The Subverse - Season Four

In Season 4 of The Subverse, host Susan Mathews explores the story of “earth”, an ancient element, a home to millions of lifeforms. Join us as we explore this pale blue dot in all its complexity.

Episode 4

Seeding Life on Earth: Cosmic Gifts, Ultimate Outsiders and Bringers of Light

In this episode, host Susan Mathews is in conversation with Dr. Craig Walton, a planetary scientist based at ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge. Craig’s work spans the origins, evolution, and distribution of life in the Universe. In this podcast, we chat about cosmic dust, the origins of life on Earth, and phosphorus—a key element for life, known as the ‘bringer of the light of day’, and its more fiendish nickname, “The Devil’s Element”.

In a paper published in Nature Astronomy in February 2024, Craig and his colleagues note that life on Earth probably originated from “reservoirs of bio-essential elements” such as phosphorus, sulfur, nitrogen, and carbon. But our earth rocks are relatively poor in reactive and soluble forms of these elements. So where did they come from? Apart from meteorites and asteroids, they could have also found their way to earth through cosmic dust, mineral grain aggregates of less than 3 mm derived from asteroids and comets. And glaciers provide settings capable of both locally concentrating cosmic dust and initiating closed-system aqueous prebiotic chemistry in cryoconite holes, self-sustaining puddles or lakes.

In a more poetic turn, we talked about meteorites, which has been termed by Elizabeth Grosz as the ultimate outsider, a cosmological imponderable that might burst through the perceived limits of the known. Craig noted that these materials speak at a deeper level about where we come from and how we should live. Potentially, all life derives from these cosmic gifts. We are really made of stardust. Everything about meteorites and their eviscerated metallurgic intensity speaks to their incredible durability. And it’s a bit like us, right? There’s an unbroken genetic line between all of us here today to one pond, probably on the earth, four and a half billion years ago. It’s just absolutely crazy.

We then moved on to Craig’s PhD thesis on phosphorus, the backbone of DNA and our metabolism. It cycles through ecosystems in a mostly closed loop as organisms live, die and decay. This remarkable element, crucial for global food production, allows our civilization to flourish. However, with its overuse, we now face the dangers of fertilizer run-off such as algal blooms which can lead to ocean anoxic events which have been correlated with mass extinctions. For four and a half billion years, life has recycled minerals and resources, but we humans take them for granted. We churn through these resources, dump them in the oceans and move on. It can’t end well.

We ended our conversation with how phosphorus could guide us to life elsewhere in the universe. So far, the results indicate that we might be alone. But it could also be that we are the first on the scene, an elder species, which means we have a vast responsibility to figure out what we’re doing to each other, to the planet, and potentially to the whole galaxy.

More about our guest

Dr. Walton focused on the bio-essential element phosphorus (P) during his PhD at the University of Cambridge, UK. His project examined phosphorus in meteorites, the origins of life, and Earth’s crust over time. Now, Dr. Walton aims to apply this interdisciplinary scope to the broader (multi-element!) architecture of multiple problems surrounding Earth’s birth and subsequent evolution.

Outside of research, Craig writes science fiction as well as science communication articles on a wide range of topics.

If you want to hear more from Craig about all of the above, you can follow him on Twitter/X @lithologuy for updates.

Episode 3

Broken Grounds: Geology, Race and Counter-Gravities

In this episode, host Susan Mathews is in conversation with Kathryn Yusoff, Professor of Inhuman Geography at Queen Mary University of London. Her transdisciplinary research addresses the colonial afterlives of geology and race as a site of planetary transformation and social change. Her research is published in A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (University of Minnesota Press, 2019) and Geologic Life: Inhuman intimacies and the Geophysics of Race (Duke University Press, 2024).

The conversation was centred around the science of geology and its epistemic and field practices. In her book Geologic Life, Yusoff notes that geology, which emerged in the late fifteenth through nineteenth centuries as a Eurocentric field of scientific inquiry, was a form of earth writing riven by systemic racism, complicit in the building of colonial worlds and the destruction of existing earths. The origin stories of earth and scripts of race are natal twins. Both mineralogical material and the subjugated person, such as on racial lines, were categorized as ‘inhuman’. She approaches this work not through a linear historical geography but through undergounds (as footnote, mine, appendix, subtending strata, and stolen suns) that reveal subterranean currents.

In the book, Yusoff speaks of the “plateau” of white geology and its perspective as “the Overseer”, “floating” above the gravity of an earth relation. Whereas, in the broken grounds of the “rifts”, racialized subjects were torn from geography as slaves or indentured labour, under what she terms as the pressure of “unjust gravities”. So, the plateau was the geophysical zone of life which extracted resources and labour from the “inhuman” of the rift, to power the colonial earth.

Part of the task is to bring this whiteness down to earth through counter-gravities such as insurgent geology, non-fossil histories and questioning stratification. Broadly, Black, Brown, and Indigenous subjects whose location is the rift have an intimacy with the earth that is unknown to the structural position of whiteness. This inhuman intimacy represents another kind of geo-power: the tactics of the earthbound. So, whether it be through growing food, or making music such as the Blues, or the earth as a revolutionary compatriot, there have always been persistent resistances against these racialized relations.

Yusoff spoke of the paradigm of the mine, which encapsulates this presumption of extraction. She spoke of how material value is stabilized in the present from skyscrapers to palm plantations, but both inhuman mineral “resources” and subjugated labouring people are relegated to the underground. The mine has also inspired carceral forms such as the prison complex.

For a more reparative geophysics, we need to embrace practices that don’t start from the division between bios and geos and actually understand the earth and minerals as part of a kin relationship with a more expansive understanding of how the human comes into being. The separation between biology and geology is purely a kind of historical effect of disciplines and disciplining practices. These changes are even more important in the Anthropocene, where we have what she terms as a “white man’s overburden” with tech bros or predominantly White Western men deciding the future of Earth. Geobiology is a relational affair, and we need to see geology as a praxis of struggle and earth as iterative and archiving of those struggles.

More about our guest

Yusoff’s research focuses on the Inhumanities, an ongoing call for epistemic and pedagogical change that argues the need to recentre who and what the humanities has chosen to overlook in its stories of the earth. She is also part of Planetary Portals, a collective engaged in creative responses to the epistemic violence of coloniality and its present(s) that requires representational repair and environmental reparation. She is recipient of the 2022 Association of American Geography Stanley Brunn Award for Creativity and will be representing the British Pavillion at the Venice Architectural Biennale 2025.

Episode 2

Fractured Ecologies: Caste, Indigeneity and Nature in India

In this episode, host Susan Mathews is in conversation with Dr. Ambika Aiyadurai, an anthropologist studying wildlife conservation with an interest in human-animal relations and community-based conservation. Her monograph Tigers are our Brothers: Anthropology of Wildlife Conservation in Northeast India was published in 2021. She has written extensively on issues of caste and indigeneity in the environmental sciences and academia in India. Ambika completed a PhD thesis in Anthropology from the National University of Singapore in 2016, and currently teaches at IIT, Gandhinagar in India.

They spoke of how social hierarchies impact what ‘earth’ means to its various inhabitants. For some a safe haven, for others a dangerous, hostile place. In the Indian context, this is evidenced by the deliberate invisibility of caste in environmental studies and in Indian academia. The exploitation of nature and the perpetuation of caste hierarchies are inextricably linked, with purity and pollution playing significant roles in determining access and exclusion. The lives and livelihoods of people of marginalised communities are often entwined—in a daily connection or a daily struggle—with the fabric of nature itself. Caste and class determine access to land, water, forest, pasture land.

The ‘environment’ is conceptualised as apolitical and asocial, like a kind of a local terra nullius. The social is absent from environmental studies and discourse. Nature is seen as separate from, and devoid of, humans. Indigenous worldviews, like that of the Mishmi in Arunachal Pradesh, where Ambika has worked, challenge this dichotomy, seeing instead a continuum of human, non-human, and spirit worlds. However, for a long time, wildlife conservation research and practice have ignored these communities and their knowledge.

The conservation model of ‘protected areas’ is offshoot of the dominant ‘development’ practices. The state and scientists view the forest as a place to be measured and mapped, assigning it economic value. Both protected areas and infrastructure like dams and highways cut through geographies inhabited by indigenous peoples, making them ecological refugees. The same notions of purity and pollution lead to the idea that people need to be evicted in order to conserve, a dark history of our national parks in our country.

In finding answers to how we can approach repair and reparation in these academic and other conflict zones, Ambika speaks about the need to shift power structures, change our classrooms, to push for diversity among students, teachers and practitioners, to revamp our syllabi and be active in frontline activism.

More about our guest

Dr. Ambika Aiyadurai is trained in natural and social sciences with masters’ degrees in Wildlife Sciences from Wildlife Institute of India and Anthropology, Environment and Development from University College London funded by Ford Foundation. In 2017, she was awarded the Social Sciences Research Council (SSRC) Transregional Research Junior Scholar Fellowship. She has two co-edited volumes, Ecological Entanglements: Affect, Embodiment and Ethics of Care (2023) and More Than Just Footnotes: Field Assistants in Wildlife Research and Conservation (2023). She is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at IITGN.

You can find more about her work leading the Environmental and Humanities research group on their website here and on the Centre for Sustainable Development website.

Episode 1

Sonic Earth: Life, Loss and Listening

We start Season 4 of The Subverse, which will focus on “Earth”, with a conversation with David George Haskell, a writer and biologist. We focus on his latest book, Sounds Wild and Broken (2022), which explores the story of sound on Earth. It was a finalist for the 2023 Pulitzer Prize in Nonfiction and the PEN E. O Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. In it, David writes about how, three and a half billion years ago, sunlight found a new path to sound: life.

The wonders of Earth’s living voices emerged after hundreds of millions of years of evolution that unfolded in communicative silence. From the ancient cricket Permostridulus which bears the earliest known sound-making structure, a ridge on its wing, this sonic creativity was spurred on by some amazing marvels, anatomical and otherwise. They range from insect wings and flowering plants to ciliary hair and even milk.

Now, both land and water are far from silent; fish drum and twang, whales sing, birds chirp and wings buzz. The sonic diversity of the world is rooted in the divergent physical worlds and social lives of animals and the happenstances of history. Every species has a logic, a grammar, to its sound making. And still, the process of hearing is one of unity at the cellular level. Sound also travels across oceans, creating a sort of global unity in sonic communication.

Sound is ephemeral, instantly dissipating, and yet can be older than stone. So, in listening to animal voices around us, we are taken back into deep time and legacies of sonic geology. But it is also a ledger of loss. Our species is both an apogee of sonic creativity and the great destroyer of the world’s acoustic riches. As we get noisier, we diminish sonic soundscapes, bequeathing the future an impoverished sensory world. This sensory crisis is an important measure of the environmental crisis, and a powerful untapped tool for environmental justice.

How do we create a poetics and politics of listening? We tend to think of experiences of beauty and of creativity as somehow separate from politics and ethics, but Haskell points out that they are deeply intertwined. We are embodied sensory beings. As a species, we need to gather and celebrate the voices of non-human beings.

Technological advances have allowed us to record these soundscapes to check on the health of ecosystems. But when we get too reliant on technology, we ignore the wisdom of the people who have lived in the forest for centuries and don’t need gadgets to gauge the health of the forest, or to protect it.

David spoke of the generative capacity of sound which comes from life and interconnection. He closed with an invitation to take a few minutes of each day and listen, without judgement or expectation, and let sound do its work.

More about our guest

David George Haskell is a Fellow of the Linnean Society of London, a Guggenheim Fellow, and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, USA. His previous books, The Forest Unseen and The Songs of Trees, are acclaimed for their integration of science, poetry, and rich attention to the living world. He

To learn more about his work, you can visit his website here.
You can find him on Instagram and X.