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Why am I doing this?

Why do I keep working on environmental problems when there are issues like Ferguson, the Ebola outbreak, unmitigated global inequality, and so many others? Why, when people are being gunned down in the streets or dying needlessly of disease, am I busy dabbling around with nutrients and computer models? One answer – the most direct one – is that I am locked in. I’ve spent the last few years preparing for this topic, I’ve gotten NSF funding, and I can’t simply drop it now. And so, maybe any argument I make will only be justification to myself and others for why I continue to do what I’m doing. Am I wasting my time? Are the people working on those social issues – the people standing up against bullets in guns – doing the real work? Maybe.

I don’t know many people who would disagree that environmental issues are a major concern. Climate change threatens our very existence on this planet. Deforestation and pollution threaten the existences of many ecosystems, species, and cultures. But when I go to a meeting of the Upward Anthropology Research Community, we never talk about those problems. Instead we talk about state violence, race and gender discrimination, economic disparity, and other problems like that. I do see my work as a kind of upward anthropology, but it just doesn’t ring as meaningfully as the work that others are doing. I’m trying to get scientists, policy makers, environmental managers, and stakeholders to work together more effectively. I am not confronting bullets and tanks nor even the everyday violences that women, LGBTQ people, and people of color face on a daily basis. And yet I go on.

I go on in part because I am locked in. But I also go on because I firmly believe that environmental issues are as important as all of those others, and if we turn away from them now in order to fight these obviously more immediate and pressing concerns, we might find ourselves in a worse situation than ever before. I may not be standing up against literal bullets, but as I explained it to a friend in discussing this very issue, environmental destruction is a bullet in a gun pointed at all of our heads. Here’s the catch, though, we are not all equally put at risk by that bullet. Some people will be affected by these problems more than others, and faster than others: indigenous people, people who depend on the land, poor people, minorities, women – not to mention the many plants and animals with whom we share this world. As a result, the destruction of the environment is deeply entangled with the forces of structural oppression. It is by means of the disproportionate benefits and harms of a degraded environment that many people are forced into conditions of slavery, poverty, and marginalization.

In fact, it could be argued that the ability to determine one’s own environment – both socially and ecologically – is the basic condition of privilege. Those in power may at times use bullets to keep people under control, but bullets are only the manifest image of a much deeper and pervasive violence. It’s not that the bullets don’t matter, but that they wouldn’t mean anything if it weren’t for an already established inequality that the bullets can only reinforce in times of upheaval. That inequality rests on a number of factors, but one major factor is the alienation of the people from their environments. People who have the capacity to determine their environments have power, and it is only by taking this power away that bullets become meaningful.

So I continue my work with that in mind. The question is what is the ecological basis for the violences mentioned above? And how, in the technoscientific world in which we live, do we make it possible for people to determine their environments? My research is a part of the answer to that question, I hope.

Public Anthropology and Beyond

This has been a hectic few months, but good things are happening and work is moving along. One thing I’ve been working on a lot is the Upward Anthropology Research Community (also see our Facebook and Twitter page). We have a lot of big plans for the coming months – especially an off-conference workshop during the AAA conference in DC in December. We hope to get a good turnout, and so we’ll be doing a lot of publicizing and ramping up for that. As a result, you can expect it to be relatively quiet around here, but if you want to keep track of what I’m up to, you can take a look over at the UARC.

Part of the ramping up of the UARC is another workshop at the American University Public Anthropology Conference. The workshop will be held on October 4 from 2:30-4:30. That’s right before the keynote by Carole McGranahan titled “Tibet, Ferguson, Gaza: On Political Crisis and Anthropological Responsibility,” so come for the workshop and stay for the keynote – it should be good! I will also be giving a talk earlier in the day on collaborative modeling and environmental management.

Another thing on my agenda is remobilizing the Vulnerability volume that Adam Robbert and I were organizing a while ago. I’ve been in the process of contacting our previous authors to see if they’re still interested, and am also contacting new authors and contributors to see what else we can do with this thing. Hopefully we’ll see a book out of it soon! Thanks to everyone who has been tagging along and patiently waiting for me to get back to work. If you want to help or have any ideas for contributions, contact me and we’ll work it out.

Modeling TechnoEcologies

My dissertation research begins in earnest this semester, and I’m hoping to get most of the groundwork done before the new year. My research will explore the implications of a process-relational ecological praxis, in which human and non-human systems are viewed as entangled, enacted, and always becoming. Specifically, I will do this through an ethnographic engagement with computational environmental modeling as a practice for understanding, interacting, and managing environmental crises.

Computational modeling has become an “obligatory point of passage” for our understanding of and interactions with complex environmental systems. Every major environmental issue – climate change, sea level rise, nutrient pollution, deforestation, and so on – is understood and acted on through the mediation of computational models. Because these systems are so complex, so uncertain, and so threatened by human activities, we need models to understand them and to predict the effects of our actions – both harmful and restorative – on them.

Models are representations, we are told – simplified and scaled-down figures of a really existing world. They stand in for the systems they are meant to represent, and allow us to watch virtual humans interact with virtual natural systems, thereby providing a model for our actions as well as a model of the system itself. But from an enacted ecology perspective, the models and the practices and processes that constitute them must also be considered within the system they seek to model. Not that these processes should be included in the model itself, but that the way we produce and use models must be considered constitutive of the system it seeks to represent. There are many ways to go about producing and using computational models, and many different kinds of models to choose from. The question from this perspective is, how do these different kinds of models and modeling practices contribute differently to the production of different kinds of ecologies?

That’s the question I hope to explore in my research, but, carrying the logic of the ecological approach I’ve outlined further, I believe it is essential for me to view my own research practice as situated within this broader process-relational ecology. Not only am I concerned with the ways that computational modeling methods alter and affect the relationships between humans and non-humans, but I am also interested in the way that my own methods do so. As a result, I will approach my research as a situated praxis – enacting an ecological approach by navigating and negotiating the relationships that constitute the system within which I will be working – the Chesapeake Bay.

I’ll post updates here as the research progresses. Hopefully my readers will find it interesting and worthwhile. It’s definitely going to be a lot of thought and a lot of work, but if everything goes well, I should have a very good dissertation out of it.

For the Love of Science

I am afraid this is going to be a provocative piece, though it isn’t meant to be so. It’s provocative because science is a topic that touches a lot of nerves, and for which a lot of people have very strong opinions. In fact, it’s the strength of these opinions that disturbs me, and not so much the opinions themselves – for example the emphatic affirmation of “I Fucking Love Science!” and the enthusiastic denunciations on social media of those who are considered “anti-science.” Don’t get me wrong, I am not disturbed by these things because I want to identify with anti-vaxxers, climate deniers, intelligent designers, or even the anti-GMO crowd (though I have some sympathies with the latter, as some of you know). The reason these practices bother me is because they highlight the fact that science is embedded and entangled within the strutctures of patriarchal (is it surprising that most of those denounced as anti-science are women?), racist Capitalism.

I love science, and I too am disturbed by the claims and games of anti-science. I believe that scientific practices are an effective method for building relationships with others – particularly non-human others. What I want is to free these practices from the web of Capitalism, and I believe that simplistic, holier-than-thou denunciations of anti-science prevent that. Drawing such sharp lines without allowing for critical examination, grey areas, or room for negotiation only gives support to those anti-science claims as a kind of rogue intellectualism. You end up with two sides: one who will buy (figuratively and literally) anything that comes wrapped in anti-establishment packaging, and the other who will buy anything that comes with the Science™ branding. Whichever side you’re fighting for, the Capitalist system is the winner.

I want science to be the tool of revolutionary thought and action that many believe it has the potential for becoming. To me, that means that science will have to give up the authority built upon the patriarchal, racist, and Capitalist hierarchies in which it developed. Denunciations come from this authority, and only serve to alienate and isolate. In place of authority, I would like for science to have trust. Trust comes from being part of people’s everyday lives, making a positive difference to them, and working with them to pursue mutual goals. I am encouraged, in this respect, by the many participatory science projects that I see, and by organizations like The Public Laboratory that try to make scientific practices available and accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, with the spirit of denunciation and the fear that many scientists (justifiably) have of being attacked, there has also been a retreat from engagement and working with others. With that in mind, I ask simply that we think about our relationship to science, and consider exactly what it is we support and what it is we denounce when we engage in this pro-/anti-science dichotomy. For the love of science, it’s the least we can do!

Transformed by Area X


I just finished the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. I can’t write a full review now because my mind is still reeling from the experience, but I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything so powerful, evoking, and strangely beautiful. Vandermeer’s style – unlike so much I’ve read in the recent past – genuinely immerses the reader in the experience of the uncanny Area X. I feel as though I have been transformed in the same way that the characters and the landscape in the novels are transformed. I find myself lingering in Area X, and looking for signs of it leaking into the world around me.

The Victims of Ferguson

It has been almost a month since Michael Brown was shot and killed by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. His still and bloodied body lay in the street for four hours as a silent reminder to residents and the nation that this is what it means to be black in the US. The violent police response to the protests and the media coverage of those events further highlight the disparities between indignant white people and outraged people of color. Taken together, and in conjunction with the recent murder of Eric Garner, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and a long history of police and vigilante violence against black bodies, these events are simply the flash in the pan that suggests a much more subtle, and long-standing systemic violence against people of color and otherwise marginalized groups. In that sense, all people of color in the US are victims* of Ferguson.

I want to make a claim, though, and I realize it is a controversial one, but I think it is important to make nonetheless. Bear with me as I tread lightly and try to explain what I mean.

My claim is this: Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson. Now let me be clear, I say this not to justify his actions or to ask for sympathy towards him, and I, of course, am not suggesting that he has been falsely or wrongly accused of the crime that he has committed. I say it to, hopefully, make us all reflect on what Ferguson means for us all – people of all colors, socio-economic statuses, levels of privilege, genders, etc.

It is easy for people from my ideological perspective to see Darren Wilson simply as a villain who deserves to be punished for his crime. I certainly believe he does deserve punishment, however, I also see a person with a family and a life, trying to get by. That doesn’t justify his actions. It doesn’t mean we have to sympathize with him after what he did. It certainly doesn’t mean he should get off or get a light sentence. Michael Brown also had a family, also had a life, and was trying to get by – he doesn’t have that chance anymore, thanks to the actions of Darren Wilson. Michael Brown should not have been killed that day. He should not have been left in the street for hours. The protests and the police violence should not have happened. In a just world, none of it would have happened. Michael Brown would still be alive and off to his first semester at college, and Darren Wilson – who knows where he would be, but probably not sitting around in an undisclosed location waiting to find out if he was going to jail.

What brought us to this? Choices, certainly. Darren Wilson could have chosen not to kill Michael Brown on that day, and that is why he deserves whatever punishment is coming for him. But there is more to it. There are factors underlying those choices that – in those fateful moments – were beyond the control of either of the two men. To the extent that Ferguson is indicative of an underlying systemic inequality and violence – a social system in which black lives don’t matter – Darren Wilson is also a victim of Ferguson, and it is as such that he chose to kill Michael Brown that day.

Once again, I say this not to ask for sympathy for the man, and I certainly don’t want to trivialize the pain and suffering that has been inflicted on these black men and their families, nor the everyday challenges that are faced by people of color throughout the US. I say it to encourage us all to reflect on the way that Ferguson and the injustice and inequality that made it possible affect us. As long as we live in a system in which certain people are marginalized, kept down, and made killable, we are all victims. Even if we might benefit from such a system – and many of us do – we are still victims because our lives are impoverished by it. In that sense, we are all victims of Ferguson, and it is for this reason that – no matter our skin color, beliefs, gender, socio-economic status, position, or whatever – we all should join the struggle for justice, peace, and sustainability.



* I think it is important to note too, that people of color are more than just victims. They are, in fact, strong, proud, and good people who face this violent system with courage. Just because they are victims in the sense of being victimized doesn’t mean that they are victims in the sense of being passively abused.

UARC: Interchangeable Indians

We have a new post on the Upward Anthropology Research Community blog from my friend Kerry Hawk Lessard. The post is on the (mis)use of Native American imagery to rewrite the history of Native struggles and colonization. Understanding the way that the dominant culture, and the media system that caters to it appropriates and distorts Native imagery and representations of other subaltern groups to perpetuate its own dominant position is an essential aspect of the Upward Anthropology project. It helps us to conceptualize and strategize counter-images and representations like those of Gregg Deal – the artist referred to in the post. Also check out Kerry and Gregg’s blog Kill the Man, Save the Indian.

Any expression of Indianness that falls outside of the accepted stereotype is immediately subject to invalidation and critique. It is also the case that non-Natives reserve for themselves the right to adjudicate what and who is sufficiently Native and who is not. America feels that we must accept their words simply because they say them, never mind our realities.”

Native people must, as a very basic human right, be accorded the freedom to assert their identity, to articulate their own priorities, and to do so with their own voices.”

On the Turning Away

Just one world that we all must share
It’s not enough just to stand and stare
Is it only a dream that there’ll be
No more turning away?”

Composing Method

Anthropology is – from its very inception – a discipline of engagement – building rapport, participant-observing, attempting to see the world from another’s perspective. Done with a desire to understand others and, perhaps, to better understand ourselves, these practices are unique in the social science world, and allow for a much deeper knowledge of the lives around us. But, if my influence is anything to the discipline, I would like it to be this: that ethnographic methods, broadly defined, are more than just ways of understanding, they are techniques for building relationships with and between others.

As I’ve mentioned before, I believe that understanding is just one among many kinds of relationships that can be built. I would argue, further, that it is always a secondary relationship – we cannot understand until we have already established some other kind of relationship. Ethnographic methods provide a guide – honed over many years of practice, though still imperfect – to begin building those relationships. When we begin to see ethnography in this way, the project of anthropology and the value of ethnography changes. No longer will we begin with the question “How can I better understand these others?” (which jumps the gun and risks developing an unbalanced, domineering kind of relationship, though the resulting knowledge may be very solid and useful) and instead we will begin with the question “How can I build the most effective and most mutually beneficial relationship with them?” 

This question is at the heart of the discipline of struggle forever. Struggle is the continual and continuous engagement with others – both human and non-human – with the intention of building better relationships and ultimately a better world. As a result, I see ethnographic methods as key to the struggle. In the next couple of posts, I plan to explore methodology – my first and true love as an anthropologist – and the potential for ethnographic methods, in particular, to contribute to the struggle to build a better world. I will begin with an analysis of scientific methods in general, and explain conceptually how I have come to understand methods as practices of relationship building. Then I will provide a specific example from my own research – working with the Shoshone and the Bureau of Land Management to protect cultural landscapes – to show how this methodology can be applied. Finally, I will explore some of the further possibilities that I see emerging from this methodology, and how I hope to apply it in future work and struggle.

Ursula Le Guin: Subjectifying the World

“Perhaps what I’m trying to do is to subjectify the world, because look at where objectifying it has gotten us.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, Keynote 5/8/14 from AURA on Vimeo.

From Anthropocene: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet