Letter from Down Under: Welcome to the Homogenocene

jc-mg-200-names.jpgJon Christensen writes from Australia:

I lost the day after Thanksgiving, but not in the usual Black Friday pursuits. I took off Thursday evening from LAX bound for Melbourne, Australia, and landed Saturday afternoon in a strangely familiar landscape, though I've never set foot here before.

With sunny blue sky, grassy hills dotted with eucalyptus, and tree-lined, car-clotted city streets running down to the ocean, it feels a lot like Southern California. Although the Pacific is east of here, not west, in a geographic coincidence, St. Kilda, the neighborhood where we're staying, faces Port Phillip Bay to the west, just as Venice does to Santa Monica Bay. And the nearby, rapidly gentrifying Prahran precinct could easily be the coolest neighborhood in LA on a hot Saturday night, with a few people even sporting Lakers gear.

Welcome to the "Homogenocene"--the rather worrisome title that some observers have given to our era of globalization, in which one increasingly finds a similar cosmopolitan mix of culture and nature wherever one travels in the world. As Buckaroo Banzai says: "Wherever you go, there you are."

I'm here with my partner, Ursula Heise, for conferences and meetings at the University of Melbourne with colleagues in what we call the "environmental humanities," a rapidly emerging global interdisciplinary field of study that brings together history, literature, philosophy, cultural anthropology and geography, art, media, and communications. Our concern is what the disciplines that study culture can contribute to understanding and improving our relationship with nature.

The environmental humanities take the Homogenocene as a subject to study, but you might also rightly conclude that the field is symptomatic of the era. In the Homogenocene local diversity--biological and cultural--is increasing in most places, even while the differences between places seem to be decreasing. Our global connections, while not new, are increasingly dense, and everywhere, nature and culture are inextricably entwined.

treesinparadise.jpgOn the long flight over I was reminded of this again and again while reading my friend Jared Farmer's enthralling new book Trees in Paradise: A California History.

Melbourne, it turns out, is an important node in the network of ideas and species that has connected Australia to California. The great nineteenth-century California eucalyptus promoter Elwood Cooper came by much of his knowledge about eucalypts through the U.S. consul general in Melbourne, who introduced Cooper to the work of the great Australian eucalyptus authority Ferdinand Jakob Heinrich von Mueller.

Actually, there was a two-way exchange of knowledge and seeds. Eucalypts traveled from Australia to California, Monterey pines came the other way. A "tree culture" was shared across the Pacific, writes Farmer: "These 'improvers' believed they could accomplish good works through tree culture, a nineteenth-century term for a body of practical knowledge that includes afforestation, horticulture, and landscaping." They believed not only that the landscape could be improved--or even "emparadised," to use an old-fashioned term--but that good citizens would also grow among the orange groves, underneath the palms, protected by towering, fragrant eucalyptus trees.

We're skeptical of such ideas these days, and for good reason. This kind of "civic environmentalism" was often deeply racist and not subtle about it. It was white families this landscape was meant to create. This brand of environmentalism--propagated by Californian and Australian environmental reformers a century ago--has rightly been thrown on the trash heap of history.

But, perhaps, in this era of the multicultural Homogenocene, there is still something useful to be harvested from these "renovationists," as Australian environmental historian Ian Tyrrell calls folks like Abbot Kinney, who succeeded Cooper as the leading eucalyptus expert and promoter in Southern California. As Farmer writes, "to renovate means to repair and also to improve."

These days, we don't like to think of improving nature much either. The idea is filled with hubris. It's what gave us the LA Aqueduct, Hoover Dam, and the California State Water Project, all of which we feel ambivalent about at best. We'd rather try to return to nature. But there's no pure nature or culture to go back to. So as we try to figure out how to repair the damage that has been done by the hybrid human and natural systems that we depend upon, and adapt to a rapidly changing climate, we better get good at renovating again.

And maybe now, in the early twenty-first century, in the thick of the Homogenocene that Cooper, Kinney and many, many others set in motion, Melbourne and Los Angeles can play an important role again in the global network of trade in ideas, and, yes, species too--but this time as vibrant cities where people from dozens of countries, speaking dozens of languages, are all contributing their own creative ideas to shaping nature and culture and new forms of civic environmentalism. Listening to them might be a good place to start.

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