Tag Archives: environmental humanities

Difficult Dialogues Spring Public Forum: Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment

This spring’s Difficult Dialogues Public Forum, held on April 13, featured three of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows: Dr. Andrea Gore (College of Pharmacy);  Dr. Ben Hodges (Cockrell School of Engineering, Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering); and Dr. Katherine Lieberknecht (School of Architecture, Community and Regional Planning) speaking on the topic of “Health, Infrastructure, and the Environment.” Each panelist spoke briefly, followed by conversation moderated by HI Director Dr. Pauline Strong.

Dr. Lieberknecht’s presentation focused on the importance of including local knowledge in climate planning. She heads a National Science Foundation-supported collaborative project located in Dove Springs that seeks to find ways to integrate community knowledge into city efforts to contain flooding and ameliorate extreme heat. Lieberknecht identified three kinds of infrastructure planners consider when designing solutions: the built environment; the ecological environment; and the social environment. Using seasonal flooding as an example, the built environment includes structures such as levees; the ecological environment includes efforts to create green space; and the social environment includes communication networks within communities. Local knowledge incorporates information about all three. Community members know which storm drain always backs up, which route to the grocery store is shadiest in the heat of summer, and who organizes community responses. The Dove Springs project is still in its beginning stages—the research began roughly 6 months ago, and some aspects have been hampered by C19 restrictions—but Lieberknecht and her academic and community partners hope that its findings will help planners and communities design more robust climate solutions.

Dr. Hodges followed. He opened his presentation by sharing a simple fact: global warming means increasing rain, increasing rain means more floods. Floods happen for three reasons, Hodges explained. Rivers exceed their banks; storm surges overwhelm coastal areas; and “water bombs,” localized intense rainstorms. Cities are not currently designed to manage such storms. Design criteria must change. But civil engineering solutions operate almost exclusively from a cost benefit analysis.  Wealthy people live on the most valuable land, so it’s that land that civil engineers strive to protect. Hodges pinpointed a dilemma in infrastructure planning: when changes are made to mitigate undesirable circumstances, such as flooding, property values rise. Gentrification often follows, driving the original residents out. How can engineers and city planners create solutions that preserve communities instead of displacing them? Hodges suggested a few ways to change current practices. Firstly, he encouraged more interdisciplinary work to provide more holistic understandings of the problems and possible solutions. He promoted investment in ripping out concrete and asphalt to create new green spaces, and stressed the importance of building codes in addressing infrastructure inequities. He also proposed that cities begin thinking of eminent domain as a tool to bring more valuable properties into green space.

To close the panel, Dr. Gore brought a more direct focus on health outcomes. Since the “chemical revolution” of the World War II period, synthetic chemical production has increased dramatically. Many of these chemicals allow us to have products that make our lives easier or more convenient. However, their production often causes pollution that harms both human and non-human life. Gore described her research on endocrine-disrupting chemicals, or EDCs, which she defined as “a chemical that interferes with any aspect of hormone action.” Hormones, she explained, affect brain development and behavior regulation, among other factors. She emphasized two points: EDCs have adverse effects on brain health, and these adverse effects can affect the health of future generations. We’re all exposed to EDCs, primarily through food. Chemical contamination harms wildlife as well as human life, which Rachel Carson demonstrated in her 1962 book, Silent Spring. As the planet warms up, the polar ice caps melt, and chemicals once trapped in the ice are released into the air and water. While it would be impossible to avoid all exposure to EDCs, Gore offered some actions we all can take in order to minimize risk. She advised microwaving in glass containers rather than plastic; drinking filtered water, not bottled water; and eating fresh produce—organic, if it’s affordable—instead of industrially processed food.

A lively discussion followed. Participants discussed the tension between local and national needs when addressing infrastructure issues, and the need for context-informed solutions. Lieberknecht cited the need to “think with equity.” Solving these issues requires thinking holistically, including conversations about living wages, affordable housing, and access to healthy food. While all agreed that community cultures of care are important, they stressed that it’s the role of municipalities to step up and address problems.

Several resources were shared by the panelists and participants in the chat. Some are linked below.

City of Austin Climate Equity Plan 

Planet Texas 2050

“Editorial: An International Riposte to Naysayers of Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals” Andrea Gore

“Policy Decisions on Endocrine Disruptors Should Be Based on Science Across Disciplines: A Response to Dietrich et al.” Andrea Gore, et al.

The Death and Life of Great American Cities Jane Jacobs

The Economy of Cities Jane Jacobs

Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life  Eric Klinenberg

Thinking in Systems and other work by Donella Meadows

Water 4.0: The Past, Present, and Future of the World’s Most Vital Resource David Sedlak

Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies Geoffrey West

 

Photo of the 2015 Halloween flood in Austin, TX courtesy of the City of Austin

Heather Houser: “Affiliating Reproductive and Climate Justice.”

Dr. Heather Houser, associate professor in the Department of English, led the February 11 session of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Houser presented a new project she is developing, an exploration of the challenges and the possibilities of including reproduction as part of the response to climate crisis.

Influenced by her work as part of an interdisciplinary team at Planet Texas 2050 and the research and writing of her monographs Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction (2014) and Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data (2020), Houser seeks to write outside of the frame of a traditional academic monograph. Both literary writing and visual art that incorporate scientific information open space for artists to question western epistemologies and to entangle them with other knowledges, a prospect that she finds stimulating and challenging.  Examples of  writing she finds compelling include Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), by Isabel Wilkerson. She imagines writing shorter, more personal pieces, such as the work of Roxane Gay and Elizabeth Kolbert.

In this initial exploratory stage, she wishes to get a sense of how conversations around family, reproduction, and climate develop. She began her inquiries with a set of questions: what are the frameworks within which climate conversations happen? What  ideas galvanize those conversations, and what  ideas or themes are taboo?

Houser decided on the term “affiliation” to link her areas of inquiry both to avoid prescriptive framings and to deflect the tendency to subordinate one form of justice to the other.  The point is to think of reproductive justice and environmental justice together. For her, affiliation gets at creating conditions for thriving, one of the central concerns of the reproductive justice movement.

Both the climate justice and the reproductive justice movements have thorny and complicated racial histories. Houser intends her work to bring a critique of white dominance to both. At her current stage of inquiry,  she finds the critiques provided by the history of Black feminism and the Black women’s health movement most valuable, citing works such as  Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present for their engagement with racial histories of science in the USA. She’s interested in thinking about particular ideas of justice, and what justice means in different communities. The project requires self-reflection and awareness of her own positionality as she works in and with traditions of thought, advocacy, and expression without being appropriative.

Houser also directs attention to the concept of “choice.” A key point for the reproductive justice movement is the ability to have—or not have— children according to one’s own terms. Her initial impression is that  “childfree” is a position predominately held, or more publicly owned and capitalized upon, by white women. However, under conditions of racial injustice and health inequities, the choices of some are limited or completely removed: communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins that disrupt or impair human reproduction, and are also targeted by racist policies that pathologize certain family structures and seek to control reproduction, including through forced sterilizations.

Fellows suggested several avenues for further exploration. One possible trajectory is to question the relationships between justice and choice. How does justice differ from choice?  Is justice about making an individual choice with knowledge of the structures that shape that choice?  What would it mean to reframe the notion of self-determination in a collective sense?  The work of Eve Tuck proposes justice as an important, but limited, meeting place. Justice works within the confines of the state. It provides a space for movement building and advocacy, but the end goal of these movements is not necessarily redress within the state.

Another approach is to think along the lines of labor and care as they apply to reproduction and sustainability. What are the ideas of family and community that make care more or less sustainable? What are other versions of family? Both Silvia Federici and Maria Mies provide accounts that reconsider domestic and family labor. Perhaps different communities of care and support open new possibilities for reproductive justice and environmental justice and sustainability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Introducing “The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities”

 

On January 28,  Humanities Institute Director Dr. Pauline Strong led the first session of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows Seminar, “The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities.”  As an introduction to the theme, she presented the Humanities Institute’s successful proposal to the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes to conduct a Global Humanities Institute in Summer 2022 on the theme “Climate Justice and Problems of Scale.” Three of the 2020-2022 Fellows—Heather Houser, Katherine Liebernecht, and Adam Rabinowitz—also participated in the proposal process.  The proposal provided a starting point for the discussion of two broad and intersecting themes: the possibilities and complications provided by an environmental humanities perspective, and the role of scale in identifying and analyzing environmental issues.

The environmental humanities both offers opportunities for interdisciplinary inquiry and presents challenges. Fellows identified multiple tensions presented by the effort to construct a common interdisciplinary project. Some tensions revolved around the relationship of the humanities to other disciplines. Questions arose as to whether a common project even exists. Speaking of  “the” environmental humanities or “the” natural sciences implies a unitary focus that elides difference not just between but within disciplines. Unitary conceptions of the human also came under scrutiny. How is the “we” in documents such as the United Nations report “The Future We Want” constituted? Colonialism shapes understandings of what is human, making it imperative to attend to projections of “the human factor” or “the human condition.”

Tensions between the specific and the general carried into methodological questions. Interdisciplinary work requires translation across disciplinary practices within the academy. What methods are best suited to the production of environmental knowledge?  Humanities disciplines share a reliance on interpretive methods. Should the humanities be more accommodating of quantification? Practices such as close reading, with its intent focus on particular works, are a product of a culture that values the private individual over the collective, a factor in the current environmental crisis. Perhaps methods such as Franco Moretti’s “distant reading”—which uses tools developed in the digital humanities to focus on trends rather than singularities—provide a more relevant mode of inquiry  at a time of environmental crisis. Research design focused on environmental and social justice often calls for new ways of structuring research, highlighting the need to build internal institutional capacity.  To affect policy, this work must also move outside of the academy. What tools do we need to translate it into policy applications?

As an analytical tool, scale facilitates thinking across space and time; it enables us to connect the dumping of pollutants in one place to the appearance of toxins in ecosystems thousands of miles away, and allows disparate communities damaged by the actions of a single multinational corporation to stand together in solidarity (Sze 2016). However, scale is culturally situated and technologically mediated. We inhabit multiple scales simultaneously; environmental catastrophes can also be experienced and observed in multiple scales.

 The concept of “zoom” illustrates the harm that can be done by scalar thinking.  Zoom gives us the ability to pull back or hone in. Either extreme presents difficulties: not everything is visible in the service of the scale. Pull out too far and difference disappears; hone in too closely and you risk overemphasizing  a singular detail.  What is set aside or ignored to allow scale? How does the scale of “the local” enable the exclusion of histories of displacement and migration? The entanglements of scale and privilege can allow people to focus on individual actions rather than collective approaches to identifying and addressing social and environmental crises.

A focus on story or narrative emerged as one way to mitigate the damage done by scalar thinking.  Both qualitative and quantitative disciplines use story to communicate their findings.  Rachel Carson relied on story to convince the public of the dangers of DDT; engineers use story to promote particular solutions or projects.  Fellow Heather Houser’s book, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data, explores the ways visual artists and  writers create new ways of understanding the overwhelming  amount of information available to us in an age of climate crisis. The session provided a broad review of topics with which the Fellows will engage this year.