Anthropology, Weather & Climate Change

Amidst weathering forces: Climate change and the political ecology of infrastructures
Location British Museum - Sackler A
Date and Start Time 29 May, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 1


  • Andrea Enrico Pia (London School of Economics) email
  • Kathrine Ann Cagat (University of Utah Asia Campus) email

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Short Abstract

By focusing on various actors' engagement with dynamic weather forces and infrastructures, this panel considers the political ecology of infrastructures as constituted in issues regarding climate change.

Long Abstract

Human relations to the environment are increasingly being mediated by infrastructures, which is intensified amidst erratic weather conditions. Infrastructures provide essential services that foster and maintain well-being. However, infrastructures are likewise implicated in systematic environmental transformations, particularly in regards to climate change, which result in inequities, tensions and uncertainties. Dynamic weather forces may also exasperate the challenges infrastructural projects present in relation to the management of resources that affect communities' adaptive capacities. Focusing on the entanglement between weather forces and infrastructure underscores how climatic changes impact people's everyday life, and is not simply related to cataclysmic events. This panel considers how various actors engage with social and environmental transformations and considers the role of weather and infrastructures in such processes and relations. We examine the role that infrastructures and weather play in discourses and practices that grapple with climate change. Specifically, it considers processes of categorisation, measurement, regulation and contestation of politically sanctioned relations with the changing climate and environment.

Papers in this panel will contribute to furthering an anthropological understanding of the human connection to a changing climate and environment. We especially consider the temporal aspect of these connections in how infrastructural projects are implicated in the immediate and long-term management of resources and in the production of contextual vulnerability to climate change. The articles included in this panel will present diverse and conflicting articulations and embodiments of aspirations, anxieties and expectations regarding the entanglement of weather forces and infrastructural projects as constituted in climate change issues.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Climate change as development discourse: increasing vulnerability to risks in Bangladesh?

Author: Camelia Dewan  email

Short Abstract

This paper complicates the idea of Bangladesh as a climate change 'victim' and looks at the economic rationale of embankments and their highly negative ecological effects. It argues that climate change discourse ignores processes of anthropogenic environmental degradation and exacerbates vulnerability.

Long Abstract

Bangladesh's densely populated, low-lying land is often portrayed as vulnerable to climate change through rising sea levels and the predicted increase in the frequency and intensity of cyclones. This paper seeks to demonstrate how this simplified climate change narrative fails to comprehend the multitude of interlinked processes affecting livelihoods in Bangladesh's coastal zone. It combines ethnography with archival research to create a historically informed conceptualisation of economic development, its environmental impact and the ways in which it negatively affects poorer societal groups (See Greenough and Tsing 2003). It argues that recent donor efforts to protect Bangladesh from rising sea levels through flood protection infrastructure such as embankments are misguided. Rather, the expansion of embankments would only intensify existing environmental problems of siltation, waterlogging and floods (See Auerbach et al. 2015). As political ecologists point out, "Environmental degradation is not an unfortunate accident under advanced capitalism, it is instead a part of the logic of that economic system" (Peet, Robbins, and Watts 2011, 26). This paper seeks to complicate the notion of Bangladesh as a climate change 'victim' by looking at the economic rationale of embankments and their highly negative ecological effects. It concludes that current meta-discourses of climate change ignore processes of anthropogenic environmental degradation, thus exacerbating vulnerability to disasters and furthering socio-economic inequality.

Working with Nature in Aotearoa New Zealand: Coastal Protection for the Anthropocene

Author: Friederike Gesing (University of Bremen)  email

Short Abstract

Explores ethnographically how so-called soft coastal protection practices in Aotearoa New Zealand coproduce social and natural orders, or coastal naturecultures, framed as do-it-yourself coastal protection, the reconstruction of native natureculture, or soft engineering ‘in concert with nature’.

Long Abstract

'Soft' approaches to coastal protection challenge established ways of defending the coast. In a world altered by climate change and searching for more sustainable avenues into the anthropocenic future, an emerging sociotechnical imaginary reenvisions coastal protection: 'to work with nature - and not against it'. Such practices are necessarily place-bound and embedded into specific figurations of different actors, material objects, living matter, legal frameworks, scientific discourses, and imaginaries addressing questions of nature and culture.

I explore soft coastal protection projects in Aotearoa New Zealand, enrolling dune restoration volunteers, coastal dwellers, unemployed Māori youth, and surfer-scientists. Specific naturecultures are resulting from their material practices of engaging with, caring for, and making coastal natures: do-it-yourself coastal protection, the reconstruction of native natureculture, or the development of artificial reef technologies in concert with nature. These naturalcultural assemblages are evidence to what people believe is the right way to interact with the coastal environment, as well as outcomes of the endless redistribution of material through the coastal system, the growing and dying of plants, and the effects of returning storms. The sociotechnical imaginary of 'working with nature' defines a common future for Aotearoa New Zealand, addressing not only the right state of nature, but also legitimizing certain forms of human engagement: hands-on, physical volunteer labour maintaining Aotearoa New Zealand's distinctiveness as a country, an definition of 'soft' by Māori as what can be achieved without Pākeha interference, or the connection to the coastal environment born out of the daily immersion of surfer-scientists into the sea.

Weathering the Future: Green-city development and the political ecology of industrial upgrading in Morocco

Author: Cristiana Strava (Leiden University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper will consider the logics, temporalities, and morals behind recent efforts to build 'green' urban infrastructures at some of Morocco's most polluted industrial sites.

Long Abstract

In recent years the Kingdom of Morocco has embarked on a series of ambitious billion-euro projects to overhaul the country's infrastructure on an unprecedented scale.

Capitalizing on the ongoing crises precipitated by the Arab Spring revolts in the region and its own comparative political and social stability, the Moroccan regime has been attracting global as well as regional investors with the promise of new 'eco projects' that aim to transform natural, economic and social landscapes through a "virtuous approach".

Zenata Eco-City is one such example. Situated along the Atlantic coast between the country's administrative and financial capitals - Rabat and Casablanca, respectively - the future 'green' city will be developed on the site of a highly polluting phosphate processing plant as well as an oil refinery. Using buzzwords such as "strategic", "innovative", and "participatory", the developers describe the new Eco-City as destined for the "emerging classes".

For a resource-poor country facing increasingly chaotic weather patterns, these projects become catalysts for narratives about national economic and social development. Promising a new age of 'green' modernity, these narratives help depict the future with carefully crafted and curated images signalling an aspiration towards a future focused on ecological responsibility and sustainable living, while continuing to invest in fossil fuel processing plants.

Drawing on material gathered during my doctoral fieldwork, this paper will examine how anxieties about the future are articulated in the case of the Zenata Eco-city and present some preliminary conclusions on the politics and morals of 'green' city development in Morocco.

Value Chains as Infrastructure: corporations, climate change and sustainable development

Author: Matthew Archer (Copenhagen Business School)  email

Short Abstract

This paper considers the social, political and economic impacts of value chains as the infrastructure through which corporate sustainability programs are conceived and implemented; it is based on ten months of fieldwork in Geneva, Switzerland, among corporate sustainability practitioners.

Long Abstract

Value chains have become the infrastructure through which so-called corporate sustainability initiatives are organized and implemented. Here, the word "infrastructure" is employed in multiple ways (cf. Kockelman 2010; 2012): in the colloquial sense that refers to roads or sewers that generally exist in the background but nevertheless facilitate a lot of human activity and explode into view when they malfunction; in a broader sense as the networks or assemblages that facilitate traditionally understood semiotic processes like value ascription and discourse; and in the broadest sense as any kind of 'relations between relations' that generate meaning.

With this in mind, this paper examines the increasingly central role of value chains (both real and imagined) in the conception and implementation of climate change mitigation projects and policies, focusing in particular on the so-called business case for sustainability and the "triple-bottom-line" principle that underlies it. It discusses the commodification of sustainability via market-based approaches and explores the affective and material foundations of corporate sustainability narratives. This research is based on 10 months of fieldwork with a Swiss sustainability consultancy and attendance at numerous sustainability and climate change conferences aimed at private companies, as well as interviews and participant observation with corporate actors, NGOs, activists and policymakers. The "value chain" as the emergent form of neoliberal organization is shown to provide a useful way to (re)conceptualize infrastructure and to examine its role in global processes like climate change, but also development, public health and migration.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.