Each year, the Anthropology and Environment Society interviews each of the Rappaport Prize finalists. Sarah Besky, of Brown University, interviewed me about my 2016 Rappaport paper:
What I love about your project is that it brings together two seemingly incongruent things: ecological restoration and Gary, Indiana. Can you talk a little bit more about Gary in the national imaginary, the literature on post-industrial landscapes, and what you are doing that is different?
If people know anything of Northwest Indiana, they know of Gary, of the steel mills, their toxic wastes, the struggles of labor. The popular imaginary of Gary is somewhat of a cautionary tale. It is representative of the ruins of modernity and industrialization, and also the perils of neoliberalism – as when the Steel mills closed due to decreased financial regulations that led to corporate restructuring and the globalization of steel supply chains. It’s all very visible there still – when you are in that space, in Northwest Indiana, in Gary, you are physically confronted with the pitfalls of industrial capitalism, where there are visible ruins of that legacy on the horizon and on the landscape.
So, you’re right, there is this sort of immediate juxtaposition of thinking that the story of Northwest Indiana wouldn’t fit with the story of ecological restoration, but what I’m arguing, is that those two things are decidedly interrelated: ecological restoration is made possible through the externalities and injustices of industrial capitalism. If it weren’t for the crises of capitalism, with the ruination that they leave in their wake, there would be no need for ecological restoration. It is precisely because ecological restoration emerges from the troubles of capitalism that it merits critical inquiry. As it is currently practiced in Indiana and in many other places, ecological restoration shares with capitalism a framing of the non-human world as a series of resources and things with value. Intrinsic qualities, spiritual connections, relationships, everything, is reduced to value. So this paper asks readers to consider how these two seemingly incongruent phenomena – present-day Northwest Indiana and ecological restoration – are in fact both symptoms of late capitalism.
Can you tell us a little about your fieldwork?
This paper is one part of a broader project (my dissertation project) that explores the production and circulation of environmental knowledge in the United States. I am particularly interested in role of ecological modeling in environmental decision-making, because ecological modeling does two things: it allows aspects of the environment to become available to capital through quantification, and modeling adds a temporal dimension to understanding the environment by assuming that the past states upon which models are developed are reliable indicators for the future states about which decisions need to be made. I conducted 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork between 2012 and 2016, primarily with a group of ecological forecasting modelers (the PalEON project). I engaged in participant-observation in order to learn how model data is collected, how the models are parameterized, and the conversations that take place ‘behind-the-scenes’ that are integral to model development.
Early on in my fieldwork, I learned that some of that model’s output data was being used in conservation and environmental restoration initiatives in Northwest Indiana. I began to follow those political conversations, attending meetings and conducting interviews with conservationists and landowners, and found that the political economy of these worlds were so deeply interconnected, and that became the story I wanted to write. The focus of the dissertation, and the nascent book manuscript, are these overlapping zones of ideological context in environmental knowledge production and decision-making,
In the paper, you described how capitalist thought and ecological restoration are intertwined. Can you tell us a little more about this?
So much of the discussion around ecological restoration is framed in monetary terms, whether it is the value of ecosystem services, or the economic value of recreation, ecotourism, or hunting in a restored area. This results in limiting the framing of the arguments for and against restoration projects to what is marketable, and it also presents restored environments as yet another mode of resource extraction. A really pessimistic view of this could be to see it as a life cycle of capitalism in the Northwest Indiana landscape, where natural resources (wildlife for food and pelts) were extracted for primary accumulation, then when that was no longer economically viable the land was drained and used for agriculture and heavy, dirty industry, then when that was no longer economically viable, the largest mills started to close, leaving an “empty” landscape that can be restored to promote “sustainable” economic development, such as recreation. My cynical side can’t help but wonder if what is actually being restored is the ability to extract wealth from the landscape.
On restoration, as the title suggests, you are pushing us—both scholar and practitioner alike—to think not about continuity, but discontinuity. What do you mean by this?
What underlies both the stories of ruination and our capacity to live in them is an assumption of continuity – that things can, or should, be the same in the future as they were in the past. What goes hand in hand with this, I found, is that those visions of the past are often nostalgic or romanticized in some way. For example, large parts of Northwest Indiana used to be wetlands, and the swampy, marshy land was drained in the late 19th century in order to facilitate agriculture and transportation in and out of Chicago. Many of the conservationists and nature lovers I met with during my fieldwork wanted the wetlands restored in one way or another. When they would talk about wetland restoration the focus was always only on the benefits: how it would attract migratory birds, how it would improve stream quality, how it could bring economic growth to the area through ecotourism, etc., and it all sounds really wonderful when it is described in this way. However, if we look back to the time before the area was drained, there are so many things about that time that I think many of us don’t necessarily want to bring back. Malaria, for example, was widespread before the area was drained. As anthropogenic climate change continues to take place, scientists anticipate an increase in mosquito-borne diseases. What are the consequences, then, of restoring large sections of wetlands to the outskirts of a major urban center?
One of the points I’m trying to make with this paper is that I think we are far to quick to assume that environments should be the way they were “before” – and the specific date of the “before” varies across the Midwest, but it often seems to date to just before Euro-American industrialism becomes predominant in the area. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the efforts to restore to that antecedent state might be so complex and resource-intensive that the restoration work undermines the long-term stability of the environment. The second is that in some cases, restoration to the antecedent state might then result in a number of other resource-intensive interventions, such as the steps that would be required to control mosquitos if the wetland was restored.
So this is a provocation– I’m not saying, necessarily, that things ought to be different, but rather, I’m asking, what might we learn if we ask ourselves to imagine things differently? What visions of the future become available for thinking with if our nostalgic ideas about the past are set aside?
What is environmental justice in Northwest Indiana? What does it mean? Who is it for?
In Northwest Indiana it is impossible to disentangle environmental and economic justice. I’ve seen the state of the region described as ‘pollution begets poverty and poverty begets pollution’, and any of my informants felt that these two things really couldn’t be discussed in isolation. I would say that I found that many residents of Northwest Indiana had a very sophisticated understanding of the tradeoffs and environmental and social consequences of economic development, and this really challenges some of the simplistic ideas that people might have of Hoosiers (whose governor from 2013-2017 was Mike Pence), the white working class, or folks whose livelihoods are threatened by deindustrialization.
click here to see the interview on the A& E website