Society for Cultural Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
What would plastic containers and synthetic clothing be made of if we stopped using petrochemicals? Some scientists in Brazil are suggesting an answer: sugar. With mounting concern over climate change, much attention has been paid to the issue of replacing petroleum-based fuels. However, less attention has been given to replacing the vast array of petroleum-based materials, including plastics, industrial solvents, and even toothpaste. Scientists in Brazil are genetically engineering sugarcane in order to develop sugarcane-based petrochemical replacements, or sucrochemicals—transforming a plant with a centuries-long history of violence into an environmentally sound future. This paper considers the substitutive logics that scientists draw on in order to conceptually and molecularly make sugar into something that can replace oil: as something similar enough to oil to replace it with little disturbance to lifeworlds, but different enough from both oil and sugarcane’s past to make an environmental and social difference. Based on ethnographic research with university sugarcane scientists in São Paulo, this paper examines three different kinds of substitution explicitly at play in scientists’ sucrochemical imaginaries: 1) “drop-in” substitutes chemically identical to their petro-counterparts; 2) sugar-based substitutes articulated as “improved” forms of their petro-originals; and 3) sugar-based chemicals entirely different from any petrochemical, with the potential to substitute for whole categories of materials as well as create new categories to begin with. This paper analyzes the distinct conceptual ramifications of these substitutive forms, considering how they differentially frame planetary transitions away from fossil fuels, as well as social change more broadly.