Winter and Spring 2014

Welcome to the blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative winter and spring 2014 Colloquium Series. The purpose of this blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by each colloquium meeting in the fall quarter to a broader online audience with the aid of additional synthetic commentary and links to useful web resources or further reading.

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Bodies of Evidence, Market Forces, and the Role of the State in Destroying and Saving the Planet

June 26, 2014

By Nickolas Perrone, UC Davis History Doctoral Student and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

The Environments and Societies Colloquium delivered a powerful and diverse array of scholars for the winter and spring of 2014. Bringing in eleven scholars from across North America, representing a diverse array of disciplines ranging from history and sociology, to environmental studies and comparative literature, the colloquium provided presenters and discussants alike with an array of topics and methodological approaches. Themes developed that unintentionally unified some of the papers providing for lively discussions, and well-informed participants. The ways in which the human body, living and dead, can tell us about the environment became a recurring point of analysis. Using the body as an archive poses pitfalls and possibilities that, if correctly taken into context, can be invaluable in reading the past. The papers provided fodder for discussion that explored the nonhuman agency of ice and the very human agency of developing contraceptions that could “naturally” control an exploding world population. We explored the popularity of apocalyptic fetishism, and the roles of insurance companies and the US military in combating climate denial. We discussed the role of the film Avatar in indigenous struggles against environmental exploitation of tribal lands. We learned how the US government imprisoned Haitian refugees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay simply because of their HIV positive status. The unifying point is the relationship between the human and non-human. The microenvironment of the human body and its relationship to the larger human and nonhuman world will provide colloquium participants with much to consider moving forward. I have listed and outlined some of the outstanding papers and discussion below. This short post can hardly do justice to the complexity of the papers or the dynamic conversations that we had at each event. Hopefully these insights will prompt further inquiry and promote more interdisciplinary discussions in the future.

Mark Carey brought a particularly interesting and thought provoking piece for discussion. Carey’s paper, “The International Ice Patrol: Or, How Icebergs (and Iceberg Hunters) Shaped the Modern World,” uncovers a realm of environmental hubris that can be comical and often terrifying. The discussants considered the role of governments and businesses in shifting geopolitical and geographical conditions. Carey shows us how an adversarial anthropocentric perspective toward nonhuman nature provides an often intractable partner in already tenuous political and economic situations. The massive engineering projects that organizations like the International Ice Patrol sought to undertake provide insight into the detrimental effects of anthropocentric viewpoints that not only refuse to acknowledge their failures, but double their efforts once failure is realized. Carey’s work, both past and present, also presented discussants with methodological questions. The author’s ability to operate across disciplines and effectively incorporate the natural sciences in his work presents a level of interdisciplinarity that allows us to historicize long-term environmental changes while also providing a narrative that facilitates a more precise understanding of these events.

Ellen Stroud brought our focus back to human agency, but not that of the living. Her paper entitled, “Animating Corpses, Disenchanting Death: Wrestling with Dead Bodies in U.S. Environmental History,” illuminated ways in which dead bodies were often commodified for research and scientifics purposes. Unclaimed human corpses had an exchange value in the market of scientific research, so long as the corpse was relatively intact. Stroud explores the boundaries of when and where a human body can be defined as a “person, corpse, artifact, or thing.” Stroud’s work applies the concept of boundaries to more temporal issues such as the location of funeral homes and the business of dealing with cadavers. Her larger project seeks to understand how the “changes in funerary practices and technologies of body disposal (and changes in bodies themselves) have shaped American environments, landscapes and lives.” The colloquium participants were encouraged to consider when the American corpse moved “from individual to abstraction.” The discussion proved predictably lively as anecdotes and analysis prompted further inquiry into Stroud’s larger project. The problem of confining the project to material issues is complicated by factors such as race and class. The American corpse is a product of such a vast amount of environmental factors that in order to understand the journey of the cadaver, one must bring it back to life.

Sarah Payne’s work on the social and environmental impact of contraceptives focused our discussion on the long acting reversible contraceptive (LARC). Payne took us from the nineteenth century to the present, landing on the proliferation of the intrauterine device (IUD). Focusing on key actors in the development and production of the IUD, Payne’s work fleshes out some interesting and troubling motivations behind the proliferation of IUDs. Many of the first developers of IUDs were members of the Populations Council, and concerned with global population growth. The gynecologists who developed the device were almost exclusively male and primarily concerned with controlling the rapidly growing populations of the Global South. Advances in technology and medicine allowed for the cheaper production of more effective IUDs. As producers of IUDs exploited the contraceptive market, they promoted the device’s “naturalness” without actually determining why the IUD was effective. The colloquium discussion focused on the role of men in developing methods, contraceptive or otherwise, to control women’s bodies. The role of race also factored into the discussion as some of the most prominent developers of the IUD also belonged to groups that promoted eugenics. Ultimately, the devices were tested on white women, and the profitable element of IUD sales would derive from markets where the device could be considered liberating. However, the ideological component of IUD dissemination revolved around cheap and efficient distribution to non-white women with the intent of controlling the non-white population. Payne’s work highlights broad environmental issues, from the development of memory plastics and the role of world markets in popularizing the IUD, to the microenvironment of an individual woman’s body, and more specifically her uterus. This work is sure to have an impact on our understanding of contraceptives for many years.

Rebecca Scott focused our attention on popular culture with her paper, “Post-apocalyptic Television: TV’s Revolution and the metaphysics of (electrical) power” which examined the television show Revolution and how the post-apocalyptic setting articulates anxieties that are familiar to contemporary conservative political perspectives, particularly those of  libertarians. The paper describes the ways in which the dual meanings of power in Revolution (social influence and physical force) roughly follow Latour’s constitution of modernity. Scott looks at the taken-for-granted material grounds of everyday life, fossil fuel energy and the difference it makes in our lives, through popular culture. She makes a connection between, what she calls the “network of electrical subjectivity,” and how it contributes to a feeling that fossil fuel powered electricity is a threat to personal autonomy itself. That is to say, fossil fuel powered electricity represents the same ideals that individuals have attached to guns, the notion of independence, and masculinity. This, according to Scott, explains such comments made by libertarian minded Tea Party activists when they say things like “They’re trying to use global warming against the people…it takes away our liberty.”  This quote and others like it fail to acknowledge that climate change poses one of the greatest risks to the holy grail of conservative ideology, property rights, and perhaps more importantly to many, property values. With rising temperatures and encroaching oceans, global warming doesn’t need climate change believers in order to take people’s liberty or property, the climate will do that all on its own. The colloquium discussants explored the various components of the television show and its potential appeal to conservatives. The discussion also turned to the intent of the writers and producers as well as the dismal ratings and reviews of the show, and what this tells us, if anything, about the current trend of apocalyptic fetishism and “preppers.” Scott’s work offers an opportunity to consider the role that popular culture plays in reflecting social attitudes toward the environment and notions of climate change.

Andrew Szasz’s paper “Beyond Rounding Up the Usual Suspects: Identifying New, Unexpected Allies in the Struggle for Climate Policy,” presents a new way of dealing with climate scepticism. Szasz suggests that creating inroads with unlikely allies might provide new ways to confront climate change and the sceptics that are preventing concerted action on a global scale. Rather than exhausting time and energy with apparently fruitless efforts to convince climate change deniers that there is a serious problem afoot, climate change advocates may be better served to seek out powerful institutional actors such as the global insurance industry, the United States military, and faith-based organizations. These organizations have conducted research and provided evidence that not only supports claims of dramatic climate change, but also expresses concern over how these changes will create social, political, and economic problems in the near future. These institutions can be useful in translating the causes and effects of climate change for climate deniers with traditionally conservative values. The discussants considered a variety of reasons for climate denial and ways in which powerful industries create doubt amongst the general population. There were comparisons to other battles that challenged societal norms and behaviors such as the the anti-smoking campaign. This paper and the ensuing discussion prompted colloquium participants to engage with questions about the role of capitalism and imperialism in creating the current climate crisis, but also how activists might utilize institutions such as the United States military or the insurance industry to combat climate change and prepare for the seemingly dire consequences on a macro level.

Kate Brown’s paper, “Bodily Secrets: Radiation and Reading the Body,” illuminates the ways in which bodies can be archives. In exploring the different ways that the American and Soviet governments researched the effects of radiation on the body, Brown fleshes out the causes and consequences of scientific research conducted without collaboration. While the Soviets focused on the bodies of workers exposed to radiation, the Americans focused on the environment. The Soviets eventually created a medical designation for the effects of radiation exposure called Chronic Radiation Syndrome. The Americans preoccupation with the environment of radiation laden facilities led them to determine threshold levels for exposure. In testing the environment, the Americans dedicated less energy to the human body. As a result, the Soviets have more institutional documentation of the detrimental effects of radiation exposure on individuals. Some former Soviet workers are able to correlate their exposure to radiation with various illnesses. Their bodies become repositories of radiation and the detrimental effects that exposure can cause. In reading the bodies of her subjects, Brown opens new and interesting avenues for understanding the microenvironment of the human body. The discussants pondered some of the possibilities and pitfalls of using the body to extract facts and create knowledge. Using the body as an archive creates some ethical issues that need to be sorted out. Possibilities and pitfalls aside, this work creates new and compelling methods for understanding the microenvironment of the human body and considering that body as an archive in and of itself.

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