Spring 2013 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the final online blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative 2012-2013 colloquium series. The purpose of this blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by the colloquium series as a whole, especially those raised in the spring 2013 series, 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 and/or view comments on it or on earlier blogs.


The Modern Project and the Push for Earthly Survival: Wrapping-Up the 2012-2013 Environments and Societies Colloquium Series

July 19, 2013

By Raoul S. Liévanos, PhD, UC Davis Environments & Societies Mellon Research Initiative

The UC Davis Environments & Societies Colloquium Series seeks to build cross-disciplinary collaboration in the environmental humanities and humanistic social sciences to undertake the broad rethinking of human-nature interactions that are critical to meeting the environmental challenges of our era. In my December 2012 blog, I reflected on how the fall 2012 colloquium series related to this larger focus of the E&S Colloquium Series. Overall, the fall series questioned the extent to which individual action was enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice. The four visiting scholars in the fall series showed how “nature” has predominantly been understood as something separate and estranged from us despite our ubiquitous interaction with it. In this context, environmentally “virtuous” individual actions—rather than large-scale social change—are championed along with wildlife preservation, “green” and localized consumptive activity, and an environmental regulatory infrastructure increasingly dependent on cost-benefit analyses and voluntary market mechanisms. Yet, this framework for environmental and public health protection does not ensure an egalitarian form of justice; rather, as Jill Harrison argues, it tends to advance a utilitarian or libertarian notion of justice for select individuals. Ultimately, the fall colloquium series left off asking, how can we support alternative ways of “thinking globally and acting locally” that help us reconsider the human-nonhuman relationship with more systemic change that also advances more egalitarian forms of environmental justice?

My March 2013 blog reviewed how the five visiting scholars from the environmental humanities, who presented their research in the winter colloquium series, picked up where the fall colloquium left off. They shed light on the global divides and conflicting human-nonhuman relations that characterize 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. The winter 2013 visiting scholars collectively explored the contradictory human-nonhuman interactions evidenced in this era’s unsustainable modes of production and consumption within and between the Global North and the Global South.

Anne-Lise François’s winter colloquium paper, “Shadow-Boxing: Empty Blows and Practice Steps from Wordsworth to Benjamin” reflected on this context of crisis in ways that bridged the concerns of previous colloquium series with those raised in our spring 2013 colloquium series discussed below.  Drawing on a diverse range of scholarship from social theories of “the risk society” (a useful but by no means exhaustive introduction to that framework can be accessed here) to works across the environmental humanities, François argues that the impetus for never-ending economic growth and the accumulation of wealth that brought us from the industrial revolution to the present period of the anthropocene might well be counteracted by taking seriously Walter Benjamin’s writings on laboring without reserve. As François notes:

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”…[H]e 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: ‘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?’ François and the other presenters in the winter colloquium series suggested that any answer to this question must contain 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.

It could be argued that the central questions raised by the fall and winter colloquium series are strikingly similar to those asked by previous critics of the deleterious effects of “the modern project.” These earlier critiques were particularly forceful from philosophers and sociologists as they bore witness to rapid transformations in how humans interacted with each other and with their nonhuman environment in the wake of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. Recent analyses of critiques of the modern project from those eras show how scholars were deeply concerned about the attendant dynamics of modernity (e.g., rationalization, capitalism, the accumulation of wealth, industrialization, urbanization). They were concerned because of modernity’s potential to cause a “metabolic rift” in human and nonhuman relations as people became alienated from each other, their productive capacities, and their nonhuman environment (Foster 1999).  Some were also worried about the dual dependence “modernizing” societies would have on (1) new modes of heavy resource extraction and environmental domination that kept the industrial and capitalist engine running in the name of “progress” and modernity, and (2) new instrumentally rational ways of thinking that emphasized the accumulation of wealth as an end in-and-of-itself rather than a means towards an end (Foster and Holleman 2012).

A famous quote by Max Weber, a prominent social theorist commenting on the rapid social and environmental changes taking place after the Industrial Revolution, reflects these sentiments well: This [modern economic] order is now bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production which today determine the lives of all the individuals who are born into this mechanism…with irresistible force. Perhaps it will so determine them until the last tone of fossil fuel is burnt (Weber [1905/20] 1930:181 quoted in Foster and Holleman 2012:1629).

The inertia of the modern project was evidenced all over the United States, particularly in its Western expanse. That element of the project was wrapped in the notion of “manifest destiny.” As Brulle defines it, manifest destiny was a doctrine that claimed, “[t]he environment is unproductive and valueless without development. Hence, the exploitation and development of abundant natural resources for economic development contributes directly to human welfare” (2000:98).

Six visiting scholars from across the environmental humanities and humanistic social sciences participated in the spring 2013 colloquium series. The particular focus of each paper presented in the spring series varied widely. However, the following common themes arose from the papers: First, they illuminated how the experience of the modern project in the United States has had problematic, unsustainable, and unjust consequences for the human-nonhuman relationship. In the process, they reveal the contradictory role instrumental rationality plays for the people, organizations, and institutions of the anthropocene and how this context, in turn, provides alternative ways to think and act for the survival of humans and nonhumans on Earth.

Paul Sutter (History, University of Colorado, Boulder) and Traci Brynne Voyles (Women’s and Environmental Studies, Loyola Marymount University) were two visiting scholars in our spring colloquium series who brought us two early moments in the history of the United States’ unsustainable march towards modernity and the contradictory role of instrumental rationality played in that history. In “The Unlikely Influence of Milton Whitney; or, Rethinking the Origins of Soil Conservation and Permanent Agriculture,” Sutter breaks from the tendency in American environmental history to neglect the important historical forces and actors that laid the foundation for two initiatives— soil conservation and organic agriculture—that sought to end various forms of unsustainable agricultural practices in the United States prior to the Dust Bowl and federal New Deal programs of the 1930s (click here for PBS “American Experience” film on the Dust Bowl). In this paper, Sutter explores such history with archival data and historical narrative. His resulting account focuses on the contradictory role the U.S. Bureau of Soils leadership in that history, especially that of Milton Whitney and his now disproven theory of soil fertility as primarily a function of soil texture. As Sutter puts it, “Milton Whitney’s program at the Bureau of Soils both produced an increasingly systematic picture of the nation’s formidable history of human-induced soil erosion and stood in the way of translating that picture into [an immediate] program of action [for soil conservation]” (p. 3).

Actions were, however, motivated by Whitney’s leadership and theory of soil fertility in two critical movements against unsustainable agriculture. The first influence, according to Sutter, is that Whitney’s theory motivated a counter research program by a small collection of American soil scientists that promoted the need for organic-based soil fertility methods and the subsequent rise of allied movements for “permanent agriculture” and organic agriculture (see also this site for more information on “permaculture”). Whitney’s second unlikely influence is that his incorrect soil fertility theory spurred what became a nationwide soil survey program in which progressive soil surveyors at the time often countered Whitney’s dogmatic dismissal of soil erosion as a national problem and contributed to the rise of modern soil erosion consciousness and federal soil conservation programs after Whitney’s death in 1927.

Voyles’s spring paper, “Imperial Politics: Environmentalism, Sovereignty, and the Life and Death of the Salton Sea,” continues the historical examination of unsustainable development from the modern project in the U.S. with her historical analysis of the Salton Sea. The Sea is a four hundred square mile body of water in southeastern California, overlapping the counties of Riverside and Imperial. Despite its status as being a host to an “abundance of life,” the Salton Sea now poses serious problems for the health of humans and the nonhuman in the region due in large part to the high amount of agricultural wastewater runoff into the sea from nearby Imperial and Coachella Valleys. The resulting pollution from this runoff and the increasing salinity levels from the evaporation of water in the sea have collectively contributed to the water body being described as a “dying sea” and a potential environmental disaster. This context has left environmentalists and policy makers asking whether and how they might save the Sea with any possible solutions that can remedy the historically-driven toxic threat of the Sea.

According to Voyles, remedial efforts for the sea must break with the common narrative that the Salton Sea is man-made. Rather, such efforts must attend to the Sea’s formation that was rooted in the environmental history of the region, particularly the east-west “pendulum” shifts of the Colorado River that regularly filled this part of the desert and that would subsequently evaporate over time. Voyles’s makes these human and nonhuman forces apparent with her environmental history of the Sea’s formation and attention to the U.S. settler-colonial relations and the organizational and institutional domination of “nature” in early twentieth-century Imperial Valley. As Voyles maintains, “the paper problematizes ideas that the Sea is [strictly] ‘human-made’ and that, through environmentalism, it can (and should) be ‘human-saved.’”

New Jersey Institute of Technology historian, Neil Maher, presented a paper titled, “Ground Control: Apollo and the New Left during the Vietnam War,” that advanced our understanding of the problematic human-nonhuman relationship in the modern project and the anthropocene. The paper begins with the initial observation that the relationship between national scientific technological capabilities and political ideology has historical roots in European colonial projects, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.  Maher then explores the amplification of this relationship and its implications for the construction and use of the biophysical environment in the context of the Vietnam War and the broader Cold War period (click here for the PBS American Experience site for the Vietnam War). There are three primary questions driving Maher’s inquiry: How does our understanding of the Cold War’s political history change when we trace its links to science, technology, and the nonhuman environment? What historical lessons can a case study of these links in developing Vietnam provide for more developed superpowers like the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War? Lastly, how is Cold War science and technology within these nations shaped by domestic politics and influential in the global politics of the Cold War era?

Drawing on archival sources and historical narrative, Maher argues that viewing the Cold War’s political history through its interaction with science, technology, and the nonhuman environment changes the historical narrative in two important ways. First, this lens illuminates how the Cold War space race was tightly coupled with domestic political movements of the late 1960s and 1970s, particularly over the U.S.–Vietnam military conflict.  Second, Maher’s approach globalizes the history of the influential transition from the space race between U.S. and the Soviet Union for international attention in the 1960s to the “softer détente” between the two superpowers that relied on establishing strategic relationships with developing countries in the 1970s. An important feature of these relationships was the coordinated development and use of Cold War era satellite imagery technology and the “Landsat” program. This dynamic enabled “developing countries [to shape] earth observing programs in part because they could influence them on the ground,” while allowing “the American and Soviet governments [to] ultimately control [the] modernizing project from above in ways that almost always supported their own foreign policy agenda” (Maher, p. 51). Maher’s paper thus relates to the larger themes of the spring colloquium series predominantly through its attention to the contradictory role instrumental rationality plays for the people, organizations, and institutions of modernity and the anthropocene in dominating nature and facilitating new ways to think about the human-nonhuman relationship for earthly survival.

Mel Chen (Gender & Women’s Studies, University of California, Berkeley) presented material in her spring colloquium visit that continued the critical discussion of the modern project with an eye towards the unsustainable and unjust human-nonhuman relations that it produces in the decades after the Cold War. The work Chen presented dialogues with the field of linguistics. Specifically, her work draws on “animacy theory,” which posits that classification systems are used to signify a quality of agency and liveliness ranging from the animate to the inanimate. In her 2012 book, Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Duke University Press), Chen synthesizes this theoretical framework with queer of color scholarship, critical animal studies, and disability theory to illuminate how the symbolic and material dimensions of environmental toxins exposure (e.g., lead in toys and mercury in our work and living environment), which developed and diffused widely in the wake of the Cold War, are ordered by animacy hierarchies of race, sexuality, and ability. In Chen’s spring visit, she presented preliminary thoughts on the theme of “toxicity and indebtedness” that emerge from Animacies. As she argues, this theme is evident in various political and economic arenas pertaining to “toxic assets” and the recent financial crisis and in popular cultural representations of zombies and “indebted bodies.”

Our final two spring colloquium presenters David C. Wood (Philosophy, Vanderbilt University) and Giovanna Di Chiro (Environmental Studies, Swarthmore College and Nuestras Raíces, Inc.) advance our critical discussion of the modern project and the anthropocene with some attention to its historical development, as discussed above. However, their major contributions to the spring colloquium series were their effort to develop alternative ways to think and act for the survival of humans and nonhumans on Earth given the apparent threats posed by climate change. Wood opened his colloquium paper,“The Art of the (Im)possible,” with the following scenario: “[s]uppose the debate over climate change were over and everyone agrees: it’s real and we absolutely need to act. Even then, there is no guarantee that anything adequate would be done.”

Given this situation Wood asks, why is the threat of disaster from climate change insufficient to motivate systemic changes to counteract its projected lethal forces? Wood’s paper addresses this question by first arguing that reason alone—embodied in instrumental rationality—is insufficient to alter the collective imagination and motivate such systemic change. Furthermore, the creativity needed to address climate change is hampered because most creative imagination is channeled into technological innovation and unsustainable modes of production and consumption that undergird the Western standard of living and economic paradigm of permanent growth. Wood argues that given this context, we need to “turn…off this machine” and “recalibrate[e] our values and desires…for the material continuance of human life itself.” In the remainder of the paper, Wood explores the extent to which art can act as one of many tools to fulfill such demands by opening a space for cultural creativity, spurring transformative imagination, and motivating collective action to stop climate change or at least stop its most lethal effects. A review of his own projects and that of others highlights different manifestations of an “art of the im-possible,” whereby art reveals the possibilities for positive change and transformative imagination “outside the box” that may ultimately help to stop the business as usual of human-induced climate change.

In “Naturecultures and Environmental Studies: Imagining/Embodying a Cosmopolitics for Earthly Survival,” Di Chiro argues the categorical distinction between “nature” and “culture” within the field of environmental studies has created a hegemonic Western narrative about the deleterious effects of human cultures and societies on nature. This story—often told through the support of political, economic, and technoscientific institutions and elites—frames “nature” with Judeo-Christian images of a sacred biophysical Garden of Eden devoid of human populations and settlements that has been made impure by menacing anthropogenic and anthropocentric actions. In this colloquium paper, Di Chiro’s seeks to answer the following question: what are the appropriate discursive and material technologies necessary to re-invent the human place in nature without resorting to the reproduction of the traditional nature-culture split? Di Chiro attempts to answer this question by drawing on feminist science studies and an environmental justice framework, which helps her critique the problematic and taken-for-granted worldviews and practices witnessed in her career as a marine biologist, graduate training and professorships in environmental studies, and scholar-advocate in the environmental justice movement. In so doing, she reconceptualizes the human place in nature as “natureculture,” whereby ecological knowledge and practices are rooted in “the web of interdependence among humans and the nonhuman world.”

Building on work by Joni Adamson (and others) featured in our winter colloquium series (summarized here), Di Chiro argues contemporary climate justice campaigns (click here and here for some examples) involving local-to-global networks of indigenous cosmopolitical and environmental justice movement actors advance a promising ecological ethic and form of world citizenship with natureculture at its core. As Di Chiro elaborates, these efforts are promising because they are multi-scalar and boundary crossing by breaking from the universalizing discourses of “global” and “planetary” problems and solutions for climate change mitigation to highlight the localized climate vulnerabilities in this context and promote a network of local-to-global action that integrates social actors across traditional social divisions. In the process, they work towards an alternative “social nature” or “natureculture cosmovision” with a focus on “grassroots ecological cosmopolitanism.” The latter concept expands Di Chiro’s initial idea of “nature as community” to a local-to-global ecological ethic that sees “all members of a human cosmopolitan community, fundamentally united as world citizens through a shared morality based on relationships of mutual respect and assumptions of good will despite differences of culture, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or political perspective” (Di Chiro, p. 4, original emphasis).

The spring colloquium series thus rounds-out our 2012-2013 colloquium series in a number of ways. While the fall colloquium series questioned the extent to which individual action was enough to protect “nature” and achieve more egalitarian notions of environmental justice; the winter colloquium series examined the global divides and conflicting human-nonhuman relations that characterize the anthropocene. Our spring papers situated these questions in relation to the larger modern project that took hold of the United States overtime and revealed its problematic, unsustainable, and unjust consequences for the human-nonhuman relationship. In doing so, the papers revealed the contradictory role instrumental rationality plays for the various social actors (e.g., people, organizations, and institutions) in the anthropocene, while suggesting new ways in which an ecological ethic and idea of world citizenship with natureculture at its core can be combined with art, science, and political action to ensure Earthly survival in the years to come. Perhaps next year’s UC Davis Environments & Societies Colloquium Series will reveal the extent to which such actions and ways of thought are successful in meeting the complex and pressing environmental and social challenges of our times.



Brulle, Robert J. 2000. Agency, Democracy, and Nature: The U.S. Environmental Movement from a Critical Theory Perspective. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Foster, John Bellamy. 2012. “Marx’s Theory of Metabolic Rift: Classical Foundations for Environmental Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 105(2): 366-405.

Foster, John Bellamy and Hannah Holleman. 2012. “Weber and the Environment: Classical Foundations for a Post-exemptionalist Sociology.” American Journal of Sociology 117(6):1625-1673.

Weber, Max. [1905/20] 1930. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. London: George Allen & Unwin.

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