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AAGs, Day one

Technically the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting began on Tuesday, but since I got to Denver at 11:30 pm I wasn't able to go to any of those sessions. Here I'll make some notes on a few of the interesting talks I heard today.

1. Jay Hasbrouck gave a good paper that I unfortunately missed the beginning of because the Adam's Mark Hotel -- like all conference hotels I've been to -- was apparently designed by a team of monkeys with expensive crack habits. He talked about how eco-anarchist groups, particularly ELF, make use of (often outdated) anthropological theories to construct their anti-civilization ideologies. What I found interesting was that they use not only the "noble savage" myth (in order to substantiate their claim that non-civilized society is better), but also the "barbaric savage" myth. Nonviolence, they argue, is unnatural, and it's anthropocentric to demand it as an ethical precept. This justifies their "eco-terrorist" actions.

2. Paul Robbins spoke (in his characteristically dynamic way) about the ethics of political ecology, with particular reference to game ranching in Montana. I found his empirical work interesting, as he described the rise of game ranching (an unprecedented privatization of wildlife) due to cattle ranching being outcompeted by factory farming, while the demand for recreation rises with the expansion of the urban-wildland interface. The game ranching project quickly collapsed, though, because game ranches proved to be fertile breeding grounds for Chronic Wasting Disease (an elk version of mad cow disease). But he lost me when he tried to draw out the larger philosophical implications. He's one of those people who is clearly thinking on a higher plane than I'm capable of (or else he's a far better BSer than your average academic).

3. Vine Deloria Jr. gave one of the talks at the big plenary session at the end of the day. I had read a couple of his books (Red Earth, White Lies and God is Red) and not found them particularly compelling, though they did have a bit of the same sort of voyeuristic fascination for me as Eirich von Danniken's work. I understand where he's coming from in terms of his anger at what western culture has done to Native Americans. But he has a tendency to demonstrate a lack of understanding of many of the elements of western culture that he criticizes. A good example of this came in an offhand comment about evolution in his AAG talk. His main theme was tribes' claims that gods or other spiritual beings told the tribe to settle in a certain area, and granted them a special connection with, knowledge of, and adaptation to that patch of land. Deloria clearly believes that these origin myths are (in some way) true. As support for this, he said that secular theories can't adequately explain how tribes come to be so well adapted to their homelands, because evolution asserts that life has no meaning -- yet how can such a level of adaptation be achieved without a sense of purpose?

Applied to the adaptation of non-human organisms, Deloria's argument would be a simple case of the argument from incredulity -- I can't imagine how this adaptation came about, therefore it can't have occurred through a non-teleological natural process. Applied to cultural adaptation, it's a blatant misstatement of the theory of evolution. Evolution is not nihilistic, denying the possibility of purpose in life. It simply denies that any purpose guides the process of natural selection. But cultural adaptation is clearly not driven primarily by natural selection -- it's the result, though not necessarily in a planned way, of humans who believe in various purposes for their lives. Evolution does not even contradict the (anti-existential) idea that there is one correct meaning or purpose for life. It merely holds that this purpose can only have an effect on the world by being believed in and acted on by humans. It's a bit audacious of Deloria to make this argument at a geography conference, since geographers have been in the forefront of proposing secular theories of how communities adapt to their environments.


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