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.

Spring 2015 Colloquium Blog

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.

Winter 2015 Colloquium Blog

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.

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.

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 a comment on it or view previous comments on the blog. Comments will appear on the website after the moderator’s approval.

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.

Fall 2013 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative fall 2013 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.

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 a comment on it or view previous comments on the blog. Comments will appear on the website after the moderator’s approval.

You may cite this blog as: Moore, S. Fall 2013 Environments & Societies Colloquium Blog: Uncertain Concern, Paradoxes of Planetary Politics, and Loving Nature to Death. Retrieved [date], from

Uncertain Concern, Paradoxes of Planetary Politics, and Loving Nature to Death

January 13, 2014

By Sophie Moore, UC Davis Cultural Studies Doctoral Student and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

In fall 2013, four visiting scholars representing the fields of history, comparative literature, English, and geography participated in the E&S colloquium series. From diverse disciplinary locations, each scholar’s new work thinks through the theoretical and material sharing of responsibility for environmental change in the anthropocene. Problems of scale, of permeability, and of visibility connect this quarter’s discussions of how to be “ecologically minded” (Thornber) while also accounting for the delicate horizon of environmental caring. Participants engaged, broadly, with postcolonial, postmodern, and transnational concerns about the political and cultural disposition of ecological sensibility in a time of pressing uncertainty and dispersed responsibility, measured in both empirical and theoretical terms. The fall series guides us through an emerging paradigm of collective responsibility at the edge of understanding – at the cusp, or over the abyss – of planetary environmental consciousness. At this edge, theoretical frameworks drawing from science and technology studies, activist struggles, posthumanism, and political theory (see suggestions for further reading, below) test the methodological boundaries that delineate environmental knowledge from ecologically-minded caring – the border-zone of loving nature to death.

The fall series models the cross-disciplinarity of the environmental humanities in the diversity of its theoretical allies. By reading literary, historical, and cultural models, this quarter’s scholars engage us in thinking through the problems and possibilities of an ecological politics that depends on participation in planetary consciousness. E&S discussions focused on the eco-political commitments embodied in figures of contradiction, entanglement, and ambiguity that mark the precarious sharing of life on this planet. Chris Pastore’s drying of the colonial coastline and Stacy Alaimo’s ethical aesthetics of marine capture signal the emergence of structures of environmental consciousness concurrent with a new planetary horizon of environmental change. Karen Thornber’s concept of eco-ambiguity troubles the imagined futures stretched between humans and others in the negotiation of productive or progressive ecological disposition. Bob Wilson’s discussion of the tensions between factionalism, radical pasts, and diverse futures focuses attention on the scaling of climate justice activism to a planetary politics.

Chris Pastore‘s paper, “Clams, Dams, and the Desiccation of Seventeenth-Century New England,” presents an environmental history of Narragansett Bay. He investigates the ‘watery borderlands’ at which the relation between land and sea was negotiated between early American settlers, Indians, and colonial interests across the Atlantic. In Pastore’s analysis, the New England coastline becomes a zone of indeterminacy and impermanence, shaped by environmental change concurrent with the emergence of a uniquely American material network of exchange. Through the figure of wampum and the mollusks from which it was made, Pastore’s paper explores the materiality of exchange originating from the sea, while also connecting it with a distinctive affective engagement with coastal environments between 1636 and 1839. Pastore’s reframing of the New England coastline offers opportunities for rethinking environmental change in terms of environmental as well as economic actors.

Karen Thornber‘s book chapter, “Paradoxical Green: Literature and Environment” offers East Asian literary examples of what she calls “loving nature to death.” Thornber’s framework of “ecoambiguity” defines the space in which nature is ‘loved to death,’ a zone of material-ideological discrepancy between attitudes and actions. As Thornber writes, “individuals who love, respect, or show fascination with nature often contribute, deliberately or inadvertently, to damaging or destroying it.” Thornber’s far-ranging chapter works to debunk romantic notions of Eastern ecological consciousness held in the West. Thornber’s work explores the environmental epistemology of contradiction, opening a path for thinking through the material effects of imagining nature. Colloquium discussion centered on degrees of ecological affect in loving nature to death, raising the question of being ‘less wrong’ as a stance within processes of environmental change.

Robert Wilson‘s paper “Forging the Climate Movement: Environmental Activism and the Keystone XL Pipeline” illuminates some of the actors engaged in the emergence of a 21st century American climate movement surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. Wilson puts Keystone XL activism in conversation with earlier environmentalism, asking “What has changed since the early 1970s and how have these changes helped or constrained the development of a climate movement in the United States?” As do the other participants in the fall E&S series, Wilson investigates the dangers and the possibilities emergent at the intersection of known risk and unknowable future. Wilson thinks through the scaling of climate justice commitments against global ‘green’ neoliberalism, paying particular attention to the emergence of key figures in a moderate, middle-class movement around Keystone XL. Wilson’s paper provoked a thoughtful discussion of moderate and radical approaches to acting on an emergent field of environmental change.

Drawn from her current book project Composing Blue Ecologies, Stacy Alaimo‘s paper, “Visual Captures: Aesthetics, Politics and the Census of Marine Life” investigates contemporary possibilities for figuring the deep sea as a space of concern. Alaimo untangles the configuration of environmental concern in the anthropocene by examining the massive Census for Marine Life project, which “captured” and “framed” images of deep sea creatures discovered from 2000-2010, and made that research public. Alaimo’s inquiry challenges the appropriateness of ‘discovery’ as the organizing principle driving conservation, asking how to generate an “ethical sense of wonder” that allies scientific knowledge with abyssal concern in a new conservation model. For Alaimo, such concern is deeply political (after Rancière), raising possibilities of perceiving abyssal creatures as “citizens of the sea” despite their ‘alien’ status at the edge of anthropocentric understanding. Alaimo’s work invites a far-ranging discussion of planetary citizenship and its implications for non-terrestrial thinking.

A very brief list of suggestions for further reading:

Actor-Network Theory and material semiotics:

Law, John. 2009.pdf

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The new Blackwell companion to social theory, 141-158.

Law, J., & Mol, A. (2008). The actor-enacted: Cumbrian sheep in 2001. In Material Agency (pp. 57-77). New York: Springer US.

Cultural Studies without cultures:

Blaser, M. (2009). Political Ontology: Cultural Studies without ‘cultures’?. Cultural Studies23(5-6), 873-896.

Haraway, D. “A game of cat’s cradle: science studies, feminist theory, cultural studies.” Configurations 2.1 (1994): 59-71.

Conservation and the (cosmo)political:

Li, T.M. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

West, P. (2005). Conservation is our Government Now. Durham: Duke University Press.

Activism and the management of difference:

De la Cadena, M. (2010). “Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond “Politics”.” Cultural Anthropology 25.2: 334-370.

Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press.


Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA 127.3 (2012): 558-564.

Wolfe, Cary. What is posthumanism?. Vol. 8. U of Minnesota Press, 2010.


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.

Winter 2013 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the online blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative winter 2013 colloquium series. The purpose of this blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by each colloquium meeting in the winter quarter 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 a comment on it or view previous comments on the blog.

Global Divides and Human-Nonhuman Relations in the Anthropocene: A Review of the Winter 2013 Environments and Societies Colloquium Series

March 15, 2013

By Raoul S. Liévanos, UC Davis Sociology Doctoral Candidate and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

Scholars have situated the current environmental crisis in 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. Climate change experts, such as Will Steffen, say that the anthropocene hit “the Great Acceleration” period from 1950 to the present through a number of dramatic social, economic, and political changes throughout the world. These changes sent the concentration of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the atmosphere well above the 350 parts per million (ppm) level that many consider to be safe for life on Earth.

A number of organizations and individuals have reacted to this “overshoot” of GHG emissions. For example, a social network organized under the name, “,” has enacted global campaigns that call for carbon emission reductions of 80% by 2050 to help lower carbon emission totals from our current concentration of 387 ppm to the preferred 350 ppm (hence, the “350” in; see also Journalist, Andrew C. Revkin, has an online blog, “Dot Earth,” in the Opinion Pages of the New York Times that contains a number of interesting posts about climate change and ongoing efforts to confront the anthropocene (Revkin’s opening 2-minute slide show to the “Dot Earth” blog, accessible here, is worth seeing and hearing). Furthermore, a recent Yale University and George Mason University report (Leiserowitz et al. 2012) suggests the majority of Americans many now agree that addressing climate change through alternative energy policies (and thus reversing at least some of the trends seen in the anthropecene) is important. That study marks a potential change from previous polls of the United States public—a populous that has historically lagged behind its counterparts in other wealthy nations with regard to climate change (Marquart-Pyatt et al. 2011).

Despite signs of growing support for actions to address climate change and associated dynamics of the anthropocene among a cross-section of organizations and individuals, there are still worries that such actions will be developed by powers in the “Global North” irrespective of alternative (and sometimes more sustainable) forms of human-nonhuman relations seen in countries usually associated with the “Global South” (click here for an introduction to Global North and South definitions). For example, indigenous groups in Global South countries like Ecuador and Bolivia have joined with other civil society and environmentalist groups in a “cosmopolitical” movement. This movement has helped to institutionalize rights for “nature” in official law and custom, which seek to ensure a political space for critical discussion about different ways of knowing and interacting with nature, including the indigenous legacy of human-nonhuman relations in the Global South (de la Cadena 2010). Examples of current cosmopolitical action can be seen in the 2008 Ecuadorian constitutional revision to grant rights to “Pachamama” or “Source of Life/Source of Light,” the 2010 Bolivian law that granted the rights to nature, and the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth from the 2010 World People’s Conference on Climate Change in Bolivia (see other “Earth Law Precedents”).

Five visiting scholars in the environmental humanities presented their research in the UC Davis winter 2013 E&S colloquium. Whereas the fall 2012 colloquium series questioned the extent to which individual action was enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice; the winter 2013 colloquium participants collectively shed light on the global divides and conflicting human-nonhuman relations that characterize the anthropocene. These works did so by exploring the contradictory human-nonhuman interactions evidenced in this era’s unsustainable modes of production and system of intensive “resource” extraction for energy consumption in the Global North and the Global South. The insights from these works have implications for a broad rethinking of the human-nonhuman interactions associated with the environmental and social challenges posed by the anthropocene.

The work of two visiting scholars for February, Stephanie LeMenager (English, University of California, Santa Barbara) and Traci Brynne Voyles (Women’s Studies, Loyola Marymount University), illuminated the human and nonhuman dynamics that shape and are shaped by hazardous legacies of mining for coveted energy sources within the Global North country of the United States. The point of departure for LeMenager’s work is that oil spills, often taken-for-granted as “common occurrence in oil-field operations” (Beamish 2002:59), have nevertheless contributed to the massive loss of nonhuman life on a scale that resembles the human death toll wrought by militarism and war. Yet, oil spills and their environmentally destructive impact are frequently forgotten in public debate and collective memory.  In “Forgetting Oil,” LeMenager explores how oil, especially our contradictory relationship with it, is collectively forgotten in the case study of the iconic 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California. LeMenager traces this forgetting action from the spill to the response it motivated by “mainstream” environmentalists and media representations of the spill.

LeMenager illustrates how oil is forgotten through a complex assemblage of material and symbolic factors that make spills less visible. These factors include the material use of oil dispersants and other concealing technologies and symbolic disputes found in incoherent narratives that shift attribution of blame for the spill and create conflicting accounts of the spill’s impact amidst official statements, corporate public relation campaigns, and media representations regarding the spill. These factors are complimented by the contradictory successes of the new environmental consciousness spurred by the spill, which paradoxically radicalized Santa Barbara elite to seek localized forms of environmental remediation from the spill but did not alter the middle-class consumerist tendencies and uncritical oil-dependency of the broader mainstream environmental movement.

In “Boom and Bust on Contested Ground,” Voyles elaborates on LeMenager’s work. Voyles explores how race (a system of categories that imbue physical and sometimes behavioral characteristics with social value and that classify people into separate social groups) is intertwined with contested land claims and boom and bust cycles of the uranium industry in Northern New Mexico. Voyles draws on ethnographic field methods and archival research to explore how racial categories were used to classify and subordinate Native Americans as colonial subjects by a succession of “settlers” in New Mexico. This extension of racial meanings to previously un-racialized groups provided the foundation for the systematic removal of Native Americans from their traditional homes—particularly those near Mount Taylor near Grants, New Mexico—for the sake of more “productive” uses of the land by non-Native American populations. Such uses included subsequent waves of uranium mining in and near Mount Taylor in the 1950s and 1970s. Uranium mining intensified during the George W. Bush administration’s declaration that nuclear power would be an important element of U.S. energy policy and as the price for uranium increased in the mid-2000s.

Concerns emerged in the region about the environmental and social impact of intense uranium mining on Mount Taylor and on its Native American residents. A broad coalition of advocates for environmental protection and Native American sovereignty over some of Mount Taylor combined with actions by the New Mexico Traditional Cultural Property Board in 2008 “to grant an emergency listing of a new state Traditional Cultural Property [TCP]: four hundred thousand acres of Mount Taylor itself, roughly seven hundred square miles of protected land that encompasses some of the most uranium-rich geology in the continental U.S.” (Voyles, p. 7). Voyles details how the TCP listing was met with racially-motivated hate crimes, protest, and land claims in opposition to Native Americans and their allies. At the time of her writing, Voyles’ case illustrated how a project for decolonization, environmental justice, and more sustainable human-nonhuman relations might be won in the anthropocene. Recent press releases, however, suggest that victory is in jeopardy due to legal challenges by landowners and uranium mining companies. Those challenges might reproduce the legacy of colonialism and intensive resource extraction that has defined this New Mexico landscape in the Great Acceleration period of the anthropocene.

Joni Adamson (English and Environmental Humanities, Arizona State University) was another of our visiting scholars for the winter quarter. In her January colloquium visit, Adamson presented two pieces of work that explicitly return us to cosmopolitical movements in the Global South and provide useful points of comparison and contrast to Voyles’ analysis of settler colonialism and broader human-nonhuman interactions in the anthropocene. In the introductory chapter to American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking and Acting in the Local and Global Commons, Adamson (and co-author Kimberly Ruffin), review the historical convergence of American studies, ecocriticism, and movements for ecological citizenship. They also illustrate how the challenges posed by the anthropocene necessitate the creation of a “‘methodological commons’ where academic and public discourse about citizenship and belonging in both local and global contexts might become more accessible and clear, and thus, more transformative” (Adamson and Ruffin, p. 16).

In Adamson’s primary colloquium paper, “Sources of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves,” she explores the “multivocalic worlds” and cosmopolitical action of indigenous groups portrayed in two film representations of alternative Global South human-nonhuman relations: Juan Carlos Galeano’s (2008) The Trees Have Mothers: Amazonian Cosmologies, Folktales, and Mystery (access for free here) and James Cameron’s (2009) Avatar (3-minute trailer and 15-minute summary available from YouTube). Adamson draws on the multispecies ethnographic approach to analyze the films. This approach builds on scholars as diverse as Alexander von Humboldt, Franz Boas, Charles Darwin, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Gregory Bateson, Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, and Eduardo Kohn. It “pulls animals, plants, fungi, and microbes once appearing only on the margins of anthropology as ‘part of the landscape, as food for humans, as symbols’ or as zoe or ‘bare life’—that which is killable—into the realm ‘of bios’” (Kirksey and Helmreich 2010: 545 quoted in Adamson, p. 2). Under this analytical framework, Adamson shows “why Amazonian peoples recognize trees as ‘selves’ and ‘mothers’ that represent lively biosemiotic processes at work in the ‘space of the hyphen’” between humans and nonhumans despite the friction characteristic to such boundary work (p. 7). The indigenous cosmopolitical action Adamson analyzes in the films suggests alternative forms of human-nonhuman relations from the Global South.

Galeano’s documentary is set in the Amazonian basin near Iquitos, Peru. The film focuses on the disappearance of a young man in the forest who lost his way while fishing with his grandfather and the experience of his mother trying to locate him with the assistance of local shamans and their tools of psychotropic plants and prayer. The film also focuses on the considerable ecological destruction from intense resource extraction at the hands of corporate and regulatory action taking place near Iquitos. The documentary shows how indigenous residents use a story dating back to at least the sixteenth century—which helped motivate Spanish conquests in the Amazonian region—to explain the young boy’s disappearance and the consequences of ecological destruction. The older story is of a boy from an impoverished family who gets lost in the forest and in the luxurious and enchanted dolphin city in the depths of the Amazon River. The boy then sends gold from the city back to his mother to ease her worries and her poverty.

As Adamson notes, this older story is reappropriated as a “seeing instrument” (c.f., Adamson 2001) to explain the disappearance of the young man in the Amazonian forest at the hands of Chullachaqui (i.e., the guardian of the forest). The story is also used to explain the changing climate and environmental destruction evident in the Amazonian waterways, forest, and food system due to greedy and intense resource extraction in the area. In these ways, nonhuman “nature” is striking back, to some extent, at humans for not asking permission to take from the Amazon (i.e., the case with the boy fishing and disappearing) or severely harming the Amazon (i.e., the case with intense resource extraction and the impairment of the biophysical environment). Furthermore, as some residents argue later in the film, the severe environmental impacts in the region are leading the gradual disappearance of Chullachaqui into the receding and impaired forest.

Cameron’s science fiction film speaks to the broader multispecies ethnographic approach, as well as to indigenous relationships with the nonhuman environment of Iquitos. Avatar features the Na’vi humanoids living in the massive “Hometree” on Pandora, a heavily-forested and distant moon of Earth whose namesake evokes the Greek tale of multiple wicked beings fleeing from a box while a goddess of justice, Astraea, remained trapped in the box. Pandora contains enormous deposits of the rare mineral, “unobtainium,” which is seen as vital to solving Earth’s pressing energy crisis in the year 2154. The Resources Development Administration (RDA) commences a mission to remove the Na’vi from their homes on Pandora with the aid of military expertise and machinery, and a renowned “xenobotanist”—Grace Augustine—whose (fictional) multispecies ethnography of the Na’vi and their forest is a best-seller on Earth.

Grace goes with the RDA to Pandora, but she “understands the forest is ‘representing’ itself in ways that are invisible to human colonizers who see Hometree as a ‘thing’ or ‘dead matter’” (Adamson, p. 6). What is visible to Grace is that Pandora flora connects the Na’vi humanoids to other beings and ultimately their forest mother, “Eywa,” with bioluminescent energy in ways that resemble Pachamama, “Sources of Life, Sources of Light,” and perhaps even Chullachaqui. Through the use of an avatar, one “rogue” ex-marine soldier leads a counter mission against the RDA’s forces with the Na’vi and their Astraea-like heroin to defend Pandora from the invading RDA in search of the unobtainium. We will have to wait for sequels of Avatar to find out if the Na’vi victory will face similar challenges being experienced by the Native American residents of New Mexico featured in Voyles’ research, who are fighting off analogous colonial forces and heavy resource extraction (i.e., uranium mining) on their sacred homeland.

Our final two visiting scholars, Jonathan Skinner (English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick) and Anne-Lise François (English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley) presented theoretical works that help to further rethink human-nonhuman interactions across our current global divisions with implications for addressing the anthropocene. Skinner’s collection of works presented at the colloquium are part of a larger posthumanist project that calls for close listening of animal sounds and vocalizations, as well as using poetics as a mechanism for transdisciplinary communication between the human and nonhuman (see this site for more on “posthumanism”). Skinner’s primary paper, “‘A Ghost Is Spouted Up’: Theoretical Approaches to Songs of the Humpback Whale,” sketches a theoretical approach for such posthumanist work. Through allegorical critique, he draws parallels between Melville’s discussion of rendering oil from the fat of whales in Moby Dick to the simulation of animal sounds and consumption of “whale music” in the 1979 National Geographic – Songs of the Humpback Whale with commentary by zoologist, Roger Payne. According to Skinner, the whale music reproduces analogous whale rendering processes the music is meant to condemn.

In contrast, Skinner argues glimpses of posthumanist whale music can be found in work associated with Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound by musician and philosopher, David Rothenberg. As Skinner notes:

Rothenberg’s practice of communication may be more posthumanist. When he drops his hydrophone and speakers in the water and solicits the necessary other, as in his duet with one close and one far humpback whale (Track 2 on the Whale Music CD), his openness to having his own blind…spots exposed, and to traveling along the path of uncertain risky attachments, becomes more apparent. ‘Rendering’ seems also a matter of being rendered, or at least of attending to the others’ agency in one’s study of them (Skinner, p. 18-9, original emphases).

François’s “Shadow-Boxing: Empty Blows and Practice Steps from Wordsworth to Benjamin” extends this theoretical and normative discussion of knowing the other, nonhuman beings, and extending rights to them with implications for understanding our way into and out of the anthropocene. François opens with an evocative “shadow-boxing” metaphor used by social theorist, Ulrich Beck (1995) that refers to some challenges posed by the current environmental crisis. That is, this era has seen a shift from the conflicts between labor and capital and worries over profit margins being the primary concern to a “new ecological conflict” that is akin to shadow boxing:

[D]irectly at stake are only disadvantages and indirect advantages: cost avoidance, corporate image, market position, and values such as health, recreation, and contact with nature. The central point, however, is the shifting of consequences, the definition of consequences, and the accountability of consequences. The longer the shadows of progress grow, the more the industrial perpetrators tend to lose their own shadow. They end up as purely abstract creatures, concrete only in the radioactivity or toxicity they cause (Beck 1995:4).

François applies the shadow-boxing metaphor to the 2010 BP-Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico in ways that echo sentiments contained in LeMenager’s analysis of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. François illustrates how conflicting accounts of the spill shifted attribution of blame for it and obscured the consequences of it in the subsequent spattering of scientific analyses, official statements, corporate public relation campaigns, and media representations of the spill (see recent example of this blame shifting here). However, the lived experienced of the spill by its survivors helps to concretize BP in the toxicity they cause.

François finishes the paper by engaging such works as Henry David Thoreau’s, Walden, and exploring the potentialities of “sojourning without reserve” as a solution to problematic human-nonhuman relations (e.g., the BP-Deepwater Horizon blowout) characteristic of the anthropocene. Sojourning is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “making a temporary stay in a place,” which relates to Thoreau’s romantic notion of “primitive man” as a “sojourner in nature” (François, p. 21).  Yet, sojourning in nature can be problematic in its own right. As François elaborates,

Thoreau’s evocative phrase “camping as for a night” holds together the contradictory valences of this anti-modern yet absolutely contemporary attitude toward settling and its possible opposites—itinerancy, gambling, risk-taking, pointing heavenward, perpetual deferral, etc: on the one hand, the phrase promises a willed vulnerability and sensitivity to the particular demands of the moment, resonant with an environmentalist ethics of treading lightly or of making no change so great or irreversible it can’t be undone the next night.  On the other hand, Thoreau’s implicit disparagement of “earth” in favor of “heaven” is complicit with the frontier logic of the ever expanding colonizing imagination and with the still prevailing idea of environmental conditions as mere background—a disposable highway motel through which humans are passing on their way to better things.  There is a troubling resonance here with the psychology of perpetual availability and short-term duration (p. 20, emphasis added).

Understanding the potentialities of “sojourning without reserve” might be better gleaned from Walter Benjamin’s writings on laboring without reserve. François elaborates:

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”…In this short essay, he 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. This question moves beyond a focus on “shadow-boxing” in the “new ecological conflict” (Beck 1995) and gets at the crux of what may be at stake in the anthropocene across the Global North and Global South: ‘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?’

The winter 2013 E&S Colloquium Series suggests a number of starting points for answers to François’s question. Sojourning and laboring without reserve likely includes some combination of the new environmental consciousness spurred by the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, rights for Pachamama advanced by the cosmopolitical movements of the Global South, decolonization and environmental justice efforts in New Mexico’s “uranium country,” and posthumanist sensibilities that allow for more nuanced and sensitive transdisciplinary communication between humans and nonhumans. The winter colloquium presenters made apparent that the labor involved in these efforts incorporates 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.


Adamson, Joni. 2001. American Indian Literature, Environmental Justice, and Ecocriticism: The Middle Place. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press.

Beamish, Thomas D. 2002. Silent Spill: The Organization of an Industrial Crisis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Beck, Ulrich. 1995. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society. Translated by Mark A. Ritter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press.

de la Cadena, Marisol. 2010. “Indigenous Cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual Reflections beyond ‘Politics.’” Cultural Anthropology 25(2): 334-370.

Kirksey, S. Eben and Stefan Helmreich. 2010. “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography.” Cultural Anthropology 25(4): 545-576.

Leiserowitz, Anthony, Edward Maibach, Connie Roser-Renouf, Geoff Feinberg, and Peter Howe. 2012. Public Support for Climate and Energy Policies in September, 2012. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

Marquart-Pyatt, Sandra T., Rachael L. Shwom, Thomas Dietz, Riley E. Dunlap, Stan A. Kaplowitz, Aaron M. McCright, and Sammy Zahran. 2011. “Understanding Public Opinion on Climate Change: A Call for Research.” Environment 53(4): 38-42.


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Fall 2012 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the online blog for the UC Davis E&S Research Initiative. The purpose of the blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by each colloquium meeting to a broader online audience.

Nature, Justice, and Individual Action: Insights from the Fall 2012 Environments and Societies Colloquium Series

December 16, 2012

By Raoul S. Liévanos, UC Davis Sociology Doctoral Candidate and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

Have you ever heard the phrase, “think globally, act locally?” What does it mean to you? Chances are you have encountered the phrase (or some variant of it) on a bumper sticker, in a television commercial, or passing by some self-proclaimed environmentally sustainable commercial enterprise. A quick internet search for the phrase (e.g., in Google or Bing) will return a history of the phrase preceded by the following description of it in Wikipedia (2012): “‘Think globally, act locally’ urges people to consider the health of the entire planet and to take action in their own communities and cities.”

What about the phrase, “environmental justice?” In contrast to “think globally, act locally,” the Wikipedia entry for this term has been flagged for having “multiple issues” (i.e., multiple and contested interpretations), even after over 30 years of advocacy by members of the environmental justice movement (EJM). Scholarly work provides a little more clarity here. For example, Schlosberg (2007) illustrates how the EJM has advanced a version of justice that incorporates the equitable distribution of environmental burdens and benefits, the recognition of cultural relations of oppression and privilege, the meaningful participation—especially of traditionally marginalized social groups—in environmental decision-making processes, and capacity building of low income and minority communities to increase their standing in society. Another interesting facet of the EJM, is how it often defines “the environment” as where humans “live, work, play, pray, go to school, as well as the physical and natural world” (Bullard 2007:43; see also Liévanos 2012:483-4; SNEEJ 2012).

Four visiting scholars representing the fields of American studies, history, journalism, philosophy, and sociology participated in the UC Davis E&S Colloquium during the fall 2012 quarter. Each scholar had disparate research questions of interest, and their works spurred lively discussions among colloquium discussants on a variety of issues and concerns pertaining to human-nature interactions. However, a common thread through each work was its focus on the relationship between nature, justice, and individual action. For example, each work could be reframed around the following question: is individual action enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice? Below, I review how the work of the four visiting scholars shed light on this question then open up the discussion to you, the reader.

Our two visiting scholars for November, Ted Toadvine (Philosopher, University of Oregon) and Jenny Price (Writer and Historian, UCLA and Stanford University), provide a sound conceptual framework for our discussion of nature, justice, and individual action. In “Naturalism, Estrangement, and Resistance: On the Lived Senses of Nature,” Toadvine argues that environmental theory uses the term, “nature,” in two conflicting ways – an “unrestricted nature” that is inclusive of humans and a “pure nature” that is estranged from human agency. Drawing on ecophenomenology, Toadvine first argues the tension between these binary understandings of nature rests in humans’ familiar yet paradoxical experience of nature rather than their mere lack of conceptual or linguistic clarity. Toadvine builds on these theoretical grounds and insightfully argues that human experience is partial, situated, and limited. Thus, a third unfamiliar sense of nature, “on its own terms,” is a nature resistant to, and withdrawn from, human experience. One of the implications of Toadvine’s argument is that it requires “us to reconsider our everyday understanding of what it means to be a ‘part of’ nature and to be estranged from it” (p. 23). Through this reconsideration, we may become more aware of “the blind spots” associated with our estrangement from nature.

Price’s initial observation in “Stop Saving the Planet! – and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for 21st-Century Environmentalists” is that twentieth-century environmentalism helped solidify the idea that nature is separate from humans, as evident in its support for large-scale wilderness preservation efforts. Thus, an early blind spot in that wave of environmentalism was a central issue to the current EJM—the issue of environmental inequality (i.e., the unequal social and spatial distribution of environmental burdens and benefits). According to Price, twenty-first-century environmentalism still generally ignores environmental inequality but has replaced large-scale preservation with “greenitude” and the “greenwashing” of everyday activity, particularly popular consumption practices. Price argues contemporary environmentalism sits at the confluence of two problems. First is the “I Problem,” which emphasizes the importance of individual virtuous “Green acts” (e.g., the federal Cash for Clunkers program (see p. 7 in Price’s paper)). This is problematic because it assumes everyone can be virtuous, yet to be virtuous in this context necessitates status hierarchy and unequal resources to participate in “greenwashed” activities.

Second, there is the “We Problem.” Here, all “Green acts” are seen as accomplishing the same goal of saving the planet. Offsets and trading programs are an example of this problem for Price because they reflect “a kind of geographic cluelessness to the Save the Planet environmentalism—by which anything you do here or there benefits absolutely the whole planet everywhere,” and that some communities’ environment, health, and welfare have to be sacrificed for the benefit of others (see pgs. 9-10; see also Sze et al. 2009 on California’s “cap-and-trade” program for carbon dioxide emissions).

Price situates the two problematic rhetorics in a matrix of different historical forces. Among them include the “historically powerful vision of nature as separate from humans” (p. 5); the societal reception of Rachel Carson’s preservationist, twentieth-century environmentalism as virtuous; and “the tenacious cultural class divide in environmentalism” (p. 10). Invoking similar sentiments by William Cronon (1995), Price concludes that to achieve a sustainable and equitable future for the people, communities, and ecosystems on this planet, we must re-emphasize inhabiting the planet rather than saving it. We must also end the problematic “I” and “We” rhetorics and the cultural class divide that allow for the perpetuation of unsustainable development and environmental inequality.

According to Toadvine and Price, then, the dominant paradigm for understanding “nature” is something that is mostly separate and estranged from us, humans, despite our ubiquitous interaction with it. Socially desirable and “virtuous” interactions have taken the form of wildlife preservation and now “environmentally friendly” consumptive activity at the individual or local level. Is this justice? If so, by whose standards is this situation just? Sociological and socio-legal scholars illustrate how “the state”—a collection of legislative, judicial, and executive branches of government—is an important arbitrator of what “justice” means and how it looks in practice (Liévanos 2012). Our visiting scholars for October, Jill Lindsey Harrison (Sociologist, University of Colorado, Boulder), and Melanie Armstrong (Visiting Assistant Professor of History, UC Davis) both provide case studies that help us understand the important role the state plays in constructing “nature” and “justice” in environmental regulatory policy, as well as making individual action a central component of implementing those policies.

Previous scholarship has argued that the unequal distribution of environmental burdens and benefits in society is attributed, in part, to a disregard for justice by powerful societal actors, including the state and the corporate sector. The EJM is seen as an important corrective to this situation by bringing “justice into environmental politics.” However, recent scholarship by Schlosberg (2007; as noted above) and others has shown how it is not the absence or presence of justice in environmental politics but the character and consequences of different types of justice that matter in environmental politics. Harrison’s “Environmental Politics and Theories of Justice,” and the larger project of which it is associated (Harrison 2011) add to this newer strand of scholarship. In this work, Harrison draws on theories of justice from political philosophy and a variety of qualitative research methods (i.e., interviews, ethnographic observations, and archival records) to analyze a case study of political conflict over pesticide drift—the airborne movement of pesticides from their intended target—in California agriculture to dissect what may be termed “justice-work” in environmental politics.

This research also has implications for understanding the role the state plays in constructing nature, justice, and the importance of individual action in environmental regulatory policy. Harrison shows the production of environmental inequality is rooted in an assemblage of prevalent yet largely invisible ideas about what justice itself means. Specifically, Harrison first shows how pesticide drift activists, mobilizing on behalf of predominantly immigrant, Latina/o, farmworker communities in California’s Central Valley, operationalize of an egalitarian “environmental justice” similarly to that of the larger EJM as observed by Schlosberg (2007). As Harrison notes:

Pesticide drift activists deliberately argue that a socially just solution to pesticide drift requires regulatory actions that account for and combat environmental inequalities and the social inequalities that bolster them, the forms of group-based oppression that obscure and exacerbate environmental inequalities, the lack of participatory parity in decision making on environmental and other social issues, and inadequate basic capabilities in farmworking communities that bear the burden of pesticide drift (p. 9).

This egalitarian notion of environmental justice differs from the dominant utilitarian, libertarian, and communitarian ideas of justice found in the practices and claims of the environmental regulatory state, as well as non-EJ activist organizations. For example, U.S. environmental regulatory policy, which encompasses federal pesticide policy, uses cost-benefit analyses that operationalize a utilitarian notion of justice, whereby the greatest “benefit” is calculated for the greatest number of people (or environments) for the “cost” of a given environmental burden. In addition, contemporary pesticide regulations are heavily shaped by libertarian notions of justice that seek to protect private property rights, implement voluntary market mechanisms to pesticide regulation, and promote private lawsuits for redress to individual and collective harms. Lastly, Harrison demonstrates how the contemporary mainstream agrifood movement pursues social change through a variety of libertarian alternative marketing systems and utilitarian cost-benefit analyses. They also mobilize communitarian notions of justice centered on localizing producer and consumer relations within the larger food systems, as well as increasing local participation in decision making processes linked to those systems to realize the “good life” and community empowerment.

Ultimately, Harrison argues these dominant justice claims legitimate environmental inequalities while making them more difficult to see. In reinforcing Price’s point above, Harrison argues the utilitarian logic of pursuing the greatest good for the greatest number of people legitimates the creation of “sacrifice zones” and the environmental inequalities found there. In elaborating on Toadvine’s argument, Harrison also shows how issues of environmental inequality are “blind spots” to libertarian and communitarian notions of justice, which, respectively, are focused primarily on protecting private property rights despite the unequal distribution of those rights, and strengthening a community of food producers and consumers while “sidelining” dynamics of power and inequality that undergird such “community relations.”

Armstrong’s colloquium paper, “Hand Sanitizer Secures the Homeland: The Biopolitics of Disease Science and Surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,” contributes to the discussion of nature, justice, and individual action. In it, Armstrong uses ethnographic field methods and archival research to understand the processes and implications of how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) transformed from a public health agency to a national security agency to combat the threat of biological weapons on U.S. soil in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. A central focus of the paper is the “security apparatus” evident in the CDC’s various bioterrorism preparedness initiatives, which includes scientific study of disease and human behavior, surveillance of the population, communicating risk to individuals, building emergency response facilities (e.g., stockpiles of vaccines and medical supplies and scientific laboratories), and various fundraising activities from private donors. In this context, Armstrong argues “nature” is seen in the disease exposure pathways between individual bodies and microbial agents, “justice” is realized in the utilitarian sense by using the security apparatus to ensure the greatest good (public health and national security) for the greatest number of people, and individual action is seen as central to securing revenue and the homeland. As Armstrong eloquently puts it:

The project to protect a group from external biological threats can only be accomplished through the technologies which make it visible…New biosecurity strategies produce new ways of accessing citizens and institutionalize science and surveillance as forms of knowledge central to state authority. Surveillance technologies set the parameters of risk, depicting individual bodies as potential ‘ground zero’ for biological outbreak as well as members of a vulnerable biological collective…Finally, bioterrorism preparedness militarizes the daily rituals of health, reproducing individual acts like hand washing as critical acts of national safety and security. In this state of emergency, citizen soldiers carry hand sanitizer (pgs. 34-35).

In sum, what did the fall 2012 E&S Colloquium series tell us about nature, justice, and the importance of individual action in environmental regulatory policy? Above, I illustrated how the four visiting scholars collectively approached the question of whether individual action is enough to protect nature, however defined, and achieve environmental justice. Together, they show how “nature” has predominantly been understood as something separate and estranged from us even though we are constantly interacting with it with our productive and consumptive activities. To be environmentally “virtuous” in this context means we pursue wildlife preservation, “green” and localize our everyday consumptive activity, promote environmental action based on cost-benefit analyses and voluntary market mechanisms, seek redress for environmental harms via individual lawsuits, and/or carry hand sanitizer. Yet, such virtuous acts do not ensure an egalitarian form of justice; rather, it could be argued they advance a sense of utilitarian or libertarian notion of justice for select individuals—at best. How can we support the alternative visions supplied by our visiting scholars for “thinking globally, acting locally” that may also help us reconsider the human-nature relationship and pursue more egalitarian forms of environmental justice?


Bullard, Robert D. 2007. “Smart Growth Meets Environmental Justice.” Pp. 23-49 in Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity, edited by R. D. Bullard. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Cronon, William. 1995. “The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature.” Pp. 69-90 in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, edited by W. Cronon. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co.

Harrison, Jill Lindsey. 2011. Pesticide Drift and the Pursuit of Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

Liévanos, Raoul S. 2012. “Certainty, Fairness, and Balance: State Resonance and Environmental Justice Policy Implementation.” Sociological Forum 27(2):481-503.

Schlosberg, David. 2007. Defining Environmental Justice: Theories, Movements, and Nature. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

SNEEJ. 2012. “State Initiatives.” Southwest Network for Environmental and Economic Justice. Retrieved December 15, 2012 (http://

Sze, Julie, Gerardo Gambirazzio, Alex Karner, Danaw Rowan, Jonathan London, and Deb Niemeier. 2009. “Best in Show? Climate and Environmental Justice Policy in California.” Environmental Justice 2(4): 179-184.

Wikipedia. 2012. “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Wikipedia Foundation, Inc. Retrieved December 15, 2012 (http://,_act_locally).

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