Parallax Lisboa

September 12th, 2019

Parallax Lisboa is an initiative that experiments with novel ways of knowing and teaching in the Anthropocene. Spanning across a broad range of disciplines, the initiative seeks to make the interdependence of anthropocenic processes sense-able.

Parallax Lisboa is an ongoing initiative organized by the Portuguese Centro Interuniversitário de História das Ciências e da Tecnologia (CIUHCT) and its Anthropolands project, which experiments with novel ways of knowing and teaching in the Anthropocene. Spanning a broad range of disciplines, the initiative seeks to use the parallax effect to engage with the issues of environmental and social transformation and collapse that the term Anthropocene highlights. To that end, the initiative organizes discussions around two intertwined and complementary, but often divorced frameworks: on the one hand, the systems of social and technological organization, determining which actions are possible within a given historical context; and, on the other, perception and narrative, determining our limits for understanding and imagining. Negotiating, challenging, and perpetuating power and discourse through both these means defines the conditions for living in contemporaneity.

As many have argued, the challenges of the Anthropocene demand research actions that resolutely cut across disciplinary barriers to create new modes of researching, teaching and, more generally, knowledge-making. But while a transdisciplinary approach is necessary, we should also restrain from aiming at an overarching integration framework. On the contrary, new actionable insights may spark only from an open, non-hierarchical and even conflictual exchange, in which not only the multiple layers of reality but also multiple, and not necessarily compatible, perspectives on reality are at stake. Taking the parallax effect seriously means not to dismiss it as an error or as “apparent” movement. The movement is there, and we must ourselves move in order to follow it.

At the heart of the Anthropocene and its controversies, lies a radical reassessment of the troubled relationship between humans and the natural world, that may entail re-configuring these very oppositional categories. A radical engagement with the non-human is paramount to the creation of new approaches to the socio-environmental problems that we are facing today and, probably in harsher conditions, in the near future, as we enter a time of unprecedented climatic instability.

In 2011, marine biologist and film-maker R. Olson coined the expression “Nerd Loop” to denote the circularity and ineffectiveness of communication efforts regarding global warming. Biologist P. R. Ehrlich, too, once observed that the inefficacy of the many initiatives aimed at raising awareness over climate change greatly depended on the fact that carbon dioxide is invisible. He argued that, were it red, and people saw the sky progressively taking up a redder hue week by week, we would have already taken major measures to curb CO2 emissions. In other words, it is a matter of “public perception,” or lack thereof.

Nevertheless, for decades, environmental destruction has not been invisible to scientists, activists and the communities who have suffered from drought, air, soil and water contamination, or the disappearance of wildlife. Invisibility is not solely due to the lack of material proof that is immediately perceivable by any person. It is reinforced by lack of solidarity and indifference in the political and media spheres, as well as by active lobbying from powerful industrial and financial sectors. In fact, as environmental degradation became too visible to ignore, the attention shifted elsewhere: either to remediating strategies that fail to consider the systemic implications of the current systems of production, favouring responsibilization in the form of personal blame and atonement; or to technocratic intervention and management of the environment, following the spaceship Earth metaphor, which, in some cases, promises the magical fixing of the rift between capitalism and true sustainability.

In order to meet the challenges of our age, we must engage with the Anthropocene as a provocative “trading zone” (Moore, 2015), in which traditional boundaries between scholars and the general public are constantly crossed (Trischler, 2016). Rather than strengthening the attribution of experts and keep the laymen away from deliberative democracy actions, we should implement initiatives that foster and facilitate public participation in processes in which scientific and technological expertise are implied.

In the vein of the Anthropocene Curriculum, the Interuniversity Center for the History of Science and Technology (CIUHCT) is establishing a series of initiatives to advance and disseminate new experimental modes of higher education and research. These actions bring together the natural sciences, technology, the humanities and the arts to make “sense-able” the manifold interconnectedness of life on earth in the Anthropocene.

Further information on the ongoing activities of Parallax Lisboa can be found here.