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Jason Cons: “Delta Temporalities: Time, Territory, and Capture on a Climate Frontier”

At the second meeting of the Faculty Fellows seminar, Dr. Jason Cons,  associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, introduced the Fellows to Bangladesh’s Southwest Delta Zone. Physically, the zone is part of the Bengal delta, an area divided by the border between India and Bangladesh and edged by the Sundarban,  mangrove forest, a protected habitat of the Bengal tiger. Its human inhabitants include small scale farmers, fishers and shrimpers, landless people, game wardens, NGO workers, pirates, and bandits. 

Over the last decade, the border itself has been reinvented as a climate borderland, a locus of international attention as a front line of sovereignty in a warming world. The delta is often described as a wasteland, its once fertile lands becoming increasingly saline, its fishing and shrimping industries collapsing. Governmental agencies and NGOs attempt an array of projects meant to contain the effects of climate change and keep the region’s population in place.  At the same time, it’s the site of a new industrial corridor and an epicenter for new energy and power plants. The existence of these incommensurate futures drew Cons’s interest. His work in progress is a broad investigation of the delta emerging from the desire to understand what happens when so many future-making projects accumulate in one place. 

Cons thinks of the delta as a “climate frontier,” a space in which multiple temporal and spatial projects co-exist.  The metaphor of “capture” serves as a useful analytic to convey the particular sets of relations he wishes to bring together in his thinking. Capture here refers to a set of processes of seizure that secures rents, bodies, and  territories in order to hold and control them. It provides ways to think about the relations between the politics of conservation and piracy, a framework for understanding new forms of banditry along with new ways of conservation. Capture is an animating force, causing people and institutions to act. 

Frontiers are processes of capture of different kinds opportunity,  and a way to see how things in constant flux are connected. A characteristic of frontiers tends to be the production of new predator/prey relations. For example, fisherman are the prey of various humans looking to capture them: pirates, game wardens, and others. Frontier relations are not meant to be sustainable. The particular kind of dynamics that emerge in frontiers may cause ecological shifts that change behaviors. As resources within their territories dwindle, the tigers begin to prey on livestock.

Fellows responded to Cons’s figuring of the capture metaphor by suggesting he consider different modalities of capture. In HI director Pauline Strong’s work, Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity, captivity emerges as a practice through which people forged multiple kinds of relationships. Predator/ prey is one specific form of capture; too much focus on it leaves aside more relational forms of capture. Capture can also be a creative act, as in the capturing of a  recording or image. This “softer” side of capture provides a means to call attention and and bear witness.

The delta is being constituted as a particular kind of space with relation to other places, a climate ground zero. It’s also a space of competing temporalities, with different ideas of the future unfolding in the present all at once, without a shared timeframe of when that future is: the annual farming cycle, the three year fishing cycle, the development agency timelines of 25-50 years.

The discussion closed with Cons sharing some of his intent for the book. Development imaginaries often start from a dystopian vision of the wrong bodies in the wrong  places. For Cons, one of the most alarming things is that problematic imagination of what development is and does. It’s racialized, it furthers inequalities, and  also doesn’t do what it claims to do. It’s horrifying. Interventions should be understood through this lens.