How to Live in Uncertain Times

Jeffrey Jerome Cohen

Doomsday is a messy affair.

We fix our anxious gaze on the horizon, awaiting the moment when the air will prove too warm, the sea too toxic, the ground unfirm. We live in a time we are calling the Anthropocene, an epoch in which our presence on Earth is inscribed in the geological record. We wonder if the devastation we have inflicted upon our planet is so immense that we have become as calamitous as Permian volcanoes, as deadly as the altered climates that triggered extinctions in eons past. Tallying species loss while scanning the skyline for more signs of nearing apocalypse, we fail to observe what forms of life are thriving now—what buzzes and flits and burgeons in the fugitive shelters on offer in a world of change.

Much contemporary environmental writing trades the adventure of everyday survival for elegy and lament. But in disregarding a complicated present and gazing instead at a future limned with loss, these end-of-the-world ecologies offer an insufficient story. They do not assist us in imagining how to live in our ruined present. Eben Kirksey and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing ask what would happen if we ceased looking back towards the planet’s vanished past, ceased to peer futureward for signs of cataclysm or salvation, and instead observed with ardor and with care the world in which we actually dwell. Rather than offer catalogs of loss or hollow promises of happy endings, Kirksey and Tsing plumb how life adapts through new alliances, companionships, and communities, and ask how we might retain hope during times of profound biospheric transformation.

Sibling guidebooks for how to live in uncertain times, Emergent Ecologies and The Mushroom at the End of the World eloquently testify to the rewards of ecological attentiveness. Both argue that when we train our eye to regard only human havoc we overestimate our power, and fail to notice ongoing and nonhuman modes of resilience. In altered landscapes new possibilities for life emerge (Kirksey) or resurge (Tsing), precipitating unexpected companionships across species and kind. Through vividly narrated adventures in the field, these two scholars compose stories of complicated and unpredictable connection. They tell of breached walls, failed enclosures, and the foundering of human schemes of management and domination. Life in the ruins is revealed to be full of precarious flourishing.

Kirksey and Tsing both acknowledge that change is an unforeseeable ecological constant and betray little nostalgia for a time when ecosystems were supposedly isolated, unvarying, or pure. Arguing against the toxic greed of nations and corporations, both writers detail ecologies that bring humans and non-humans together in unexpected conviviality. The books share much, especially a steady optimism in the face of ruin. Yet they are also very different in tempo, focus, and ethos. Compared to the slow, contemplative unfolding of Tsing’s work, Kirksey’s Emergent Ecologies is frenetic. Its frogs, monkeys, humans, chytrids, ducks, and grasses flourish within landscapes where careless resource extraction and consequent environmental degradation have opened novel possibilities for life. Eben Kirksey calls these unstable yet vibrant spaces “emergent ecologies,” expanses where varied forms of nonhuman flourishing prove irrepressible. With an activist’s ardor, Kirksey urges us to acknowledge that ecology’s current emphasis on preservation is futile. Our desire to conserve ecosystems, he insists, will be constantly thwarted. Instead, he argues for an active and pragmatic project of future making. For Kirksey, the project is urgent. It must begin now.

<i>Panamanian golden frog (Atelopus zeteki), photographed at the National Zoo</i>. Photograph courtesy of Sesamehoneytart / Wikicommons

Kirksey illustrates the shortcomings of preservation ecology in his extended treatment of the Amphibian Ark, a project that attempts to conserve endangered frogs in biosecure facilities by protecting them from the fungal parasites possibly responsible for their worldwide decline. Kevin Zippel, founder of the Ark, describes the vanishing animals as warnings to humans, likewise doomed unless we change our ways. Kirksey links this injunction to the Protestant tradition of the jeremiad, with its lamentations “that people have fallen into sinful ways and face ruin unless they swiftly reform.”

When Zippel introduces his project with the Noah-like declaration “I’m building an ark,” he is indeed activating an ethos of preservation that comes freighted with a long and difficult history. The selection process through which some frogs are admitted for preservation is undergirded by as much exclusion as the biblical narrative of survival against flood. Only fifty species have found a home in the Amphibian Ark, while worldwide about 3,850 are in decline. Whenever we save endangered animals, Kirksey (following Donna Haraway) observes, we need to note the cost of salvation to the creature itself. Frogs brought into the Ark are conserved at the price of permanent reproductive and environmental management. They spend their lives atop paper towels in sterile plastic containers. And even the best efforts at preservation cannot guarantee stability. Some species have become extinct despite being housed within the Ark, while others reproduce so enthusiastically that hundreds of their offspring are put to death to maintain a manageable population. The project has proven a financial challenge to keep afloat and its long-term viability is unclear.

In response to troubled projects like Zippel’s, Kirksey is an enthusiastic builder of inventive structures of refuge. Against the Amphibian Ark with its austere tanks, he created with artists and engineers the Utopia for the Golden Frog of Panama, a “living” installation that engaged a public audience and transformed human observers into activist-participants. Constructed from a repurposed refrigerator, the Utopia was not built to keep frogs separate or safe, but to offer a critique of the predetermined and prison-like spaces that are created for animal preservation. Wingless flies were bred to sustain the frog population while a glass plate enabled the audience to peer into this small, electronically sustained biome. The aim of the installation was not sterile conservation of endangered creatures, but the creation of a multispecies world; one that would invite human onlookers to think deeply about the various arks we create to preserve what we consider worthy of our care, and about how such preservation typically trades citizen involvement for stark, biosecure management. Rather than provide minimal conditions of survival, moreover, the artwork’s structure offered a serious attempt to understand the richness of an amphibian’s sensorium, and tried to communicate this froggy Umwelt (total world) to its audience. The Utopia was a “conversation piece” and a “para-ethnographic project,” a catalyst to critical engagement. That role was intensified when no zoo proved willing to provide Golden Frogs to dwell within the Utopia, despite the fact that they breed so prolifically in captivity that most of these “endangered” amphibians are euthanized. That official refusal became part of the installation itself.

Later in the book we learn that Kirksey welcomed into his family an Australian green tree frog named Steve. He and his partner work to bring into Steve’s life “the elements of happiness—as in good hap, good fortune, or happenstance opportunities.” This interspecies companionship requires that Kirksey forego the touch-based intimacy structuring human relations with cats and dogs, and instead respect the frog’s desire for “a certain distance,” leading to a patient “rethinking of the tempo of ‘being with’ and ‘being together.’” Steve provokes Kirksey to wonder if the best way to save endangered frogs is to open more human dwellings in hospitality—so that these creatures might share the “bubbles of comfort” we have already created with our air-conditioned apartments and homes—thereby generating “lively futures” through companionship, not control.

Kirksey demonstrates an abiding love for the kinds of life whose flourishing is indifferent to human desires. He knows that we tend to preserve in our zoos and arks only what pleases or resembles us: the cute, the charismatic, the beautiful. How might we widen our welcome? In a resonant passage towards the end of Emergent Ecologies he asks, “what sorts of novel ecological assemblages might we build together?” Kirksey suggests that these shelters may pulse with a discomforting affect not often discussed in environmental work: love. This fraught and often unwanted binding principle, he writes, necessitates our “consciously dwelling with the genuine ethical difficulties that accompany attempts to promote good lifeways,” difficulties that include creating space for unpredicted arrival.

Pines, humans, and fungi reveal themselves as entrepreneurs, quietly cultivating each other’s company, engendering a thriving ecosystem in what appear to be bleak spaces.

Urging us to multiply our alliances with humans and nonhumans alike to create more and better refuges, Kirksey argues for architectures that embrace social justice, grapple with the “subjective experience of other organisms,” and sustain conservation without attempting stasis. “Can we tactfully craft proposals,” Kirksey writes, “to those whom we love, offering links to our social worlds and industrial supply chains while keeping windows open that give them opportunities to escape?” In an ecosystem marked by perpetual rough weather, Kirksey does not suppose we can shut gates against the world or incarcerate those within. “Keeping windows open” means frogs may come hopping and croaking inside. Emergent ecologies reconfigure the human exclusivity of home.

Unlike Kirksey, Tsing is rather indifferent to windows, doors, and other material or metaphorical components of living securely against the elements. Her research is conducted mostly in the open air: on the ground or just beneath, the places where fungi burgeon. In various forests around the world that have been profoundly altered by human activity, Tsing investigates the thriving of the matsutake. This aromatic mushroom is highly valued in Japan, where supplies have dwindled as woodlands have become less managed. The matsutake is therefore the center of global networks of foraging, transfer, and trade, most of which are unofficial. As attentive to what the matsutake means to its consumers as to the varied harvesters who roam in search of its telltale signs, Tsing traces the multispecies communities that the mushroom instantiates. The Mushroom at the End of the World inhabits the aftermath of devastation, when the scoured landscape reveals itself as lively. Whereas Kirksey dispenses frequent advice about how to build new architectures in the wake of capitalism’s ruining force, Tsing walks deeper into the tangled midst of things, and attempts no view from above. She follows patiently wherever these meandering matsutake networks lead, without expectation of progress or conclusion. “This is not just a story,” she stresses, “but a method.” Her layered prose enacts “arts of noticing,” acute and committed storytelling that results in a book in which “simple moral judgments don’t come to mind.” Against the kind of grand “summing up” that has become scholarship’s hallmark, Tsing privileges the “haunted freedom” embraced by the matsutake pickers she interviews: the right to make one’s way without the heavy obligation of a predetermined goal or conventional life narrative; the right to carry heavy history forward in novel ways; the right to err, wander, contradict.

<i>Matsutake</i>. Photograph courtesy of Tomomarusan / Wikicommons

Whereas Kirksey’s book is full of readerly injunctions, Tsing prefers thick description and entangled narratives. She provides observations so eloquently dense with possibility that they function as maxims, offering suggestive simultaneities, opening up multiple trajectories: “Mistakes were made … and mushrooms popped up.” So much that is unspoken opens in Tsing’s ellipsis. Suspending particularities of cause and effect, keeping in abeyance summation or firm conclusion, these sentences throw the reader into what Tsing calls assemblage or networks, just like the gatherings of forests and pickers and fungi that she so carefully details.

Such assemblages are not always affirmative, even when they are world making. The picker settlements Tsing describes in the Oregon woods—the camps at which reside the various populations who harvest matsutake as a living or a pastime—are full of stories of racism, lingering trauma, and present precarity. Among those drawn to the matsutake harvest, for example, are both Vietnam veterans and refugees from that war. And yet these collectives also burgeon with life: filled with promise, moments of exuberance, a love of gift-giving, intensive relations, “serious commitment,” and the possibility of “strange and varied pleasures” for humans and nonhumans alike. In homage to the fragrant matsutake, the smell of which permeates the body of anyone nearby, Tsing conveys a milieu of vibrant subsurface interconnection, composing with care a layered story that emerges slowly, yielding both example and delight.

Mushrooms thrive in ruin. Those seeking refuge—from war, capitalism’s brutality, or dominant modes of living—intermingle and create new lives in the mushroom’s company. Pines, humans, and fungi reveal themselves as entrepreneurs, quietly cultivating each other’s company, engendering a thriving ecosystem in what appear to be bleak spaces: the aftermath of the destruction of forests by logging companies. Violence attends this world in the form of contemporary interventions against the pickers by the police, the state, and territorial individuals. It also lingers as history, in the legacy of those historical events that caused the movement of many of the pickers into Oregon, and the leveling of the trees for timber. Precarity is the de facto mode of life here, where an inability to plan well for the future amounts to a common bond between human and the nonhuman world. Tsing argues that shared vulnerability is in fact endemic to modernity: “only an appreciation of current precarity as an earthwide condition allows us to notice this—the situation of the world.”

<i>Mushroom in the woods at the Stoney Baynard Ruins on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, 2015</i>. Photograph by mobile_gnome / Flickr

This uncertain mode of living, writes Tsing, “is always an adventure.” These words remind me of medieval romance, where aventure (derived from the French word for the future) is like the “hap” in happy: an unexpected advent that changes lives, as well as an openness to that arrival. Aventure is the flourishing of wonder, a challenge to humans to recognize that virtue abides in mundane things. Chrétien de Troyes, for example, wrote of a forest where manipulating some stones and water triggers ruinous storms. Openness to aventure means being able to deal effectively and adaptively to devastation that one does not necessarily intend to unleash. Medieval adventure often involves the ability of something supposedly lifeless, like a gem or an herb, to activate an alliance with a living creature that profoundly changes the world, for better or for worse. Medieval writers knew well that the world seldom offers lasting safety, cannot guard communities against cataclysm, and yet never fails to enchant. Hope and hap, they knew, open possibility. Kirksey and Tsing tell an updated version of that same story, but one that is just as complicated, just as full of contingency, just as resistant to closure. In the face of an Anthropocene that threatens to wreck all things, including our ability to frame the world capaciously and generously, we might at least follow the example of these two authors and keep our eyes firmly on the ground.

Adept at tracing the fragility of the landscapes across which we make our uncertain way, Tsing defines eloquently this ‘openness to advent.’ She demonstrates that the best response to “indeterminate encounters” is a spirited one, fostered through the art of careful noticing. That she does not instruct us what to do with this opening of ourselves to these worldly assemblages can be frustrating. Yet The Mushroom at the End of the World is a book that prefers the practice of patience over the promise of redemption. Shared precarity makes futures difficult, but it also stimulates a neighborliness across species and kingdoms. “It’s not easy to know how to make a life” as the world falls into ruin, Tsing writes as she brings her book to its “Anti-Ending.” But she is quick to add that “luckily, there is still company, human and not human.”

And, fortunately for us, there are some good books to read in that company. In landscapes greatly altered by capitalism’s global reach, these two authors discover a difficult human enmeshment in a world that exceeds us. Together, they quietly revitalize ecological studies through an emphasis on wandering, activity, advent, and possibility. Life takes unexpected hold. Even a wasteland may become a home.