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Ecological Models and Other Forms of Storytelling

In the face of climate change and increasingly unpredictable changes in global ecologies, ecological modeling has been an important tool in helping people to understand environments and make predictions about the future.

Andrew Matthews, Associate Professor in Anthropology at UC Santa Cruz, gave a colloquium talk on Monday, November 20, titled “Sensing Disaster and Transformation: Modeling the Dramas of Italian Forest Futures” in which he compared such modeling practices with his own “ethnohistory of landscapes.” Making explicit the ways modellers call causal stories into being by attending to certain aspects of landscapes allows Matthews to think about other possible genres of telling landscapes’ stories- for example, the murder mystery or the picaresque.

Matthews works with scientists modeling changes to Italian forests in order to make predictions about climate change. The models they generate are, by their nature, partial. A model is a simplification, a storyline that captures some aspect of an infinitely complex reality. Most of Matthews informants referred to a multiplicity of models at once, each telling a partial story of the forest’s present and future, and each potentially destabilized by what it fails to describe.

For scientists, the models’ capacities to simplify and abstract helped them to generate accounts of possible futures. This is important for governments concerned about planning for the contingencies of climate change. As Matthews pointed out, however, the managerial tone set by model predictions, as with the cast of certainty they often lend to public debates, can work to depoliticize environmental issues.

At their worst, models can inoculate officials from responsibility, and serve as tools for reputational risk management. At their best, they can make visible the richly political nature of thinking about the future. In working to make the future a multiplicity, and not a prediction, Matthews suggests that professional anthropologists can serve an important role.

As an example, Matthews draws our attention to trees. The form of a tree can tell you something about its biography- is it burned, gnarled, bearing leaves? It is often difficult to tell if a tree is dead or if it may, in the future, flourish again.

The stories we could tell about, for example, an ancient chestnut stump are multiple but partial. We can narrate the involvement of the tree with other actors- sheep, peasants, disease- but the partial connections of the organism to these elements of its environment never fully capture its meaning or potential. Matthews embraces this indeterminacy in perception, asking us to think about how these narratives, in their partiality, invite “crosstalk” between close encounters and large-scale experiences.

Like models, Matthews’ stories are partial. They have an important role to play, however, in speaking back to the work of models. Modellers, Matthews says, often get stuck in virtual landscapes, producing impractical possibilities. Anthropologists can make them more accountable to the world, and haunt them with their own uncertainty. Details and anomalies, for example, are difficult to account for in model-making. By attending to details, Matthews sees anthropologists as uniquely placed to interfere with, or slow down, the building of overly simplified ecological storylines.

The notion of the “anthropocene” for example, often summons the idea of a singular process with an identifiable point of origin. Matthews suggests we approach climate changes rather as a multiplicity of processes with multiple loci. In telling the anthropocene from points of view of particular systems, he says, we can do just that. Matthews calls this genre the “environmental picaresque” and posits that it can challenge the uniformities of modernist time, and open the imagination to middle range futures neither apocalyptic nor redemptive.

This page was last updated: December 4, 2017



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