RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2017

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229 More-than-human geographies of empathy (3): empathy in future ecologies
Convenor(s) Megan Donald (University of Glasgow, UK)
Richard Gorman (Cardiff University, UK)
Christopher Bear (Cardiff University, UK)
Chair(s) Christopher Bear (Cardiff University, UK)
Timetable Thursday 31 August 2017, Session 3 (14:40 - 16:20)
Room Sherfield/SALC Building, Room 8
Session abstract Geographers have been central in investigating the complications of caring for others beyond the entrenched ontological divides of human and animal, and science and emotion. Bioethical debates in more-than-human geography including those around, for example, animal experimentation (Davies, 2012), animal field science (Lorimer, 2008), animal-technology assemblages (Holloway, Bear and Wilkinson, 2013) taxidermy (Straughan, 2015) and canine vivisection (Garlick, 2015), all have one aspect in common: they reveal our ethical relations with ‘others’ as contingent, sensitive and situated. Conventional, medical-scientific approaches to bioethics, however, continue to be framed by a Western, anthropocentric understanding of care which individualises responsibility and potentially narrows the opportunities of caring for those outside particular spatial-ethical boundaries.

In this session, we wish to explore the possibilities of a more-than-human geography of empathy as a route through which to contest and ‘decolonise’ these Western medical-scientific approaches to bioethics and care. Empathy is loosely conceptualised here as the ability to put oneself in another’s position, building upon Greenhough and Roe’s (2011) notion of ‘somatic sensibility’: the shared experience of living in a vulnerable body. Empathy in this respect is more-than-rational, affective and resists quantification. It creates what van Dooren (2014, p. 139) describes as ‘a particular sociality rooted in our being emotionally at stake in one another’s lives’ in a way of being in an unavoidably shared world with others; empathy has never been the privileged possession of humanity (van Dooren, 2014: 40). Here, then, we are interested not only in how certain humans develop or feel empathy towards nonhuman others, but also how relations of empathy might be distributed or multidirectional.
Linked Sessions More-than-human geographies of empathy (1): empathy with uncharismatic others
More-than-human geographies of empathy (2): empathy in caring practices
Contact the conference organisers to request a change to session or paper details: AC2017@rgs.org
Feeling environmental impact: more-than-human empathy in the ebb and flood
Aurora Fredriksen (The University of Manchester, UK)
Environmental impact assessments (EIAs) used to support planning decisions in infrastructural developments adhere to a thoroughly Western scientific orientation to knowledge, eschewing ways of knowing that are relational, affective, and/or more-than-rational. Against this state of affairs, this paper explores the ethical and political possibilities opened up by the cultivation of more-than-human empathy as a tool for thinking about the impact of infrastructural development on specifically emplaced ecologies, taking the case of the hotly contested deployment of tidal energy turbines in Canada’s Bay of Fundy as a point of departure. While the numerous EIAs conducted for this development have concluded that the turbines will have a negligible impact on marine wildlife, a loose opposition composed of commercial fishermen, area First Nations and certain conservation groups has raised concerns that the turbines may have significantly deleterious effects on marine wildlife. Moreover, they contend that the scientific practices behind the EIAs are wholly insufficient for knowing how the turbines will affect marine wildlife and the surrounding ecology. The paper shows how the various ways of knowing that inform this opposition each rely, at least in part, on cultivating more-than-human empathy to think not about, but with marine wildlife (Bear and Eden 2011); it argues that engaging in ‘the particular sociality’ of multidirectional, more-than-human empathy (Van Dooren 2014) will enable more holistic, inclusive and decolonised assessments of the environmental impacts of large-scale developments.
No-Empathy Zone. Warfare Logic in Urban Rat Control Schemes
Gabriela Jarzebowska (Warsaw University, Poland)
A discourse related to practices concerning urban pest species is distinctly based on metaphors of colonisation and conquest, often using the xenophobic term "bio-pollution" as a form of visualising the logic of invasion. This is particularly explicit in rat control discourse, clearly based on the logic of war, where rats are seen as a deadly threat to human society. As ecological outcasts, 'superpests' and personification of the multitude (in Deleuze’s and Guattari's terms), wild rats fail to gain empathy and support, inasmuch as they usually suffer and die out of sight. Consequently, the most inhumane methods are commonly used. The cruelty of urban rat eradication is almost completely overlooked even by animal rights activists.
I propose to analyse this lack of empathy within the framework of necropolitics as a 'state of emergency' where the taken-for-granted moral rules and laws are suspended. Achille Mbembe describes the perception of existence of the Other as an absolute danger, whose elimination might strengthen the potential for life and security of (Western) 'humans'. Consequently, in the process of colonisation peace is impossible, as the violence of the 'state of exception' is deemed to operate in the service of 'civilisation'. I argue that this logic of war can aptly describe the dynamics of human-rat relations and is at least partly responsible for creation of 'no-empathy' zone around rat control schemes. In my presentation I analysethe Western rat control discourse to see how it develops the notion of siege as the reason for the lack of alternative to cruelty and, as a consequence, the exclusion of empathy from its scope of interests
Practices of more-than-human empathy: Learning from attempts to share space with protected species
Katrina Brown (The James Hutton Institute, UK)
As we move beyond segregational models of conservation, it is increasingly recognised that the wellbeing of people and wildlife are contingent on the ability to share space in a multispecies co-becoming. However, there remains the huge challenge of how this is translated into everyday, situated practices. Haraway (2008, 2016) argues for cultivating response-ability and making-with across species difference. Along with other scholars (e.g. Despret, 2004; Greenhough & Roe, 2011) she thus invokes concern for human-animal affective relations and particularly those of empathy, in which it matters how species develop a feel for, and respond to, each other’s position. Drawing on a mobile video ethnography of how humans (recreationists), wild, protected species (capercaillie) and companion species (dogs) co-become in the forests of the Cairngorms, this paper explores ways in which coexistence only becomes possible through particular registers and practices of more-than-human empathy. Particular attention is focussed on the differentiated but entangled forms of (un)caring performed by humans, birds and dogs, which are themselves complicated by questions of: (a) intimacy/distance, and what that means for how we understand ‘contact zones’ (Haraway, 2008) (e.g. humans being encouraged to care for a creature they are discouraged from encountering in the flesh and perversions of this desire); (b) asymmetrical and selective empathy, and the occlusion of caring, and; (c) times and spaces to stop caring (as wildlife do in practices of habituation). This discussion will deepen our understanding of the geographies through which more-than-human empathies generate particular kinds of ethical relations.
Why we can’t just make like a tree and leaf. Or, the difficulty of empathetic relations with plants
Hannah Pitt (Cardiff University, UK)
Human neglect of plants is at the root of grand challenges such as biodiversity loss and food insecurity, and emblematic of ethics which do not embrace other life forms (Hall 2011). Recent developments in botanical science reveal that plants are more like people than previously imagined, providing a basis for reimagining our ethical relations with them (Marder 2016). This paper considers empathy as a ground for more care-full human-plant relationships, drawing on research into gardening as practices of tending others. Informed by notions of feminist care ethics (Fisher & Tronto 1990) it situates these in the context of power dynamics between carer and cared for. Together with the preponderance of plant-tending driven by instrumental goals this suggests humans and plants may not share experiences of vulnerability, and therefore struggle to empathise with each other. The potential for empathy to guide both ethical relations, and more-than-human research is further complicated by distinct modes of planty being which remain opaque and require distance from humans in order to flourish (Pitt 2015 and 2017). The paper concludes by suggesting how the grains of these difficulties may cross-pollinate the new blooms of discussion regarding relations of more-than-human empathy.
Embodied Inter-Species Encounters: Urgent Interactions Between Hikers and Black Bears
Kate Marx (University of Exeter, UK)
Encountering an American Black Bear (Ursus Americanus) is one of the most anticipated experiences for long distance hikers on the Appalachian Trail, and is often alluded to by hikers as the ‘quintessential’ AT experience. For many of the people hiking the trail, bears are seen as embodying the very quality of ‘wildness’ itself, making their presence a potent signifier for the authentic ‘wilderness’ of the Appalachian Trail, and therefore validating the ‘wilderness experience’ that long distance hikers are looking for. Blog posts written by long distance hikers on the AT were reviewed to find narratives written about first-hand encounters with bears. It was found that through embodied encounters between hikers and bears, hikers began to understand bears in more complex and nuanced ways than as mere symbols of the wilderness. Fear of what the bear might do to them encouraged hikers to pay close attention to the bear’s physicality and movement around them. In an effort to decipher what the bear was thinking and intending, hikers engaged in acts of embodied egomorphism. It is also suggested that bears involved in encounters with humans may have experienced a similar interest in the Other.