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Year : 2018  |  Volume : 16  |  Issue : 1  |  Page : 1-7

Introduction: Affective Ecologies and Conservation

Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada

Correspondence Address:
Neera M Singh
Department of Geography and Planning, University of Toronto, Toronto
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_18_33

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Date of Web Publication26-Mar-2018


Engaging the affective and materialist turn in the social sciences, this special section elaborates on how analytical attention on affect and affective relations is central to understanding human-nature relations and to conservation interventions. The contributors to this section use conceptual resources from affect theory, new materialism, and indigenous ontologies to illustrate the practical significance of paying attention to affect in understanding nature-society relations. This introduction reviews these conceptual resources to make a case for affective political ecology.

Keywords: Affect, affective ecologies, subjectivity, affective political ecology, conservation

How to cite this article:
Singh NM. Introduction: Affective Ecologies and Conservation. Conservat Soc 2018;16:1-7

How to cite this URL:
Singh NM. Introduction: Affective Ecologies and Conservation. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2018 [cited 2020 Dec 5];16:1-7. Available from: http://www.conservationandsociety.org/text.asp?2018/16/1/1/227774

   Making Affect Matter Top

In recent years, the social sciences and humanities have seen an explosion of interest in the ideas of affect and emotions. While the concept of affect has many different interpretations (Massumi 2002; Thrift 2008; Gregg and Seigworth 2010), the contributors to this special section work with the understanding of affect that derives from the Spinoza-Deleuze-Massumi lineage. Affect, in this formulation, is defined as a dynamic relationality between bodies of various kinds that enhances or diminishes the capacity of a body to affect and be affected (Deleuze 1988). Furthermore, a body in this formulation is defined not by its form or function but in terms of the affects it is capable of. Spinoza's widely cited and provocative declaration—“We do not know what a body can do”—moves attention away from what a body 'is' to what it can do and 'become'. Shifting the emphasis from 'beings' as discrete and pre-formed entities—to possibilities of 'becomings' (Ingold and Palsson 2013), Spinoza's theory of affects inspires a “truly interdisciplinary ecological thought” (Smith 2012) and a life-affirming philosophy.

The concept of 'affect', a body's capacity to affect and be affected, is similar to that of 'emergence' in the ecological sciences; it inspires thinking about the world in terms of rhizomatic interconnections, assemblages, or a complex 'coming together' of things and beings. Following Spinoza, political theorist Jane Bennett (2010) equates affect with materiality to think about the vitality and self-organising capacity of even the most seemingly inert forms of matter, such as a rock. According to Bennett (2010: 11), things are “alive in their complex interrelationships, entanglements, and propensities for open-ended change.” Employing the Spinozian notion of conatus—a striving of all bodies to continue to exist and enhance the scope of their existence—Bennett (2010: 11) further says that “the idea of purposiveness is embedded in our very concept of organism, as well as in our experience of encountering complexly organised natural things.” An attunement to affect thus re-envisions humanist notions of agency, it helps us to see agency not as a property of individuals but as emergent in relationships and provides a starting point to recognise the profound interconnections that exist everywhere.

This perspective of affects (and the philosophy of immanence that underpins it) has inspired a diverse array of non-deterministic and non-dualistic approaches that decenter the human and engage the livingness of the world under labels of 'new', 'immanent', or 'vital' materialisms 1 (Bennett 2010; Coole and Frost 2010; also see Braun 2006, 2008). With the so-called 'affective' and 'new materialist' turn, the social sciences are shifting from the cultural turn's preoccupation with discourses and representation towards a renewed interest in the world's materiality and realism (Braidotti 2013). The realist ontologies that are part of the affective turn help us to circumvent the 'realist-relativist' impasse that plagued debates between the social and natural sciences in the 1990s (Lorimer 2012: 2; for reviews, see Bakker and Bridge 2006; Anderson and Wylie 2009) and to get past the 'individual versus collective' or 'structure versus agency' debates that have long been present in the social sciences (DeLanda 2006).

The turn to affect and materiality comes at a time of urgent need to imagine new 'socioecological' futures and perform 'other worlds' into being (Gibson-Graham 2008; Braun 2015). It also comes at a time when theorists point to the limitations of totalising and critique-based approaches to address the world's most pressing problems (Sedgwick 2003; Latour 2004; Thrift 2008). However, despite the philosophical sophistication of this literature and its promise, theorists such as Bruce Braun and Sue Ruddick suggest that vitalist ontologies might enable an unthinking celebration of 'emergence' without ethical considerations about desirable futures. Furthermore, the affective turn can lead to an apolitical focus on biophysical processes or on proximate attachments that neglect the complex histories, cultures, and issues of conflict and incompatibility (Braun 2015; Ruddick 2017).

In Justice Interruptus, political theoristNancy Fraser (1997) voices a similar concern that the turn to affect can provoke a retreat to soft, psycho-cultural issues of identity at the expense of the hard, political issues of economic justice, environmental sustainability, human rights, or democratic governance. In response to Fraser, Bennett (2010: xi) argues that the bodily disciplines through which ethical sensibilities and social relations are formed and reformed are 'themselves'political and constitute a whole (underexplored) field of 'micropolitics'. As she puts it, “There can be no greening of the economy, no redistribution of wealth, no enforcement or extension of rights, without human dispositions, moods, and cultural ensembles hospitable to these effects” (ibid.). Moreover, Bennett (2010: xi) says that 'moments of sensuous enchantment' with nature, commodities, and other cultural phenomenon can play an important role in creating the 'right mood or landscape of affect' both for the endorsement of ethical principles and for their translation into lived practice. Sympathetic to both sides of the argument, Braun (2008, 2015) and Ruddick (2017) have called upon scholars to focus on the work a theory of affect 'can do' and how these ideas might inform our everyday engagements with the world and help us reconfigure our ways of being human. More specifically, Ruddick prods us to go beyond a mere celebration of the liveliness of earth and attend to how our collaborations and collectivities enhance mutual thriving—and to put our energies not only behind what we are fighting against, but what we are fighting for (Ruddick 2010, 2017). It is precisely this orientation towards alternate socio-ecological futures (Gibson-Graham 2011) that is at the core of an emerging 'affective political ecology' approach, to which this special section contributes.

   Affective Political Ecology Top

Affect theory and vitalist ontologies, as Lorimer (2012: 14) puts it, can “animate, ecologize and render affective the humanist frameworks of political ecology.” In turn, political ecology frameworks offer a 'healthy corrective to the exuberance' of new materialists and help 'track the political and economic beneficiaries of different multinatural futures' (Lorimer 2012: 14). Productive exchanges between political ecology and theories of affect and emotions are already beginning to happen (Dallman et al. 2013; Hayes-Conroy and Hayes-Conroy 2013; Singh 2013; Sultana 2015), and are laden with generative possibilities of enriching both the fields.

In political ecology, a third-generation post-constructivist political ecology has been emerging over the past decade or so (for a review, see Escobar 2010). This third-generation political ecology is engaging with relational ontologies, complexity theory, networks and emergence (Rocheleau and Roth 2007, 2008) and transpersonal flow of emotions (Sultana 2015). More broadly, a number of non-dualistic approaches that focus on inventiveness and vibrancy of life are also on the rise. These include approaches under the labels of more-than-human geographies (Whatmore 2006; Panelli 2010), posthumanism (Braidotti 2013), anthropology of life (Kohn 2013) or 'anthropology beyond humanity' (Ingold 2013), multi-species ethnography (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010; Ogden et al. 2013; van Dooren et al. 2016), animal geographies, among others. Scholars working in conservation have drawn from and contributed to these approaches by illustrating the encounter value and politics of 'lively commodities' (Collard and Dempsey 2013; Barua 2016), inter-species conviviality and intimacy beyond the dog and cat models (Lorimer 2010; Locke 2017), nonhuman labour of animals in conservation (Barua 2017), the affective appeal of celebrity environmentalism and spectacles (Brockington 2009; Igoe 2010), among others. These are only a few examples of how this work goes beyond 'unthinking' celebration of emergence, and provides tools for thinking about more 'careful' political ecology (Hinchliffe 2008) and conviviality-based conservation. The perspective of affects is especially helpful in thinking about nurturing ecologies of care—with care not seen in the sense of ''care for others (in the sense of sheltering others), but in the sense of being open to others, or being curious about others''—as something that is 'produced with and as others' (Hinchliffe 2008: 95). The perspective of affects enables thinking about fostering careful or affective political ecology that is attuned to openness to being transformed by the world.

I briefly outline below how attention on affects in nature-society studies enables: 1) thinking about the liveliness and interconnectedness of the world; 2) rethinking our conceptions of the human and human nature; and 3) reconceptualsing ecopolitics. These three themes, that I elaborate below, run through all of the papers assembled in this section to a varying degree.

Liveliness and Interconnectedness of the World

As mentioned earlier, with the turn to 'new' materialisms, the social sciences and humanities are beginning to engage with the liveliness of the world and to see it not as an inanimate backdrop to human drama but as an animate participant in it. Viewing (and living) the world as relational and animate is also central to Indigenous philosophies and ways of being (Cajete 2000; Kimmerer 2013; Escobar 2016)2. Deeply aware of their interconnectedness with the world, many Indigenous cultures often nurture a stance of humility, gratitude, and wonder at the contingency of life. Anthropologist Tim Ingold (2006: 9) attributes this stance not to Indigenous beliefs (of animism) but to 'a way of being that is alive and open to a world in continuous birth.' Contrary to the Western conception of animism as the imputation of life to inert objects, Ingold (2006: 10) describes the animacy of the lifeworld as “the dynamic, transformative potential of the entire field of relations within which beings of all kinds, more or less person-like or thing-like, continually and reciprocally bring one another into existence.” In nature-society studies, an engagement with these ideas is leading to a deeper appreciation of the interconnectedness of all life and the need to attend not only to the political, ecological, cultural, and economic dimensions, but also to the affective and emotional aspects at scales ranging from the psyche to the global.

Rethinking the Human and Human Subjectivity

Thinking relationally through affect helps us to decentre as well as rethink the human and view human nature as emergent rather than fixed and immutable. Instead of the dominant conception of 'the subject' as a 'standalone cognitive actor acting upon the world', this perspective helps us to think in terms of fluid subjectivities emergent from active engagement with the world (Ruddick 2017). As Jason Read (2015) puts it, instead of the striving for utility maximisation of homo economicus, Spinoza offers us conatus—that is, a striving for meaning and for associations that enhance our capacity to act and that give us joy. This striving explains human drives for empathy and cooperation, and a preference for fairness and equity, as an alternative to a conception of the human as a rational economic actor (Rifkin 2009; de Waal 2010; also see Peterson and Isenhour 2014). Moreover, thinking and feeling are inseparable (Damasio 2003) and are not the exclusive reserve of humans 1. Instead of elevating 'thinking' as the only way of being, a more appropriate proposition might be: 'I feel, think, and relate, and thus I become' (Singh 2017). And this becoming is necessarily a process of 'becoming with' the many others with whom we share this planet (Haraway 2008). This way of looking at subjectivities as fluid and emergent opens us possibilities for nurturing other-than-capitalist subjectivities.

Thinking-Feeling-Caring as Affective Ecologies: A New Ecopolitics

Thinking in terms of affective ecologies inspires and enables an ecopolitics rooted in care for the material world not as 'impersonal nature at a distance' but from a lived-in or kin-centric ecological perspective. Elaborating upon the kin-centric ecology of the Rarámuri in northwestern Mexico, Enrique Salmón (2000: 1327) notes that the Rarámuri view themselves and nature as part of 'an extended ecological family that shares ancestry and origins.' Moreover, they see human awareness of the'totalinterconnectedness and integration of all life' as central to the flourishing of life in their ecologies. Similarly, Robin Kimmerer (2013), in Braiding Sweetgrass, calls for fostering kin-relations with nonhuman others and for a change in the English language from 'it' to 'ki' or 'they' so as to reflect this personhood status. Thinking and writing with Bawaka country—the location of their collaboration with Yolŋu families in Arnhemland, Australia, and a collaborative author in a series of articles—Sarah Wright, Sandie Suchet-Pearson, and colleagues (Bawaka Country et al. 2015: 269) draw upon the Yolŋu ontology of co-becoming, which sees everything as 'knowledgeable, vital, and interconnected', to advance an ecopolitics that is premised on 'caring-as-country' instead of 'caring for country' (Suchet-Pearson et al. 2013). They also model an experimental form of theorising that is 'responsible and responsive to the world's patternings and murmurings' (Barad 2012: 206). Inspired by such an ecopolitics, affective political ecology is a post-constructivist and post-critique political ecology driven by a stance of hope and possibility of finding new ways of living with the earth based on a creative self-realization and inventiveness that runs through all life (Grosz 2011; Sharp 2011; Ruddick 2010, 2017).

A growing body of work engages with the ideas of affect and materiality to further the critical and deeply political projects of our times, namely, rethinking our ways of being human and belonging in the Anthropocene (Gibson-Graham 2011) and providing ways of making legible and valuing alternative socio-natures that challenge 'conventional nature-culture thinking and practice' (Jackson and Palmer 2015). These include the call for an economic ethic that nurtures the 'being-in-common' of 'all being(s), human and non-human, animate and inanimate, processual and fluid as well as categorical and definite in conception' and models of doing research as a 'process of co-transformation that re/constitutes the world' (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2010: 320). Other scholars have used vitalist ontologies to critique the commodification of nature, especially the abstraction of nature's 'immanent vitality' into 'value entities' by capital and have called for alternative 'logics of care' to promote environmental stewardship (Sullivan 2009, 2013; Jackson et al. 2017; Jackson and Palmer 2015; Singh 2015).

Closely related to work on affect and materiality is the work by feminist political ecologists who draw attention to the role of emotions and subjectivities in mediating natural-resource struggles and environmental activism (Nightingale 2011; Sultana 2011, 2015; González-Hidalgo and Zografos 2017). Engaging emotional political ecology in the context of resource struggles, management, and conservation, Sultana (2011: 164) suggests that conservation is never just a material endeavour, and emotions are never simply individually isolated, but both are part of the co-production of people and place. Morales and Harris (2014) argue that engaging emotional geographies in the context of community-based environmental work enables us to think about individual and collective subjectivities as co-emergent (also see Singh 2017) and the operation of power in the context of environmental management as at once individual, broadly transpersonal, and micro-political (see also Nunn and Gutberlet 2013). This work provides indicators as to how we might begin to conceptualise affect in conservation studies.

In my work, I have used affect theory, especially the idea of 'affective labour' to highlight how, through embodied practices of caring for degraded forests, rural residents in Odisha, India, have not only enriched their landscapes but have also cultivated environmental subjectivities (Singh 2013). This work provides openings to think about the role of 'affective socionature encounters' and the 'power' of life (biopower from below) to nurture sociality, subjectivities, and alternate ways of being. In another context, Moore et al. (2015) show how school gardens provide opportunities for students to engage in 'affective and playful labour' that fosters connections with nature and food and helps them learn and build communities. The therapeutic effect of loving and caring for plants in urban ecologies also features in some recent studies (Lang 2014; Archambault 2016). This work shows that environmental subjectivities can be nurtured through embodied practices and highlights the centrality of caring labour in nurturing local economies and ecologies (Gibson-Graham and Roelvink 2010; Singh 2017). These ideas have also been mobilised in manifestos for conservation based on ideas of 'multispecies abundance'—that is, more diverse and autonomous forms of life and ways of living together (Collard et al. 2015; Tsing 2015; also see Weber 2013).

Conceptual resources for reworking our ways of being, relating, and belonging are also coming from Indigenous ontologies and voices from around the world, a notable example of which is the Zapatistas' vision of 'a world where many worlds can live.' Linking the current ecological crisis to nature-culture dualism, Marisol de la Cadena (2015) uses the term 'Anthropo-not-seen' to suggest that the 'anthropocene' is a result of modernity's (and capitalism's) attempt to impose nature-culture binaries on other ways of being that do not make this distinction. These 'heterogeneous assemblages of life', however, continue to exist (Blaser and de la Cadena 2017) or emerge anew, despite capitalism's efforts to demolish them, and they provide inspiration for rethinking ways of being human in (and of) the world (also see work on emergent ecologies: Kirksey 2015; Tsing 2015; Weston 2016).

An affective lens helps us to see the possibilities of 'heterogeneous assemblages of life' that refuse to enact a nature-culture binary. While affective relations and life's generative capacity are object-targets of disciplining and capital accumulation, there is always an 'excess' that escapes capital's grasp (Hardt and Negri 2004; Anderson 2010). This 'excess', or what Massumi (2002) terms the 'autonomy' of affect, opens up possibilities for new modes of being and post-capitalist alternatives. This is the hope and promise of affective political ecology project.

   Contributions to This Special Section Top

This special section comprises five empirically grounded and theoretically innovative papers that employ and contribute to affective political ecology. While based on diverse contexts, all these papers are united in their commitment to and quest for strategies that foster human and more-than-human relationships and other-than-capitalist subjectivities. They draw attention to the role of socio-nature encounters, affective labour, and caring practices in nurturing affective ecologies and transforming human subjectivities.

In their article 'Transformed Territories of Gendered Care Work in Ecuador's Petroleum Circuit', Cristina Cielo and Nancy Carrion's explore the transformation of Indigenous women's care work among communities from the Ecuadorian Amazon, a region of the world that has become increasingly integrated into the petroleum industry. The article juxtaposes the experiences of the Zápara people in Ecuador's southern Amazon, a region that thus far remains untouched by the oil industry, with experiences from a northern region of the Amazon that has witnessed major state-led development of the oil industry. By cross-examining these two sites, the authors find fascinating differences in the care work in each context. Among the Zápara, social reproduction, fertility, and growth exist in ways that are interdependent and deeply embedded in nature. In the regions driven by oil extraction, women's care work is domesticated and affective relations of care are fractured from the situated topographies of the more-than-human world. They draw attention to the subsumption of women's affective relations in the process of capitalist expansion and the central role of these affective relations in women's activism to defend their territories. These findings speak to the political importance of considering affective ecologies in the context of feminist and political economic discussions.

The role of relations of care in healing is at the core of Julia Haggerty and her colleagues' study of buffalo restoration by the Sioux and Assiniboine tribes on their reservations in Montana, USA. In 'Restoration and the Affective Ecologies of Healing: Buffalo and the Fort Peck Tribes', they illustrate how affective experiences with the wild bison promote dynamic and emergent relationships among individuals, across species, and within communities. This sort of restoration not only brings ecological benefits but also far-ranging therapeutic benefits to the individuals and communities of Fort Peck. They argue that restoration guided by 'the vibrancy of relational life' between the tribes and the buffalo, who are respected as relatives, fosters an ethic of care and transforms subjectivities. Feeling the buffaloes' presence, sensing their energy, and learning from them how to care are important steps to healing the wounds of colonialism for the Indigenous peoples. Haggerty et al. argue for including affective dimensions of restoration in measuring restoration success and for promoting affective experiences in conservation strategies.

Strong interspecies relations, ethics of care, and co-becomings are also the central themes in Olivia Angé's paper 'Interspecies Respect and Potato Conservation in the Peruvian Cradle of Domestication'. Through rich ethnography, Angé brings to life how the liveliness (alivio)—the 'non-human' charisma (Lorimer 2007) of the potato—that emerges from their ability to grow in harsh climates and remain 'continuous over vast stretches of time' enchants and inspires respect. She explores how human-potato relations are further fostered through rituals, festivals, and opportunities for 'affective encounters' in one of the most successful in-situ potato conservation initiatives in the world.

Like the buffaloes in Fort Peck, Montana, in Haggerty et al.'s paper, the potatoes in the Andean highlands inspire respect and admiration as beings who have survived through ages and continue to endure through difficult circumstances. While increasing appreciation and concern for the potato is an important goal of the Potato Park, it is often less appreciated than the more easily measurable conservation and economic-development goals. In both the cases (Haggerty et al.'s and Angé's), interspecies affective relations shape human subjectivities, where humans 'learn to be affected' and open themselves up to being transformed through their relations with other species. Both these papers make the case for placing affective relations at the centre of conservation strategies.

Cunningham's article, 'Nature Interrupted: Affect and Ecology in the Wake of Volcanic Eruption in Japan', takes the 2014 Ontake-san volcanic eruption in central Japan as a starting point to explore the affective dimensions of local life in the highlands of central Japan. The article details the development of the modern Japanese state that has increasingly privileged development and industrial activities. These activities have produced what Cunningham refers to as a 'resource landscape'—that is, 'a hegemonic conceptualisation and materialisation of the environment premised on the incorporation of various organic and inorganic elements and energies for intentions and purposes that primarily take shape beyond the local scale (p. 42)'. Cunningham recognises eruptions as a 'destabilizing moment' within which alternate assemblages of life might emerge and argues that the affective space of local life projects in Ontake-san offers the space to contest dominant resource extraction, capital accumulation, and conservation.

Finally, in 'Volunteer Environmental Stewardship and Affective Labour in Philadelphia', Foster shows how the 'affective labour' of taking care of trees in the city offers citizens an opportunity to connect with nature and build community. Working from field research with volunteers engaged in tree planting and management, urban gardening, and neighbourhood clean-up initiatives, Foster pushes back against what he argues are totalising explanations that describe the state or the markets producing environmental subjects or that see volunteer environmental stewardship as neoliberal projects. He argues that the framework of 'affective labour' and the transformative potential of 'affective relations' to transform subjectivity offer better explanations. He makes the case for recognising the agency of individuals participating in environmental stewardship labour. He says that examining the affective dimension of volunteer urban environmental stewardship helps illuminate new imaginaries of 'relating to, engaging, and becoming with human and nonhuman others'. For Foster—like the other authors contributing to this special issue—taking seriously the intense affective attachments in relation to the ecological world offers important new directions.

Although addressing different approaches and contexts, each contribution to this section acknowledges and embraces the possibilities that affective ecologies offer for rupturing the dominant Euro-Western ways of relating to the world, and for enacting alternate socio-ecological futures. By drawing attention to the interconnections of the ecologies of nature, society, and the self—or of those realms labelled 'the natural', 'the social', and the 'psychological'—the following papers highlight how affective relations between humans and nonhumans are central to re-conceptualising human-nature relations as well as conservation strategies.

   Acknowledgements Top

This special section was co-edited by Neera Singh and James Igoe. Three of the papers included in this special section were first presented at sessions organised by Neera Singh, Mamta Vardhan, and Katja Neves on 'Affective Ecologies, Living Economies, and Alternate Ways of Valuing Nature' at the Annual Meeting of the American Association of Geographers (AAG) in Chicago, IL, USA, in April 2015. Two additional papers by Olivia Angé, and Julia Haggerty et al. were added later to the collection.

I would like to offer my gratitude to James Igoe for extensive support as a co-editor of the special section, as well as for his comments on the draft of this introduction; to Katja Neves and Mamta Vardhan for co-hosting the conversation on affective ecologies that led to this publication; and to Neil Nunn, University of Toronto, Canada, who provided valuable research assistance and feedback on the introduction. Dan Brockington, the editor-in-charge, was a pleasure to work with. Rajat, as the then-managing editor of Conservation & Society, kept the project moving smoothly. Thanks also to all the participants at the sessions on affective ecologies at AAG 2015 and to the discussants, Sue Ruddick, James Igoe, and Katja Neves, who offered commentaries on these papers.

   Notes Top

  1. Distancing themselves from the anthropocentric and social constructionist views of the 'old' historical materialism, proponents of 'new' vital materialism see humans and more-than-humans alike as co-constituted and co-dependent material configurations.
  2. Various Indigenous and decolonial scholars have commented on the Eurocentric thinking that is driving the ontological and affective turns and the neglect of indigenous onto-epistemic traditions in this literature (Tuck 2010; Sundberg 2014; Todd 2016).

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