The spring 2015 Environments and Societies Colloquium featured a series of events that all prompted questions about perception with respect to environmental phenomena, challenges, and proposed solutions. In different ways, the presentations, along with the discussions that followed them, critically examined how environmental changes and, moreover, human activities in response to environmental changes at particular moments in time come to be seen as good or bad—as measures of progress or failure; as evidence of environmental health or sickness; as indicators of resilience and opportunity or of the further subjugation of already marginalized populations and ecologies. UC Davis faculty and graduate students from various disciplines, along with members of the greater UC Davis community, discussed articles-in-progress by visiting scholars Gerry Canavan, Mark Fiege, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, and Ian Campbell.
Marquette University English professor Gerry Canavan’s paper, “Science Fiction and Utopia in the Anthropocene,” examined how anthropocene consciousness, in its “radical hollowing-out of futurity” and near-certainty about the imminence of human extinction, suffuses environmental thinking today. Canavan argued that, despite the apocalypticism of the present, in science fiction we can still locate a utopian impulse. He discussed various utopian visions in contemporary science fiction, from Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy to Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2312—tracking everything from monstrous yet vital images of the future to accelerationist fantasies and refusals of narrative closure. Importantly, the paper underscored the way in which science fiction serves as a register of shifting cultural perceptions of what might constitute a livable future. As environmental understanding evolves, so does the utopian imagination.
History professor Mark Fiege of Colorado State University discussed the 20th century’s “elegant conservation,” an approach to resource management that emphasized values like holism, democracy, and openness to various forms of knowledge. While “elegant conservation” lost its foothold during the Cold War era, it experienced a resurgence in the 1990s with the turn to theories of resilience and non-equilibrium ecology, evidencing how the political climate along with its accompanying narratives can spur or stymie resource management approaches. Anthropology professors Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer of Rice University also considered how perceptions of what’s possible in terms of an environmental future are mediated by the political and cultural paradigms of the present. Their paper, “Wind at the Margins of the State: Autonomy and Renewable Energy Development in Southern Mexico,” chronicled a contested renewable energy project in Oaxaca. The project, a plan to construct the largest wind park in all of Latin America, did not succeed, despite support from the Mexican government and a team of international investors. The reason for its “failure” had largely to do with a local resistance movement, one informed by a long history of radical political activity in the region. The resistance movement argued that a renewable-energy project like the Mareña wind park would compromise local ecologies and economies on which indigenous communities rely. In a sense, and as UC Davis anthropology professor Timothy Choy suggested, the story of the Mareña wind park is about an impossible future, a vision of the future that in the end couldn’t be realized due to a fatal flaw: its neglect of the complex and dynamic relation between the global and the local. Arguably, the story of the wind park is not so much one of failure as it is one of resistance. Moreover, it exemplifies the way in which emergent relations and local concerns can only be realized in the process of imagining and staging a future—in this case, specifically, the planning for and execution of an energy transition program.
While Howe and Boyer’s presentation inspired the question of how the collapse of a renewable-energy project comes to be seen as a “failure” or a story of “resistance,” UC Davis history professor Ian Campbell’s paper, “‘The Scourge of Stock-Raising’: Zhŭt, Limiting Environments, and the Economic Transformation of the Kazakh Steppe,” asked how “something we call a disaster comes to be called a disaster.” The “disaster” under consideration in Campbell’s paper was that of the “zhŭt,” the periodic failure of the grass harvest on the Kazakh steppe. Similarly to Howe and Boyer, Campbell argued that political and cultural factors determine in part how environmental phenomena come to be perceived as having an impact on various populations. How and whether a natural event comes to be viewed as a “disaster,” Campbell argued, is historically contingent.
Together, the events of the Environments and Societies spring colloquium provoked timely questions about the historical, political, and cultural conditions of possibility that produce and mediate our environmental narratives, relations, and futures.