This week, Feral: A Nearly Carbon Neutral Conference went live on the website of the Political Ecology Research Centre (PERC) of Massey University in New Zealand. Decipher City submitted our previous podcast, “Green Communities, Black Spaces,” for the panel on Feral Populations, Week 3 of the Conference. Since that time, we’ve checked out a handful of the other presentations and the conference at large. The presentations can be accessed here: http://perc.ac.nz/wordpress/feral/
As we previously mentioned, the concept behind “Feral” is that academics submit videos and audio files to a digital conference hosted online and respond to one another in comment threads, rather than burning jet fuel to present at the event in person. In addition to being ecologically responsible, the publicly available digital record is also accessible, making what is often exclusive (presentations by professional academic s) available to non-specialists and laypeople. The conference and the hosting organization PERC are also intensely interdisciplinary. The disciplines represented included geography, media studies, environmental studies, public health, archaeology, anthropology and indigenous studies.
The presentation topics varied widely, but most focused in some degree or another on ecologies–systems of human/animal/environment interactions and dependencies, and how they go wrong (and sometimes right). A number of presenters looked at the long histories of changing landscapes, and examined how cultural factors shaped ecologies over time. Kevin O’Briant’s historical musings on the history of corn cultivation hit a lot of interesting notes for us in this regard. The main arc of the presentation was to point out the difficulty in establishing a hard line between what is natural–plants and animals living freely in the wild–and what is human-made–crops and domesticated animals we rely on for food. Sydney Hart examined the history of trade in the St. Lawrence river in Canada, how its form was adjusted to facilitate maritime trade, and how the cultural histories of Mohawk people have been erased to facilitate these incompatible and narrow uses.
A good number of the projects dealt with the immediate and frightening reality of climate change and species loss. In her presentation on pollinators and the food supply in Colombia, Dr. Marcela Cely Santos analyzed the ways in which bees contribute to human health in food, while also reminding us that habitat fragmentation and pesticides are rapidly exterminating them (and since pollinators interact with 75% of the worlds food crop species, we have a lot to worry about). Jonathan Wald discussed a dam collapse in Brazil that released thousands of tons of toxic mining waste into city waterways, killing fish and contaminating potable water. Essentially, increased flows in combination with corporate negligence and aging infrastructure all combined to create what was both a human and natural disaster. He also points out that global climate change is increasing the severance and frequency of these disasters. When we consider the recent out of control wildfires in California, sparked by human error but made worse by a climate change driven drought and the collapse of old electrical lines, we see similar analogs in this country.
Finally, the project most similar or relevant to Decipher City was a fantastic analysis of federal funding in Australia for housing for indigenous people by Liam Grealy and Tess Lea. The authors examine the gap between what is needed in terms of housing resources, and what is actually provided (and why). Fundamentally, federal housing support provided by the government, because it cannot turn a profit or participate in larger market capitalist systems, is intermittent at best and negligent at worst. They note that the Australian government also has what they call an “assembly fetish”, concentrating on fast and often cheap and poor quality new builds (and the commiserate photo opportunities) but failing to follow up on systematic maintenance issues that ultimately make the homes unlivable. While private consultants conduct study after study on housing stock, or on the residents themselves, compiling vast troves of data and ever more policy documents, people who needed safe housing yesterday–or simply a lock fixed or a shower replaced–are forced to wait or move. Grealy and Lea’s presentation on indigenous housing in Australia has, we believe, a lot of parallels with the discussion of public housing for communities of color in the U.S. There is much to follow up on, and a lot to think about.