In this paper, I will introduce FIELDCLUB and explain how the project explores issues raised by the concept of ‘Dark Ecology’, and interrogates certain problematic details within the realm of human/non-human relations.
Brief introduction to FIELDCLUB
FIELDCLUB is a small experimental farm and artist collaboration in the UK. The project investigates the premise of subsistence farming and ‘off-grid’ living in a post-industrial society. My collaborator (Kenna Hernly) and myself lived on a two Hectare area of land for five years in a small house made from post-consumer waste. We grew our own food and firewood, pumped water from the ground, and used a small solar panel to generate just enough electricity to run LED Lights and a laptop for a few hours a day.
We started the project because we wanted to see what would happened if we extended the agenda of ‘sustainability’ to its maximal limit. So we designed a life system that we felt would address the main issues promoted as tenets of ‘sustainable’ living.
Reduction of fossil fuel consumption and fossil carbon emissions to zero by:
Living and working in the same place.
Not using any electricity generated using fossil fuels – using renewable sources (small solar panel) and reducing electricity consumption to absolute minimal levels (low wattage 12volt system).
Growing and using biomass for heating water, heating living spaces, and for cooking.
Reduction of food miles to zero – by growing all our food ourselves (including grains and meat).
Reduction of ammonium nitrate in food production to zero – by using strictly biological agriculture with long crop rotation cycles for fixing nitrogen.
Increasing bio-diversity by:
Using poly-culture systems for food and fuel production.
Habitat creation for the non-human integrated into all aspects of horticultural production and landscaping.
Reduction of chemical use in food production to zero – by growing locally specific plants and animals with high disease resistance, and using rotational planning for pathogen control.
We wanted to test this system in a real life situation, and then use our art practices to explore issues that presented themselves. So we started the FIELDCLUB as speculative research – it was not our intention to promote a specific politic, but to investigate a theoretical position through praxis.
As we started to design the FIELDCLUB farm we found it necessary to collect information about crop yields so we could calculate exactly how much land we would need to provide ourselves with food and biomass fuel.
Eventually we had extensive crop yield data for small-scale farming – including data for grain production, animal products and animal fodder. The large amount of information, and the complex variations in possible food production systems gave us data handling problems, so we decided to design and commission some software to help us use the data to design subsistence farming systems.
The result is the FieldMachine – Self-Sufficiency Calculator. It works by asking the user to construct a nutritionally balanced diet from locally provident foods using personal preference – you choose the foods you would like to eat, and the software tells you how much land your chosen diet will actually use.
It also asks the user to choose the area for habitation. We decide to program the software with heat loss efficiency calculations for strawbale house construction – as it is accepted as one of the most energy efficient construction methods, and uses agricultural waste products. The software then uses annual average temperature data for the region to calculate how much land is needed to grow different bio-fuel crops for the heating of the chosen house size. The software draws a simple map in real-time to show how the land is proportionally divided between all the different crops. This gives the user a quick visual report of the land use efficiencies, and enables the user begin visualising the system in a real landscape.
But the most important function of the software is as an indicator of population efficiency. It reveals how many people could live within a restricted landmass if the whole population adopted the choices made by the individual user. So for example, in the on-line demonstration version of the software, we use the surface area of agricultural land in the UK, and the current population of the UK as the parameters. We can clearly see that it is only possible for the UK to be totally self-sufficient if the population restricts their accommodation to around 50 square meters per person and adopted a vegetarian diet.
Population is a very problematic topic for the green movement, and in many ways it is the ‘elephant in room’ of the green agenda. The idea of population control is irreconcilable with the Neo-liberal agenda of freedom of choice, so we are locked into a hiatus that cannot be discussed using Neo-liberal frameworks and established terminologies of sustainability. The FieldMachine – Self-Sufficiency Calculator opens up a clear debate on this fundamental issue, but it does not offer a moral position. Instead it uses Kant’s Categorical Imperative to allow each user to understand what would happen if an entire population acted upon the choices of the individual user. We use the FieldMachine in workshops as an educational part of our practice. We invite the public to generate their own designs through making their dietary choices, and incorporate designs together to make hypothetical model communities. This process allows us to discuss many issues with the public as they use the software.
The FieldMachine also gives us the opportunity to speculate about alternatives to the city model. So, in the context of this conference we could use this to look beyond urbanism as a paradigm. This is the most important function of futurology – to speculate rather than attempt to predict, and is for me the most exciting thing about the original function of the computer. The computer was designed to give us the capacity to model any mathematical scenario, and gives humanity an important tool for understanding decision-making and consequence. It is such a shame the computer so quickly got co-opted into the world of global finance, and is mainly only understood by people as a device for entertainment.
The FIELDCLUB Farm, the Non-human, and Dark Ecology:
Having developed some functioning prototype software, the next step was to use the Fieldmachine to design a small farm, and then start to test the output in a real-world landscape. We created a design calculated to support two people, one vegetarian and one part-time omnivore. We found a piece of suitable agricultural land – an ‘improved’ monoculture grass field – and started to make our design into reality.
Six years later there are vegetable gardens, fruit orchards, cereal production for human consumption and for feeding chickens, grass meadow in traditional management for goat fodder, biomass and tree planting for future fuel, and lots of integrated habitat for the non-human.
But as we started to work on the land to establish the system, we quickly realised the project would give us a unique opportunity to examine the dynamics of dark ecology and enmeshment put forward by Timothy Morton’s book ‘Ecology without Nature’. In this work, Morton debates and refuses the conceptual separation between man and nature. He argues that it is the concept of nature itself that is damaging our ability to think beyond anthropocentric values. He identifies what he calls ‘the mesh’ and talks about how the human is ‘enmeshed’ in an inter-species, inter-object web of complicity and contingency. In many ways this goes beyond Guattari’s concept of three ecologies, Morton shows that ultimately there is only one ecology – and we are unavoidably part of it.
He also introduces the concept of Dark Ecology – if we accept a non-anthropocentric concept of nature that includes the human within it, we also have to accept that nature is pretty twisted, and within it we can find many instances of darkness and horror.
During our practice on the land at FIELDCLUB we began to understand the implications of this concept of enmeshment. Using a truly non-anthropocentric, or post-human, concept of nature we have to understand the human as just one species using environmental resources within in a matrix of ‘biological niches’ – the biological niche concept is used by biologists to map species interaction within food webs. But in practise can we actually position the human within a food web? Can we effectively map ourselves as part of an ecosystem when we consider how extended the boundaries of the human niche have become through the processes of industrialisation and globalisation?
In implementing our little farm, we recognised we were in the perfect position to ask this question because we were creating for ourselves an economy of production that was geographically limited. We reasoned it should be possible to map ourselves as part of an ecology of biological niches, because we could physically see the boundaries of our niche. This became one of the main endeavours at FIELDCLUB. I will relate some examples of this to you and discuss some of the implications raised for the subject of Human/Non-human relations in each case.
Enmeshment example 1: Field Vole
When we first purchased the FIELDCLUB site, we decided to manage the existing grassland in a very low impact way and not cut the grass we did not need to use as hay. This was intentionally done to provide habit for the existing population of field vole (Microtus agrestis). Within the existing ecosystem the voles were an important food source for the owls, hawks and foxes who share the territory with us – they come onto the site every day to hunt the voles. We were very happy about this, until we started to plant trees into the unused grass areas for future bio-fuel and building materials. As soon as we started to plant the trees we discovered that the voles had other ideas. The voles would cut a ring around tree after it was planted which soon killed the young plant. The voles were acting to preserve the habitat in the form that is best for them – long grassland. It wasn’t because they were hungry – they were expressing a phenotypic behaviour because they didn’t want the area to become a forest. It is not well described by science, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence for this behaviour.
So the battle began. We tried putting plastic guards around the base of the tree, but the voles burrowed under the ground and eat the roots of the tree. We decided the only way to protect the trees was to remove the habitat of the vole by cutting down the grass and maintaining it at a shorter length. As we undertook this action, the grass cutting machines killed many field voles. We buried them in the FIELDCLUB graveyard – where we buried all the animals accidently killed during our interventions on the land at FIELDCLUB. Over the period of two summers we removed the niche of the vole and changed the habitat. In order to use this small area of land to grow what we considered important resource for us, we had to deny the voles their ‘living room’.
And this is how any species acts within an environment to create its niche. There is a level of competition between species for resources that are fundamentally limited by the land surface area, and the ability of plants to photosynthesise sunlight and ‘bind’ the excess energy of the sun into chemical forms of energy. We needed the land to grow trees, and the voles needed the land to grow grass. As the trees become established they will eventually shade out the grass completely, and there will be no grass in these areas – we intervened to create a different ecosystem complete with a different set of invertebrates and mychorryzia.
It may have been possible to make the ecosystem transition without physically killing any voles ourselves. But in removing their habitat, we would have forced them to physically move to a different location. Here they would have starved or been killed by other voles as they attempted to move into territories already occupied, as newcomers always put untenable pressure on limited resources. This brings to our attention the reality of all ecosystems – they are ‘pressurised’ systems. When a void opens up, something will instantly fill the void, because of the background pressure, or competition, for resources.
Enmeshment example 2: Cabbage Root Fly
This is a short story about growing cabbage. One year we were happily growing cabbage at FIELDCLUB. But the next year every attempt to grow cabbage completely failed, and we didn’t know why. The cabbages would grow to a certain size and then just fall over and die. So we looked at our collection of horticultural books and discovered that the roots of each plant had become infested with the larvae of the Cabbage Root Fly (Delia radicum). So what do we do? We had to decide whether we abandon growing the cabbage, or continue by making an intervention within the niche of the cabbage root fly. We do not use chemical pesticides on the site for obvious reasons, so we have to take some kind of physical action. After researching the life cycle of the cabbage root fly, we discovered that the adult fly feeds from the flowers of the Giant Hogweed plant (Heracleum mantegazzianum) before mating and laying its eggs in the soil near the young cabbage. We decided the most obvious way for us to control this species would be to remove the food source of the adult. So one hot summer day I happily went out wearing my short trousers and T-shirt, with a big cutting hook to cut down as much Giant Hogweed as I could find.
About an hour later I noticed my legs were itching, and I looked at them and discovered they were covered with blisters and open wounds. I quickly referred to our books and discovered that Giant Hogweed contains a photo-reactive toxin that burns human skin and leaves permanent scars – the plant had committed a chemical attack against me in self-defence! So, I quickly referred to my books on natural medicine to look for a remedy to treat these burns and stop them from getting worse. And here we discover the dark twisted irony of enmeshment – in all of the books, the only effective remedy I could find was a poultice made of warm cabbage leaves! So that year, the last remaining cabbages in the garden were not eaten, but were applied to my wounded legs.
Enmeshment example 3: Mouse/Vole/Rat/Human dynamic
Our accommodation at FIELDLCLUB is an advanced form of ‘bender’ – a kind of temporary structure traditionally made in Northern Europe by travelling charcoal burners, wooden shoe makers, and Roma. It is made of rubbish acquired from local construction sites, and hazel sticks from a local forest. I lived in this house without mains electricity and running water for six years, it as a very effective construction, and I was very proud of its eco credentials. But during this summer I had to stop living in this zero carbon house – and I will tell you why.
About three months after building and moving into the house I had my first uninvited visitors – in the form of two large rats. They were coming into the house to eat the food placed for the completely ineffective cat. The rats were running all over the kitchen and leaving trails of urine and faeces behind them. I didn’t want to use poison for obvious reasons, so I spent a lot of time and money trying various traps advertised as both humane and inhumane.
But none of these worked, the rat is historically re-known for its wit – as Reza Negarestani writes here in his essay Pest Rationalism:
Rats are endowed with a militant verve for adaptability; they can adapt to any hierarchical order only to turn it to an apparatus of criminal complicity. If god evades all definitions and situates itself beyond all attributes of beings in the manner of the neo-Platonistic God, rats are still capable of sneaking behind him at night to penetrate him with painless efficiency. It is not the question of posture and sitting right, it is all a matter of surprise from behind. They can break into your air-conditioned bourgeoisie dreams by taking the pipes and romping around in the vents. If you build schizophrenic cities they adapt to the paranoid dimensions, if you secure a paranoid house they spread schizophrenically in every direction. They are only mobilized according to an absolute contingency which is marked by double betrayal; simultaneously working against the rectifying movement of social machines and betraying the fluid derangements of a formless nature by dwelling and adapting to hierarchical orders and dimensions when it is necessary.
Eventually, I had enough. I was losing too much sleep. Then coincidentally, a friend of mine who lived on a houseboat contracted Leptospirosis (Weil’s disease). He only cheated death because his dog died and the veterinary surgeon recognised the symptoms. So a friend and myself stayed up all night with an air gun and shot the rats.
For the next five years no rats entered the house. They were living all around it in the hedges and barns, but they didn’t come into the house again. It was like the message had got out, the word had spread.
But this message didn’t reach the Wood Mice (Apodemus sylvaticus); they came into the house in quite large numbers at different times of the year. They were living in the insulation inside the walls and roof of the structure. Unfortunately for the mice, and fortunately for me, mice are not as smart as rats and are quite easy to trap.
Here we have to consider a new predicament. What becomes of the mouse who is trapped by a human in a ‘humane’ trap (the kind of trap that doesn’t kill the mouse but traps it in a chamber until the human returns in the morning to dispose of it)? After spending the night desperately trying to escape from the trap, the mouse becomes acutely fatigued – mice have a very high metabolic rate and need to eat up to 20 times a day to maintain energy and body temperature. So by the time the human returns in the morning the mouse is physically exhausted, and experiencing extremely high levels of stress. Stress levels then peak as the human picks up the trap and looks inside to check if it is occupied. The mouse is then supposedly taken some distance away from its home territory, and released somewhere into another niche that is undoubtedly already occupied by healthy, unstressed mice who will then defend their niche against the anthropogenically introduced individual. This process must involve a certain amount of rodent violence. If there are no mice already living in the release area, then that means it is probably not native habitat for mice, and the released mouse will be unable to survive because it will have little or no phenotypic knowledge of how to survive in this alien habitat. So, we have to ask ourselves, who exactly is benefiting from this ‘humanity’, the mouse, or the sentimental ego of the human operator?
I opted for traditional killing traps – very effective and quick. They avoid the long drawn-out death by starvation and disorientation that the ironically named ‘humane’ traps offer. There is no argument for saying we could have provided these non-humans with alternative dwelling places rather than kill them – they already had thousands of alternative niches all around. They were choosing to leave them and come and live in the new niche we had created ‘for them’. But, nonetheless, I didn’t ever remove all the Wood Mice from the house. They would come and go with the changing seasons for the next three years, moving in to the house for the winter and leaving after they had bred in the spring.
Then suddenly there was a huge mouse war event. I was kept awake one night by constant squeaking and fighting in the walls of the house. It was a very troublesome night. The level of rodent violence was extreme. I wondered what could be happening? Was there an over population problem that was causing competition for food? During the next few weeks the answer became apparent, because the Wood Mice stopped appearing in the traps, instead I found a new species – the Bank Vole (Myodes glareolus).
So there had been a hostile take over. The Wood Mice had lost control of their niche, and had been violently forced out. This was not a problem for me, because the Bank Voles appeared to just want to use the house as a nesting site, they preferred to eat outside, hunting insects and eating berries from the hedges near the house. They never entered the kitchen and didn’t really presented any health risk, so I decided to let them stay.
Then at the beginning of summer 2012 I was called away to work in London, and the house was unoccupied by Humans for four months. After a few months, a friend stayed in the house for a short while, and he sent me a disturbing photo of a Bank Vole with no head that he found lying in the middle of the floor. I instantly knew what had happened – the Rats had noticed the gun wielding human had gone, and had come back to reclaim the niche.
When I finally returned at the end of the summer, the house was over-run with Rats. As I entered, the smell of Rat urine was overpowering. It was obvious that they had become totally embedded in the house, and in my absence I had lost control. I had not maintained enough positive pressure through my presence, and the Rats had taken over the niche. So I have now abandoned the house. The Rats will live there until I deconstruct the house and re-use its materials and make a new Rat-proof house.
Enmeshment example 4: Slug’o’metric Device Series
The FIELDCLUB project is based in Cornwall in the South West of the UK. Here the climate is wet and warm, we hardly ever get snow or sub-zero temperatures in winter. As a consequence, gastropod molluscs (slugs and snails) are endemic. It is a huge problem if you are trying to grow any food, and farmers in the whole region have to use strategies for controlling these animals in order to produce food for human consumption – this is usually the liberal use of a toxin called Metaldehyde.
Under our chosen regime, we wanted to avoid using this chemical technology, but we also wanted to achieve success in growing our own food. So we initiated a practical investigation into types of slug control and their ability to enforce the boundaries of our niche. We considered releasing commercially farmed nematodes, but we sceptically discounted the idea because of the historical litany of ecological disasters whenever the human tries to control one misbehaving species in an anthropically augmented eco-system by introducing another.
After trying many different kinds of organic control we decided to use a quick mechanical method that avoided the slow death of the animal by forced relocation or intoxication by alcohol etc (the usual ‘humane’ methods). So I developed the Slug’o’metrics: A series of kinetic sculptures that use progressively more complex technologies to perform the task of killing slugs. As FIELDCLUB is a research project I wanted to have a basis understanding of the efficiency of this method. So I designed each machine to count the number of slugs it kills by incorporating a gallery census counter.
As each device in the series became more accomplished in its use of technology, the user became more distant from the killing action of the device. These machines were a microcosmic example of how technology separates us from the actual and continual effect of our existence within the mesh:
Slug’o’metric I uses a conventional scissor which is operated mechanically by the user.
Slug’o’metric II uses a switch and electric motor so that when the user presses a button, the motor performs the task of killing the slug.
Slug’o’metric III has a switch and electric motor, but also a radio transmitter and receiver unit, so that the killing part of the device can be positioned over the slug by another person, and the operator can press a red button on the transmitter and the slug will be killed without the operator having to witness the kill.
In the technologically augmented and globally dispersed human niche, each human individual is responsible for countless animal deaths every minute of every day. It is impossible to quantify and map these interactions with the mesh because of three reasons: They are usually undertaken on our behalf by another individual, they usually take place in diverse locations very distant from our individual ‘place’, and the actual act of killing is usually accomplished by some kind of machinic device rather than directly by a human hand.
Every piece of food we eat has been grown in some kind of a mechanically altered environment. Even the vegan is complicit with this process – every field of organic soya in the American Midwest is a biological desert, the soil is physically turned several times a year to kill trillions of superfluous life forms. The principles of dark ecology simply cannot be avoided here. The boundaries of the niche require maintenance if the individual human wishes to survive.
The agricultural act
The anecdotes we discovered at FIELDCLUB are microcosmic examples of how the human operates within any ecosystem. Any agricultural production relies on the effect of removing or displacing other species occupying a territory. Effectively we ‘simplify’ the system of ecological niches in order to make a territory ready to produce a single species that we want to grow for our consumption. In a new territory, the agricultural act creates a positive pressure in the eco-system that forces the original occupiers of the niche to the edges. This is achieved by first removing existing shrubs and trees, and then by physically turning the soil to kill plants that attempt to grow from seed already in the soil’s seed bank. These plants are removed to allow strains of plant-life favoured by humans to have unrestricted access to sunlight, water and nutrients. These anthropic strains of plant of plant are more productive in terms of carbohydrate and protein conversion from sunlight, but far weaker in terms of their ability to compete with other native plants, so they have to be ‘helped’ by the human.
In post-humanist terms the act of ploughing the land is an incredibly violent act towards the non-human. But the violence doesn’t stop there. Some species that originally occupied the site will often manage to survive somehow at the edges of these simplified territories, and seeds from the original eco-system can survive in the soil for centuries. The human has to maintain the positive pressure and stop them from returning – so the act of physically turning the soil has to be repeated, sometimes several times a year. The development of the plough, the domestication of animals capable of pulling it, and the invention of machines to replace them has been the focus of technological endeavour for millennia. In post-humanist terms, when we look at the countryside around our cities we are viewing a kind of occupied territory under a strict regime of marshal law.
There are of course some systems of agriculture that do not require this level of mechanical intervention. But they are so low yielding in comparison that the human population would have to be reduced by a huge factor if these methods were used. The necessity of physical intervention in the agricultural landscape is also true of organic or bio-agriculture.
And unfortunately veganism also fails to address this problem. I agree that veganism is the most efficient way to use land to support food production for human nutrition. The FieldMachine shows very clearly that it would be the most efficient way to feed the worlds population as it stands today and into the future. And of course, veganism refuses the captivation and consumption of certain animals domesticated by humans – thereby avoiding the suffering of the individual domesticated animal. But in my opinion, the arguments around veganism actually tend to obfuscate the realist codification of our relationships with the non-human in the context of food production. It simply does not address our relationships with the non-domesticated non-human in the context of agriculture. The potential efficiency of vegan agriculture also raises further complications for the problem of human over-population. As a species we are still bound by the increasing efficiency of our agricultural technologies to an increasing population. This it is an addiction that the environmental agenda has failed to identify – agricultural efficiency is an engine of population expansion.
The FIELDCLUB project gave us a unique opportunity to examine the dynamics of dark ecology and enmeshment, because we were living in exactly the same place as we were producing our food and our fuel.
The project revealed two paradoxes:
Firstly, the more living room we allowed for non–domesticated non-humans to co-exist in our niche at FIELDCLUB, the more non-domesticated non-humans existed. Consequently more got killed as we carried out our operations to provide for ourselves (even though that system of provision conformed to the most rigorous tenets of sustainability).
And secondly, the closer the boundaries of our niche are to our place of habitation, and the more direct responsibility we take for producing our materials for subsistence, the more we will witness the killing effect of our existence within the mesh.
Society can only refuse the idea of dark ecology while urbanism is the normal mode of living. The city dweller cannot be expected to comprehend the everyday effect of the production of materials for his subsistence, because this production is undertaken on his behalf in distant places, by distant individuals, in environments already anthropogenically transformed into simplified niche systems. I believe there is a correlation between the sentimentality that dominates post-human thinking and the predominance of urbanism – in our normal mode of existence we simply do not see the realities of enmeshment.
Through our investigations at FIELDCLUB we can see that a truly post-human concept of nature has to fully address the themes of dark ecology. We have to consider that developing sympathetic relationships between the human and the non-human really come down to one question: Are we prepared to share land resources with the non-domesticated non-human or not? Simultaneously we have to understand that addressing the problem of human population is a central prerequisite to developing a truly non-anthropocentric philosophy. It is time for a realist approach in post-human thinking. If we want to dissolve the conceptual boundary between the human and the rest of nature, then we have to face the dark and bitter realities that physically bind us to the ecology of the whole planet.
The text on tha basis of the presentation at ECOLOGIES conference. Full programme: http://ekologiemiejskie.pl/wydarzenia/ecologies-programme-of-the-conference
The author is the lead artist/director of FIELDCLUB – a four-acre field where art has been used as a catalyst to interrogate models of subsistence farming and off-grid living since 2004. Working as FIELDCLUB, Chaney, and his collaborator Kenna Hernly, developed a computer software application to design systems personal self-sufficiency. This software is used to perform ‘Hypothetical Reterritorialisations’ where the public are asked to design systems for food production in urban and sub-urban locations. A central theme of the FIELDCLUB project is to push the boundaries of post-humanist thinking through practical research on the ground. Chaney has recently presented FIELDCLUB work at The Serpentine Gallery, London and TATE.
In 2009/10 Chaney worked with Urbanomic – an international arts organisation and publisher of the infamous COLLAPSE – Journal of Philosophical Research and Development, to deliver a program of art events and residencies in the UK. During this time he worked with philosopher Robin Mackay to develop Agrosophy – a weird fusion of contemporary philosophy and agriculture. Recently he has been working with Mackay to explore elements of Geo-philosophy – a genre emerging out of Speculative Realist thinking.
More recently, he has been developing work in the Czech Republic and Ukraine, using Geo-philosophy to explore new post-human approaches to analyzing the prerogative of population growth and ‘progress’.