Social Theory in the Anthropocene 1. Catastrophe and Patiency

Journal article by Hong-Jung Kim (2019)

“인류세의 사회이론 1: 파국과 페이션시 (Social Theory in the Anthropocene 1. Catastrophe and Patiency)”


First proposed by Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer in 2000, the concept of the Anthropocene has had staggering repercussions in a variety of disciplines. In response to the Anthropocene narrative as a problematization of the eco-ontological urgency that humanity is confronted within the 21st-century, I will deal with the following theoretical themes in this article. Firstly, I will analyze the central agendas underlying the Anthropocene discourse: the expansion of human agency into the planetary level and the possibility of unprecedented catastrophes in the near future. Secondly, I will propose to address the Anthropocene discourse as problem assemblage. Thirdly, I will examine Clive Himilton and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s theses in order to understand the shock that was brought to bear on the humanities and social sciences by the Anthropocene narrative. Fourthly, I will reinterpret the allegory of the angel appearing in Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History to explore new possibilities of transformative becoming of the subjectivity, focusing on the concept of patiency. Finally, I will present the concept of reflexive catastrophism.

Assemblage, Benjamin, Angel of History, Catastrophism, Agency, Patiency, Agentializing Patiency

Published in the Korea Association of Science and Technology Studies (KASTS)

Full article link (article in Korean):

AI ecologist: Developing algorithm for wildlife monitoring of the DMZ

CAS featured stories 2

AI ecologist: Developing algorithm for wildlife monitoring of the DMZ

Myung Ae Choi

The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) is often regarded as “the treasury of ecology”. This 248-km long ribbon of territory is left “untouched” since the armistice agreement in 1953 due to the prolonged Cold War politics in the Korean peninsula. However, other stories also emerge, arguing that the DMZ is not untouched but actually intervened with a range of human and nonhuman aArtificial Intelligence (AI) is becoming ever more popular from face-recognition applications on smartphones to security solutions. One underexplored but rapidly growing area for AI is its environmental use. Paired with remote-sensing technologies – trail cameras, drones, satellites – AI can improve the scope and the speed of environmental monitoring by analysing a large bulk of data almost instantaneously. Google has recently launched Wildlife Insight that develops ecological AI by collecting and analysing trail cam data across the world, whereas Microsoft runs a similar project called AI for Environment. We here at Korea Advanced Institute for Science and Technology (KAIST) have also been developing ecological AI – which we tentatively call “AI Ecologist” – that can identify and count the cranes in and around the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).

Cranes in the DMZ

The Korean DMZ is a 4-kilometer-wide and 248-kilometer-long territory across the Korean peninsula. It was established as a buffer zone at the end of the Korean War (1950-1953) to deter military conflicts between North and South Koreas. Remained as a no-man’s land for over 70 years, the DMZ is now transformed into a nature reserve, the “accidental” habitat for 91 endangered species. One of the wildlife in peril are the migratory cranes.

Red-crowned cranes (Grus japonensis) and White-naped cranes (Grus vipio) spend summer in Siberia and fly down to the DMZ and surrounding areas in winter (November to March). The grains from rice field provide enough food resources, while the restored wetlands inside of the DMZ offer safe resting places. The number of cranes increased from several hundreds in the 1990s to several thousand by now, making the DMZ and the vicinity as one of the most important wintering sites for these internationally endangered species.

Fig 1. Red-crowned cranes (left) and white-naped cranes (right). copyright: Yoo Seung-Hwa

This research project aims to document nonhuman species, including but not limited to endangered species, in selected sites around the DMZ. It differs from the existing ecological surveys in three ways. First, it focuses on ecological data produced at the local level, rather than another overview of the DMZ in general. Second, the scope of nonhuman species is more inclusive tCranes have been highly appreciated in Korean traditional culture, viewed as a symbol of long-life and good fortune. We had good population of wintering cranes but lost most of them during the past century through colonial hunting, urbanisation, and the Korean War. It was therefore a welcome surprise that the cranes started to come again to the DMZ and surrounding areas. However, the cranes in and around the DMZ are now faced with the new challenges presented by human encroachment into their habitats – relaxed border controls, greenhouses, roads and other infrastructure – in addition to changing climate. Still, ecological monitoring of the cranes is fairly restricted due to the security reasons if not the remaining landmines inside of the DMZ.

Counting cranes with AI

The research team is currently developing a citizen science platform for local residents to participate in environmental monitoring in their own neighbourhood. Prof Woontack Woo, Augmented Reality Research Centre at KAIST, is keen to design and implement an open data platform where local residents can identify the selected nonhuman species, and document and share their findings by using a Digital Twin. Prof. Buhm Soon Park, a historian at Center for Anthropocene Studies (CAS) and Graduate School of Science and Technology Policy, explores the affirmative potential of participatory research platforms for “information environmentalism”(Fortun 2004), through which local residents and researchers can enhance their knowledge and sensibility toward the environment. While sharing the enthusiasm for citizen science, Dr. Myung Ae Choi, an environmental geographer at CAS, is particularly interested in the geographies and modes of encounters, through which local rTo improve the capacity of crane monitoring where ecologists have limited access, we turned to AI and trail cameras. Ecologists monitor the changes in the crane population by painstakingly counting the number of the birds with their eyes and hands. It would help ecologists greatly if AI can provide the population estimate. We decided to apply the crowd counting algorithm, which is designed to count human population by analysing photographic images, to count the crane population. The crane ecologist in the team and his colleague generously shared 1,500 crane photos to train the AI.

Here in and around the DMZ, we have two different species of cranes, each of which have two distinctive age groups of juvenile and adult birds. To reflect these distinctive features, we trained the algorithm to be able to identify different species and age groups, and count their number respectively. This means that we have five classes – adult and juvenile red-crowned cranes, adult and juvenile white-naped cranes, and great white-fronted geese. After sets of training, the algorithm come to provide five class-specific density maps. By aggregating the weights assigned to the various colours of the dots, AI can provide the estimate population of each class.

Fig 2. Crane-counting algorithm

Fig 2 shows how the AI works. In the input image, we have two classes – adult and juvenile white-naped cranes. The ground truth informs that the image contains 39 adult white-naped cranes and 7 juvenile ones. Then the algorithm provides two density maps and the numbers: 42 for adults, and 4 for juveniles. Voila! Not yet perfect but it works.

Monitoring through trail cameras

The next step is to test and improve the crane counting algorithm to analyse trail camera data. Last winter, we have set up 13 trail cameras in the rice fields and river banks of Cheorwon, Gangwon Province, where the majority of cranes spends winter. The cameras are located outside of the DMZ to comply with the security restrictions. Crane-enthusiastic farmers, who have experiences in monitoring devices, have kindly allowed and helped us to install trail cameras within their rice fields. While we cannot, the cranes fly over the fortified lines, making use of both the wetlands of the DMZ and rice fields just outside of it. One camera was installed at the crane observatory that watches over the Hantan River (Fig 3). This particular camera is set up and being monitored in collaboration with the Graduate School of University of Zurich. It records the changing landscape and wildlife of Hantan River for the upcoming exhibition in Zurich as well as the AI training at KAIST.

Fig 3. Trail camera at the Hantan River Crane Observatory

From six-month operation, we have collected 97,000 photos and 23,858 short videos. We are at the moment training the crane-counting AI to analyse the trail camera images. From the trail run, we learned that the AI trained with human-taken images do not necessarily work strong with machine-taken images. Ecologists’ photos and trail camera photos have some distinctive features in terms of their modes of operation, camera angles and resolutions. Trail cameras do expand the scope of environmental monitoring as they allow close-up observation of wildlife in remote locations especially during the night.

However, these remotely produced images pose extra challenges for AI that aims to identify and count the wildlife. We are searching out and applying leading-edge AI technologies to improve the AI to solve these difficult problems.By developing AI for crane monitoring, we hope to illustrate the utility of, and the need for, wildlife monitoring assisted by remote-sensing devices and AI. Such technologies would help us better understand how wildlife persists in places such as the DMZ where humans have limited access.

Myung-Ae Choi is Research Assistant Professor at the Center for Anthropocene Studies, KAIST. She is an environmental and cultural geographer, looking at the political, cultural, and technological aspects of nature conservation, with specific regional focus on South Korea and East Asia. For her doctoral and post-doctoral research, Myung-Ae looked at ecotourism, dolphin and whale conservation, and crane conservation in the DMZ.

The original version of this essay is published on Nextrend Asia.

Searching for stratigraphic signatures to define the start of the Anthropocene in Korea

Searching for stratigraphic signatures to define the start of the Anthropocene in Korea

CAS Featured Stories 1

Searching for stratigraphic signatures to define the start of the Anthropocene in Korea

Myung Ae Choi

In September 2019, a group of natural and social scientists from the Center for Anthropocene Studies (CAS) gathered at Bongpo Wetland, Goseong-gun, Gangwon-do. Two sets of boring devices were soon placed to extract wetland sediments as deep as 8.5 meters under the ground. This field data collection was one of the first research activities in the country to collect and identify stratigraphic signatures of the Anthropocene in Korea.

The recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene claims that humankind has emerged as an earth-changing force. An immediate follow-up question would be when the Anthropocene started. Four proposals have been made to separate the Anthropocene from the Holocene: 1) The spread of agriculture and deforestation in the Neolithic Period; 2) The Columbian Exchange between Old World (Europe) and New World in the 17th century; 3) the Industrial Revolution at around the 19th century; 4) the mid-20th century. While scholars support different proposals for diverse and convincing reasons, the international community of relevant geologists, the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), favours the mid-20th century hypothesis that the rapid population growth, urbanisation, and industrialization, what is called as “the Great Acceleration”, has become responsible for the unprecedented changes in earth systems.

Then, what would be the geological evidence of the Anthropocene in the Earth’s geological history? With a view of formalising the Anthropocene as a new and additional geological epoch, the ICS has been searching for stratigraphic signatures of the Anthropocene in sediments and ice. They are looking for:

  • New anthropogenic materials: aluminum, plastics, concrete
  • Radiogenic signatures and radionuclides: excess Carbon-14, Plutonium-239
  • Changed geochemical signatures: elevated concentrations of polyaromatic hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls, pesticide residues
  • Carbon cycle evidences: increased concentrations of atmospheric CO2 and CH4

(source: Waters et al (2016) “The Anthropocene is functionally and stratigraphically distinct from the Holocene”, Science, vol 351, no.6269)

Waters et al. (2016)

Korean geologists affiliated with CAS have recently started to search for stratigraphic markers of the Anthropocene in Korean estuaries and wetlands. Prof. Guan-Hong Lee, Inha University, and his research team have collected estuarine sediments from four major rivers – Han, Geum, Yeongsan, and Nakdong. They are tracing new anthropogenic materials – such as microplastics, black carbon – and geochemical markers, while examining lithological characteristics that are distinctive from that of the Holocene. Korean estuaries would provide useful data to define the beginning of Anthropocene specific to the Korean context, as they are very close to urban and industrial complexes, and also heavily altered. Dr. Wook-Hyun Nahm, Korea Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources, has worked on the timing when the anthropogenic signals of global warming overwhelmed the natural signals of climate fluctuation in Korea during the past 2000 years. While collecting and analysing geological records, the team also collects historical cases of human activities, such as cultivation, logging, and reclamation, which could explain the artificial sediments in the strata.

At Bongpo, Prof. Lee’s team collected recent wetland sediments as deep as 1.5 meters under the ground. Alongside other estuarian sediments collected from major rivers of Geum, Yongsan, and Nakdong, these samples are brought into his lab for geological analysis. Dr. Nahm’s team went into deeper by digging down to 8.5 meters, which would allow the team to look at geological records of the past 10,000 years. Dr. Myung Ae Choi, a human geographer at CAS, joined these geologists at Bongpo to collect the stories of how local residents have used the wetland for the past decades. These researchers work together by putting the geological data in conversation with the written and verbal accounts of human intervention in the recent past. Such interdisciplinary work, although at its early stage, could shed some light on the important question when the Anthropocene started in Korea.