Tag Archives: Nature, Ecology, the Environment

Humans and the animals without history

I do an exercise on the first day of class where I ask my students: In what ways are humans like animals? I collect the responses: we talk about food and sex – these are particularly interesting topics because they illustrate the breadth of anthropology and all the different methods we can use.

Then I ask in what ways are humans unique from animals? I collect the responses: we talk about language and culture, which always have this symbolic element too. Therefore, humans are like animals in many ways but unlike other animals in our capacity for a sophisticated, symbolic culture.

A little too nice and tidy, I know. But one of the reasons why this and other bits of structured improv are so much fun is because it gets students talking. You never know what they’re going to say and, on occasion, one will say something provocative. Or brilliant, or they’ll get it all wrong but in a way that is fascinating. Or their questions make you ask questions.

So I was doing this routine last week and I asked the question: How are humans different from other animals? And one of my students says, “Humans have history.” Continue reading

Book Review — Freedom in Entangled Worlds, by Eben Kirksey

In Freedom in Entangled Worlds, the first book by anthropologist Eben Kirksey, Mellon Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, the reader is presented with a history of the merdeka movement in West Papua. This tale of magic, nationalism, and human rights in an “out of the way place” unfolds on a global stage as the author treks from the secret hideouts of guerilla fighters in the highland bush country to the seat of corporate power at BP headquarters in London. Along the way we get a master class in how an academic activist might balance post-structural theory with the kinds of strong knowledge claims that may influence political decision makers.

Indonesia formally incorporated West Papua into its nation in 1969 with the fraudulent Act of Free Choice. Since that time West Papuan leaders have pursued independence, or at least increased autonomy, for their region through many, often contradictory, means. From political engagement with the Indonesian state to pleas made before the international community tribal leaders and educated city dwellers have risked their lives through armed resistance, peaceful protest, and magic pursuing their dreams of freedom. The odds seem insurmountable and the movement itself endures near constant crisis, thus the theme of crisis as a sign of hope runs throughout this short, adventurous ethnography.

In a revealing scene towards the end of the book, Kirksey, finding himself in the halls of Washington power (and the crosshairs of an FBI investigation), forms alliances with other activist organizations such as the East Timor Action Network. Frustrated that his investigation into the murders of some American school teachers outside a Freeport MacMoRan mine is largely being ignored by those in positions of power he learns an important lesson every anthropologist who wishes to speak truth to power must learn.

“Politics isn’t about facts but about stories,” the director of ETAN tells him. “Your story is too complicated.” Continue reading

Human Evolution and Patriarchy

The May 4, 2012, issue of the journal Science includes three briefs from the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists, one of which has a few choice words about telomere lengths. In case you hadn’t heard, studying telomere length is all the rage now as it apparently has some correlation to longevity. I don’t know. The whole thing seems fuzzy to me. Remember when neutrinos were going faster than the speed of light? That didn’t last long now did it?

As these creased and dog-eared magazines get passed back and forth at our family dinner table I had my brilliant wife (a real scientist) on hand for questioning.

“So is this telomere stuff for real?” I asked her.

“Mmm-hmm,” she said with a shrug. “It looks that way.” So there you have it, from the seat of authority.

Let’s refer to the Science journalist here:

Telomeres are repetitive sequences of DNA that prevent the ends of chromosomes from unraveling, much like the plastic tops on the ends of shoelaces. As cells divide and replicate, telomeres get shorter and eventually can no longer prevent the fraying of DNA and the decay of aging. Recent studies have found a link between living to 100 and having a hyperactive version of telomerase, an enyzme that keeps telomeres long.

If you’ve got long telomeres on your chromosomes then genetically speaking this is beneficial and improves your chances at living a long life. But what factors determines telomere length?
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Darwinian Tax Reform

Prima facie the notion of applying ecological theory to challenge our understanding of the national economy sounds intensely intriguing. So it was with great expectations that I read economist Robert Frank’s recent NYT piece based on his new book, “The Darwin Economy.” He presents the same idea in precis, here. Unfortunately the results did not live up to the promise of such an innovative idea.

Frank’s stated ambition is to use Darwin to critique Adam Smith on the basis of their different understandings of competition. In “The Wealth of Nations” (1776), Smith argued that as an individual pursues his or her own self-interest the outcome, without the individual ever intending to do so, can be beneficial to all of society. For example, as merchants compete with each other in their efforts to win customers the result is technological innovation, a collective good.

As a counterpoint Frank offers an example from the animal kingdom that he argues illustrates how Darwin’s theory better explains market behavior. Bull elk have enormous antlers that they use to compete with other males for access to mates. As the bull with the largest rack of antlers typically wins, competition has encouraged an “arms race” resulting in ever larger racks of antlers. Truthfully, the antlers are much bigger than they need to be. Consequently when bull elk flee from predators such as wolves they often get their racks tangled in trees, slowing them down and making them susceptible to predation. Thus, Frank concludes with Darwin contra Smith, in a competition things that are beneficial to the individual can result in an outcome that is detrimental to the group.

I’ll pause here for you to snort derisively.
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Eco-Chic Burning Man Hipsters

That curious identity politic that mixes neo-primitive fashion, ecological coolness, spiritual openness, upper middle class ambition, multiculturalism, and conscious consumerism can be coalesced under the moniker eco-chic–an elite contradictory expression of social justice and neoliberalism. It will be explored in the conference EcoChic: Connecting Ethical, Sustainable and Elite Consumption, put on by the European Science Foundation in October. The conference organizers see this expressive culture accurately in its rich contradictions. Eco-chic “is both the product of and a move against globalization processes. It is a set of practices, an ideological frame and a marketing strategy.” If you’ve spent anytime in Shoreditch, Haight, Williamsburg, or Silverlake you’ve got some experience with these hip, trendy elites. Ramesh calls them “Burning Man Hipsters.” I’ve been studying new media producers in America and eco-chic describes an important cultural incarnation of these knowledge producer’s value set. As far as anthropology is concerned, meta-categories such as eco-chic, liberalism, or transhumanism that cross cultural boundaries while remaining bound by class, challenge our discipline to revisit totalizing notions such as “culture” and “tribe.”

Eco-chic, like many other socio-cultural manifestations of neoliberalism is rife with contradiction. The fundamental contradiction being that it is a social justice movement within consumer capitalism. The producers of eco-chic goods and experiences are structured by capitalism’s profit motive. Likewise consumers of eco-chic goods and experiences are motivated by ideals that try to transcend or correct the ecological or deleterious human impacts of capitalism. Thus both producer and consumer of eco-chic are caught in a contradiction between their social justice drives and their suspension in the logic of neoliberalism. Eco chic events such as Burning Man and television networks such as Al Gore’s Current TV also express the fundamental contradiction between the social and the entrepreneurial in social entrepreneurialism. How do the contradictions within eco-chic represent themselves in American West Coast’s cultural expressions such as Burning Man and Current TV? Continue reading

Regarding Japan Part 2: Affective Loops and Toxic Tastings

Eleven weeks have passed since the earthquake and tsunami hit northeastern Japan.  Although bodies are still being found amidst the wreckage, the rest of the world has long since moved on.   The media waves of shock, horror, heroism, heartbreak, and heart-warm continue to push and pull us through a relentless series of events: from Libya to Tuscaloosa, Kate and William to Bin Laden, Donald Trump to Strauss-Kahn.

The affective loop is dizzying as it moves us between distant places and local homes, political upheavals and natural disasters, raging storms and individual stories, the serious and the absurd. Unable to catch my breath between blows or steady myself according to some sense of scale, I feel like so much has happened since the tsunami struck. And yet, I don’t know what to make of any of it.  Are we just bracing ourselves for the next thing?

In an April article entitled “The Half-life of Disaster” Brian Massumi discusses how this media cycle leads us into a perpetual state of foreboding that brings together natural, economic and political threat perception in a configuration that fuels what Naomi Klein termed “disaster capitalism”. The horror is never resolved or replaced; rather, it is archived, infinitely accessible over the Internet.  Cast into the web of other events, the unendurable tragedy of a particular event dissipates, or as Massumi says, “it decays”.  In today’s catastrophic mediashpere, observes Massumi, the half-life of disaster is at most two weeks. Continue reading

Darwinian Literary Criticism

What if humanities scholars started doing evolutionary psychology? No, wait. Hear me out.

I had never heard of this before I read about it in a news focus piece in the May 6, 2011, issue of the journal Science, “Red in Tooth and Claw Among the Literati,” (Vol.332, p.654). Ordinarily this is something I’d be skeptical about. After all I jumped on the bandwagon bashing evo-psyche in the comments of Dustin’s recent post and I’ve blogged about the overblown promises of Culturenomics. But this so-called Darwinian literary criticism is kind of neat. In parts.

First a word about the news piece itself. The author, Sam Kean, comes across as overtly sympathetic to the cause of Darwinian literary criticism and seems to shares his subject’s – Joseph Carroll, the originator of this school of thought – dim view of contemporary literary scholarship. This unreflective, uncritical approach yields a rather dissatisfying article.

It seems this kind of thing is quite unpopular in some literary circles (shocking!), even getting panned in a recent issue of Critical Inquiry (ouch!). But our journalist takes this to mean that the man is some sort of hero and his brilliant idea is getting squashed by poststructural, postcolonial phonies. These “fashionable” theories, along with Freud and Marx, he writes, have all “dismissed the idea that evolutionary pressures have shaped human nature, attributing all human nature to culture instead.”

Anybody who thinks Marx dismisses Darwin needs to stop reading Wikipedia.
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A highlight of the recent AAA conference in New Orleans was a visit to one of the three art galleries participating in Swarm: Multispecies Salon 3, one of the new “inno-vent” functions spun off from the usual conference proceedings. There was a “Multispecies Anthropology” panel at the conference itself, but sadly it was timed to overlap with the very panel I was participating in. As a multimedia art installation Swarm was highly stimulating and a lot of fun too, I would have loved to see it tied more directly to contemporary cultural anthropology and theory. Fortunately I can turn to the journal Cultural Anthropology Vol. 25, Issue 4 (2010), a special theme issue edited by some of the co-curators of Swarm that explores the intersections of bioart and anthropology, humans and non-human species, science and nature.

Saturday evening, after the SANA business meeting and a catfish po-boy, I slinked back to my cheap hotel for a change of clothes and to get the address of The Ironworks studio on Piety Street. It turns out hailing a cab in New Orleans on a Saturday night can take awhile, especially when you’re in the CBD. And when I did get a cabbie, he confessed to not knowing where Piety Street was and his sole map seemed to be a tourist brochure which only listed major intersections. (“Here put these on,” and he gave me his reading glasses as if this would help.) I bargained that waiting to catch another cab would take longer than navigating with a lost cabbie and so we set sail on the streets of New Orleans.

After the confusion, a train, and about six blocks of streets without names we arrived. The Ironworks was an ideal setting for this experiment in art and anthropology. At the end of a city neighborhood, under the comforting glow of the street lamps, the building suggested a past life as a warehouse or place of light industry. Inside a high fence folks gathered around a keg of beer or perched on picnic tables on the edge of a interior yard whose distance brought darkness and a sense of privacy. This is where the robots roamed, clacking and blinking.

Inside I soon found my friends, alums from my alma mater New College – many of us became professional anthropologists – had agreed to swarm the Swarm. Much to my surprise there were even some undergrads who spotted me right away by my tattoo of the school logo and a fellow from my class who became a criminal lawyer and now lived right down the street. Also there were tamales. And a band of noise musicians. It was good crowd to be in, a mix of ages, anthropologists and artists.

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“Please Eat the Gulf” by David Beriss, guest blogger

Please Eat the Gulf

David Beriss

I have never been an especially observant Jew, but when we moved to New Orleans in 1997, we joined a local synagogue.  I was told by a wise Jewish native that good New Orleans Jews observe the Yom Kippur fast and then break the fast with oysters, shrimp or crabs.  Except for the fasting part, I have since subscribed to this rule.  In fact, whenever I have wondered why I am still here, I remind myself that I am unlikely to find such an abundance of affordable seafood anywhere else I might want to live.  I am willing to put up with a great deal when raw oysters can be had for $3/dozen and a pound of fresh shrimp from the Gulf goes for $4 or $5.  I may not be a very observant Jew, but I am having a great time being an observant New Orleanian.

Or I was.  When the BP Gulf oil spew started in April, we all began to worry.  As the oil spread, more and more of the Gulf coast was closed to oyster harvesting and fishing.  Prices at local restaurants rose and some even stopped selling local seafood.  Efforts to stop the flow of oil kept failing and BP, parish, state and federal officials seemed uncertain of the best ways to prevent the spread of destruction.  Scientists suggested that the dispersants being used to prevent the oil from reaching land might be even more dangerous to the environment—and to people working on the cleanup—than the oil itself.  Much of the local seafood economy, from commercial and sport fishing to processors and distributors, ground to a halt.  When P and J Oyster Company, a New Orleans oyster supplier since 1876, announced it would cease shucking operations and lay off workers in early June, it was hard not to think that an era was ending.  Every time I bought shrimp at our local fish market or enjoyed soft shell crabs at a restaurant, I felt lucky.  What would we do without it?

Seafood is a key part of the local cuisine in New Orleans.  It has also been affordable and abundant here, so that crab, oyster, shrimp and fish remain available to people across class lines.  Seafood markets can be found in most neighborhoods and they often accept food stamps.  People know what to do with seafood too.  One of the best ways to start a conversation in New Orleans is to mention that you have some speckled trout or a few pounds of shrimp and you want some ideas about how to prepare them.  The answers you get will be better than anything you can find on epicurious.com.

One of the key complaints of food activists in the U.S. has been that Americans are alienated from the sources of their food.  The burger meat you pick up at the grocery store is hard to trace back to a cow—if, indeed, it actually came from just one cow.  Something like 80% of the seafood you get at your local store is imported.  Much of it is raised or harvested in ways that are not sustainable.  Some of it may not be good for you to eat.

In New Orleans, we generally know where our seafood is from.  Restaurants make a point of serving local seafood.  We can get our shrimp directly from the shrimpers, selling from an ice chest in the back of a pickup at the side of the road.  Or we have a relationship with the folks at the local market and we trust them to know where the seafood comes from.  Often, fish become part of the kinds of informal exchanges that build relationships.  A few days after we first moved to New Orleans, our neighbors showed up at our door with a gift of black drum they had caught.  Since then, we have often benefitted from the fishing success of friends.  From crawfish boils to holiday dressings and gumbos, seafood is not just about food.  We build relationships with seafood.

We have also tried to grow the seafood industry by making it a desirable brand.  Competition from cheap imports has made it increasingly difficult for Louisiana shrimpers, fishers and oyster growers to make a living.  The political environment and fear of pollution and disease—especially the risks associated with raw oysters—have created additional difficulties.  In 2009, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration proposed severely limiting the months when unprocessed oysters from the Gulf could be sold, claiming that oysters posed too much of a health risk to be consumed during warm months (from April to October, in their proposal) even though very few people ever get ill from eating oysters.  Local oystermen suspected lobbyists from West Coast producers were behind this effort, since Louisiana supplies about 40% of all the oysters consumed in the U.S. and West Coast oysters are far more expensive.  Effective lobbying by the state’s congressional delegation succeeded in stopping the FDA’s rule.  One strategy has been to promote the idea that Louisiana seafood is distinctive, a product of terroir, much like a fine wine or an artisanal cheese.  This has been pursued by the White Boot Brigade and by local Slow Food activists, who have taken Louisiana shrimp to New York and Chicago and persuaded famous chefs to put it on their menus.  The BP oil spew makes it much more difficult to suggest that the products of our terroir are especially desirable.

And oil complicates things in other ways.  The economy of south Louisiana is deeply tied to the oil industry.  Offshore oil drilling got its start in Louisiana.  In a state with a poor education system, the industry has paid high wages and provided training and education for workers.  It has contributed enormously to the state’s coffers.  We all know people who work in the oil industry as well.  In fact, many people work in both, sometimes trawling for shrimp, while at other times working on offshore rigs or in a wide range of other capacities.  Our world famous annual Jazz and Heritage Festival is officially “presented by Shell” on all of its advertising.  Morgan City, a town on the Gulf coast, has hosted the annual Louisiana Shrimp and Petroleum Festival for 75 years.  At the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in downtown New Orleans, one of the main exhibits is the enormous Gulf of Mexico tank, containing a scale version of an offshore oil rig and dozens of the species that thrive on the artificial reefs created by the rigs.

This puts us in a terrible bind.  The federal moratorium on deep water exploration in the Gulf has been the object of much protest here precisely because it puts thousands of jobs at risk.  Some of those are the very jobs that people might seek when they can no longer make a living in the seafood industry.  In addition, we all know—or we should know—that the oil industry has played a key role in the destruction of the Louisiana coast over the last several decades.  We lose roughly a football field of wetlands to coastal erosion every 30 minutes in Louisiana.  Much of that is a consequence of dredging for thousands of miles of canals and pipelines to service the oil industry since the 1940s.  The long-term threat of coastal erosion is much more significant than the BP oil spew.  There are other environmental threats too, like the massive dead zone created by farm runoff where the Mississippi river flows into the Gulf of Mexico.

Last Thursday, I attended a Gulf seafood “eat in” at the Crescent City Farmer’s Market.  Several local chefs made dishes with local seafood.  Food scientist and advocate Gary Nabhan distributed copies of a pamphlet detailing some of the foods and foodways that are at risk in the Gulf.  The pamphlet contains articles by food activists, fishers, food writers, chefs and others from the region and provides a pointed illustration of some of the ways seafood is tied to the culture and economy of this region.  It shows that the BP spew is only the latest episode in a series of ongoing ecological and economic disasters that threaten one of the last successful American fisheries and one of the great food cultures of the world.  Erosion and wetland loss diminish our ability to survive hurricanes, destroy our fisheries and threaten to destroy communities throughout the region.  At the same time, cheap seafood imports are undermining an industry that supports thousands of people and a culture in which seafood plays a central role.  Ecological activists in New Orleans have been working since well before the spew started to promote restoration of the wetlands.  Food activists have struggled to find ways for the seafood of America’s “third coast” to be recognized as a great national resource.  One of the latest initiatives is have New Orleans declared a “UNESCO City of Gastronomy,” in an effort to earn international recognition for the region’s culinary heritage.  The region needs this to be a wake-up call for the rest of the United States.

On Friday, BP finally shut off the well.  As I write this, the oil seems to have stopped flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, although it is uncertain if this is permanent.  Maybe the fisheries will recover over the next few years.  Maybe the damage is not quite as extensive as we feared—the state reopened some areas to sport fishing over the weekend.  Should we be optimistic about the future or has the oil put a permanent stain on our seafood and culture?  People in south Louisiana are resilient, but this is a culture and an economy that often seems to be on the verge of collapse.   But one thing we ask of you: keep eating seafood from the Gulf of Mexico.  If it is in your stores, it is safe to eat.  As local chef and radio personality Poppy Tooker often reminds us, we have to “eat it to save it.”  We hope you will.

Anna Tsing in Smangus


I wanted to share some thoughts about a particularly interesting workshop I attended over the weekend. Entitled “Rethinking environment, localisation and indigenisation,” the star guest of the workshop was Anna Tsing, whose work has inspired numerous blog posts here on Savage Minds. Anna Tsing was discussant for all the papers, and presented a talk about her current research as well. David Reid has a nice writeup of the workshop, to which I just wanted to add a couple of observations.

Anna Tsing is an incredibly generous scholar. Her comments on each paper managed to highlight the strengths of those papers while simultaneously suggesting ways in which their arguments could be extended. I say “extended” because her comments were largely internal to the logic of each paper, as opposed to imposing her own framework upon them. I only regretted that I did not have time to update my own paper (hastily scrapped together from a conference I attended two years ago in order to meet the workshop deadline during end-of-the-semester madness) in order to reflect my own recent engagement with her work, and the fieldwork I have done since I wrote that paper. Doing so would certainly have made the weekend all the more valuable.

Anna Tsing’s current research (or at least what she focused on in her talk) is about mushrooms, focusing on the ways in which mushroom cultivation reuses damaged (“blasted”) landscapes. Drawing on the work of Deborah Bird Rose, she emphasized the way in which these practices allow for a kind of “recuperation” for all the species inhabiting the landscape. She also talked about “multi-species anthropology” as an alternative to Actor-Network Theory. She argued that whereas ANT is useful for inanimate technologies which are animated by their interaction with humans, it is less useful for species which are already alive. Obviously, not all living organisms are relevant to every study, so once again the question of scale is important, and must be determined ethnographically. (See Juno’s Savage Minds review of When Species Meet.) In addition to SW China and Japan, one of her field sites for this work is in Oregon. A while back the New Yorker actually had a great article about mushroom hunters in Oregon which is well worth reading. Unfortunately, the full article is only available to subscribers.


The workshop was also notable for it’s location. Located in the middle of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range, the village of Smangus 司馬庫斯 is about 1500 meters above sea level. Since I live around sea level, I really felt the altitude when we went for a hike on the second day. (You can see the rest of my photos from the hike here.) During that hike I was astounded by the depth of Anna Tsing’s ecological knowledge as she engaged a visiting ethnobotanist and a member of the local community in a barrage of penetrating questions about landscape use which they often struggled to answer. Besides its location, Smangus is unique for three reasons: The first are the ancient cyprus trees which are the main attraction for the ecotourism which is the mainstay of their economy (see the picture above). The second is the fact that the community, inspired by a trip to an Israeli kibbutz, is run as a cooperative. And third, because of a high profile court case which pitted local community members against the national Forest Bureau in a battle over who controls the natural resources. Lin Yih-ren’s 林益仁 talk at the workshop gave some important background to this battle, focusing on the planned creation of a new national park, and a group of five authors presented an interesting parallel case from ‘Tolan 都蘭, a coastal Amis community which experienced a similar struggle.

UPDATE: Added some text missing from the end of the post.

Indigenes or citizens in Papua New Guinea?

Despite the fact that it is my area of expertise, I do not normally comment on the mining and petroleum scene in Papua New Guinea. Despite having studied the industry for more than a decade, I will never know as much as my ‘informants’ — the people actually living with mines and oil projects. This is particularly true for current affairs, when the ‘real story’ of what happens on the ground is often much different from reports circulated by the press. Nevertheless, I do feel compelled to say something about the shameful events that have recently taken place in country — and the way they are being received by the anthropological community and others.

The government of Papua New Guinea recently amended the country’s Environment Act to make it illegal to appeal permitting decisions made by the minister. The immediate reason for this change is clear — the national government relies on large, internationally-financed resource developments to fund it budget. The Ramu NiCo mine in Madang province, majority-owned and operated by a Chinese firm, is planning to dispose of tailings by dumping them into the sea — a move that many, many people in Madang oppose. When anti-mining groups got an injunction against the mine, the government responded by making it illegal to oppose their decision to let the mine go ahead.

The issue is actually more general than this. Landowner groups and others who oppose mining and petroleum developments often challenge environmental permitting in order to pressure or halt operations. Mining leases are rarely reviewed and renewal is largely a matter of course, but water use permits (for toilets on site, for instance) more regularly come up for renewal — and miners need toilets. The Ramu case is just one instance of a much broader tactic used by people opposed to mining.

The big picture is that Papua New Guinea is torn — between politicians in Moresby who are want to use mining revenue to enrich and develop the nation, and grassroots Papua New Guineans who don’t see why they should suffer so others can gain the benefits of mining revenue. When Papua New Guinea became independent in 1975, the country inherited the benevolent paternalism and technocratic confidence of its colonizers — the first generation of educated Papua New Guineans were going to lead the country forward and help develop the grassroots in the name of national progress. Now the worm has turned and Papua New Guinea’s leadership seems to see Papua New Guineans as ungrateful and stubborn — after a peaceful protest organized by Transparency International outside parliament, the prime minister called those who participated “satanic and mentally insane”.

In an article I am working on right now, I examine newspaper coverage of these issues in order to understand contemporary transformations of nationalism in Papua New Guinea. My conclusion – which at this rate will not be published until my kids head off to college! — is that Papua New Guinea is torn between two different idioms to express this conflict between grassroots and the political elite. Within the country, the language used is that of the nation: ironically, the nation-making project of the independence period was so successful that many Papua New Guineans now see themselves as uniting against the state in the name of national unity. Externally, however, the language used to describe these conflicts is that of indigeneity. Coverage of recent events by a UN-sponsored website, for instance, describe the problem as one in which “indigenous people lose out on land rights”.

What I do not say in the article — since it is all scholarly and everything — is how incredibly disappointed I am in the government of Papua New Guinea. Democracy is not fun or easy, and the paralysis induced by lawsuits can be a huge pain, but the solution to these problems is not and can never be removing people’s rights to participate in the processes that will affect their lives. This is particularly true in the case of Ramu, where environmental concerns are justified and deeply felt, not simply cynically used as tactics in a political process. Transparency, accountability, and participation are all incredibly stupid and ridiculously ineffective ways to run a government — but we chose them because democracies put people’s rights ahead of convenience or practicality.

Additionally, I am very uncomfortable with labelling this as a conflict featuring ‘indigenous’ people — despite the fact that I know appealing to international forces using the idiom of indigeneity is often yields useful leverage in political contests like the one at Ramu. But in fact Papua New Guineans are indigenous only in the (often oppressive) eco-authentic sense: they are brown, they have ‘exotic’ languages and cultures, and they live in a place full of endangered species of animals. They are not, however, ‘indigenous’ in the much more important political-emancipatory sense: there is (and was) no real settler colonialism in Papua New Guinea, no large scale expropriation of land, and not even an ethnic majority to oppress minority groups. Despite how easy it is for outsiders to shoe horn Papua New Guinea into popular and easy paradigms of indigenous struggle, such a construal of Papua New Guinea’s story does not do the country justice.

Eco-authentic definitions of indigeneity perpetuate stereotypes of Papua New Guinea as savage backward by giving them a positive moral valuation. They obscure from sight the large number of educated Papua New Guineans, and they stigmatize Papua New Guineans’ decisions to take part in urban, cash-based economies as an abandonment of precious indigenous heritage.

Most importantly, however, these idioms tempt Papua New Guineans to give up on their country and its  government. With corruption in the civil servant rampant and elections in Papua New Guinea too-often a mere shadow of genuine democracy (there is video footage of political henchmen unapologetically — and literally — stuffing ballot boxes), it is easy these days for Papua New Guineans to opt out, to declare the government an illegitimate opponent of the grassroots rather than to hold it to account as the voice of the people. Perhaps they do not need the ‘indigenous alternative’s’ help in abandoning any conception of state legitimacy. But I think Papua New Guinea loses something important when it gives up on its dreams of independence and self-government. Even though it may require people to dig deep, I would urge Papua New Guineans not to give up on the light at the end of the tunnel, and to insist that they are citizens, not indigenes, of Papua New Guinea.

Pandemic Anthropology

For those looking for a place to read more about the politics surrounding the swine flu pre-pandemic, Carlo Caduff, Lyle Fearnley, Andrew Lakoff, Stephen Collier and others at “Vital Systems Security” are madly, and intelligently, covering the unfolding events. Several posts in the last few days have addressed the issue of vaccine creation, the WHO and New York City public health surveillance of the disease. I also recommend Nick Shapiro’s posts on Bio-Agent Sentinels and Animal Biosecurity, which preceded the outbreak. All good stuff.

Collapse: How Authors Choose to Fail or Suceed

The latest number of Reviews in Anthropology has a long review article by “Joseph Tainter”:http://www.cnr.usu.edu/envs/htm/directory-plugin/memberID=837 entitled “Collapse, Sustainability, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed”:http://www.informaworld.com/smpp/content~content=a905053520~db=all~order=page. I am not an expert on anthropogenic climate change by any means, but I am someone who gets asked about Jared Diamond all the time, so I found it an extremely useful and evenhanded evaluation not just of Collapse but of other books written in a similar vein.

To be honest I’ve never gotten very far into Collapse — it isn’t as lucid as Guns, Germs, and Steel and doesn’t feature New Guinea (my area of research) nearly as prominently. Tainter’s analysis of the book, though, seems to jive more or less with what the emerging scholarly consensus on GG&S: as a popularization of other people’s work it is quite good, the bits that are Diamond’s own contribution are flawed and wrong, and Diamond does as much as possible (short of straight up plagiarism) to take credit for the work of other scholars who he popularizes.

I don’t have the strong emotional reaction to Diamond’s work that other people do, so it is refreshing to see an article which can point out the flaws of Diamond’s work in a relatively disinterested way. I highly recommend the article to others — I imagine it is ‘teachable’ as well.

Nuclear/National Intimacies


More than just a detector, the NukAlert™ is a patented personal radiation meter and alarm. Small enough to attach to a key chain, the device operates non-stop, 24/7 and will promptly warn you of the presence of unseen, but acutely dangerous levels of radiation.

A little ‘uncanny’ that I encountered the ad for the above product just after having finished reading Joseph Masco’s captivating The Nuclear Borderlands. Masco describes ‘the bomb’ as a ‘national fetish’ — a sort of subject/object that becomes an intense focus of quasi-sacred patriotic awe even as it conceals its own mechanisms of production. Technologies and institutions built to produce nuclear weapons, Masco argues, not only reconfigured American culture, they have literally transformed nature globally (by polluting it with contaminants that will be around for hundreds of thousands of years). And yet, partly because of U.S. government protocols of secrecy (that verge on the hilariously absurd), the actual operations of nuclear weapons research and production have remained largely concealed from public view. Thus, in the national-cultural consciousness, the nuclear, the atomic, the subterranean (literally) plutonium economy leaks into awareness as the uncanny return of the repressed. As for example, in the mobilization of cold war fears in the service of the ‘global war on terror.’ Masco writes:

Many Americans, for example, were gripped by an experience of the nuclear uncanny following the September 11 terrorist strikes, intuitively understanding the attack on New York and Washington, D.C., through a nationalized notion of violence developed during the Cold War nuclear stand off. One of the most powerful effects of the bomb, I believe, has been to nationalize a sense of apocalyptic violence in the United States, unifying the nation through images of its own end. The cultural effects of the Cold War nuclear standoff — the decades of life situated within the thirty-minute temporal frame of a nuclear war that may have always already started — has produced a new kind of psychic intimacy with mass violence. (pg. 334)

One has only to think of ‘ground zero,’ as Masco notes. And not just psychic: these days, you can wear that ‘new kind of intimacy’ in your pocket — with Nukalert.

Masco’s ethnography had me thinking about the forces behind contemporary globalization, and especially about John Kelly’s argument that rhetorics of ‘modernity,’ ‘the nation-state,’ and ‘American empire,’ conceal the unique and historically-specific circumstances that account for the shape of global relations today: viz., American military power deployed in specifically anti-imperial forms to secure access to and remunerative exploitation of global markets. (I hope to initiate a discussion of this argument in future posts.)

In any case. What forms of intimacy with violence does American global hegemony generate? There is the unthinkable (extraordinary rendition, followed by [by what? torture? that’s a secret…]), and the mundane (your toothpaste confiscated at a small airport in the Arctic Circle). We are invited to imagine disaster, we are interpellated as subjects of terror, in innumberable and everyday ways. But we have our keychains to protect us.

Savage and Tripping Minds

I just had the extraordinary pleasure of seeing longtime friend and fellow-traveler Richard Doyle give a talk at Rice called “Just Say Yes to the Noosphere.” Rich is the author of On Beyond Living and Wetwares; we met at MIT; his advisor at Berkeley had been Evelyn Fox Keller who had moved to MIT. Rich is a rarity in academia: a kind of contemporary Bateson who insinuates himself into all kinds of interesting research projects; he’s just as willing to run a composition and rhetoric program as he is willing to be the American representative to the International Electrotechnical Commission’s Joint Standards Committee on Bio-Telemetrics. Rich’s talk was about the 20th century history of psychadelics research, and especially, research in unlikely places: like AMPEX, for instance (the inventor of magnetic video-tape), whose engineers experimented with LSD. It’s no secret how widespread the experimentation and research on psychadelics was from about the 1930s into the 1960s. After that, however, hysteria served to associate the research and on psychadelics with 1) drugs 2) bad graphics and 3) pseudo-science and new age mysticism.
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