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Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene

Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier


The book is current and interdisciplinary, engaging with recent developments around this topic and including perspectives from sciences, arts, and humanities. It will be a welcome contribution to studies of the Anthropocene as well as studies of research methods and practices. 
—Sam Mickey, University of S. Francisco

Educational institutions play an instrumental role in social and political change, and are responsible for the environmental and social ethics of their institutional practices. The essays in this volume critically examine scholarly research practices in the age of the Anthropocene, and ask what accountability educators and researchers have in ‘righting’ their relationship to the environment. The volume further calls attention to the geographical, financial, legal and political barriers that might limit scholarly dialogue by excluding researchers from participating in traditional modes of scholarly conversation.

As such, Right Research is a bold invitation to the academic community to rigorous self-reflection on what their research looks like, how it is conducted, and how it might be developed so as to increase accessibility and sustainability, and decrease carbon footprint. The volume follows a three-part structure that bridges conceptual and practical concerns: the first section challenges our assumptions about how sustainability is defined, measured and practiced; the second section showcases artist-researchers whose work engages with the impact of humans on our environment; while the third section investigates how academic spaces can model eco-conscious behaviour.

This timely volume responds to an increased demand for environmentally sustainable research, and is outstanding not only in its interdisciplinarity, but its embrace of non-traditional formats, spanning academic articles, creative acts, personal reflections and dialogues. Right Research will be a valuable resource for educators and researchers interested in developing and hybridizing their scholarly communication formats in the face of the current climate crisis.


Right Research: Modelling Sustainable Research Practices in the Anthropocene
Geoffrey Rockwell, Chelsea Miya and Oliver Rossier | Forthcoming 
ISBN Paperback: 9781783749614
ISBN Hardback: 9781783749621
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781783749638
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781783749645
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781783746652
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781783749669
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0213
Subject Codes: BIC:  GP (Research and information: general), GPS (Research methods: general), JH (Sociology and anthropology),  JHMC (Social and cultural anthropology, ethnography), ; BISAC: EDU037000 (EDUCATION / Research), SOC002000  (SOCIAL SCIENCE / Anthropology / General).

SECTION 1: Re-Defining Sustainability

1. Why Should We Try to be Sustainable? Expected Consequences and the Ethics of Making an Indeterminate Difference (Howard Nye)

Why should we refrain from doing things that, taken collectively, are environmentally destructive, if our individual acts seem almost certain to make no difference? According to the expected consequences approach, we should refrain from doing these things because our individual acts have small risks of causing great harm, which outweigh the expected benefits of performing them. Several authors have argued convincingly that this provides a plausible account of our moral reasons to do things like vote for policies that will reduce our countries’ greenhouse gas emissions, adopt plant-based diets, and otherwise reduce our individual emissions. But this approach has recently been challenged by authors like Benward Gesang and Julia Nefsky. Gesang contends that it may be genuinely impossible for our individual emissions to make a morally relevant difference. Nefsky argues more generally that the expected consequences approach cannot adequately explain our reasons not do things if there is no precise fact of the matter about whether their outcomes are harmful. In the following chapter, author Howard Nye defends the expected consequences approach against these objections. Nye contends that Gesang has shown at most that our emissions could have metaphysically indeterministic effects that lack precise objective chances. He argues, moreover, that the expected consequences approach can draw upon existing extensions to cases of indeterminism and imprecise probabilities to deliver the result that we have the same moral reasons to reduce our emissions in Gesang’s scenario as in deterministic scenarios. Nye also shows how the expected consequences approach can draw upon these extensions to handle Nefsky’s concern about the absence of precise facts concerning whether the outcomes of certain acts are harmful. The author concludes that the expected consequences approach provides a fully adequate account of our moral reasons to take both political and personal action to reduce our ecological footprints.

2. Sustainability in the Anthropocene: From Forests to the Globe (Petra Dolata)

Various meanings of sustainability emerged at specific historical times shaped by different prevailing energy systems. Even though sustainability in the Anthropocene always included views that saw nature as resource and hence linked sustainable practices to profit-making (yield), there are qualitative differences in the very meaning of sustainability and the ways it related to eighteenth-century forestry practices, nineteenth- and twentieth-century conservation efforts and twentieth-century environmental activism and global development goals. Some of these meanings may have been building on each other, others developed in opposition to previous understandings of sustainability. There is no straightforward, linear evolution of the term and it may be misleading to relate past meanings teleologically to today’s definitions as this may overshadow different meanings that were prominent at different times in history. A comparison over time and throughout the Anthropocene shows that the concept needs to be understood within its specific historical context.

3. Abstraction, Academia and the Anthropocene: Changing the Story for Right Relationship (Kristine Kowalchuk)

This chapter by Kristine Kowalchuk argues the need for humanities scholars to recognize the ecological crisis as a cultural issue arising from modernity’s story of human separation from, and superiority over, nature. The author urges humanities scholars to help lead the way in telling a different story, to enable genuine positive change and healing. As Kowalchuk shows, this story is not a new story, but rather an ancient one, of right relationship between humans and nature, and it has persisted in the margins for over four hundred years.

4. Kitting the Digital Humanities for the Anthropocene: Digital Metabolism and Eco-Critical DH (Amanda Starling Gould)

As our landscapes of digital stuff continue to expand and connect, it is imperative we devise a toolkit for thinking (and doing) that tends to the environmental pulses of our digital condition. It is time now, if it isn’t already too late, to enact a spongier digital-material-humanities form of knowledge-production that is tailored to the concerns of our emerging Anthropocenic humanities and that absorbs the full force of our interconnections. A deliberate environmental intervention is not only an obvious response but also an opening: it plants our field securely within the earth, opens us to seeing our tools as environmental artifacts, and urges us to use our talents for doing earth work.

5. Impact of the Digital Revolution on Worldwide Energy Consumption (Doug Barlage and Gem Shoute)

We Tweet, Facebook, Netflix and YouTube in the palm of our hand. We are aware of the amount of energy that it takes from how many times that we need to recharge our devices. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. For every joule of energy we expend locally, many more joules are spent in the backbone of the Internet. While our appetite for data has largely been insatiable over the last thirty years, the energy required to sustain this has been held in check by Moore’s Law’s driving creed that density of function in a computer chip increases by two every two years, and energy/function decreases by a similar amount. With that said, this driving relationship between power consumption and computing density is slowing due to a multitude of physical constraints when the density of transistor packing approaches the limits. In the following chapter, the authors examine these relationships and outline some of the challenges that the world is facing as we continue to meet and exceed the expectations of our data-driven world with a finite growth in worldwide power generation capacity.

6. Sustainable DNA: In Conversation (Mél Hogan and Deb Verhoeven)

Big Tech supports social media, the stock market, insurance companies, scientific research, financial transactions, mass surveillance and monitoring, the ‘Internet of things’, ‘smart city’ sensors and grids, and mobile communications for Internet users writ large. By most industry accounts, data centres – and the cloud infrastructure that undergirds it – has become the most important sociotechnical system of our time, but also the least sustainable. Interestingly, one of the alternatives to these water- and energy-intensive data storage solutions has emerged from advancements in synthetic DNA technologies, now touted by the industry as a safer, greener and more efficient alternative. But how did we get here? How might ideas of 'sustainability' and 'efficiency' function in this context? In conversation, Mél Hogan and Deb Verhoeven discuss the idea of ‘Sustainable DNA’ – in its various instantiations – as an object of critical media studies.

SECTION 2: Art and/in the Anthropocene

7. Design Education in the Anthropocene: Teaching Systems Thinking (Eric Benson and Priscilla Ferronato)

The following chapter by Eric Benson and Priscilla Ferronato discusses how teaching design through the process of systems thinking, as derived from the disciplines of both ecology and biology, is the best path forward to prevent the worst-case scenarios of climate change. Systems thinking is a process that can help designers to uncover the root cause of a problem and how it connects to the larger picture: people, profit and planet (and everything in between). The conditions of the Anthropocene mean that designers must be able to identify the social, political and environmental repercussions of their work – and take responsibility for them. This process empowers designers to evaluate and shift the emphasis of their outcomes to consider the demand put on our natural resources: where and how we get materials to produce our projects, who and what is affected by our decisions and what will happen to the project after it is implemented. The systems thinking process explored in this chapter is a four-step model (determine ¬project goals, map out the design problem, brainstorm design outcomes and evaluate each possible design outcome) as set forth in the 2017 book Design to Renourish: Sustainable Graphic Design in Practice. The authors, who are based at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, taught this systems thinking model over two years in three different courses to test its effectiveness and make improvements to the process, methods, tools and resources from one academic term to the next.

8. Inspiration from Goethe’s Tender Empiricism: How to be the Person Collecting, Analyzing and Visualizing Data (Joshua Korenblat)

Science, humanities and design might seem like unrelated fields. Yet, information designers, who unpack complex data involving real-world issues, can benefit from the ability to synthesize these seemingly disparate practices. To learn more integrated, humanistic approaches to data visualization, we might look to a time when science and the arts were less divided. The following chapter focuses on poet-scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Romantic-era polymath. Goethe called his scientific method ‘tender empiricism’, a complementary practice to analytical empiricism. Goethe believed in portraying the same phenomena under subtle, changing conditions. While observing, collecting and visualizing, he also searched for what might be missing. A plant, for example, is not a collection of parts; it also portrays the process of growth even in static form. For Goethe, observational discoveries can change the inquiring mind. In contrast to data visualization practice today, which often focuses on summaries and abstract charts, Goethe believed that authentic, insightful truth dwells in real-world details. The second half of the chapter illustrates how Goethe’s ‘tender empiricism’ can be applied to design pedagogy. These case studies show how a Goethean ecological approach can be used to model a more ethical way of working with data.

9. Solidarity Seeds: Situated Knowledges in Bishan Village, Wang Chau Village and Aarey Forest (Michael Leung)

Between 2015 and 2018, artist-researcher Michael Leung visited three sites – in China, Hong Kong and India – each facing destruction as the result of land development. Leung worked with local farmers and activists on creative projects, with the goal of increasing the visibility of these local land struggles as well as strengthening transnational solidarity. In this chapter, Michael Leung revisits the ‘three seed projects’, as documented in artefacts and photographs, in order to explore what it means to use situated knowledge to enrich existing narratives. He posits a rhizomatic approach to research-creation as embedded within social practice, in which the making of objects – seed packets, critical maps, fictional stories, photographs, zines and other actors – is a generative act, the objects themselves becoming ‘seeds’ that nurture, grow and exchange local knowledge.

10. e-Waste Peep Show: A Research-Creation Project on the (In)visibility of Technological Waste (Lai-Tze Fan)

The following chapter by Lai-Tze Fan is a critical and creative reflection that describes the research-creation project e-Waste Peep Show; or, on Seeing and not Wanting to be Seen (EWPS). Since research-creation as an academic practice challenges scholars to merge creative approaches in various disciplines and to apply theory to practice, it allows scholarship to address twenty-first-century issues in innovative ways. Constructed as an art installation, EWPS features original footage of an e-waste (electronic waste) plant in Northern Hong Kong through a peephole in its walls. The camera captures a masked woman taking apart mounds of technological trash. Suddenly, she throws technological debris at me: don't look at me; don't film here. In this chapter, the author describes the process of constructing the installation such that spectators can experience the act of peeping onto sites and sights that they are not ‘supposed’ to see. The three parts of the paper describe the fragments that came together to produce the research-creation project: first, the author discusses the toxicity of e-waste and the exploitation of e-waste labourers, with a focus on East, Southeast and South Asia; second, she describes the fieldwork that I completed in December 2017 to collect video footage at an e-waste plant in Hong Kong; third, she details the creation process of the installation and the intended experience for the spectator-as-user. In doing so, this chapter aligns creative methods in sustainable research with an ethical intervention into global technological consumerism.

11. Art, Ecology and the Politics of Form: A Panel Revisited (Natalie Loveless, Andrew S. Yang, Karin Bolender, Christa Donner, Scott Smallwood, Leanne Olson and Jessie Beier)

The following forum emerges from a panel called Art and/in the Anthropocene: A Debate on Sustainability and Ecology that was co-organized by Natalie Loveless and Jessie Beier for the Kule Institute for Advanced Study’s Around the World e-Conference in May of 2018. The conference panel invited discussion by six artist-scholars in addition to the organizers – Karin Bolender, Christa Donner, Mia Feuer, Leanne Olson, Scott Smallwood and Andrew Yang. Together they discussed two pre-circulated questions: one on sustainability and one on ecological form. Organized and edited by Loveless, the contributions in this forum respond to these questions. Yang argues for systems thinking in the context of art and ecology; Bolender considers multispecies care practices; Donner makes a plea for intergenerational empathy and collective problem-solving; Olson examines our disavowed relations to waste; Smallwood grapples with problems of representing the Anthropocene; Beier reflects, in a speculative-fictive form, on the folly of attempting to sustain our current ways of living and dying; and Loveless concludes with a reflection on art, ecological form and climate justice ethics. Together these short essays invite the reader to consider the role of art in creating new conditions for climate justice thinking and action.

SECTION 3: Sustainable Campuses

12. The Weight of the Digital: Experiencing Infrastructure with InfraVU (Ted Dawson)

The following chapter by Ted Dawson explores the environmental entanglements of the digital humanities, considering the imbrication of digitally-driven attempts to confront environmental crisis with the contributions of digital technologies to that very crisis. The chapter centers on a case study of the InfraVU project undertaken in 2016-2017 at the Vanderbilt University Center for Digital Humanities, a project that sought to draw attention to the infrastructure supporting digital humanities (DH) at Vanderbilt. Dawson first considers the experience and concealment of infrastructure in contemporary life, and especially at the university. He then moves into a fuller description of the InfraVU project itself, showing how the development of the project exploited a productive tension between making and thinking which is central to so much DH work, and which can be understood as a specific inflection of the larger tension between understanding digital culture and digitally understanding culture. In addressing that tension, the InfraVU project demonstrates how digital humanists can use computational methods to think through environmental issues, while also reflecting critically on how that technology is itself implicated in environmental issues. The chapter concludes by foregrounding the role of the arts and humanities in ecocritical digital humanities (EcoDH).

13. Asking Why: Cultivating Eco-Consciousness in Research Labs (Allison Paradise)

Scientists question everything about the natural world. They work tirelessly in pursuit of understanding how and why the world behaves as it does. And yet, as a community, scientists rarely question their own behaviour in the lab. Equipment is often left on 24/7, protocols using hazardous chemicals remain unchanged for decades and freezers are filled with samples that haven’t been used since the turn of the century. These behaviours become habits, passed down through the generations. The following chapter by Allison Paradise demonstrates how My Green Lab, a non-profit founded by scientists, has helped to build a culture of sustainability by helping researchers see their behaviour in a new light. By encouraging people who work in labs to ask ‘why’, My Green Lab has been instrumental in changing the culture of scientific research. This approach has led to significant reductions in energy, water and waste in labs across North America. The laboratory sustainability movement in research has also inspired innovation in manufacturing, with laboratory product suppliers starting to design their products with sustainability in mind. This approach to sustainability – encouraging people to critically examine their behaviour and make conscious choices – is a model that could be replicated in any industry. As the work of My Green Lab demonstrates, if we want to enact lasting changes, we need to start by looking inward and questioning our habits and behaviours. When we do this it can have a profound effect on ourselves and on our planet.

14. Sustainability, Living Labs and Repair: Approaches to Climate Change Mitigation (Hart Cohen, Francesca Sidoti, Alison Gill, Abby Mellick Lopes, Maryella Hatfield and Jonathan Allen)

The year 2020 started with a massive bushfire crisis in south eastern Australia, resulting in disruption to many communities, the loss of lives and businesses, an estimated loss of a billion animals and the dirtiest air on the planet in the cities of Sydney, Newcastle and Canberra. With record-high temperatures and a punishing draught lasting several years, the Australian bush was primed to explode into flames. With lightning strikes in national parks, the spontaneous eruptions of bushfire spread from the north coast to the south and inland towards the alpine regions of New South Wales and Victoria. With the very hot year of 2019 affecting other parts of the planet in 2020, the Antarctic Peninsula reached a record 65 degrees Fahrenheit. The chapter that follows reflects the new progressive politics of climate change that emerged in 2019 with large mass demonstrations taking place in Australia and around the world and examines the critical role of universities in the mitigation of climate catastrophe. The following interventions are variably focused on the concept of ‘Living Labs’ where thinking is developed within a problem-solving ethos. The three contributions here offer ways to think about sustainability with specific reference to waste recovery, environmental awareness in urban settings and the contribution that a ‘repair’ mentality can make to a shared and re-cycled economy. With a clear-eyed recommendation that mitigation of climate change starts locally, the premise of the paper is that people can work with what is available as local solutions to specific problems. The impact of this approach can be essential to people who sense the impending catastrophe and who may have experienced the crisis directly through compromises in their health outcomes, the experience of trauma and the loss of property and livelihoods, though through no fault of their own. The links through the Western Sydney University campus, common ground to the authors to both its small bushland outpost and further to the local community it serves, suggest that the boundaries of the campus are permeable – and that Living Labs are both a means and metaphor for thinking about how the campus opens learning and knowledge creation about sustainability for its students, staff and community constituents.

15. An Intro to Econferences (Geoffrey Rockwell, Oliver Rossier and Chelsea Miya)

Flying is one of the most environmentally detrimental activities associated with our research practices. Until recently, even as colleges and universities took steps to green their campuses, conference-related air travel was on the rise. The COVID-19 pandemic forced academics (along with much of the world) back to the ground, but what will happen after travel restrictions are lifted? Will we slip back into old habits? Our reliance on flying is unsustainable, but research depends on open and timely communication of ideas, methods and results. How then can we adapt our conferencing practices to preserve their communicative value while reducing the need to fly so often? The following chapter introduces the econference medium and makes the argument for bringing academic conferences online, and maintaining these efforts after travel restrictions are lifted.

16. Econferences Are Not the Same, but Are They Good Enough? (Terry Anderson)

Terry Anderson helped pioneer econferencing with the email-based Bangkok Project event in 1992, which took place just one year after the World Wide Web went public. In the following chapter, he reflects back on the early challenges of the online conference medium and looks ahead to its future. How has the econference evolved from its origins to today? Will online gatherings always feel like a less satisfying version of their traditional, face-to-face counterpart or can they offer conference-goers something unique?

17. Online Conferences: Some History, Methods and Benefits (Nick Byrd)

Academics have probably been organizing conferences since at least the time of Plato.  More recently, academics have brought some of their conferences online.  However, the adoption of online conferences is limited. One might wonder if scholars prefer traditional conferences for their ability to provide goods that online conferences cannot. While this may be true, online conferences outshine traditional conferences in various ways, and at a significantly lower cost. By considering the costs and benefits of both conference models, we may find reasons to prefer online to traditional conferences in some circumstances. This chapter shares the methods, quantitative results and qualitative results of the Minds Online conferences of 2015, 2016 and 2017. The evidence suggests that the online conference model can help scholars better understand their profession, share the workload of conference organizing, increase representation for underrepresented groups, increase accessibility to attendees, decrease monetary costs for everyone involved, sustain conference activity during states of emergency and reduce their carbon footprint. So, the advantages of traditional conferences might be outweighed by their higher costs after all.

18. ‘Greening’ Academic Gatherings: A Case Study for Econferences (Oliver Rossier, Chelsea Miya and Geoffrey Rockwell)

Traditional academic conferences that require participants to physically travel between locations have a large environmental footprint. That is why a growing number of researchers believe it is imperative to seek out more sustainable alternatives.  The following case study looks at the ’Around the World’ virtual conferences organized at the University of Alberta as an example of how to host sustainable research gatherings without the carbon cost of flying. The success of this online event, with its diverse range of topics and presentation formats (live, pre-recorded, hybrid), shows that the econference format can be adapted to a wide range of needs. The results from the case study show how econferencing, while not without its challenges, can be a viable alternative to face-to-face conferencing that retains many of its benefits without the environmental cost.