Spring Colloquium Series Probes Human-Nature Interactions

By Nickolas Perrone – The Environments and Societies Spring 2016 Colloquium Series brought scholars from around the country to UC Davis to discuss the latest research on human-nature interactions. A wide array of topics included the Anthropocene in Victorian literature, Native American migration and adaptation to colonialism, capitalism and commodities, food systems in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, environmental justice and gentrification in San Francisco, and underwater art in an era of rising sea levels.

Presenters and participants had the opportunity to read early iterations of book chapters and journal articles, as well as work that is in the later stages of development. The six scholars who presented their work represented a wide range of methodologies, disciplines, and subject matter, ensuring that participants could engage with their research on a variety of levels throughout the quarter. The interdisciplinary nature of the colloquium also exposes participants and presenters to new and interesting perspectives that contribute to one’s overall understanding of the subject matter.

Elegy and extinction

Our first presenter of the quarter was Jesse Oak Taylor. Professor Taylor’s paper, “Tennyson’s Elegy for the Anthropocene: Genre, Form, and Species Being,” provided a framework for using literature in modeling questions about climate change. In using Tennyson’s Elegy as a genre to understand Victorian expressions of the Anthropocene, we can see how Victorians understood the concept, while lacking the precise terminology that we now use.

The general discussion prompted questions about different genres, especially dystopian and utopian literature, as more or less appropriate for discussion of the Anthropocene. More specifically, the colloquium focused on the notion of the elegy as it related to species extinction. The loss of a single species is not an isolated event, but rather the loss of a set of ecological relationships that reach far beyond the human experience with, and understanding of a single species. Furthermore, the loss of a single species will have dire consequences for related species. It is possible that the elegy is an appropriate genre in our own understanding of the Anthropocene in that the ultimate preoccupation that humans have with the notion of climate change is the extinction of the human race. 

Capitalists on the plains

Ryan Fischer earned his Ph.D. in History from UC Davis and now teaches at the University of Wisconsin – River Falls. Professor Fischer returned to Davis to present our second paper of the quarter, “’Smoking Horses’: Meskwaki Migration and Adaptation on the 19th century Prairie.” The paper looks at the importance of an environmental history of Native American migration by shedding light on how migrants adapted to new environments through strategies developed over time, and with alliances and animosities that shifted with the needs of the community.

The notion of an environmental history of Native American migration poses interesting questions about theory and methodology. The use of traditional and non-traditional sources force us to redefine settler colonialism in the Native American context as an ongoing process that is not simply binary. Our understanding of territory and the idea of being “rooted” as a people can actually be more closely related to mobility in some Indian societies. The discussion also raised questions of exchange economies and merchant capitalism in Indian society. As Meskwakis became dependent on certain industries, did they become petty capitalists on the plains? While the discussants never came to a consensus on the questions that were raised, it became clear that environmental histories of migration have the ability to pose important questions about the ways in which humans adapt to the social, ecological, and economic constraints and opportunities imposed by forced, and even voluntary migration.

Plantation economies

Britt Rusert joined us from the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s W.E.B. DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies. Professor Rusert’s paper, “Mystifying Cotton: Toward an (Eco)Critique of Histories of American Capitalism,” analyzed relatively new scholarship from historians of capitalism on the role of plantation economies in shaping the modern capitalist system. The most notable recent works, Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History (2014), Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2014), and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013) view slavery as an eminently modern institution that made important economic input and output adjustments in order to benefit from the increasingly global economic system.

Professor Rusert posed interesting theoretical questions about the relationship between an increased focus on commodity histories and new materialism, actor-network theory, and object-oriented ontology. What Rusert calls “commodity fetishism” in these new histories, lacks important acknowledgment of the role of black radicals and a curious “scarcity of references to Marx.” This paper was both provocative and prescient, which led to a lively discussion and wonderful observations from different disciplinary perspectives.

Meat matters

Historian Chris Otter of the Ohio State University sated our appetites with his paper, “Meat,” which looks at the evolution of food systems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Otter’s paper maps out how “the distance (spatial and cognitive) between the meat on the plate and the living, breathing creature in the field [has] grown to planetary proportions.” The paper, and broader discussion fleshed out the importance of food as a locus of cultural identity.

Meat consumption in Britain reflected the wealth and power of the empire. The British ate more meat than any other European nation, and were only surpassed by the “meat-glutted neo-Europes,” which met Britain’s massive demand by raising disproportionate quantities of livestock. The British augmented their domestic and foreign supply chain by creating “livestock diasporas” that “extended to Paraguay, Trinidad, Gibraltar, Ascension Island, Rhodesia, Finland, Peru and Japan.” Mechanical refrigeration accelerated the global meat trade and—combined with breeding for specific traits—transformed diets, livestock ecologies, and the world’s relationship with meat.

Resiliency and redevelopment

Lindsey Dillon joined us from right here at UC Davis where she was serving as the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow in American Studies. Professor Dillon’s paper, “Toxic Waters: Sea Level Rise, Resiliency, and Environmental Justice in Late Industrial San Francisco” brought our attention back to the Bay Area with her inquiry into the political ecologies of toxic cleanup and redevelopment projects in San Francisco’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood.

In her analysis of the ways in which San Francisco plans to deal with climate change, Dillon focuses on the discourse of twenty-first-century disaster management, and what she calls the “keywords of contemporary liberal governance,” specifically the notion of resiliency. Bayview Hunters Point is an interesting location for analysis because the area is reclaimed tidelands, that were also a hazardous waste dump site, and now house some of the city’s poorest residents.

Dillon’s work confronts the possibilities and pitfalls of remediation and redevelopment from an environmental justice perspective. Dillon’s paper provided excellent fuel for discussion as the participants questioned the meaning of “resiliency” in the context of environmental justice, and exactly who was supposed to resilient to what?

Ontologies of the ocean

We finished the year with Professor Elizabeth DeLoughrey from UCLA’s English Department. DeLoughrey’s paper, “‘Moments in Passing:’ Maritime Futures of the Anthropocene,” provided the colloquium with a visually and intellectually stimulating analysis of how the Cold War shaped the ways in which we understand our current ecological crisis.

DeLoughrey pinpoints what she calls “the oceanic turn” to the 1954 Truman Proclamation, which extended US sovereignty out to 200 nautical miles. Not only did this proclamation “claim[…] the resources of the continental shelf, seabed, and coastal fisheries,” but, in conjunction with Truman’s 1945 annexation of Micronesia, tripled the territorial size of the US’s Exclusive Economic Zone. DeLoughrey uses the submarine Caribbean sculptures of Jason deCaires Taylor as a vehicle to theorize what she calls “sea ontologies.”

In looking at the relationships between humans and the seas, DeLoughrey provides a terminology and theoretical framework from which we can begin to understand the ocean as an organism that creates life and indicates disaster. The ocean has become the bellwether of the Anthropocene and DeLoughrey provides us with new and innovative ways think about human relationships with the seas.

This article originally appeared, in slightly altered form, at the Environments & Societies Colloquium BlogLearn more about the Colloquium Series and see a schedule of upcoming events at the Environments & Societies website.

The Environments & Societies Research Initiative is administrated by the Institute for Social Sciences.