Tag: energy

Counting on Zero: Imaginaries of Energy and Waste in the New Green Economy

When the Indian government promoted the large scale introduction of solar energy for powering traditional charkhas (wooden wheels used to spin khadi or homemade cloth) in early 2016, the fabric was rebranded “zero carbon” and sold as “green khadi.” Few journalists covering the new development seemed to notice that khadi in its original form was already zero carbon: woven on wooden spinning wheels without electricity or additional machinery, the production process of khadi is inherently environmentally friendly. The rebranding of khadi as “zero carbon” in the face of its waning popularity marks a decisive cultural shift away from traditional frameworks in which the cloth has historically been given importance. Khadi has historically represented the overthrow of colonialism, the virtues of labor, and the mantra of self-reliance popularized by Gandhi during the freedom struggle. In the early twenty-first century, however, khadi is being rebranded for an environmentally conscious global market. The invocation of “zero” is hardly incidental in this context. That number has recently (forgive the pun) colonized our collective imagination of what it means to be “environment friendly.” Evidence for this claim can be found in a small, but fast multiplying lexicon of “zerologisms” that have begun influencing policy and economic discourse. Terms increasingly taken for granted in environmental discourse include: zero carbon, zero waste, zero landfill, zero emissions, (net) zero energy. The zero has, in effect, become a conceptual placeholder, offering up an ideal on which we can pin our hopes as we search for ecologically sensible political alternatives that don’t necessitate a complete overhaul of how societies are structured. (read more...)

Local Power: The Politics of Renewables in California

“This is something you won’t find written down,” says George, watching intently for my reaction. “But it’s been agreed upon at the highest level of government—the highest level—that the California desert is designated as a sacrifice zone. We are worth sacrificing.” He holds my gaze, making sure I take down what he says word for word. George speaks with confidence and ease, a natural choice for the face of his neighborhood conservation group. “I’ve done the calculations. More renewable energy is available from rooftop solar in San Diego and Los Angeles Counties than will be derived from the large-scale generating facilities on two million acres of desert habitat called for in the Desert Renewable Energy Plan. It doesn’t make sense! But they don’t care, because they’ve decided that we’re a sacrifice zone.” (read more...)

2015 Year in Review: Deflating Footballs, Twins in Space, Women (not) in Tech, and More

Last year on the CASTAC Blog began with anthropological ruminations on what the “Deflategate” football scandal has to do with questions of expertise, and closed with discussions of citizen science, earthquake warning systems, the (anti-)politics of women in tech, and deeply personal engagement with experiencing crisis or catastrophe—in this case, terror attacks in Paris—over social media. One of the great perks of editing this blog lies in reading the array of topics, perspectives, and modes of analyses from our contributors. This year, I’m taken by the variety in tone, from the (somewhat) tongue-in-cheek (the aforementioned Deflategate post; the anthropology of rigged games), to the deeply affecting (again, Charlotte Cabasse-Mazel “Looking at the Pain of Others [on Social Media]”), from the boundary-pushing (Abou Farman’s call to envision radical alternative futures) to the experimental (a Twitter fieldwork experiment from Rice’s Ethnography Studio). Beyond timely, weekly engagement with climate change, artificial intelligence, changing media ecologies, infrastructure, design, energy, and more, the blog is becoming a repository cataloging—and pushing forward—the driving concerns of social scientific and humanistic inquiry in these areas. In this review post, I consider four central conceptual questions animating this year’s coverage on how science, technology, computing and more are shaping (and shaped by) diverse lives, worlds, and experiences. These include: the mutual production or constitution of conceptual categories; questions of knowledge production and expertise; concerns with the future and futurity; and key political dimensions of science, technology, and computing. Although these themes unfold differently across intellectual projects and modes of inquiry, they elucidate the value of critical, reflexive, and empirical approaches to scientific and technological worlds. (read more...)

Steadying the Plays: Rhetoric and Risk in the Shale Boom

“Please God, give us another oil boom. We promise not to piss it away this time.” – Popular bumper sticker in oil producing regions after the 1980s oil markets crashed In the 1970s, there was much to be celebrated for those involved in the US oil and gas industry. The OPEC oil embargo coupled with events like the Iranian Revolution and the Iran-Iraq War led to a shortage of oil on the world market and precipitated a boom for US producers. This boom, however, was short lived. By 1981, world production had stabilized and oil prices had plummeted, bankrupting a significant number of producers and inspiring the use of “Please God” bumper sticker in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Alberta. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, the bumper sticker didn’t seem to help, and the oil and gas industry limped along. Against financial engineering and IT novelties that sent the stock-prices of energy firms like Enron soaring (Zellner 2001)—and, in California’s deregulated energy market, allowed Enron to keep itself afloat at the expense of “Grandma Millie” (C-SPAN interview with B. McLean; Oppel 2002; Roberts 2004)—the capital-intensive technologies of the oil and gas industry seemed dull and unable to capture the general public’s imagination. By 2010, however, this story had almost entirely changed. Where financial and IT services had once seemed to be at the forefront of innovation, two stock-market crashes coupled with the technological advances in oil and gas production that enabled the “Shale Boom” seemed to suggest the reverse. They seemed to suggest that creative accounting and financial engineering may make a company appear healthy— even forward thinking—but they cannot replace tangible contributions to technology and production. (read more...)

2014 in Review: Re-locating the Human

In retrospect, 2014 may appear a pivotal year for technological change. It was the year that “wearable” technologies began shifting from geek gadget to mass-market consumer good (including the announcement of the Apple Watch and the rising popularity of fitness trackers), that smartphone and tablet usage outstripped that of desktop PCs for accessing the Internet, along with concurrent interest in home automation and increasingly viable models for pervasive computing (such as Google’s purchase of smart thermostat Nest), and that computer algorithms, machine learning, and recommendation engines came increasingly to the fore of public awareness and debate (from Apple buying streaming service Beats to the effects of Facebook’s algorithms). Many of these shifts have been playing out world-wide, or at least, in diverse contexts, such as Chinese online retailer Alibaba going public and Xiaomi smartphone maker speedily surpassing most rivals. It also proved to be an exciting year on The CASTAC Blog, where our team of Associate Editors and contributors brought our attention to this rapidly shifting technological landscape, and to pressing questions and debates driving anthropological inquiry into science and technology. In today’s post, I continue my predecessor Patricia Lange’s tradition of reviewing themes and highlights on the blog from the past year. Some of these are topical, and included energy, the environment, and infrastructure, crowdsourcing and the “sharing” economy, wearables, algorithms and the “Internet of Things,” science communication, science’s publics, and citizen science, while others were more conceptual or even experimental—reflections on longterm ethnographic engagement with technology, broader issues of scientific (and ethnographic) authority, technological infrastructures as social infrastructures and tacit knowledges (such as Jenny Cool’s co-chair report), and broadly, how to make anthropological research into science and technology relevant within and beyond academic circles. (read more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure (Part II)

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. (read more...)

Dominic Boyer on the Anthropology of Infrastructure

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. (read more...)

A Message From the Co-chair: Greetings and Introduction

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. (read more...)