SPURSE Solves Environmental Issues by Redefining Human Life

Courtesy of montclair.edu.

Courtesy of montclair.edu.

Christie Dix, News Editor

Iain Kerr is trying to reimagine cultural constructs surrounding art, science and nature. During his presentation in Science Hall of William Paterson University on Feb. 26, he introduced a classroom full of students to a new way of thinking about almost everything, from what is considered living, to what is considered human.

Kerr helped found the company SPURSE, whose mission statement is “to empower communities, institutions, infrastructures and ecologies with tools and adaptive solutions for system-wide change.” Creating innovative solutions to problems requires the team to challenge cultural beliefs that western civilization has historically accepted as fact.

“To have any type of fact, you need an interpretive system,” Kerr said.

He explained that all things are seen through lenses. One thing that contributes to these lenses are the many binaries through which western civilization views the world. Some of the binaries Kerr mentioned in his presentation include living and nonliving, human and nonhuman, science and art and nature and civilization. Kerr gives presentations such as these to argue that all binaries have an ambiguous grey range in the center. Yet for thousands of years, western civilization has seen these ideas as strictly separate from each other.

Kerr introduced the idea of what a collective is and who belongs to collectives. Humans tend to separate themselves from other collectives, such as nature and nonliving collectives, but Kerr argues that every human experience is collective-based.

“Collectivity is a fundamental feature,” Kerr said.

For instance, he stated that if you took a human and put it into a blender, which he strongly suggested against, and analyzed the material in the sample, 60-70 percent of the cells would be bacteria cells. A human’s mass is more than half bacteria because these bacteria digest food in the human gut so that the smaller units can be used as nutrients, among other functions. Humans would not be able to survive if they were not part of this collective of human cells and bacterial cells. In light of these facts, Kerr proposed that the audience contemplate where the line of human and nonhuman exists. In this case, the parts are most understandably viewed as a whole and as a collective.

To break down the functionality of the binary of living and nonliving, Kerr presented an example of how humans could not survive without clothes and tools. On a cold day, removing a human from the collective that includes nonliving objects, such as clothing, would result in the death of the human. In this case, Kerr also encouraged the audience to ponder if the line between living and nonliving could be drawn clearly as well. However, western civilizations tend to view nonliving, nonhuman things as having less value. There is a prevalent cultural belief that western civilizations hold true. It is that humans in some way ‘own’ the Earth, so humans have the right to use it for their benefit, while disregarding the consequences this behavior may have.

Other cultures that Kerr has studied, such as Inuit and Iñupiat Alaskan cultures, do not draw a clear cognitive line between what is human and what is nonhuman or nonliving. Their culture tends to view everything as one collective.

“The modern Western framework is a servant/master framework,” Kerr said. “We only have to take other humans into account. Nowhere else has an idea like nature, or a world that humans are somehow ‘not a part of.’ Non-Western ontologies are always trying to renegotiate who counts as part of the collective.”

Kerr and SPURSE continue to solve problems by viewing science, art and citizenry as part of one whole.

“That’s our provocation, reimagining a way of doing ecology,” Kerr said. “Citizen science is a call for generalists, amateurs and multi-species communities of action.”