Winter 2013 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the online blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative winter 2013 colloquium series. The purpose of this blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by each colloquium meeting in the winter quarter to a broader online audience with the aid of additional commentary and useful weblinks extracted from the internet. We encourage readers to engage in the discussion by posting comments at the end of the blog. Please click the “Leave a Comment/View Comments” link at the end of the blog to post a comment on it or view previous comments on the blog.

Global Divides and Human-Nonhuman Relations in the Anthropocene: A Review of the Winter 2013 Environments and Societies Colloquium Series

March 15, 2013

By Raoul S. Liévanos, UC Davis Sociology Doctoral Candidate and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

Scholars have situated the current environmental crisis in the “anthropocene”: the contemporary era in which human activity is a defining agent of life-threatening global climate change and a potential solution for halting such change. Climate change experts, such as Will Steffen, say that the anthropocene hit “the Great Acceleration” period from 1950 to the present through a number of dramatic social, economic, and political changes throughout the world. These changes sent the concentration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere well above the 350 parts per million (ppm) level that many consider to be safe for life on Earth.

A number of organizations and individuals have reacted to this “overshoot” of GHG emissions. For example, a social network organized under the name, “,” has enacted global campaigns that call for carbon emission reductions of 80% by 2050 to help lower carbon emission totals from our current concentration of 387 ppm to the preferred 350 ppm (hence, the “350” in; see also Journalist, Andrew C. Revkin, has an online blog, “Dot Earth,” in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times that contains a number of interesting posts about climate change and ongoing efforts to confront the anthropocene (Revkin’s opening 2-minute slide show to the “Dot Earth” blog, accessible here, is worth seeing and hearing). Furthermore, a recent Yale University and George Mason University report (Leiserowitz et al. 2012) suggests the majority of Americans many now agree that addressing climate change through alternative energy policies (and thus reversing at least some of the trends seen in the anthropecene) is important. That study marks a potential change from previous polls of the United States public—a populous that has historically lagged behind its counterparts in other wealthy nations with regard to climate change (Marquart-Pyatt et al. 2011).

Despite signs of growing support for actions to address climate change and associated dynamics of the anthropocene among a cross-section of organizations and individuals, there are still worries that such actions will be developed by powers in the “Global North” irrespective of alternative (and sometimes more sustainable) forms of human-nonhuman relations seen in countries usually associated with the “Global South” (click here for an introduction to Global North and South definitions). For example, indigenous groups in Global South countries like Ecuador and Bolivia have joined with other civil society and environmentalist groups in a “cosmopolitical” movement. This movement has helped to institutionalize rights for “nature” in official law and custom, which seek to ensure a political space for critical discussion about different ways of knowing and interacting with nature, including the indigenous legacy of human-nonhuman relations in the Global South (de la Cadena 2010). Examples of current cosmopolitical action can be seen in the 2008 Ecuadorian constitutional revision to grant rights to “Pachamama” or “Source of Life/Source of Light,” the 2010 Bolivian law that granted the rights to nature, and the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia (see other “Earth Law Precedents”).

Five visiting scholars in the environmental humanities presented their research in the UC Davis winter 2013 E&S colloquium. Whereas the fall 2012 colloquium series questioned the extent to which individual action was enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice; the winter 2013 colloquium participants collectively shed light on the global divides and conflicting human-nonhuman relations that characterize the anthropocene. These works did so by exploring the contradictory human-nonhuman interactions evidenced in this era’s unsustainable modes of production and system of intensive “resource” extraction for energy consumption in the Global North and the Global South. The insights from these works have implications for a broad rethinking of the human-nonhuman interactions associated with the environmental and social challenges posed by the anthropocene.

The work of two visiting scholars for February, Stephanie LeMenager (English, University of California, Santa Barbara) and Traci Brynne Voyles (Women’s Studies, Loyola Marymount University), illuminated the human and nonhuman dynamics that shape and are shaped by hazardous legacies of mining for coveted energy sources within the Global North country of the United States. The point of departure for LeMenager’s work is that oil spills, often taken-for-granted as “common occurrence in oil-field operations” (Beamish 2002:59), have nevertheless contributed to the massive loss of nonhuman life on a scale that resembles the human death toll wrought by militarism and war. Yet, oil spills and their environmentally destructive impact are frequently forgotten in public debate and collective memory.  In “Forgetting Oil,” LeMenager explores how oil, especially our contradictory relationship with it, is collectively forgotten in the case study of the iconic 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. LeMenager traces this forgetting action from the spill to the response it motivated by “mainstream” environmentalists and media representations of the spill.

LeMenager illustrates how oil is forgotten through a complex assemblage of material and symbolic factors that make spills less visible. These factors include the material use of oil dispersants and other concealing technologies and symbolic disputes found in incoherent narratives that shift attribution of blame for the spill and create conflicting accounts of the spill’s impact amidst official statements, corporate public relation campaigns, and media representations regarding the spill. These factors are complimented by the contradictory successes of the new environmental consciousness spurred by the spill, which paradoxically radicalized Santa Barbara elite to seek localized forms of environmental remediation from the spill but did not alter the middle-class consumerist tendencies and uncritical oil-dependency of the broader mainstream environmental movement.

In “Boom and Bust on Contested Ground,” Voyles elaborates on LeMenager’s work. Voyles explores how race (a system of categories that imbue physical and sometimes behavioral characteristics with social value and that classify people into separate social groups) is intertwined with contested land claims and boom and bust cycles of the uranium industry in Northern New Mexico. Voyles draws on ethnographic field methods and archival research to explore how racial categories were used to classify and subordinate Native Americans as colonial subjects by a succession of “settlers” in New Mexico. This extension of racial meanings to previously un-racialized groups provided the foundation for the systematic removal of Native Americans from their traditional homes—particularly those near Mount Taylor near Grants, New Mexico—for the sake of more “productive” uses of the land by non-Native American populations. Such uses included subsequent waves of uranium mining in and near Mount Taylor in the 1950s and 1970s. Uranium mining intensified during the George W. Bush administration’s declaration that nuclear power would be an important element of U.S. energy policy and as the price for uranium increased in the mid-2000s.

Concerns emerged in the region about the environmental and social impact of intense uranium mining on Mount Taylor and on its Native American residents. A broad coalition of advocates for environmental protection and Native American sovereignty over some of Mount Taylor combined with actions by the New Mexico Traditional Cultural Property Board in 2008 “to grant an emergency listing of a new state Traditional Cultural Property [TCP]: four hundred thousand acres of Mount Taylor itself, roughly seven hundred square miles of protected land that encompasses some of the most uranium-rich geology in the continental U.S.” (Voyles, p. 7). Voyles details how the TCP listing was met with racially-motivated hate crimes, protest, and land claims in opposition to Native Americans and their allies. At the time of her writing, Voyles’ case illustrated how a project for decolonization, environmental justice, and more sustainable human-nonhuman relations might be won in the anthropocene. Recent press releases, however, suggest that victory is in jeopardy due to legal challenges by landowners and uranium mining companies. Those challenges might reproduce the legacy of colonialism and intensive resource extraction that has defined this New Mexico landscape in the Great Acceleration period of the anthropocene.

Joni Adamson (English and Environmental Humanities, Arizona State University) was another of our visiting scholars for the winter quarter. In her January colloquium visit, Adamson presented two pieces of work that explicitly return us to cosmopolitical movements in the Global South and provide useful points of comparison and contrast to Voyles’ analysis of settler colonialism and broader human-nonhuman interactions in the anthropocene. In the introductory chapter to American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons, Adamson (and co-author Kimberly Ruffin), review the historical convergence of American studies, ecocriticism, and movements for ecological citizenship. They also illustrate how the challenges posed by the anthropocene necessitate the creation of a “‘methodological commons’ where academic and public discourse about citizenship and belonging in both local and global contexts might become more accessible and clear, and thus, more transformative” (Adamson and Ruffin, p. 16).

In Adamson’s primary colloquium paper, “Sources of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves,” she explores the “multivocalic worlds” and cosmopolitical action of indigenous groups portrayed in two film representations of alternative Global South human-nonhuman relations: Juan Carlos Galeano’s (2008) The Trees Have Mothers: Amazonian Cosmologies, Folktales, and Mystery (access for free here) and James Cameron’s (2009) Avatar (3-minute trailer and 15-minute summary available from YouTube). Adamson draws on the multispecies ethnographic approach to analyze the films. This approach builds on scholars as diverse as Alexander von Humboldt, Franz Boas, Charles Darwin, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gregory Bateson, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and Eduardo Kohn. It “pulls animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once appearing only on the margins of anthropology as ‘part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols’ or as zoe or ‘bare life’—that which is killable—into the realm ‘of bios’” (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010: 545 quoted in Adamson, p. 2). Under this analytical framework, Adamson shows “why Amazonian peoples recognize trees as ‘selves’ and ‘mothers’ that represent lively biosemiotic processes at work in the ‘space of the hyphen’” between humans and nonhumans despite the friction characteristic to such boundary work (p. 7). The indigenous cosmopolitical action Adamson analyzes in the films suggests alternative forms of human-nonhuman relations from the Global South.

Galeano’s documentary is set in the Amazonian basin near Iquitos, Peru. The film focuses on the disappearance of a young man in the forest who lost his way while fishing with his grandfather and the experience of his mother trying to locate him with the assistance of local shamans and their tools of psychotropic plants and prayer. The film also focuses on the considerable ecological destruction from intense resource extraction at the hands of corporate and regulatory action taking place near Iquitos. The documentary shows how indigenous residents use a story dating back to at least the sixteenth century—which helped motivate Spanish conquests in the Amazonian region—to explain the young boy’s disappearance and the consequences of ecological destruction. The older story is of a boy from an impoverished family who gets lost in the forest and in the luxurious and enchanted dolphin city in the depths of the Amazon River. The boy then sends gold from the city back to his mother to ease her worries and her poverty.

As Adamson notes, this older story is reappropriated as a “seeing instrument” (c.f., Adamson 2001) to explain the disappearance of the young man in the Amazonian forest at the hands of Chullachaqui (i.e., the guardian of the forest). The story is also used to explain the changing climate and environmental destruction evident in the Amazonian waterways, forest, and food system due to greedy and intense resource extraction in the area. In these ways, nonhuman “nature” is striking back, to some extent, at humans for not asking permission to take from the Amazon (i.e., the case with the boy fishing and disappearing) or severely harming the Amazon (i.e., the case with intense resource extraction and the impairment of the biophysical environment). Furthermore, as some residents argue later in the film, the severe environmental impacts in the region are leading the gradual disappearance of Chullachaqui into the receding and impaired forest.

Cameron’s science fiction film speaks to the broader multispecies ethnographic approach, as well as to indigenous relationships with the nonhuman environment of Iquitos. Avatar features the Na’vi humanoids living in the massive “Hometree” on Pandora, a heavily-forested and distant moon of Earth whose namesake evokes the Greek tale of multiple wicked beings fleeing from a box while a goddess of justice, Astraea, remained trapped in the box. Pandora contains enormous deposits of the rare mineral, “unobtainium,” which is seen as vital to solving Earth’s pressing energy crisis in the year 2154. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) commences a mission to remove the Na’vi from their homes on Pandora with the aid of military expertise and machinery, and a renowned “xenobotanist”—Grace Augustine—whose (fictional) multispecies ethnography of the Na’vi and their forest is a best-seller on Earth.

Grace goes with the RDA to Pandora, but she “understands the forest is ‘representing’ itself in ways that are invisible to human colonizers who see Hometree as a ‘thing’ or ‘dead matter’” (Adamson, p. 6). What is visible to Grace is that Pandora flora connects the Na’vi humanoids to other beings and ultimately their forest mother, “Eywa,” with bioluminescent energy in ways that resemble Pachamama, “Sources of Life, Sources of Light,” and perhaps even Chullachaqui. Through the use of an avatar, one “rogue” ex-marine soldier leads a counter mission against the RDA’s forces with the Na’vi and their Astraea-like heroin to defend Pandora from the invading RDA in search of the unobtainium. We will have to wait for sequels of Avatar to find out if the Na’vi victory will face similar challenges being experienced by the Native American residents of New Mexico featured in Voyles’ research, who are fighting off analogous colonial forces and heavy resource extraction (i.e., uranium mining) on their sacred homeland.

Our final two visiting scholars, Jonathan Skinner (English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick) and Anne-Lise François (English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley) presented theoretical works that help to further rethink human-nonhuman interactions across our current global divisions with implications for addressing the anthropocene. Skinner’s collection of works presented at the colloquium are part of a larger posthumanist project that calls for close listening of animal sounds and vocalizations, as well as using poetics as a mechanism for transdisciplinary communication between the human and nonhuman (see this site for more on “posthumanism”). Skinner’s primary paper, “‘A Ghost Is Spouted Up’: Theoretical Approaches to Songs of the Humpback Whale,” sketches a theoretical approach for such posthumanist work. Through allegorical critique, he draws parallels between Melville’s discussion of rendering oil from the fat of whales in Moby Dick to the simulation of animal sounds and consumption of “whale music” in the 1979 National Geographic – Songs of the Humpback Whale with commentary by zoologist, Roger Payne. According to Skinner, the whale music reproduces analogous whale rendering processes the music is meant to condemn.

In contrast, Skinner argues glimpses of posthumanist whale music can be found in work associated with Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound by musician and philosopher, David Rothenberg. As Skinner notes:

Rothenberg’s practice of communication may be more posthumanist. When he drops his hydrophone and speakers in the water and solicits the necessary other, as in his duet with one close and one far humpback whale (Track 2 on the Whale Music CD), his openness to having his own blind…spots exposed, and to traveling along the path of uncertain risky attachments, becomes more apparent. ‘Rendering’ seems also a matter of being rendered, or at least of attending to the others’ agency in one’s study of them (Skinner, p. 18-9, original emphases).

François’s “Shadow-Boxing: Empty Blows and Practice Steps from Wordsworth to Benjamin” extends this theoretical and normative discussion of knowing the other, nonhuman beings, and extending rights to them with implications for understanding our way into and out of the anthropocene. François opens with an evocative “shadow-boxing” metaphor used by social theorist, Ulrich Beck (1995) that refers to some challenges posed by the current environmental crisis. That is, this era has seen a shift from the conflicts between labor and capital and worries over profit margins being the primary concern to a “new ecological conflict” that is akin to shadow boxing:

[D]irectly at stake are only disadvantages and indirect advantages: cost avoidance, corporate image, market position, and values such as health, recreation, and contact with nature. The central point, however, is the shifting of consequences, the definition of consequences, and the accountability of consequences. The longer the shadows of progress grow, the more the industrial perpetrators tend to lose their own shadow. They end up as purely abstract creatures, concrete only in the radioactivity or toxicity they cause (Beck 1995:4).

François applies the shadow-boxing metaphor to the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in ways that echo sentiments contained in LeMenager’s analysis of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. François illustrates how conflicting accounts of the spill shifted attribution of blame for it and obscured the consequences of it in the subsequent spattering of scientific analyses, official statements, corporate public relation campaigns, and media representations of the spill (see recent example of this blame shifting here). However, the lived experienced of the spill by its survivors helps to concretize BP in the toxicity they cause.

François finishes the paper by engaging such works as Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, and exploring the potentialities of “sojourning without reserve” as a solution to problematic human-nonhuman relations (e.g., the BP-Deepwater Horizon blowout) characteristic of the anthropocene. Sojourning is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “making a temporary stay in a place,” which relates to Thoreau’s romantic notion of “primitive man” as a “sojourner in nature” (François, p. 21).  Yet, sojourning in nature can be problematic in its own right. As François elaborates,

Thoreau’s evocative phrase “camping as for a night” holds together the contradictory valences of this anti-modern yet absolutely contemporary attitude toward settling and its possible opposites—itinerancy, gambling, risk-taking, pointing heavenward, perpetual deferral, etc: on the one hand, the phrase promises a willed vulnerability and sensitivity to the particular demands of the moment, resonant with an environmentalist ethics of treading lightly or of making no change so great or irreversible it can’t be undone the next night.  On the other hand, Thoreau’s implicit disparagement of “earth” in favor of “heaven” is complicit with the frontier logic of the ever expanding colonizing imagination and with the still prevailing idea of environmental conditions as mere background—a disposable highway motel through which humans are passing on their way to better things.  There is a troubling resonance here with the psychology of perpetual availability and short-term duration (p. 20, emphasis added).

Understanding the potentialities of “sojourning without reserve” might be better gleaned from Walter Benjamin’s writings on laboring without reserve. François elaborates:

In his revision of the German proverb “Einmal ist Keinmal,” Benjamin gives us the terms by which to rescue the trope of “making a fresh start”…In this short essay, he defines “work” as experimental rather than accumulative, improvisational rather than developmental, and locates “commitment” in tasks no less complete for having to be renewed every day or every night (p. 23-4).

In François’s concluding pages, she poses an important question that stems from Benjamin’s ideas. This question moves beyond a focus on “shadow-boxing” in the “new ecological conflict” (Beck 1995) and gets at the crux of what may be at stake in the anthropocene across the Global North and Global South: ‘how are we to understand the concept that Benjamin is developing here of a work without reserve—a work that hardly seems to produce anything beyond itself—just enough to give it the means to reproduce itself—and that has no extra strength upon which to draw?’

The winter 2013 E&S Colloquium Series suggests a number of starting points for answers to François’s question. Sojourning and laboring without reserve likely includes some combination of the new environmental consciousness spurred by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, rights for Pachamama advanced by the cosmopolitical movements of the Global South, decolonization and environmental justice efforts in New Mexico’s “uranium country,” and posthumanist sensibilities that allow for more nuanced and sensitive transdisciplinary communication between humans and nonhumans. The winter colloquium presenters made apparent that the labor involved in these efforts incorporates a higher regard for subordinated humans and nonhumans without a focus on the accumulation of profits and externalization of environmental risk on to others on the scale witnessed in the anthropocene.


Adamson, Joni. 2001. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Beamish, Thomas D. 2002. Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Beck, Ulrich. 1995. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society. Translated by Mark A. Ritter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.

Kirksey, S. Eben and Stefan Helmreich. 2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545-576.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, and Peter Howe. 2012. Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in September, 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Marquart-Pyatt, Sandra T., Rachael L. Shwom, Thomas Dietz, Riley E. Dunlap, Stan A. Kaplowitz, Aaron M. McCright, and Sammy Zahran. 2011. “Understanding Public Opinion on Climate Change: A Call for Research.” Environment 53(4): 38-42.


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