RAI 2021 Conference Panel report – Hope, ruination and the politics of remaking landscapes

Panel held at the Royal Anthropological Institute’s “Anthropology and Conservation” online conference, October 29th, 2021.

We organised a panel at this international conference to explore links between the RAI’s theme “Anthropology and Conservation” and our 2021 workshop on “Hope, Ruination and Environmentalism”. The panel discussed contributions from five presenters from around the world. Our starting point was that increasing environmental degradation has become a key concern for anthropologists and scholars in related disciplines. Yet, they look to conservation with mixed feelings. On the one hand, they have documented the problems for people inhabiting the ruins of past and present economic dreams and ecological indifference. On the other hand, they have noticed the ubiquitous tensions between different people’s hopes for more sustainable futures, amongst which are various models of conservation. Taking contested landscapes as its starting point and material anchor, our panel explored stories of environmental destruction, but also attended to the related hopes for ecological transitions and justice. 

The first paper, “Hope, Ruination and Precarious Place-Making in the Asian Anthropocene”, was presented by Ishtiaque Ahmed Levin, a doctoral candidate at the Centre for the Study of Social Systems (CSSS), School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University in India. Ishtiaque delivered a poignant critique of the Eurocentrism and white supremacy overtones in mainstream Anthropocene discourse, and proposed to rethink the Anthropocene through alternative tropes. He suggested, for example, a version of the Gandhian concept “swaraj” that emphasises self-rule and self-transformation as a possible way forward and developed this concept further by drawing attention to the precarious place-making practices of a Dalit fishing community in Bangladesh. 

The second paper was presented by Davide Cacchioni, doctoral candidate at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Marseille, France, and titled “Hemp as a remediation for a polluted territory? Hopes and struggles in the Susa valley”. Davide began reporting on a protest movement against a high-speed railway project that was to cross the Susa Valley in Northern Italy, and explained how these protests focused a mix of concerns in the region, from pollution to migration, economy and politics. He traced how the growing of hemp emerged as a source of hope in the area ruined by pollution and neglect, but suggested that this hope was largely frustrated: while hemp cultivation was deemed to be a potent remediation of polluted soils, its market as a commodity lay mostly in the “organic” bracket, for instance for clothing, which favoured hemp from unpolluted sources.

Beth Cloughton, doctoral candidate at the University of Glasgow in Scotland held the third presentation, which was titled “’Las Vegas is all lit up…what’s my energy saving lightbulb gonna dae?’ The ethics of consumption at Baltic Street Adventure Playground.” In her paper, Beth criticised the consumerist focus of much of climate action based on her fieldwork with a food bank in a deprived Glasgow neighbourhood. The common, middle-class narrative and ethics of frugality and environmentalism showed little traction in a context of food poverty and multiple deprivation, which was not, as Beth emphasised, thereby devoid of ethical reflections on climate change, wastage and other environmental matters.

Elias Plata Espino presented the fourth paper, titled “Forests of Refuge and Development. The Historical Development of Forests in the Sierra Tarahumara of Mexico.” Elias is a doctoral candidate at the State University of New York at Buffalo, USA. His paper discussed the Sierra Tarahumana forests as an agentive force with different affordances for conflicting politics in Mexico. On the one hand, they were a key resource for export-oriented development, epitomised by neoliberal arrangements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). At the same time, however, they continue to be a stronghold for Indigenous activism, resistance and alternative development.   

The final paper, “Hope does not come from the skies: the politics of cloudseeding in the United Arab Emirates”, was presented by our network’s co-convener Alexandra Cotofana, who works as Assistant Professor at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi. Alexandra discussed the technocratic dreams and practices of rain-making in a dry region, and their association with conspiracy theories that link cloudseeding to state control. As governance extends vertically from the territory to the skies, industrial rain-making can emerge as colonialism’s “wet dream” of superior control of ever more spheres of life turned into resources. Hopes for green, sustainable futures are thereby wedded with a military-industrial tradition that aims at engineering vital processes to fit consumer demand. 

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