The Anthronaut, The Golem, and Other Tales of the Dark

DRAFT; As presented at the 2013 AAA Conference in Chicago, November 21, 2013.

The Anthronaut, The Golem, and Other Tales of the Dark

Edward M. Maclin

Abstract

In this paper I use examples from my ongoing work in academic anthropology and on my small family farm to explore the relationship between anthropology, agriculture, and Dark Ecology. Along the way, I engage two contrasting metaphors for anthropological work, the anthronaut and the golem. The fragmentation associated with market-based labor creation in both the Academy and large-scale agriculture also fuses together disparate parts from multiple lives to form golems: the corpora of industrial life. Meanwhile, “anthronauts” travel through an assemblage of chickens, plants, people, and industry. This assemblage serves not only as a context, but as a space for distributed cognition and the development of embodied knowledge.

 

My wife, my daughter, and I moved to Oak Hill Farm in 2009. My grandparents ran the farm as a dairy until the early 1990s; since then, most of the open land has been rented to a neighbor who practices standard industrial agriculture. Meanwhile, the barns deteriorated, the fences sagged, and privet and other weeds filled the pens. Oak Hill Farm has been in my family since the 1830s. Slaves cleared the land and built the antebellum plantation house, and over time the farm has gone from plantation agriculture to sharecropping, through the progressive agriculture of the 1950s into industrialization. Since moving to the farm, we have taken part of the land out of rental to focus on sustainable Community Supported Agriculture, heritage breed hogs, and small-scale permaculture.

In a recent New York Times article (Schuessler 2012), political scientist James Scott said that his own farming venture has made him a better scholar—and that statement was the provocation for this session. I knew other scholar-farmers, and have come to know even more since sending out the call for paper proposals. From my own experience I identified with Scott’s assertion in the Times that raising animals is a helpful physical balance to the mental work of academia. At the same time, the institutions of farming and the academy conflict and coincide in complex ways that make performing simultaneous roles challenging. I was curious about how other anthropologists negotiate those roles. By crafting the neologism “anthronaut” I want to turn focus toward individuals working in anthropology as hybrids; those who cross institutional lines. Specifically I want to look at the challenges of navigating such a journey and how a relational path might benefit both the academy and the environment.

My dissertation research throughout the Arctic, studying the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), focused largely on the organization’s efforts at biodiversity conservation under conditions of rapid climate change. While I was conducting this research, I accumulated over 50,000 frequent flyer miles. I am one of the architects of the anthropocene. In between episodes of this globalized research, I lived and worked on my family’s small farm in West Tennessee. Unlike the Malinowskian imaginary (Holmes and Marcus 2005; Lassiter and Campbell 2010) of separation and immersion I worked in a hybrid world.

I came to environmental anthropology and agriculture in part because of concern over the multiple social-environmental crises of our time (climate change, species loss, loss of genetic diversity, pollution, overconsumption, and more). After years of study and activism, I am less enamored of purported solutions: education for sustainability, proposed policy changes, new technologies, and upscaling of local conservation efforts. More recently I embrace a dark ecology (Morton 2009, 2010), a relational practice for a time when environmental crisis can no longer be averted. Dark ecology explicitly notes that our work in the world has ecological effects, and holds each of us responsible for those effects. In the words of Timothy Morton, “the catastrophe has already occurred” (Morton 2008).

It is not possible to seriously engage in dealing with environmental catastrophe without seriously examining the full set of relations in which we are immersed. In a world of genetic manipulation, climate change, and monocultures, what role can anthropology have other than simply documenting change or railing against injustice? And how do the institutions of anthropology reproduce environmental catastrophe? I argue that the work of the mind that anthropologists usually perform is not enough; it should be accompanied by an embodied knowledge lived in hands, dirt, and seeds.

I argue that the dominant model of anthropological research is inherently unsustainable. It is premised on the sort of overconsumption that has produced much of our current ecological crisis. At the same time, it is necessary for us to understand the cultural underpinnings of our ecological and social dilemmas. So, how do we decarbonize anthropology? How do we set anthropology free from its dependence on consumption? On airfare and research budgets? Ivan Illich wrote that:

“Once the industrial mode of production has become dominant in a society, it may still admit shifts from one type of output to another, but it does not admit limits to the further institutionalization of values. Such growth makes the incongruous demand that man [sic] seek his satisfaction by submitting to the logic of his tools” (Illich 1973).

I would ask to what degree anthropologists have been colonized by their own technologies: the grant proposal, the handheld recorder, the conference presentation, and the halls of academia. The same questions could be asked about farmers.  Tools are disciplinary and tend to enforce a narrow relationality.

In the case of the anthronaut farmer, agriculture is a direct intervention in nature. It is an intentional meddling with ecology, an insertion of the anthropologist into the ecological world that changes ecosystems and social processes. Rather than our current interventions in nature that are directed by the tools and technologies of the discipline, the anthronaut chooses new tools.

Disciplinary tools and technologies are not just instruments that govern individuals; they provide a medium for extended cognition. Clark and Chalmers address extended cognition in their distributed concept of mind (1998); broadening the work of anthropologists and farmers literally opens new ways of thinking as embedded relations shift. Anthronaut farmers travel through an assemblage of chickens, plants, people, and industry. This assemblage serves not only as a context, but as a space for distributed cognition and the development of embodied knowledge. Without rethinking, adapting, and changing our tools, it is not possible to rediscipline anthropology to effectively work within the unfolding catastrophe of the anthropocene.

Adapting new tools also allows us to address the dismemberment that occurs in the production of labor. Dorothy Smith writes about the separation that occurs between women’s lives as mothers and their lives as workers (Smith 2006). That same separation isolates worker-selves from selves as community members and political citizens. It also strips away, sometimes legally, sexuality, gender, spirituality, religion, and family, leaving behind an amalgam of hands, legs, eyes, and brains.

The fragmentation associated with market-based labor creation, in both the Academy and large-scale agriculture, fuses together disparate parts from multiple lives to form golems: the corpora of industrial life. And, like the mythical golem, these articulations are denied speech for fear that speech would convey a soul. Transgressing the boundaries of academic anthropology is difficult precisely because of this fragmentation and amalgamation. The disciplining tools of anthropology and farming each work to isolate participants from legitimate participation in other domains of existence.

Anthropology, as the science of humanity, has the potential to replicate this dismemberment and re-articulation. The tools of anthropology can be as incisive as a scythe.

“Ideological reasoning is accomplished through a complex of tasks that require researchers to disarticulate everyday experience from the conditions and relations in which it takes place. These dismembered bits of human life are then arranged within the framework of pre-existing interpretive notions. The concepts, categories, and theories that result from this process are then given power to frame and interpret other social phenomena” (Carpenter and Mojab 2011)⁠.

Humans resist dismemberment in complex ways: by after-work activities with colleagues, by bringing religious and personal activities into the workplace—even though it is professionally and sometimes legally discouraged. I think agriculture can be part of that resistance. It provides a space where we can be connected with our communities and space in a way that late capitalism often denies.

One way to approach that re-integration is by the creation of more hybrid anthropologists (anthronauts): people with anthropology degrees who are working as nurses, teachers, farmers. This can help us to build an embodied anthropological knowledge within our communities—and a community knowledge within the academy—that is different from the sort of applied anthropology approach that the academy puts forward. Often, though, people with degrees in anthropology who work in professions that are not explicitly anthropological end up being cut away from anthropology—both by the institutional demands of their work and by the structure of anthropology itself.

We have a built-in pool of potential anthronauts in the growing number of adjunct faculty and part-time workers trained in anthropology. As of 2012, approximately 70% of faculty at all colleges were not on the tenure track (June 2012). The paradox is that having more fulltime faculty exacerbates fragmentation, it builds silos where distributed thinking is among people who are all engulfed in the same institutional structures. A group of hybrid thinkers would inevitably reshape academic anthropology, if they were accorded democratic participation and a living wage. Anthronauts work against the anti-social nature of anthropology: going “into the field” to do research, then returning to the office to write in a disconnected context (Mosse 2006). In effect, they live in the field—sailing in a continual journey.

I want my work in farming, and my work in anthropology, to be forms of direct action. By farming, I am able to help build social and ecological refugia. We work with heirloom seeds and host travelling WWOOFers. We are able to work against climate change and runaway consumerism. We work with neighbors on projects—both physical and mental. We work.

I spent a recent Saturday herding pigs. Young pigs are notoriously hard to keep contained, since they will root under or through all but the most sturdy fences. In our ongoing ecological catastrophe, I suggest breaking down some fences of our own, to work in new ways, unconstrained by the tools of one discipline, anthronauts all.

 

References

Carpenter, Sara & Shahrzad Mojab
2011 Educating from Marx: race, gender and learning. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Clark, Andrew & David Chalmers
1998 The extended mind. Analysis, 58(1), 7–19.

Holmes, Douglas R, and George E Marcus
2005 Refunctioning Ethnography: The Challenge of an Anthropology of the Contemporary. In The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research. London: Sage.

Illich, Ivan
1973 Tools for Conviviality. New York: Harper & Row.

Lassiter, Luke Eric, and Elizabeth Campbell
2010 What Will We Have Ethnography Do? Qualitative Inquiry 16(9): 757–767.

Morton, Timothy
2008 The Catastrophe has Already Occurred. Ecology Without Nature (Blog). http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2008/07/catastrophe-has-already-occurred.html. Accessed 11/08/2013.

2009 Ecology without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (p. 264). Boston: Harvard University Press.

2010 The Ecological Thought. Cambridge: Harvard.

Mosse, David
2006 Anti-social anthropology ? Objectivity , objection , and the ethnography of public policy and professional communities. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, (12), 935–956.

Schuessler, Jennifer
2012 Professor Who Learns From Peasants. New York Times, December 4. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/05/books/james-c-scott-farmer-and-scholar-of-anarchism.html.

Smith, Dorothy E.
2006 Institutional Ethnography as Practice. (D. E. Smith, Ed.) (p. 274). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

 

The Anthronaut Farmer

CALL FOR ABSTRACTS 

I am working to organize an Invited Session (Culture and Agriculture Section) for the AAA meeting in Chicago (November 20-24)

The Anthronaut Farmer

An increasing number of anthropologists are turning to agriculture as a means of subsistence, a way of living in their communities, and a form of embodied research. Beyond a practice of study, this is a lived anthropology outside of academia: not a research venture bounded by funding cycles, but a journey of engagement with the world. Through their hands-on work, these ”anthronaut” farmers are transforming themselves, their communities and landscapes, and their academic work. In a recent New York Times article, political scientist James Scott said that his own farming venture has made him a better researcher; but the institutions of farming and the academy conflict and coincide in complex ways. In this interactive session, we will explore how anthropologist-farmers navigate these complexities. We welcome discussions from all theoretical and agricultural perspectives, from apiculture to Actor-Network Theory, from eco-agriculture to ethnobiology, from permaculture to political ecology.

If interested, please submit an abstract (~200 words) to Ted Maclin (tmaclin@uga.edu) by March 1.

Ecological Anthropology (in which I try to explain what I do.)

Over the past few weeks several people including friends and family members have asked me about my research, or about what it is that I do, exactly. I’ve given the usual elevator speech, but after reflecting a bit I think it may be worth me writing here in more detail. Partly this is because I’m working on writing my dissertation. Writing is a sort of emptying process for me, and so occasionally in order to write what I want I need to get other things out of my system. At the end, I’ll recap by addressing a few misconceptions I keep hearing when people talk to me about my research.

Anthropology is the study of humans. That is about as broad as you can get within the social sciences, and it encompasses everything from anatomy to zymurgy. Traditionally in the US anthropology consists of four fields of study: human biology, linguistics, cultural anthropology, and archaeology. Some programs include a fifth area, applied anthropology, that focuses on the role of anthropology in current affairs. Ecological anthropologymy focusjust means that the focus of the work is on ecology, or human-environment interactions. My dissertation research is on social and cultural processes in international conservation, specifically within the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Global Arctic Program.

So, what does that all mean? Well, I’d say that we are all immersed in fields of culture and social relations. We tend not to see culture; in a sense culture is what makes some things seem normal or even inevitable. Why do we tend to eat three meals a day? Why do we stand in line so willingly at the hotdog vendor? Why do we get jobs and work for paper (or electronic) money? Culture is a process of shared knowledge and meaning-making. Not shared as in “I know certain things and you do too, so we are part of the same culture”, but as in “you and I function as a group to know things and determine what things mean.” Looked at this way, you might imagine that each of us is actually involved in many cultures: the culture of the community, of the nation, of the church, etc. And, you would be right. You might even imagine a situation where these many cultures are in disagreement on what a situation means.

Given that, I am looking at the process of international conservation in WWF and asking what culture contributes to the work they are doing. The international component is important because, in theory, people from different parts of the world might have different cultural approaches to their work. Or, maybe WWF is such a powerful organization that ts own culture trumps national differences. I’m also looking at social network structure–how people communicate within and between offices. I make pretty network maps like this:

As of 2011-2012

As of 2011-2012

Why is this my focus? I have a long-time interest in both environmentalism and in the ways that people form their beliefs and decide to act within the world. Biodiversity conservation is a knowledge-making practice, and I’m interested in that, too. We don’t just soak up “knowledge” from the world around us like sponges. We may soak up various types of information–but knowledge is really inseparable from values and beliefs. That is the subject for a whole other blog post.

The goal for me academically is to get a job teaching, writing, and researching, ideally with a link to ongoing environmental activism and policy.

Misconceptions (collected from recent conversations).

  • WWF is not the wrestling group. That is the WWE. Make fun of WWF if you must, but there is nothing funny about the WWE.
  • I am not an archaeologist. I like digging, and I like old things, but my training is in biology, botany, and cultural anthropology. My wife is an archaeologist; feel free to ask her all your dinosaur-related questions.
  • I don’t work for WWF. That would arguably be a conflict of interest. My funding comes from the National Science Foundation.
  • I am a scientist (see above).
  • When I say I’m studying “social networks” that doesn’t mean the Facebook.

We are not the 99%…

…even though I am part of the 99%.

Since the movement(s) have been around for a while, I thought I would offer some musings on Occupy Wall Street (OWS). What this post is not about is the growing economic gap between the wealthiest few and the rest of America. Others have covered that. It is also not about corporate power—if you want a rant about ending corporate personhood, I can deliver, but not right now. I don’t want to turn this post into a debate between liberal and conservative values because others have done that, too. Here, I want to focus on one of the core objections to OWS from outsiders: that the movement lacks any coherent set of goals. Tied to that are some questions about values, representation, and process that I think are pretty important.

As OWS has spread around the country it has swept up many individuals and groups from within “the 99%”–defined here as the 99% of Americans who are the least wealthy (as opposed to the wealthiest 1%.) The goals of the movement are, for the most part, broadly consistent with this declaration from the original Wall Street group.

What I find fascinating and hopeful about OWS nationwide are the coalitions that the movement has produced and the process that OWS is carrying forward. Where else can you find, however tenuously, Ron Paul libertarians aligned with self-avowed socialists? Dogs and cats living together—anarchy! Well, that’s what some in opposition would say. The thing is, the OWS movement includes socialists, anarchists, communists, capitalists, libertarians, and probably some other political alignments that I’m not thinking of off the top of my head. This, to me, is the great strength of the movement. And, it is so different from business as usual that some people understandably don’t get it.

During the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election, I was a fan of Alaska senator Mike Gravel. He was probably not going to win, but I thought he raised important issues during the debates. Back during 2007 following a Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards were caught on tape talking to one another about the need to narrow the field of candidates—because so many of the others were “not serious.” With our usual cycle of political games, this type of winnowing happens fairly regularly, and it has a homogenizing effect on the resulting dialogue. Anyone whose views are too far outside the mainstream is cast out of the group.

The OWS movement puts a lot of focus into process, making sure that everyone who is present has a voice and that silencing or rejecting of voices is minimal. Because of that, I can’t tell you what OWS stands for—except by referencing the documents that individual movements in different cities have agreed to release through consensus. I can tell you what I believe, and why that aligns with OWS (and I might in a future post), but to characterize or represent the entire OWS movement would be a gross oversimplification. More than that, it calls to mind what social scientists call the “crisis of representation”–who gets
to speak for whom?

OWS does well at casting a broad net, and members of the movement are usually careful to couch their language in ways that recognize differences. Some of the loudest voices opposing OWS seem to be doing the opposite: they are willing to paint the OWS movement as “just anarchists” or “people who want to bring down capitalism.”

There is one segment of the 99% that OWS has taken it on themselves to represent without their direct voice: those who don’t want the system to change. By referring to ourselves (I include myself among the OWS supporters) as “the 99%” we are glossing over important differences between groups and engaging in a type of misrepresentation that I think we need to avoid—or at least see. When we claim to speak for “the 99%” we adopt a paternalistic stance. More than once in OWS meetings I have heard participants speak about the opposition, the “them” who are also “us,” as being blind, or indifferent, or in need of education to
bring them around to the correct anti-wall street view. While I am all for attempts at persuasive argumentation, claiming to represent those who do not wish for our representation is an occupation of a different sort.

The language of “occupation” is itself colonial—as referenced recently by Occupy Boston when they suggested that “Decolonize Boston” might be a better name. I think that it would be worthwhile for OWS members to listen carefully to what opposing voices, and our own, have to say—not to engage in an argument over words, but to begin to articulate the ways that hegemonies perpetuate individual viewpoints. In the case of the diverse opposition, this means looking past Wall Street and toward other places where power relations are institutionalized. In the case of OWS itself, it may mean looking at our own language. For example, is the movement’s focus on “wealth” (versus a focus on rights, or health, or power) a case where our own anti-hegemonic attempt at organization is dominated by the capitalist paradigm in which wealth is the only valid measure of success?

We, whoever we are, and they, whoever they may be, have come to occupy our relative subject positions through historic processes involving power and social relations through multiple facets of our lives. To affect actual change in these processes, we need to form durable coalitions that go beyond OWS—to build the skeleton of the new system within the shell of the old. Doing so will require an attentiveness to our own processes and language, both in how we relate to one another within the movement and in how we relate to those outside. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it may be impossible to use the tools of colonialism in order to alleviate the horrible evils that result from the institutions of colonialism.

Quote for the Day

If you believe certain words, you believe their hidden arguments. When you believe something is right or wrong, true of flase, you believe the assumptions in the words which express the arguments. Such assumptions are often full of holes, but remain most precious to the convinced.
-The Open-Ended Proof from The Panoplia Prophetica , Children of Dune

Public Identity and the Headphone Hegemony

I started writing this post at the CBD meeting in Nagoya last October. Since I hate to leave my ‘drafts’ folder cluttered, I’m pushing it out the door–ready or not.

Institutions, broadly defined, are those rules that prescribe what counts as acceptable behavior. They may be formal laws or procedures or informal rules–like “you should stand in line and wait your turn to get to the cash register.” Institutions help to define our identity in certain contexts. They form the background for the types of social interactions that are possible in a certain setting.

At the CBD CoP in Nagoya, Japan informal institutions were in full effect. The clothing of choice is determined by the group with which an actor identifies and their role at the COP, including power skirts, suits-and-ties, business casual, indigenous attire, student chic, and rumpled academic. Within any one room, however, the key speakers were often dressed alike. In one workshop, a gentleman from Canada was talking about the planetarium in Montreal: “when you prepare to enter,” he said, “there has to be a cutoff. You take off your shoes and everybody lies on the floor. Everyone is at the same level, having the same experience.” What a wonderful metaphor for the scene in a UN contact group or assembly. Of course, people don;t all have the same experience–at the CBD or in the planetarium–but the institutional structures in place try to produce homogeneity.

Walking through metal detectors en masse was the beginning of a daily ritual that marked the CBD conference space as a type of sacred ground: where some types of speech were encouraged and others were considered profane or nonsensical. Whatever the outward clothing of an attendee, the simultaneous translation headphones perched on top of their heads marked them as members of a group. The institutions at work here–in passing through security, wearing headphones (whether or not participants were actually listening), or making clothing choices–may seem mundane, but they served to sever one portion of the attendees lives from their lives as homemakers, mothers, fathers, cooks, musicians, or amateur athletes. In doing so, the resulting discussions were constrained to an abstraction of the very visceral reality of biodiversity loss. Good, possibly, for the production of policy. My question is: does the inevitable institutional constraint in these meetings lead to policy that is as divorced from the daily bodily lives of people as the places where the policy is produced?

Life in Harmony

I thought I’d throw out some thoughts on the idea of harmony. This is something I may develop more in the next few weeks.

At the 10th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (COP10), the theme for the event is “Life in Harmony, Into the Future.” Harmony is everywhere in the discussions: objectives are harmonized, initiatives work in harmony, biodiversity conservation and development work together in harmony. Sounds great.

“Harmony” is something I’m going to call a “yielding word.” Social scientists and lawyers have recognized fighting words for some time–those key words and phrases that, by their use, constitute an aggressive act. The use of fighting words is an example of performative speech: the speaking of these words constitutes an action in and of itself. Saying “the sky is blue” is a different type of action from saying “you are ugly,” even if the description is accurate. While fighting words typically mark conflict or social tension, yielding words as I am defining them are also performative, but do the opposite: they are anti-conflictual, and are, therefore, hard to speak against. Wait, you may say, why would you want to speak out against harmony? Which makes my point exactly. Other yielding words may be things like “happiness,” “peace,” “justice,” “love,” etc.. It is an idea in need of further development, but I’ think it is useful here.

Why, then, would I like to argue against harmony? I’m an Aikido practitioner, and we are supposed to love harmony, right? I’m not specifically arguing against harmony, but against the uncritical use of the term to drive specific agendas forward. Here it is useful to look at some of the ways that the term is being used.

At the COP10 in Japan, “Life in Harmony” uses the term “共生” which translates as “living together in health” or “symbiosis.” This is different from the harmony in Aikido, “合気道”, which refers to aligning energies. It is also different from “調和” which means peace, balance, or calm. All of these are potentially read as harmony. Harmony is being used at the COP in the symbiosis-of-all-life sense, but also in the sense of “harmonizing” agreements so that they do not conflict and, rather, build synergies. Harmonization in this context implies a win-win outcome. While this sounds great, win-win outcomes are notoriously difficult to achieve. Using the idea of harmony as a tool to silence argument against specific agendas echoes Laura Nader’s idea of “coercive harmonization.” Her idea is that conflict avoidance, rather than justice, is often the underlying goal of political processes. A conflict avoidance approach tends to favor the interests of the most powerful. Harmonizing with the interests of large governments and transnational corporations can lead to a redefinition of rights: away from things like the right to self-determination, and toward things like the right to engage more in the global economy. In the same way, use of other yielding words makes participation difficult by silencing contesting voices.

Aikido, mentioned above, is a form of understanding and attempting to resolve conflict. Perhaps the most difficult part of the art is learning to engage or turn away effectively without devolving into either simple conflict avoidance or the use of aggressive force. Harmony in this sense is a potential outcome of applying a goal: non-harming engagement. When harmony itself becomes the goal, both full participation and considerations of justice can be lost.

Shanusi, Biofuels, and Conservation Trade-offs

SPECIAL GUEST POST

At the end of last year, I arrived with two colleagues at the village of Nueva Italia near the border of the San Martin and Loreto regions of the Peruvian Amazon. After traveling three hours from Tarapoto, then half an hour down a rough logging road past small rainforest farms, we found almost forty people, with machetes, ready to march into the nearby palm oil development to fight against what they saw as an encroachment on their land. After convincing them to abandon their plans for a fight, we walked together to the site of clearing for the new palm oil plantation. With the sound of chainsaws echoing through the trees and uncertainty about what was going to happen, we were nervous about the possibility of being shot. Arriving at the plantation, armed security forces approached us. When the head of security arrived, recognizing that we were not all local farmers, a debate began that led to accusations from both sides. In many ways, that debate is continuing today.

The contested site is a 10 thousand acre palm oil monoculture, run by  Palmas del Shanusi,  of the Romero Group. The project has generated conflicts over deforestation, insufficient compensation to the state per hectare (5.5 dollars per hectare for 7000 hectares), and conflicts between local settlers and recent migrants of the district of Barranquita. The settlers accuse the company of confiscating them of their lands, destroying their forests, and convincing the state to block their entitlement procedures. The company accuses the farmers purposly settling in the borders of the monoculture to establish land rights which can then be sold to the company. The dispute between the company and the farmers for the usage rights of the forest occurs amid the state promotion of private investments and a generalized lack of governance of the territory.

The case of the Shanusi project and the conflict in Barranquita is helpful for understanding the socio-environmental conflicts related to biofuels. These conflicts are becoming more common with the increase in the demand for biofuels and policies that promote monocultures in the Amazon region. The act of selling large tracts of land in the Amazon region is already conflictive. If they were already deforested, it implies that there are peasants on those lands with some type of right over them. If there is still primary forest, it implies an attack on nature. In this case it is a combination of the two. Earlier interventions in the primary forest had left most of the forest standing: only the most valuable trees had been taken out by illegal loggers. We are not talking then about deforested and degraded lands, nor secondary forests, but a vital forest that actively provided environmental services. This puts into question the act of cutting down the forest to plant oil palm . The root of the problem lies in the strange administrative decision to change the use of land from forest to agricultural, which led to the sale by the Ministry of Agriculture of the land at the absurdly low price of 17.90 soles per hectare.

Despite the environmental discourse from the opponents of the monoculture, all evidence points to the fact that the motivations of the farmers are distributive rather than environmental. That there is deforestation is not the central preoccupation, but rather who carries it out and who benefits from it: the local population or an outsider company. Meanwhile, the interpretation of the incident by the Manager of Palmas del Shanusi is that with farming in the area all the forests are destined to turn into grasslands, which means that the oil palm plantations of the Romero Group will be the “lesser evil” of the two, in environmental terms. This conflict is not over. This is the  kind of situation that happens when primary forests and the livelihoods of local people are traded off in Amazonia for establishing large-scale monocultures.


The Machiavellian Nature of Saudi Oil

This week, negotiators are meeting in Bonn for discussions leading up to the 16th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (the UNFCCC CoP16). Faithful readers may remember that I was in Copenhagen for the 15th CoP in 2009. This year’s meeting is scheduled for late November/early December in Cancun, and already discussions are heating up. In addition to worries about what to do if no resolution is reached before the 2012 Kyoto Protocol deadline, Saudi Arabia is raising a red flag again: this time to ask for reparations for money they would lose if the world were to cut petroleum use.

The kicker here is that Saudi Arabia wants to be paid for oil they won’t–likely can’t–produce. There has been suspicion for several years that Saudi Arabia, along with other OPEC countries, has been progressively overstating the levels of their own oil reserves. Add to that that Persian Gulf states are using an increasing portion of the oil they do produce domestically (up to an additional 1.5 million barrels per day by 2030 just for electricity generation). Add to that that, by some accounts, Saudi oil production peaked in 2005 and shows no signs of rebounding.

This yields a picture of a situation where Saudi Arabia is faced with declining production and exports in coming years due to domestic use and geological fundamentals of supply. If only there was some way to get paid for all the oil that they don’t have to export! Enter the UN climate change negotiations. If declining production can be blamed on international pressure for climate change mitigation, rather than other factors, then perhaps the Saudis can still get paid. Who would foot the bill remains an unanswered question.

Advancing Conservation in a Social Context

For the past few years, I’ve been part of an interdisciplinary, international group researching conservation and its social complications. The Advancing Conservation in a Social Context (ACSC) initiative is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and administered through the University of Arizona, with support from UGA and members from the US, Peru, Tanzania, and Vietnam.

The ACSC research process has focused broadly on the idea of tradeoffs: the proposition that when something is gained, something else is lost and win-win scenarios are rare if they occur at all. So, when a decision is made to conserve a resource, species, or ecosystem, opportunities are lost in some other domain. I am oversimplifying here since interactions between people and their environment are vastly multifaceted. A key question is, how do we take into account the complexities and conflicts of ecology and society and still make decisions? And, in the above sentence, who is this “we”?

At a meeting of ACSC researchers this week, we are discussing the next phases of the project and one idea is to develop an ACSC blog, with individual researchers contributing posts on various issues surrounding conservation and society. I’m not sure if it will happen or not, but if it does I may try my hand at contributing–since it would tie nicely with my ongoing dissertation research and long-term interests.

A blog has the added benefit of being participatory, at least in theory. If someone blogs about current issues and others with direct interest in those issues respond, then the text changes from a one-way editorial to more of a conversation. From a social science perspective, this may be one way to increase objectivity in research by giving others the chance to “object” to what is being said about them, as Bruno Latour has suggested:

If social scientists wanted to become objective, they would have to find the very rare, costly, local, miraculous, situation where they can render their subject of study as much as possible able to object to what is said about them, to be as disobedient as possible to the protocol, and to be as capable to raise their own questions in their own terms and not in those of the scientists whose interests they do not have to share!

I’m not sure if the idea of an ongoing ACSC blog will fly in the long-term or not. Even if it does, it may be that the group is not yet ready to open the project to the decreased control that a Web 2.0 experience would bring. I’ll keep you all posted as (if) this moves ahead.