Past Events

Spring 2015 Colloquium Series:

3 June: Ian Campbell, “‘The Scourge of Stock-Raising’: Zhut and the Transformation of the Late Nineteenth-Century Kazak Steppe”

In his paper “‘The Scourge of Stock Raising’: Zhŭt, Limiting Environments, and the Economic  Transformation of the Kazakh Steppe,” Ian Campbell of the history department at UC Davis examined how the periodic failure of the grass harvest on the Kazak steppe, referred to as the “zhŭt,” came to be perceived as a natural disaster. As Campbell argues, political and cultural factors determine in part how and whether environmental phenomena have an impact on various populations. Moreover, how and whether a natural event comes to be viewed as a “disaster” is historically contingent. According to faculty commentator Louis Warren of the history department, an interest of the paper was in the way the state responded to and attempted to reconcile a less nomadic Kazak population with the continued “mobility” of nature, “no more fixed than before.” In short, and as Graduate student commentator Elliott Harwell of the history department pointed out, Campbell’s paper considered “the way that something we call a disaster comes to be called a disaster.”

6 May: Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, “Wind at the Margins of the State: Autonomy and Renewable Energy Development in Southern Mexico”

In their paper “Wind at the Margins of the State: Autonomy and Renewable Energy Development in Southern Mexico,” Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, professors of anthropology at Rice University, discussed a contested renewable energy project in Oaxaca, Mexico. 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 has largely to do with a local resistance movement that argued that mega-renewable-energy projects like the Mareña wind park compromise local ecologies and economies on which local indigenous communities rely. During the colloquium, Howe and Boyer explained that they chose to study the case of the Mareña wind park because it not only illuminates some of the challenges developing nations face as they work to institute energy transition programs, but also the questions that arise in the process around law, how to provide for citizen needs, and how to protect local economic growth and development. Perhaps most importantly, the long history of political resistance in the area of the wind park added a new layer to the case study, setting it apart from many others.

Marie McDonald of the anthropology department, the graduate student commentator, asked how the writers were employing notions of “success” in “failure” in their assessment of the wind park. Timothy Choy of anthropology, the faculty commentator, noted the complexity of what he termed the “particular local” in the context of the global, observing that what counts as “local” is oftentimes something that seems to emerge in the process. In response, Howe and Boyer speculated that perhaps after all we can’t make distinctions between the local and the global when it comes to megaprojects like the wind park. The colloquium also discussed the difficulty of thinking about wind as a resource. How to value it, the group asked, especially considering its close relation to water and land ecologies?

29 April: Gerry Canavan, “Science Fiction and Utopia in the Anthropocene”

In his paper “Science Fiction and Utopia in the Anthropocene,” Gerry Canavan, Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University, looked at what’s happening to utopian/dystopian visions in the science fiction of our contemporary moment. If our view at the present time—a time that many people now refer to as the anthropocene—is one that is suffused by “deep time”—a “radical hollowing-out of futurity and utopian potential,” as Canavan writes—then what happens to our sci-fi fantasies? Canavan investigated various scenarios in anthropocene science fiction, from Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy to Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest, 2312—tracking monstrous yet vital images of the future, accelerationist fantasies, and refusals of narrative closure.

Graduate student Katherine Buse and Assistant Professor Tobias Menely of the English department served as formal respondents to Canavan’s paper, each opening their comments with a number of questions about the concept of the anthropocene itself. Buse probed the relationship between the anthropocene and extinction, and Menely highlighted the way in which the concept of the anthropocene, which can be absolutizing, risks foreclosing the imagination of forms of adaptation. During discussion, colloquium participants continued to tarry with the term anthropocene, asking who is using it today and to what end; how to periodize it and how it has been periodized; and why it is that the term has such authority in so many different disciplines. Kim Stanley Robinson, a special-guest colloquium participant, went so far as to suggest that scientific ideas of the anthropocene are in some ways indebted to science fiction—specifically, the sci-fi exercise of imagining being able to look back from the future and see what will have been humanity’s impact on the planet.

8 April: Mark Fiege, “Elegant Conservation: Rediscovering a Way Forward in a Time of Unprecedented Uncertainty”

In this paper Fiege traced the trajectory of “elegant” conservation in the twentieth century. Elegant conservation encompasses an approach to resource management that is holistic, relational, democratic, and open to indigenous knowledges. In the early years of Federal resource management agencies like the National Park Service and the Forest Service, there was a window of opportunity for elegant conservation to gain a foothold within agency management practices. This window closed in WWII and the Cold War as a “command and control” approach gained ascendancy, influenced by militarism and a culture of fear. In the 1990s, however, elegant conservation had a resurgence, expressed in ideas such as resilience and non-equilibrium ecology. Colloquium participants discussed the importance of social justice to the concept of elegant conservation as well as how crisis narratives like climate change stymie a more careful and communal approach to solving environmental problems.

Winter 2015 Colloquium Series:

11 March: Matthew Booker, “The Century-Old Origins of Food Safety Debates and Their Implications for Food Politics”

Matthew Booker’s “The Century-Old Origins of Food Safety Debates and Their Implications for Food Politics” historicized the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act in an oyster panic that followed an outbreak of typhoid in 1894. As a major food source that linked rich and poor Americans across the continent to contaminated waters in the Atlantic fishery industry, the oyster was central to a consumer politics that demanded regulation of producers to protect the public health. While a regulatory framework that suited the industrial city and its visible pollution presents as many problems as solutions for treating contemporary toxic sites and materializations, the use of oysters for bioremediation today and the implications of the once-popular food source’s survival as a delicacy spark questions about consumption, capital, and contamination that the origins of consumer rights politics can serve to address.


4 March: Ashley Dawson, “Biocapitalism & Culture”

Is the ethical enough? In a consideration of the emerging Synthetic Biology industry, Ashley Dawson demonstrated that artists and cultural critics provide a moral scrutiny that professional ethicists on the SynBio payroll cannot deliver. However, beyond the ethical question of how humans, plants, and animals matter in the dynamics of transgenic work, Dawson argued that the real cultural work is to ask who benefits from SynBio. The answers to this question make it possible to map relations of power and exploitation under the new regime of biocapitalism, which seizes the disaster of extinction as the opportunity for a fresh cycle of accumulation, now of life itself. Focusing on speculative fiction and figuration as aesthetic engagements with scientific progress in creating, and making killable, new forms of life, Dawson read Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake trilogy and Patricia Piccinini’s The Young Family as cultural works that complicate the ethical territory SynBio opens. Colloquium discussion explored this territory, examining what new issues arise from the difference between SynBio and the earlier recombinant DNA technology whose dramatic promise and peril failed to materialize.


25 February: Maya Peterson, “US to USSR: American Experts, Irrigation, and Cotton in Soviet Central Asia, 1929-32”

Water, cotton, American engineering and the First Five Year Plan came together in Maya Peterson’s paper on the involvement of U.S. experts in Soviet designs to irrigate the Central Asian province of Tashkent and build a cotton monoculture. Impressed by the water projects of the American West and the cotton culture of the South, planners invited engineers and agronomists to bring American methods to work in the “Russian California.” While Peterson shows that schemes to reshape Tashkent as a cotton colony predate Soviet labor organization, it is the intersection of ideas of progress—including economic and racial equality as well as modernization and man’s mastery of nature—that bring American and Soviet interests together between 1929 and 1932. She charts how a shared enthusiasm for the power of technology bound U.S. and Soviet experts in a professional camaraderie and blinded them from what would be clear outcomes if their efforts in Tashkent succeeded: massive environmental damage, the devastation of sustainable local food sources, and the intensification of a colonial relationship that forced Central Asians into the labor of a cotton harvest controlled by the state rather than the workers. In conversation with Peterson, colloquium participants explored the politics of expertise that her work outlines and troubles.

11 Feburary: Eunice Blavascunas, “Man of the Forest and the Staging of the Peasants: Bialowieza Forest, Poland”

Based on extensive field work in the Polish section of the Bialowieza Forest, Eunice Blavascunas’s paper traced the economic, ecological, and political conflicts over land use and conservation through the figure of Leszek Szumarski, self-proclaimed “Man of the Forest.” Paired with the documentary Black Stork, White Stork, which Blavascunas created in collaboration with filmmaker Jodie Baltazar, the paper set into historical relief local attachments to the forest and attitudes towards its transition from a workplace, cleared and planted as a state resource in the socialist regime, into a protected ecosystem. Blavascunas interrogated the identity of the “man of the forest” to reveal how ideas about the peasant and about the relationship between labor and nature vary according to Russian and European inflections of eastern Poland’s place, as well as in the memories of local inhabitants that adapt to and contest regimes of the forest’s value. The discussion of Blavascunas’s work also explored the parallels between Leszek’s creation of a persona and the personae representing wilderness and frontier spaces in the American cultural imaginary.


4 February: Nicole Seymour, “Climate Change is a Drag and Camping Can Be Campy: Queer Environmental Performance and New Ecological Identities”

Nicole Seymour’s paper continued to explore the relationship between queer and environmentalist cultures that was the subject of her book Strange Natures: Futurity, Empathy, and the Queer Ecological Imagination. In the current work, she considers the affective range that has been left out as ecocritical discourse has borrowed from queer, postmodern, and post-structural theories of social construction to interrogate the naturalization of nature. Seymour reads instances of queer environmental performance to ask how the humor, play, and gaiety of camp might expand beyond the identity positions of mainstream activism. The paper speculates on the contributions of a self-reflexive humor that gives “bad” environmentalism a critical distance from the strict codes and suspect assumptions it puts on display. Returning to long-standing questions of what aesthetics can do about material problems, discussants considered the potential of a “low” environmentalist art privileging access and entertainment to strengthen the political appeal and multiply the strategies of a stereotypically serious movement.

14 January: Suzana Sawyer, “Crude Contamination: Law, Science, and Indeterminacy in Ecuador and Beyond”

Relating the history of a class action lawsuit filed against the Chevron Corporation for contamination of the Ecuadorian Amazon, Suzana Sawyer’s paper examines competing constructions of the meaning toxicity: in the United States and in Ecuador; as the result of scientific studies within the oil industry that focus on a threshold of acceptable exposure and as  defined by inhabited experiences of degraded conditions in hazardous environments; and in an inquisitorial process of justice as opposed to one that is adversarial. The paper investigates how evidence of toxicity was materialized, or dematerialized, by parties involved in the case, arguing that toxicity is not a natural occurrence but rather a sociomaterial matter of legal, as well as chemical and technical, concern. Sawyer’s work suggests the potential influence of the court’s decision, which translated scientific uncertainty into a legal fact of responsibility and found Chevron at fault, for rethinking the burden of proof in toxic tort law. Alongside the shifting time and space of a case that has moved between South and North America and through decades of pre-trial, trial, and appeal, Sawyer and the audience discussed the temporalities of fossil fuel consumption and its afterlives. Acknowledging the complex strands of Sawyer’s narrative, discussants asked which theoretical perspectives can best accommodate the indeterminacy of facts and frame chemical stories.

Fall 2014 Colloquium Series:

5 November: Edward Morris, “A History of the Future: Photographing Climate Change in the Delta”

In his presentation, multimedia artist Edward Morris discussed a variety of projects concerned with creating visual representations of the anthropocene. Morris and his partner Susannah Sayler direct the Canary Project, which has overseen artistic endeavors that mediate between art and activism, particularly on the subject of climate change. One such project,  “A History of the Future,” depicts climate change in various environments through the medium of photography. Morris discussed the difficulties of representing a process that does not always produce visually dramatic effects, but instead is felt through incremental rises in sea level or disrupted ecosystems. Morris also spoke about their current project, which will trace water use along the American and Sacramento Rivers in California. In a discussion following the presentation, Morris and audience members talked about how the many facets of the water system can be represented in a way that does not simply reproduce cliches concerning pristine ecosystems destroyed by human interference but instead captures the intersection between humans and the environment in all its complexity.


Spring 2014 Colloquium Series:

30 April: Adrian Ivakhiv (Environmental Studies, University of Vermont) Need Paper (sent email)

Paper: “On Matters of Concern: Ecology, Ontological Politics, and the Anthropo(s)cene”

Commentators: Michael Martel, Juan Camilo Cajigas

Following contemporary philosophy’s ontological turn, Adrian Ivakhiv’s speculative realist “On Matters of Concerns” contests Object Oriented Ontology’s object-driven politics, replacing it with a process-relational philosophy drawn from C.S. Peirce and Alfred North Whitehead. The essay has two goals: 1) to develop a process-oriented ontology and 2) to use that ontology in support of a political ecology of integrity, an ethics better equipped for the Anthropocene. This process-relational philosophy centers on the syntagma “matters of concern.” Here matter (what makes a difference) comes to mind and mind comes to matter in their mutual concern. This apperception, this concern gives mind and matter their being. Matters of concern, accordingly, are “where the action is” because “Everything begins with matters of concern” (3). Following Peirce, Ivakhiv sketches this process of becoming as three-fold: potentialities enter into relations, which in turn form objects, datum for further relations that unfold ad infinitum. This welter of proliferating relations produces “worlds”: that of the ant colony, human societies, climate change. Because it is out of the apperceptive concern that new worlds, new sets of possibilities come into being, politics must start from matters of concern. Ecology of integrity is a three-fold ontopolitical practice for cultivating habits attuned to a relational ontology. Aesthetically, we develop the capacity to appreciate things, their potentialities; ethically, we nurture sympathetic responses to others in their relating with us; logically, we foster understandings of the relational emergence and interaction comprising our worlds. Ecology of integrity offers an alternative to that dependency-denying figure of man strutting upon the Anthropo(s)cene; accordingly, ecology of integrity can model a new figure fitted to our enmeshed being.

“On Matters of Concern” raises several matters of concern. Firstly, what are the political stakes of the ontological turn, particularly in regards to the contentious struggle between object-oriented and process-relational philosophies? What are the stakes of each claim for the real – objects as really real or processes/relations as really really real? Secondly, ecology of integrity commences not only from a process-relational philosophy, as noted above, but also from “where we are . . . because we all—all of us in this universe—start from there, from the matters of concern in which we find ourselves” (p. 15). This positioning lends itself a vocabulary of habit: aesthetic and ethical habits for comporting ourselves to others – humans, nonhumans. Yet, because matters of concern are chancy enterprises, which even at best the other exceeds our comportment towards it, for whom are these habits beneficial? How can habits become coopted by others? How can we contest our own (and others’) bad habits? Lastly, Ivakhiv evocatively places a consistent emphasis on the subjective, apperceptive, phenomenological nature of “matters of concern.” Along this line, aesthetics serves as a building block for efficacious ontopolitical conduct. What role might art, broadly conceived, play in fostering an ecology of integrity? What past and present examples give rise to such an ethical program? From my own field, I call to mind Keats’ negative capability, Walter Pater’s aesthetic theory, and even the Victorian realist novel’s efforts to foster sympathy with (human) otherness. What would entail an ontopolitical, ecology of integrity art form?


23 April Andrew Szasz (Environmental Studies, UCSC)

Paper: “Beyond Rounding Up the Usual Suspects:   Identifying New, Unexpected Allies in the Struggle for Climate Policy”

Paper Summary: In this paper, Andrew Szasz outlines the rise of climate skepticism in the United States and explains how attempts to delegitimize climate skepticism have typically taken three forms: exposing its financial links to the petrochemical industry and conservative think tanks, continuing to publish scientific studies on the impacts of climate change, and comparing the impressive citation counts of climate scientists to the paltry citation counts of deniers. These strategies have so far failed to delegitimize climate deniers, so Szasz outlines an alternative approach. He suggests that climate scientists and activists forge alliances with other institutional actors who have an objective interest in climate change. He identifies three organizations who might be allies in the struggle for climate policy: the United States military, insurance industry, and faith-based organizations. Using public reports and interviews, Szasz demonstrates that the leaders of these organizations have expressed strong beliefs in climate change. However, their organizational activities to address climate change have been limited. Szasz suggests that their climate activism might increase once the impacts of climate change become more apparent.

In the conversation at the colloquium, discussants questioned the assumption that in order to achieve effective climate policy, the American public needs to be convinced of the accuracy of climate science. They discussed efforts on behalf of conservative elites and the petrochemical industry to sow seeds of doubt about climate science, drawing parallels to the tobacco industry’s efforts to undermine research about lung cancer. One discussant suggested that climate scientists and activists move away from arguments over scientific truth and reframe the issue in terms of the public’s material interests and values. Another discussant described how climate scientists consistently subvert the storytelling around climate change by insisting on the impossibility of tracing any one catastrophe to climate change. Perhaps if people could identify the material losses associated with climate change, they would mobilize to act. Reactions to the paper also focused on the potential alliance between the military, insurance companies, and faith-based organizations. Attendees discussed how the collectivist orientation of these organizations might be an important point of agreement. However, their different orientations toward climate change (i.e., material risk aversion v. moral values for “creation care”) might lead to conflicts over proposed solutions.


16 April Neel Ahuja (English and Comparative Literature, UNC-Chapel Hill)

Paper: “Refugee Medicine, HIV, and a ‘Humanitarian Camp’ at Guantanamo”

Paper Summary:

9 April Noël Sturgeon (Environmental Studies, York University)

Presentation: “Avatar and Activism: Ecological Indians, Disabling Militarism, and Climate Justice”

Presentation Summary:

The director James Cameron is clear that he intended his 3D blockbuster, Avatar, to raise consciousness about environmental issues. Yet the plot of the movie has been rightly critiqued for relying on stereotypes of indigenous people, women, and disabled people. What kind of environmentalism do such narratives promote, what solutions are offered, and what are the implications of this dominant understanding of our environmental problems for all of us, including actual instead of virtual indigenous people? How do we assess the various indigenous and other activist uses of Avatar, in the U.S. and around the world? Sturgeon uses a global feminist environmental justice cultural studies approach to examine these questions.

Brief Bio: Noël Sturgeon is Dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University in Toronto. She is the author of Environmentalism in Popular Culture: Gender, Race, Sexuality and the Politics of the Natural and Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory and Political Action, as well as numerous articles on feminist, antimilitarist, and environmental justice movements and theory. She has been a Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer at York University in Toronto, a Rockefeller Fellow at Rutgers University, and a Visiting Scholar in Germany, Australia, China, Japan, Taiwan, and Ukraine. She has a Ph.D. in History of Consciousness from the University of California, Santa Cruz.


Fall 2013 Colloquium Series

19 February –  Sarah Payne, History, Colorado State University

Paper: “On a ‘LARC’: Long Acting Reversible Contraceptives and the Resurgence of the IUD”

Faculty Commentator: Lisa Materson, History, UC Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Beth Hopkins, History, UC Davis

Paper Summary: Sarah Payne’s paper “On a ‘LARC’” traces the history of Intrauterine Devices (IUDs) from their nineteenth century predecessors to their present day incarnations, focusing analysis on the proliferation of IUDs in the mid-twentieth century. Key actors in this history included leaders of the Population Council, who funded, promoted and helped disseminate the contraceptive devices in their quest to control global population growth, and the male scientists, both researchers and ordinary gynecologists, who tested and patented them. The paper highlights the technological innovations of antibiotics and memory plastics that made modern IUDs possible, as well as the market forces that shaped how these devices were disseminated to women. Payne calls attention several rhetorical strategies that makers and proponents of IUDs used to promote the devices, including their supposed “naturalness” (a quality both hormonal and non hormonal IUD companies have claimed), and their purported status as the “best” form of contraception, where best was equated with effectiveness. Payne also highlights the fact that scientists did not determine exactly how IUDs functioned until the late 1980s, long after such devices had first entered markets and uteri.

In the conversation that followed, colloquium discussants brought up further questions about relationship between the men making and distributing IUDs and the women using them. Was this an alignment of male scientists’ goals with women’s reproductive needs, or yet another example of male experts using technology to regulate and control female bodies without fully understanding them? What was the racial component of this relationship, considering that these Western male scientists distributed many IUDs to women in third world counties? Payne responded that IUDs were tested on white women in places where companies could make a profit, but ideologically those promoting IUDs wanted to disseminate them to non-white women—thus the same device could be either liberating or oppressive depending on the individual. Payne’s work also prompted discussion about looking at environmental history on a macro level—the attempt at global population control—and a micro level—the changes to the reproductive landscape of a single uterus.


12 February – Charles Waugh, English, Utah State

Paper: “The Vietnamese Environmental Imagination in Contemporary Fiction”

Faculty Commentator: Sheldon Lu, Comparative Literature, UC Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Will Elliott, English, UC Davis

Paper Summary:


29 January – Ellen Stroud, Urban Environmental Policy and Problems, Bryn Mawr College

Paper: “Animating Corpses, Disenchanting Death: Wrestling with Dead Bodies in U.S. Environmental History”

Faculty Commentator: Louis Warren, History Dept., UC Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Ami Sommariva, Cultural Studies, UC Davis

Paper Summary:

22 January – Mark Carey, History, University of Oregon

Paper: “The International Ice Patrol: Or, How Icebergs (and Iceberg Hunters) Shaped the Modern World”

Faculty Commentator: Diana Davis, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Cameron Johnson, History, University of California, Davis

Paper Summary: How do modern societies learn to live with menacing environments?  In “The International Ice Patrol,” Mark Carey outlines the physical and intellectual challenges of icebergs, arguing that non-human nature—ice– shapes the production and evolution of science and technology.  His focus on a landscape that appears unproductive or marginal picks up on a continuous thread in this colloquium which included, last quarter, the visit of Stacy Alaimo, whose work on “visual captures” of the deep sea showed our increasing aesthetic, material, and ultimately, ethical entanglements 10,000 leagues under the sea.  As professor Carey points out, the harrowing and at times comical account of the Ice Patrol’s failures opens up a space not only to question the environmental hubris of modern industrial society, but to initiate a scholarly investigation of the quest to make the artic safe for industrial shipping.  In this effort, he is well placed to complement Stephen Pyne’s role as a historian of fire, on the path to becoming the consummate historian of ice (or “Iceman”).

Discussion at the colloquium further engaged the idea of environmental hubris, recognizing the need to historicize notions of human dominance over nature and consider the failures of iceberg demolition in relation to the development of surveillance and radar technologies.  How does the Ice Patrol fit into larger narratives about massive engineering projects driven by political, rather than economic, goals?  How did the adjustment of shipping lanes effect the iceberg environment, broadly conceived, and how did individual nations pursue natural resources during the later twentieth century as the landscape took on increasing geopolitical importance?  Finally, given that the agency of nonhuman nature is under-theorized, are contemporary iterations of hubris preventing a true engagement with the environment?


December 4, 2013 – Stacy Alaimo, English, University of Texas, Arlington

Paper: “Visual Captures: Aesthetics, Politics and the Census of Marine Life”

Faculty Commentator: Hsuan Hsu, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Bonnie Roy, English, University of California, Davis

Paper Summary: In this chapter of her current book project Composing Blue Ecologies, Stacy Alaimo asks how the deep sea, which is at once intimate with us in the entanglements of the anthropocene and alienated from our terrestrial sensibilities, can become reconfigured as a space of concern, one that will command the investments required for conservation and research initiatives vital to its future. Against embracing this space through the kind of knowledge that approaches mastery, for example to make the business of extracting oceanic resources more “predictable” and efficient, she considers the massive Census for Marine Life project, which “captured” and “framed” the images of deep sea creatures discovered from 2000-2010, and brought that research to the public eye. Alaimo sees the highly mediated photographic images of the Census record as more than commodities, as presentations of the truth that these animals are new to us but already caught in and modified by the technologies, knowledges, and intensities of global human activity. In proposing this aesthetic as appropriate to the anthropocene, she sees the possibility of “composing,” in Bruno Latour’s term, rather than discovering abyssal ecology through the Census efforts to “count” it and to make that count publically visible and visitable. Can the encounter with our un-knowing of the deep sea engender an “ethical sense of wonder” that puts the knowledge we do have in the service of life in the abyss? Drawing on Jacques Ranciere’s concept of the political, Alaimo explores the potential of perceiving abyssal creatures as “citizens of the sea”—and, perhaps, of asking what happens to our concept of the citizen if we imagine the space proper to it as one uninhabitable to us.

Colloquium discussion revolved around the particular discourse of the scientific aesthetic, which analogizes deep sea creatures to aliens, departing from a theoretical discourse that might instead approach visual capture through the figure of the ghost. In response to questions about the scientific homogenization of oceanic space and partnership with the managerial projects of oceanic business enterprises, Alaimo outlined the abyss as a space urgently demanding humanist study but also exceeding the domains of postcolonial, feminist, and materialist theories that have informed previous work. As accessible only through technical mediation, but confounding to scientific as well as lay epistemologies, the abyssal encounter and its images suggest the significance of the aesthetic at the edge of understanding. What effect the aesthetic might ultimately have on scientific and managerial projects is a question whose answer Alaimo’s project continues trying to resolve.


November 20, 2013 – Robert Wilson, Geography, The Maxwell School of Syracuse University

Paper: “Forging the Climate Movement: Environmental Activism and the Keystone XL Pipeline”

Faculty Commentator: Diana Davis, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Nickolas Perrone, History, University of California, Davis

Paper Summary: Bob Wilson’s “Forging the Climate Movement” offers a glimpse into the emergence of the American climate movement through the lens of activists and their organizations surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. In looking at opposition to Keystone XL Professor Wilson intends to shed light on what the movement means to environmentalism and the overall prospect of addressing climate change. Professor Wilson uses Earth Day in 1970 as a reference point for the current climate movement and in doing so asks, “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?” The most important element for Professor Wilson is the demise of bipartisan environmentalism. Other changes include, the splintering of the Republican Party into “establishment” and “Tea Party” factions; the lack of diversity in environmental movements; lack of rural support; and finally the problematic approach of green neoliberalism to solve environmental problems.

The most interesting and thought provoking aspect of this study is the challenge—both now and in the past—to create a truly diverse movement. The discussants in the colloquium brought up a number of important points around the role of race and radicalism in various movements. Another point of discussion was the role that liberals and democrats played in perpetuating climate injustice. Where do the climate activists stand with relation to actual radical activists like the Earth Liberation Front, Earth First, or other similar movements that are truly uncompromising? What role does capitalism play in the perpetuation of climate injustice, and how can the climate movement confront capitalism in order to create serious change? Professor Wilson’s work provides interesting and thought provoking perspectives on how environmental movements past and present can form coalitions in order to be more successful. We can look to the successes of past movements and try to adapt certain successful methods of grassroots organizing, such as social media and the internet, for our own times.


November 13, 2013 – Karen Thornber, Comparative Literature, Harvard University

Paper: “Paradoxical Green: Literature and Environment”

Faculty Commentator: Hsuan Hsu, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Chris Tong, Comparative Literature, University of California, Davis

Paper Summary: In this paper, Karen Thornber offers examples of what she calls “loving nature to death” in East Asian literatures. Derived from a chapter in her award-winning work, Ecoambiguity, the paper addresses the fiction and poetry of authors such as Rong Jiang, Chunming Huang, Lixiong Wang, Haruki Murakami, Nanao Sakaki, and Kwanggyu Kim. Specifically, Thornber develops the framework of “ecoambiguity” to foreground the discrepancy between a character’s attitudes and his or her actions. As Thornber puts it, “individuals who love, respect, or show fascination with nature often contribute, deliberately or inadvertently, to damaging or destroying it.” By highlighting the hypocrisy and failure of such individuals, Thornber aims to debunk romantic notions that scholars and readers in the West may hold regarding East Asian cultures. In a way, Thornber has accomplished what Lynn White Jr. did in the 1960s with his own cultural heritage.

What was particularly of interest at the workshop was the framework of “ecoambiguity” itself. When we encounter something that resembles a contradiction, by whose standards is it deemed a contradiction? What are the social and material conditions that make such contradictions possible? What role does language play in “ecoambiguity”? How is the history of colonialism and imperialism accounted for in this framework? What are some examples of East Asian literature that shed light on scenarios in which people have something to live for, to hope for, to fight for? If “ecoambiguity” teaches us about human failure vis-à-vis environmental crises—about what not to do—how might we imagine the guiding light or a course of action that is less wrong? Thornber’s longer work anticipates some of these questions and is worth reading for anyone working in the environmental humanities or East Asian studies.

November 6, 2013 – Chris Pastore, History, University of Montana

Paper: “Clams, Dams, and the Desiccation of Seventeenth-Century New England”

Faculty Commentator: Chad Anderson, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Cori Knudten, History, University of California, Davis

Paper Summary: In this chapter, Chris Pastore describes the connections between two seemingly disparate events–environmental change in Narragansett Bay and the fur trade. The decimation of the beaver in the 1600s caused a host of cascading effects, including desiccation and an increase of sediment in the water. Ironically, it was a resource from the Bay — wampum, beads made from mollusk shells — that helped drive these changes. Wampum served as the medium of exchange in the fur trade between Europeans and Native Americans. The great value attached to it thus facilitated  changes in the environment. Caught up in webs of exchange, mollusks became a driving force in remaking the Bay.

Although wampum’s value to Native Americans has been explained by historians, much less attention has been paid to the significance Europeans granted to wampum. Usually, it is assumed that Europeans attributed only a materialist, economic value to the mollusks. Pastore seeks to complicate this approach. He discusses how Europeans viewed the ocean, the habitat of the mollusks, as a place governed by God’s will. The ocean could be an awful and mysterious force. Pastore suggests that Europeans may have seen this divine connection in the wampum as well. Its origins in the sea gave it a distinctiveness. Europeans did not view the world solely through the eyes of disinterested, economic actors. In provoking discussions such as this, Pastore brings new perspectives on the world of colonial America and the diverse actors–both human and non-human–who inhabited it.




Spring 2013 Colloquium Series

May 15, 2013 – Traci Brynne Voyles, Women’s and Environmental Studies, Loyola Marymount University

Paper: “Imperial Politics: Environmentalism, Sovereignty, and the Life and Death of the Salton Sea”

Commentary: Group members of the Environments & Societies Colloquium Series

Paper Abstract: This paper explores the formation of the Salton Sea, a four hundred square mile body of water in southeastern California, overlapping the counties of Riverside and Imperial. The Salton Sea now poses serious problems for environmental health and wildlife conservation in the region, in large part due to its use for agricultural wastewater runoff from Imperial and Coachella Valleys. Due to the pollution that results from this runoff, as well as the sea’s increasing salinity as it rapidly evaporates in the heat of the Colorado Desert, the Salton Sea has been described as a “dying sea” and a potential environmental disaster. Whether and how to save the sea has proved a vexing question for environmentalists and policy makers, and solutions have necessarily been rooted in the history of the sea’s formation. While the Salton Sea is most often described as a man-made body of water, this paper situates its formation in the environmental history of the region, noting the evidence that bodies of water regularly filled this part of the desert and, eventually, evaporated. This paper traces the early history of the Sea’s formation, exploring the role of human-nature relationships on two different scales: the scale of the close work of laborers in the turn of the twentieth century Imperial Valley, and the much larger scale of US settler-colonial notions of human relationships to “nature.” Ultimately, the paper problematizes ideas that the Sea is “human-made” and that, through environmentalism, it can (and should) be “human-saved.”

May 8, 2013 – David C. Wood, Philosophy, Vanderbilt University

Paper: “The Art of the (Im)possible”

Faculty Commentator: Jeff Fort, French, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Ted Geier, Comparative Literature, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: This paper opens 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? The 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.


May 1, 2013 – Paul Sutter, History, University of Colorado, Boulder

Paper: “The Unlikely Influence of Milton Whitney; or, Rethinking the Origins of Soil Conservation and Permanent Agriculture”

Faculty Commentator: Melanie Armstrong, History and American Studies, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Rusty Bartels, Cultural Studies, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: American environmental historians have paid comparatively sparse attention to the important historical forces and actors that laid the foundation for soil conservation and organic agriculture in the United States prior to the Dust Bowl and federal New Deal programs of the 1930s. Sutter argues that attending to such pre-1930s history illuminates the otherwise neglected historical roots of American soil conservation and organic agriculture. In this paper, Sutter explores such history with archival data and historical narrative. Sutter’s resulting account focuses on the contradictory position of the U.S. Bureau of Soils leadership—particularly that of Milton Whitney and his now disproven theory of soil fertility as primarily a function of soil texture—in that history. 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 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. Whitney’s second unlikely influence is that his incorrect soil fertility theory spurred a nationwide soil survey program in which progressive soil surveyors 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.


April 24, 2013 – Mel Chen, Gender & Women’s Studies, University of California, Berkeley

Topic: “Toxicity and Indebtedness”

Reading Material: Chapters 5 and 6 from Chen, Mel Y. 2012. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.**

Faculty Commentator: Hsuan Hsu, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Sarah Klotz, English, University of California, Davis

Meeting Summary: Within the field of linguistics, “animacy theory” 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), Dr. 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 (e.g., lead and mercury) are ordered by animacy hierarchies of race, sexuality, and ability. In this colloquium meeting, Chen 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.”


April 10, 2013 – Neil Maher, New Jersey Institute of Technology

Paper: “Ground Control: Apollo and the New Left During The Vietnam War”

Faculty Commentator: Kathy Olmstead, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Terry Park, Cultural Studies, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: The relationship between national scientific technological capabilities and political ideology has historical roots in European colonial projects, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution.  In this paper, Maher 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. 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 non-human 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 non-human 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.


April 3, 2013 – Giovanna Di Chiro, Swarthmore College and Nuestras Raíces, Inc.

Paper: “Naturecultures and Environmental Studies: Imagining/Embodying a Cosmopolitics for Earthly Survival”*

Faculty Commentator: Jonathan K. London, Human and Community Development and Center for Regional Change, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Raoul Liévanos, Sociology, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: 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. This paper asks: 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 draws on feminist science studies and an environmental justice framework to 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 non-human world.” According to Di Chiro, contemporary climate justice campaigns 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.



Winter 2013 Colloquium Series


February 27, 2013 – Traci Brynne Voyles, Women’s and Environmental Studies, Loyola Marymount University

Paper: “Boom and Bust on Contested Ground”

Faculty Commentator: Diana Davis, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Jen Sedell, Geography, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: In this paper, Voyles draws on ethnographic field methods and archival research to explore the role contradictory, contested, and racialized meanings; multiple land claims; and uranium industry boom and bust cycles play in producing environmental injustice in Northern New Mexico. The paper is part of a larger book project that situates the history of the environmentally unjust uranium industry in the larger context of settler colonialism in the southwest. The project explores the intersections of environmental history and environmental justice studies, arguing that environmental injustice must always be examined at the level of settler colonialism. According to Voyles, doing so primes environmental justice scholars and activists alike to approach a more comprehensive vision of and theoretical framework for justice and decolonization.


February 20, 2013 – Jonathan Skinner, English and Comparative Literary Studies, University of Warwick

Primary Paper: “’A Ghost Is Sprouted Up’: Theoretical Approaches to Songs of the Humpback Whale

Supporting Papers: “Poetry Animals: A Micro-Anthology” and “Poetry Animal.”

Faculty Commentator: David Lloyd, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Bonnie Roy, English, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstracts: 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. Skinner’s primary paper (‘A Ghost Is Spouted Up’) 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, which reproduces analogous 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.


February 13, 2013 – Stephanie LeMenager, English, University of California, Santa Barbara

Paper: “Forgetting Oil”

Faculty Commentator: Mike Ziser, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Josef Nguyen, English, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: Oil spills have 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.  This paper explores how oil is collectively forgotten in the case study of the iconic 1969 Union Oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, and the response it motivated by “mainstream” environmentalists and media images 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.

January 30, 2013 – Anne-Lise François, English and Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

Paper: “Shadow-Boxing: Empty Blows and Practice Steps from Wordsworth to Benjamin”

Faculty Commentator: Seeta Chaganti, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Will Elliott, English, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: This paper is organized into three parts. The first two criticize from an ecological point of view a certain way of playing with the world: of treating life on this planet as if it were child’s play—mere rehearsal or practice for the real show yet to come. The last section seems to turn tables on the first two sections and to ask what might be worth affirming about an ethos of provisionality when it comes to the various discourses of sustainability with which scholars and activists alike are attempting to address our current environmental crisis.


January 23, 2013 – Joni Adamson, English and Environmental Humanities, Arizona State University

Papers: “American Studies, Ecocriticism, and Citizenship: Thinking in the Local and Global Commons” and “Source of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves”

Faculty Commentator: David Robertson, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Raoul S. Liévanos, Department of Sociology, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstracts: Scholars and advocates have situated the current environmental crisis in the “anthropocene”—the contemporary era in which transnational, national, and subnational human activity is a defining agent of life-threatening global climate change and a potential solution to halting such change. 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” (p. 16).

There are worries that public and private approaches to addressing the problems of the anthropocene will be developed by powers in the Global North irrespective of alternative and sometimes more sustainable forms of human-nonhuman relations seen in the Global South. In “Sources of Life: Avatar, Amazonia, and an Ecology of Selves,” Adamson explores the “multivocalic worlds” and “cosmopolitical” action of indigenous groups portrayed in two film representations of such alternative Global South human-nonhuman relations: Juan Carlos Galeano’s (2008) The Trees Have Mothers: Amazonian Cosmologies, Folktales, and Mystery and James Cameron’s (2009) Avatar. Adamson draws on multispecies ethnography and insights from both films to show “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 that may have implications for addressing the challenges of the anthropocene around the world.




Fall 2012 Colloquium Series

November 14, 2012 – Ted Toadvine, Philosophy, University of Oregon

Paper: “Naturalism, Estrangement, Resistance: On the Lived Senses of Nature”

Faculty Commentator: Michael Ziser, English, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Nicole Naar, Evolutionary Anthropology, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: Toadvine argues that environmental theory paradoxically 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. The goal of this paper is to explore these dual and conflicting senses of nature across cultures and temporalities. Drawing on ecophenomenology, Toadvine first argues the tension between these poles 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. Among the implications of Toadvine’s argument, as he cogently illustrates, 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.” Furthermore, this third sense is particularly illuminative of “the blind spots” associated with humans’ estrangement from nature. For Toadvine, artistic expression offers one avenue to uncover the blind spots in our limited experience of nature.


November 7, 2012 – Jenny Price, History and Journalism, University of California, Los Angeles; Stanford University

Paper: “Stop Saving the Planet!–and Other Tips via Rachel Carson for 21st-Century Environmentalists”

Faculty Commentator: Diana Davis, History, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentators: Elizabeth Grennan Browning, History, University of California, Davis; Cori Knudten, History, University of California, Davis.

Paper Abstract: Twentieth-century environmentalism focused on the preservation of wilderness at the cost of overlooking environmental inequality (i.e., the unequal social and spatial distribution of environmental problems and solutions). According to Price, twenty-first-century environmentalism still generally ignores issues of 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: the “I Problem,” which emphasizes the importance of individual virtuous “Green acts;” and the “We Problem,” which sees all “Green acts” as accomplishing the same goal of saving the planet—a unitary object separate from humans. This paper situates these problematic rhetorics in the “historically powerful vision of nature as separate from humans;” the societal reception of Rachel Carson, as, among other things, a virtuous environmentalist; and “the tenacious cultural class divide in environmentalism.” Ultimately, 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, as well as end the problematic “I” and “We” rhetorics and the cultural class divide that allow for the perpetuation of unsustainable development and environmental inequality.


October 24, 2012 – Jill Lindsey Harrison, Sociology, University of Colorado, Boulder

Paper: “Environmental Politics and Theories of Justice”

Faculty Commentator: Thomas D. Beamish, Sociology, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Cara Chiaraluce, Sociology, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: In this paper, Harrison identifies and compares competing frameworks of justice circulating through contemporary environmental politics in the United States. Using a case study of political conflict over agricultural pesticide drift in California and drawing on concepts from political philosophy, Harrison contrasts environmental justice activists’ explicit and intentional arguments about justice with the implicit and largely unrecognized ideas of justice that influence the work of mainstream environmental actors. The paper illustrates how utilitarian, libertarian, and communitarian ideas of justice implicitly govern the practices and claims of mainstream environmental actors, and it shows how these visions of justice function ideologically in terms of ignoring environmental inequalities, reinforcing them, and making them more difficult to see. In sum, Harrison shows that environmental inequalities stem not so much from a lack of justice, but from prevalent, largely invisible, and problematic ideas about what justice itself means.


October 17, 2012 – Melanie Armstrong, History and American Studies, University of California, Davis

Paper: “Hand Sanitizer Secures the Homeland: The Biopolitics of Disease Science and Surveillance at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”

Faculty Commentator: Caren Kaplan, American Studies, University of California, Davis

Graduate Student Commentator: Tom Galaraga, Cultural Studies, University of California, Davis

Paper Abstract: Armstrong considers how the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) map the nation as a collection of vulnerable bodies, producing a large-scale ecologic crisis under which bodies are constantly threatened by disease. She argues that the science and surveillance practices of the CDC produce biological citizens who must be secured against the microbial threats of both “humans” and “nature” by individual practices, such as hand washing and social distancing. As citizens turn to the state to protect their bodies from disease threats, they ratify the constant surveillance and watchfulness of the healthy population which characterizes the modern security state.



Past Colloquium Summaries:

February 8, 2012 – Sarah Jaquette Ray, University of Alaska, Southeast

The Ecological Other: Bodies, Nature, and Exclusion

Sarah Jacquette Ray presented an excerpt from her forthcoming book The Ecological Other: Bodies, Nature, and Exclusion (under contract with University of Arizona Press, 2013). In her larger manuscript, Ray analyzes three case studies of ecologically other corporalities—the disabled body, the body of the Native American, and the body of the undocumented immigrant. At the center of this introductory chapter is the disabled body, which she frames as the “consummate ecological other” and “the symbol par excellence of humanity’s alienation from nature.” Recognizing the body as a site of environmental practices and marker of environmental virtue, Ray interrogates how the green cultural discourses of environmentalism have paradoxically worked to critique some sociocultural frameworks, namely capitalism, while further reinforcing social hierarchies along the lines of race, gender, and class. Examining how environmentalism has influenced the construction of the disabled body, Ray proposes to deepen the environmental justice critique of mainstream environmentalism through corporeal analysis that reveals the double victimization of marginalized groups: the physical and material suffering of these bodies from environmental exploitation, and their discursive portrayal as constituting a threat to national, racial, or corporeal “purity.” Key to Ray’s approach is the use of geographical theories of landscape to critically study discourses of place and space in environmental literature. Her work offers significant insights into how mainstream environmentalism should be revised to recognize the interests of multiple “ecological subjectivities” who have remained marginalized from environmentalist discourse.

February 15, 2012 – Valerie Kuletz

Nuclear Nature in the Age of Fukushima

Valerie Kuletz discussed the enduring legacies of the political and economic frameworks that have advocated nuclear energy as “clean green energy.” By providing a detailed timeline of nuclear crises that occurred in Japan and the United States in 2011, Kuletz’s paper illustrates the great extent to which networks of commercial, technocratic and political actors have deployed campaigns of disinformation. The events of the Fukushima disaster offer a revealing look at what Kuletz terms the “cascade of converging events” that define environmental disasters. She stresses that the particular dangers that damaged nuclear facilities present to public safety require us to recognize the materiality of nuclear power in its ability to cause illness and death trans-generationally. Examining how nuclear power’s production of nuclear waste has influenced the manufacturing of nuclear weapons, Kuletz emphasizes that our national energy policy will have grave implications for future international relations. Most importantly, she argues that the increasing frequency and intensity of climate and geological disturbances constitute an especially dangerous context in which the non-transparency of government and private oversight will only exacerbate the risks nuclear energy presents to global society. In Kuletz’s account, public health entirely relies upon public knowledge. In exposing experts’ alarmingly limited knowledge about radioactive materials, Kuletz calls for a critical reevaluation of nuclearism within environmentalist agendas.

February 22, 2012 – Nancy L. Peluso, University of California, Berkeley

What’s Nature Got To Do With It? A Situated Historical Perspective on Socio-natural Commodities

Nancy Peluso spoke about her work on situated histories of rubber as illuminating how the commodification of nature has produced new kinds of socio-natures. In her paper, Peluso argues that it is imperative to incorporate historical narrative in political ecology analysis. In examining rubber as a commodified nature, Peluso shows that even though natural rubber requires processing to give it use value, it is still considered “natural” and separate from “synthetic rubber.” Most crucially, it is not the natural properties of rubber nor the ecological context of its production that have influenced the social values attached to it, but rather the social relations that shape its production and trade. At the core of her research is the question of how rubber has transcended its negative reputation as “red rubber” to become a positive political-economic symbol of indigenous smallholders and the sustainable preservation of the Amazon. Peluso analyzes rubber in three spacio-temporal contexts—Indonesian Borneo, Congo and the Amazon—to examine how situated historical perspectives should come to bear on the present. These case studies illustrate Peluso’s larger point that the neoliberal era has produced “disastrous political marriages between conserved Natures (resources, wilderness, parks, preserves, wildlife, and ecosystem services) and their trademarked, branded, incorporated capitalist mates.”

February 29, 2012 – Stuart Kendall, California College of the Arts

Andy Goldsworthy and the Long Now

Stuart Kendall discussed his analysis of Andy Goldsworthy’s artwork as a conduit for reconsidering critical social institutions and core cultural assumptions, with the particular aim of reevaluating the Fine Art tradition and its appraisal of the problem of sustainability. Outlining how Goldsworthy’s works differ from the canonical Fine Art tradition, Kendall argues in his paper that Goldsworthy provides a mode of ethics through aesthetics that effectively models how one should endeavor to live sustainably. Emphasizing that imagination exceeds reason in its capacity to influence human decisions, Kendall calls for a shift in environmentalist discourse away from the overworked mechanisms of argument and rhetoric to the more passionate and embodied realm of the imagination. The “ecological imagination” that Kendall puts forth goes beyond rational words in bringing the individual’s attention to the importance of changing personal and societal patterns of behavior to create a more sustainable future. The imagination’s power to produce an aesthetic appreciation of our world promises to motivate recognition of the importance of the current state of the environment instead of simply looking to the abstract future.

March 7, 2012 – Richard P. Hiskes, University of Connecticut

The Relational Foundations of Emergent Environmental Rights: From Hobbes to the Human Right to Water

In presenting his work on a philosophical foundation of human rights, Richard Hiskes offered an alternative to the standard Kantian view of human rights, which is grounded in the notion that such rights are justified by human dignity stemming from human possession of rationality and moral autonomy. In his paper, Hiskes draws from Thomas Hobbes, as well as feminism, post-modernism, and liberal communitarianism, to define a human rights model that centers on two elements unique to the human experience: first, the capacity to contract, that is, enter into a relationship of mutual rights and duties with others, and secondly, the resulting vulnerability experienced when contracting without a common arbiter to guarantee the fulfillment of such agreements. Thus, Hobbes sees the human need to engage in relationships as the basis of the production of rights. This relational perspective of rights, Hiskes argues, gives human rights an “emergent” character whereby rights arise not from within individuals but between them. Hiskes uses Hobbes theory to establish a dynamic conception of rights that recognizes the possibility of new relationships between people and with the environment. This emphasis on relational interconnectivity advances the human right to water, among other environmental rights, that encompasses an intergenerational scope. The human right to water and all other natural resources, Hiskes argues, emerges from humans’ capacity to enter cooperative relations with one another.


April 4, 2012 – Ursula K. Heise, Stanford University

Where the Wild Things Go Digital: Narrative, Database, and Biodiversity Loss

Ursula K. Heise discussed the various ways that rapid declines in biodiversity have been addressed within scientific, popular scientific and aesthetic genres. In her paper, Heise outlines two distinct modes that scientists and artists have utilized to represent mass extinction: the elegiac narrative mourning vanished species, and the desentementalized cataloguing of lost or endangered species. Biodiversity databases and Red Lists of endangered species are significant forms of listing that bear political and legal power that may exceed the indirect influence invoked by the affect of melancholy. While the enumerative strategies of cataloguing and listing seem unrelated to narrative forms at first glance, Heise argues that narrative—and in some cases the genre of elegy—has deeply influenced these formal database projects. Furthermore, the database aesthetic has begun to inform various types of environmental art. Noting that this encyclopedic perspective presents new ways for challenging humans to recognize ourselves as a species among species, Hesie underscores the political and philosophical implications of databases.


April 11, 2012 – David Correia, University of New Mexico

Uncommon Property: Law, Violence and the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant in Northern New Mexico

David Correia presented work from his forthcoming book Uncommon Property: Law, Violence and the Tierra Amarilla Land Grant in Northern New Mexico (under contract with the University of Georgia Press). In his chapter “Under the malign influence of land-stealing experts,” Correia chronicles the partnership of land grant speculators Thomas Burns and Thomas Benton Catron as they led the Santa Fe Ring beginning in the 1870s. As one of the largest common property land grants in New Mexico, Tierra Amarilla—the main focus on Burns and Catron—set the stage for how land speculation would operate in the rest of New Mexico. Burns and Catron directed their wealth and political power to creating political, legal and social mechanisms for dispossessing land grant communities of their property and transferring it to commercial investors. Assisted by corrupt federal and territorial officials as well as railroads and banks, the speculators and investors of the Santa Fe Ring followed Burns and Catron’s example to take control of millions of acres of common property, thereby producing violent tensions between land grant settlers and Anglo property owners.


April 18, 2012 – Thomas G. Andrews, University of Colorado, Boulder

Slaves and Non-Human Animals in the Antebellum U.S. South

Thomas Andrews discussed his work on his forthcoming book, tentatively entitled An Animal’s History of the United States (under contract with Harvard University Press). In his excerpt “Slaves and Non-Human Animals in the Antebellum U.S. South, Andrews examines the varied and complex relationships between slaves, slave-owners, and animals with a particular focus on the material and metabolic foundation of slavery. He considers the ways in which animals factored into slaves’ struggles to subsist, accumulate property, and escape from danger. Animals were central not only to the slave masters’ economies, but also to the slaves’ subsistence economies and formation of kinship networks. Furthermore, runaway slaves drew from the meat, livestock, and poultry of white-owned plantations and farms to survive, and they viewed their stealing and killing of livestock as a way to undermine the white stock-owners’ wealth. As African Americans gained their freedom, animals remained at the center of their economies with communities applying their agricultural expertise toward employment, independent production, and subsistence. Andrews’ analysis of the material connections among animals, slave owners, and slaves reveals a complex network of relations that affected all aspects of the slave system.


April 25, 2012 – Verena Andermatt Conley, Harvard University

Marc Augé’s Non-Places

Verena Andermatt Conley discussed work from her recent publication Spatial Ecologies: Urban Sites, State and World-Space in French Cultural Theory (Liverpool University Press 2012). Conley’s book centers on the concept of space in French theory with respect to habitability, or the ecologies of sensation and everyday life. Conley analyzes how French theorists influenced by the turmoil of May 1968 have centered their studies on a spatial crisis that has grown to encompass debates about the well-being of the planet. In her chapter “Marc Augé: Non-Places,” Conley examines Augé’s anthropology of sensation as exemplifying shifting conceptualizations of space with respect to cultural and natural ecologies. Augé’s construction of an intermediate genre that is both fiction and memoir, ethnography and self-study highlights the “spatial turn” in critical thinking and the translation of the sensation of alterity in everyday life.

May 2, 2012 – Connie Y. Chiang, Bowdoin College

Winning the War at Manzanar: Environmental Patriotism and the Japanese American Incarceration

Connie Chiang spoke about her work on her current book project, tentatively entitled Nature Behind Barbed Wire: An Environmental History of the World War II Japanese American Incarceration. In her paper about the Japanese American incarceration at Manzanar and the militarization of natural resources during World War II, Chiang reveals the intersections of racial ideology and environmentalist thought as they permeated wartime propaganda and shaped individuals’ lived experiences. Chiang explains how the construction of a “warfare state” prompted a pervading sense of emergency and a two-fold unprecedented exploitation: increased industrial production and resource extraction on the one hand, and the denial of humanity to the Japanese American community on the other. That these two seemingly disparate wartime strategies were in fact linked by the notion of their absolute necessity to winning the war reveals how the imperatives of war influenced social norms and permitted the state to mask unjust practices under the guise of national security. Chiang’s analysis of the idea of environmental patriotism provides a foundation from which to study how transformations of the natural world became a source of power for the Euro-American political elite and a tool of resistance for incarcerated Japanese Americans.

Past Events:

Three Pigs, a Manatee, and Lots of Parrots: Modes of Interaction and the Columbian Exchange

Marcy Norton, Associate Professor of History, George Washington University
May 21, 2012 – 12:10pm-1:30pm -2203 Social Science/Humanities
Professor Norton is the author of Sacred Gifts, Profane Pleasures: A History of Tobacco and Chocolate in the Atlantic World, an award-winning history of these influential commodities.
Co-sponsored by the Mellon Research Initiative in Early Modern Studies and the Mellon Research Initiative in Environments and Societies.


Trophy Taking and Making: Environmental History and the Memory of the Hunt in the 19th Century American West

Karen Jones, Senior Lecturer in History, University of Kent, Canterbury, UK
January 18, 2012 – 12pm-1pm -228 Voorhies Hall

Karen Jones is a specialist in environmental history and the history of the American West. Having worked on parks, conservation and wolves, her current research centers on the environmental practices and cultures of hunting in the frontier West. Jones’ presentation focused on her particular interest is the ‘after-life’ of the hunt, the way in which hunters sought to commemorate their experience on the game trail (particularly through photography and taxidermy), and how these artifacts fed into the broader mythology of the American West.

Nine-Legged Frogs and National Sacrifice: Tracking Environmental Justice in Native America

Traci Brynne Voyles, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of History, UC Davis
November 15, 2011 – 12pm-1pm – 126 Voorhies Hall

Visiting Assistant Professor Voyles explored issues of environmental injustice on and near tribal land throughout the US, and examined the ways in which Native land is consistently targeted for (and not protected against) environmentally destructive practices, ranging from hazardous waste incinerators to uranium mines. The state of environmental injustice on Native land has inspired a powerful Native environmental justice movement, which has allied with indigenous sovereignty and environmentalist organizations across the globe to do transformative work towards protecting environments wherever people live, work, play, and pray. Co-sponsored with the Campus Community Book Project.

Unsettling Environmental Justice Studies: Mapping Environment and Harm in the Uranium Landscape

Traci Brynne Voyles, Mellon Visiting Assistant Professor of History, UC Davis
October 24, 2011 – 4pm – 126 Voorhies Hall

Visiting Assistant Professor Voyles addressed the history of the uranium industry on Dine/Navajo land in New Mexico, looking to the ways in which the uranium industry has naturalized environmental injustice in the region at the expense of Navajo lives, lands, and relationships to the environment.