Anthropology and Environment Society
Abstract: This roundtable session seeks to probe the fault lines of two influential critical discourses on the environment: those that envision a universe of distinct yet overlapping naturalcultural assemblages linking humans and nonhumans in networks of distributed agency, and those that probe how differentiated socio-natural relationships are implicated in a globally integrated system of capitalist accumulation. The split between what might be loosely glossed as the new materialism and the old has never been neat, and many scholars in environmental anthropology and critical geography—two disciplines that have been particularly shaped by materialist impulses—often incorporate elements of both frameworks in their descriptions of the complex and unequal situations in which they find themselves working. Yet divisions remain. While both orientations promise a kind of relational ontology as an alternative to the Enlightenment-derived ideology of nature, each side accuses the other of undercutting transformative political action by excluding key relationships: those between humans and nonhumans, on the one hand, and those between the owners and producers of capital, on the other. But as intensifying economic inequality and changing climates manifest as ontological violence, and vice-versa, it becomes imperative to clarify, and potentially reconcile, the tensions between the new materialism of assemblages and the older materialism of labor and class struggle. What are the consequences, promises, and challenges of efforts toward integration? If climate change cannot be grasped through recourse to nature, what of labor? Can critical scholarship continue to offer careful descriptions of intimate naturalcultural entanglements while remaining attuned to transnational forces of accumulation and dispossession?
We are well situated to understand and develop the stakes of these questions ethnographically. Each presenter has worked in settings where the difference between what nature provides and labor creates is both murky and consequential. Marx’s famous reference to the “art of catching fish in waters that contain none” (1976 , 284) has enmeshed Newfoundland’s cod fishermen, for example, not just as the victims of poor fisheries management but as experts in the powers of cod. Meanwhile, Alaskan salmon fishermen are repositioning themselves as the protectors of the abundant wild stocks they once sought to exploit. Lithuanian smallholder farmers struggle to maintain subsistence raw milk production in the face of European Union demands for safety, quality, and sustainability, their labor subordinated to cow reproduction cycles and microbial processes. Mozambican youth lovingly cultivate relations with certain nonhuman associates to counter processes of commodification. And wild animals are produced as capital within uneven human labor relations but also through their own networks of socio-ecological reproduction – networks from which they are usually severed in order to bear value. From these brief examples, it is clear that human livelihoods always entail situated interdependencies with nonhuman actors, and that these vary both within and between larger socio-natural formations. The task is to learn how to relate the powers that bind us to particular others in specific places to those that implicate us in a global game—and in such a way that simultaneously reflects and expands the space of the political.