Downey, Liam. 2015. Inequality, Democracy and the Environment. New York: New York University Press. 336 pp. ISBN 978-1-4798-4379-4.
While the world is currently facing severe environmental and social crises, scholarly literature has been divided over the reasons behind these crises. Liam Downey brings the reader’s attention to the lack of coherence among scholars. Some environmentalists believe that social and environmental problems arise from fundamentally different causes and are not linked together. In contrast, other environmentalists believe both problems are related and that the consumption behavior of humans is to be blamed for these crises; environmental economists blame poor functioning of markets, and environmental sociologists attribute these crises to inequality in local, national, and global social structures. Downey, as a macro-structural environmental sociologist (MSES), opines that local, national, and global social structures are to be blamed for social and environmental problems.
However, Downey goes one step further than other MSESs in contending that social and environmental problems are the products of organizational-, institutional-, and network-based (OINB) inequality. He argues that just giving empirical attention to how these organizations and institutions cause in-equality is not enough and that this inequality should be given a “theoretical construct” as well. To do so, he introduces a new model in this book, the “inequality, democracy, and environment” (IDE) model. It focuses on the role that organizational, institutional, and undemocratic elite-controlled decision making plays in producing social and environmental harm. This inequality allows economic, political, military, and ideological elites to shift environmental and non-environmental costs onto powerless common citizens; the elites are thus able to achieve socially and environmentally harmful goals by holding powerful positions in these organizations, institutions, and networks. He claims that these organizations and institutions are necessarily undemocratic because elites vastly outnumber non-elites (i.e., common citizens cannot achieve democratic access to these organizations). The elites may even resort to violence if required.
Downey cautions the reader against thinking that elites necessarily want to harm the environment and society. His point is that it is an important result of their actions. He also points out that these networks and institutions do not somehow shape environmental and social outcomes separately from general factors such as the logic of capital accumulation, the dynamics of the capitalist world system, the modes and relations of production, and national, political, and ideological systems. Rather, his contention is that elites use these institutions and networks as tools to achieve their goals such as accumulating capital, dominating public policy making, and shaping public opinion to determine their interests and exert power. Thus, instead of focusing on large-scale dynamics of a capitalist world system, his book focuses on how the organizations, networks, and institutions make the dynamics of this world system possible and allow elites to achieve their goals.
The first two chapters are devoted to finding limitations and refuting some of the popular reasons given for environmental and social crises. Downey sets up his theoretical argument toward OINB inequality by outlining the IDE model in chapter 2. The book provides case studies on several of the United States’ and the world’s most important elite-controlled organizations, institutions, and net-works, including the World Bank, commodity chains, and policy-planning networks. Downey justifies focusing on the US in particular because it is the most dominant actor in controlling the world’s most socially and environmentally destructive international institutions. Also, it is the most economically and militarily powerful nation in the world.
The rest of the chapters provide empirical arguments to justify Downey’s theoretical model. These chapters focus on the workings of the World Bank and the IMF: the institutions that are controlled by elites for free-trade agreements, property rights protections, policy-planning networks, political risk insurance, international debt, structural adjustment, and decision-making rules that harm individuals, societies, and the environment and allow elites to hold powerful positions so that they can achieve their goals. Links be-tween modern agriculture policies and social and environmental harm are explored. Oligopoly and oligopsony power in agricultural commodity chains, liberalized agricultural trade, and elite-controlled policy-planning networks in the United States play a key role in shaping US and World Trade Organization policy regarding agricultural trade, which, in turn, benefits agribusiness corporations and severely harms individuals, communities, and the environment around the world.
Downey also explores natural resource ex-traction and armed violence. They are two of several overlapping and mutually reinforcing elite-controlled mechanisms that provide the world’s wealthiest nations and corporations with the means to control or gain disproportionate access to the natural resource wealth of developing nations. In the final chapter, he examines the elite roots of US energy and military policy in the George W. Bush administration. He describes US energy and military policy since World War II and discusses the human, social, and environmental consequences of this policy in the United States and around the world. Downey, through these case studies, succeeds in proving his model.
Downey has done a commendable job in covering so much ground in terms of the energy, military, agriculture, and mining sectors. His theoretical model fills important gaps in the fields of environmental and social sciences, and opens a new path for research. Apart from some instances where the reader might find his case studies to be repetitive, Downey succeeds in gripping the reader’s attention. This is a book that is suitable for not only researchers interested in understanding the power dynamics of the world but also for the general reader who is unaware as to how and by whom the world is governed. I would especially recommend this book to researchers who wish to understand how world politics changed after World War II and thus gave birth to a world gripped in the clutches of capitalism and neoliberalism.
University of Edinburgh
Fuentes-George, Kemi. 2016. Between Preservation and Exploitation: Transnational Advocacy Networks and Conservation in Developing Countries. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 344 pp. ISBN 978-0-2620-3428-9.
How should conservation efforts be organized and sustained to ensure long-term success? This collection of case studies by Kemi Fuentes-George provides a clear and accessible analysis of “transnational advocacy networks” in developing countries, which can work to implement and sustain conservation solutions. Transnational advocacy networks are diverse communities of stakeholders from multiple countries that focus on a specific conservation issue—from halting mining to preserving a corridor for migratory birds. In this narrative, transnational advocacy net-works are composed of individuals from both developed and developing countries; they include academics as well as nongovernmental organization and government staff. It is notable that all cases in this analysis focus on conservation in developing countries—nations that are on average more biodiverse and in greater need of conservation capacity than developed countries.
Fuentes-George reviews four case studies—two in Mexico and one each in Jamaica and Egypt—to examine the question: what makes transnational advocacy networks work? The case studies focus on efforts to block bauxite mining and large-scale hotel development as well as the conservation and management of biodiversity corridors. For each case, Fuentes-George reviews local, national, and international policy frameworks and provides the story of each transnational advocacy network. He identifies key features of these networks that are necessary, but not sufficient, to ensure success. First, transnational advocacy networks must hold a consistent scientific consensus about the causes and effects of the conservation problem (e.g., bauxite mining directly causes pollution issues and compromises local livelihoods). These networks must also socialize with decision makers by forming relationships over a long period to gain trust and eventually influence decisions. It is also important for networks to frame their messages consistently, engage seriously with local communities, and focus on environmental justice issues. In addition, success hinges on the presence of democratic governance to enable nongovernmental actors to provide input. All of these factors, taken together, can enable transnational advocacy networks to provide decision makers with information that is viewed as credible, relevant, and salient—eventually leading to successful conservation outcomes.
It should be noted that “success” is defined in a variety of ways throughout this narrative. Each network’s conservation campaign had a unique goal—that is, to prevent bauxite mining, to restrict large-scale hotel development, or to ensure that science informed the siting of conservation corridors. Meeting any one of these goals (i.e., science informed the siting of corridors) at best provides only an incremental “win” for conservation and does not guarantee long-term success in terms of sustaining biodiversity itself. Despite this, it is logical for transnational advocacy networks to focus incrementally on one issue at a time; this prevents scope creep and enables the network to advocate around a clear issue with a discrete solution.
Regarding success and failure of transnational advocacy networks, I would argue that the two “successful” networks achieved success in part because they were organized around specific, binary goals (i.e., to stop bauxite mining and to prevent large-scale hotel development). Because of this specificity, it was straightforward for the networks to articulate their goals to decision makers and local communities, strengthening the clarity and influence of the network. On the other hand, the two “failed” networks had much less straightforward objectives; they aimed to use the best available science to influence the establishment and management biodiversity corridors. This goal is much more complex and can result in a range of possible outcomes; hence, it is much more difficult for the network to form a consensus, communicate the issue to others, and build local support. Although it may be challenging, I would suggest that transnational advocacy networks define goals as specifically as possible to en-sure success.
Overall, this book provides a great wealth of information about each case study in clear narratives. The conclusion also offers a useful analysis of regime complexity, examining the case studies’ institutional structures and interactions. A notable feature of the overall narrative is a critique of neoliberal approaches to conservation—that is, framing arguments in terms of the value of ecosystem services in lieu of environmental justice or spiritual and aesthetic biodiversity values. It should be noted that the networks’ reliance on neoliberal framings was not always detrimental to success because it enabled network members to obtain a seat at the table. However, Fuentes-George argues that a reliance solely on neoliberal framings can hinder the long-term sustainability of conservation. Local people care much more about justice and livelihood issues that affect them daily, rather than the abstract value of the carbon stored in the soil, for instance. I would argue that networks should consider formulating a variety of framings for their arguments—relying on both neoliberal and environmental justice framings—to help engage a variety of stakeholders.
Fuentes-George presents a qualitative analysis of four case studies to examine the factors that contribute to the success or failure of conservation efforts. Given the small sample size included in this work, it is unclear how generally the conclusions can be applied. To address this, the narrative would have been strengthened with the inclusion of examples and details about other transnational advocacy networks that were considered. This analysis leaves me curious about how common such networks are and indeed what features contribute to their success in other contexts. The case of migratory bird corridor conservation in autocratic Egypt, for instance, is typically compelling, as it suggests that the lack of democratic institutions is a primary barrier to conservation success. What are other such examples of this dynamic? To be fair, this critique stems from the fact that I am trained as a quantitative researcher. After reading and enjoying this narrative and other qualitative pieces, I continue to recognize the value of qualitative and quantitative ways of knowing.
This book is suitable for graduate-level courses in environmental policy, political science, and conservation biology—an increasingly interdisciplinary field. It can serve as a resource not only for social scientists but also for natural scientists, as it provides real-world stories about how ecologists successfully partnered with diverse stakeholders to make a difference.
Rachel Golden Kroner
George Mason University
Fuller, Randall. 2017. The Book That Changed America: How Darwin’s Theory of Evolution Ignited a Nation. New York: Viking. 294 pp. ISBN 978-0-5254-2833-6.
Randall Fuller is an engaging writer, his style captivating in a manner that intellectual historians would do well to emulate. Fuller is a professor of English, and his attempt to capture “the way Darwin’s first American readers encountered” (x) On the Origin of Species (1859) is not only readable but also opens up very intriguing threads of analysis. Darwin is too often remembered for generating a war between science and religion, an image Fuller hopes to complicate by considering how the theory of natural selection also inspired the work of American abolitionists and reformers. Indeed, in one of his more exciting claims, Fuller argues that in positing a particular view of nature, one in which humans are bound to the same biological processes that govern the rest of the living world, Darwin “ignited” more than a war between science and religion. Although he examines the controversy Darwin stirred in religious circles, Fuller reaches beyond this story. As a result, his analysis of Darwin’s influence on American ideas includes reform-minded thinkers such as Charles Loring Brace and Frederick Douglass in addition to the familiar cast of figures Louis Agassiz, Asa Gray, and Henry David Thoreau. Embarking on a wide analysis not only lends a certain richness and texture to Fuller’s history, it also suggests the book’s opening claims are more than merited and warrant serious consideration.
Brace’s work through the Children Aid Society of New York is well known to scholars interested in American ideas about the environment. His emigration program, which re-located urban youth from the streets of NYC to farms across the country, inspired the larger Orphan Train Movement in the United States. As Fuller argues, Brace learned from Darwin the importance of environmental factors in determining one’s chances of survival. Brace was fascinated by rural life and its apparent capacity to improve the chances for success of struggling young people. If Darwin suggested humans share a common biological ancestry and were necessarily subject to the same principles of natural selection, he found it difficult to conclude that poverty was inevitable or a product of heredity. Disagreeing with figures such as Charles Mackay, Brace believed impoverished children were not subject only to inherited moral traits; their identity and condition was contingent on their environment. Darwin’s assault on theism undermined the notion of a divinely sanctioned, fixed social order. The idea that success and failure were not predetermined motivated much of Brace’s reform efforts.
Similarly, Fuller argues that Frederick Douglass drew on Darwinian ideas in making a case for abolitionism. Darwin provided a basis for Douglas to criticize the polygenism of figures such as Louis Agassiz. Relying on Douglass as an entry point, Fuller is able to point out that the debate between monogenism and polygenism was a “proxy battle” (93) in a larger dispute over slavery. Some forms of polygenism held that if human races were created separately, then they could be organized in hierarchical terms. This logic led to the predictable conclusion that nonwhites were closer to animal, not human, species and therefore justifiably subject to different forms of treatment. Darwin provided a sophisticated view of the environment that directly challenged this type of scientific racism. Common ancestry suggested no such difference separated human races, foreclosing the possibility of a multitiered moral system anchored in design or biology.
For the most part, Fuller’s book charts familiar waters and follows a fairly worn narrative path. The theory of natural selection explained God out of natural processes, which meant scientific explanations of the environment would be firmly anchored in some form of materialism. For thinkers such as Amos Bronson Alcott and Agassiz, this was a decidedly reductive and even amoral way of conceiving the natural world. Even sympathetic Darwinians like Asa Gray found Darwin’s naturalism difficult to fully embrace. To many, it seemed, Darwin’s book left precious little space to find meaning, direction, or purpose in the world. Fuller captures these responses beautifully by recreating a network of figures who discussed Darwin’s work. He follows a single copy of Origins as it made its way from Gray to Franklin Sanborn, Bronson Alcott, and Henry David Thoreau. Relying on annotations and the book’s course through these many hands allows Fuller to tell an enthralling story. Buttressed with letters and published sources that bring these figures into conversation, his account is impressive in its intimacy. One can’t help but empathize with Gray and Louisa May Alcott as they wrestle with the implications of Darwin’s view of nature.
Although there is a noticeable ease and proficiency in how Fuller handles prose and source material, this does get in the way of his analysis. Sometimes his arguments glide into the realm of speculation rather than making substantive claims, which is especially frustrating because this tendency undercuts his most interesting contributions to the subject. For example, he informs the reader that the similarities between gorillas and humans “most likely” encouraged discussion of Darwin at the Boston Society of Natural history (83), that Douglass “certainly became familiar” with Origins (94–95), and Louisa May Alcott was “surely” influenced by Darwin and “probably had some idea” of the contest between Gray and Agassiz (123), but he follows these statements with no evidence. It would help tremendously if he were more forceful and direct on questions of influence. It is difficult enough without equivocation to tease out Darwin’s influence in an era when evolutionary thought was as varied as it was contentious. Darwin was not the only evolutionist, nor was he the only thinker to consider seriously the role of the environment in shaping human history.
In other places, Fuller’s evidence is weak and its relationship to the argument is only implied, if indicated at all. Even in his treatment of Brace, where he tends to be at his best, Fuller relies on implicit connections rather than direct argument. If Brace understood that “more individuals are born than can possibly survive” (35), why is this necessarily evidence of the influence of Darwin rather than, say, Thomas Malthus? Perhaps the connection is actually clear upon reflection, but the reader is offered little guidance on this front. Chapter 5 suffers from a similar flaw. Fuller presents twin analyses of Darwinism and the Civil War, hinting that the two were clearly linked for Americans, but not quite showing how. Fuller argues, for example, that the principle of natural selection “fascinated” Sanborn and that he “intuitively … translated it in terms of the national debate over slavery’s expansion” (48), yet he fails to support this claim. Instead, the reader is often left with separate analyses of how Darwin and sectional tension influenced thinkers, but is provided no firm linkage between the two. Likewise, Fuller later argues that James Buchanan’s speech to Congress drew on Darwinian language, but he provides no textual evidence from the speech to actually support this claim. As with the case of Sanborn, we learn that Buchanan was influenced by Darwin and that he also thought about the Civil War, but not much more. In fact, it is too easy for the reader to conclude that William Seward and John Brown are the real figures of note, as Fuller actually makes the influence of their ideas and actions very clear.
These objections are not meant to suggest The Book That Changed America suffers from catastrophic flaws—quite the opposite. In addition to being a lively and thought-provoking writer, Fuller is insightful in the way in which he joins literary analysis with intellectual, cultural, and political history. It is hard to disagree with his understanding of how ideas about the environment can ignite a nation. The presence of an interesting argument and good writing, however, has the consequence of piquing one’s curiosity, making a reader all the more sensitive to the details. It is on this latter front that Fuller has the opportunity to improve.
University of Rochester
Graham, Otis L., Jr. 2015. Presidents and the American Environment. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press. 411 pp. ISBN 978-0-7006-2098-2.
In Presidents and the American Environment, Otis L. Graham Jr., provides a historical survey of American presidents and their policies as they relate to the natural environment from the time of Benjamin Harrison through Barack Obama. Graham outlines how presidents cared very much, or very little, about the way industrialization, capitalism, and pollution affected human health and the environment. For some presidents, economic concerns and political ideologies overshadowed a sense of duty to or concern for the natural environment. However, all presidents following Harrison inherited the legal authority to use the executive branch as a force for environmental protection. “Presidents have mattered, a little or a lot, as they used or resisted these new objectives and tools” (2), Graham writes. The degree to which each president governed is the primary subject of Presidents and the American Environment.
Graham’s work fills a void in the historiography of American environmental history. The author argues that historians outline the history of environmentalism in one of two ways. Some “frame the story as a social movement, which it was and is.” Others “frame it as the ideas of intellectuals such as Marsh, John Muir, John Burroughs, Aldo Leopold, and Rachel Carson, or some combination thereof” (2). He sees each perspective as vital and important to the field, but notes that both models ignore the role of presidents in narratives of environmental history. Graham places the highest office of the United States at the center of environmental dialogue as a means to measure how intellectual debates and social movements shaped the governance of the executive branch. In this light, Graham’s work is refreshing and new. Many of the presidents and their policies will be familiar to those well acquainted with the American environmental history canon (e.g., Theodore and Franklin D. Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Ronald Reagan). Others are new to the story (e.g., Benjamin Harrison, John F. Kennedy, and Gerald Ford). Regardless of their relevance, the author compares how each president valued, protected, or ignored the natural environment.
Graham places the past 22 presidents into two camps based on their environmental agendas. He claims that 12 presidents can be appropriately deemed “facilitators,” “expanders,” or “green” (359). The other group consists of those presidents who remained skeptical or proved to be in outright opposition to conservation and environmentalism—11 “brown” presidents. And while 12 and 11 does not make 22, Graham notes that, “when you are dealing with Nixon you can expect funny math” (360). While the framework sounds mostly clear (excluding math), one cannot help but wonder about the criteria the author uses to judge the presidents and their policies. Comparisons between environmental agendas must take into account the changing environmental, social, political, and cultural realities of the individual president.
For example, Benjamin Harrison’s foray into conservation is marked with the signing of the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 and the creation of the Yellowstone Park Timberland Reserve. However, in Graham’s telling of the story, Harrison’s motivation to sign the legislation was not the manifestation of any apparent passion for the environment. Rather, Harrison began presidential conservation and environmentalism by the request of then Secretary of the Interior John W. Noble—an avid outdoorsman. And while there is no doubt that Harrison provided the legal framework for future presidents to set aside lands for conservation, it is too simplistic to place Harrison alongside the likes of Theodore Roosevelt. One bumbled into, and maybe even regretted, their conservation efforts, while the other became the loudest champion of conservation in the early twentieth century (28).
Additionally, Graham groups together politicians whose record on environmental issues ranged widely because of the relevant environmental issues of their respective times. Air and water pollution were certainly present in nineteenth-century America, but it was Lyndon B. Johnson who took a serious step to curtail industrial pollution with the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In this light, the tremendous labor of early conservationists either failed or overlooked other issues in order to protect their definitions of pristine nature. Whom does Graham see as the “greener” presidents, and how does he make that decision? Does it even matter? Probably not.
Oddly serendipitous is the appearance of Donald Trump in a text that was published before the 2016 election. The depiction of now President Trump in Presidents and the American Environment is a sort of caricature—a symbol for the privatization of natural beauty and the antithesis of Theodore Roosevelt’s conceptions of American conservation. Graham outlines a Trump model for US National Parks when he writes, “Imagine Donald Trump buying Yosemite as home for several lit-up resort hotels and casinos with their sprawling parking lots” (43). “The Donald Trump high-end hoteliers … would have bought and controlled access to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Crater Lake, and many others” (359), he adds. Given Graham’s placement of Trump in his own work, one cannot help but run to the early months of the Trump presidency through the author’s framework. The current president has consistently identified environmental legislation and regulation as obstacles to economic growth, he has named a director of the EPA who seemingly disdains the organization that he is appointed to lead, and he has doubled down on the Keystone XL pipeline while simultaneously signing legislation allowing coal mining companies to dump refuse into small streams. Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement epitomizes his pro-business, anti-environmental, and nationalist leanings. Within months of taking office, Trump’s presidency was firmly situated in Graham’s “brown” camp
Given today’s political turbulence and environmental issues, Graham’s work is timely and important. It has never been so relevant to revisit the influence that a president and his policies can have on the American environment. And while environmentalism is largely a social movement, Graham’s book clearly narrates how a handful of men have shaped the American landscape and larger ecosystems. Revisiting Graham’s claim that “presidents have mattered, a little or a lot” almost seems like an understatement in light of his own study. Presidents gauge political climates, balance competing claims of parties, and govern by their ideologies. All of this affects the American environment. If nothing else, readers will walk away from Presidents and the American Environment with a simple, resounding truth about American environmental history—presidents matter.
University of Rochester
Gullion, Jessica Smartt. 2015. Fracking the Neighborhood: Reluctant Activists and Natural Gas Drilling. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 216 pp. ISBN 978-0-2620-2976-6.
In Fracking the Neighborhood: Reluctant Activists and Natural Gas Drilling, Jessica Smartt Gullion examines how the development of the Barnett Shale pushes a cluster of residents in the Dallas–Fort Worth, Texas, metroplex toward activism. What Gullion presents is a case study of communities within a very population-dense region whose health and lifestyles are challenged by one of the most active shale gas formations in the world. The Barnett Shale is a geologic formation of shale rock that spans 5,000 square miles and 18 counties, and is estimated to contain 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. As Gullion demonstrates, the Barnett Shale’s location below the Dallas–Fort Worth metroplex presents innumerable threats to health, the environment, and lifestyle and culture for the seven million Texans who live above it. It is this population-dense setting of predominately white, conservative, and middle-class communities that distinguishes Gullion’s fieldwork from most studies of shale gas development. The intersection of industry, state, science, and a population not typically marginalized provides Fracking the Neighborhood the wide array of material it explores.
Gullion begins the book with overviews of oil and gas development around the world and in the United States (chap. 1), and of natural gas drilling in Texas (chap. 2). These chapters provide a brief historical account of the petroleum industry and its dense political-economic network in the state. It quickly becomes apparent which historical events, political institutions, and technological advances embed Texas in its fossil fuel economy and culture. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, are the most salient aspects of a national debate regarding the production of natural gas. Fracking is the process by which millions of gallons of frack water are pumped through a drilled shale rock formation at up to 9,000 pounds per square inch; the immense pressure forces the shale rock open and allows natural gas to escape (chap. 2). These technological advancements and an auspicious fossil fuel economy provided the market incentive for natural gas production. Texas’s pro-industry laws and regulations, Gullion argues, provided the setting for a Barnett Shale boom. These chapters do not present a comprehensive assessment of the state’s petroleum industry. However, they are sufficient in contextualizing residents’ anxiety and distress over potential exposure to toxic chemicals associated with the drilling process. It is in these local anecdotes, interspersed throughout the book, where we find the most compelling and upsetting aspects of this research.
Fracking the Neighborhood takes as its focus the experiences of residents of Denton County and Tarrant County—the heart of the Barnett Shale. Residents became aware of the potential health consequences of natural gas production and, surrounded by a lack of competent political guardians (chap. 4), were pushed into “reluctant” activism (chap. 5). Gullion uses participant observation and in-depth interviews with 20 key informants to answer the questions: Is natural gas development putting public health at risk? And how do activists engage in meaning making to construct a social representation of natural gas drilling as a threat to community health?
The author uses social representation theory as a framework to understand how knowledge and meaning is constructed between communities and industry on the Barnett Shale. Gullion provides a succinct explanation of social representation theory—how meaning is constructed through social interaction and reinforced through discursive practice—and we see it illustrated throughout the book. Indeed, the most challenging hurdle that the reluctant activists face is the discursive influences of epistemic privilege (chap. 6), particularly “what is fact” and “who is an authority” in assessing the impacts of natural gas development. While Gullion’s data are supported by social representation theory, it is not evident how this research contributes to the theory itself, but perhaps this is beyond the scope of the text and best left for discussion. Nevertheless, social representation theory does outline how the narrative of reluctant activists in North Texas is a “sociology of community-level health threats” (3).
Gullion’s strength is clearly in discussing the epidemiological issues experienced by community members. She is a former chief epidemiologist for the Denton County Health Department, so her attention to detail and empathetic voice when discussing health issues are certainly professional skills sharply honed over time. Health concerns associated with natural gas extraction are made evident through descriptive personal accounts from Gullion’s participants (chap. 3), often in emotionally laden block quotes that preserve the community member’s voice. The sudden appearance of cancer clusters between communities prompts residents to assess potential air, water, and soil contamination caused by drilling. Indifferent and dismissive responses from government and research authorities convince residents to express and represent themselves through participation. From town halls and grassroots meetings, to toxic tours and protests, to environmental performativity and visibility (chaps. 7–8), the reluctant activists of the Barnett Shale engage with the authoritative—often sexualized and violent—discursive practices of neoliberal policy makers and industry.
It should be of no surprise that the reader would likely finish Fracking the Neighborhood with more queries, frustration, or perhaps anger regarding the impacts of natural gas development. The increasingly complex questions regarding epidemiological methods and analysis often hinder the reluctant activists’ progress at meaning making, and are preserved in the debate over whose facts are valid. However, I find that Fracking the Neighborhood’s strength, a dedication to the activists’ perspectives and anecdotes, is also its weakness. Notably missing are in-depth accounts from government and industry representatives. Moreover, the epistemic privilege of science and relevant theory is introduced but not thoroughly discussed. This partiality for a more practical argument makes Fracking the Neighborhood ideal for undergraduate studies in the environmental social sciences. At a mere 178 pages of text, Gullion’s readily accessible work is an appropriate introduction to the subject for policy makers and the concerned citizenry. Further, Fracking the Neighborhood is a productive contribution to the growing debate over the future of our fossil fuel industry.
University of Colorado Boulder
Jacka, Jerry K. 2015. Alchemy in the Rain Forest: Politics, Ecology, and Resilience in a New Guinea Mining Area. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 296 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-5979-1.
This nice book has been eagerly awaited for some time as, in the manner of things, we have had installments of the author’s thought since his original fieldwork in Papua New Guinea (PNG) near the Canadian-operated Porgera gold mine between 1998 and 2000. It takes time to do something properly, and I am happy to say the wait has been amply rewarded.
A clutch of ethnographies of PNG mining areas has appeared recently, most focusing on a closeup view of the interface between miners, their corporations, and the tribal people on whose land mining takes place. Jacka’s work fall into this this genre but is distinguished by the fact that his field site is at a remove from the main contact zone.
This is sited ethnography, but his site is one that expands and contracts, depending on the interests and perambulations of his hosts, with the most rain forestry parts being the distant hamlets many hours walk (fig. 4.1) from the Enga Highway and the parts in most proximity to the world of corporations being a car park outside the office of Kupiane Yuu Andiane Pty Ltd, the local body holding 2.5 per cent of the equity in the mine (fig. 5.1).
Chapter 1 starts with us listening in on a conversation between Jacka and Epe, one of his informants, as they stand looking over the mining area and the devastation caused by mine wastes: “Epe, however, smiled, laughed, and said approvingly, ‘That’s our garden’” (25; emphasis added). This sets up a problem for Jacka to come to terms with; far from residents of the Porgera Valley being antagonized by the environmental destruction caused by mining “the main problem for Porgerans was that there was not enough development” (26; emphasis in original).
Over the next two hundred pages, Jacka is able show how Porgerans draw on their social relationships and detailed but omen-laden ecological knowledge to make sense of change and modernization. Jacka’s informants feel the climate is changing, to become hotter and drier, “due to the impacts of mining development and Christianity” (174). They are probably right about their climate observations (fig. 6.3 and fig. 6.4), but as to the explanation, Jacka must lead us carefully through chapters on land, people, and spirits and how Porgerans explain things have come to be as they are.
Chapter 7, “Social Dislocations,” ties this together; it is about morality and what kinds of work produce things of meaning, like lineages of people and the things they exchange to sustain social relationships like pigs and food. Jacka cites several informants who echoed what the late Jeffrey Clark said, that money from mining is “free” and “was destined to be wasted.” The entertainingly pseudonymed “Cowboy” is not bothered to pick up the change when he breaks a note. Samson shrugs off wrecking a $20,000 Toyota because money from gold is “nothing money” (199–200).
The contradictions that this sets up are explored in the last part of the book. If Epe could look at the mine and claim it to be a garden, why can Cowboy and Samson say the opposite, that the mine produces “nothing money”? We get a glimpse of the answer in Jacka’s discussions of the money trail; since “wealth comes without work” for the mining lease landowners (208), it does not flow to others the same way in which wealth from traditional toil formerly did.
Importantly, small local alliances in Porgera remain quick to take up arms over perceived slights and the lethal fighting that ensures feeds into local faction building and thence more widely into politics. New political structures created to bring development to Porgerans have instead been a conduit for grievances and the sabotaging of development. Few things illustrate this better than a large-scale coffee project Jacka himself had a hand in planning in 1999 and which was partly financed by the Porgera Development Authority. The project failed miserably, and the whole area was laid waste in tribal fighting within a short time.
Most people familiar with the PNG highlands would be aware of the fighting that engulfed wide areas of Porgera between 2003 and 2009. What were the causes? Both Jacka and the Porgerans themselves are clear about it. He says, “Much of the fighting is generated from dissatisfaction with uneven development.” Porgerans say, yanda takame, or “war is wealth.”
Jacka declares his admiration at the start of the book for Roy Rappaport’s 1967 work Pigs for the Ancestors, in which a similar nexus was argued for a cycle of warfare and exchanges of pigs (called kaiko) that acted to redistribute land and population. Others, like William Clarke and Paula Brown, who worked in neighboring areas, disagreed, but the causes and effect between exchange failures, political exclusion, and warfare are real everywhere in the highlands, even if Rappaport’s neat cybernetics may not necessarily have worked as he said it did.
For his part, Jacka wraps up his conclusion with an explanation that with a real garden, eating its produce allows ipane (“grease” or “life force”) to flow through the socio-ecological system, renewing it, and allowing people and the land to reproduce themselves. However, gold has no “grease,” so reliance on it can only lead to yu koyo peya, “the end of the land” (240).
It is amazing to think that this is precisely what finance ministers around the world are also concluding in their inability to oblige mining companies to pay taxes in their jurisdictions. Mining, we are only now realizing, creates many fewer jobs than we thought, and its economic flows often “fail to wet the sides” fiscally as they speed off to low taxing jurisdictions via Panama and the Bahamas. Not enough ipane, you see.
Divine Word University
Lewis, Tammy. 2016. Ecuador’s Environmental Movements: Ecoimperialists, Ecodependents, and Ecoresisters. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 296 pp. ISBN: 978-0-2625-2877-1.
For environmentalists in Ecuador, President Rafael Correa’s so-called Citizens’ Revolution presented a series of new challenges. Much of the Left was divided by Correa’s “post-neoliberal” project to fight poverty through the modernization of oil production, mining, and other environmentally destructive forms of resource extraction. In 2017, Ecuadorians witnessed a hotly contested presidential election in which some environmentalists paradoxically espoused voting for the neoliberal candidate in order to disrupt the divisive countermovement of the Citizens’ Revolution. The political terrain for environmental struggle is murky in Ecuador, as it is in much of Latin America, where resource populism has entered into crisis and the neoliberal Right is on the rise. Tammy Lewis’ historical-sociological analysis of Ecuador’s environmental movement offers a set of terms for debate and analysis for researchers and students interested in Ecuadorian politics and environmental politics in the Global South.
Tammy Lewis draws on dozens of interviews in Ecuador with representatives of international organizations, national NGOs, activist groups, and the state, conducted over more than two decades. She offers a particularly rich collection of testimonies from diverse perspectives within the NGO sector. She focuses on the relations between the environmental movement, international aid, and the state, arguing that transnational funders have significantly influenced the growth and priorities of Ecuador’s environmental movement and, ultimately, state environmental policies. She traces these relations through a periodization of the movement since the late 1970s, when transnational funders began to promote a reformist, conservationist agenda for the movement by financing the work of national-level NGOs. A radical, anti-capitalist group of environmental activists emerged in the 1980s, but funders continued to profoundly shape the work of the Ecuadorian environmentalist movement through its funding of NGOs during the neoliberal period (1987–2000), particularly as the state actively delegated environmental regulation to NGOs. In this context, NGOs proliferated and successfully pushed funders’ conservationist agendas. During the subsequent crisis of neoliberalism (2000–2006), Lewis explains, the withdrawal of key transnational funders led environmental NGOs into fierce competition with one another. This moment also witnessed the incorporation of economic development practices among environmental NGOs, which realigned their objectives in accordance with emerging discourses on “sustainable development” among funders.
Lewis continues her periodization of the environmental movement to the present con-text of the Citizens’ Revolution. In this period, NGOs have tended to enjoy still less international funding and less influence on policy. Yet, the deterioration of the NGO sec-tor, she argues, has opened spaces for nonprofessional ecologists and activists to bring attention to more critical, anti-capitalist agendas within the environmentalist movement, which has had some degree of impact on state institutions. Namely, radicals introduced rhetoric on buen vivir as an alternative to conventional economic development in the 2008 national constitution and in national planning documents. In other words, she argues, neoliberalism opened spaces for transnational funders to influence the national environmental movement and state policies, and, today, a renovated state has displaced transnational funders and, in effect, opened spaces for radical ecologists to shape the movement and, to some extent, policy. Thus, Lewis compares President Correa’s “de-linking” from the Washington Consensus in international relations to the environmental movements’ de-linking from transnational funding, which, she argues, allowed for endogenous proposals to emerge and gain force in both arenas. Lewis expands this argument to a still larger scale, arguing that economic globalization (including transnational funding) inhibits the emergence of alternatives to unsustainable economic growth, whereas the global circulation of “local experiences” among social movements opens such possibilities.
Lewis’s project is not to excavate historical-geographical nuances of Ecuadorian environmental politics but rather to abstract hypotheses from this national case that might travel to other national contexts for comparative use and thus contribute to broader debates on sustainable development. Toward this end, she develops a typology and scalar hierarchy of actors that shape her conclusions. First, she refers to transnational funders, like Conservation International, as “ecoimperialists.” National NGOs that depend on this funding are “ecodependents”—that is, professionalized environmentalists who have acted as vehicles for transnational conservationist agendas. Organized and unorganized environmental activists that do not rely on transnational funders are “ecoresisters.” Finally, she refers marginally to “ecoentrepreneurs,” private organizations that fund resource management activities through service fees or municipal taxes.
The hypotheses Lewis develops are enabled by these categories. One might be tempted to problematize these categories by pointing to ambiguities that each elides. For example, she refers to the activist organizations Acción Ecológica, C-CONDEM, and FUNDECOL as key “ecoresisters” that have developed post-capitalist agendas at the margins of transnational funding circuits. Yet, these organizations actively compete for funds from transnational organizations (often turning to national NGOs as intermediaries). In addition, national NGOs have imposed their own conditions on transnational funders. The national NGO Heifer-Ecuador, for example, promotes environmental sustainability through agroecology or “sustainable use” and has historically resisted pressures from its principal funding source, Heifer International, to engage in conservationist projects. Moreover, the introduction of buen vivir into the constitution resulted not precisely from the exclusion of transnational funders from the debate, but rather from the historical force of the indigenous movement and the capacity of particular allies of the radical branch of the environmental movement to capture key ministerial roles in the early years of the Citizens’ Revolution. Finally, attention to other scales of conflict might reveal that the goal of “sustainable development” is not only imposed by transnational funders but has been embraced within diverse social and institutional spaces, including neoliberal proponents, segments of the indigenous movements, and the anti-neoliberal Left, regardless of the discontinuity of incentives from international aid.
Lewis fully acknowledges the limits of her categories and notes that no organization may fit neatly into her typology. She sustains this typology nonetheless in the interest of illuminating broad historical tendencies in Ecuador and, moreover, in generating hypotheses about similar relations between environmental movement actors in other contexts. In effect, Lewis’s choice of categories brings into clear focus the influences of transnational funders on the environmental movement and policy, as well as dynamics and divisions within the movement, although it admittedly obscures other scales of politics, tensions, and contradictions.
Ultimately, Lewis excels at tracing relations between disparate actors in Ecuador’s environmental movement and international funding agencies through distinct political moments since the 1970s. Her book serves as an overview of the diverse actors, interests, and ideas that forged Ecuador’s modern environmental movement, and it will serve as an excellent introduction to modern Ecuadorian history and environmental politics. Her analysis also illuminates common tensions in environmental struggles beyond Ecuador that will be valuable for researchers or students interested in the possibilities and limits of environmental governance in the contemporary Global South.
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Nustad, Knut. 2015. Creating Africas: Struggles over Nature and Conservation. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 224 pp. ISBN 978-1-8490-4258-1.
Conflicts between conservationists and historically dispossessed people in Southern Africa (and beyond) are all too common and have rightly received much attention in the anthropological literature. Such conflicts present us with the problem of how to engage simultaneously with the ecological challenges facing environments and the (post)colonial politics and histories of the people who live there. South Africa’s Dukuduku Forest Reserve, situated on the edge of iSimangaliso Wetland Park (formerly Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999) is in many ways emblematic of such conflicts between parks and people and is the subject of Knut Nustad’s Creating Africas: Struggles over Nature and Conservation.Rather than merely adding another descriptive entry to our growing register of vexing conflicts between “parks and people,” Creating Africas seeks to achieve something more. The book challenges the ontological assumption of a nature-society divide to argue that attempts to find solutions to environmental degradation and land contestations are often inherently hampered by their reliance on, and reproduction of, this division: “the ontological distinction between nature and humanity evolved as a reaction to the destruction of environments” such that finding solutions that rely on this same ontology is problematic (19). The challenge for Nustad is how to find solutions to environmental problems and social contestations over land, both theoretically and practically, that do not rely on a nature and society dualism. In a sophisticated and rich historical analysis of how nature conservation emerged in the region, Creating Africas demonstrates the ontologically multiple ways in which nature in general, and a forest reserve in particular, have been enacted and are contested by people concerned with, and living in and around, protected areas.
The book is divided into three parts. Following a line of argumentation familiar to political ecologists, Nustad challenges enticing assumptions about the “inherent good” of conservation that permeates much of the West, showing instead how any conservation proposal creates some winners and losers. Part I, “Parks, Representations, and Relations” problematizes how environmental degradation is addressed through the creation of “protected areas,” providing a review of how the nature-society divide has been put into practice and approached in anthropology and Euro-American thought at large. Conservation in South Africa today, and elsewhere in the world, is shown to have emerged from elitist restrictions on access to plant and animal resources, as well as the production of nationalistic ideals in which a pristine and idyllic nature comes to stand as a quality of national character. These qualities remain embedded in the establishment of protected areas, producing with them significant exclusions.
Nustad develops an ontological framework to address practical and theoretical issues concerning environments that “seeks to transcend oppositions between humans, environments, animals, and objects” (14). These oppositions not only rely on a natural reality “out there,” but also work to render the histories of peoples’ interactions with nature nonvisible, particularly because the establishment of those natural realities are riddled with histories forced removals, dispossession, and the full array of colonial violences that dehumanized African inhabitants. These violences linger in the contemporary moment of post-apartheid South Africa, in which land is highly contested, Nustad shows. Cultural relativist and social constructivist analyses of human-environmental issues, both in policy documents and anthropological literature, are critiqued for presuming an a priori reality or nature interpreted or represented through culture, which therefore reproduce the very dualism that produces the challenges at hand. Thus, Nustad draws from recent scholarship often referred to as the “ontological turn” to better engage with multiple ways in which people and their environments are entangled and enacted differently.
After establishing this theoretical framework, Nustad brings the readers back to the specific historical constructions and representations of St. Lucia in Part II of the book, “Hunting, Production, and Conservation.” This historical analysis of the different forms of land use, involving different actors’ economies, interests, and politics, traces how human-environmental relations with St. Lucia have changed over time. Recent conservation-related activities are framed as having emerged directly from the early colonial hunting practices and elite restrictions on access to wildlife, to sport and leisure, and then realigned through capitalist mechanisms, namely privatization of land, industrial agriculture, re-source extraction, and eventually the establishment of contemporary protected areas. Hunting elites who wished to maintain populations of “game” to hunt for sport played a role in some of the early attempts to protect areas, more for their own sport than because of concerns of preservation. Along the way, we learn about the malarial wetlands that hampered more than a few colonial hunting expeditions, its “remoteness” and “wildness,” that ultimately become embedded within the romantic imaginary of a pristine nature to be eventually cordoned off and protected, and recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In the process St. Lucia underwent a transition from hunting ground to productive fields, being reshaped and remade through capitalist interests. Wildlife went from something to be protected to something to be exterminated because the diseases they were thought to carry posed threats to the herds belonging to Africans living in the area. The region was disproportionately carved up into residence areas for natives and for white settlers. Africans living in areas not proclaimed as native reserves were now considered squatters, while other parts turned to the industrial production of timber and sugar cane, and conservation of the wetlands and its wildlife reemerged as a key interest of the elite.
Part III then zooms in on the Dukuduku Forest as a case study to demonstrate how the different enactments of the forest through specific theories of human-environment relations are at the heart of the political contestations over the forest. Nustad’s innovation is to take the enactment of conservation seriously as an emergent reality, producing one among many realities. That is, the forest enacted as a protected area by conservationists carries political weight and is a political reality, but it is not all the forest is. It is neither bounded nor singular: “the forest can just as easily be described as a multitude: given that it has been enacted variously as hunting grounds, as a site of small-scale agriculture, as useless dense growth, as forest plantations, its manifestation as a destroyed wilderness is relatively recent” (107).
African inhabitants of Dukuduku are currently engaged in land claims over this nature multiple. Here the multiplicity of interests of people who live in the forest or have been displaced from the forest and how they are aligned with different community organizations, conservation groups, and land claims, come to light as highly contested and multiple in their own right. This forest, Nustad shows readers, has been, and continues to be, many things. Contestations over this forest demonstrate the frictions of the multiple and competing emergent realities that “do not exist as discrete, bounded and separate realities; instead they are emergent possibilities in more or less the same area” (4). Thus, rather than simply dismissing conservation as an oppressive next step in the lineage of colonialism and development, he traces its historical emergence as yet another enactment of the forest. Historically, it has been used for hunting, hiding, and agriculture, seen as a romantic primordial nature to be accessed by urban (white) dwellers, a resource for the industrial production of timber and sugar cane, as well providing a variety of subsistence resources that support the livelihoods of local residents of the forest.
Nustad’s thorough analysis of historical documentation convincingly demonstrates the multiple and contradictory ways St. Lucia’s natures have been enacted, inspiring further work that considers the specificities of the particular emergent ontologies, or material enactments, of the forest and other protected areas. One concern I would raise about this otherwise sharp and important book is its tendency to focus exclusively on the forest as it relates to humans and their politics, while the forest itself sometimes falls to the background. This seems particularly notable given Nustad’s wise insistence on the ontological instability of the forest as a concept in the hands of his human research subjects. But ultimately this book is a significant contribution to the study of conservation and political ecology. Scholars alike who are interested in reading at the leading edge of theory in the political ecology of conservation will find plenty to think about in this book.
Pierre du Plessis
University of California, Santa Cruz Aarhus University
Oslender, Ulrich. 2016. The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic Space. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 304 pp. ISBN 978-0-8223-6122-0.
On the Pacific coast of lowland Colombia, rural black communities are socially entangled with an aquatic environment. River networks, tidal flows, mangrove swamps, and frequent flooding provide the spatial context through which human activities are formed and negotiated. This is the physical and socially produced concept of “aquatic space” that Ulrich Oslender develops in his book The Geographies of Social Movements: Afro-Colombian Mobilization and the Aquatic Space. Oslender explores how local aquatic epistemologies and aquatic senses of place have influenced the process of political organization among rural Afro-Colombians in the Pacific coast region. It is a passionate book with elegant scholarship and subdued activism.
To Oslender, local aquatic epistemologies are “the place-based and culturally specific ways of knowing a profoundly aquatic environment” (18). Oslender demonstrates a respectable grasp of these local epistemologies, showing by brief ethnographic account and by personal narratives how the river informs measurements of distance, how tides dictate travel arrangements and community meeting schedules, and how collective identities are formed around allegiances to certain rivers, for instance. Aquatic space is most relevant to Oslender because aquatic space is of paramount relevance in community politics. On 27 August 1993, Colombia adopted one of the most progressive pieces of legislation hitherto seen in Latin America: Law 70 established the legal framework by which Afro-descendant populations could communally own riverine tropical rain forest lands. Five million hectares, or 50 percent of the Pacific coastal region, were allocated for black communities. The 1990s was a period of rapid political mobilization for Afro-Colombians, and many black community councils were formed to claim and manage these lands.
It is not particularly surprising that living in an aquatic environment would have great bearing on political mobilization. Any kind of mobility, as Oslender describes, revolves around the paths and the timing of the river’s currents. What is surprising, to Oslender and to the reader, is that most blacks in Guapi and in the nearby river basins knew nothing about Law 70 or the formation of black community councils. It appears Oslender contradicts himself—in one moment speaking of the vast and important period of black mobilization following Law 70, and in the next moment revealing that most people not directly involved in organizing the community councils claim to be unaware of any social movement. If people along the Guapi River, and other rivers nearby, have no interest in communal ownership of lands, to what extent can scholars, governments, or even local leaders claim black political mobilization? Oslender makes an important point in concluding this section, and the main body of the book, that “local subjectivities are multiple and cannot be molded easily into a homogenous whole as a single ‘black community’” (197).
Oslender shies away from making strong concluding remarks. Readers are left wondering what has been accomplished—either in Oslender’s work itself, or in the Afro-Colom-bian social movement. I attribute this to a critical imbalance between theory and ethnographic evidence. The theory is strong, and much of the book is devoted to discussions of it. Oslender draws inspiration from such influential scholars as Henri Lefebvre, John Agnew, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Arturo Escobar, Gustavo Esteva, Orlando Fals Borda, Michel Foucault, Nina Friedemann, David Harvey, Eduardo Restrepo, James Scott, David Slater, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, Michael Taussig, and Yi Fu Tuan. The list is long because the emphasis on theory is great. Oslender primarily draws from perspectives in social movement theory, participatory action research, and concepts of space and place. The in-depth theoretical discussions that Oslender presents in the introduction, chapter 1, and the interlude may overwhelm and disinterest the average reader. The book would likely be more suitable and appealing to upper-level undergraduate students, graduate students, and scholars who are familiar with the jargon typical of anthropology or cultural geography.
The detail to which he outlines his theoretical stance in the first part of the book is appreciated, and it helps the reader to make sense of his theoretical references later in the book, but readers could be left questioning the jumps between on-the-ground reality and theoretical approaches or interpretations. Oslender spends more time telling readers how he approaches space, place, and social movements than he does telling readers why one should approach them that way—the evidence he has from the Pacific coast of Colombia. We are only given glimpses of lived experience in this lowland, aquatic region along the rivers Guapi, Napi, and Guaji. One of Oslender’s stated goals is to explore “local aquatic epistemologies” in “ethnographic detail” (48), but the ethnographic detail is intermittent and sparse. In chapter 2 and in the interlude, readers are introduced to Doña Celia Lucumí Caicedo and Don Agapito Montaño, yet these are the only characters we meet. We are given a wide cultural-historical account of the Pacific coast region—gold mining, extractive logging, some political movements, oil palm, and violence—yet these accounts are broad in both temporal and spatial scales.
The detailed accounts that Oslender does provide are fascinating. He is as respectable a storyteller as Don Agapito, the 77-year-old decimero, or poet, who carries on the local oral tradition. The reader is occasionally lost as Oslender seems to stray to and fro in time and space, however. A more focused account, accompanied by rich ethnographic detail and personal interview, of life along the Guapi and nearby rivers may have been more effective in showing how an aquatic sense of place informs political organization and mobilization. An inductive approach such as grounded theory may also have better evened the balance between theory and ethnographic evidence, and it may have given more legitimacy to Oslender’s theoretical stances and conclusions.
We can learn from how Oslender adds a critical place perspective to theories of social movements. He indeed demonstrates that concepts of space and place are central to thinking about how people mobilize as political collectives. In the Pacific Lowlands of Colombia, ways of knowing produce—and are produced by—specific temporal and spatial relations with the aquatic environment. We cannot think about rural Afro-Colombian political mobilization without considering an aquatic sense of place.
University of Texas at San Antonio
Reno, Joshua O. 2016. Waste Away: Working and Living with a North American Landfill. Berkeley: University of California Press. 288 pp. ISBN 978-0-5202-8894-2.
Few people have ever seen a landfill up close, let alone climbed one, and those who have may not be aware of it, for old landfills, once closed, are often transformed into green hills—that is to say, millions of cubic feet of compressed trash covered with soil and grass. Today, industrialized countries rely on sanitary landfills (not to be confused with dumps) and similar facilities (incinerators, anaerobic digestion plants) to “manage” massive amounts of waste, but for the most part, citizens do not encounter these facilities. Such ignorance should not surprise, as landfills’ main purpose is to make people oblivious to the presence, fate, and threat of garbage. But our lack of knowledge about landfills stands in the way of a better understanding of the ideologies and ways of living on which affluent societies are based and therefore prevents us from questioning and changing them.
This observation lies at the heart of Waste Away, a book recently authored by anthropologist Joshua Reno that “seeks to reconnect waste producers to our landfills” (1). Reno’s recurring and most prominent argument is that landfills play a key role in shaping modernity and capitalism, even though they are rarely given such credit or acknowledged at all. By allowing waste to disappear swiftly from our surroundings, landfills make a waste-free society seem possible, thereby enabling mass consumption and disposability, among other things. Imagine homes, workplaces, and cities cluttered with debris: Who would want to keep on acquiring new stuff to pile on top of the old? Reno takes this argument a step further: by hosting “transience,” or providing a space dedicated to decay, land-fills promote permanence outside their relatively narrow boundaries, thereby allowing most people, in most places and at most times, to revel in, and be reassured by, the belief in a stable and manageable material world. This, Reno contends, is also intricately linked to a North American conception of personhood that emphasizes cleanliness and orderliness and valorizes an individualism in which the body is associated with one single person. According to this conceptualization, we are fundamentally distinct from others and isolated from our surroundings.
Reno, an accomplished scholar in the field of discard studies, bases his analysis on the case study of Harrison (fictitious name), a small town located in Michigan where he conducted ethnographic research between 2004 and 2007. He approaches “waste disposal as a social relationship” (2) and engages with various communities, including the staff of a sanitary landfill—in which he himself worked for nine months as a “paper picker”—and local inhabitants, whose daily lives are, or have been, impacted by the proximity of landfills, prompting some of them to form activist groups. He pays a great deal of attention to the concrete ways in which waste is not only perceived, talked about, and handled, but also ignored and avoided, which leads him to delve into, among other things, the social world’s corporeal and sensory dimensions. For instance, Reno observes that the smell of rubbish sticks to the skin and permeates the air, tagging humans and spatial surroundings with the stigma of contamination, but at the same time pleases the nostrils of those who manage to reap economic benefits from rubbish’s perpetual flow.
These, as well as the other ethnographic elements, are aptly developed in conjunction with their historical and geographical contexts; an entire chapter is devoted to Harrison’s deep-rooted image as wasteland, and numerous passages address the repercussions of deindustrialization in the larger Detroit area, the evolution of waste management techniques in twentieth-century North America, and the advent of a transboundary waste trade.
Most importantly, Reno discusses at length some of the key issues that invariably emerge in connection with waste: the siting of treatment or disposal facilities, waste work as both stigmatizing and empowering, the political endeavor of making pollution (in)visible, associations of physical contamination by unwanted stuff with social contamination by unwanted people (such as foreigners), and the amazing resilience of scavenging and reuse practices.
Overall, Waste Away comes across as a mature and multifaceted work. Its author successfully interweaves a subtle and comprehensive ethnographic account with a robust and rich theoretical framework—which, in itself, is a feat. In particular, Reno is to be commended for his attention to actors’ agency. He makes it very clear that while mobility beyond certain social positions and spatial places is restrained by structures of inequality, people develop strategies to adapt, cope, and give meaning to their lives. His analysis is sometimes original, even bold, such as when he assimilates landfills to bodies that digest and exude liquids (26), or when he describes waste management as an “act of caring” similar to health services (14).
Yet, the book also has weaknesses. Most strikingly, Reno is sometimes led astray by his eagerness to make a key and original scholarly contribution. He fails to convince when, for instance, he pretends to avoid cross-cultural comparison because it produces “irreducible incommensurability,” and instead chooses to “document transubstantial homologies” (17). Actually, most anthropological work, including Reno’s own, is informed by a broader understanding of the classical comparative method, which often leads to discovering “transubstantial homologies”—the latter, then, are old wine in new bottles. Another example is Reno’s suggestion that burying human remains in landfills would place these sites back on the map of collective consciousness, thereby reducing the distance between mass consumers and mass waste. As he himself acknowledges, such a measure, while creative, also lacks feasibility. Thus, his attempt to take up the challenge to find a practical solution to mass waste comes across as rather clumsy. Reno would arguably have done better to stick to a descriptive approach and not venture into the troubled waters of prescription.
This book, accessible to all, will appeal in particular to those interested in waste and consumption, work and labor, race and gender, environmental justice, political ecology, deindustrialization and the American Midwest, and, last but not least, ethnography.
University of Neuchâtel
Reynolds, Kristin, and Nevin Cohen. 2016. Beyond the Kale: Urban Agriculture and Social Justice Activism in New York City. Athens: University of Georgia Press. 224 pp. ISBN 978-0-8203-4949-7.
Urban farming in New York City may be a trendy topic, but Beyond the Kale works to debunk images of “young, middle-class, white people [acting] as urban ‘pioneers’” (29) and to explain the damaging sociopolitical and economic implications of such images. The book’s clever triple-entendre title aptly indicates its central aims: seeing not only the vegetal production of urban gardening but also its sociopolitical impacts, getting past excitement about “new” superfoods to see the practice’s deep historical and social roots, and demonstrating the actual racial and ethnic diversity hidden by mainstream portrayals of urban agriculture.
After an introduction making the case for urban agriculture as a fruitful site for addressing structural discrimination, chapter 2 traces historical shifts in food production in the city and the changes in urban planning that have unevenly fostered and hindered participation in urban farming. Chapter 3 surveys the variety of ways urban agriculture activists attempt to address social injustice. Subsequent chapters focus on two of these approaches, first considering how agriculture groups’ organizational praxes aim to upend hierarchies of class, race, and gender, then highlighting a variety of policy arenas in which activists strive to intervene, both explicitly through policy campaigns and implicitly in their farming work. Chapter 6 returns to issues of uneven power and privilege, this time focusing on the difficulties faced by low-income and minority urban agriculture groups in securing funding and other support for their unorthodox core missions. Chapter 7 discusses insights from a symposium of researchers and community-based activists about the current short-comings of urban agriculture research and opportunities for studies that are inclusive of and useful to marginalized communities.
Authors Kristin Reynolds and Nevin Co-hen join vibrant discussions of the promises and current shortcomings of publicly engaged scholarship across the social sciences. Their greatest contribution with Beyond the Kale is to spotlight underrepresented participants in urban agriculture. From La Familia Verde’s coalition of community gardens in the Bronx to Brooklyn’s Hattie Carthan Community Market, the urban agriculture projects profiled here comprise ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic diversity. Women of color in particular, some of whom have led urban farms for many years, feature prominently. Equally importantly, the profiled groups are working toward social justice in a variety of ways. Readers catch glimpses of inclusive group organizational structures that deliberately seek “a less oppressive world” (61), urban farms using participatory and experiential techniques to teach both critical race theory and vegetable cultivation, creative networking efforts that urge philanthropic organizations to be more inclusive of people of color and women, and food justice activists elaborating nuanced critiques of popular discourses such as those around “food deserts” and “public space.”
Unfortunately, in presenting this breadth of groups and projects, the authors rarely provide extended discussion of groups. Morsels of information about a given group’s organizational structure, membership, historical development, and key projects are scattered in multiple chapters, and because more than a dozen are profiled in this way, coherent pictures are difficult to assemble. This makes it hard to fully appreciate these groups’ innovativeness, their stories, and their challenges.
The book holds individual insights useful for readers who are activists themselves or academics who wish to align their research efforts more effectively with the communities with whom they study. For example, the authors give tantalizing suggestions about the role urban gardens can play as safe spaces for women and for queer-identified farmers (chap. 3), the impacts of Freirean education approaches with low-income food entrepreneurs (chap. 4), how food justice activists may be affecting dominant discourses (chap. 5), and the difficulties these groups face from the bureaucratic and often race-blind (though not race-neutral) milieu of philanthropic organizations and city government (chap. 6). However, these suggestions are not well fleshed out. In structure and writing style, the book tends toward repetition of a rather basic argument and misses opportunities to provide a more compelling and comprehensive one. The authors focus on convincing readers of the legitimacy of combining urban food production with social justice activism. But the reader willing to delve into a full book on this topic is likely already convinced of this legitimacy, and besides, that argument is quite effectively made in chapter one and does not require repetition in subsequent chapters.
The book tells us a great deal about what urban gardens and farms can do to economically and socially empower residents of marginalized communities, but it does less to show the impacts they actually have. Interviews with farm and organization leaders comprise the bulk of the data discussed. Through these accounts, readers learn about the aspirations and motivations behind campaigns, but the voices, experiences, and interpretations of participants are largely absent. Few observations of the practical development and execution of projects or analyses of relevant documentary evidence (e.g., publicity materials and grant applications) are given. The authors themselves point in chapter 7 to the difficulty activists face in evaluating qualitative impacts in the audit culture of grant seeking and their desire to collaborate with academic researchers to do so. With some additional ethnographic observation or analysis of gray literature and grant proposals, this study could have done just that. Digging more deeply into particular activist efforts would allow clearer appreciation of the impacts these groups are having, especially in the “harder-to-quantify benefits of urban agriculture programs” (124) like challenging oppressive discourse or empowering participants and honing critical thinking about social change.
In focusing on low-income and minority urban farmers and social justice activists, Beyond the Kale usefully articulates the blind spots and injustices of popular images of urban agriculture as rooftop gardeners raising specialty crops and middle-class young people “homesteading” in urban cores. The book misses opportunities to more clearly connect forces of structural discrimination to particular urban agriculture initiatives or elucidate the impacts these groups are currently having. However, its many discussions of innovative social justice work and activists’ intellectual contributions make this worthwhile for readers in college classrooms, urban planning task forces, and activists’ strategy meetings, alike.
Northern Illinois University
Smits, Gregory. 2013. Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press. 262 pp. ISBN 978-0-8248-3817-1.
Earthquakes take lives but can make livelihoods. After all, devastated buildings call for reconstruction, and terrifying trembles underfoot call for interpretation. In his book Seismic Japan: The Long History and Continuing Legacy of the Ansei Edo Earthquake, Gregory Smits traces the construction of theories and, occasionally, buildings that preceded and followed the devastation caused by the 1855 Ansei Edo earthquake in what is now Tokyo, Japan. Working through sources ranging from scholarly manuscripts to popular woodprints and dramas, Smits presents the earthquake as a challenge to Japanese scientists and politicians and as a boon for particular types of merchants and trade workers. The argument that arises out of these stories of struggle and success places an understudied earthquake at the center of Japan’s tumultuous modernization.
The earth was not the only thing shaking in Japan in 1855. American warships had come in 1853 and 1854 to demand access to Japanese ports and markets, and discontent among elites and commoners alike had already led to unrest in parts of the loosely governed land. The greatest strength of Seismic Japan, which is explicitly oriented toward historians of Japan (vii), is its attention to how the earthquake fomented and altered ongoing disturbances, partially reconfiguring geographies of imagination and governance to “condition society to anticipate major change in the near future” (170). Smits convincingly argues that the earthquake challenged existing scientific theories, brought a god who was associated with the emperor rather than with the ruling military government to Edo, the seat of the military government, and sparked an awareness of “Japan” as a national unit greater than neighborhoods, cities, or fiefdoms.
Unfortunately, Smits hesitates to generalize his findings about the formation of a modern nation as an imagined community centered on the seemingly destructive force of something like an earthquake. Readers must work through a mountain of well-researched data and long lists of examples to appreciate the potential scale of Smits’ arguments. This applies to the structure of the book as a whole as much as it does to the structure of each chapter.
The book begins with a succinct statement of Smits’ argument that “the Ansei Edo earthquake played a pivotal role in the process of shaping conceptions of Japan” (4). That argument is followed by a “global context” for the earthquake that consists of ideas about earthquakes from “many parts of Europe and the Islamic world” (5), neither of which plays a significant role in the rest of book. Smits proceeds to offer insights regarding the relationship between vulnerability and variables ranging from “infrastructure” to “ideology” (8). His insights here are grounded and well thought out, and I, for one, would have benefited from greater elaboration on the changing nature of nature, society, and time that Smits hints at in this first chapter.
Sadly, the list of variables associated with vulnerability quickly cedes to a 10-page-long list of earthquakes in Japan that occurred between 1596 and 1933. Far from the “global” scale of the insights that Smits seemed poised to present, each earthquake is described in terms of its magnitude, epicenter, and death toll. And only after making it through this list do we get a more comprehensive picture of what Japan looked like before the 1855 earthquake.
The admirably ambitious scope of the book, if not of its central argument, leaves little space in the beginning for contextualizing the 1855 earthquake in a conflicted Japan tumbling toward revolution and modernity. Instead, chapter 2 offers readers detailed descriptions of Japanese and European theories about “why the earth shakes.” Most of the theories that Smits presents are from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and revolve around the dynamics of yin and yang, capricious gods, and varying degrees of human and nonhuman agency. Embedded in these theories are notions of international relations mediated by movements of the earth, which are unevenly distributed between, say, China and Japan (48–49). At its best, this chapter offers a nuanced history of science itself, fully imbued with the religious, political, and artistic ideas that it purports to overcome.
Chapter 3 is a transitional chapter that works to connect ideas about the mechanics of earthquakes to their social effects. Working through portrayals of gods and the shaking up of the world order, Smits argues, “Earthquakes could function as catalysts, accelerating social changes under way” (71). Importantly, he also argues that the reach of change was limited and that the earthquake was used by some commentators to celebrate a “conservative” set of values. “Targets of … critiques were greed and luxury, not among rulers but among ordinary members of society” (80), and people who practiced filial piety and self-sacrifice during their response to the earthquake were celebrated as role models for society.
Many of the statements made in chapter 3, particularly those regarding social change, are substantiated in chapters 4 and 5. These chapters offer a view into the redistribution of wealth after the 1855 earthquake. The quake affected elites more than commoners and was sometimes celebrated as a “world renewal” or correction of the local social order in the form of an economic windfall. In relation to the earthquake, the government was weakened not by a revolting populace but rather by offering loans to elites to rebuild their properties and by temporarily allowing them to forego service to the government in the capital. The weakening of the government did not go unnoticed by people in the capital, however, and chapter 5 surveys popular representations of the earthquake and its relation to national turbulence. Together, chapters 4 and 5 make a strong argument for the relevance of the earthquake to Japan’s transformation in the late 1800s and could serve as an historical point of contrast in syllabi covering disaster capitalism just as easily as they could complement other texts on Japan’s late Edo period.
The book finishes with a chapter on developments, and lacks thereof, in the science of earthquakes. The chapter includes a studious challenge to binary classifications of disasters as either “technological” or “natural” (176–177), and helped me to understand why there is a catfish on a large sign that I drive past every day for an emergency route in the outskirts of Tokyo. These types of insights abound in Seismic Japan, and there is plenty of astute material in the book to complement broad arguments about the relationship between epistemology, ontology, and history. But like the effects of earthquakes themselves, it sometimes takes effort on the part of the reader to piece together the meaningful stories that here call for attention in their very fragmentation and magnitude.
University of California at San Diego
Van Horssen, Jessica. 2016. A Town Called Asbestos: Environmental Contamination, Health, and Resilience in a Resource Community. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press. 256 pp. ISBN 978-0-7748-2841-3.
A Town Called Asbestos is an excellent work on toxic environmental history that brings into sharp focus the dynamic connections between land, mineral, body, and global political economy. The story of industrial boom and bust in Asbestos, Quebec, is examined in relation to the geology of Canadian chrysotile asbestos, sociopolitical history, and local forms of social and economic resilience taking shape in a mineral resource-based community. A thoughtful range of questions steer this important book, including: “How does a community take shape around a constantly growing open pit mine? How do communities develop a local understanding of health? Who defines risk and danger, and how? Can a small resource community influence global trade policy? How do international borders and networks complicate local self-determination?” (16).
Anthropology and related social science disciplines have recently taken a robust turn in their focus on depleted communities and places/spaces of industrial extraction that critically reorient understandings of local-global tensions. A Town Called Asbestos extends these foci by offering a quality account of industrial and environmental history in general and toxic risk historicity in particular. Based on laudable archival research, Van Horssen has delivered a much-needed history of a widely circulated toxic product. The book exposes a side of industrial risk studies that sees little attention. As she puts it, her focus is on how the townspeople of Asbestos “slowly came to know about the risks they were subjected to and how they internalized this knowledge to help the community—and the Jeffrey Mine—survive” (10). This localized knowledge was equally informed by the community’s sense of sacrifice and feeling that they were producing a product they believed was making the world a safer place.
The book embarks on a social, mineral, economic, environmental history that begins with the geological marvel that put the town of Asbestos on the global political-economic map. As Van Horssen notes, after World War I, the town of Asbestos produced a large supply of the global trade in chrysotile asbestos. This is significant, since Quebec actually made up 95 percent of global trade in the mineral following World War I, and the Jeffrey Mine played a critical role in these boom times. As Van Horssen notes, by 1952, the Jeffrey Mine “remained the largest chrysotile mine in the world, and to process its output” mine owners “spent $14,000,000 on the world’s largest, most modern asbestos mill” (120). The community quickly became a symbol of industrial dynamism, especially as the global market price for asbestos during this time surpassed the price of gold.
Asbestos production boom times were also times of carefully orchestrated and industry funded risk repression. Workers themselves downplayed the risks of asbestos-related illness, in the same way coal miners struggling with black lung disease in eastern Kentucky weigh the benefits of labor opportunity over known or suspected occupational health risks. In this way, A Town Called Asbestos makes an important case not only for synthesizing industrial and environmental history but also the linkages between labor rights and occupational health risk. For example, Van Horssen attends to how a labor strike in 1949 in Asbestos played a key role in Canada’s working-class social movement in general and the Quiet Revolution in Quebec in particular. Between the 1949 strike and the closure of the Jeffrey Mine in 1983, workers responded to industry collapse with strong industry support and creative suppression of the risks of asbestos labor. In chapter 7, for example, Van Horssen explains how workers used their own bodies as “tools” to speak out against government reports and public health concerns about concerning rates of mesothelioma, a deadly asbestos-related cancer. Not only did workers actively claim that a “good life” could be had in Asbestos, but the Johns Manville (JM) corporation, the owner of the Jeffrey Mine, also created a health propaganda campaign to help fuel worker support for the mine and for the asbestos industry as a whole. JM, as Van Horssen notes, worked hard to illustrate how mining communities can “live with risk and danger” by “having company-paid medical doctors calm fears of disease” and assure “Jeffrey Mine workers that they were healthy during annual medical checkups and union-supervised contract negotiations. Appealing to the benevolence of its workers, the company also promoted the idea that the mineral was synonymous with safety and that the community was helping protect the world from the dangers of fire” (136).
A Town Called Asbestos is not explicitly set in dialogue with environmental anthropologies and sociologies of industrial risk and friction, but it does bring to mind the need for greater intersections between local-global industrial “friction” (Anna Tsing 2005) and the “slow violence” (Rob Nixon 2013) of industrial decline and contamination in the contemporary. Confronting the land-body-economy relation, the book also plants the seeds for industrial environmental studies exploring the intersections of corporeality and minerality. A balanced portrayal of the history and culture of industrial pride and unfortunate toxic pain, the story that unfolds in A Town Called Asbestos is one of toxic industrialism that will be of interest to scholars in environmental history, political ecology, environmental studies, industrial history, and environmental social science.
Peter C. Little
Rhode Island College