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.