L'Espace Sauvage

outlines for a dissertation

Fieldwork Update

It’s been some time since I’ve posted anything to this blog – my plans to use it as a study aide for my qualifying exams did not pan out. However, I am currently “in the field” for my first stint of dissertation research, and thought it an appropriate forum for communicating my progress and thoughts. (Apologies for formatting – WordPress is being a pain!)

I arrived in Idaho on the 28th of April (2016) – I’ve been here over three weeks, now, and it seems an appropriate point to set down a bit of reflection on how things have been so far.

Currently, with many thanks to the folks at Lava Lake Land and Livestock, I am staying in a yurt (#yurtlife) on their main ranch – about 15 miles outside of the town of Carey, in Blaine County – right next to Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Lava Lake itself

Lava Lake itself

The yurt

The yurt

Inside the yurt

Inside the yurt

Yurt ceiling

Yurt ceiling

The region is a far cry from anywhere I’ve lived before – on one side, the volcanic landscape; on another, the northern edge of the Great Basin, with its characteristic sage scrub; to the north, the beginnings of Idaho’s expansive national forest (Idaho has the largest contiguous area of federally protected wilderness outside of Alaska, and leads the nation in forest service land as a percentage of total area).

Craters of the Moon, Idaho

Craters of the Moon and the Snake River Plain

This time of year the land is beautiful – green, wet, and flowering. The weather is highly variable – “if you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes” certainly holds true, and I’ve experienced cold (very happy for the wood-burning stove in the yurt), high winds (which whip at the canvas to the point that I’ll use earplugs just to be able to sleep at night), dry heat, as well as beautiful sunny weather.

The skies here are incredible. I’d experienced a similar feeling living in Tucson and in my previous explorations around the West, but there is really something – about the vast expanses of sky, the patterns of cloud, and the quality of light – that has to be experienced, that is just qualitatively distinct from the skies I know in California.


While I’ve conducted field research in the past, this is the first time I’ve fully relocated to a site on my own like this. The first few weeks (and really the month before I left, as well) have been a period of stress, transition, and learning a lot about my typical patterns and needs – and about how I adapt in the absence of my social networks and communication technologies!

The area is very, very rural and agriculturally-focused, and phone and internet are minimal to non-existent. It’s taken some adjustment, to say the least – I don’t think I was aware of how much of a typical day back home was killed checking email and facebook.

And yet Blaine County is also home to Sun Valley, an enclave of wealth oriented on the recreational possibilities of the Wood River Valley and Sawtooth National Forest beyond. I drive up the Wood River Valley corridor – Bellevue, Hailey, and Ketchum – a few times a week, which takes between 45 minutes and an hour from the ranch depending on how far north I’m going. (It’s only there that I can seem to get phone service, so if I’m slow responding to texts and calls you know why!)


Much of my time and mental energy the past couple of weeks has been spent adjusting to my new living situation – logistically and emotionally. Living in the yurt is far more posh than I expected – I had definitely packed for the barest of conditions, and was happy to instead find running water (if a bit iron-heavy), a furnished bed, wood burning stove, and probably the fanciest “outhouse” I’ve ever seen.

Still, there are challenges: the winds and a very active and vocal bird population makes sleeping a challenge at times (again, earplugs are a blessing), while the interior is plagued by tenacious mice (I’m working on it – after some false starts that included a couple of painful snaps on my fingers, I’ve pretty much mastered trap-craft) and a nearly constant and oddly disturbing presence of dead and dying flies. (I intellectualize all this as a very personal lesson in the production, maintenance, and permeability of territory!)

Witness my wrath

Witness my wrath

And of course I’m all alone. I’m hitting a rhythm now, but it’s been a challenging adjustment (as I’ve not had to live alone for over 5 years now, and this is really alone).

But overall I really can’t complain – it’s absolutely beautiful, has the added perk of frequent puppy visits, and gives me the space to collect my thoughts after I exhaust myself in “the field.”

Guard dog Nelly

Guard dog Nelly

Guard dog Russ

Guard dog Russ

Research is slow going but progressing. I’ve had to confront my own impatience and preference for clear plans, instead adjusting to a much more organic and iterative “deep hanging out” (yes, that’s me admitting that my advisors were totally right). Being so self-directed, not really having a clear research plan (no matter what I told the IRB…), and having to continually put myself out there – “fishing” for leads, for any kind of bite from people I’d like to talk with – it’s exhausting, and can be frustrating. But for every day I flounder and feel like I’ve no idea what I’m doing here and why, there’s another day when I drive back to the yurt really feeling like things are coming together.

I won’t say much on what I’m finding so far and where it’s leading, because I honestly still don’t know. I have flashes of insight, glimpses of directions I could take, but it’s all still amorphous – ask me in a few more weeks!





Before I sign off, many, many thanks to all of those who have helped me out so far: whether that’s the folk I encounter who give me a reason – through encouragement or mystery – to keep digging; new and old friends in the area who support me along the way; or those back home and around the world who have expressed an interest in my work (even if it’s just the puppy snaps) and/or sent me advice and well-wishings. It’s all more appreciated than you could know.


CFP: Political Ecology of Multi-Species Spaces: Contestation and Cohabitation

A colleague of mine at UC Davis and I have put together a call for papers for next year’s Association of American Geographers annual meeting – see below!


CFP: Political Ecology of Multi-Species Spaces: Contestation and Cohabitation

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
San Francisco, California // 29 March – 2 April, 2016

Jeff Martin, UC Berkeley, organizer
Jennifer Sedell, UC Davis, organizer
Rosemary-Claire Collard, Concordia University, discussant

Conflicts between humans and non-human species have seen growing attention among scholars concerned with the knotty and interdisciplinary questions of coexistence. Work within wildlife ecology and management increasingly recognizes the need to look beyond the biophysical, with calls for social science attention to the “human dimensions” of these conflicts (Dickman 2010; Treves & Karanth 2003). At the same time, scholarship around philosophical posthumanism, critical animal studies, and new animal geographies has brought to bear radically different perspectives on relationships between human and non-human species (Haraway 2008; Kirksey & Helmreich 2010; Wolch & Emel 1998). This session provides an intervention into these conversations by examining the production of multi-species spaces and boundaries through the lens of political ecology.

Multi-species contestations do not take place in the ether, but rather in and through the production of space. This session is concerned with how humans “place” animals in material and conceptual ways – through taxonomic or legal classification, a more amorphous “othering,” or the legal and material bounding of space – and how animals transgress or “resist” these boundings and produce alternative spatial relations, often resulting in deep unease from both real and perceived threats to humans’ “biosecurity” (Collard 2012; Philo & Wilbert 2000). We are interested in the many forms these threats take: from alligators (Ogden 2011) and cougars (Collard 2012) to insects (Shaw, Robbins & Jones III 2010), weeds (Robbins 2004), viruses (Braun 2011; Greenhough 2012), and more.

We contend that a critical, more-than-human geography (Whatmore 2002) of inter-species conflict should attend carefully to questions of space and power, as well as the particularity of context, history, and individual species. Against abstract questions of coexistence with non-human others, we might instead consider concrete and grounded dynamics of spatial “cohabitation,” of living together – a challenging and contradictory terrain of lived intersubjectivity (Fox 2006), but which open the possibility of producing space and society differently (cf. Loftus 2012; Robbins & Moore 2013).

We propose that political ecology provides an invaluable set of theoretical and analytical tools for analysis and intervention in multi-species contestations (Perreault, Bridge & McCarthy 2015; Robbins 2012). Its long tradition of interdisciplinarity, simultaneous concern with the material and the meaningful, and normative scholarship provide a framework for investigating questions of space, meaning, and agency in the complex entanglements between human and non-human species (cf. Kosek 2010). This session provides a valuable opportunity for conversation and collaboration among scholars from diverse backgrounds and trainings in the interest of researching and thinking through cohabitation and our multi-species futures.

Questions of interest:

  • How does boundary creation encourage or discourage inter-species interaction?
  • What are the impacts of designating spaces for certain species and not for others?
  • How do species change materially, legally, and conceptually when they occur in different spaces (and at different times)?
  • When and how do we build and enforce boundaries through both what we shut out and what we invite in?
  • How do we recognize and politically account for the importance of other species?
  • How can critical social theory traditions help us understand interspecies interactions?
  • How can empirical investigations of biophysical processes enrich theoretical framings?

Potential topics and themes include (but are not limited to):

  • human-wildlife conflicts and controversies
  • invasive species exclusion efforts and debates
  • quarantines for plant, animal, and human health threats
    risk and risk perception, (bio)security/ization, (dis)proportionality of response
  • novel ecosystems
  • microbiotics, probiotics, and cultivation of gut micro-ecologies
  • non-human agency
  • human values, attitudes, and practices toward non-humans

Those who would like to participate in the session should submit a brief statement of interest and/or draft abstract by October 17th to Jen Sedell at jksedell@ucdavis.edu and Jeff Martin at j.vance.martin@berkeley.edu. Session participants will need to submit a final abstract and register for the conference by October 29.

Braun, Bruce (2011) “Governing disorder: biopolitics and the molecularization of life,” in Global Political Ecology, eds. R. Peet, P. Robbins and M. Watts. Routledge.
Collard, Rosemary-Claire (2012) “Cougar-Human Entanglements and the Biopolitical Un/Making of Safe Space,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 30(1): 23-42.
Dickman, A.J. (2010) “Complexities of Conflict: The Importance of Considering Social Factors for Effectively Resolving Human-Wildlife Conflict,” Animal Conservation, 13(5): 458–466.
Fox, Rebekah (2006) “Animal Behaviours, Post-Human Lives: Everyday Negotiations of the Animal-Human Divide in Pet-Keeping,” Social & Cultural Geography. 7(4): 525-537.
Greenhough, Beth (2012) “Where species meet and mingle: endemic human-virus relations, embodied communication and more-than-human agency at the Common Cold Unit 1946-90,” Cultural Geographies 19(3): 281-301.
Haraway, Donna Jeanne (2008) When Species Meet. University of Minnesota Press.
Kirksey, S. Eben and Stefan Helmreich (2010) “The Emergence of Multispecies Ethnography,” Cultural Anthropology. 25(4): 545-576.
Kosek, Jake (2010) “Ecologies of Empire: On the New Uses of the Honeybee,” Cultural Anthropology. 25: 650–678.
Loftus, Alex (2012) Everyday Environmentalism: Creating an Urban Political Ecology. University of Minnesota Press.
Ogden, Laura (2011) Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades. University of Minnesota Press.
Perreault, Tom, Gavin Bridge, and James McCarthy (eds) (2015) The Routledge Handbook of Political Ecology. Routledge.
Philo, Chris and Chris Wilbert (eds) (2000) Animal Spaces, Beastly Places: New Geographies of Human-Animal Relations. Routledge.
Robbins, Paul (2004) “Comparing Invasive Networks: Cultural and Political Biographies of Invasive Species” The Geographical Review 94(2): 139-156.
Robbins, Paul (2012) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell.
Robbins, Paul and Sarah A. Moore (2013) “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene,” Cultural Geographies, 20(1): 3-19.
Shaw, Ian Graham Ronald, Paul F. Robbins, and John Paul Jones III. (2010) “A Bug’s Life and the Spatial Ontologies of Mosquito Management,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers. 100(2): 373-392.
Treves, Adrian and K. Ullas Karanth (2003) “Human-Carnivore Conflict and Perspectives on Carnivore Management Worldwide,” Conservation Biology. 17: 1491-1499.
Whatmore, Sarah (2002) Hybrid Geographies: Natures Cultures Spaces. Sage.
Wolch, Jennifer R. and Jody Emel (eds) (1998) Animal Geographies: Place, Politics, and Identity in the Nature-Culture Borderlands. Verso.

Whence political ecology? Cultural ecology and the political economic critique

Political Ecology, Then and Now:

Whence political ecology? Cultural ecology and the political economic critique

One of the more exciting things about preparing for qualifying exams is the opportunity to read foundational texts in the various fields I draw on – often things I’ve seen cited or indirectly referenced hundreds of times, but never had the chance to sit down and read for myself. Due to time constraints, of course, I have been limited in my selections, but tried to choose pieces that were representative of broader trends, even as I was forced to read them outside of this context.

In political ecology, the field in which I most firmly situate my own work, this is particularly the case. I start here with some early pieces that show the germs of what would coalesce into political ecology by the late 1980s and early 1990s. (I leave aside a definition of the field – a subject of much debate, as it turns out – for the moment.)

Political ecology in many ways first emerges from conversations and convergences between cultural ecology, Marxian political economy, and agrarian studies (in a second wave of political ecology formation c.1990s, one sees the infusion and influence of feminist studies, environmental history, and post-structuralism in a variety of guises). Here I focus on two of these early theoretical influences and developments through the work of Julian Steward and Michael Watts.


Cultural ecology: adaptation and equilibrium

Steward, Julian (1972) [1955] “The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology,” in Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. U. Illinois Press: 30-42.

Julian Steward

Julian Steward

Cultural ecology, coined and here exemplified by the work of Julian Steward (1955), is the anthropological study of human societal adaptation to the physical environment. Homo sapiens adapts much more rapidly through cultural change than through biology – as a social animal with a penchant for technology, humans have been able to make themselves at home in a variety of often extreme environments through this “super-organic factor.” (Little is made of this point, but Steward also notes that these cultural adaptations in turn influence the physical bodies of humans, and makes the rather clever assertion that “man [sic] is a domesticated animal” – an interesting parallel might be drawn with some of Engels’ writings.)

For Steward, the goal is to understand the effect of environment upon culture while avoiding the pitfall of environmental determinism. Cultural ecology is thus presented as a middle ground between determinism by environmental conditions (empirically false given the diversity of cultural forms despite often common environmental challenges), and a more voluntaristic or interdeterministic view that holds no environmental influence on culture whatsoever.

He wants to “explain the origin of particular cultural features and patterns which characterize different areas[,] rather than to derive general principles applicable to any cultural-environmental situation,” and yet is fundamentally driven by cross-cultural comparison. This is where the central idea of the “cultural core” comes into play. The physical environment presents challenges for human societies seeking to reproduce themselves (finding adequate food, shelter, etc.), and there are, given a certain level of technology, strategies that are more effective at producing the basic needs of a society in a particular environment.

While all aspects of a given culture, according to Steward, are to some degree interrelated and interdependent, the degree and kind of interdependency varies, and some cultural practices are more intransigent – given the environment and societal reproductive needs – than others. Thus in relation to a “problem” of environmental adaptation, a society maintains a cultural core of key adaptations. Cultures facing similar environmental/production challenges, it is then asserted, develop similar functional relationships – and thus “cultural types” – across space and time (again, given similar levels of technological development, environment, etc.).

Steward’s thesis is that “cultural ecological adaptations constitute creative processes,” and that “adaptive interaction” between humans and their environment is a process which gives human creativity and agency a primary role while recognizing the limiting effects of context and the necessity of social reproduction. The question then is what the latitude or range of possible cultural patterns is, given this cultural core – and this, according to Steward is always an empirical problem – i.e. to be determined through direct research and specific to particular contexts.

Steward’s Cultural Ecology (diagram from Robbins 2004, p.31)

The political economic critique: crisis and social relations

Watts, Michael (1983) “On the Poverty of Theory: Natural Hazards Research in Context,” in Hewitt, K. (ed) Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Allen & Unwin: 231-262.

Michael Watts

Michael Watts

The limitations of cultural ecology would provide the cracks in which the seeds of political ecology could take root. Based in his research on drought and peasants in northern Nigeria, Michael Watts critically engages the fields of hazards research and human-cultural ecology by bringing to bear a Marxian concern with political economic forces and power relations, opening up broader questions of epistemology around nature and society and how we approach questions of environmental crisis.

While Steward himself recognized the importance of “larger institutions,” particularly in more “complex” cultures, this concern seems almost tacked on. Although cultural elements more distant from the cultural core can and do vary according to “cultural-historical factors” (what might be thought of as “superstructural” dynamics over time), the model is uni-directional: cultural/social changes come from “changing technology and productive arrangements,” with little to no opportunity for other dynamics and histories to reflect back onto the cultural core. Much of cultural ecology thus slides into a functionalist and reductionist understanding of complex cultural patterns (Robbins 2004, 32-33).

This overall narrative has strong parallels with some of the early work of Marx in The German Ideology, including similar conceptions (though not described as such) of social reproduction, base, and superstructure – note the “procedure” of cultural ecology, which emphasizes the analysis of 1) the “interrelationship of exploitative or productive technology and environment” (means of production?), and 2) the “behavior patterns involved in the exploitation of a particular area by means of a particular technology” (relations of production?). While showing a common grounding in a materialist epistemology, both Steward and The German Ideology display a remarkably undialectical view of culture and history, respectively.

Relatedly, and in part drawing on the equilibrium view of ecology deployed by cultural ecologists, there is a teleological element to concern with cultural adaptation, in which the very existence of a cultural practice implies its adaptive quality. Watts cites Claude Lévi-Strauss’ pithy remark: “To say that a society functions is a truism but to say that everything in a society functions is an absurdity.” Thus a cultural ecology approach naturalizes and legitimizes existing forms and practices by conceptualizing social systems as adaptive wholes.

Crucially, if cultural and ecological systems are equilibrial and adaptive wholes, how can we account for change and transformation? Cultural ecology lacks the tools to address transition or the incorporation of what Watts calls “formerly autarkic systems” into a global economy, a process rapidly taking place in the colonial and postcolonial worlds of both Steward and Watts. Furthermore, by conceptualizing cultures as coherent and bounded units, cultural ecology provided little sense of multiple scales, change over time, nor of internal contestations and power relations – in other words, the politics of human-environmental relations.

(The influence of disequilibrium or “new” ecology is clear here, but we might also draw a connection to more dialectical understandings of Darwinian evolutionary theory: following Stephen Jay Gould and others as “punctuated” by crisis and ultimately “the art of the workable,” rather than a well-planned “balance of nature.”)

For Watts, human relations with nature are social, and social systems, given internal power relations and contextual pressures, are not adaptive, but rather contradictory and unstable (239). Starting with (or going back to) a Marxian focus on “the forces and social relations of production,” Watts notes that social and cultural processes of adaptation are fundamentally bound up with questions of access and control over the means of production and the allocation of products within society, i.e. with political power structures and stratification (242).

Such an approach also follows Marx in locating nature at the locus of all human practice, with society and nature an “irreducible unity” of internal relations or “inneractions,” mediated metabolically through (historically specific forms of) labor (234, 242). This runs counter to much of cultural ecology and hazards research that sees people and nature as discrete – the environment as backdrop or external factor to which humans must adapt.

For Watts, adaptation is always a social process, constrained by both the environment and the relations of production, and thus often having a contradictory character due to those power relations (245). Hazards are redefined as moments of social crisis in the system of social reproduction, in which natural irregularity is mediated by the socioeconomic structures of a given society (256, 259). Environmental crises thus “[throw] into sharp relief the structure of social systems” (258), as seen in later writings on fire, drought, and extreme weather events like Hurricane Katrina.

In the case of Nigeria, then (but applicable to many other instances of rural socioecological crisis), a set of traditional (pre/noncapitalist) social relations, adapted to a particular set of environmental (ir)regularities (often via risk aversion, redistributive social relations and mutual aid, and a subsistence ethic) are disrupted through articulation with a global capitalist system – in this case a “colonial triad” of taxation, export commodity production, and monetization – resulting in a crisis of social reproduction. As people are made unable to self-regulate in the same ways they once did, hunger and indebtedness result – hardly the environmental adaptation described by cultural ecology, yet more and more common in the latter half of the 20th century and the object of much subsequent political ecology research.


Robbins, Paul (2004) Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Blackwell.

Steward, Julian (1972) “The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology,” in Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. U. Illinois Press: 30-42.

Watts, Michael (1983) “On the Poverty of Theory: Natural Hazards Research in Context,” in Hewitt, K. (ed) Interpretations of Calamity from the Viewpoint of Human Ecology. Allen & Unwin: 231-262.

High Noon for the Gray Wolf (New York Times Op-Ed)

Pithy treatment of the current context around gray wolf recovery and conflict by Lydia Millet for the New York Times.

Image by Mark Todd, NYT

Image by Mark Todd, NYT

It begins (for reals)

It’s been a bit quiet over here for a few months as I’ve worked to re-form my project and prepare to prepare (yes, you read that right) for my qualifying exams (May 2016!).

In the interest of a) not putting in a ton of interesting but perhaps superfluous work learning French and familiarizing myself with the long political economic and environmental history of France, and b) actually finishing my PhD in a reasonable amount of time and for a feasible cost, I have shifted my dissertation research from wolf conflict in France and/or comparing France and the U.S. to a project centered on the Northern Rockies (no doubt the specifics will change going forward, so I will leave it vague for now). Hopefully I can move into European rewilding concerns with a post-doc research project.

This change makes the title of this blog a bit odd, but I think it still sounds cool, and French makes it seem fancy (making me, by my calculations, a quarter fancy).

As noted, my exams will be taking place in the spring of next year (2016), and I have plenty to do between now and then. As is perhaps obvious, this is a far cry from my previous version, which ranged much more broadly. Considering that I have only about 6 months to finish, however, this seems much more manageable. While some of my favorite pet bits have been cut (including Stephen Jay Gould, werewolves, and discussions of complexity science), what is left feels stronger, and I am still excited to work through it. The current outline of my exams lists is as follows (forgive the lack of clever titling – as I’ve reworked this over the past few months, my concern has shifted more to content than form):

  1. Animal studies and wildlife conflict
    1. Nature and the animal in western thought
    2. Wildlife conflict and conservation
    3. Key themes in animal studies
  2. Political ecology and science
    1. Political ecology then and now
    2. Fellow travelers and infusions
    3. Ecology and socio-natural complexity
  3. Geographic political economy and land
    1. The rise of capitalism and uneven development
    2. State and space
    3. Land and rural production

I’ve actually begun with list 2 (political ecology) to ease myself in – this is where I have my strongest grounding (and the most already done), so expect to see some posts on some of this material in the coming weeks/month.

From the beginning, this blog has been inspired in part by Teo Ballvé’s work over at http://territorialmasquerades.net/, which I understand to have originated in his own orals preparation. For my posts, I expect much will be pretty rough, and to a large degree me thinking “out loud” – as such, I encourage your engagement (questions, comments, challenges to my understandings), but also know that my ideas may change through the course of this project!

In other news, a colleague of mine alerted me to this piece on the wolf attacks in Paris in 1450: http://retrieverman.net/2010/10/27/the-wolves-of-paris/. While I was aware of the incident, this gives a nice read of the context of those attacks, and ends with an astute call for conservationists to not sugarcoat the science and history of wolves and wolf attacks, as these ultimately will prove detrimental to their cause.

Until next time,


Happy (late) Halloween!

Abstract submission: historical geographies of animals

Submitted for a panel on the historical geographies of animals, for the ICHG.

Conflict and cohabitation: gray wolves and rural landscape change in France and the United States

Historically one of the most widespread mammals in the world, Canis lupus has had a fraught relationship with humans in Europe and the U.S. for centuries. The bulk of the considerable wolf scholarship, however, comes from either ecological or cultural perspectives, while popular explanations of wolf conflict invoke economic determinism or a transhistorical hatred. Such analyses fail to explain the historical and geographical patterns of socio-political conflict and management.
Deploying analytical tools from political ecology, this work explores interwoven environmental and economic histories of pivotal sites of wolf conflict today: southern France and the U.S. Intermountain West. This work stresses the inextricably material and meaningful aspects of the wolf as cultural symbol and biophysical agent, the novel landscapes and ecologies they produce, and the centrality of land use change and rural political economy to the history of wolf conflict, viewed as socio-ecological crisis resulting from political economic transformations intersecting with the behaviors of wolves themselves.
A historical and geographical analysis that takes seriously the biophysical animal itself is essential to the development of a history adequate to contemporary debates over rural futures, rewilding, and megafauna conservation, and to what it means to cohabitate in the 21st century.

Proposal at NatGeo “Expedition Granted”

Conflict and Cohabitation

I submitted a short video proposal as part of National Geographic’s “Expedition Granted” contest. Fingers crossed I advance to the next round, at which point I intend to spam everyone I know to vote for me! In the meantime, feel free to share it around, ask questions, etc.

Animal // Environment Symposium – talk

The following is the rough text of a talk given last week (2 May 2014) as part of the graduate student roundtable portion of a multidisciplinary symposium sponsored by the Program in Modern Thought and Literature and the Environmental Humanities Project at Stanford. (More information on the event is available here.) Many thanks to those that organized the event, and to the audience members and my colleagues who so productively engaged with what I had to say!

First, a bit more background on me:

  • Second-year PhD student in Geography at UCB, with a background in interdisciplinary social sciences with an environmental bent;
  • I’ve also worked for the Department of Defense as a “biologist”, doing environmental compliance and endangered species conservation, protection, and restoration – brief, but I have some sense of what that looks like;

My work comes out of the rough field of political ecology, and I have a particular concern with radical political economy of a Marxian lean. What I argued in my blurb, and what drives some of my work, is that many of our environmental and animal-related concerns suffer from insufficient attention to/engagement with what I’ll broadly refer to as “political economy” (particularly a concern with the production, circulation, and consumption of stuff, capital, and the material reproduction of society through metabolic interaction with the environment.)

Ok, to start, and set up what I see as the intervention of my work generally, and then a bit more specifically near the end as I touch on the project I’m trying to develop.

There is a whole body of literature around the commodification of nonhuman natures, largely coming out of geography and political ecology – people of note include Noel Castree, John O’Neill, Scott Prudham, Karen Bakker, Jack Kloppenburg, Becky Mansfield, Morgan Robertson…the list goes on.

These authors and others emphasize a concern with the processes, effects, and problems of commodification of what we broadly understand as “nature” or “the environment” – the depletion of resources, pollution, production of nature-based commodities, etc., and the dynamics underlying these processes – ideas of produced scarcity, of undervaluation and underproduction, etc.

Much of that literature, however, with few exceptions, doesn’t engage animal questions. William Boyd and Michael Watts on chickens might be one of the few. (the latter is on my quals committee, so we’ll see how that goes!)

On the other hand, people that do explicitly engage animal questions, whether from an applied, wildlife management approach or from a more humanities-philosophical perspective, seem to not do the work of bringing political economy into the conversation in a particularly focused, nuanced way. (I’ll likely get some flack for this – I know Haraway takes her PE seriously, as do others – if you have other counterexamples please let me know!)

In my work, I want to go beyond both of these “camps,” and consider the importance of political economy not just to those things that get commodified, but more broadly: to the ways that the dynamics of capitalist accumulation, competition, etc. have effects on many environmental and animal issues, and act as primary drivers for how we engage non-human (and human) natures.

My current work (such as it is), involves looking at conflict with and over the return of gray wolves to landscapes where they were previously extirpated – primarily focusing on the French Alps and the American Northern Rockies, and the return of wolves since the 1990s.

Most, if not all of you, are probably familiar with conflict over wolves in the US – dates back 150+ years, been in the news a lot lately. In France things are similar (though obviously context-specific). On the surface, these conflicts seems potentially obvious – wolves come in, eat animals, which pisses people off who own or use those animals (primarily livestock, but also hunting interests).

So, case closed?

  • But not all producers are evenly upset: some are very pro-wolf, and many of the worst opponents have never even felt predation impacts. Compensation schemes have also been less than effective in changing peoples’ minds, throwing a wrench into any kind of economic determinism argument.
  • Many conservationists think better knowledge or science around the wolf will lead to the disappearance of “backwards” ideas, or that those folks who do hold those ideas will, to be blunt about it, die off.
  • But then why hasn’t this now 20+ year old conflict been resolved (in the US, we might argue, it’s even escalating!)

My claim is that we need to employ a more complex understanding of the political economic that is both geographical and historical.

I argue that the return of wolves presents as a socio-natural crisis (unevenly felt, understood) as rural political economic transformations (including increased scale, changing labor practices, and land use changes) intersect with the return of the wolf and subsequent predation.

Thus the wolf, the animal, simultaneously acts as

  • a lens or window onto underlying tensions, including contesting visions of rural landscape histories and futures,
  • and as a material agent of change, producing novel landscapes that change the terrain of livestock production and stand in tension with existing political boundings and the spatial orderings of capitalist land use.

Thus contemporary patterns of opposition emerge from the dialectical/interrelational interaction between the biophysical and political economic, and between the material and the meaningful.

To close: If the goal is successful cohabitation and coexistence with other species, an overcoming of “interspecies alienation,” then those pushing conservation agendas have to seriously engage with the contradictions on the ground. Doing conservation well, taking seriously other animals’ beings, needs, etc., means taking seriously the challenges and obstacles posed by the societal structures we’ve created.

For me, that means that “thinking better about animals” is insufficient to the challenges faced, and may mean that conservation, ultimately, requires an anti-capitalist edge. 🙂


Native Trespassers: Wild Horses in Mesa Verde – Jeff Martin

Native Trespassers: Wild Horses in Mesa Verde – Jeff Martin.

(Guest piece I wrote last fall for Wayne Linklater’s perissodactyla blog)

Video: Hunting wolves in the French wilderness – Telegraph

Video: Hunting wolves in the French wilderness – Telegraph.