This is the second half of my conversation with Dominic Boyer about the emergence of “infrastructure” as both ethnographic focus and analytic within anthropology. You can read the first part of the interview here!
Ian Lowrie: I’d like to circle back to the question of how infrastructure is related to politics and liberalism. There’s a recent article by Kim Fortun calling for a revitalized, engaged anthropology of not just infrastructure, but infrastructural expertise, in the context of precisely the degradation of the most visible aspects of our infrastructure. At the same time, I think we also see strong, robust development of other types of infrastructures. Things like technical arrangements, financial instruments, logistical services, the computational and digital. I wonder if part of what makes the urge to expand the concept of infrastructure to include things other than things like roads and sewers is a political urge.
Dominic Boyer: I think it is, and I think you’re right to point out that the story of infrastructure in the neoliberal heyday is not simply about abandonment. It’s a story of selective investment, and also of abandonment [laughs]. This is also the era in which informatic infrastructures, for example, develop. The Internet is one, but also the specialized information infrastructures that allowed finance to exert global realtime power that far exceeds the capacities of most governments to effectively regulate it. And that becomes a pivotal part of the story of the rebalancing of powers, I think, during the same time period. So the neoliberal era saw some remarkable infrastructural achievements in certain areas, whereas at the same time you might find your roads and your sewers decaying, which is interestingly often-times the focus of infrastructure studies. Most seem focused on what I would describe as basic biopolitical infrastructures and their fragmentation. A lot of research is, more or less latently, interrogating the aftermath of neoliberalism, specifically through the lens of biopolitical infrastructural decay. But you could tell a different story if you looked at different infrastructures. And maybe that’s a story that still needs to be told.
Ian: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about social theory, often as ethnographic object, in your own work. I wonder, what do you think the role or function of social theory can be in this context? That is, in a post-neoliberal aporia, in which we find ourselves crushed by the immensity of the problems facing us, at both the ecological and political levels. What do you think the function of theoretical projects like investigating infrastructure is today?
Dominic: I think that there’s a great need for theoretical reinvention at this moment. This is a time in which we really do need to change the types of questions we’re asking, as well as I think to change the modes of communication and cooperation that we have. One thing that I find dismal is the extent to which many of the really fruitful and important voices in the anti-anthropocentric movement are sort of falling into the typical pattern that socialism did in the nineteenth century, factions fighting with each other for dominance, everyone asking: “Who’s got the better concept?” That’s still a very alpha-male sort relationship to theory, and I think that’s part of the impasse that we’re facing. I think we need to remember that the roots of the anti-anthropocentric turn are ultimately to be found in feminism and ecofeminism. Thus, there has to be a shift in the ethics, habits, and institutions that we use as theoretically minded scholars at this moment. Cooperation is so much more important than making sure that your concept work finds its own school and acolytes. The project should be to create reinforcing circles that can help not only clarify important theoretical problems, but find ways – creative ways – of changing how we get our messages out there. At CENHS, we’re thinking now about working with game designers, for example, because we’re not sure that a book or an academic article will have a sufficient impact. Necessary, yes, but not sufficient. We have to work with artists closely, we have to work with designers closely, we have to work with media professionals closely. The thing about the anthropocene is that as it becomes clearer and clearer that we can’t negate it, we can’t simply ignore it, that the project of survival is going to require new forms of cooperative work and cooperative thinking. That we need to radically transform our dependency upon the forms and magnitudes of energy we use is increasingly obvious. And we already have much of the technology we would need to accomplish that transition. But to get to the point of developing a sustainable infrastructure for a low carbon, low toxin modernity is a question of political will and of public understanding. Because it’s not going to involve easy fixes. So theoretical clarification can help, but also I think scholars we have to find ways to inform and inspire beyond our walls.
Ian: You’ve also just started work as part of the editorial collective for Cultural Anthropology, with Cymene [Howe] and Jim [Faubion]. And I wonder what you have planned for that journal as it transitions to open-access, online format, to make it a space for collaboration, rather than part of this broader technique of control that you elsewhere call digital liberalism?
Dominic: The biggest operational challenge we are facing is the open access transition. I don’t want to go into great detail about that because I think that much of that story is available elsewhere. The short version is that in the digital era, expensive-to-produce content can be reproduced with great simplicity, and that doesn’t fit well in a capitalist model, frankly. I think non-profit and low-profit academic publishing is the future. And the model has to be about sharing labor. If we’re all good about doing some small part of it competently and efficiently, this apparatus of a fairly large organization of cooperative labor can continue to put out a journal of high quality, but in a model that is truly non-profit. The thing is, by and large, we’ve found that people are pretty willing to participate as long as the apparatus is well- and fairly organized. We had a 98% success rate in inviting much esteemed, very busy people to join CA’s editorial board. That suggests to me that there’s not only an ability to do this, but there’s a great will out there, in the profession, to make this sort of a change. If we think of a journal as a cooperative project in which a large segment of the discipline are stakeholders, we can operate the journal without needing the for-profit apparatus of a publisher like Wiley. I think it’s the direction that all anthropology publishing should be moving toward. The reason that we’re putting quite a lot of time into the project at this early stage is to develop a sustainable infrastructure, a set of institutions, operations and principles, which could allow us to scale up open access and to carry it forward at the level of the discipline.
Ian: If the journal is an institution, it seems like the work that you’re describing is excellent evidence of what [Julia] Elyachar calls phatic labor, sociality as infrastructure, attendant to and around institutions.
Dominic Boyer: This raises questions of course, about, well, what is an infrastructure. Is it just what we used to call structure in the old structure and agency pairing? It feels to me that the connotations of “infrastructure” are more material than “structure” ever was. “Structure” belonged to the great heyday of mid-20th-century anthropology, culture theory, when this great explosion of creative semiological and hermeneutic analysis appeared. These were very much symbol-oriented, knowledge-oriented, thought-oriented models of construing what was distinctively human. It’s interesting to me that this synchronized more or less perfectly with the halcyon days of Keynesian modernity, with super-high growth rates across the Western world. My “Aha” moment came several years ago when I read Timothy Mitchell’s “Carbon Democracy” article. He argues that the only reason why those growth rates could stay so high was because oil was both practically and epistemically an inexhaustible, cheap-and-only-becoming-cheaper resource, and yet providing so much energy in a physico-material sense for all of the great institutions of modernity and all of its infrastructures, practices, habits, etc. For Mitchell, understanding and achieving “growth” is completely petropolitical. That understanding broke down with the formation of OPEC and the challenge to western control over the Middle East’s carbon fuel resources. And the Keynesian responses to the 1970s oil shocks fail because, in a sense, Keynesianism was carbon-based to its core, and couldn’t respond to a disruption of its carbon infrastructure or energopower.
Neoliberalism also didn’t have a good response to the crisis, but it certainly spoke a different language and could perform itself as an alternative. There was a cobbling-together of a sustainable carbon energy model over the ensuing decades. But now we realize that it’s not so much about problems of supply – with fracking and other developments, our energy demands seem to be covered. Peak oil will not save us anymore. Now we realize the problem is that carbon-fueled modernity is literally toxifying our environment, acidifying our oceans, and also creating climatological disruptions, now just tremors, but promising increasing levels of chaos and risk in the future. The problem is the anthropocene.
So the turn towards infrastructure, and the retreat from culture theory, for me are part of the same zeitgeist, the push-back against the preciousness of tarrying with semiotic systems in the era of what Anna Tsing has called “the damaged planet.” First we get the Marxian critiques – we get the Sid Mintzs and the Bill Roseberrys – scholars who argued, “Culture, sure. But what about power, what about domination?” That had its moment in the 60s and 70s, producing some amazing work, and then the vitality peters out, only returning again since 2008. I think that this hiatus had something to do with real-world Marxism becoming increasingly a more horrible, more obviously horrible, version of modernity than the liberal-capitalist modernity it was reacting against. But meanwhile, we’ve had first rumbles, and then storms gathering, marking the anti-anthropocentric turn, which brings us back from the semiological floating world, if I may be a little unkind, back to the concerns of the material, of the institutional, of the social, also in the posthuman sense of “social.” And so all the talk now about infrastructure seems to me like a kind of milestone on that path. As if to say: From here on out, at least for the foreseeable future, our theories of humanity and its presence and forms of life will have to take not only the symbolic and discursive seriously into account, but the material, and the technical, and the political. You can’t escape these questions any more, certainly not in the anthropocene.
Lately, anthropologists have been doing a lot of thinking about infrastructure. Although there have been anthropologists working on the large technical systems subtending modern sociality since at least the early 1970s, infrastructure today appears to be coming of age not only as a robust area of ethnographic engagement, but as a sturdy analytic in its own right, part of widespread resurgence of materialist thought across the humanities. As Brian Larkin puts it in his recent piece for the Annual Review of Anthropology, contemporary work in the anthropology of infrastructure attempts to understand how underlying material structures function to “generate the ambient environment of everyday life.” In so doing, the conceptual ambit of the term has been expanded beyond sewers, roads, and telecommunication systems to include everything from modes of sociality to economic instruments.
Recently, I spoke at some length with Dominic Boyer about the emergence and expansion of anthropological interest in infrastructure. Dominic has devoted considerable organizational and intellectual attention to thinking through the human aspects of energy infrastructures, both in his role as the director of Rice University’s Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences and in his own fieldwork, with Cymene Howe, on energopower and the renewables transition in Mexico. The first half of this conversation appears below, with the second to follow later this week.
Ian: Your current work with Cymene Howe, on the development of wind energy in Oaxaca, focuses quite explicitly on infrastructure in the most literal sense. I’m curious, however, whether there were precursors of this focus in your earlier work?
Dominic: Our project does focus on infrastructure in the sense that, early on, we realized that the electric grid and the utility that manages it in Mexico were going to be central actors in telling the story of the politics of renewable energy transition. But, really, infrastructure as analytic wasn’t really present to us as we were conceptualizing the research design. What’s interesting about the conversation around infrastructure to me is that it’s been a storm hovering on the horizon for a long while, and now the downpour has come and we’re all awash in infrastructure talk.
I remember vividly a few years ago, having come across some article on infrastructure, speaking with George Marcus, and I said “Infrastructure? Really?” And he said “Yeah! It’s going to be big.” Bellwether figures like George who are constantly circling the globe, ear to the ground, they hear the premonitions a little earlier. But in 2008-2009, when we were beginning our wind energy project, it wasn’t really there yet. We were certainly thinking about what I’ve articulated now as energopower, about fuel and electricity’s contribution to power, but the general rubric of infrastructure not so much.
Ian: If we’ve been studying traditional infrastructure like sewers under different terms for a while now, the analytic has certainly expanded greatly upon the common-sense definition. I’m curious, specifically at the level of epistemology, what you see the analytic of “infrastructure” as doing, productively or not, for us disciplinarily?
Dominic: My path to answering that question is a little idiosyncratic. I’m typically less interested in immersing myself in the latest analytic than in asking, “Isn’t it an interesting epistemic phenomenon that everyone is talking about infrastructure now? Why? Where is this coming from?” That is, to try to uncover something about the historicity of our analytic trends. So when I was asked, as a matter of not unpleasant surprise, but surprise nonetheless, to serve as a discussant on an infrastructure panel at last year’s AAAs, I had to pose exactly that question. Why is everyone going infrastructural? And I discovered that what these papers were doing in this panel was really interesting. If we tend to think of infrastructure as something that connotes a certain timelessness, then they showed us its temporality. If we imagine infrastructure as having material solidity, the papers showed us its flux and precarity.
The time I didn’t spend commenting on the papers, I spent ruminating on the question of “Why now?” And I had essentially three reflections. The first was that concern with what we are calling infrastructure, lower strata of experience, has a deeper [disciplinary] history. Not even to get into material culture, but just this idea of deeper strata that have consequences upon surface phenomena. Whether in a cognitive model, as for example with Lévi-Strauss and his structuralism, or in a more physico-material, Marxist investigation of how sub-structures condition the higher level structures of consciousness. I think that this sort of surfacing of hidden relations is a basic operation within anthropological knowledge–-we have a sort of revelational impulse more generally.
That led me to the second reflection, which is to say that today’s focus on infrastructure often appears as commentary upon infrastructural collapse, infrastructural decline and decay, which seems to me impossible to sever from our position at the end of a 30-year period of more-or-less unquestioned neoliberal hegemony, which has never taken public infrastructure, public services, as being very high-priority goods. In some sense we’re living today in the ruins of Keynesian infrastructure, and that seems to me to be at least in the background here, too. In part, infrastructure signals our relationship to the failure of Keynesianism, and now 30-40 years later, to an incipient failure of neoliberalism to really deliver on its own promises.
But the third reflection, which connects more closely to the work I’m doing now, was really the question of where do we go conceptually and theoretically in the anthropocene. I think that if you were to look at the genealogy of critical analytical projects in the human sciences since the 1970s, the Marxian turn got shut down pretty quickly just as actually-existing Marxisms turned into rubble, and neoliberalism became ascendant. But second-wave feminism and ecofeminism prove a lot more durable, much more difficult to silence, and fed directly into science studies via Haraway and others. Challenging the human subject-centered world was central to that project. I think science and technology studies more generally has a kind of intimate relationship with Keynesian technocracy. It’s critical – rage is too strong a word – but a critical position against the failure of the technocracy to continue to deliver on its promises of an ever-intensifying, -perfecting modernity. Instead after the 1970s as cracks in that apparatus multiply, analytic attention gets drawn to the constructedness of modern science and technology, and voila STS is born. And that decisive shift sets the stage in the 80s and 90s in turn for movements like posthumanism, and more recently, the New Materialism. They very much share in this anti-anthropocentric turn that begins, I think, first in the 1970s and only comes to fruition much later. And recognizing that theoretical trajectory means recognizing that we’re dealing with something very big here. This marks a real shift in the epistemic attentions of the human sciences. Certainly anthropology is part of it, but I really see this as a larger shift.
Ian: If the turn to infrastructure is part of the broader turn away from, or beyond, the human, how does the human figure in the anthropology of infrastructure specifically? Because some of the more radical instantiations of this trend seem to say “We’re done with it. We have all the resources to move beyond humanity as our principle object of inquiry.” Whereas we are disciplinarily and methodologically committed to taking humans as our objects, even if we have a theoretical commitment to moving beyond the human as the horizon of our analyses.
Dominic: Looking at what scholars are doing with infrastructure in anthropology, I think that the primary interest is in a certain class of systems. Grids, pipelines, roads, wiring; techno-politico-material assemblages that obviously involve humans at all different levels of planning, execution and use in fundamental ways, but which also allow scholars to comment on how distinctive forms of subjectivity and sociality emerge in combination with these assemblages. Now, I think you’re quite right that anthropology is loath to give up the human, and wisely so, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t likely to see some very interesting experiments on the margins of the human. We already are. You look at the work in the burgeoning posthumanist anthropology of life, multispecies ethnography, and you can see how that sort of approach could easily be adapted to thinking about infrastructural questions. So I would expect that we’ll see everything from some pretty far-out, artful, posthuman experimental anthropologies of infrastructure – how do roads think? – all the way down to brutally empirical, realistic accounts of pipes, grids, etc.
Ian: It seems like in that bifurcation you also trace out two different types of skill necessary for people working on this. On the one hand, you need the sort of poetic knack necessary for capturing ephemeralities at the margins of the human, as you say. And then, on the other hand, the ability to rapidly develop familiarity with the technical system itself. I wonder whether you see a way to do both at once: to get the technical details right, but then to also have an evocative sense of what’s really going on out there beyond the clearing, in the Heideggerian sense.
Dominic: I think so. It seems to me that if we take the lessons from several decades’ engagement in science and technology studies seriously, from an anthropological point of view the projects that are among the most interesting are ones that have been able to operate on both those levels. Projects that have learned the science and technology to a degree that allows high-level translation from technical professions while at the same time retaining the appreciation for more humanistic forms of virtuosity. I’ll just come back to this revelational impulse. Maybe every field does this to some extent, but I feel that it’s very much something that anthropologists like to do — we love to present what you thought you knew about X, pull back a layer, and reveal some new twist on X. So there’s that kind of work we do constantly. Engaging intuitive frameworks of understanding, and jamming them to reveal deeper levels of complexity. With infrastructure it’s an interesting question because it’s already sort of de facto this consequential domain beyond visibility. That’s part of what makes it attractive and elusive, and so we’re burrowing beneath the surfaces of institutions, deeply into their walls and floors.
At the 112th annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association last November, I was pleased to take the reins as co-chair of CASTAC alongside returning co-chair Jennifer Cool. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my predecessor Rachel Prentice for all of her hard work in building our organization up to its current strength and numbers. In what follows, I’ll introduce myself and share some thoughts about CASTAC and its future.
I come to CASTAC and, more broadly, to science and technology studies via the study of sustainable development in non-urban spaces. My current project explores the intersection between renewable energy projects and ordinary life in a northern German village on the path to zero-sum living. Germany’s current “energy turn,” its transition from nuclear power to alternative energy sources, is transforming rural communities into sites of lucrative speculation, where capital investment and environmental politics take form around the technoscientific promise of renewables. In the two decades since the transition was coded into federal law, the village where I work has been terraformed by the installation of wind turbines, solar arrays and now biofuel processing technology. Practices that were already commonplace in the village (such as the harnessing of wind for land reclamation, the use of sun for heat or the use of biomass for fertilization) have been mutated and scaled up into engines of ecocapital (as wind turbines, solar panels, and biogas processing plants) at the same time that villagers have been recast as energy citizens who take part in the transition by recycling, installing solar panels or investing in wind parks or biofuel ventures.
In the midst of these events, my present work takes up one aspect of this process, namely the fluid technologies that congeal around technoscientific materials in ordinary life, and the repercussions these have for the public participation and social mobility amongst villagers. I theorize how energy comes to be known and re-membered in this space, both as a commodity and as a sense of animacy or vitality in everyday life, with an eye to the ways in which these understandings map onto class formations. As an ethnographer, I am particularly committed to articulating mundane sensory experience of renewable energy technologies, the feelingful registers through which energy takes form in everyday collisions of matter, and the ways in which energies teem and surge, becoming unruly in some contexts and “ruly” in others. This work continually challenges me to consider the implications of sensory ethnography and public culture studies for STS, and vice versa.
As I pursue my own research, I am reinvigorated by CASTAC members’ shared commitment to the ethnography of technoscientific worlds across human and nonhuman things. CASTAC was part of anthropology’s early forays into cultures of computing and digital technology. Today, we are experiencing a resurgence as emerging technologies bring new and unexpected ethnographic objects under the purview of STS. The CASTAC Blog is one valuable resource that has spun out of that resurgence, allowing anthropologists of STS to build bridges with diverse publics, including with STS scholars in other fields. CASTAC opens a space for dialogue with non-anthropologists as well as with anthropologists whose work speaks to our own, whether in political anthropology, environmental anthropology, feminist anthropology, queer anthropology, or other subfields. These connections are invaluable at a time when pressing social issues from income inequality to global warming compel novel approaches to technopolitical concerns. Additionally, university systems are in a state of transformation, where previously commonsense boundaries between academic and popular culture seem to be in flux, alternatively rigid and shifting, porous and impermeable. Situations such as these call for experimental approaches to making and sharing knowledge in a variety of settings, whether via methodological innovation, new ethnographic writing, and/or dialogue through multiple media. As the posts on this blog demonstrate, CASTAC members are committed to discussing their research in new and diverse venues, in hopes of collaboratively mapping new paths for action in an unsettled world. As a co-chair of CASTAC, I am pleased to help facilitate this important work, and welcome any questions or comments you may have regarding CASTAC and its projects in the days ahead.
Power is an interesting word. For most social scientists “power” stands for authority, control, sovereignty, economic capital, military-industrial hegemony, social stratification, and similar ideas. But power—especially in everyday usage—is synonymous with something seemingly more immediate, proximate, and concrete. Thus we may commonly talk of “engine power” that allows us to drive faster, of “physical power” that enables us to jump higher, or of “domestic power” that permits us to live comfortable, connected, and convenient lives. What is truly interesting about this is that the dictionary definition of power—the ability or capacity to act—refers to all of the above, an idea that only a handful of scholars have capitalized upon.
It’s an irremediably cloudy, intermittently soggy day on Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula. But not even an unexpectedly miserable stretch of bad late spring weather can cast a wet blanket over the elation in the air. It’s the last interview—with informants number 173 and 174—of a two-year long fieldwork project that has taken me and photographer/videographer Jonathan Taggart across all of Canada’s ten provinces and three territories to document the day-to-day lifestyles of people living off-grid. Few events can jostle an ethnographer’s body more intensely than the end of fieldwork. The feeling is so powerful that melancholia, or anxious thoughts about writing this whole thing up, haven’t even started to settle in yet.
Off-grid is an abused expression. I’ve heard people say they’re off the grid if they switch off their cell phone for the weekend, or if they go on holiday somewhere quiet and remote. But people can’t quite be off-grid. The official definition passed on by engineers refers to a house or an entire community, not a person, in state of disconnection from the electricity and natural gas infrastructure servicing a region. It’s the definition Jonathan and I have gone by to understand how comfort, convenience, cleanliness, sustainability, connectivity, and sense of place can be re-assembled when the powerful life lines entangling homes into the modern world are severed.
We’ve come to think of off-grid homes as unique power constellations. We view a power constellation as a historically and geographically specific pattern of power generation, distribution, and application. A constellation is an assemblage of practices, experiences, and narratives that make sense together.
Power and energy resources are moved around, thus they are subjects and objects of practice. Power is experienced through sensations, feelings, emotions, moods, and affects. And power is talked about, mapped, politicized, debated, thus it is the matter of multiple representations. We understand all practices, experiences, and representations of, and about, power as inevitably entangled in more-than-human relations and therefore knotted in meshworks of organic and inorganic materials and objects, technologies, infrastructures, food-, land- and waterscapes, regional and international boundaries, and multiple other forces.
These meshworks are the sites where everyday power is lived and differentially enabled—sites that may be locally unique or globally hegemonic, temporary and idiosyncratic or historically recurring. There are arguably many more components of power constellations but we have been working with ten: motive, friction, route, sensibility, interconnectivity, availability, cost, externality, pace, and efficiency.
Take the idea of motive, for example. People need power for different reasons. To some degree we are compelled to use power by sheer survival needs, but in most instances our use is informed by degrees of choice. The concept of motive force captures these dynamics of compulsion and choice and the degree of their imperativeness. Off-gridders for example need power to light up their home, keep warm, refrigerate their food, extract water, and operate a few appliances. This is unsurprising—as they, like others, take pleasure in domestic comfort, cleanliness, and convenience. But the real question here is why do they, as opposed to much of the rest of the Western world, seek to do it on their own, off the grid? In other words, how are the motive forces of off-grid households different from those who live connected to the grid?
Many off-gridders elect to live off-grid for the sense of independence it begets. Take Murray and Naan, for instance. Their independence is relative, of course, but the heightened sense of self-reliance and self-sufficiency they enjoy allows them to hold a sense of sovereign power over their home. Their quest for sovereign power does not come without its downsides. Off-grid living requires toil and onerous involvement, so the force of the motives for living off-grid must be intense enough for them to embrace such onuses, or at least make them feel bearable. Living off-grid also demands mindfulness, knowledge, skills, and responsibilities that many of us living on-grid are much happier to delegate to experts, planners, and distant infrastructures.
The concept of motive force, in sum, prompts us to ask not only why people need and want power, as well as what they need it and want it for, but also what people are willing to do to obtain power; what type of power assemblages people prefer and why; what kinds of power applications people are willing to sacrifice if necessary; what reasons, values, and ideologies inform people’s choices for power; and what lifestyle philosophies inform the choices behind different groups’ motives to do with or without certain kinds of power and certain power applications—only to name a few possible questions.
The tortuous “Irish Route” winds its way slowly to St. John’s along the spectacular coastal views over the Atlantic, weaving through sleepy communities gazing forlornly at the former bounties of the sea. We pull over at an old lighthouse to record a final file of b-roll for our upcoming documentary. The wind is blowing with great force. Free clean energy which off-gridders have learned to enjoy, so much more than the rest of us. I wonder if their lessons will be powerful to teach us all something.
Phillip Vannini is an ethnographer and Canada Research Chair working in the School of Communication & Culture at Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC. His off-grid ethnography blog can be found at: http://publicethnography.net/off-the-grids-blog
Jonathan Taggart is a Boreal Collective photographer and Ph.D. student in Institute for Resources, Environment, and Sustainability at the University of British Columbia. His website is: http://jonathantaggart.com/
During the first year of the Obama administration, there was considerable optimism that the United States might finally catch up with other industrialized countries by developing a national renewable portfolio standard and carbon regulation. However, the hope was dashed by the compromises of the Kerry-Lieberman bill in the Senate and its eventual defeat. Likewise, the rise of the Tea Party movement and influence of fossil-fuel money in the Republican Party has made green-energy policy an increasingly partisan issue. It is hard to believe that in 2008 both McCain and Obama agreed that climate change was real and needed policy attention. By 2012, the pervasive influence of fossil-fuel money and the Republican Party’s anti-green strategy had led even the president who promised five million green jobs to adopt a strategic silence on the issue.
In the Arctic in 2012, the planet passed a significant milestone: the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide passed 400 ppm, a level that the planet has not had for at least 800,000 years. The summer ice melt also reached new levels. Unfortunately, climate change is occurring slowly enough in temperate climates that it is easy for political leaders to ignore the severity of the threat. Human societies face an adaptation problem that they have never experienced before, and it will be exacerbated by the 2-3 billion people who will be added to the planet during the next forty years. As ethnographic field research has shown, the effects are often magnified in marginalized populations located in coastal areas, in urban slums, and in polar regions.
My recent work has been oriented toward what I think of as the “problem behind the problem,” that is, the lack of political will to address the twin problems of environmental sustainability and social fairness that are becoming worse every year. I have written a three-volume series that looks at the role of “alternative pathways” (loosely social movements plus other kinds of reform efforts, including in the private sector) as historical agents that could open political opportunities for sustainability politics. In Alternative Pathways in Science and Technology, I reviewed a wide range of industry-oriented reform movements and showed both their potential and limitations; Localist Movements in a Global Economy focused on the small business sector and community enterprises as another source of countervailing power to the anti-green segment of global capital; and Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy explored the much more mainstream politics of labor-environmental-green business coalitions in federal and state energy policy. Although the work is written for a scholarly audience, I have also been involved in the local living economy and state government policy fields by writing policy reports, engaging in public speaking, and also cofounding an independent business association with a living economy mission.
More recently, I have been working on a project that tracks the record of Republicans on environmental policy issues with the assistance of a very promising graduate student, Jonathan Coley. In both Good Green Jobs and a paper in Energy Policy, we track the reversals that have occurred since the election of President Obama and the rise of the Tea Party movement. Although green-energy politics and policies have subsided from the national stage, in states where Democrats are in power there has been ongoing action. Furthermore, we also found that there are some areas of bipartisanship, especially if proposed legislation does not involve a reform that can be understood as a regulatory burden.
Although my work is highly interdisciplinary, and my institutional home is a sociology department and an energy and environment institute, I find that an anthropological sensibility continues to inform my thinking. For example, I am particularly interested in the role of political ideologies as cultural systems in policy fields, and I am interested in ideology as way in to the study of change in political culture. In addition to the mainstream polarity of American politics between a neoliberal right and social liberal left, I have been building a case that there is a growing influence of other ideologies, notably localism and developmentalism. For example, in Good Green Jobs, I argue that the United States of the twenty-first century is showing signs of a return to its developmentalist politics of the nineteenth century (in the sense of support for industry and trade defensiveness), largely due to the general shifts in the world economy and the aggressively developmentalist policies of emerging industrial powers.
By understanding neoliberalism in the political field as one ideology among others, I am especially interested in the capacity for other ideologies to become embedded in both discourse and policy outcomes, often as compromise formations. The focus is less on the micropolitics of everyday practices than on the broad contours of the political field and its potential to undergo tectonic shifts similar to the transition in dominance from social liberalism to neoliberalism that occurred in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s. The approach allows me to ask the empirical question of “after neoliberalism—then what?” in a way that is not clouded by utopian hopes.
Although there is a green transition in place in both the United States and many other countries, I remain pessimistic that the world’s largest countries will be able to act quickly enough to avert the multiple environmental crises of climate change, desertification, persistent toxics in the biosphere, and exhaustion of land and water resources. The future of the anthropocene looks grim indeed.