The Winter 2015 Colloquium series mapped scenes of environmental contest and the political frameworks within which they come to matter. Participants from the humanities and social sciences at UC Davis and from the larger Davis community brought into conversation the scholarship of anthropologists Suzana Sawyer and Eunice Blavascunas, literary critics Nicole Seymour and Ashley Dawson, and historians Maya Peterson and Matthew Booker.
Sawyer’s work on crude oil contamination in Ecuador and Booker’s work on polluted waters and foodborne illness bookended the quarter’s conversation, highlighting the contextualization of toxic risk in particular places, times, and populations. Food safety debates within the U.S. index conflicts between industry and consumers that shape regulatory bodies and their powers, but often in forms that cannot keep pace with continued social change and rapid technological advances. The geography and temporality of the oil industry reveal with particular intensity the difference between the speed of capitalist extractions and resource exhaustion and the time it takes to prove the accumulation of damage to places and bodies. The inadequacy of nation-based regulations and systems of justice was a thread connecting these studies to Blavascunas’ work on conflicts of use and conservation in an ancient European forest that crosses political borders and puts the agendas of scientists, foresters, and tourists in competition. The colloquium set Blavascunas’ questions, about how the identity of environmental activists is formed in the intersection of shifting governmental, economic, and natural regimes, in dialogue with Seymour’s consideration of “bad environmentalists” who depart from the earnest and anxious affect of the mainstream movement. A potential revitalization of environmental politics through the camp aesthetics of queer culture, from which it has borrowed a theoretical critique of essentialized nature, tests the limits of environmental ethics. Similarly, Dawson’s treatment of the emerging synthetic biology industry explored the value of asking economic and political, rather than ethical, questions in order to reveal the profits of scientific innovation alongside its potential benefits. The dynamics of social coalitions in spaces that technology throws open to human use were at the center of Peterson’s story about the strange alliance of American engineers and agronomists with Soviet planners who hoped to duplicate the irrigating power of Western dams for a Central Asian cotton monoculture. Examining the technical enthusiasm clouding the vision of degradation to land and people and the compromise of social American and Soviet ideals alike, Peterson’s study focalized the multivalent challenges, identified in each of the quarter’s events, that environmental matter poses to social and natural borders.