Sunday, March 30, 2008

Where and When the West Ran Out of West

Kvaløya Conversations
News from the Western Frontier

When the West ran out of West

The natural history and unnatural geography of Rational Progress

In the 20th Century, Western Civilization ran its geographical course to the edges of its own world in the Arctic North and the West at California’s Pacific coastline. These frontiers compose an edge where the West ran out of West.

After a brief celebration of economic paroxysm in the after-war years, the 21st-Century view over the Pacific Ocean is overwhelming: the weight of five millenia on our backs, ahead the open Ocean. Underfoot the ashes of displaced cultures, the foundations of our own well-being, work like poisons on the soil, the seas bereft of fisheries, our own progeny tainted. This would be a moment for historical reflection, a moment to look back upon the advance of the West and ask whither to step next.

In April and May, 2008, three prominent historians of science, technology, urbanism and progress will converge on the Arctic island of Kvaløya, Norway, to conduct a sustained reflection on the path of the West, its frontier and where the future may lead at this pregnant geographical moment. Americans mirrored on the contested waters of the Barents Sea, we will bring up the news from those frontiers where the West struggles to maintain its pace.

David Noble, celebrated author on the history of rationality, technology, education and knowledge, will frame the stage.

Iain Boal, historian of technics and social organizer, Guggenheim Fellow from Berkeley, California, will lead us into the headwaters of the scarcity stories that feed the nomadic way of life of Western (agri-)culture.

Gray Brechin, key Berkeley author in the history of urbanism and the concentration and expoliation of natural resources, will chart the latest versions of the constructed paradise.

Ignacio Chapela, Associate Professor at Berkeley and Visiting Scholar in the Norwegian Institute of Gene Ecology, Tromsø, invites and converses.

Individual contributions:

15 April, 2008
Beyond the Promised Land: five millenia of a half-storybook.

20 April, 2008
Darwin without Malthus: on scarcity, nature, geography, and knowledge making under conditions of spectacle.

20 April, 2008

20 May, 2008
Urban Power – Earthly Ruin: ecological costs and concentration in the civitas’ geography.

Additional opportunities for conversations will emerge. Please come, and please keep an eye on http://www.blogspot

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Mexico's Rice Border

Boundaries and flows. This time the Mexico-US border, this time rice.

The news from Mexico this Wednesday are difficult to believe: from one day to the next the Mexican government found the political will and muscle to stop something that has been going on for years. Indeed something that is desired by the government, because of the vested interests represented in the presidency as well as some of the richest people in the country (i.e. the world).

The only way I can explain it to myself, without having much insider information, is that it might be actually the US rice growers who are closing the border. There is good reason to believe that a good part of the Starlink event, which was the model of contamination to which US consumers will respond, was actually initiated in Mexico, and that the contaminated taco shells and other products were backwash from the reprocessing industry at the unregulated maquiladora strip along the border, or even deeper in the Country. Rice growers would know - seed contamination is not easy to contain, especially if you pass the process through the purposefully-unregulated Mexican territory.

If this were true, the strange news could be read as an interesting result of the contradictions that seem to keep tugging at the heart of the whole biotech morass: must have control, but must also have freedom from regulations or any standard of social and biological responsibility.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

14 March.
Please come prepared for a demanding argument.

Click on the image to enlarge

Monday, February 26, 2007

Memoricide at Memorial Stadium

The following text was given to us by Gray Brechin following his conversation in the Walks

Memoricide at Memorial Stadium

As I finished this, the building shuddered from a quake centered nearby.

Thank you, Ignacio, for getting me and assorted others into these ambulatory seminars without credit or debit — to reconsider and resee what now seems almost a geological fixture in the landscape but which is in fact the product of past political maneuvering, an acrimonious cleavage between town and gown, and violence wrought upon the land 85 years ago in alleged memory of those who perished in the psychopathic violence of a world war. Because our culture does not regard land as constituting a living matrix, we seldom see our alterations of it as acts of savagery and quickly become accustomed to scars and amputations as “natural.” This is what Matthew Taylor refers to as environmental memoricide. But when terracide in the past and present lays the groundwork for potential mass homicide in the future, we must try to recover what has been repressed in memory.

Fortunately, the Bancroft Library and map collections constitute a public memory richly suggestive of how the mouth of Strawberry Canyon once looked, what was required to create the present landscape, and what is in store for the university and its neighbors if a past folly is amplified by ignoring the initial mistake of building Memorial Stadium by expanding its use now.

Matthew and I visited the Bancroft Library where he had called up photographs of the original canyon and the construction of the stadium. One easily understands the anger felt by many Berkeleyans as a promontory ridge to the north was sliced away by hydraulic monitors to make a 60-foot high podium consisting of 280,000 cubic yards of fill on top of the Hayward Fault as well as the steep escarpment since dubbed “Tightwad Hill.”

In The Story of the Stadium, local resident William Henry Smyth enumerated community objections to the Regents’ last-minute decision to site the Coliseum in the canyon. They are almost exactly those of today: “sacrificing one of Nature’s priceless gems to the purposes of commercialized ‘sport,’” traffic congestion and the immense amount of asphalt needed to park cars for games, as well as the danger posed by blocking egress from Panoramic Hill.

That hill is a terrifying case study well suited to Mike Davis’s holistic revelations of the perilous triumph of realty over reality. We saw on our walk the experimental houses built by local architect-engineer Walter Steilberg after the Berkeley hills fire of 1923 demonstrated the folly of building wood frame and shingle-sheathed houses on constricted roads on land fated to burn. Steilberg’s Fabricrete structures —made entirely of concrete and tile — were meant to be not just fire resistant but fireproof. But that was in the 1920s when steep, narrow, and winding Panoramic Road served only a few scattered houses on the hill. As memory of the 1923 holocaust faded and the value of view lots rose, hundreds of wooden houses sprang up in an ever-more bosky landscape. Rising land value aided by memoricide has vastly compounded the danger of constricted egress since Smyth wrote his booklet in 1923.

But he alluded to another danger left unspecified: “And last come the Regents who are interested and will be deemed responsible for the outcome in all its phases and whether of glorious success or of tragic disaster — flowing from the selection of the canyon site.” I can only assume that he meant the faultline which bisected the stadium site, for the immense excavation laid the fault bare, providing a splendid opportunity to university geologists to study it. Were they, I wonder, ordered by General David Prescott Barrows, President of the University, to shut up about what they learned? More digging in the archives will be required to find the answer to that.

On the walk I read a passage that I rediscovered in Lewis Mumford’s magisterial overview The City in History (1961) as he began his survey of medieval urbanism: “As the Church ceased to be the repository of new values, the university gradually took over some of this office. This fact has placed a premium upon the detached pursuit of truth, as the dominating life value, and has ignored in large degree the realms of esthetics and morals. Thus the university has become a classic example of that over-specialization and limitation of function which now curbs human development and threatens even human survival.”

How appropriate, I thought, looking up from the canopy of oaks to the hill where E.O. Lawrence’s 184-inch cyclotron began separating the U-235 needed for the Hiroshima bomb. But there, too, stood the monumental and arcaded flank of Memorial Stadium modeled on the Roman Coliseum. Mumford taught a few classes at Cal but was not offered a position here since he had never received his B.A. and — as a friend who was there told me — the faculty grew tired of his harping upon the danger posed by the superior nuclear weapons the university makes. Here is how Mumford concluded his section on Rome:

"From the standpoint of both politics and urbanism, Rome remains a significant lesson of what to avoid: its history presents a series of classic danger signals to warn when life is moving in the wrong direction. Whenever crowds gather in suffocating numbers, whenever rents rise steeply and housing conditions deteriorate, whenever a one-sided exploitation of distant territories removes the pressure to achieve balance and harmony nearer at hand, there the precedents of Roman building almost automatically revive, as they have come back today: the arena, the tall tenement, the mass contests and exhibitions, the football matches, the international beauty contests, the strip-tease made ubiquitous by advertisement, the constant titillation of senses by sex, liquor, and violence — all in true Roman style. So, too, the multiplication of bathrooms and the over-expenditure on broadly paved motor roads, and above all, the massive collective concentration on glib ephemeralities of all kinds, performed with supreme technical audacity. These are symptoms of the end: magnifications of demoralized power, minifications of life. When these signs multiply, Necropolis is near, though not a stone has yet crumbled. For the barbarian has already captured the city from within. Come, hangman! Come, vulture!"

Mumford died in 1990. His ecologically-informed writings are considered by some to be dated, and tiresomely preachy.
The fault, meanwhile, strains under a quarter billion tons of hydraulic slickens like a cocked and loaded gun.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Second Walk

Second argument: on memory.

This typing now, and any writing we might do, and the video-camera and web-post that LA Wood has done: all attempts at remembering what actually happened, what cannot be repeated, the historico-biological reality just lived. In our arguments, of course, we continue to abide by one of our two fundamental concepts, that Biology is a historical science, i.e. a science of things that are dependent on the trajectory of their past and are projected into the future along uncertain paths. A historical science cannot predict with certainty or decide a priori which path the process will follow into the future. All we can do –-and this is indeed scientific-- is try to remember and to do so with mindfulness of the future. For us in biology –-unlike physicists us who live in the mid-scale problem of juggling death for a laugh, bearing children into the abyss of thermodynamic inevitability and non-linear time, for us who decided by virtue of being born and keeping ourselves alive that we would surf over this as if there was solidity in the wave, as if the world was moving along with us over linear time, Earthly space and Carbon-based biologies-- for us all there is is remembering with mindful expectation of the future. Remembrance of the moment as it becomes future, the place we left for that in which we become. Just like our Academic Walks. Just like our Walks, argument-lines as they are, anchored in the humus-memory Under-the-Oaks.

Yesterday with Gray Brechin we remembered many things. Of course we would – the man would almost make you believe that all past could be recovered through his eyes, and every detail to mind about the future could be answered through his mouth, his pen. We remembered, thanks to John García (for whose Hood from Princeton years I am thankful – see adjacent blog entry) that these Academic Walks are really the remembrance of a practice that used to be well developed and widely honoured in times before the print-press: Art of Memory. Not a simple memorization method, but a practice that allows our visual brain to reach arguments in depths of history (memory) that would otherwise be inaccessible, Art of Memory explicitly assigns rhetorical value to specific sequences of places: “walks”. The ancient Greeks, self-obsessed and fond of their own buildings as they were, shrunk these walks into memory palaces, indoor representations of the outdoors. Soon enough this rarefied view of a simple walk was rejoined by the jewish tradition with its deadly fixation in the para-normal, which took the walk literally out of this world and placed it in the mythical spaces of super-human kings and warriors. Even Giordano Bruno, apparently, sought this idea in the circles of cosmic orbits, trying to find that ideal –-a-historical, thus impossible-- understanding of the world of here and now.

Under-the-Oaks it is easy to see Bruno’s mischief. Up on the North slope of Strawberry Canyon the products of the physicists’ fixed obsessions take too real a form: nuclear technology, nano-robotic dreams, the hubris of “synthetic biology”. And all the concrete that will come with it. Under-the-Oaks the arguments that I will never be able to repeat by typing are simple and clear, filled as they were yesterday with the promise of rain, the sounds of the people of the trees, the hum of rubber-tree-tires upon petro-oleum asphalt.

Gray set two lines of argumentation. First, he drew the isobar of connection between the Phoebe Hearst Amphitheatre and the Memorial Stadium, and he endowed this line with a tension between “the Greek” and “the Roman” – the open-sided meeting place for “Town and Gown” against the militaristic training place of the Roman-styled, closed Stadium. The Venus-Mars polarity, the Phoebe – William Randolph Hearst polarity. Two divergent paths available for our community, our university, and all that consequentially follows.

Second: We found also echoes of this polarity along the Moss Steps, as Gray took us along the South side of the stadium: a bifurcation requires a choice between arcadian cement or a left-turn on what he described as a “country lane” of unique beauty and unusual accumulation of architectural and environmentalist names (Gray goad). John Muir ambled in the darkening light, and a forgotten house plan gave Frank Lloyd Wright his Berkeley franchise. Sierra Club, Bohemian Club. Redwood-and-sequoia their Art of Memory, distillation of Sierran misunderstanding.

In the dark, a deep voice remembered Mike Davis and challenged: “Let Panoramic Burn?” As the day breaks, I must remember to try and get him to come with us for a walk.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


Click on the image to enlarge

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Network Set

On our first academic walk, we have covered the basics of what will become a progression towards understanding what is at stake in the destruction of Strawberry Canyon as we know it.

Five hundred million dollars are posted as reward to our administrators for aiding in the deed.

Where I say 'destruction', others would say 'development'. Strange, how language mutates as we continue to close-in on the Frontier.

Still, yesterday a very bold and exceedingly intelligent group of people gave me the privilege of their time. Forty minutes of readings and lecturing, followed by brisk (some were saying "strenuous") climb up the North slope of the Canyon to Tightwad Hill and on to "The C".

Scales were in our minds, as we argumented with our feet and pounding hearts up the steep hill. [PLEASE, please, bring as good protection of your feet as you can next week - some of us were worried we could lose some of us, precious few, to a broken ankle, although Mr Taylor showed that this cannot be counted as an excuse anymore, as he climbed all the way in his techno-cast, and still had energy to do recording and interviewing for his thesis project].

Scales. Time-scales, Space-scales, Legal-scales, Scales of human interaction. We established the first line of argumentation, which was firmly anchored by a surprisingly large number of us touching the fence at the National Lab. The argument being, self-evident as it is, that the oaks at Memorial Grove are connected to, and connectors of, a wider wildscape around the Canyon and beyond. In Time, in Space, in Legal, in human-relation terms.

This first line of walked argument could not have been better choreographed. As we climbed, our feet touched (trampled, really) very soft grass - you could almost hear it pushing out from its dry-season rest thanks to the rains that were stopped just for our walk. Sunset light, view of the Bay, then a bagpiper blowing farewell songs as we crossed into the domain of wildlife where deer, fox, racoon (and some said pig!) were shaking off their daytime sleep.

Next week - History and Gray Brechin. I have to apologize to those of you who are asking to know in advance where we will be next Wednesday. We don't know, as it will be determined by the needs of the day's argument, including weather.

Please see logistics box on the right of this blog for a couple of comments on dress and gear.