Another way in which I could have introduced this post, is by explaining why Cultivating Innovation - a project devoted to elucidating the relations between science, agriculture, and intellectual property (IP) - went to a workshop on environmental history. Those of you with active imaginations and a strong sense of self, probably already grasp the general motivations; agriculture takes place within (or is constitutive of) the environment (or environments- I’ll explain more on that distinction shortly); environmental sciences are of fundamental importance to food security; parts of the environment are already recognised as property (some intellectual, some material); Cultivating Innovation’s never-ending quest is to find as many ways as possible to bring the views of the historian and philosopher of science on IP to as wide an audience as possible, and a great deal in this direction can be achieved by piggybacking on extant communities, communities who may not realise that sensitivity to IP can do some productive work for them. To put the last point more succinctly, there is stuff that IP can do for people who research the environment, though this will require a reinterpretation of certain themes and some adjustment of analytic focus. This is what I will be attempting to achieve in the remainder of this post, and a subsequent one. There is however a third and final way that I could have introduced it.
I am a species of historian who wants to see greater interdisciplinary work take place between the history and philosophy of science (HPS), and environmental history (or the environmental humanities more generally). I am not claiming this perspective to be a great novelty. Most people who address biosciences in the field, whether these be jungles or farms, read widely, and are eclectic about the kinds of work they draw upon. The only reason I write it here, is because it doesn’t exist formally (as far as I know) on the internet as a ‘thing people are trying to do’. Science and Technology Studies, a closely allied discipline to HPS, has made some real headway (see New Natures: Joining Environmental History with Science and Technology Studies), but things seem - again, as far as I have seen - a little quieter from the overtly HPS end of things. So there, it’s now in black and white, and if you’re the kind of pervert who likes studying plants and animals through various different lenses (particularly HPS and envhist) then you can now proudly look your friends in the eye and tell them it’s a thing, because it’s on the internet, the last bastion of intellectual rigour and decency.
Angela Cassidy introduced the workshop by explaining its title, and that bracketed ‘s’. She has already summarised the reasons behind the latter in a post on the 3S website, which you can read here. I have different purposes, so I am going to unpack ‘environment(s)’ slightly differently. The main point, and which Cassidy emphasises, is that talking of ‘THE environment’ (a daily occurrence on the news and in the pub/playground) is about as helpful as talking about THE food, or THE music. It is a category of thing that is fundamentally shifting and various. Before some of you punch me in the face for being banal, yes, yes, when people simplify things by talking of ‘the environment’ they typically have some specific aspects in mind. But that’s not OK. Sometimes they mean weather systems that circulate the globe, sometimes they mean biodiversity and population changes spanning countries, or merely regions. Sometimes they mean environments of which people are a part, sometimes environments from which people are deliberately excluded, and sometimes environments inhospitable to humans. In short, if we’re going to be simplistic, let’s take the time to stick an s on environment. Things might look largely the same, but at least our language automatically captures things better, and - as more than one speaker yesterday pointed out - it also automatically engages more people in the discussion. You might not care about climate change in THE environment, but you just might care about your favourite golf resort flooding every year, or your pheasant hunting being ruined by birds vomiting up chemicals (to rely on some grossly unfair stereotypes).
The distinction also matters for IP. People sometimes speak of a global IP environment, or the IP landscape in any given country. Pluralising our understanding of environment helps to embed IP into those environments we more readily recognise and care about. I’m not worried about the metaphor (except when it is used to suggest there is something unchangeable or natural about the laws and regulations that make up these IP environments), in fact I would like to make the metaphor go further. Firstly, parts of certain environments are IP and owned. In agricultural environments this will obviously be the plant varieties grown by farmers, but what of other environments? Orchards, gardens, parks, these can all be overflowing with plants either protected by IP law, or plants that were once the intellectual property of an individual grower (the circulation of which was restricted and managed accordingly), but have since lost the association with this individual or firm. Nevertheless, these plants are a legacy of certain IP claims, produced in certain cultures of ownership and innovation, and it is therefore worth recovering how they have influenced the environments that we live with today. Secondly, and returning to the more global perspective, the ‘water-energy-food nexus’ is an inherently environmental problem, drawing on finite natural resources that make their maintenance more or less difficult, and therefore the products more or less valuable. It is important to remember that IP is constitutive of these integrated problems, not just an influence ON these environments, but part of them. Perhaps a certain scientist or engineer makes a productivity claim for their equipment or idea (their IP), which, let’s say, addresses the problem of irrigation. This hypothetical product saves water but uses greater amounts of energy. Whether or not the scientist/engineer in question pursues IP-Narrow claims (patents etc.) on this IP, or pursues IP-Broad claims (trying to get their name associated with the innovation, or any number of other ways in which this property might be made theirs), or pursues no claims over this IP, will have direct implications for whether or not this innovation is adopted, where it might be considered suitable to adopt it, and - ultimately - the kinds of environments that we produce and live in.
In the next post I will try and make some more specific links between the papers presented at Environment(s) in Public, and the work in HPS on IP. If you have any suggestions for further ways in which these things might be linked, (or more generally, projects currently explicitly linking HPS research with envhist) please do write to us in the comments section, or send a tweet/email.