Alf Siewers, the second of ten extraordinary speakers at the GW MEMSI Ecologies Symposium last Friday, began his talk on "Trees" with a still from the 2012 film adaptation of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. I couldn't help it; under my breath I whispered: "Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."
Before moving to DC I taught camps and overnights for three years at the Oregon Zoo. The education department is situated within the Conservation division at the zoo, and the staff truly took that to heart. Our values where statements such as "all animals are amazing," and "every habitat is unique and worthy of protection," and The Lorax was an important touchstone. Especially for the younger campers (our largest group), "Unless" served as a metonym for everything we were trying to do. We put it on buttons and art projects, and a week of camp wasn't complete without a reading of the book (preferably by Kathayoon, who took great pride in having memorized the long story). We really, truly cared - about animals, about habitats, about environmental justice - and we wanted our students to care, too.
I bring this up because of the centrality of questions of care at Friday's event. Hopelessly imprisoned within anthropocentric ways of being and knowing, how do we pay attention to the inhuman world with which we are imbricated but which we cannot ever totally understand or grasp? As James Smith put it (quoting something which I didn't get down: please correct me in the comments), "why do we love you, oh world, as you flee from us?" Put slightly differently, this question animated the entire symposium: How do we love you, oh world, as you flee from us? The inclusion of Ian Bogost provided some important resistance to thess questions: Bogost wonders, should we even care (particularly in the verb sense), since caring - extending questions of ethics, morality, violence to inhuman others - is also always irredeemably anthropocentric?
At his first appearance, the Lorax introduces himself this way: "I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees. I speak for the trees for the trees have no tongues." During the Q & A, someone (please correct me if you know who: I was assisting with catering and not taking notes at this point) suggested that, when creatively and thoughtfully deployed, anthropocentrism can be a means to productive and ethical ends. I agree wholeheartedly (I've argued elsewhere that anthropocentric thinking can itself lead to imaginative forms of what Bogost calls "carpentry"), and it seemed to me that the panelists put this into elegant and careful practice. In the end, I want to resist the (undeniable) logic espoused by Ian Bogost and embrace instead a messier, more imperfect caring, even though such an affect is inherently dangerous: as Steve Mentz put it in his talk on shipwreck, "the vessels that have carried us this far are coming to pieces under our feet." Let us embrace, then, an illogical care, always knowing that we are inherently blind to the world as it is blind to us, that every alliance we form will always leave other actors out in the cold, but also that, as Mentz points out, a least we're all sinking on the same ship.