Tag Archives: Environment

Beast of Contention: The Polar Bear as National Symbol and Emblem of Conservation

By Michael Engelhard*

The Icelandic artist Bjargey Ólafsdóttir painted this outline on Langjökull Glacier to draw attention to activists’ demands to reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm. (Photo by Christopher Lund.)

In the new millennium’s politics, polar bears play the part whales played in the 1980s. From a theatrics-as-protest perspective, their shape lends itself better to impersonation than that of a rainforest or whale. Activists take advantage of this. Dressed as polar bears, they show up in the most unlikely places—the Kremlin, or Ottawa’s Parliament Hill—as nonhuman “climate refugees. In an act billed as “part protest, part performance,” Greenpeace paraded a mechanical polar bear the size of a double-decker bus through central London, as part of its Save the Arctic campaign. Fifteen puppeteers operated Aurora the bear, which had an articulated head and neck, a mouth like an ice cave, and the real bear’s “slightly lazy” ambling gait. Continue reading

Vulnerable Knowledge: DataRefuge and the Protection of Public Research

Judith Butler has written that “resistance is the mobilization of vulnerability,” arguing that precariousness animates action. This suggests that rather than a state of docile subjugation, vulnerability is a source of empowerment. A particularly revealing example of this relationship between power and vulnerability is evidenced in the current status of federal climate science data. This data is increasingly vulnerable, as it is now maintained by an administration that has openly disavowed its credibility. At the same time, its vulnerability is directly tied to the potential power it wields in upsetting the authority and legitimacy of this administration. The power and vulnerability of climate data are positively correlated.

On its first day in office, the incoming administration ordered all mention of climate change removed from the official White House website. This, and the new president’s vow to eliminate Obama-era environmental policies, suggest a broad mistrust of science (climate science particularly) among the executive branch and its supporters. Suspecting that this could endanger decades of accumulated scientific data and research, UPenn’s Environmental Humanities program and Penn Libraries have initiated the DataRefuge project (#DataRefuge, @DataRefuge), facilitating a series of DataRescue events around the country designed to ensure that federal climate and environmental data remain publicly available under the current administration – a clear illustration of resistance stemming from the mobilization of vulnerability.

The following is an email conversation with one of the initiative’s organizers, Patricia Kim (@lowerendtheory) – Ph.D. candidate in Art History and Program Coordinator and Graduate Fellow at the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities (PPEH).

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A Cultural Anthropologist Reads a Science Journal

One morning, chasing down a lead about research on plant memory from an article published in The Economist, I ended up at the journal Oecologia. This trajectory is increasingly familiar: a news source renders a popular account of life science research, and, trying to learn more, I end up at the academic source. The table of contents quickly overwhelmed me, though, and provoked me to stop for a moment and take stock of what I look for or find interesting in journals on genetics, biology, and botany.

Working on race, I initially began reading science journals as a way to keep up with claims and counterclaims in the polemics over its social construction. But as my focus shifted from people to plants (still keyed in on race), and as I developed an ethnographic project on biodiversity research, I began reading the journal articles to better understand what these plant scientists are up to. Along the way, the items in these reports (concepts, techniques, analytics) shifted, in my view, from socially constructed artifacts to crucial means for comprehending the very subjects that interest my ethnographic subjects. Now my approach to cultural analysis is changing. Continue reading