Protean Environment and Political Possibilities

Protean Environment and Political Possibilities


As the environment changes, so too will our politics. But how both will change and how these transformations interact with one another are still being decided.

Consider environmental engineers who work with the past to ensure that critical infrastructures sustaining life on Earth do not fall apart. In Guyana, continued coastal settlement rests on their ability to maintain irrigation and drainage infrastructures. This, however, remains divided by race and class, old divisions that today’s engineers negotiate to build momentum in their work. In China, meanwhile, government engineers and civilians construct and maintain sand breaks to engage with arable land that is turning into dust. Yet, since the expanding desert contradicts the state’s promise of infinite development and growth, the work of these engineers and civilians offers an experimental terrain to reconstitute political norms.

Even efforts to mitigate climate change, then, risk overturning the status quo. Thus, technoscience expertise and environmental governance are less about control over nature and more about how porous peatlands and sandy landscapes accommodate new political horizons necessary for a warming planet.

Tracing these new political horizons that emerge from mitigating a warming planet is the task of two new books. In Continent in Dust, Jerry Zee asks not “what is a politics of nature” in “the directional sense of political action onto an inert world.” Instead, he examines how sand stabilization projects in China produce a “holding pattern” where the future of the nation is held in a “condition of suspension that must not admit a final transition.” In Engineering Vulnerability, Sarah Vaughn documents how, for her interlocuters in Guyana, climate adaptation allows “people [to] evaluate how past events contribute to vulnerability in the present, in order to consider what actions are needed to live with climate change moving forward.” Hence, responding to climate change is not solely about denying disasters or accepting our fates. Instead, Vaughn encourages us to account for how the recent past has shaped our current conditions of possibility in order to maintain a promise of futurity.

Perhaps because anthropologists wrote both books, the empirical attention to how contemporary technoscience and environmental governance comingle with nonhuman actors is highly commendable. The pleasure in reading ethnographies such as theirs is that they rarely provide a clear and comforting verdict of what to do next on a warming planet; instead, they dwell in a maze around the answer, and this is an answer in and of itself. The way that Vaughn and Zee alert and situate the reader to engage with ambiguities and uncertainties is something I find to be a genuine skill, and it is a skill that is present in neighboring ethnographies that share similar non-teleological responses to climate change and mass extinction. For example, in Decolonizing Extinction: The Work of Care in Orangutan Rehabilitation, Juno Salazar Parreñas refrains from prescribing how the decolonization of extinction ought to unfold. Instead, she writes that when confronted by wildlife extinction and unbridled resource extraction, we can learn to experiment with “other responses and other senses of responsibility than what usually inspires us when we want to do something— anything—to stop what might be inevitable.”

Indeed, these methods are something I aspire to teach my students, who are otherwise trained to solve (with technical prowess)—rather than dwell in—the troubles of the world. Anthropologists remind information scientists of what they already know: the difficulty of containing social and technical environments in information and data, yet they extend this constraint to make available new political possibilities from such uncontainable worlds.

In the same vein, Zee and Vaughn’s books refuse simplistic accounts of who should be held accountable for environmental harm and what one can do next. Instead, they point to the nonlinear, multicausal, and scalar relations between environments and politics. They show how technoscience knowledge is not innocent; it is built from a landscape that has been shaped and engineered by slave-based plantation economies, the expropriation of indigenous land, the forced suppression of fires in both external and settler colonial regimes, and the massive resettlement of poor communities on fraught landscapes. At the same time, they show how experts reckon with the legacies of these specific social and political histories as they come to inform knowledge gaps and/or underscore contemporary expertise around climate change projects.


“What if the rise of China,” Zee poignantly asks, “were to be approached literally, through the rise of China into the air?” Amidst official and popular accounts of China’s authoritarian ruling, Zee’s Continent in Dust is a striking example of how to write about China and Chinese politics otherwise. The book focuses on how weather events—specifically, those involving dust, aerosols, and particulate matter—are sites for political breakdown and emergence, revealing that the Chinese political system is anything but static.

Zee opens the book with a story of a resettled ex-herder family, whose herds have allegedly overgrazed pastures in inner Mongolia. This, in turn, has resulted in the spread of dust storms, or “wind-sand” (feng sha 风沙). Controlling the dust flow has become a state priority, and so these ex-herders have adapted: having left behind their old jobs, they now drive civil servants across fragile dunes, airdrop seeds, and stabilize sand. These state-contracted environmental engineering jobs, however, are only “semipredictable,” leaving the ex-herders caught in “a state of constantly frustrated anticipation.”

Still, how does this offer new insight into China at large? Because, by following the dust, Zee reveals that the plight of these ex-herders is not because of the popularly accepted idea of “a neoliberalization of the socialist state.” Instead, the wind-sand shows how bureaucrats view ex-herders as both a source of “social instability” in rural frontiers and as an on-demand workforce that can furnish state sand-control programs. In other words, ex-herders represent China’s “experiment in governing,” swept in an atmosphere of “windfall opportunities for work and cash,” a departure from the declining pastoral economy. This story is not about the rise of neoliberal China but, instead, the “delicately maintained condition of quietude” deemed harmonious and stable enough for the Chinese state.

Wind-sand is precisely the experimental terrain for new forms of political and technical engineering within China, Zee tells his readers. Wind-sand demonstrates the state’s approach to governance as “nimble” and “flexible” rather than governmental institutions wedded to a static ideological doctrine. Zee shows this clearly with government officials who view overgrazing not as the responsibility of ex-herders but rather as symptomatic of China’s rush to neoliberalism: specifically, as a “problem of economic behaviors brought on by unregulated markets that were introduced too haphazardly in the broad reforms of the 1980s and ’90s.” As such, Part I of Continent in Dust introduces how sand and dust are “key actant[s] in shaping the governmental interventions” initially meant to control them. This recognition of more-than-human agency repeats in chapter 3 as Zee ventures further to demonstrate how the engineering work of tree planting and sand break construction is “structured by repetitive burial and building” to stall and maintain sand flow instead of building toward a “transcendent future” freed entirely from desertification.

In another version of Continent in Dust, particularly the latter half (chapters 4-5), air pollution could be viewed as a site for a “proto-democratic” movement in China. But Zee’s skill is that he neither celebrates Chinese citizens’ demand for accurate particulate matter 2.5 measurements (PM2.5) nor does he indict the self-contained air domes for expatriate children to play safely in Beijing. Zee’s examples in Beijing show us the political limits of restoring the environment to normalcy or protecting its victims from toxic exposures. Instead, breathing unsettles the “agency of political collectives,” where “breathing is not a doing or an action as much as it is a not-being-able-to-not-do-so.”

Here, the reader is again confronted with the possibility that environmental justice has no right formulas or answers, only difficult questions. And this is especially so for breathing and its “autonomic” nature, making conversations around individual agency irrelevant.

Cumulatively, the book reframes how we think and write about practical action and responses in the face of climate emergency. Instead of focusing on ecological and political breakdowns as moments for technical fixes and political reform, Continent in Dust reveals new political vectors, formations, and emergence built by engineers, ex-herders, and ordinary citizens “breathing together” and the practical work of meteorological and geophysical sciences.

The pleasure in reading ethnographies such as theirs is that they rarely provide a clear and comforting verdict.

Sarah Vaughn’s Engineering Vulnerability explores recent climate adaptation projects in Guyana, a South American nation, which has aligned with neighboring Caribbean states on issues including climate change risk and the history of plantation economies. Vaughn’s adroit historical and ethnographic analysis traces how a major dam system, the East Demerara Water Conservancy (EDWC), is maintained and redesigned by Guyanese engineers, despite its “dependency on the engineering inventions and sciences of its colonial past.” The book is about how nonwhite settler communities create a sense of belonging in a waterlogged terrain that bears the imprint of settler colonialism. It tracks the lives, desires, and practices of Afro-Guyanese and Indo-Guyanese citizens and engineers, whose ancestors once labored in coastal areas to make these landscapes habitable. Vaughn explores how the coastal settlement strategies and infrastructures that once depended on the flood knowledge of Indigenous Amerindians had to reckon with longstanding racial stereotypes of which race possessed more flood expertise.

Historically, the people of Guyana have been defined by the political order of apaan jaat: “an individual’s racial identity or affiliation with a racial group determines one’s access to resources, information, and protection from the state.” And, for Vaughn’s interlocutors, it is apaan jaat that controls and excludes who can know the coast, who can settle along the coast, and who has access to flood adaptation technologies. In 2005, for example, floods affected more than 39 percent of Guyana’s population in the country’s capital city of Georgetown. Vaughn notes how the Guyanese who experienced the disaster believed that apaan jaat explained why the government didn’t address the impacts of flooding in a timely or efficient manner. Similarly, government and industry-affiliated engineers tasked to adapt the coast initially feared that government funding and resources would not be distributed equitably and, instead, follow the racialized logic of apaan jaat. But climate adaptation efforts made space for both experts and ordinary citizens to demand that the state invest in social welfare services for all, and not based on individual racial identity.

Such new awareness and collective resistance to Guyana’s racial order, according to Vaughn, can be understood by a concept she developed called “counter-racial thinking.” This is an analytic and a description that disrupts who is typically perceived as an authentic racialized subject. Consider the media representations of climate refugees: the countless reports from international development institutions that feature nondescript Black and brown bodies walking on bare feet in an environmentally ravaged landscape. It is these representations that dissatisfy Vaughn. Instead, she views climate adaptation as an opening to challenge conventional framings of race “as a hierarchy of difference predicated on the ‘administration of life’ or [what Foucault regards as the] biopolitics of the population.” Ultimately, counter-racial thinking is “an ethico-political stance whereby people simultaneously acknowledge race while creating distance from it [to] imagine a new, or at least different, kind of engagement with the planet.”

Counter-racial thinking, for example, explains how engineers—already faced with the lack of archives detailing the country’s original Dutch and British flood infrastructures—kept private archival records of dam design to shield it “from a purportedly corrupt and/or shortsighted state apparatus” that enforces apaan jaat, in hopes of maintaining a sense of “fraternity” between engineers of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. This alliance also outweighed the informal stereotypes Guyanese engineers were subjected to during the post-independence era, where “sea defense” had been labeled a “so-called profession of Black expertise and irrigation and drainage a so-called profession of Indian expertise.”

Similarly, citizens refused the materialization of apaan jaat in the form of state compensation for resettlement efforts. In chapter 4, Vaughn recounts how Indo-Guyanese farmers regarded state compensation as a government attempt to buy farmers out and garner party votes. To farmers, compensation sets the terms for how the state recognizes Indo-Guyanese farmers as different from other racial groups and sets apaan jaat into action again. They referenced Indigenous Amerindian claims for land rights as a way to organize themselves and assert their flood knowledge for future coastal redesign, showing how interracial alliances were made possible through climate adaptation.

In recounting Guyanese engineers’ conflicted commitment to colonial models and designs of flooding infrastructures, Vaughn’s analysis challenges the familiar trope of engineering as a cold, hard, calculative act of rationality. In its place is what Vaughn calls love stories: engineers’ longstanding attachments to the EDWC, even if the dam requires constant maintenance and repair. Even with straitened state support, engineers and contracted laborers develop tools, including geotextiles and mathematical models, to preserve and capture the minute contingencies of peatland composition. For instance, engineers painstakingly conduct the arduous work of ground surveys and borehole drilling to supplement the limited resolution of hydraulic models. Vaughn shows how the shape-shifting pegasse, like wind-dust, also requires constant monitoring, performed by temporary workers “sacrificing family and lucrative work” to maintain the EDWC with geotextiles.

Engineering Vulnerability centers climate adaptation efforts as a new way for Guyanese to challenge the settler colonial structures of racial discrimination and apaan jaat that shaped irrigation and drainage infrastructures. Citizens and engineers learned to steer away from race as a “source of conflict” and show instead how race is enacted in relation to flood-prone environments. In this way, race in Guyana functions as a “relational category” to the more-than-human, a reformulation of race that Vaughn draws from feminist philosophy of science and posthumanist thought in Black studies.

The environmental ethics that builds from Vaughn’s counter-racial thinking makes accountability imaginable across racial divides. This is a book that helps us to create alliances that are not anchored solely in racial differences. Instead, it moves its audience to question what this difference entails, how this difference reconfigures our sense of belonging, and what this means for, and how it is inflected by, a more-than-human history and historiography under the pressing realities of climate change.

To keep the present going, then, is to refuse transcendental visions of nature as containable, controllable, and predictable, a central lesson that engineers, herders, scientists, and civilians, in the context of these two anthropologies, have increasingly come to understand. These anthropologies, I suggest, can also generously complement scholarship in adjacent fields.

Consider an information science class on environmental politics and computing that I designed and taught recently for data science, human-computer interaction, communications, and business and supply chain undergraduates. When I teach students about the massive energy consumption of corporate data centers, they tell me they feel pessimistic. They are not satisfied with a future increasingly controlled by a few multinational technology firms and old energy corporations. They despair at the limits of alternative solutions, such as electric vehicles, given the social and environmental harms that lithium battery supply chains often produce. These students become, in other words, aware of their closing horizon. At the same time, however, they learn that what has constituted their diminished horizon is a failure to reckon with our shared histories and our inability to imagine a different future.

I started this class because I wanted students to know that the conditions for environmental loss are not inevitable. I hope for them and myself to better understand how data and computing can not only change how we represent the environment but also how the ongoing environmental threats and harms we face influence how we design and build technologies.

Thankfully, Zee and Vaughn’s books present a pathway and a form of analytical attunement that enables these kinds of goals. Both books demonstrate that technical solutions to environmental problems are not always self-evident and imbued with optimism. Different from the utopian impulses that guide net-zero carbon capture efforts pursued by Big Tech, the engineers and scientists both Zee and Vaughn write about are highly ambivalent, deeply anxious, and concerned about the fraught nature of their community engagement. Their work reveals the arduous, exhaustive, and heartbreaking efforts that professionals endure to ensure that sand remains still and embankments do not give way.


One question remains: what new economic and political conditions do resettled communities face today? In Zee’s book, ex-herders resettled into farming lives are caught in a finely tuned condition of precarity: stripped of their ability to herd, ex-herders engage in the sporadic line of both official and illicit job opportunities that resemble the ecological uncertainty of dust storms and the fragility of dust control infrastructures. Similarly, in Vaughn, resettlement is never a guarantee for Guyanese, who must deal with the continued erosion of peatland that threatens the stability of any built drainage and irrigation infrastructure. At the same time, pegasse remains a creative resource for engineers to challenge the “historical-physical arrangement of coastal settlement” and engage in counter-racial thinking.

These are questions that not only ex-herders or Guyanese coastal communities have to face. Some of us, if not all, too, face similar horizons. When environmental destruction obliges us to revise the technoscience expertise and institutions once based on colonial legacies and state power, we learn from these two books how to withstand catastrophic thinking and maintain a shared responsibility for the circumstances that some communities have long endured. icon

This article was commissioned by Mona Sloane. Featured-image photograph of Beijing by Kelsey He / Unsplash (CC0 1.0).



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