Tag: environment

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...)

Does e-Waste Die? Peter Little on Lifecycles and Makerspaces in an “Electronics Graveyard”

Peter Little is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Rhode Island College, and author of Toxic Town: IBM, Pollution, and Industrial Risks (NYU Press 2014). I asked him a few questions about his new project on electronic waste recycling in Ghana. His answers touch on the politics of electronics waste and pollution, surprising links between first and second projects, and the challenge of doing fieldwork in a place that everyone’s talking about. Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity. Emily Brooks: What was the genesis of your second project? How did you move from Endicott [the field site for Toxic Town] to Ghana? Peter Little: The original project was on a high tech production site, a birthplace of electronics. That led me in to thinking more about the lifecycle of electronics, from production to discard. When we think of electronic waste, China pops up, of course, but more and more, I started to notice West Africa and Ghana. I came across a circus of journalists and other social scientists focusing in on this Agbogbloshie scrap yard in Ghana in Accra, which had been branded by one journalist as “a mass electronics graveyard.” The site was the focus of a major international Greenpeace report in the 2000s, around the time when electronic waste really started to be reported on, to become a much more targeted dimension of waste distribution. When I recognized it as a problem related to my original research, I thought, why not try to do something there? (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...)

Seeing California’s water future(s) at Orange County’s Groundwater Replenishment System

Tucked away in suburban Fountain Valley, California, the Orange County Water District’s Groundwater Replenishment System (GWRS) smells vaguely of chlorine and looks like something imagined by a 1950s sci-fi writer. Sleek, shiny, and minimalist, the wastewater treatment plant feels like somewhere a robot would be very, very comfortable. It’s also a soothing place for another kind of visitor: the Southern California water manager. My fieldwork shows these managers to be a community of expertise that likes recycled water, a steady source of supply  they feel confident in their ability to treat, monitor, and deliver. “It’s here and it’s never going away, and yet most of the time we just dump it in the ocean. Reusing it just makes sense,” one 34-year veteran in the field told me with a hint of exasperation at having to state something so glaringly obvious. (read more...)

The Environment’s Environment: Are There Limits to the Anthropocene?

Today the Anthropocene is everywhere. You may have encountered both scientific and non-scientific articles that begin with this geological greeting: “Welcome to the Anthropocene!” From a geological science perspective, planet Earth—and everything on it—is constantly moving along a timeline, from one distinctive era to another. In 2000, geologists Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer proposed a new name for the current geological epoch: Anthropocene.[1] They argue that this term (which combines the Greek “human” + “new”) should replace ‘Holocene’ (“whole” + “new”) because it best describes an emerging geological condition. Human impact, they explain, is now a wholescale driver of Earthly environmental change. For its many early adopters, the Anthropocene is a welcome scientific and political concept that expands understandings of human-Earth connections. Yet, while the Anthropocene concept is definitely planetary, I would suggest that it is not wholly Earth-bound. What does a closer examination of the term’s conceptual origins reveal about on-the-ground politics of spatial perception in the Anthropocene? Is there a paradox  between the Anthropocene as an earthly timescale and geological entanglement with the planet’s own environment? (read more...)

SOS! Save Our Sea! California’s Salton Sea demands action, but what kind?

This March, California’s State Water Resources Control Board called for a public workshop to re-evaluate the state of the Salton Sea, a complex and notoriously disastrous salt lake in the southeastern California desert. Nearly 200 people responded to the call, crowding in to a hearing room in downtown Sacramento to give testimony on mitigation and restoration projects, consider drought impacts, argue for the Sea’s environmental and economic value, and discuss the enormous water transfer agreements that threaten to damage it even more. Attempts to define the problem and its stakes have gone on for decades, but it is still far from clear whose fault is it that the Sea is still shrinking, still dying, or still dangerous, or, for that matter, if anyone can (or should) keep trying to fix it. As a semi-permanent disaster landscape, the Salton Sea is best defined not by the fall-out from a singular event nor by the slow accumulation of risk, but by a decades-long dynamic tension between mitigation of danger and restoration of health. “SOS! Save Our Sea!”, a popular slogan of local activists, is both a call to account for an irreversibly toxic present, and a reminder that the Sea was and still is a vibrant place worth saving. (read more...)

The Hastings Mill as Ecological Machine: Vancouver’s Origin Story

In Vancouver’s settler origin story, the city begins with a saw mill located in “primeval nature.” Living in the city as a student, I became interested in theories of the relation between economy and ecology, first studying forestry and working in the logging industry, then moving to graduate work in literature and science studies. The origin story of Vancouver stands out as a case study. The city combines an aesthetic regime (in architecture, tourism branding, and so on) focused on proximity to nature with an origin story that goes back to a single sawmill. For centuries, mills have been technologies at the threshold of ecologic and economic systems, transforming resources into commodities with exchange value. But much research into mills and other sites of industrial processing considers them only as production machines—not as mediators, in Bruno Latour’s sense, that affect how we conceive the nature/economy difference in the first place. In Capital I, Marx writes that “technology reveals the active relation of man to nature.”[1] Is he right? Do what we call humanity and what we call nature exist prior to technologies such as mills, which we define based on their ability to transform nonhuman things into human things? Is communication about nature and society—currently in flux in debates over the Anthropocene and climate change—determined by such technological infrastructure, or does communication move machines into place? These are some of the questions that my case study grounds in Vancouver’s colonial origin story. (read more...)

Who speaks for soil?

Finally! 2015 is the year of soils! Ready the celebration. Polish your spade, pick, and shovel, and carefully wrap those gifts of organic fertilizer you’ve been hiding away. It’s going to be a hell of a party. Humor aside, soil is obviously important in a number of very complex ways. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is spearheading the “2015 International Year of Soils” initiative to raise awareness of soil issues for food systems and broader environmental concerns. The director of the FAO, José Graziano da Silva, had the following to say of the importance of soil: “The multiple roles of soils often go unnoticed. Soils don’t have a voice, and few people speak out for them. They are our silent ally in food production” (as quoted on FAO’s website). Yet as I’ve found researching soil conservation in Haiti in 2012 and examining the history of soil conservation more broadly, it seems that many people have spoken out for soils. In fact, through the panic related to the 1930s dustbowl crisis in the United States, soil erosion arguably became the first global environmental problem (Anderson 1984). This rapid spread of environmental concern highlights the way that soil has, in the past, captured the imagination and emotion of governments around the world. But the spread of soil conservation was not the seemingly de-politicized “awareness” campaign that we’re presented with by the FAO. Rather, in the 1930s, soil conservation was rooted in a desire to control and manipulate rural farmers. So while I’d agree with Mr. da Silva that soils do not have an “audible” voice, I’d argue that we need to pay far more attention to who speaks for soils and why. (read more...)