Sensing Climate Change and Expressing Environmental Citizenship
We are now in the mountains and they are in us.
—John Muir, My First Summer in the Sierra
We are in the world and the world is in us.
—Alfred North Whitehead, Modes of Thought
IN LATE SEPTEMBER 2011, I traveled as far north as I had previously ever been to spend a week in an arts-and-sciences laboratory at a biological field station in Lapland. The coordinates, 69°03’N, 20°50’E, might locate this site on established maps. But during the time I spent here, I found this northern location began to multiply and fluctuate as a concatenation of milieus, processes, and subjects. While the participants on the residency program were here as a group of artists, writers, and scientists engaged with developing experimental modes of fieldwork, we were also located in varying proximity to exurbanites and lifelong natives, tourists and seasonal workers; fishers and farmers; Sámi, Finns, Norwegians, and Swedes. Also in this region were reindeer and dueling lemmings, crowberry juice outlets and imagined cloudberry sightings, forests dense with mushrooms, moss-covered granite boulders, drifts of mountain birch and Arctic scrub, grazed-over lichens, and fjords with rivers emptying deliveries of trout, as well as northern lights, chainsaw art, gift shops piled high with sauna kits, and mythic mountain giants once engaged in a wedding brawl.
Figure 4.1. Kilpisjärvi Biological Field Station and site of arts-and-sciences residency. Photograph by author.
Fennoscandia, as this area is also known geologically and geographically, might then be referred to as multiple milieus—sedimented, in process, or yet to come. While I was participating in this residency, I spent my time in and around a biological field station set up to monitor ecological processes in the Arctic environment. Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is a site of long-standing environmental monitoring, and it has become a place where computational environmental sensing also now occurs. The monitoring that takes place at the station ranges from weather stations and webcams to fieldwork for studying Arctic lake ecology and lab analysis of biological samples.
The working group in which I participated, Environmental Computing, focused on the ways in which data are gathered and worked across different fields of artistic and scientific inquiry.1 My particular interest was in the way in which environmental monitoring articulates distinct practices and politics of environmental citizenship and how traversals might be made across environmental data and action. By engaging in this experimental fieldwork residency, I hoped to consider how environmental data come into formation, what technologies and practices are mobilized to detect and gather data, and how technical and aesthetic capacities for sensing concretize ontological commitments to make distinct environmental processes evident or relevant.
Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is located in an area where the effects of climate change are more acutely experienced, since warming in the Arctic is occurring at a much faster rate than in many parts of the globe. Climate change becomes a recurring factor that in-forms how and why environmental monitoring takes place and the environmental data that might be generated. Sensing of temperature in air, water, and soil; inventories of organisms and pollutants; and samples of pH in lakes and streams are examples of monitoring practices that can accumulatively demonstrate how environments are changing in relation to a warming planet. But alongside scientific practices for documenting environmental change, there are also the lived experiences of humans and nonhumans who differently express the effects of climate change as a planetary event.
In this chapter, I take up practices of climate change monitoring in the Arctic to ask: How do we tune into climate change through sensing and monitoring practices? What are the particular entities that are in-formed and sensed? How do the differing monitoring practices of arts and sciences provide distinct engagements with the experiences of measurement and data? And what role do more-than-humans have in expressing and registering the ongoing and often indirect effects of climate change, such that categories and practices of “citizenship” and citizen sensing might even be reconstituted?
To consider these questions, I walk through fieldwork and observations gathered from my time spent at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station, and I compare computational and environmental sensing practices across science and creative practice that attend to environmental and climate change. Based on this mate-rial, I consider how the scientific measurements of climate change often take place through the gathering of data on individual variables such as temperature or concentrations of CO2 (as a sort of pollution sensing) and how creative and community-based monitoring projects might differently attend to expressions of climate change as they occur through connections made across entities and milieus.
While climate change is an environmental event that may create a particular conception of the planet as a planet in crisis,2 the Arctic concretizes and materializes the ways in which the global effects of climate change register in much different ways within complex systems. Here is another version of a program earth—not one world in crisis, but a multiplicity of effects expressed through climate change as a comprehensive yet differently articulated environmental event. Following Whitehead, this is another way of saying, in relation to the earth and climate change, “any description of the unity will require the many actualities; and any description of the many will require the notion of the unity from which importance and purpose is derived.”3 Climate change provides relevance for monitoring environments as they add up to a global register of planetary transformation, yet the many actualities are the ways in which this event is studied, which can materialize climate change as a differently distributed and connected-up event.
I further discuss how these new arrangements of environmental monitoring and distributed sensing might shift the spaces and practices of environmental participation, both within environmental citizenship actions and through creative-practice projects that take up citizen sensing as a tactic for engaging with sites of environmental concern. How do these modes of monitoring, within the context of environmental change, influence practices of sensing and expressions of citizenship? By attending to the effects of climate change on the multiple experiences of organisms, moreover, how might citizen sensing rework the citizen in citizen sensing to direct attention toward other extended expressions of environmental citizenship? The becoming environmental of computation and the becoming computational of environments in the context of climate change monitoring then describe processes where different techniques for creating evidence of climate change can make the multiple entities and relations that are affected by this planetary event more or less pronounced.
Ecological Observatories and Monitoring Environmental Change
Kilpisjärvi is at once a specific site for field study, as well as an environment connected to ongoing changes in the Arctic and beyond. From greater concentrations of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) to increasing temperatures and shifts in land use, the Arctic is a region undergoing considerable changes. As both field station and laboratory, Kilpisjärvi operates as a kind of ecological observatory. It is a site for monitoring environmental changes and recording those observations, often over extended periods of time.
Observatories emerged along with nineteenth-century “observatory sciences” for the study of astronomy, which began to focus on “precision measurement, numerical data processing, and the representation of scientific information on a global or cosmic scale.”4 Observatories, especially contemporary ecological observatories, then become distinct types of technical objects that function in and through their relationship to the milieus in which they are situated. While environmental monitoring at observatories may not initially have been established to study climate change, the decades-long stores of data that observatories now hold have often provided useful records for understanding how environments have changed over time. Environmental monitoring with sensors is then situated within longer histories of measurement practices and the sites where measurement would take place.
Kilpisjärvi Biological Station is a participating field station within multiple ecological “observing” networks, from Sustaining Arctic Observing Networks (SAON) to SCANNET: A Circumarctic Network of Terrestrial Field Bases, as well as the International Network for Terrestrial Research and Monitoring in the Arctic (INTERACT).5 Kilpisjärvi is also a station within the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme (AMAP), the international governmental body working under the Arctic Council that gathers and reports scientific findings to influence policy and environmental practice. Numerous monitoring initiatives connect up in the Arctic. AMAP links to these initiatives to improve Arctic observation in relation to environmental change.6
Climate change monitoring is a key activity in the Arctic that demonstrates how this region fluctuates and is subject to the migrations of other milieus as they travel toward and accumulate in the North. Planetary warming is taking place in much greater intensity in the Arctic regions due to the circulation of atmospheric and ocean currents toward the northern regions.7 Indeed, the changes in the Arctic are even expressed in terms resonant with information theory, where the intensity of change in the Arctic can be read as a much clearer “signal” in the “noise” of environmental data. As one report on the Arctic in the Anthropocene notes, “Because changes in the Arctic are happening fast and the signal emerges clearly from the noise, in many ways the science of change is currently easier to study in the Arctic than in most places.”8
More pronounced environmental changes are detectable across organisms and ecosystems, as well as cultural practices in the Arctic. At the same time that a more legible “signal” of climate change may be detectable in the Arctic, there is a relative scarcity of monitoring data from these regions over time, since they are much more difficult to observe year-round. Although climate change monitoring occurs across a planetary realm, not all locations are monitored to the same degree or extent. Historic records may not exist in all locations, or observing systems may not be monitoring essential climate variables as systematically as required by IPCC standards, which leads to perceived gaps in datasets that can also skew models and forecasts. In this respect, questions arise as to how accurate modeling of this region may be, and in some cases observed changes are even more pronounced than climate models may have initially forecasted. Despite these gaps, with the increasing drive to instrument the earth, planetary data on the whole are increasing, as are abilities to process data gathered.9 Climate change monitoring at once take places through contemporary observatories that produce ongoing records of environmental change, as well as through historic and paleoclimate records that extend across deep time. Environmental monitoring records are also assembled from research that may have been initiated for purposes other than studying climate change.
Fifty Essential Variables
Science-based practices for monitoring climate change typically take place in multiple locations across air, oceans, and land, from the tropics to the poles. Measurements of observed change are the key data that are fed into climate models and that project future scenarios for climate conditions. In order to gather the data that are the basis for observed change, direct and ongoing measurements as well as historic and proxy measurements are gathered in relation to fifty “essential climate variables.” These variables include everything from air and sea surface temperatures to carbon dioxide levels, ocean acidity, soil moisture, and albedo levels (or the ability of surfaces to reflect solar radiation). Environmental monitoring of these variables provides data that supports the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and they form the basis for networks of observation that take place around the world, as well as historical observations that are mined to provide further climate change data.10
Measurements gathered in relation to more contemporary events are collected through airborne instruments, satellites, ocean vessels, and buoys, as well as terrestrial monitoring stations such as carbon flux towers that can be found dotted around the globe. While fifty essential climate variables are routinely sensed and measured for evidence of climate change, most discussions focus on the rising concentrations of CO2, which correlate to increasing global average temperatures. The current concentration of CO2 currently hovers around 400 parts per million (ppm), a level that was last reached in the mid-Pliocene, two to four million years ago, when sea levels were up to twenty meters higher than present-day levels.11 If the additional greenhouse gases currently monitored are added to this measurement, then the current CO2 equivalent is even higher, at 478 ppm.12 The Keeling Curve register of CO2 concentrations is regularly updated through measurements that have been taken at Mauna Loa, Hawaii, and the South Pole since the late 1950s; and carbon-observing satellites capture detail about global concentrations of CO2.13 The systematic measurement of increasing parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the atmosphere has become an important part of an expanded climate monitoring infrastructure, where observatories fold into observatories.14 And ice cores provide data on CO2 levels that stretch as far back as eight hundred thousand years ago. As the latest IPCC Assessment Report 5 has noted, from these studies it has become clear that “the main contributors to increasing atmospheric CO2 abundance are fossil fuel combustion and land use change.”15
Climate change monitoring produces pronounced and startling encounters that unfold across environmental datasets. Rates of greenhouse gas rises in the atmosphere are referred to as “unprecedented”16 and connected to increases in air temperature in the troposphere, marine air temperature, sea surface temperature, ocean heat content, temperature over land, water vapor, and sea levels, as well as decreases in glacier volume, snow cover, and sea ice.17
While systematic observations of climate change continue to take place in observatories such as Kilpisjärvi, at the same time many of the effects of climate change are incurred not simply through shifts in datasets or increases in temperature and GHGs but also through “indirect effects” that occur through complex changes in environments and organisms. Monitoring of CO2 might also include observing and documenting the rapid rates of deforestation, which as carbon sinks can contribute to the overall increase in planetary carbon budgets. Ocean acidification occurs through increased CO2 absorbed in these sinks, which in turn can lead to a reduction in biodiversity of organisms that require a more alkaline ocean environment. While CO2 has not typically been subject to regulation as an air pollutant, as it seemingly has no direct health effects (as many other pollutants for which concentrations are regulated do), it becomes a polluting compound through its indirect transformations of entities, environments, and ecological processes. The “pollution sensing” that climate change monitoring involves, in this case, follows different trajectories where CO2 becomes a transformative and polluting entity in relation to complex systems.18
Sense Data, Sensing Data
As discussed throughout Program Earth, environmental sensors have become a common device within ecological study. The extensive monitoring and observation networks in place and proposed are a way to assess changes in the Arctic environment due to climate change, long-range transport of pollutants, and other environmental events. The collection of sense data through computational sensor technologies can establish how environments are changing and how planetary events register at different locations and through different organisms and ecologies throughout the Arctic.
While environmental sensors are instruments used by scientists studying phenomena such as climate change, sensors have also migrated into citizen-sensing projects, where grassroots science conducted through computational sensing kit is seen as a way to encourage environmental engagement and improve possibilities for addressing environmental change. This is done, in part, by making citizens into scientists, but then the practices and abstractions of what constitutes scientific activity also change. There are numerous citizen-sensing projects for undertaking carbon reporting and carbon accounting in multiple forms, where the monitoring of climate change transforms into a political activity of sorts.19 At the same time, multiple projects allow citizens to monitor and take account of deforestation and even report instances of illegal logging, since deforestation is a considerable contributor to climate change. Rather than discuss these types of citizen-sensing projects in relation to climate change monitoring, however, I attend to the ways in which climate-related sensing practices occur across sciences and arts. The indirect effects of climate change are materialized across organisms and their milieus, but these effects are differently registered within sensing and monitoring practices. How might a consideration of how climate change monitoring is undertaken open up the ways in which we formulate this environmental event as a project of gathering data in order to act on that data?
Just as scientists are increasingly deploying sensors in order to take ongoing rather than discrete measurements of ecological processes, creative practitioners are also developing new practices in relation to computational sensors in order to gather and repurpose distinct sense data about environmental phenomena. These monitoring initiatives include artists as well as indigenous peoples in different types of monitoring projects that might, on the one hand, rework science- or social science–based approaches to sensing environments and, on the other hand, articulate environmental engagements through different relations and registers of perception.20
Our working group on Environmental Computing was interested in these particular uses of sensors across arts and sciences and how these practices generated distinct if not new ways of understanding environments. At the same time, it was clear this was a crosscutting area of interest, since numerous participants within other working groups of the residency also had their own mobile sensors for undertaking field investigations, including geophones and hydrophones, YSI water sensors, light sensors, and more. The station where we were based also prominently held an array of meteorological sensors on its rooftop. A webcam regularly produced images of the site, and these were also streamed online. In addition to the many mobile devices used in the field, environmental sensors in use at the Kilpisjärvi Biological Station were connected up to a sensor data platform, where relatively continuous data streams provide indications of ecological processes.21
As part of our experimental field laboratory, questions arose as to what the particular objectives of environmental monitoring are. Monitoring, as a practice of sensing, raises questions about who or what is undertaking sensing practices, how this in-forms what counts as “sense,” and what types of milieus concretize in the process. Does monitoring in some way already presuppose a certain set of practices that assume distinct ways of accessing and studying environmental phenomena? Perhaps processes of sensing environments with computational sensor technologies demonstrate how these devices do not so much detect data “out there,” as discussed in chapter 1, but instead give rise to distinct ways of articulating environmental sensing across multiple organisms and processes. Given that the aim of this residency was to create experimental fieldwork engagements, we took a walk to the nearby Mount Saana in order to consider these different approaches to monitoring environments and what new arrangements of sensing and milieus came together.
Walking to Mount Saana
Mount Saana has been an ongoing site of Arctic mountain lake research, as included in the Arctic section of the IPCC fourth assessment.22 Poster presentations and scientific reports available in the library of the Kilpisjärvi station captured research on studies of how warming temperatures in the Arctic and at Lake Saanajärvi have led to increased levels of biota. As Lake Saanajärvi’s average temperature has hovered around -2.7ºC, it has historically had an absence of biota such as algae. But through the collecting and recording of sense data including temperature, water samples, sediment samples, oxygen measurements, and analysis of diatoms as bioindicators, evidence of increasing levels of biota has emerged. The warming of Arctic lakes, in other words, is in part expressed through the increasing numbers of organisms populating these waters.
One of the most pronounced changes in the Arctic is in relation to the loss of snow and ice cover, or the decline of the cryosphere, where not only rising temperatures but also disappearing snow and ice impacts the cold-weather organisms that might inhabit these environments.23 Lake Saanajärvi has been a monitoring site since 1996, and based on observed and projected changes the warming of freshwater lakes in the Arctic is expected to lead to numerous shifts in these ecosystems, from shifting temperature and water chemistry to increase in vegetation, decrease in water levels due to higher transpiration levels, and shifts in organisms that may reach a temperature “threshold” for survival in these conditions.24 This one lake that we are traversing around is a site of ongoing monitoring and measurement, generating data about the complex if often indirect effects experienced across organisms and milieus. As a field location that is also a site of sample gathering and analysis, the lake demonstrates the complex practices that are undertaken to sense environmental change and how these are brought into scientific research. At the same time, the lake raises questions about how experiences of environmental change register and what modalities of data are generated to document these changes.
Measurement as Experience
The scientific study of Lake Saanajärvi involves measuring set variables and systematically gathering data in order to establish conditions of environmental change over time. These observed changes provide the quantitative data points that are both evidence for historic and present shifts in environments as well as reference points from which climate models may be produced to project toward future scenarios. Measurement is at once inherited, present, and speculative, in this sense, since it accumulates through ongoing records, sustains practices in the present, and also projects toward future milieus in and through which measurement according to established variables will continue to have relevance.
While I was based in Kilpisjärvi, I spent some rainy afternoons looking over scientific papers, AMAP reports, and reference books in the field station library. One of these texts, Measuring the Natural Environment, outlines the central role of measurement to studying environments. Under the heading “The Need for Measurements,” the opening line of the first chapter notes,
Whether it be for meteorological, hydrological, oceanographic or climatological studies or for any other activity relating to the natural environment, measurements are vital. Knowledge of what has happened in the past and of the present situation can only be arrived at if measurements are made. Such knowledge is also a prerequisite of any attempt to predict what might happen in the future and subsequently to check whether the predictions are correct.25
Measurement, according to this text, allows observations of environments to become relatively systematic and continuous. Instruments that monitor environments become assessed for the degrees of accuracy they allow in obtaining “hard” facts about environments. Sensors working through computational modalities are part of the progression of developing more accurate instrumentation, which also allows for greater automation of measurement without the need for human intervention.
The variables according to which environments are measured and sensed, from radiation and temperature to precipitation and wind speed, become the individual data points according to which systematicity and continuity are achieved. Yet just as many questions have arisen, often within the context of science and technology studies, which ask: Why are these variables assessed and not others? What commitments are made when some forms of data become the benchmark for evidence gathering?26
At the same time, other questions arise in relation to how individual variables as entities are drawn from the complex environments in which they are in play in order to be measured. In his comparison of laboratories and field stations, Robert Kohler has suggested that the identification of single variables for measurement is largely influenced by laboratory methods that do not always translate well to field-based study. Alternative methods that ecologists working in the field have adopted have included developing instruments such as an atmometer, which rather than singling out variables for measurement attempts to study the complex interaction of variables by emulating the experiences and processes of transpiration within a plant, for instance.27
Measurement becomes a way both to individuate entities and to express and concresce possible relations across variables, entities, and milieus. Technologies for undertaking measurement are not simply techniques for gathering facts, as it were, but are also ways of identifying particular registers of data as important and relevant. The basis for understanding environmental change as change is understood through modes of systematicity that focus on particular variables over time, so that shifts within variables establish the evidence for degrees and intensity of change. These registers of change then further influence how we come to understand and operationalize environmental problems such as climate change through shifting variables: 2ºC as a threshold for the increase in the mean temperature of the earth, 400 ppm or 350 ppm as notional limits for CO2, and policy measures oriented toward achieving these targets.
How then does the decades-long practice of gathering measurements of set variables compare to the more itinerant sense-gathering of a walk to Mount Saana? In what ways does a possibly more random or momentary recording of field phenomena with sensors compare to these practices for detecting change? Do sensory investigations need to be guided by more than technical “probing,” or a documentary tracing of audio, video, tracing, and indexical capture of momentary phenomena? Scientists typically collect data to research particular questions about environmental change—for instance, asking how the long-term temperature of an Arctic lake has shifted—while many artists’ experiments might focus more on the phenomenal or sensory aspects of data gathering, such as capturing the sound and light of that same lake within discrete moments, in order to visualize or sonify experiences in the field. What counts as data in scientific and creative practice differs, as do the motivations for the collection and use of data. Calibration, protocols, and measurement techniques in response to the variables studied influence the quality of data gathered. But these “variables” might be approached and evidenced much differently across creative and scientific practice.
Whitehead has suggested that measurement is a way of sensing and experiencing. I take this to mean not simply that bodies are tuned to or mirroring the capacities of measurement but that the practices of parsing experience as measurement give rise to perceptive entities and occasions: they are ways of making measurement possible as a distinct experience and mode of individuation.28 If, rather than see the relationship of monitoring instruments to environments as a transparent rendering into data (or, alternatively, as a mere construction) we instead regard it as a process of selecting, experiencing, and concrescing worlds, then an expanded repertoire of measurement practices might also emerge. Experience as it transforms into measurement might occur through identifying single or complex variables, or it might also occur through measurements that capture the connectivity of events, or the comparative registers through which one environmental occasion might be a suitable proxy for another occasion or practice.
Science-based climate change monitoring often focuses on measuring single variables that are correlated across data sets, so that part of the difficulty has been to establish the connection between increased CO2 levels and temperature (not to mention anthropogenic influence). Variables that are stabilized for one type of measurement then require the difficult work of being knit together—historically, at present, and in the future—through supercomputers that can “crunch” the data and establish recurring connections in relationships between variables that correspond to larger patterns of environmental change.
Measurements that focus on experience, relation, and the complex interplay of variables have been referred to in other contexts as a sort of citizen science, or folk measurement.29 In this respect, we might consider how “community monitoring” and “community data” projects that are underway in the Arctic are not simply expanding the number of participants who would be involved in citizen-sensing projects. Instead, these projects incorporate parallel and distinct ways of experiencing environments through different engagements with measurement. Not necessarily tuned to a project of single variables, these monitoring projects might instead engage with felt experiences of alterations in climate, new timings of seasonal events, and organismal activity that fluctuate together—or suggestions for new observations that might be recorded in relation to emerging phenomena such as melting permafrost.
Many projects are now working in this space, from the Exchange for Local Observations and Knowledge of the Arctic (ELOKA), which was launched during the 2007–2009 International Polar Year (IPY), to the Atlas of Community-Based Monitoring in a Changing Arctic, which documents traditional knowledge and community monitoring activities. Also included is the Arctic Perspective Initiative, an artists’ project that develops a DIY environmental sensor network for studying flora and fauna through computational techniques, and which focuses on installing sensors for community-oriented scientific research.30 Neither a simple project of asking Arctic “natives” to do science within a usual scientific register nor an easy claim to a more “holistic” ecological understanding, these projects instead provide different angles for encountering environments through experiences that can also be differently individuated and operationalized through measurement.31
If we apprehend measurement as experience and individuation and as necessarily giving rise to the entities and relations that together articulate distinct types of collective potential, then measurement might proliferate in such a way so as not to demand that only one version of measurement may stand in as “fact.” Nor is this a simple project of relativizing all measurement through experience. Instead, data that are generated as measurements of experience are expressions of the subject-superjects that are undergoing situated and felt changes in relation to a warming planet. Measurements are articulations of relevance: for science, of which variables matter as key indicators of change in environments; for creative practice, of which articulations of experience might reveal different ways of taking account of environments and environmental change; for community monitoring, of which connections and lived experiences might be crucial for sustaining or enabling particular environmental relations.
Besides the different ways of monitoring environments across arts and science practices, this perspective also shifts when we consider the ways in which the multiple other inhabitants of milieus, including more-than-humans, sense environments. In this way, during our environmental computing group we also found ourselves engaged in discussions of indicator species, of lichens and mosses and other organisms that can be studied as expressions of environmental processes, whether for atmospheric pollutant levels, radioactivity, or different types of mineral depositions in soil.32 Organisms may be studied as proxies of environmental processes, yet they are not parsing single variables as much as living with changes in complex environments over time. Organisms inherit those changes, work through the new collectives that form, and attempt to gain a foothold to ensure their ongoing existence.33
Organisms that experience climate change are in one way measuring and monitoring shifts in their environments. As registers and expressions of environmental change, organisms further become environmental media of sorts. At the same time that the planet is experiencing increasing levels of greenhouse gases and temperatures, Arctic environments are also sites where organisms and their ecological relations are shifting, as lived experiences of their environments. If we consider the expanded registers of measurement and experience that occur through community monitoring, then we might also attend to the ways in which citizen sensing shifts if the experiences of more-than-human organisms were more fully incorporated into accounts of climate change. Who or what is a citizen? How is environmental citizenship articulated in relation to climate change? And how does this matter for how we sense and monitor climate change?
Texting Fish and Talking with Dolphins
While environmental sensing technologies may have developed through applications at ecological observatories such as Kilpisjärvi, among many other milieus, these devices have been taken up in creative-practice projects that explore how sensors can be constitutive of new relationships while raising questions about how sensing as measurement occurs across sciences, arts, citizen engagements, and more-than-human organisms. These differing encounters with environmental monitoring demonstrate how measurement, particularly in relation to climate change monitoring, can be a practice whereby new processes of sensing, expressions of milieus, and practices and formations of citizenship emerge.
Creative-practice projects that deploy environmental sensors often focus on ways of monitoring pollution. Such pollution-sensing projects often attend to urban air pollution, as in projects such as Area’s Immediate Reading (AIR) by Preemptive Media or Feral Robotic Dogs by Nathalie Jeremijenko, which will be discussed further in chapter 6.34 In another way, projects such as “Amphibious Architecture,” as discussed in the last chapter, raise questions about how monitoring and sensing take place through extended environmental relationships, where the transmission of text messages becomes a sort of “spectacle” for connecting up usually disparate human and more-than-human urban dwellers.35 How, through the use of environmental sensor technologies, might we begin to understand urban environmental health as shared across fish, humans, and river ecologies? Who or what counts as a citizen if citizenship is articulated through cross-species sensing practices? Can fish become citizens? Or does citizenship involve a different set of practices through these inhabitations?
During my time in Kilpisjärvi, we organised an evening salon to consider this set of questions in relation to environmental monitoring. Within our specific discussion of environmental sensing and computation issues, our group considered the topic of how to understand the “citizen” in citizen sensing. We began our conversation by asking who or what is a citizen, and how different notions of “citizen” might influence the type of sensing that might take place. We also asked how citizen sensing might shift when we trouble assumptions about who or what is a citizen in these projects.
We discussed additional examples of citizen-sensing projects from Beatriz da Costa’s Pigeon Blog, to Safecast, a project for detecting radiation after the Fukushima nuclear fallout in 2011, to the dontflush.me project, which uses proximity sensors to inform New Yorkers when to avoid flushing the toilet when the sewer system may be at capacity and in danger of dispersing waste into the harbour.36 Other projects, such as Vatnajökull (the sound of), allow listeners to phone up a melting glacier in Iceland, while Pika Alarm puts mountain rodents to work as sentinel species for climate change.37
In many citizen-sensing projects, environmental monitoring and data-gathering practices activate or enroll a certain hypothetical “citizen” that is already built into mobile devices and social media. By using social media, citizens are seen to be empowered to undertake newly informed, connective, and collaborative projects. While we had initially hoped to develop speculative practices around what other possible forms of citizen-sensing practices might look like if new formations of citizens were introduced, many discussants were concerned about the use of the term “citizen” to describe more-than-humans. Don’t citizens have free will and rights? Aren’t animals simply the props for human experiments into sensing? Are these sensing practices perhaps even exploitative? How could a tagged reindeer possibly be counted as a citizen? In this way, one discussant asked, “Is this about trying to talk with dolphins? I know of an artist who tried to do that and he went a bit mad, actually.”
Other examples of citizen sensing emerged in our discussion at this point, which began to test the idea of new arrangements of citizenship. One project reference, the Million Trees NYC project in New York, was cited as an example of a practice where crowdsourcing was used to identify where trees might be planted in the city.38 Once planted, the trees could be monitored in order to ensure their longevity. Such a practice of urban tree stewardship implies a relationship with the trees, and environmental citizenship might be practiced through sensing—with or without computational devices—trees and their local environment.
While the extension of citizen practices to more-than-human entities might press at the limits of common sense, in many ways expanding the scope of citizenship through sensing may be one way to develop strategies for finding new politics of subjects, as Braidotti suggests, which are environmentally connected.39 In another way, and working laterally from the subject-superject discussions developed by Whitehead, generating a new politics of subjects also entails generating a new politics of milieus. Milieus in this way might be understood not as populated by humans sensing and acting on environments, but rather as entities involved in generative sensing arrangements that might produce new milieus and possibilities for engaging with milieus.
In other words, rather than see environmental citizenship as something that inheres within a preformed and exclusively human subject position, I am instead interested to consider how practices unfolding across human and more-than-human registers might enable distinct articulations of environmental citizenship. The notion of “environmental citizenship in the making,”40—in other words, a processual and relational approach to environmental citizenship (here working with a Whitehead-inspired approach to citizenship)—potentially opens up ways of thinking through the sensing practices and entities that concresce through monitoring and experiencing environments. This has relevance in relation to climate change monitoring, since multiple entities might be involved in expressing or individuating experiences of climate change, which has further implications for how we encounter the measuring that citizen-sensing projects might undertake.
Expressing Citizenship: Reworking Collective Experience
These different sensory engagements could be seen as ways to open up milieus through different encounters or distributed ways of expressing environmental processes. Milieus are expressed through effects and experiences of human and nonhuman inhabitations. This approach suggests that fluctuations and expressions of milieus run through and are differently carried by the multiple inhabitants of milieus. In this sense, while rooted in place, fieldwork milieus also travel and change across the subjects and communities they affect. There are multiple modes of sensing that are activated in relation to climate change, so that we might ask: Who is undertaking the observation of what in this planetary and ecological observatory? Or rather, how are experiences constitutive of worlds, and how does this world-making in-form possibilities for citizenship, collective engagement, and participation?
On one level, the Scottish-American environmental writer John Muir captures this sense of experience and world-making when he writes of his travels in the High Sierra Mountains of California, “We are now in the mountains and they are in us.” Included in the epigraph to this chapter, Muir’s statement seems to be a recognition of the ways in which milieus and subjects commingle. Yet on another level, when Whitehead writes, “We are in the world and the world is in us,” he is signaling toward one of his key concepts about the ways in which subjects are always part of specific and concrete occasions that are constitutive of worlds. The earth of program earth is then a distinctly experienced and formative entity, proceeding from an objective datum to become a felt and experienced entity for a subject.
Perception, moreover, is distributed in and through these worlds through multiple subjects and processes. As discussed in chapter 1, in Whitehead’s approach, all entities are in some way “taking account” of their environments. In this way, subjects are always what he calls “superjects,” which are bound up with and concresce through actual occasions.41 A subject-superject is not only a human figure but also necessarily includes rocks, animals, and plants. At the same time, these entities and relations are not fixed, nor are they singular or necessarily always overlapping, but gain a foothold through the distinct types of “interpretation” or expressive experience that each organism undertakes.
Computational sensors, in addition to stones and animals, are also expressions of environments. Whitehead’s approach suggests that these multiple modes of planet sensing might expand here not just to encompass milieus as in process but also to gather together multiple modes of sensing that are in-formed through the expressive activities of multiple subjects. The becoming environmental of computation extends to the ways in which sensors are expressions of environments and to the ways in which organisms register as environmental media working through and expressing changes in climate. Sensor networks are not just formed by bits of circuitry and code but also in-formed through exchanges of energy, materializations, and relations that concresce across organisms and that are brought into practices of measurement with climate-change monitoring.
While the project of collecting as much data as possible is then seen to be critical to the study of environmental change—where there are no blank spots left on the map, as discussed in the last chapter—what counts as “information” may not be as self-evident as first assumed. Data in the form of essential variables may be gathered in one way, and yet in-formation is proliferating in the ways in which organisms are experiencing environments and recasting how we might think about measurement and the conditions of citizen sensing that might register those experiences. Yet more information does not automatically lead to a more effective set of political actions for addressing climate change. This other way of encountering the “informating” of environmentalism, as Kim Fortun has discussed, often attends to the ways in which environmental change is an epistemological project, where forms of knowing might shift in relation to information technology toward “comparison, extrapolation and cumulative effect,” thereby “displacing the dominance of linear constructs of causality in sense-making practices.”42
Yet as I am suggesting here, by attending to the experience of measurement and the incorporation of climate change into organisms as environmental media, a different set of encounters concretize that might be described as the in-forming of environments and environmentalism through sensor technologies. As discussed throughout Program Earth, Simondon’s notion of information as a process of in-forming presents a way to move beyond a substantialist tradition of form and matter to address how individuals, milieus, and relations take form through exchanges of energy, resonance within systems, and changes in intensity.43 Simondon describes the processes whereby entities and milieus are in-formed as transduction, which signals toward the ways in which “‘an activity propagates from point to point within a domain, while grounding this propagation in the structuration of the domain.’”44
Such a trajectory might further be understood as a reworking of collective potential from what Simondon has called the “preindividual reserve” that is a nonessential nature prior to individuation and which is shared across “objects” that are natural and technical. Any subject is at once individual and preindividual, which makes it a “more-than-individual being” that is continually worked out within collectives.45 In this way, part of this working-out that characterizes “‘the problem of the subject’” takes place through “the heterogeneity between perceptual worlds and the affective world.”46
The individual is always bound up with a preindividual reserve, and the human is always more-than-human (where what we understand to be human is not a site of exclusion or exception, moreover). Any individual entity is formed by and working through a perceptual and affective connection to collective worlds and is constituted through “‘the activity of relation’”47 that does not precede individuals or collectives but is the “transductive reality” that emerges along with them.48 If we further bring Whitehead and James to bear on this understanding of relation, we might say that relations can also consist of negative prehensions, or disjunctures. Relations, whether conjunctive or disjunctive, are always as real as things. This approach matters in relation to sensing climate change, since it in-forms how the effects of climate change are experienced and how notions of what constitutes an expression of citizenship in citizen-sensing practices might in-form monitoring practices.
Complicating Citizens and Sensing Practices
“Citizen” is an ambiguous term and attractor that travels across environmental discourses and practices. What does this term mobilize in concrete occasions, and as discussed in chapter 1, how does it act as a “lure for feeling?”49 The fluctuating milieus and sensing subjects that are in-formed and expressed through the differently distributed experiences of climate change, and which are the topic of this chapter, suggest that new arrangements of citizen sensing—and environmental practice and politics—might concretize here.
As this discussion of sensing climate change across scientific, creative, and citizen-sensing practices has suggested, citizens might no longer be conceived of as exclusively human subjects endowed with rights, but rather through relationships that at turns make us responsive to changes in our environments or otherwise generate alternative ways of engaging with the multiple modes of sensing that take place in milieus. In this way, Stengers writes, “what Whitehead calls a subject is the very process of the becoming together, of becoming one and being enjoyed as one, of a many that are initially given as stemming from elsewhere.”50 Subject-superjects are diversely distributed, continually in formation, and also generative of and generated through practices such as citizen sensing and environmental monitoring.
Citizens, in this case, might then be defined not only (or even) through those more traditional inheritances of a subject bound to a nation-state but also as subjects that are expressed through environmental practices that are constitutive of citizenship. These practices within environmental citizen-sensing projects often consist of monitoring, gathering, and reporting. The relationship between digital technologies, practices of environmental sensing, and citizen engagement becomes an important point of focus, since environmental monitoring activities involve not just gathering data but also performing particular types of citizenship through sensing technologies.
Environmental-computing monitoring projects raise questions about who or what sense data are for, which interpretive practices are productive of citizenship, and what new collectives sense data might mobilize. Such an approach to the multiple if divergent and differently captured expressions of milieus may be a way to open up speculative citizen-sensing scenarios to consider new arrangements of citizenship, expanded entities and processes of sensing, and new ways of articulating milieus within practices of environmental monitoring that attempt to respond to the ongoing event of environmental change.
How might we account for the varying “ecology of practices,”51 as Stengers terms it, which unfold through these differing ways of engaging with and experiencing climate change? The field-science approach to environmental problems is to observe, monitor, and gather as much as evidence as possible to make a case from empirical data for certain analytical theories about environments. In another way, this scientific approach to ecology might then be used to mobilize a political ecology of acting on this information. But what is the relationship between scientific and political ecology within this trajectory? Might there in fact be a failure to make clear connections between scientific ecology and political ecological projects in such a framing? At the same time, environmental monitoring by citizen sensors or scientists often assumes the automatic effectiveness of citizens gathering data en masse in order to influence environmental politics. The sensing operation is instantaneously made into a citizenly operation, without any clear indication of how this progression, mobilization, or translation is to unfold.
Consider how climate change is configured through these practices of citizen participation and sensing. Also consider how these formations of citizen sensing operate as practices of individuation and attachment. Environmental citizenship is expressed through digital technologies, and different forms and practices of sense are ways of making operational distinct affective and political capacities. In keeping with the discussion of folk measurement above, the possible limitation with citizen sensing is that science, in the form of measurement, becomes the primary mode of experiencing environmental change, which does not automatically translate from data into political change.
So we might ask, following Whitehead, what are the concrescences of sensing, environment, citizens, and environmental matters of concern? If citizen sensing and sensing climate change are not simply projects of gathering data in order to influence policy makers and so contribute to climate change discourse and practice, then what is it that concresces here? It may be that the motivations for using sensors stem from the perception that effectiveness is bundled into these technologies. Or it may be that a community of citizens engaged in sensing is in itself a mobilizing force to which the sensors play a secondary role.
Beyond a mode of environmental citizenship that might consist of emulating the scientific (in this sense, positivist) gathering of data, typically in order to make visible the invisible aspects of climate change, an expanded ecology of practices and ecologies of citizenship might attend to how different entities are experiencing and prehending, or taking up, the effects of climate change, and how these prehensions work across entities and milieus to give rise to shared but differently articulated experiences. Participation in environments and environmental change is not exclusively a volitional exercise of democratic agency, but rather participation concresces across multiple entities involved in working through the shared occasion of climate change.
In Stengers’s discussion of citizens and citizenship in the relation to an ecology of practices, politics is a condition of invention—and struggle—so that any ecology of practices, any formation of relationships, cannot be assumed to be neutral or given. This is a situation where all subjects are involved in “collectively inventing the world we all have in common.”52 But collective invention cannot proceed simply through an assumed starting point of what is a citizen, what is human, what is a relation, or what is political. As Stengers writes, these and many other “categories must be complicated”53 if political invention vis-à-vis an ecology of practices is to occur.
In this zone, where complication might also be understood as a condition of experimentation, we might ask how a different approach to citizens and subjects could in-form new engagements with climate change. An inventive politics of subjects that is attentive to the realness of relations (and their disjunctures) might generate new understandings of citizenship as involving becoming and belonging with extended more-than-human communities and milieus.54 And from this proliferation of subjects a proliferation of program earths might also occur, as milieus formed through diverse experiences for expressing climate change. Folding back into scientific practice and citizen sensing, we could bring Haraway’s suggestion for “another science” into consideration here, which, in accounting for multiple subjects, also accounts for “the sciences and politics of interpretation, translation, stuttering, and the partly understood.”55
But this is not, finally, a proposal for an obfuscation of a knowledge project such as climate change monitoring. Instead, by considering how to expand the subjects involved in “citizen” sensing, as well as accounting for experiences as generative of different forms of measurement, it might be possible to develop a radical empiricist approach to climate change monitoring. Such an approach would take seriously James’s suggestion that relations are as real as things. From such a perspective, different ways of taking account of climate change might be registered that could in-form the invention of politics that occurs in relation to this differently materialized and materializing planetary event.56
As Kim TallBear has discussed, people (and organisms) can be decimated when their relationships to environments become untenable, or when those milieus disappear or change unalterably.57 This is not merely about the destruction of people as bodies or human subjects but also about the destruction of people as they are in-formed and individuated through and along with the milieus they inhabit and the organisms with which they cohabit. Here, indigenous and feminist technoscience meet radical empiricism, where relations are always as real as things. And yet, a call to limit global warming to a 2ºC threshold might not capture these relations, saddled as it is with the problem of translating a single if consistently measured variable into a political modus operandi.
What would a radical (and speculative) empiricism of environmental monitoring and data sensing involve?58 Would the experiences of multiple other sensing subjects become part of how we engage with environmental change not simply as an epistemic or informational project but as something that in-forms individuals and actual worlds? How might this approach further in-form and rework citizen sensing as well as practices that are constitutive of citizenship? In-forming environmental citizenship, in this sense, is as much a speculative as descriptive undertaking, since the expanded subject-superjects of experience give rise to relations, collectives, events, and accounts of environmental change that are in the making.
While climate change monitoring is based on data gathered from observed changes it is also propositional, since it requires models and forecasts to anticipate what the further effects of environmental change might bring. As Paul Edwards has suggested, these are forms of “provisional” knowledge that are always being reworked and rewritten, both as climate pasts and climate futures.59 As much as provisional forms of knowledge, however, we might also say that climate change monitoring is propositional in the ways in which it articulates the inherited and experienced effects of climate change and proposes future scenarios for action. These propositions have effects both in establishing particular realities and in inviting us to encounter problems in ways that will continue to provide relevance to those facts.60
While some dominant approaches to measuring and documenting climate change seem to easily translate from an observation of any single variable to a control of any single variable, such as proposals for geo-engineering or ecosystem services where environmental processes are one more data point to be engineered, other propositions and approaches might materialize through attending to possibilities for reworking the subjects and practices of climate-change monitoring. What a complicated and complicating approach to citizen sensing suggests is that we not simply consider what monitoring data makes evident but also experiment with the new subjects, experiences, relationships, and milieus that monitoring practices might set in motion. With such an approach, we might also develop ways to invent new collectives and politics relevant to the concerns of climate change.