about changing the world, the betterment of lives and societies so that they may flourish in a world that is healthy, just and creative. But is that what we are doing here? Becker (2007) suggests that “the academic-intellectual world has an ambiguous and uneasy relationship to the ordinary world, and many academics worry about their own relation to ordinary people”. What is the point of producing and disseminating knowledge that is understandable only to a few? How do we challenge unjust societal privilege, for instance, when we privilege knowledge through our writing? And what is this ‘relation to ordinary people’ business, anyway? Aren’t we supposed to be writing for the good of all? Are we not ordinary people with our own mundane ordinary lives, too?

It seems to me that academic writing – and dare I say, particularly the writing of research students who have yet to be fully indoctrinated into their disciplinary frameworks – ought to be produced in a spirit of service to ‘the ordinary folk’. Who is ordinary anyway? Let’s face it, there is nothing more stifling to inspiration and motivation than forcing your way through a dry, or perhaps over-moist, piece of writing, and I know I’m not the only higher degree research student to have encountered plenty of those.

wtf

Academic writing – the sharing of knowledge, the gift of learning together – should be pleasurable, engaging and stimulating. It should outrage and infuriate, astonish and inspire, grab hold and not let go until the very last word. It should provoke those subtle, quiet smiles that give away the moment of solidarity, impress, or perhaps even kinship you have just experienced through the words of another. Most importantly, academic writing should have these effects on the everyday reader, not just the privileged academic circles.

And if it is difficult to read, perhaps it isn’t really worth reading…? Or is it? We must be careful here, because as Sword (2012) mentions – style is unique. Some writers will resonate with you more than others, and that’s okay. You may not like the particular style of a writer, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a bad writer. In my discipline of more-than-human geography, Donna Haraway and Sarah Whatmore are amongst those key contributors who everyone cites in their own work as a matter of giving the disciplinary nod to pioneers in a field, (or perhaps just to make it look like they know what they are talking about!). But I have yet to make it through a single example of their work feeling inspired, or even that I have grasped the deeper concepts that they genuinely have spearheaded in important ways. These are good researchers, and good writers – for their particular audiences. That audience, however, simply does not include me, or my style of writing. I do not relate to Haraway’s tongue-in-cheek rhetoric, though I can appreciate the cleverness behind it; nor do I find inspiration in Whatmore’s sophisticated language, though I can appreciate the elegance and grace with which she wields it. We must always consider our intended audience, and the audience of those whom we read, and have the reflexivity to acknowledge that some good writers just don’t work for us, and that’s okay. It doesn’t – or at least, it shouldn’t – reflect negatively on us as capable academics and researchers.

I would like to see academic writing that is enlivened, that seeks to enchant readers and draw them in. Perhaps it is time for academia to catch up with the times, or risk becoming irrelevant to the societies it intends to contribute to. If we are not relevant in both the content and style of our work, we are not accessible, and thus not doing our jobs effectively. This means having the courage to step out of ways of writing that are comfortable, and I am inspired here by the collaborative work being undertaken in Bawaka Country in North-Eastern Arnhem Land (see, for example, Wright, et al. 2012; Bawaka Country et al. 2015), where geographers co-author papers with Indigenous people and with Bawaka Country itself. The writing style of these works diverges from traditional academic structures and instead reflects a more storied and relational account that is meaningful to the people and places that the research is about (and with). The writing is relevant, and is thus of meaningful service. And academia should – as its primary function – be of service to a progressive world.

Welcome to My Country | FINAL COVER REVISED (17 April 2013)

Academic writing in service to Country: co-researched and co-authored work with Bawaka Country, an exemplar of academia that is relevant to audience.

References:

Becker, H., 1986. Persona and authority. Writing for social scientists, pp.26-42.

Country, B., Wright, S., Suchet-Pearson, S., Lloyd, K., Burarrwanga, L., Ganambarr, R., Ganambarr-Stubbs, M., Ganambarr, B. and Maymuru, D., 2015. Working with and learning from Country: decentring human author-ity. cultural geographies22(2), pp.269-283.

Sword, H., 2012. Stylish academic writing. Harvard University Press.

Wright, S., Lloyd, K., Suchet-Pearson, S., Burarrwanga, L., Tofa, M. and Country, B., 2012. Telling stories in, through and with Country: Engaging with Indigenous and more-than-human methodologies at Bawaka, NE Australia. Journal of Cultural Geography29(1), pp.39-60.

Engaging the Anthropocene through the Final (vertical) Frontier!

  1. Space, the final frontier? Engage!

“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilisations…to boldly go where no man has gone before.”

Flourishing in a family of nerdy space geeks, these words have been an almost holy mantra all of my life. Emerging from the 1960’s, some of the language is noticeably colonial, but it is something I am willing to overlook when one considers how ahead of its time – conceptually and culturally – Star Trek actually was back then. Its later incarnations – Next Generation, Voyager and Deep Space Nine – steadily built on the growing legacy of envisioning a more inclusive, self-aware society…even if they didn’t always get it right. The vision and intention was there, and I believe the take-away point was that there will always be hiccups, grey areas and difficulties when it comes to navigating new relationships and politics. Sometimes we contradict ourselves, particularly when our understanding of things is challenged or we begin to reject rigid, dualistic categories for ourselves and begin the arduous, messy task of bringing multiple knowledges together. With relatives who speak fluent Klingon, play Dungeons & Dragons, and scan the skies for UFO’s, it’s no surprise that as a neurodivergent scientist/geographer, I have made heroes of contradictory characters like Seven-of-Nine, Scully, Professor Xavier and Magneto, Bruce Wayne, and of course, Mr Spock. Cautiously, I must confess that – like a truly ripe barrel of contradictions – I am the proud owner of both a Star Trek science officer uniform and Fox Mulder’s famous ‘I Want To Believe’ poster. It’s true, but hey – embrace your eccentricities and let that little light shine, right?

e3f0b4793067991ff3fa13e1701cc37d

The point is that I have always looked up and out. When you care about our planet, but also face the monumental challenges facing both the natural and human worlds, hopelessness is a force that is not always easy to keep at bay. Sometimes it seems as though we have gone too far, reached the point of no return. So I have looked up. I have looked out there, dreaming of beings who didn’t exploit and damage their worlds, who had recognised their past mistakes and made every effort to evolve differently, consciously. I dreamt of heroes saving worlds through progress, technology and creativity executed gently and with compassion, and hoped for a day when perhaps they would make ‘first contact’ and share with us their enlightenment.

first-contact
The epic moment of ‘First Contact’ between humans and the Vulcans that began a major shift in human consciousness and conduct.

But in just my meagre lifetime, I have found that looking up is becoming a more and more profound experience, increasingly characterised by uncertainty and anxiety. A battle has been taking place up there, invisible yet disturbingly evident. Of course, I am referring to climate change, one of the big symptoms of what we are now calling the ‘Anthropocene’, the Age of Man. Climate change is potentially human-kind’s next clearest conceptualisation of a vertical dimension after outer-space itself, and one that has serious repercussions for the current inhabitants of our world, including ourselves.

Never before have we so desperately needed guidance from above (whether it be sought from God, Allah, Buddha, Gaia or Spock), and yet at the same time, our critical first contact with the Anthropocene arguably came from above. With phasers set to stun, we have since set out to understand and contain this Anthropocene, crossing into the mysterious Neutral Zone where humans do not live, entering the vertical dimensions of above and below to explain the symptoms ravaging our horizontal spaces.

In our short existence, it is evident that we have fundamentally changed the face of the planet, but very few ever really thought it would be that big of a deal, right? Despite the global losses in biodiversity, the collapse of ecosystems, and the alteration of landscapes, we were so sure that life would somehow continue to live long and prosper. But then we started to look at more than just the face of the planet. You see, it turns out that our human activities have violated the Prime Directive of non-interference in planetary development and fundamental biological processes…because as we look deeper into the vertical dimensions of the earth, we are finding an awful lot of just that.

2. Looking down: the vertical voyage to explore (engage) strange new volumes…

Stuart Elden (2013) bought my gaze downward by asking a simple question: “what would it mean to ‘secure the volume’?” We’ve all heard those camo-clad guys (and white-clad if you include the storm-troopers) in sinister tinted-window helmets running around battlefields hollering ‘secure the area’ in what I have always called ‘the walkie-talkie voice’. Traditional human warfare has largely occurred over horizontal surface areas, but the advent of serious aerial and aquatic modes of combat in World War II pushed the boundaries of space into vertical dimensions. Suddenly, attacks from aircraft in the skies and submarines submerged beneath the waves held the key to domination (Elden 2013)…a thousand men on the ground means nothing when a single fighter jet can drop a bomb on them all. As Foucalt (2007) aptly suggested, “the vertical is not one of the dimensions of space, it is the dimension of power”.

We are fighting a new battle now – the Anthropocene – and once again, the dimension of power is being played out vertically. The traditional battlefield has been discarded and replaced with a more 3-Dimensional ‘battlespace’ (Elden 2013). The height aspect of this battlespace is perhaps the most well-known, familiar force of the Anthropocene: climate change. But perhaps less mainstreamed and accessible is what’s going on deep underground. As we – a global community of academics, students, professionals, stakeholders, civilians, other-than-humans, and all-round earthlings – attempt to discover the Anthropocene and what its problematic symptoms may mean for us all, the underground increasingly commands our attention…and our engagement.

814ae8ec080ce5c6bbd2142f9dfdc425386c52e389cf400169386df7a73b1570
The ever famous prompt of Captain Picard reminding us to get moving, to take it seriously, and to stay on task.

When Elden (2013) discusses the significance of “the historical landscape concealed underneath”, I cannot help but think about the emergence of the Anthropocene story via geology. Just as artefacts and histories are pulled from the underground, so too has the Anthropocene in the form of ‘golden spikes’ written into rock strata, ice-cores and other unexpected geological findings of our human impact in the subterranean landscape (Zalasiewicz et al. 2008; Lewis & Maslin 2015).

Adey (2013) extends Elden’s conceptualisation of ‘volume’ even further to include the volumes of books, something that I found irresistibly charming given my interest in narrative forms and story-sharing. How appropriate that the volumes of the Anthropocene story should be written in the volumetric body of the Earth: in the depths of the underground, like tattoos marking significant rites of passage, events, trials and tribulations; and in the heights of the atmosphere, like imaginings, dreams and nightmares! It is significant that what potentially represents the two biggest evidences for the Anthropocene as a global epoch– climate change and geological traces – both occur as stories told in the vertical dimensions. When Peter Adey (2010a) said that “both the ground and the air reside in vertical reciprocity”, I wonder if he was aware, or even imagined, that the stories of climatic change unfolding above were the result of older stories recorded below? I wonder what stories are being recorded deep in the body of the Earth today, and how they will be told above in the future?

3. Looking in, out, through, and under: vertical dimensions & the search for new life and new civilisations.

Adey (2013) talks about ‘bodily’ conceptions of volume, where cultural and political histories and futures are ‘grounded’ to volumetric territory through ‘deep’ connections with place, time, and being that are ‘solidified’ through our interactions with the underground. For instance, we bury our dead underground, and so too does the planet.

In 2012, I engaged with the underground meaningfully for the first time when I encountered the Cathedral Caverns in Alabama. I was awed not only by the sheer depth of the rock and earth around me, but also the depth of realisation that occurred upon viewing the fossilised remains of a prehistoric shark tooth, along with a myriad of fossilised invertebrates and plants, that not a single member of my species had ever co-existed with. It was a sobering reminder of how small I am compared to my world, my planet and the time She keeps, and that She can and will bury her dead in geological eras and move on. The sharks whose teeth are embedded in the earth-body of these underground walls, great predators of the once submerged world that I now walked upon, probably never considered that they would one day cease to exist while existence continued to roll on. It made me wonder…are we humans, in all our arrogance and self-confidence, really justified in expecting anything different?

prehist-shark-tooth
Prehistoric fossilised shark tooth embedded in the rock.

Just as we dream of life beyond the stars, present and future lives underground provide intriguing imaginings towards ‘securing the volume’. As a keen birder, my eyes – once again – are often trained upwards. But even our feathered friends are interacting with the underground – tropical swiftlets have developed the use of echolocation and build their mud nests on cave walls alongside their nocturnal, subterranean counterparts, the bats (Price et al. 2005; Thomassen & Povel 2006), while the similarly echo-locating oilbird lives much deeper in caves, supposedly never seeing the light of day (Holland et al. 2009). Working in the Sturt Stony Desert a few years back introduced me to life underground – something I was casually aware of, but not meaningfully engaged with. Even as I took inventories of birds and bats above, a vast community of invertebrates, reptiles and small mammals were utilising underground networks of tunnels and vertical migration to escape the heat and harsh desert conditions (Measey & Barot 2006; Warnecke et al. 2012). Life in the unforgiving desert flourishes underground! And not just animal life – water, minerals, nutrients, fungi, and so much more live hidden, shadowed lives that contribute insurmountably to life above.

690oilb-1
The nocturnal, echo-locating, cave-dwelling oilbird.

These interactions prompt me to wonder – could these strange new worlds, new lives and new civilisations one day include our own? Well, in many ways the underground already includes us. Just consider how much of our infrastructure is buried beneath the surface, and the critical services – like communication, electricity, air-cooling, and transport – that they provide. Consider mineral extraction and the growth of food. It all happens underground!

There has been a lot of consideration in recent times around a concept called ‘half-earth’ (Hiss 2014; Wilson 2016). It is said that we are experiencing the sixth great extinction of species on our planet. Global biodiversity loss seems to walk hand-in-hand with the growth of a single species: Homo sapiens, us. What possibilities exist to shift certain human activities underground, utilising our technology to achieve what other species cannot, and set aside that half-earth for our more-than-human kin? How would we ensure that shifting activities underground would not equate to shifting environmental and social problems underground, out of sight, out of mind as well?  Ideas have a way of creating complex questions moreso than answers, but we have demonstrated ourselves to be a pragmatic species capable of remarkable ingenuity and creativity when we put our minds – and necessarily, I believe, our hearts – into a project. These are fanciful ideas for now, but nonetheless, they are ideas that flow upwards from the underground into the realm of possibility and consideration.

genesis_cave_1
Genesis Cave from The Wrath of Khan.

4. Taking a view from below: boldly going where no one has gone before!

Elden (2013) referred to our ‘view from above’ approach, so beautifully and magically captured in images of our blue planet from space. But he also asks what about a view from below? Outer space has always been my ‘final frontier’…until now, thanks to a discovery of a love for caves and underwater encounters in recent years. There are strange new worlds underground, lives and civilisations both past and present that we have only ‘scratched the surface’ of our understanding of. Perhaps in these life stories, and the perspectives from below that they lend to us, we will find answers and ideas to situate and guide us into the new epoch. Like the crew of the Starship Enterprise, we can be explorers (or, less colonially, engagers!) and seekers – not out there, but instead within – of collaborative coexistence with our planet.

We must ‘secure the volume’ via our joint efforts and skills in order to ensure survival. We must literally read the writing on the walls, the Anthropocene etched in volumes of rock, earth-body. With so much at stake, the process of engaging the vertical Anthropocene can potentially either be a bit of a ‘shoot now, ask questions later’, Captain-Kirk-style approach; or a rigorous but often slow process of more Spock-like calculative investigation that may not provide the timely answers we need right now.

But just as Captain Kirk and Spock consolidated their differences to come together as an unprecedented force able to tackle any challenge thrown their way, so too must we if we are to be effective in engaging with the Anthropocene. The tempering of passion into the iron, stone and gold of logical contemplation of new underground possibilities forges tools and weapons that, like Captain Kirk and Spock, are intimately connected in a partnership that ensures survival, efficiency, and the capacity to imagine and test new ideas, ways and innovations. And perhaps, to re-imagine some old knowledges too.

Engaging the underground – though not new – still holds mysteries and secrets, a hidden ‘cave of wonders’ yet to be fully imagined or understood. The potential for ‘exploring strange new worlds’ and ‘seeking out new life and new civilisations’ in the vertical dimensions presents a tantalizing realm of possibilities and imaginings for our future existence – maybe those lives and civilisations will be our own, co-habiting the below alongside the above and out. Mark Smith of the Geospatial Corporation said that the “underground is truly the final frontier” (Drummond 2010). Do we dare boldly go?

c2f806c3b5ed81d4abf9c01479085a9d-1

References:

Adey, P., 2013. Securing the volume/volumen: comments on Stuart Elden’s plenary paper ‘Secure the volume’. Political Geography, (34), pp.52-54.

Hiss, T., 2014. Can the world really set aside half of the planet for wildlife?. Smithsonian Magazine, viewed 29th April 2016, < http://tesf.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/Hiss-20141.pdf&gt;

Holland, R.A., Wikelski, M., Kümmeth, F. and Bosque, C., 2009. The secret life of oilbirds: new insights into the movement ecology of a unique avian frugivore. PLoS One4(12), p.e8264.

Lewis, S.L. and Maslin, M.A., 2015. Defining the anthropocene. Nature,519 (7542), pp.171-180.

Measey, G.J. and Barot, S., 2006. Evidence of seasonal migration in a tropical subterranean vertebrate. Journal of Zoology269(1), pp.29-37.

Drummond, K., 2010, Pentagon-backed venture aims for ‘Google underground’, viewed 28th April 2016, <https://www.wired.com/2010/03/pentagon-backed-venture-aims-for-google-underground/&gt;

Price, J.J., Johnson, K.P., Bush, S.E. and Clayton, D.H., 2005. Phylogenetic relationships of the Papuan Swiftlet Aerodramus papuensis and implications for the evolution of avian echolocation. Ibis147(4), pp.790-796.

Thomassen, H.A. and Povel, G.D.E., 2006. Comparative and phylogenetic analysis of the echo clicks and social vocalizations of swiftlets (Aves: Apodidae). Biological Journal of the Linnean Society88(4), pp.631-643.

Warnecke, L., Körtner, G., Burwell, C.J., Turner, J.M. and Geiser, F., 2012. Short-term movement patterns and diet of small dasyurid marsupials in semiarid Australia. Australian Mammalogy34(1), pp.49-54.

Wilson, E.O., 2016. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life. LiverlightPublishing Corporation.

Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Smith, A., Barry, T.L., Coe, A.L., Bown, P.R., Brenchley, P., Cantrill, D., Gale, A., Gibbard, P. and Gregory, F.J., 2008. Are we now living in the Anthropocene?. Gsa Today18(2), p.4