Winter 2016 Colloquium Blog

The Winter 2016 colloquium series featured four distinct and compelling events. Visiting scholars Adrian Howkins, Diana Davis, Nathan Sayre, and Celia Lowe presented works-in-progress that prompted lively discussions about the politics of science, expert knowledge, environmental authority, and the ways non-human nature frequently eludes human control. Throughout the Winter series, colloquium participants from UC Davis faculty, students, and members of the community discussed a range of questions including ‘In what ways do scientific explanations reflect the agendas of the societies that create them?’ ‘How do contested scientific theories shape federal policy?’ And ‘How do political and economic objectives impact scientific research?’

In his paper “Frozen Empires: An Environmental History of the Antarctic,” Colorado State University professor Adrian Howkins examined the historical links between science, empire, politics, and nature, particularly the ways in which nations have used scientific research to create authority over, and justify political control of, Antarctica. As Howkins explained, Antarctica has long been a source of sustained political conflict. The Antarctic Peninsula has been claimed by Chile, Argentina, and Great Britain, while the United States and Soviet Union have also expressed their political rights to the region, making it one of the most contested places on earth. Howkins’ paper introduced the concept of “environmental authority,” arguing that scientific research has served (and continues to serve) as the dominant justification for a national political presence in the region. While rhetoric surrounding Antarctic research portrays science as depoliticized and altruistic, in reality, there are clear connections between science and political power. While the 1959 Antarctic Treaty purportedly ushered in an era of scientific internationalism and cooperation, the treaty, according to Howkins, only perpetuated imperial claims. Political authority in the Antarctic Peninsula has been granted to nations conducting research deemed essential for the “good of humanity” while claims to authority founded on geographic and cultural connections to the region, a concept Howkins calls “environmental nationalism,” have proven largely unsuccessful.

Geographer and UC Davis History professor Diana Davis challenged traditional assessments of the arid environments found in Algeria and the U.S. West in her lecture “Dispossessing the Drylands: Why Environmental Science and Critical Realism Matter for ‘History for a Sustainable Future.’” For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, scientists viewed drylands as landscapes that had suffered ruin due to environmental mismanagement. In places such as Algeria and the U.S. West, Davis argued, government officials accused indigenous groups of ecological degradation because of misconceptions about arid lands. Healthy environments, experts believed, should contain trees and wildlife, while landscapes that appeared barren had been laid waste by native peoples due to reckless grazing practices. These entrenched false notions about the ecology of arid environments justified decades of harmful government policies of indigenous dispossession and removal. Arid lands are distinct vegetative communities with their own biodiversity specifically adapted to aridity and drought; to regard these environments as wastelands not only supports faulty science but also misinterprets indigenous land use practices.

UC Berkeley geographer Nathan Sayre continued the discussion of science, politics, and federal policy with “Fire and Climax: Bureaucratic Divisions of Scientific Labor,” a chapter from his forthcoming book The Tyranny of Scale. Sayre examined the history of the U.S. Forest Service’s practice of fire suppression on rangelands in the American West, arguing that the political goals of the US Forest Service frequently dictated its scientific agenda. According to Sayre, because fire was contrary to the agency’s objectives of protecting timber production, wildlife conservation, watershed protection, and maintaining livestock forage, beginning the early twentieth century, the Forest Service embraced the policy of active fire suppression. Adapting Frederic Clements’s theory of climax communities, the Forest Service promoted overgrazing as a way to encourage fire control, claiming rangelands would eventually restore themselves naturally. Since the commercial value of rangelands was determined by the number of livestock it could support, scientists and administrators recognized the advantage of suppressing fire and maximizing grazing. The vital role of fire to healthy ecosystems proved to be a significant blind spot for the Forest Service. While ecologists today recognize that fire suppression caused significant ecological harm, it took nearly a century for this knowledge to emerge and alter federal policy.

Echoing themes from previous weeks, University of Washington anthropologist Celia Lowe discussed the impact of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus (EEHV) among Asian elephant populations in her paper entitled “The Viral Creep: Elephants and Herpes in Times of Extinction.” Among baby and juvenile Asian elephants, the herpes virus is highly fatal, threatening the long-term survival of the species. Lowe’s work grappled with the causes of this rapid population decline, focusing on the human, animal, and viral interactions that have led to the spread of the virus. Examining a wide range of conditions in zoos, parks, and wildlife sanctuaries where humans are attempting to create favorable living conditions for elephants and effectively combat the virus, EEHV continues to confound experts. Lowe argued that although elephants have lived alongside humans for thousands of years, their current proximity, particularly in zoos and wildlife areas, poses an obstacle to elephant well-being. Despite efforts to eliminate EEHV and manage the health of captive elephants, the virus and the future of the Asian elephant population, still eludes human control.

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