Workshop Abstracts

Plenary Session:  Three Analytical Frameworks for the Anthropocene

Ecological Perspectives of Space and Place in the Anthropocene: An Example from Socio-Ecological Research

David Wise (UIC, Biological Sciences and Institute for Environmental Science and Policy)

“Think globally, act locally” is a mantra of environmental activism in the contemporary Anthropocene, but it also describes one approach to scientific inquiry: make broad geographic inferences from specific local research. An example is recent interdisciplinary research that treats the Chicago Wilderness as a socio-ecological system (SES).  The research asked:  Do different social structures of conservation organizations that are restoring biodiversity in metropolitan regions lead to different biodiversity outcomes?  The answer appears to be “no,” at least not to an extent that should influence public policies of ecological restoration and land management.  Nevertheless, translating this specific finding for the Chicago region into general SES theory has been difficult. The challenges will be highlighted and discussed.

Mine-Yours-Ours-Theirs: A Preliminary Inquiry into Property Relations in the Anthropocene

Ralph Cintron (UIC, English and Latin American and Latino Studies)

Arguably, at the root of our worries about climate change and the Anthropocene is the idea of property.  That is, property relations—which would include conflicts over land, claims of ownership and possession, and so on—enable extraction industries to make a profit, or not.  Because nation states, typically, make the rules governing property relations, they control the potential of these industries.  We might call these rules “formal law.”

But, interestingly, property relations seem to be a kind of universal phenomenon, meaning that native peoples, indigenous populations, tribal peoples, and so on also have deep understandings of land use, ownership, and possession.  These rules have sometimes been called “customary law.”

In other words, everyone seems to make important distinctions between “mine-yours-ours-theirs,” but these distinctions have different authoritative weight if they belong to the “nomosphere” (a term drawn from cultural geography for labeling the global regime of formal law) or to customary law.

This paper is interested in carving out the similarities and differences between beliefs about “mine-yours-ours-theirs.”  Economic anthropology—as well as early results from our Political Ecology research team—provides a window for understanding custom.  In contrast, liberal democratic theory offers a window for understanding the historical origins and contemporary manifestations of the nomosphere.

The paper will lay out an hypothesis that I hope to test during the length of our research.  I argue that one strand of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment theory from Locke, Hegel, Marx, and others regarding contract and private property contains both implicit and explicit notions of potentiality that link the human and other-than-human.  These theories of the potentiality of the world eventually constitute every modern political order: from liberal democracy to communism, from socialism to fascism.  It also constitutes the current expansions of global finance, which are at the basis of some of the mega-development projects affecting some of the fieldsites of our proposal.

I will argue that ownership and possession, whether customary or legal, seems to depend on a self (or group) extending itself into a not-self (land, water, or thing) so that the not-self becomes likened or equivalent to the self.  That is, the mind comes to inhabit objects of need and want, and customary and formal laws ratify this metaphorical extension of self into not-self.  The not-self becomes mine or ours.  This perspective reinterprets John Locke’s ontological analysis of the origins of private property: “he [humankind] hath mixed his labour with [nature], and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property.”  Hegel offers a further and more dramatic extension of this claim, and Marx converts Locke’s private property relation into a communal relation.

My point is that these notions of ownership are a commonplace in which the boundary between a self (or group) and a not-self gets erased.  This erasure occurs through a metaphorical act in which the self/not-self becomes identical, or at least likened, to each other.  That is, ownership (communal, private, customary) of legal property or sacred land comes into being when the mind extends itself into that which is other than itself and makes that difference nonexistent.  In so becoming, the thing owned is no longer its own entity—if it ever was; rather, it acquires its special “beingness,” its distinctive reality, utility, spirituality due to its entanglement with self or group.  Thus it becomes known.  So, what began metaphorically becomes the thing that the law (communal, private, customary) is meant to protect.  This at least is an opening thesis, a heuristic, by which I hope to understand the origins of the Anthropocene, the difficulty of turning back climate change, and the shared logic and values that underlie both large-scale development projects—which may be accelerating climate change—versus local, sometimes defensive, responses to the potential loss of land and water.

1:30 Reporting from the Field I: Agriculture, Land, and Climate Change

Working in and through Climate Change: Agricultural Landscapes in Coamiles, Nayarit, Mexico.

Tannya Islas (UIC, Latin American and Latino Studies)

This paper investigates the relationships between ejidatarios and agrarian landscapes in Coamiles, Nayarit, Mexico. I situate farmers and their land within the scholarly discourses circulating Anthropogenic climate change, and more particularly human/nature relationships. Throughout this essay, I engage with traditional approaches to human/nature relations, such as the understanding that humans and nature are in opposition to one another, or that they have separate histories and processes. I attempt to complicate such frameworks by exploring the intricacies of affect, memory, and embodiment, and how they come together in an experience of climate change. By paying special attention to the affect, memory, and embodiment I concern myself with the human experience and conceptions of climate change, and how those experiences may weave into and be constituted by non-human ones. I thus conceptualize the farmer, along with Nature, as a significant locus of climate change, and demonstrate that by exploring human bodies as such, a more nuanced conception of “subjects” of the Anthropocene may emerge.

Knowledge Production and Practice in Industrial Row Crop Farming, Northern Illinois

Charles Corwin (UIC, Urban Planning and Policy)

Standardized large-scale practices, a cornerstone of industrial agriculture in the United States over the last 60 years, have led to environmental degradation at the local level and contributed to climate change on a global scale. Farmers, operating amidst a broad institutional and environmental context, affect the local ecology through various decision making processes. Decisions to adopt alternative practices are in part informed by knowledge networks that are situated amidst specific micro-environments. Such practices encourage sustainable crop and food production in some cases, while mitigating local and global environmental damage.

Lack of access to local knowledges and institutional support are among the key barriers growers face in implementing such ecologically sound practices and adding to local and other knowledge networks. This paper makes the case for actor network theory (ANT) as a tool to explore the relationship between knowledge networks and adaptation to alternative practices. Although ANT is often critiqued for its neglect of broader state politics and global markets, it is useful in the context of local knowledge and agriculture because of its ontological orientation that draws in non-human actors (Rydin, 2013). ANT is interested in how power works and uses research tools, such as interviews and document analysis, to focus on interactions among key actors (Spinuzzi, 2008). For my purpose, ANT is applicable in that the theory provides a lens to explore different institutions and interactions among farmers and others to determine how current institutional arrangements inform certain agricultural practices. Along the way, I can begin to determine the place for local knowledge in the planning process of cropping systems, what importance knowledges may hold in such process, what actors are most influential, and how practice is thus affected.

The purpose of this paper is to show that actor network theory offers important tools for research on knowledge networks and agriculture. Through exploration of the particular case of cover cropping in Northern Illinois, this paper proposes specific methodology that incorporates elements of ANT for use in agro-ecological research.

Intervention I: Challenges of the Anthropocene

The challenges of detecting global change: Examples from the land, sea and air

Max Berkelhammer (UIC, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences)

The trend of rising global temperatures can often be obscured by temporary hiatus or regionally specific patterns of climate. In other words, the global and secular response of temperature to rising CO2 is not homogenous in space and time.  Analyses of the climate system and its components that emphasize regional characteristics or short-term trends can therefore fail to detect change or even observe trends in the opposite direction as the global trajectory. When these types of analyses are assumed to represent the climate system as a whole they can generate false negatives in terms of the detection of change.   Here we discuss a series of recent examples where attempts to study aspects of climate change including rising temperature, sea level change and surface evaporation have failed to observe change due to problematic measurement design and regionally-specific climate characteristics. These three aspects of the climate (temperature, sea level and evaporation) all have direct human impacts and have complex spatial and temporal behavior.  The talk will particularly emphasize a well-publicized and controversial attempt to understand why evaporation rates appear to be decreasing over the latter half of the 20th century despite predictions that rising temperatures should increase evaporation rates.  The examples will be used collectively to illustrate the challenges of quantifying the rate that climate is changing.

Reporting from the Field II: Disposable Landscapes

What about the Tributaries of the Tributaries? Fish Migrations, Fisheries, Dams and Local Knowledge along the Sebok River in Northeastern Thailand

Ian G. Baird and Aurore Phenow (University of Wisconsin-Madison)

Kanokwan Manorom and Sirasak Gaja-Svasti (Ubon Ratchathani University)

The Pak Mun Dam is one of the most studied and controversial hydropower projects ever developed in the Mekong River Basin. Constructed in the early 1990s on the Mun River just upstream from its confluence with the Mekong River with World Bank support in northeastern Thailand, lessons from the project have been particularly important for raising awareness about the impacts of large hydropower dams on wild-capture fisheries, an issue that was previously of little concern to neither government officials, researchers or even activists. However, oddly enough, the voices of people living on upriver tributaries of the Mun River that have been negatively impacted by the dam have hardly been heard over the last 25 years ago. There have been no studies conducted along these rivers, and no advocacy networks or other serious dialogue has occurred regarding the Pak Mun dam in these communities. Neither has there been much attention paid to how the Pak Mun dam and Mun River tributary dams, including those conceived as part of the Khong-Chi-Mun Scheme, are interlinked when it comes to fisheries impacts and management. Therefore, to partially fill this gap in knowledge, we engaged fishers living in three villages located along the Sebok River—a major tributary of the Mun River located just upstream from the Pak Mun dam—to collect fish catch data for 24 months between 2014 and 2016. After data collection, data validation and data analysis were done together with fishers, the complex relationships between hydropower dam development, irrigation, and fisheries along the Sebok River have become evident. Through taking a collaborative approach founded on the principles of political ecology, a complex picture of the circumstances regarding Sebok River fisheries has emerged. The research demonstrates that by confining the impact area of the dam to three districts in Ubon Ratchathani, and only focusing only on impacts along the Mun River, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has been able to create, up until now, a mental boundary of sorts that has been effective in keeping government agencies, advocacy groups and even researchers from looking beyond these districts and the mainstream Mun River when considering dam impacts on fisheries.

The Third Bridge and Northern Forests of Istanbul: A Case of Ecological Resistance

Alize Arıcan (UIC, Anthropology)

The 2013 Gezi Movement in Turkey voiced multiple demands simultaneously: keeping ecology as a pillar of urban place-making, the desire for democratic management of urban spaces and freedom of expression. A matter of major contestation was the infrastructural projects of the AKP government, which launched various projects such as the Third Bosphorus Bridge (2009), Canal Istanbul (2011), and the third airport (2013). This paper focuses on the recently completed Third Bridge, its impact on urban ecology, and the activist responses to the project. Investigating how contesting discourses on the environment affect the experience of a changing urban landscape and in what way climate change underscores these discourses, this study argues for an approach to environmental justice that goes beyond an anthropocentric framework. It presents spatial and environmental elements as active agents in the construction, transformation, and contestation on multiple discourses in the infrastructure-environment axis.