Seeing the Woods

A blog by the Rachel Carson Center for Environment and Society

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Making Tracks: Paula Ungar

In the “Making Tracks” series, RCC fellows and alumni present their experiences in environmental humanities, retracing the paths that led them to the Rachel Carson Center. For more information, please click here.

“Walking the Line between Worlds”

By Paula Ungar

The first thing I wrote of which I have clear memory is a short verse from when I was nine years old. It was dedicated to a bird that got caught in my grandmother’s tenth-floor apartment in Bogotá, to which we had recently moved from the countryside. After several minutes of distressed wings flapping between armchairs and porcelain figurines, the pigeon managed to escape through a window, leaving a solitary feather behind. I stuck it next to my inspired writing—for some reason, I felt the need to attach proof to the volatile words.

We used to live in the countryside, in a small village near Bogotá. If I close my eyes I can still see the silhouette of El Majuy, the mountain that watched over us from behind our house, and the water falling in silver threads out of the watering can when I tended to the garden, changing the color of the earth around the coriander plants from dry grey to rich black. The smell of that black earth often comes back to me, along with the distant barking of the neighbors’ dogs and the awkward feeling on my hands of the legs of scarabs, which visited our porch on cold, rainy afternoons.


Páramo de Sumapaz, Colombian Eastern Andes. Photo: Paula Ungar.

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Snapshot: Start with a Bang


For many, a New Year celebration would not be the same without fireworks. But have you ever noticed what happens to all that leftover packaging wrapped around the rockets and bangers? It seems that an awful lot falls to the floor and gets swept up along with the broken bottles and spilt food that litter the city streets on New Year’s Day. This is just one pile yet to be collected in Munich, where this year 140 employees have already helped gather 50 tonnes of post-party rubbish, an increase from last year’s figures. That’s a lot of waste for a couple of hours of wonder and dazzling lights…

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Toward a Beautiful Rural Life

by Zhen Wang

Jenny Chio’s book A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China attracted me because of its connection to my current research project at the Rachel Carson Center. One of the reasons for this is that we share the same research area—southwest China. My own research focuses on the changing landscape of ethnic minority villages in Sichuan Province; Chio’s book tells a story of two ethnic minority villages located in Guangxi and Guizhou provinces respectively. Together, these are three important places in southwest China. Another main reason is that we are both interested in how minority peoples’ living environments and everyday lives have changed and been shaped by the influences which have come from China’s rapid urbanization and economic development during the last nearly four decades. Continue reading

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Environmental Knowledge and Environmental Politics in the “Post-Truth” Era

by Jonathan Clapperton and Liza Piper

Nearly one year has passed since we wrote the introduction to the recently released RCC Perspectives volume titled “Environmental Knowledge, Environmental Politics: Case Studies from Canada and Western Europe.” At the time, we wrote in an atmosphere of environmental and progressive social activist optimism: the Paris Agreement had just been signed, US President Barack Obama had recently put a halt to the Keystone XL pipeline proposal, and, for those of us living in Canada, newly-elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had broken a decade of Conservative party rule, promising during the election campaign that the Liberal Party would be good environmental stewards, implement a “renewed relationship” with First Nations, and revive the value of academic research in making knowledge-based decisions. Oh, how times have changed. Continue reading

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Snapshot: Latour de Force


Bruno Latour speaking at the Lunchtime Colloquium, 8 December 2016.

What does it mean to be human in the Anthropocene? Put simply, we are disoriented: disoriented in space—aware that despite a united vision for the planet, no single space exists to accommodate all of our wishes; disoriented in time—living in an age stifled by doubt; disoriented in terms of agency—troubled by the political question of what to do about the environment and who should take the lead.

So how do we begin to heal this bewilderment and reorient ourselves on Earth? This was the question philosopher and anthropologist Bruno Latour posed at last week’s special Lunchtime Colloquium.

Latour challenged our concept of the globe and globalization, showing that we need to start thinking about the Earth as a living system in our new climatic regime, and about the type of knowledge we need to produce to create political order in nature. He emphasized the need for a new approach—one that allows us to establish a political ecology that can drive the current discussion beyond the dichotomy of returning to the past, or pursuing a politics of globalization. Drawing on our collective interdisciplinary knowledge, it is up to us to redefine who we are and where we stand in the world. Only then can we begin to reorient ourselves on Earth in the Anthropocene.

The event was sponsored as part of the 10th Munich Hochschultage.


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“Key Debates in Environmental Anthropology”—A Report on the Inaugural Conference of the Environmental Anthropology Working Group

by Oliver Liebig

On 26th and 27th September 2016, the Environmental Anthropology Working Group (a subgroup of the German Anthropological Association) met at the Rachel Carson Center for their inaugural conference. The meeting was convened to discuss the key debates and standpoints in environmental anthropology, as well as its diverse engagements with current environmental problems, such as climate change, species extinction, deforestation, industrial pollution, the food crisis, industrial agriculture, and water management.

The organizers—Rebecca Hofmann (PH Freiburg), Ursula Münster (RCC), and Carsten Wergin (University of Heidelberg)—conceptualized the meeting as a space for open discussions about the field of environmental anthropology, rather than for longer presentations about participants’ research. The meeting therefore started with all participants introducing themselves and giving brief statements on their research interests and motivations.


Brainstorming at the environmental anthropology workshop. Photo by Laura Kuen.

Tom Griffiths (Australian National University) gave the keynote talk on bushfire in Australia. He illustrated the role fire has had for Aboriginal people since precolonial times. He showed how fire was and is at the heart of Aboriginal cultivation, through the use of firesticks to strategically burn areas of land to allow particular plants and wildlife to thrive, and how they also used fire to provide space for hunting. After the 2009 tragedy of a bushfire in southeast Australia, non-Aboriginal communities who lived in the forest were seriously harmed. These communities now experience themselves as communities in crisis. Their first question was: “How did the fire know we lived here?” This question then brought up several related ones: “What happened on that day? What does it mean in the long term? How can we renew for the future? How can we better include local histories and knowledges into fire management?” The keynote thus introduced some of the core topics of environmental anthropology: how can anthropologists better understand entanglements between environmental phenomena, social and power relations, and ontologies?


Looking into the Steels Creek valley near Melbourne in May 2009, three months after the Black Saturday firestorm. Photo by Tom Griffiths.


In the first panel, “TechnoNatureCultures,” Daniel Münster gave an introductory presentation on the social life of things—that is, the idea that things or phenomena have a social existence and are in social relationships with human beings as well as with other things. Plants, for example, are able to absorb bacteria into themselves through rhizomes , or in permaculture you find a cycle of living substance. From the perspective of environmental anthropology it is possible to speak of co-evolving relations between humans, plants, animals, and microbes. Yet this raises many controversies: The question came up, with reference to Donna Haraway and her writings on human-animal and human-machine relations: who has the right to speak for matter then?

This was followed by thoughts on the social life of (environmental) phenomena like rivers, the wind, or trees. Such phenomena not only play important roles in everyday energy politics, but are related to and part of broader social complexities. Therefore, seeing trees as more than timber (and hence nature as more than a resource), as exemplified in The Secret Life of Trees by Colin Tudge, affects people and their habits. For environmental anthropology it could be fruitful to shed light on these linkages.


Early spring in the Steels Creek valley and some green returns to the blackened forests, August 2009. Photo by Tom Griffiths.

The second panel, “Political Ecologies,” was introduced by Sandra Calkins, who outlined a main critique of the concept of political ecology: because the political has been more and more emphasized, in the end there is no ecology left. This recalled Bruno Latour’s demand in his book Politics of Nature, that political ecology has to be rethought in order to overcome the anthropocentrism that has taken over. The participants agreed that it would be necessary to put the ecology back into political ecology.

Arno Pascht opened the third panel, “Environmental Ontologies,” with a discussion of Marilyn Strathern, whose work contributed to shifting anthropological questions of knowledge and epistemology to ontology. The “ontological turn” in anthropology has opened up the possibility that plural worlds and multiple natures exist and has raised questions about how to explore these different kinds of worlds. The group then discussed different approaches, like that of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and recursive ethnography. In Viveiros de Castro’s description of the environmental relations of several indigenous groups in the Amazon, he shows how the environment can become a subject and actually plays subject-like roles. The environment appears not as passive, but as an actor. This actor is, according to Tim Ingold (amongst many others), neither just nature nor culture. Following on from this, the group agreed that science and the humanities should embrace this view, instead of separating humans from their environments. The debate also raised ethical concerns: how can one describe a mountain or fungus in a way that gives it a status like that of a non-human being? Or, put another way, why should it not be considered to be more than just a part of the landscape or just a plant or excrescence? The question would be then, where does the human stop and who would decide this? These ideas have political implications. The group found it important to tell counterstories (e.g., Marxist counterstories) to neoliberalism, but also to listen to non-human voices in human stories, concluding with the question: what gives us the right to tell nature’s story from a human perspective?


Discussing environmental ontologies. Photo by Laura Kuen.

The meeting ended with a discussion on future perspectives in environmental anthropology. The organizers identified three main approaches from the theoretical debates, that varied within the working group: first, that of critical realism (“there is actually a real world out there”); second, a standpoint that speaks more from perceptions (following e.g., Tim Ingold), ontology/ies, worlds and worldviews/Weltanschauungen (following e.g. Philippe Descola), or difference and (radical) alterity (e.g. Eduardo Viveiros de Castro); and last, a flattening or not so flattening science and technology studies (STS) perspective. This final summary, like the meeting in general, was a helpful cartography of useful approaches that are applied in current environmental anthropology research. Of course, many open questions remained, e.g., what a working definition of environmental anthropology could be, and what a good methodology in environmental anthropological research would look like. But it showed possibilities and the strength of the environmental anthropological perspective, and also did not hold back with critiques of the differing approaches.



Acknowledgements: I would like to thank Ursula Münster, Jeannine-Madeleine Fischer, and the RCC editing team for their comments on the text.

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Doktorandentag 2016

By Anja Rieser and Ivan Vilovic

With topics ranging from earthquakes to the League of Nations, greenhouse gases to photography, in fields as diverse as politics, law, geography, and art, the doctoral students at the Rachel Carson Center are a truly interdisciplinary group. On 7 November they convened for a “Doktorandentag,” a day of presentations and discussions in which six of the doctoral students and two visiting doctoral students (from Tel Aviv and Warsaw respectively) presented their current research projects. It was an opportunity to show the research happening at the Rachel Carson Center, where staff, fellows, and doctoral students were all welcome to come and listen, as well to take part in interesting discussions concerning their projects.


dsc_0302Legal historian Omer Aloni opened the day with his project “Back to the League of Nations.” In it, he examines the environmental legal activities of the League of Nations between the two world wars. Although it was founded with the aim of promoting peace and settling international conflicts, starting in the 1920s the League showed a surprising degree of interest in the environment, creating and managing relations between nature, people, and communities. Although the League’s legal activity was less successful than hoped, it created the basis for international environmental legislation after the Second World War.


Continuing the political theme, Catholic theologian Chijioke Francis Nwosu presented his work on present-day Nigeria, looking at questions of sustainability, human ecology, and the maximization of capabilities of “Mma-Ndu” (the human person) in a project entitled “Removing the ‘Structures of Sin’ in Nigerian Polity.” Structures of sin refers to the ways problems are embedded in different social hierarchies and institutions. By considering sustainable development in its social, economic and environmental manifestations, his goal is to offer positive solutions that may find application in the future policies of his country.


The next set of presentations focused on issues connected with communities and land. Vikas Lakhani presented a case study from his project “Memories, Perceptions, and Learning,” which is interested specifically in how memory of disasters, such as the devastating earthquake in Bhuj in 2001, affects people’s perception of risk. He asks how state and media shape the collective memory of disasters, and how this affects communities differently in the aftermath of disasters. He showed us several examples of state-sponsored memorials and community memorials, and explained how disasters often become embedded in people’s narratives.


Azeb Worku presented the findings of her research project on “Intricacies of Large-Scale Farming in Ethiopia,” focusing specifically on the Gambela region. From 2006 to 2009, 20 million hectares of land have been acquired by foreign investors for cotton and sesame crops. This has resulted in deforestation to clear areas for farming and resettlement, even though only 5–10 percent of the acquired land is actually used for farming. Azeb questioned whether this foreign investment is land development—i.e., something that helps improve the lives of Ethiopians—or whether it is actually land grabbing, with negative impacts on the affected communities. The people and landscapes of her field research were brought to life through a documentary film produced during her travels.


From the down-to-earth matter of land, the discussions shifted to airier matters—quite literally. Christina Littlejohn’s project on “What Is Equitable vs. What Is Fair” takes on the project of climate change and climate politics more specifically. She analyzes the microeconomic impacts of wide-scale renewable energy technology development and deployment through international economic policy. A key dispute in international climate negotiations is the issue of equality vs. fairness. Is it fair to expect all countries to participate in the same way and to the same degree regardless of their particular circumstances? And how might different models of emissions trading affect the economies of developing countries?


Saskia Brill also turned her attention to greenhouse gases with a project titled “Negotiating Air: Cultural Perceptions of Greenhouse Gases.” Focusing on the economic aspects of human-environment relationships, she is researching emission trading in Canada’s Great Bear Rainforest Carbon Project. Companies outside Canada are investing in a conservation economy through the purchase of carbon offsets. Saskia takes a closer look at all the actors behind this process to discover more about the stakeholder groups and the (real) effects of this type of economy on the environment.

The Doktorandentag closed on a creative note with two presentations on the role of art in our perceptions of the environment. Noemi Quagliati’s project, “Wildness in the Time of Photography,” examines how the use of photography has changed our perception of the environment and our reality. Her research will combine both theoretical and visual investigations of the representation and conception of nature during the last century. A highlight of the presentation was the inclusion of many great photos from the last century, showing the different interpretations of the relationship between nature and society, including photos by Ansel Adams, Martin Parr, Andreas Gursky, Edward Burtynsky, and Ernst Jünger.

Aleksandra Jach, who was at the RCC for a brief visit, gave us a taste of her project on “Performing Environmental Crisis.” She suggested that a “performativity” approach can give us new insights into many global and environmental crises of our time. Her particular interest is the problems of hidden toxicities. She asked how we can curate art to visualize invisible toxicities, and how these creative approaches can create new and critical visual images and narratives that give people agency to act.

The “Doktorandentag” was a great opportunity for students, staff, and fellows to listen and engage. As doctoral candidate Jeroen Oomen remarked, it showcased an amazing collection of the valuable interdisciplinary research taking place here at the RCC.