Oral Presentation Session
Reviewed by: Anthropology and Environment Society
Of interest to: Practicing and Applied Anthropologists, Students
Primary Theme: Environment and Environmental Inequality
Secondary Theme: Labor
In coastal Alaska, laid-off loggers are climbing back into heavy equipment in remote forests, this time to improve salmon habitat at the behest of new coalitions of conservation scientists and tribal governments, while seafood industry players and environmentalists set aside old divisions to cooperate on campaigns for ecological stewardship. Scuba-diving instructors in the Canary Islands calibrate stewardship with exploitation of underwater worlds for the tourist gaze. Indonesian islanders are crafting artificial reefs from branded amalgams of multinational steel and locally-salvaged coral fragments. Artisanal miners in Bolivia are reexamining spent ore for the technology-powering rare earth metals hidden within. And residents of historically marginalized Los Angeles neighborhoods are assuming responsibility for retrofitting their homes and yards to generate water for the city as a whole. Such work signals the rise of new relations that we characterize as “ecological labor,” transforming how nature today is conceptualized, produced, and governed.
Drawing on wide-ranging ethnographic case studies of environmental care, this panel asks how the rise of ecological labor reconfigures human-environment relations as a mode of production. Whereas old extractive economies hid environmental costs to support and justify colonial political orders, contemporary postindustrial economies are turning the resulting ecological degradation and economic precarity into new sites for extracting surplus value. Collectively, the papers on this panel elaborate how late-capitalist technologies of exploitation enlist certain laboring bodies to shore up the continued productivity of nature by burdening them with the reproduction of the biosphere itself: The degraded reef or stream that no longer supports a viable fishery becomes a test case for the future of aquatic restoration techniques worldwide, and those who toil in the ruins of ancient mines or vanishing coral reefs or drought-stricken berms find their own value keyed to demonstrations of responsible stewardship and care. While this may seem a welcome and belated recognition of the value of nonhuman nature, the panel considers whether certain forms of exploitation may also be hidden in order that new sources of value can be revealed. Reporting from a host of ecologically productive sites, the papers begin to trace the limits and possibilities of environmental care work amid Anthropocene economies driven by aims of resilience and adaptation.