ZHENG Bo + Steven LAM
ZHENG Bo is an artist, writer, and filmmaker who teaches in the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong. STEVEN LAM is an artist and educator at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver BC.
Friends for many years, Bo and Steve talk about their current research projects on the affects and materialities of plants, weeds, and cross-species sex; the importance of understanding the historical specificities of the Chinese and north American contexts for rethinking relations between people, plants, and states; and their practices as art educators.
You’re listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Podcast.
For this episode, we are delighted to host a conversation between two dear friends that took place in September 2020 in the middle of the global pandemic: artist ZHENG BO based in Hong Kong, and calling in from Gropius Bau Museum in Berlin, and curator STEVEN LAM based in Canada, and calling in from Emily Carr University of Art & Design in Vancouver.
It’s a conversation that touches on three timely questions for the arts and humanities in the growing fields of Multispecies, Environmental, and Queer Studies:
First is how the materiality and sensibility of plants, weeds, and cross-species sex challenge ideologies of reproduction and extraction; second is how the historical specificities of the Chinese and north American contexts offer different and important lenses for rethinking relations between people, plants, colonies, and modern nation-states. For example, how might we reimagine Western conceptions of health as a multispecies balance between social and environmental justice? And the third is practices of pedagogy, or how might we teach and how might we learn methods for living and dying with more-than-human or all-too-inhuman worlds.
Here are Steve Lam and Zheng Bo.
These days I’ve been thinking about ideas of white botany, really inspired by the work of Katherine Yusoff and her “A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None” where she’s trying to underwrite or perhaps reroute or de-roots ideas of geology as a white formation and currently working in the art world and also working in art education specifically, so many of my students are really interested in plants. They’re just interested in agriculture. I think they’re also interested in maybe the artisanal possibility of making as a way to think about parables of de-growth. And for me, botany might be this place where animals are othered and classified and named. So there’s this whole kind of epistemic creation that places man from an outside and nature as a place, a subject of classification. So if there are ways to sort of think about how this mode of scientific inquiry is racialized and as a way to sort of think about how there’s two reproductions, right? A reproduction of a capitalist logic of mastery, but also reproduction of whiteness as a center, right? So I’m really interested in how botany might have that potential from an art pedagogical place, but also a place of resistance in a place of understanding the world differently.
Also there’s a larger research project that I’m trying to do. I think it’s going to be a 50-year project where I’m trying to think about the legacy of Dow Chemicals. And, Bo, we talked about this too, back in 2016. For me, I was born in Michigan—specifically Midland Michigan, which is one of the large plants of Dow chemicals and born, you know, a few years after the construction of napalm and my dad is a chemist and he worked at Dow Chemicals. So I’m really interested in this kind of confluence of chemistry and complicity and trying to understand the Asian American experience on top of that. And then recently I came across the work of Michelle Murphy who’s been writing about what she calls the Chemical Valley, really thinking about Ontario, Canada, and how it kind of linked down to Michigan and into the States as a precursor of some form of petrochemical dominion. So I’m really interested in how toxicity gets kind of reproduced and looking at that sort of geography. And again, sort of looking at that long tail of historic formation where it’s linking settler kind of conquest to industrial capitalism to the diaspora. I mean, those are huge questions and I don’t know what form this research project is. Right now I’m just sort of foraging the archives of Dow Chemicals and looking at advertisements from the sixties and seventies, but also looking at the student protests that happened in various kinds of public universities around Dow around 1968 to 1972, these sort of anti-Vietnam war protests. It’s almost like a detective story in so far as I’m sort of looking at these archival documents to try to create a narrative in reverse, but like a big narrative, a narrative that’s not just 20 years, 30 years, but perhaps 300 years.
Yeah. Steve was talking about 50 years. I think what I’m working on now probably will take longer. I’ve been working on how to bring plants into our political imaginary. Right now in Berlin, I’m starting to talk to scientists to learn sort of on the micro level, on molecular genetic level, how plants behave and, you know, that’s what scientists study, but usually with a utilitarian purpose linked to agriculture and economy. But I want to learn from their research, but recast those learnings in a political paradigm. How do we understand plant physiology and behavior as political acts rather than just biological reactions? So I think the larger intention is, you know, this idea of multispecies equality. That’s been present in my practice, but now I’m trying to approach it from a micro-level. So that’s a new project.
There’s another project that’s still going on, the film I’ve been making in Taiwan. It’s an ecosexual film between men and ferns. So I’ve been doing that slowly since 2016. I’ve been going every year to make one episode, usually about 15 to 20 minutes in the same forest, but with different men and different ferns. That has been very enjoyable. This year, I was going to do another chapter, but because of the pandemic, I was not allowed to go to Taiwan, but I’m hoping to be able to do the next chapter early next year. So that project, I’m interested in sex, I’m interested in eroticism and that project came about kind of randomly, but now I feel like it’s also important because I think, you know, in addition to thinking very theoretical or scientific questions, the filming really allows me to be there in the forest and to really be very bodily involved. And there’s, you know, it’s really fun. It’s very, it’s very visual. It’s very performative. So, it’s a different flavor of experience.
Bo it’s so awesome to see how “Pteridophilia” has evolved, because I think last time we spoke, that was right when you finished the first episode. And just sort of looking at the evolution and the language and how it’s become more sort of explicitly about queer, an eco-queer way of living. So my question is about plant sex. I wrote in my notes, “ask Bo about plant sex,” and I crossed it out, not, not plant sex. Let’s talk about fucking plants. And then I crossed that out. Actually, no, it’s not about fucking plants. It’s if I was a plant, I’d be like, it’s about fucking humans, those fucking humans! So my question is, in that film, is there a kind of allegory to a radical understanding of reproduction here? I mean, certainly there’s like this multispecies ways of being together, but this being together is little bit more than just us holding hands together right? Or holding leaves with hands. My question is, is there really a kind of pointed critique about what gets reproduced, who gets reproduced, how does it get reproduced, and what is the logic of reproduction?
Yeah, I mean, I started the project without thinking about why I was doing it, right. I was in Taiwan in 2016. I’m from mainland China. So I, you know, I’ve learned about Taiwan through mainstream media and also through propaganda. So when I went to Taiwan, I thought I needed a way to really, to feel Taiwan in a way that’s beyond what the media told me before. And I went to an exhibition in the City Art Museum. It’s about how Japanese artists, when they went to Taiwan in the 19-teens and twenties, when Taiwan became a Japanese colony, the Japanese artists went to Taiwan and they were attracted to tropical flowers. I think as humans, we are attracted to flowers. And then they painted a lot of the tropical flowers. But I walked around Taipei and also in a forest. I noticed there are many ferns, but they were not represented in the Japanese artists’ practice. That’s one thing that I noticed. Then second thing I noticed is, Taiwan was then occupied by the nationalists after 1945. The nationalists went to Taiwan from mainland China. So they brought a lot of the cultural symbols, as well as their interests in plants from mainland China into Taiwan. They also didn’t pay so much attention to local plants, to ferns. But when I went to a celebration by one of the indigenous tribes at Sun Moon Lake, a very famous lake in the middle of Taiwan, I went to their new year celebration. The tribe, the tribal members, they were decorating themselves with fern leaves. I noticed these three things, and then I thought as a visitor to Taiwan, I better get to know ferns, in order to really get to understand the local history and ecology a little bit better than what the media told me.
So that’s how I chose to work with ferns, but I, you know, I did other projects mainly sort of historical, but also paper-based works. The sexual film came later because like I said, I wanted to get more physical with ferns, the plants. You know, I’m gay. I watch a lot of gay porn. So I asked gay, I didn’t ask gay men, but I asked men to come and perform. I think most of them are gay, but actually the cinematographer is not, but he, you know, I can tell you how interesting he felt doing the film. So, you know, I started the film with men, but I actually didn’t consider the film to be a queer film because it’s men having sex with plants. Of course now I understand the project as eco-queer, right. Because queerness is, it’s not just about human sexual behavior.
I mean, it almost seems like the fern then doubles as technologies of ceremony, technologies of survival technologies of perhaps from an indigenous context, some sort of sustenance for the collective. I raised the question about reproduction because I think the film offers a really interesting, I mean, outside of it’s its sheer kind of joy and kind of like the pleasure. It does sort of talk about ideas of not individual joy, but maybe collective flourishing, you know, and, and really sort of thinking about ways of survival perhaps, and the fact that it does become a way for the BBSM community to kind of common together, you know, is also interesting, especially if you kind of overlay the fact that there is a very kind of locally specific indigenous symbol of the fern in that context, you know. So it’s like a doubling of many kind of networks.
I mean, I’ll just add one more thing, because we are somewhat less familiar with the sexuality of ferns. I think most of us understand it a bit better with flowers, with flowering plants, right? So we understand there male parts and female parts of the flower, and we understand the pollination, sort of as the meeting of the egg and the sperm. Ferns reproduce somewhat differently. You know, we know, I think many people know ferns reproduce through spores, but they actually also have a phase where they produce eggs and sperms. I only learned this by doing, so now I’m also interested in the sexuality of plants and how by sort of thinking about the sexuality of plants can really expand our understanding of queerness.
I did a performance lecture last winter for the Venice Biennale’s public program. You know, in the description I say, you know, if you want to follow Donna Haraway’s idea of “Make Love, Not Babies” then you know, my film project is kind of a perfect illustration of her idea. I think it’s, you know, it wasn’t, it wasn’t explicit, but perhaps because I, I don’t, you know, I never really started thinking about sex as a reproduction behavior. So I think, you know, for me, sex really started with sexual pleasure, erotic feelings, and also watching pornography. So, creating babies is never really part of that formula.
The film also pushed me to think about, you know, what is sex? What is eroticism? What is reproduction? I was just talking to a scientist yesterday in Berlin, and one thing she studies is species barrier. How come there are some outcrossings: different flower species they can pollinate and then create the next generation. And then the following generations are all healthy, but how come there are some sort of species barriers genetically or phenotypically, so that the species don’t cross. You know, it’s both a biological question, but it’s also a political question. Perhaps there’s a very explicit history in the U.S. about cross-racial relations. Now I think, you know, of course the film deals with cross-species relations, then it’s a different level of challenge, right? If we don’t think about reproduction, what’s the meaning of a cross-species sexual encounter.
Let’s segue to teaching and learning because I immediately kind of went there as well because I think your practice Bo, kind of models, I don’t know why I’m talking about reproduction these days! But I’m sort of thinking about the ideas of creativity that need to be completely changed. I think these days as an educator, I’m less interested in how students can master and cultivate their voice. And I use cultivate you know as a botanical metaphor, but I’m thinking about like: continuity, communion versus dominion, ideas of resurgence versus erasure. I mean, I think those are the questions for artists, you know. How do we make sure that there is a multispecies intergenerational kind of commoning that is sort of articulated through form, through freedom, through matter, you know? How does your work kind of translate into pedagogy?
I actually feel this is something really important, actually more important than my practice in a way, because I feel a lot of art projects I’m doing are kind of the way for me to learn by experimenting in these works. But once I learned something, how do I teach it, right? So that’s actually, for me is actually more difficult. I just want to echo what you just said. I wrote something about Art Asia Pacific, precisely on this issue: of not using the word “creating.” So I try not to use this word anymore, because we don’t create. We inhabit, we live and then we learn, we grow, we cultivate, like the word you use. As, you know, one of the many living beings on the planet, that’s what we do. We don’t create as God.
When I teach studio class now I ban students from doing metaphoric projects. You know if they come and submit a project and say, Oh, I’ve made this sculpture, you know, this piece represent this and this the other piece represent this, I’ll say, you know, you have to redo this work. I think metaphors have become so dominant in sort of advertising in sort of capitalism, in our economy, precisely we lack sort of, our tangible experience with matter. So this also happens to students I think. Also to me, I think, you know, like I mentioned, I started working with plants with weeds and with ferns, mainly through language, through sort of symbolic works. Then I realized, this is so inadequate to expand my understanding, expand my sensibility with plants. I talk a lot, I appreciate reading and writing, but now I tell my graduate students: Try not to read too much. You really need to go walk in the forest and sleep in the forest and smell things. That’s how we learn. That’s how we develop senses. I think the hegemony of language and text, particularly in so-called contemporary art is hampering our relations with plants in particular.
That’s really, beautifully put, Bo. I liked your ban as well. I mean i think, refusing to reproduce telegenic short-circuit short-hand representations of the world. You know, maybe this is about the distributionist potential of metaphors. They can be quickly kind of distributed. And therefore that kind of quickness may mean surface understanding, the kind of fantasy of translatability globally, while undermining a more nuanced, local way of understanding and of knowing the world through matter.
There’s such a turn for practice these days. This is why I loved your recipe in Frieze Magazine, Bo. You know, sort of thinking about, how cooking can also be an allegory of knowing, right? Cause you sourced the materials. There is an alchemical kind of, or just the physical co-mingling of all of these materials that are rife with history. And then voila, there’s something that’s cooked and that can be shared. I think that there’s something quite lovely about this idea of culinary practice as a form of understanding the world in contradistinction to maybe the speed of digital consumption and sort of telegenic modes of Instagram in a way, you know. And I even see a lot of my students are also interested in that kind of approach.
But I also believe in like synecdoche and metonymy, you know. Metonyms, ways in which it’s really important to think about, like when I think about the Golden Spike, you know, how that is an emblem of all of these historical lessons that are again also kind of erased. So I think maybe there’s this preciousness of trying to make sure there is a publicity, a resurgence and making sure each creative act is a way to ensure that forgetting doesn’t happen, you know, through matter through poetry, through stories, through a local understanding of knowing the world. Yeah. I think those are really the crucial ways of making art now. A sort of future telling as well.
I completely agree with you. We do it ourselves, but we also start to help students to shift away from that way of describing art.
One of the things that I’ve been, so in awe, but also, so radically unlearning myself is since moving to Canada, is how to think about an Indigenous resurgence to life and to how we common. In parts in British Columbia, many first nations sorta see art as a form of medicine. It really is a form of immunity. It’s a story. You know, art is a form of telling a story. And I think right now with the world in a type of perpetual panic, it’s so important to be able to tell stories, you know, to quote our beloved Donna right. Stories that matter. And I think that’s such a interesting thing. The challenge then is always whether or not the students have the same desire, right? And of course that desire is based off of perhaps misidentification of professional advancement. So, but, you know, I think ways to kind of rearrange that kind of expectation, rearrange that sort of desire is really interesting. And thinking about the botanical turn, you know, with so many artists working with soil, with plants, with gardens, I think it can perhaps broaden that imagination so we’re not always just thinking about ourselves as individual units, right. And how we can start to think about systems of care, systems of continuity, you know. Ideas of survival, I think is really important these days, you know, certainly with the pandemic.
Can we talk about weed?
There was an interesting essay or an interesting kind of performance lecture about the Japanese knotweed. Specifically sort of thinking about how the knotweed has become this figure of invasive species, right? The Japanese knotweed has invaded property in the United Kingdom, has sort of devalued a lot of home ownership there because weed would kind of pop up. And then there’s also this kind of anthropomorphosized projection of the weed actually being the culprit of breaking open the cement. But in reality, probably what happens is the foundation just sucks from the beginning, right? And then these weeds just happened to cultivate in these places. So it was really interesting to sort of see how the weed becomes the culprit of invasion, as sort of this wildness that is also devaluing suburban property. Another allegory to try to master nature, to sort of contain it and to isolate it and to clean it and cleanse it. And the lecture also talked about how the knotweed basically helps fuel these sort of cottage industries of pesticide.
I know that weeds pop up in your practice for the past decade–thinking about the weed party, thinking about the cookbook, the sort of survival guide that you’ve also done and also your current kind of tours, like walking tours. What does the weed represent to you? What is the sort of potential of the weed when it comes down to thinking about creativity?
So I was fascinated by weeds not because of property value, but actually because of the political symbolism in Chinese history. During cultural revolution, the right wing of the Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party was described as poisonous weeds. It’s actually very well known among the Chinese, among us. So I think when I started to make artworks about weeds in China to show those works in China, people immediately understood those words as sort of commenting on the authoritarian control of our political system. But of course, I’m also interested in urban control. In China, as we built our cities and also built a lot of the middle class or upper middle class neighborhoods, people want to get rid of weeds. People want to have very homogeneous grass, which will make their neighborhood look posh and sort of similar to what we see in advertisement or TV or film from the U.S. and from Europe. So to me, you know, working with weeds really disrupt that aesthetics. But recently, you know, I haven’t done any work on this, but I am also fascinated by the survivability, you know, the super strength of weeds not only in cities, but also, you know, even in countryside, along the roads. I mentioned that I was talking to a scientist yesterday. She studies plasticity and she used one particular plant Arabidopsis, but that’s kind of the standard plant, kind of like the little white mice as well that’s used to study animals. So, weeds are also interesting for scientists because they have very short life cycles and they take very little space and then they survive very well. I just want to add, I think a lot of the art institutions ask me to do projects because, you know, I work with weeds. And weeds usually come for free that also reduces the cost of these exhibitions.
I think it seems so important to really kind of locate both of us contextually. And it’s so fascinating to hear that kind of story within the Chinese context Bo, you know. I think in silly sophomoric binary terms sometimes, you know, I need to make like dialectics to make sense of things. So I’ve been thinking about the weed, and the revenge of the weed, right. Whether or not it’s making the landscaper upset or how the weed may be a witness to other things. But I’m sort of thinking about: What is the weed in relationship to colonial conquest? And this may be more of a new world context Bo, but what is the weed in relationship to ideas of “Nobody’s Land,” you know, of “Terra Nullius,” you know, the weed always existed. The weed has always been present. It has this crazy survival quality to it, right.
I’ve been thinking: is the opposite of the weed, the Golden Spike? You know, I’m sorta thinking about the Golden Spike as like railroad expansion and the West and the States, you know, the Golden Spike as this sort of emblem of Manifest Destiny. The golden spike as this emblem of how manmade infrastructure has sort of expanded from the East to West in the States. And I think, I may be wrong here, but I think the Golden Spike has also been an index for the Anthropocene as well. Can we think about the weed in relationship to the long time of civilizational expansionism, also the revenge of it, you know? How do we, and maybe this goes back to pedagogy as well, like indexing histories into these everyday kind of observations that we just sort of see when we walk down the urban landscape, and we see the weed kind of busting out of the cement, like how do we kind of overlay these other kinds of stories and overlay these witnesses, I guess. When you think about the weed, I mean, is the weed specific? Or would it be problematic to think about the weed and these kinds of broader terms of global domination?
I think both. To perhaps broaden this point, I think one of the challenges is to be both very locally specific but also to kind of think in planetary scale. So that’s actually, you know, going back to the pedagogical issue, that’s also, I think one of the challenges I’m thinking about: How do we really work on very local histories, very local plants, at the same time, thinking about the large planetary shifts and demands, and crisis and movements.
Your project sounds to be very historically situated. I mentioned one thing I did a project in Shenzhen, and then there’s one particular plant. It went to Hong Kong in 20th century, and then as soon as China opened up in the late 1970s, that plant jumped from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, to mainland China. So there’s a lot of potential mapping that’s possible to link sort of botanical shifts and expansions with political shifts. And I’m sure that’s what you’re looking into in colonial botany. I think in China too, there’s a lot of work still to be done, to really look at our history through plants, through animals, and through bacteria, etc, through fungi, to really see that our history is never really just human history. Even in very progressive social movements, how do we work with other living beings?
I’ve been copying these books, I call the entire project survival menus. so I’ve been finding these publications called edible weeds. For example, there’s one published in Shanghai in 1961 because we were experiencing huge famine in China due to some crazy political utopian program that Chairman Mao put forward. So the book was published in 1961, edible weeds, hopefully to help people to alleviate hunger. So I copied that book. And then later on, I also, encountered other similar books in different regions on different occasions. I thought those books will help me to survive, but now you know, I have this feeling that the likelihood of our survival is so low. We should really talk about the survival of other species, not so much focusing on the survival of ourselves. This is actually something I’m thinking a lot about these days. How do you feel Steve? How do you feel about the likelihood of our extinction these days—in your life and also in teaching, I guess.
I mean being in Canada, I’m always reminded of an apocalypse that happened to indigenous nations here, right? So the apocalypse has already happened. Maybe the question is, how do we create life practices? You know, where you know, we’re not reproducing sort of like settler colonial assumptions of the dominion of land or reproducing a certain type of sect of individuals that are so hell-bent on reproducing their own might-and-right. I think learning how to die is really important and understanding a life practice is also really key.
Here’s another weird thought I’ve been having Bo, and I don’t know how to make sense of it yet. I’ve been sort of really curious about these two words “rooting” and “looting,” right. And of course the word looting has become I think I was reading an article after the uprising of George Floyd. The word looting was like the most popular word that was Googled. And I realized that the etymology of rooting has Latin Germanic roots. And also one thing I forgot about the root is that it’s underground. So maybe we can talk about fugitivity and being underground and how that connects with ideas as survivalism or survival. Is there another way to think about bunker life, that’s not about paranoia? But then I realized that the word looting, it doesn’t have a Latin Germanic etymological root. I think the roots of looting is actually Hindi, and it was rooted in sort of colonial strife in the mid 1800s. So I’m wondering with this sort of botanical turn, as we think about how can artists give roots, create life practices, create alternative forms of sustainability and survivorship, or survivance right? How might looting also be part of that picture right? Cause to loot means that you take, one takes things away, there’s a theft, there’s a kind of erasure of cultural sovereignty and identity. Like how, how might rooting and looting be thought of side-by-side?
I never see plants as only you know, friendly, romantic, graceful kind. you know, plants can also be competitive, combative, even vicious. So I think it’s also not good to sort of idolize plants and to worship plants, to the degree of harmony. I don’t know the answer to what you were trying to suggest towards, but of course you know, the roots of plants are so strong and so powerful. I think this can also be a political metaphor.
Oh yeah because it’s also, I think it, the roots also implicate a whole network. There’s a whole infrastructure that is not seen.
One thing I’m interested in is how plants do things that we can do, but they do it differently. Plants actually, when they are subject to stresses, they also learn, they also remember, so the next generation will try to do it better. They do it through genetic or epigenetic mechanisms. I think we also do it, but probably much slowly. We tend to focus on learning and remembering by language, by our sort of cultural practices, you know, I’m starting to speculate whether we could do things more physically, more on the biological level rather than just on the cultural level. This is only a starting thought. It kind of goes into the earlier bio art practice.
sort of these post-human modes of making.
I have this desire to actually move away from thinking too much about human issues. You know, I moved to a village now I have less people around me. I stopped going to see many exhibitions. If I have time, I just go to Botanical Gardens where I go to national parks, etc. So I think I’ve deliberately tried to move myself away from human concerns, even social concerns. And sometimes I feel guilty about this. I may sound a little bit removed from even Hong Kong’s current political movements or political struggles, but on the other hand, I really feel this desire to really make up the time I lost in the, you know, I’ve lived 40 some years. I really didn’t pay attention to plants or other beings before. I really don’t know how they live. I don’t know how they survive, how they collaborate. So I really have this desire to learn as much as I can in the whatever number of years I still have to live. So I think that to me is sort of personal. But in terms of politics, I feel sort of perhaps as artists, what we can contribute is to really even move beyond the sustainability movement, to move beyond sort of current social movements to really try to imagine different questions. And you know, even crazier ideas, hopefully that will be useful down the road.
Yeah. I think I’m just inherently an institutional figure, you know, where reform is still part of my mode of operation rather than the utopian vision that Bo has found refuge in, you know. Bo has left the damaged world of human institutions. I’m still stuck in it. I can’t get out. And maybe that does kind of make our practices be radically different.
Yeah. I mean, at some point I also feel like I said, sometime I feel guilty, whether or not, you know, maybe I’m not paying enough attention to what’s actually happening in Hong Kong. Right. So on the other hand, I do feel these ecological crises are really important. It’s also my job to talk about these issues in addition to the current political struggles in Hong Kong. So I also feel ambivalent sometimes how to balance the two.
I think what COVID has laid bare to me is that, I’m still trying to understand why does an extractionist logic still exist? Who’s always being erased? I went back to the human because of the covid crisis. I mean, that’s not to say that a multispecies mode of understanding of the world is not relevant. Of course it is. I think I just had to not forget about alienation and dispossession, I guess. I just couldn’t let that go with the past six months. I still don’t understand, you know, like the habits of, from crisis to crisis. Why do we always fall back to unmaking and remaking the world in the likeness of proto-capitalist, colonial dominion? I think it gave me a sense of dread. It gave me a sense of more dread than hope. And that’s why I kind of returned to sort of those conversations. How about you, Bo? How, how has your thinking changed in the past several months?
First I need to say that because I live in the village in Hong Kong, I haven’t been personally impacted by the virus and my mom she’s in Beijing. She is in a senior community and the authoritarian control in China has in some way been very effective in fending off the explosion of the virus in China. You know, I will sound a little bit too impersonal, in saying that. To me, the virus, the pandemic has been in a way, showing me that perhaps we need other species, we need other living beings to help us address the ecological crisis, the extraction, the extractionist logic. We are so addicted to capitalism, to comfort–you know, me also being guilty to traveling around the world. It’s almost impossible for us, for ourselves to stop ourselves from, to pull ourselves away from the addiction. So we really need other species to force us to stop and to get onto a different track. I feel the virus is not doing that, you know, not yet, but perhaps the ecosystem together, will find ways to force us to change our behaviors and systems and worldviews, etc. But of course, you know, I think I’m also very conscious of what you were saying about how situations like the pandemic always make the lives of the disenfranchised, the marginalized harder. How do we build sort of multispecies alliances, while building movements that will not make the lives of the disenfranchised even harder, right?
Yeah. After COVID, I started becoming really re-invested in critical race theory, again, you know, as not only as a way to sort of think about the marginalized and the vulnerable, but also thinking about legal institutions, and how the law is literature as well, and that can be kind of tweaked and changed. Maybe one multispecies alliance is thinking about how legal institutions can kind of create. Like there’s a rights to nature conversation in there as well. Perhaps tactically giving water legal protections as if they’re at the status of humans. Maybe this is what we need to teach in art school, where that type of formation, you know, not only are they dealing with matter and metaphor right, and telling stories, but bending the logic of institutions too, I think is also could be really important.
I think it will be really interesting to look at public health policies, to see how these public policies have been formulated without the ecological justice, without the social justice being critically embedded or examined. I think in China, for sure, I haven’t seen anyone doing that critical reflection.
Yeah that’s a really good point. And thinking about environmental exposures, right. I mean, I think all or many viral outbreaks are connected to issues of planetary health as well, and, and sort of environmental exposures and how that gets recirculated.
One specific thought, you know, for example, in the university, we can teach online, but the cleaning staff, they have to be physically on campus. So they actually need much more protection than we do, but I don’t think the university has put in, you know, resources for support or even compensation to differentiate the level of risk for people who would take on different jobs in different risk areas.
Bo, your point about health and sort of rethinking health environmentally seems to be really important. Who gets to die, who gets to live. I think the facade of never-ending expansionism, everyone knows, is not working, you know? So the question of environmental justice: is it a moment or would it be a movement, you know, whether or not it will be kind of more lasting? Um, the interesting thing about when COVID first struck, there’s so many, like boosterist conversations, “Hey, saying, Hey, this is what it means to live the simple life.” You know, look, there’s more plants around our institutions, but it seems like we have not yet witnessed how it’s completely going to undo the kind of infrastructure of what we’re used to. It’s like the broken earth, how might there be sort of counternarratives to the broken earth, right, because of COVID. And I’m not sure, I’m sort of thinking about Naomi Klein’s current social justice work, where she’s thinking about care workers now, not just thinking about blockadia, right. Sort of blocks of the extraction empire, but also making sure that recognizing that care work is also a kind of low carbon footprint and making sure those relationships and those relations are supported. Whether or not that type of care work can also intersect with the multispecies platform, I mean, that seems really kind of exciting.
I had a conversation with Natasha Myers and now she’s working very energetically with first nation communities, native indigenous communities. So that, to me seems to be an incredible source of wisdom in Canada. I’m curious how you and the art school, the students: What are some of the ways now that institutionally you really start to incorporate that source of wisdom, not just symbolically.
This is why I wanted to connect, rooting to looting. I think there’s something there. Right now there was as part of the truth and reconciliation governmental mandate, you know, is a restoration. It’s about kind of cultural sovereignty, you know, making sure that stories are not erased. Like I’m sort of thinking about Max Liboiron’s work right because Canada is one of the largest countries that is highly dependent on extractionism. I always thought it was like growing up in Texas. I always thought it was the States, but it’s actually not. Canada’s petrochemical output is really, really high. I think the history of the Hudson Bay Corporation, which existed prior to the formation of Canada as a nation-state is a telling kind of story of Canada’s kind of origin story. It kind of started out as a company that thrived off of fur trading and then it turned later on into a petrochemical kind of enterprise. So I think that linking of cultural sovereignty, cultural identity to health is really exciting, you know? Maybe that’s like the future of some of these activities, not just strictly from an insistence on indigenous resurgence. I think it needs to be an indigenous resurgence and how it kind of connects to a project of suspending extractivism in Canada, really connecting these ideas of environmental health with ways of living.
I was in a seminar in Australia, with medical humanities people. I think planetary health has been a very hot topic. Also in China. Because the term “planetary health” is actually very digestible for politicians in China. So when you talk about health, no one would say no to a project on that. Maybe I’m thinking about the Chinese translation of health, right? Because the term in Chinese, I never really link it to indigenous practice. In our pre-modern discourse, we would not use the term health. We would use something like harmony or Tao or perhaps balance or the middle way. So, even this term health to me is not so affective in a way. Maybe it’s very different in Canada.
I think it’s similar, but I mean, that’s a good point, like really trying to rename health. Cause I think health still has that technocratic instrument of population management. So maybe by saying health, it does sort of reinforce a story of like, everyone’s going to be great, but maybe we need to name it in a more forceful way, like alleviating harm from perpetual environmental violence. You know, I think maybe that’s perhaps another way to reframe it.
You know, a lot of the colonial issues, you know, the racial issues can also be cast with multispecies perspectives. So I’d love to hear more from you.
ELIZABETH HÉNAFF discusses her collaborative investigations of microbial life in the waters of the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site in Brooklyn, New York, as well as her interdisciplinary practice that brings together plant biology, metagenomics, and design. As a scientist, artist, and teacher, Henaff describes the various methods, apparatuses, and creative improvisations she uses in order to understand how multispecies dynamics work and thrive beyond human control.
Henaff teaches at the Department of Integrated Digital Media at New York University, Tandon School of Engineering, where she also runs the Laboratory for Living Interfaces. For her work on the Gowanus Canal, she collaborates with architects, scientists, and designers at the BK BioReactor project.
Elizabeth Henaff is a computational biologist. She is an artist designer and programmer who looks at multispecies interactions, particularly between plants, microbes, and people, as well as toxic infrastructures and ecologies such as New York city subways and Superfund sites. Her projects take the form of scientific articles and specialized journals, data visualizations, experimental software, sensors, art exhibitions, and interdisciplinary collaborations. Elizabeth teaches at the department of Integrated Digital Media (IDM) at NYU Tandon School of Engineering.
Plant biology and plant biology research was kind of my first exposure to the experimental sciences. At that time, I was interested in plant transposons, which even for most biologists is kind of a cryptic field, but I think it’s an interesting idiosyncrasy of genomes. All genomes that have been studied, including humans contain what are called jumping genes. And so these jumping genes encode the proteins that are able to recognize their own DNA sequence. So it’s an interesting kind of self-referencing system. It’s a DNA sequence that encodes a protein that has the physical confirmation necessary to recognize the physical shape of that same DNA sequence that was its originator and do something with it.
These transposons are mutagenic elements because when they insert a new copy of themselves in a new location in the genome that can potentially disrupt the coding sequence of a gene. As such, they can have deleterious effects or bad effects if they insert themselves into an important gene. Why would organisms encode these kinds of mutagenic elements? It turns out that on a short time scale, these mutations or these transposition events can often be deleterious, but on a long evolutionary timescale, these types of mutations can lead to big genomic innovations. If you think of evolution as being a system of trying out combinations of many different possibilities, being able to generate really drastic mutations allows you to kind of jump around the solution space in ways that point-mutations, so changing one letter at a time, wouldn’t allow you.
So interestingly, there’s really big genomic innovations that have been attributed to transposition. So I did my PhD work on that and developed a novel algorithm at the time to be able to recognize those transposition events in genomic data. And I used it to characterize evolutionary properties and responses in plants. I went from studying plants as organisms that you can look at under a microscope, to studying plants as organisms that you can study through DNA sequencing. Using this lens of DNA sequencing to study organisms, I got interested in studying organisms that you can’t see such as microorganisms.
The discipline of studying microorganisms through the lens of DNA sequencing is the discipline of metagenomics. So if genomics is the study of a genome of a single organism, then metagenomics is the study of a set of genomes together. And so metagenomics has been pretty transformative in the study of microorganisms. Obviously we’ve known about microorganisms for a very long time, not actually a very long time, but most of the insights that we have gained in relation to microorganisms and their life cycles and their characteristics has been through culturing them in the lab, in petrie dishes. So if you want to study the microbiome of this table right here or soil or a wound, you would take a sample, streak it out in a Petri dish, put it in an incubator and see what would grow. You would have colonies that form and by the shape of the colonies and maybe their color and their growth rate, you would be able to infer something about their characteristics. So that is very useful, in many ways, but there’s many types of microorganisms that do not like to grow in petrie dishes. And so we call these recalcitrant organisms and a lot of environmental microbes are recalcitrant to culture in the lab.
Using the process of DNA sequencing, we’re able to study microbes without going through a step of culture. You can take an environmental sample, you know, take a swab of this table, take a teaspoon of soil, extract the DNA, sequence it. And then using that data, ask the question of what types of microorganisms are there, what types of functions do they encode, without going through that step of culture. And so you have a less biased perspective on the populations of microorganisms that you have in your environment than if you were to culture them.
How do you identify a set of organisms that somehow make sense together?
So usually they’re co-localized in a particular environment. The metagenome would correspond to a set of organisms that you took in one single sample, but then the way you take that sample dictates the set of organisms that you’re studying. So if you swab a square inch versus a square foot, you’re going to get a different metagenome. I think the apparatus very much defines the organism as you’re studying it. And that can play out in many different ways. Just as in any other experiment, it’s very important to define your controls, to be able to reach any kind of meaningful conclusions. But just to give an example, the material of the swabs that you use will introduce a bias as to the microorganisms that you collect. So if you look for clinical sterile swabs, you can usually find nylon swabs or cotton swabs and cotton and nylon have different adhesive properties for different microorganisms.
Depending on the material of the swab that you’re using, you will tend to pick up certain microorganisms over another type. Depending on the DNA extraction method that you use and the types of, um, solvents that you use to break down the cellular membranes, you will break down more easily, some membranes over others, and that will also introduce bias into the data that you get. So it’s definitely not free of instrumentation bias. But coming back to the topic of metagenomics, what’s interesting about studying microorganisms through, through this lens is that we’re starting to understand that a lot of the phenotypes or characteristics of multicellular organisms are related to their interaction with microorganisms. So for example, flowering time in plants has been shown to be dependent on the types of microorganisms that are in the soil in which they’re growing. And so that’s kind of a big deal in the plant biology world because time was thought to be like the canonical genetically determined, well understood pathway. So that kind of created big waves in the plant biology world when it was shown, that that pathway can be modulated by the types of microorganisms with which the plant is interacting. That’s also the case for mammals, including humans. We’re starting to become aware of the importance of the gut microbiome and human health. Grave states of disease, such as irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease have been associated with disruptions in the gut microbiome, but it’s also been shown that more subtle characteristics of human health and well-being can be related to our interactions with microorganisms. For example, a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain, which is, serotonin being a neurotransmitter that we use for normal brain function and deficiencies of which have been associated to psychological conditions like schizophrenia or depression. It turns out that a large part of the serotonin that we use in our brain is actually produced by microorganisms in our gut. And it’s not us that synthesize it.
Our interaction with microorganisms is modulating our identity as humans. So if we look at all these different cases, you know, the plant world and the mammalian world of how phenotypes or physical characteristics of these multicellular organisms are due, not only to the genetics of that multicellular organism, but also due to the genetic makeup of the microorganisms with which they’re cohabitating and interacting. That kind of begs a redefinition of genetic identity to include also the genetic identity of the microorganisms with which we live in symbiosis. And so that particular broadening of the notion of identity and of the individual has been discussed at length by Lynn Margulis, who coined the term of “holobiont.” So the term holobiont encompasses both the notion of host and symbiont and combines those two concepts to redefine the notion of the individual.
If you were to reverse that and think of the microorganism as the host and the multicellular organism as the symbiont, does it change how you think about identity?
Yeah. And so that’s an excellent question actually, because we evolved in a microbial world, right? Unicellular organisms existed a long time before multicellular organisms evolved. And so it is I think a very human-centric perspective to define the multicellular organism as the host or the director of operations and the unicellular organisms as the symbionts or the passengers. And so, it’s entirely possible that we basically evolved to be carriers and provide environments for microorganisms. Absolutely.
So let’s jump, I guess, to a larger scale, which is the canal as a very different kind of carrier. What is the history of the canal?
So the Gowanus canal used to be a creek, the Gowaine Creek, and it was dredged in the mid 1850s to serve as a means of transportation to and from the factories that were in operation around that area. Not only did it serve as a means of transportation, but it also served as a de facto dumping site for the industrial waste that was being generated by those factories. And so over the last 170 years, the Gowanus canal has accumulated about 10 to 15 feet of contaminated sediment at the bottom of the canal. And that sediment is composed of mostly complex hydrocarbons that are the byproduct of the coal tar extraction industry that was there, but also industrial solvents, heavy metals and other toxic compounds that were the byproduct of the various factories that were in operation. So then the canal was pretty much left as is until very recently. It was declared to be a Superfund site by the environmental protection agency in 2010. So, the Superfund program is a program that is led by the EPA to designate certain sites as priority for remediation, mostly due to their threat to human health. And so in this particular case, the Gowanus Canal is a toxic environment and it’s also embedded in a very residential neighborhood. As such, it poses a threat to human health. The EPA has led a series of studies to kind of identify the characteristics of this particular site. The way that they’re going to proceed with remediation is through dredging and capping, which is kind of a standard mode of operation for this particular type of configuration. The plan is to dredge the sediment that can be dredged and treat it elsewhere, cap the canal with concrete, and then let the water flow again.
Just to be clear, dredging and capping means what exactly? Dredge is dredging the sediment then capping is laying concrete over it. And the EPA wants to do both of those things.
Yep. So dredge the sediment that can be removed from the site and then cap the rest with concrete. So this has been shown to be effective in some other situations, similar situations, but it is a very destructive intervention into this particular environment. Granted it’s maybe the most, un-environmental environment you can think of, but if somebody proposed to dredge and cap a river and a forest, then you would feel that that would be a very kind of disruptive intervention. This observation spawned a project in collaboration with two landscape architects Ian Quate and Matthew Seibert, who were both working for Nelson Byrd Woltz [Landscape Architects in New York] at the time. The question that they posed was: If this destructive intervention is going to happen in this environment, what is the environment that is being intervened in at the moment? And so there’s not much macroscopic or multicellular life going on in the canal. And so they specifically wanted to look at potential microorganisms that would be living in the canal. So they collaborated with Genspace, which is a community molecular biology lab here in Brooklyn. Ian was a member of Genspace at the time. And so they organized a first sampling trip to collect sediment from the canal and they were able to extract DNA, but didn’t have the facilities to sequence that DNA. And so that’s when they reached out to Chris Mason at Weill Cornell, where I was working as a postdoc at the time and asked if the lab would be willing to sequence that DNA and analyze it. And so that was the first contact that I had with Ian and Matthew. And that project quickly caught my attention and my interest. Ian, Matthew and I founded the BK bioreactor, which is a project that aims to study, characterize and catalog the microbiome of the Gowanus canal.
We’ve been taking samples seasonally. So four times a year for the last five years. The big news is that there were microorganisms, or there are microorganisms living in the canal. So that sludge is amenable to life. We identified microorganisms that were related to marine environments, which makes sense, because it is a tidal system. We identified microorganisms related to the human gut, which makes sense also because there’s combined sewage overflow. But the question that arose from that particular analysis was: what are these microorganisms doing and how is it that they’re able to survive in such a contaminated environment?
So the source of toxicity in the Gowanus canal is from the sediment that has accumulated at the bottom. So the sediment that is accumulated at the bottom is black, viscous, smells like gasoline, and we refer to it as sludge. And so the sludge, which was the material that we wanted to sample, is under about anywhere from five to 20 feet of water. It’s not easily accessible to sample. And so we devised this DIY sampling technique, which involved getting 15-foot long PVC tubes and fitting them with this slightly flexible tubing at the end. And then we would go out in canoes that we borrowed from the Gowanus Canal Dredgers, which are a community organization that go out on the Gowanus Canal for fun! And they lent us their canoes. And so we would, you know, get into our hazmat suits, wielding our 15 foot long PVC tubes, canoe out into the middle of the Gowanus canal, and then dig these tubes into the sediment and cap the top of the tube. So using the same principle that your bartender will sample your cocktail with a straw before giving it to you. So we would dig these tubes into the sediment, cap it, pull it out and be able to retrieve kind of cores of sediment with that method.
So, you know, you’re doing real science when you’re wearing a hazmat suit. And oddly also there’s a Whole Foods that’s right on the canal. And so we would go there on weekends. And so sometimes we’d be like paddling under a bridge in our like full blown hazmat suits with our test tubes and everything. And then there’d be, you know, a cute Brooklyn family. They would be walking down and walking across the bridge and be like, “look, mom, they’re scientists!”
So the water is polluted enough that you need to wear a hazmat suit.
Yes. Because there’s a certain amount of splashing involved in retrieving these samples. And so we wanted to protect ourselves. More so from the sewage overflow that’s in the canal, than the sediment itself. You don’t want longterm exposure to that sediment, but you know, being splashed by it is fine. There’s a high concentration of fecal material in the canal and that’s what’s gonna make you sick. I would advise to not be in contact with the water as much as possible. The sludge is pretty inaccessible because it’s underwater. And you can see, depending on the tides, you can see sometimes oil slicks that form on the surface of the water. And, um, that’s not going to make you ill in the short term. It will make you ill in the long term.
So, actually, there are long term impacts on old timers, people who have been residents of that area for a long time, as well as newcomers or condominiums that are going up. Are there ways of protecting these people as well as you know, other species who actually will be there over the long term?
So the Gowanus Canal, once it was declared as a Superfund site in 2010, since then property values have gone up a 100% and White population has gone up 63%. It’s in the process of massive gentrification. The efforts of remediation are to provide a less toxic environment for the human inhabitants of the neighborhood. But that also means that the people and families who have been exposed to these contaminants over the long term are likely not the people who are going to benefit from the cleaned up or remediated environment.
What is the promise of a site being declared a Superfund site?
Well, the promise is of the remediation of that site being funded, most importantly.
The Superfund program also puts into place legal mechanisms for holding the responsible parties financially accountable for the contamination. Even though that contamination has happened over the course of the last hundred plus years. When companies acquire other companies, they acquire both their assets and their liability. And so you can trace the liability of that contamination through the chain of mergers and acquisitions, and identify present day companies that are now liable for that. And so in this particular case, Con Edison is the company that is liable for the major part of the remediation. I mean, it’s all energy, right? So the like coal tar extraction was energy. And then, that just went down the chain of acquisitions and different forms of energy production. In a certain sense, the present day 2019 microbiome of the Gowanus Canal maintains a molecular record of the history of human intervention at that site. And arguably, maybe that record is actually more accurate than the human-kept records because human-kept records are biased are written by the victors, have omissions. But the bacterially kept records are a direct function of their environment.
You write that the DNA data is a molecular echo of the effect of human intervention. Tell us a little bit about that echo and its implications. One of the implications is that it allows us to tell a very different kind of history. Does working with microbes, teach us something different about language, history, creativity, all of which are attributes of the human?
A particular environment can be perceived in very different ways depending on the perspective from which you’re observing. So from the human scale, this site is toxic and in need of remediation at any cost and even in a destructive manner. And from a microbial perspective, this environment is amenable to life and productive. Some of these microbes have evolved to use these complex hydrocarbons as their primary carbon source. And so they need this kind of environment. I see this environment as a very rich environment with a precious ecosystem that should be acknowledged as such and valued. So this microbiome encodes bioremediation functions, left to its own devices would clean up the canal, albeit very, very slowly, especially for our impatient human timescale. But left to its own devices, it is remediating this environment.
Bioremediation is the process of degradation of toxic compounds by living organisms. The microbiome as such is something that would be impossible to engineer in the lab. We can genetically engineer a microorganism to perform a particular function. We can engineer a microorganism to perform a couple of functions and maybe co-habitate with another microorganism. But it’s impossible to engineer a population of diverse microorganisms that are able to cohabitate with each other and as a whole perform a complex set of bioremediation functions and not be affected by this cocktail of toxicity that they’re challenged with. This is a unique environment that is very well adapted to the toxicity conditions of the canal. And it’s an important biotechnological resource for remediation of recently contaminated sites.
You could use a sample from the Gowanus canal to seed a recently contaminated environment that has been contaminated with a similar set of compounds. And it would accelerate remediation because that particular microbiome has had 150 years of evolution to optimize their response to this particular challenge. And so I don’t see the Gowanus Canal as an all-bad environment, but I see it as a resource and as a unique environment that should be preserved and catalogued in some way. And it is also an important biotechnological resource when thinking about bioremediation in general.
I would like to see a goal for design being one of collaboration with these organisms that have already been living and adapting to this environment rather than supplanting them with a technological solution.
And you seem to have the data to support this initiative. I’m wondering, have you been in communication with the EPA? Where is the project now as far as dredging?
So the EPA has conducted a pilot study in one of the turning basins in the Gowanus Canal to test the system of, of dredging. One of our collaborators is in contact with the EPA. At the moment, I do not foresee any possibilities for changes in that plan. That plan was drafted a long time ago in 2013, before I even started studying this. But my hope is to be able to create a living library of these organisms to kind of maintain this information and hopefully be able to catalog them in this way and potentially use this particular microbiome as a starting point for bioremediation solutions there or elsewhere.
Some people might say, how do we then guard against some of the unintended effects of, you know, taking sludge from, Gowanus canal, bring it into other environments, because in a way it’s introducing a novel material into another ecosystem, for example. I’m sure you’ve considered this. What might you say to that?
So the fear would be that a Gowanus Canal microbe would take over a particular environment that these, you know, super resilient Gowanus Canal mutant microorganisms would invade the environment in which they’re in which they’re placed. So to answer that, I would say that the Gowanus Canal microbes are, are very good at living where they are and have evolved to respond to that particular set of toxic compounds, but they spend a lot of energy doing that. And so microbes that are adapted to the Gowanus Canal are likely not well adapted to a different kind of environment. And that their selective advantage is one that corresponds to a contaminated environment. If we were to displace them and put them in a completely pristine environment, they would not have a selective advantage. So I don’t see a danger of mutant Gowanus Canal microbes taking over the world.
A more contained version of that approach is using extracted DNA rather than the living microbes. And so microbes are able to absorb DNA from their environment and kind of hot swap it in and just start using it. So we use that fact when we do microbial transformation, so genetic engineering. So the way you genetically engineer a microorganism is you make the DNA that you want for it to have, and then mix it up with your culture of bacteria and then stress them somehow. So either with heat or with electrical shock, and that causes them to spontaneously absorb DNA from their environment. That happens with a certain probability and then they start using it. You could think of seeding environments with extracted DNA from the Gowanus Canal microbes, as opposed to live Gowanus Canal microbes. What you’re doing there is setting up a situation where the local microbiome would be able to absorb and use the genes from the Gowanus Canal microbiome, but you are not transplanting living organisms.
Are there things you can teach people to see in the field? How do you get people to care? Why should people care? You know, how do you take this in a way, very large, very abstract, very frightening thing called climate change and scale it down in a way, you know, make it something that a high school student might understand.
That’s, that’s a very good question. And I think that that’s something that I struggle with as a biologist, but also as an educator, to be able to talk about things that you can’t see and be able to speak about them in a way that feels intuitive and be able to communicate the understanding that I have constructed over many years of studying these phenomena. I think that the fact that these organisms exist at a scale that is very different than ours impedes our understanding, but also our empathy for them. And that’s been something that I’ve been thinking about a good bit. And I think that there’s different ways to develop that kind of relationship. One of them being through scientific study, but another one being through art installations. And so this was actually the topic of an installation at the Detroit Science Gallery that I worked on in collaboration with Heather parish, who is a professor at the university of Iowa and a printmaker and Luna Husaid, who is an acoustics engineer at ARUP in the city. And so we created a multi-sensory immersive installation that tried to communicate through several different means this kind of duality in our relationship to the environment of the Gowanus canal.
In this installation, we had one part that was these jars of sludge. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge and like drove it to Detroit and this Mad Max kind of road trip adventure. So we collected 10 gallons of sludge from the Gowanus canal and installed it in these closed jars in the gallery and exposed them to grow lights. And so over the course of installation, which was only a couple of weeks, we saw all sorts of interesting life forms grow. And through close observation, we were able to see that there was actually all sorts of stuff going on in the sludge. So we had algal growths, there were little shrimp creatures, a kind of millipede worm, the shrimp and the worm were at war. The worm was trying to eat the shrimp. And then, we had a set of prints that were attempting to convey the relationship between macroscopic environments and human scale and microscopic environments. And then finally, a spatialized sound installation with a generative soundscape that follows a similar type of algorithm that dictate growth and decay patterns of microorganisms.
I think that the human centric perspective is always the one that people care most about. Decentralizing the human is I think, a difficult but necessary thing to do. We often consider humans in the environment to be separate entities, but trying to convey the fact that we are part of our environment, that we influence our environment, but that our environment also influences us is important. And I think that this kind of continuum of the microbiome is a good thread to pull at to talk about the relatedness of humans and their environment. Because if human health is related to the human microbiome and the human microbiome is influenced by the environmental microbiome and our design decisions for the environment sculpt the environmental microbiome, then ultimately that’s all kind of connected. And if we can figure out each one of those pair-wise relationships, we should be able to think about our environmental interventions as also part of this feedback loop.
With younger folk like high school students, it’s nice to be able to give very specific examples because the notion of environment or climate change are all very large and abstract, but being able to give specific examples that resonate with people and being able to talk about this specific example, which is the very iconic Gowanus Canal that is known to be a toxic wasteland and has inherited all of these, you know, different names like Lavender Lake, which is tongue in cheek terminology for the fact that it actually smells very bad most of the time. And so being able to speak to these very concrete examples and give hard data that supports the fact that this environment is active and that nature is remediating itself and responding to our interventions in a way that is also meaningful to us.
I currently teach a class in bio-design, which I frame around studying and designing interfaces between macroscopic and microscopic organisms. My students are usually either design students or art students or bioengineering students. And the best is when I have a class with a little bit of everything. And so the course is structured kind of in two parts. The first part is a crash course in biology and microbiology and methods in microbiology. So we do some lab experiments. We do some microscopy experiments. We learn how to analyze DNA sequences. We learn how to source primary source information in scientific journals. So how to even read a scientific article and parse out the format and read the methods and methodologies. So that’s the first part of the course and then the second part of the course is more like a studio practice where the students work in groups to design an interface between macroscopic and microscopic organisms that depart from the clinical interfaces that we have with microorganisms already.
So the swabs that I referred to, that we used to take microbial samples, they look like very clinical devices, so they’re white and they have like a white clinical looking label. They definitely belong in a doctor’s office. And so when we were doing the subway study we actually had some really interesting interactions with, um, various riders in the subway who directly interpreted that tool that we were using as a clinical tool. And so we were asked whether we were studying an epidemic in the subway. We were accused of bioterrorism and of implanting HIV in the subway. And so it was really interesting to see how this tool that we were using dictated the relationship that people had immediately before even knowing anything about the thing that we were studying. Taking a sample with these clinical looking swabs is the same thing as grabbing a handful of dirt. But if you grab a handful of dirt, you have all these associations of groundedness and earthy and healthy. And, if you asked someone to take a sample with a swab or to grab a handful of dirt and ask someone what do you think you’re getting with that swab or in that handful of dirt, then you’re going to get in general very different responses. And so the class is organized as a response to that observation of how our tool dictates the relationship to the thing that we’re studying and it invites students to design new tools and new interfaces that are going to initiate and propose different kinds of relationships.
Thank you so much.
Thank you for having me.
HEATHER DAVIS talks about plastic in the United States, discussing its materiality, geography, and toxic histories. Combining feminist and queer theory with chemistry, geology, history, and art, Davis unpacks the constitution of throwaway culture, petrochemical industries, pvc, feminized male bodies, human endocrine systems, multidisciplinary collaboration, mealworms, and mermaids’ tears (also known as nurdles) in order to think through questions of justice, inheritance, and multispecies kinship.
Davis works across the fields of environmental arts and humanities, and feminist and queer studies. She teaches at Eugene Lang College at the New School in New York City and is a member of the Synthetic Collective, a multidisciplinary group of artists and scientists who are mapping the material effects of plastic in the Great Lakes.
Welcome to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. My name is Elaine Gan. It’s February 14, 2020 and we’re in New York City speaking with Heather Davis. Heather Davis is a writer, feminist scholar and curator who teaches at Culture and Media at Eugene Lang College of the New School. Dr. Davis’s book projects include two co-edited volumes “Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies” published in 2015 and “Desire Change: Contemporary Feminist Art in Canada” published in 2017. Her current book project focuses on plastics and petrocapitalism or the petrochemical industry. Thank you for joining us today, Heather.
How might you describe yourself and your practice?
I think I primarily think of myself actually as a writer. I really enjoy the process of writing itself and I think of writing as a kind of practice. So one of the things that I get to do — not sometimes as much in academic writing because the form is fairly standard — but certainly in some of the other kinds of writing that I do for art publications or in other places, in part, what I’m really trying to capture in that writing is the kind of movement of things. So I’m really interested in the writing as a form in and of itself. So thinking about writing in the same way that other people might think about filmmaking or other kinds of practices.
Let’s talk about your work with plastic. So the news and statistics are startling. Billions of pounds of plastic are produced and thrown out every year. There are vast islands of plastics floating in the oceans. The presence of plastics, as you write, is one of the markers of this new geologic epoch called the Anthropocene. You write about what you call the Plastisphere. So how did plastic become so pervasive so fast?
That’s an interesting story. One of the things that you find out when you start researching plastics is that they sort of appear as if we have some kind of conceptualization that they’re surrounding us because of some kind of consumer desire or demand, that they’re fulfilling some kind of need that we didn’t even know that we had. And then they appeared as the kind of answer to this need. But when you look into the historical record, it’s really the opposite of that kind of a story. Certainly the very early plastics, so things like celluloid or Bakelite or Parkesine, all of these kinds of early primarily non-fossil fuel-based plastics. They were really developed to fill a need, which was that other kinds of polymeric structures that are things like tortoise shell or horn or ivory of various kinds. Those things were becoming increasingly rare but also increasingly in demand. So people really wanted those products to make combs, to make billiard balls, to make various other kinds of luxury goods and sort of non-luxury goods. But those were increasingly in demand. And because of that, it meant that a lot of those animals were being hunted to endangerment. People became aware of this. And so, they thought, is there another way to make a similar kind of structure? And so this is the history of the very early plastics, the non-fossil fuel-based plastics. So those plastics were primarily created through plant materials, through various kinds of celluloses.
And then in 1906, then that was the first time that a fossil fuel-based plastic was developed. Those plastics were first really used for military applications. Then it was only after the Second World War that they were transferred into kind of domestic everyday products or household items. And the public was really skeptical of these items at first. They really thought of them as cheap, as imitative, as not desirable. So they weren’t considered products that people actually wanted. The other thing that was really interesting was that the public in general kind of had to be taught to be consumers, especially in relationship to the ways that we think about consumption nowadays, which is that you buy something and throw it away, right? People really had to be taught to throw stuff away. This was not something that came naturally, especially to a generation of people who had just lived through the war. And I’m thinking primarily of the American context here and in that context, people really did have to be taught. So there was a huge range of advertising campaigns that were all geared towards really trying to encourage people to throw out plastic items. One of the stories that I ran across in my research that really drove this home in a very illustrative way was, when plastic bags, were first put on the market. And especially plastic bags that were used for dry cleaning. There was a lot of deaths that were associated with plastic bags, first of all, because people would use them to line their cribs for their babies, which made a lot of sense because they’re water-resistant and so it makes a lot of sense. They’re easy to clean. So, you know, it makes a lot of sense to put those plastic bags down. And also people still really have this mentality of saving everything that came into your home. So, if you had something that came into your home, then that was an item that was precious and that you were going to reuse in some capacity or save for future reuse for something that was yet unknown. And so in this case, people were really reusing these plastic bags as crib liners. And then because of that, there was a number of suffocations that happened because of these plastic crib liners or plastic bags being turned into crib liners. In response to this, there was a huge kind of public outrage and the first response by the public was that plastic bags were evil and bad. They should be banned and we shouldn’t have them anymore. This was kind of the very first response to this crisis that was in the media at the time. But the plastics industry really saw this as an opportunity, they saw it as a way to educate the public to throw the bags away. So it became, not that the bags were bad, but that consumer behavior was bad and the bad consumer behavior was to hold onto the bags that the bags themselves were meant to be disposable. To me, what’s interesting in this story is it really illustrates the ways in which disposability and disposable culture and this kind of culture of consumption that we now take very much for granted was very much an industry effort. And they really had to put a lot of effort into it. It wasn’t for a period of 10 or 15 years before people really started changing their behavior in relationship to throwaway culture. And you can really see this in relationship to plastics.
So you’re talking about the production of a particular kind of subject that comes about because of the plastic industry.
It’s difficult I think at this point in time in history for us to really see what is it about our particular type of subjectivity now that was really manufactured by a particular industry in a particular advertising campaign and what is just a kind of response to a set of practical concerns. And what’s really interesting is going through the plastics literature and the archives is you can really see the very concerted effort to produce this kind of culture, this kind of subject where we think of matter and materiality as essentially disposable and in a certain way as essentially ephemeral. Even though plastics have this incredible longevity to them, which is one of the ironic paradoxes at its heart, we’ve been trained rather to think of plastics as essentially ephemeral items that really are only just passing through our hands on their way to the garbage dump.
You talk about the differences between the kinds of plastic that are around. That the kind of plastic actually matters a lot. So did the industry, and I think when you say industry you mean in the U.S….
So my research really focuses on the United States. And the reason for that is both because I’m located here. So it’s the context that I understand. You know, coming from a feminist point of view, I feel like it’s incredibly important to kind of root oneself in context that you can actually speak to with some degree of authority. But also because I’m interested in the histories of plastic, really where it comes from and how it emerges in the world. And the two primary sources for that historically were America and Germany. Even though now we see plastics being produced virtually anywhere where there is close proximity to any kind of fossil fuel. So the interesting thing about plastics production is that it has to be in close proximity to fossil fuels. So either a fracking plant or an oil plant or something along those lines. A natural gas plant. And most of those are small facilities. So most plastics production facilities are companies with a hundred employees or less. They’re not these kinds of giant corporations. There’s certainly lots of sort of umbrella organizations that govern plastics in all kinds of ways. But the actual production of plastics is done in these much more small-scale, often family-owned businesses, but they do have to be located next to oil or natural gas refineries.
And that’s because the production of plastic depends on those fossil fuels, so it’s very easy if they’re geographically close to each other?
Exactly. It’s very difficult to transport both ethylene and napthalate. It’s very difficult to transport those two petrochemical substances. And so it’s much easier to just put the plant next to the place where those things are being manufactured.
And are these East coast locations? West coast locations?
So primarily in the United States, the companies are in the places where there are oil refineries. That would mean right now there’s a lot of fracking that’s happening in Pennsylvania and North Dakota, so in those places. And also a lot of the historic production of plastics is around Louisiana because that’s the place where so much petrochemical companies are situated. But it is throughout the country, basically anywhere where there’s an oil refinery or a natural gas refinery.
So I’d love to find out how do you follow something as pervasive and as big as plastic. You mentioned a feminist approach. So one would assume that plastic is best studied by chemical scientists and engineers and industrial designers. So what does feminist theory or queer analytics, what does that have to do with something like plastic?
That’s a good question. Certainly I don’t see my work in opposition to other approaches to thinking about plastics. There’s lots of things, you know, you were asking before about what the differences between plastics are, for example. And there’s lots of materially important differences between various types of plastics, primarily in terms of toxicity levels. So, polyethylene for example, is a fairly benign plastic, whereas polyvinyl chloride or anything that has a chloride monomer in it, in relationship to plastics is incredibly carcinogenic. It’s PVC. Any vinyl, basically anything from vinyl pants that you might want to wear or a vinyl couch or anything that’s made with PVC, which also includes things like shower curtains at this point in time. Anything that’s made of PVC or any kind of vinyl monomer in its production is both incredibly toxic to the consumers and also especially to the people who are producing those plastics in the first place.
So clearly I think an analysis or a conversation with people who are doing this type of chemical engineering or this type of analysis from a more of a scientific point of view is deeply important. One of the things that I do in relationship with plastics and my work around it is that I’ve been involved with collective called the Synthetic Collective. There’s three artists, two scientists or two geologists, one chemist, an art historian, and myself who are part of the collective and we really see that as an important step in relationship to really thinking about questions of plastic pollution is that if we can think of these questions from an inherently multidisciplinary perspective to begin with, then the questions that we can ask and therefore the solutions that we can find are going to be far more useful to us, I would argue, than otherwise. So there’s all kinds of things that you can see if you employ this kind of multi-perspectival approach that really allows for each of us to draw deep into our own training in order to approach this object.
To sort of then go back to your other question about, so what does feminism or queer theory have to do with this study? I mean, I think that, for me there’s a couple of different things. One is that, from the feminist perspective then to me this brings to mind the question of justice. So feminism for me has always been a justice oriented approach to thinking in the world and to acting in the world. Because of that, the project isn’t a kind of distanced critique. It really is a project that’s embedded and really cares about the quality of things, about the quality of what are the actual ramifications of various kinds of plastics or the ways in which they’ve been produced or taken up in the world. The other thing about a kind of feminist approach is that I think that there’s a kind of attention to not taking things for granted from the outset, but really trying to look for the kinds of ties and connections that one might think of as something like a situated knowledge. And you could argue that other disciplines do this as well. But from my training, this is where I situate myself.
In terms of queer theory, the connections actually arose more organically and that is because one of the things about plastics is that in order to make any kind of a plastic product, one to up to 80,000 additional chemicals are added to the polymer structure of plastic itself. And those additional chemicals are known as plasticizers. And those plasticizers have various different kinds of effects both for the plastic and for people’s and other creatures’ bodies. For the plastic, it’s in order to do things like, you know, make something black or hard or heat-resistant or whatever other kinds of qualities, we want that plastic object to have. We add the plasticizers in order to be able to achieve those qualities from the outset. One of the byproducts of this is that there’s a category of plasticizers called phthalates. The most well-known of these is BPA. And you know, you go everywhere now and it’ll say BPA-free, but they’ve just actually replaced BPA with BPS. So it doesn’t necessarily matter if something is BPA-free. What you actually want in terms of your health is phthalate-free rather than BPA-free. This entire class of chemicals, what it does is that it primarily affects the human endocrine system. And that is a really big problem because endocrines are hormones. Hormones regulate virtually everything in our bodies. So if you disrupt the endocrine system, then you end up with a huge range of health problems in a human body. This can be everything from neurological disorders to cancers to diabetes to early onset senility to a whole host of other issues and problems. And one of the things that has arisen as one of the issues or problems is the interference with both the reproductive system and what’s called the feminization of male fetuses, which includes things like reduced sperm counts, the urethra moving down the shaft of the penis, so it’s no longer at the end. All of these things indicate what scientists call the feminization of male fetuses. And so there’s been a kind of panic around saving men and saving a certain form of masculinity as a result of the pervasiveness of these types of chemicals in the world. And I think that feminism and queer theory have a lot to offer us in this regard, which is that maybe we don’t want to just see those things only as toxic, right? Or maybe there’s a way to be able to disentangle the kind of queering of the body effects that these phthalates are having from the kind of conversations around cancers or something else. Something that’s obviously a form of harm. In other words, the production of queer bodies we might not want to think of as a form of harm in and of itself. But I think that one of the things that’s been really interesting is that, that’s also the argument that chemical industries make. They also argue that the queering of the body is not a form of harm. One of the things that I’ve been really interested in is, how do we think about feminist and queer theory in relationship to this set of very entangled problems? And how do we have a kind of adequate accounting of any kind of notion of justice in the kind of mix of all of this?
We started out this conversation talking about the chemical industry producing, after the war, a certain kind of mentality where people start disposing of things. So it seems to be more of an economic relation that’s produced and now what you’re talking about is out of that economic relation, we now have a queering of bodies. So in a way we’re also needing multiple kinds of theoretical lenses to talk about what’s happening. And if you use plastic to begin with that you’re able to kind of navigate those different webs.
Yeah, that’s it exactly. I guess you know the question that you asked earlier, but like how do you follow something as pervasive as plastic? In a lot of ways I haven’t done maybe what other folks who would follow a particular substance or material or type of being would do, which would be to kind of literally follow it. Because with plastic it’s virtually impossible to do that because it’s just everywhere. At this point, it’s very difficult to sort of pick a path for plastic. But I think for me, what I’ve done instead is kind of pick this more intellectual path or a path through a certain kind of history or path through certain kinds of disciplinary perspectives that allow us to look at this object from multiple different perspectives simultaneously. One of the things that I also suggest in my work is that perhaps we might also want to draw from feminist and queer theory to rethink our notions of kin and kinship structures to really value and revalue how we think about our relations to other beings in the world. And one of the things that I propose is to about the Plastisphere or the bacteria that can now eat plastics or the mealworms that can now eat plastics as a kind of human kin, as a kind of nonhuman progeny because the plastics industry has created these beings. And so for those of us who are entangled with the plastics industry, then we are also entangled with the emergence of these new forms of life. If we think about that seriously and think about those as a real substantial kin or a real substantial kinship structure or as really our babies in some way, then I think it helps us to reorient our ethics in relationship to questions of plastic. And it helps us to give a much more expansive sense of what kin and caretaking and relationality might mean in the world outside of just the kind of reproduction of sameness that we often kind of see it as. And those things are very much indebted to a kind of feminist and queer take on the world, especially for queer subjects who never took family structures or biological family structures as necessarily the places of care or reproduction to begin with.
The useful term you use is “toxic progeny.”
Yeah. I think about those creatures as a kind of toxic progeny.
And that relates to these new kinds of queer kinship networks or webs that are coming out of plastic now being so central to many of our relationships.
Yeah. And to the literal new beings that exist in the world because of the pervasiveness of plastic. So you know, mealworms have existed for a long period of time, but the bacteria that are in their stomachs that can digest polyethylene and styrofoam, those are new. So it’s a kind of bacterialization of life and a kind of orientation to a kind of queer bacterial formation. We have to seriously consider that we’re responsible for the creation of these beings. So if we think of them then not as something abject but as something that we have to care for, I think that that gives us a different kind of ethical perspective.
And I think in your work you’re also very clear about questioning who the “we” is. There are some we’s who are more abject and some who are more causes for these sorts of queering relations.
Yeah. I know it’s difficult to talk sometimes about like, you know about the “we” because in some respect you want to, you have to be able to say “we” sometimes. But certainly in my work, I try to be extremely careful about who I’m including as a part of this structure and who I think is not responsible for the state of affairs. And one of the ways in which I do this in my longer book project is through a kind of differentiation between inheritance and transmission. So for those of us like myself who are the beneficiaries of this way of being in the world, the beneficiaries of the kind of pervasiveness of plastic. And in my case, my grandfather worked for DuPont and was a chemical engineer. And so that’s a much more direct line of descent than for many people. But I think you could generalize and say for anybody who has been sort of the beneficiary of the kind of mass production of plastic and who has benefited from this, you can think about that in terms of the kind of structures of inheritance. Whereas for the many people around the world for whom the kind of proliferation of plastics has resulted in forms of harm or violence or misery, primarily in places where people are responsible for recycling, which often happens by hand and in very material ways or for people who’ve been displaced because their communities became so toxic that they had to leave. All of those kinds of things, those kinds of relations I think about in terms of transmission. So, you know, I have this kind of binary system. It’s maybe not as clear-cut as that in real life, but I think it’s at least a helpful way to begin to disentangle who is responsible for this set of conditions and who has really sort of been both not responsible for, but who has received, these sets of conditions whether they liked it or not.
I’m really interested in how you pointed out that the introduction of plastic was actually a solution to some materials becoming more and more scarce. Which sort of puts plastic into perspective, as not always all bad or not always all good, that it’s always produced in certain kinds of relationships. How might that help us think about collaborative survival or multispecies worldbuilding. Maybe another way of putting that question is, what are the possibilities of living queer plasticized worlds?
Yeah. Well, I think for me, one of the things you know, and I certainly know that, that you’ve been thinking along these lines as well, which is that one of the things that I think we need and many other people have also been thinking along these lines. One of the things that we really need to be thinking about is not some retreat to some Edenic past that probably didn’t exist in the first place, right? So really thinking about toxicity as itself potentially productive, which doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also be paying attention as Mel Chen says in their work, paying attention to all the kind of screaming negative affects of toxicity. But we might also want to be paying attention to the ways in which things can survive and potentially even thrive under conditions of toxicity. And in terms of my work, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about more is, what would it look like for kind of redistribution of toxicity to happen? Clearly this is not a very implementable goal, right? I doubt that this will happen. But I’m thinking about, what would it mean for those of us who are more the inheritors of plastic to take on the responsibilities of living with its toxicity? What would it mean for those of us who have benefited from this way of living to take on more of the environmental burden? What would that kind of mean in terms of geographical relocation or the relocation of dumps or the relocation of incinerator plants or those kinds of things? I mean, certainly there’s much more practical solutions that other people have come up with. Things like, we should ban PVCs. We should not use the really harmful forms of plastics and we could maybe just only produce the less harmful forms of plastics. Maybe we should think about stopping the production of plastics altogether and trying to figure out ways of recomposing the plastics that already exist in the world. You know, there’s all kinds of much more practical means of really thinking through this in terms of, you know, extended producer responsibility laws and various other kinds of things. But I think that for me, one of the things that has been really fundamental about thinking with plastic is also the ways in which it really shows us the kind of intractability of the problems that we’ve entered into. There really is no sense of return to a previous idyllic moment, which as I said before, probably never existed in the first place. I think that there is some sense of really having to just work through what we have, which in that sense I think does mean caretaking or attuning to the kinds of beings that have arisen. Like the mushrooms that can digest plastics or the various other kinds of micro-organisms. What might it mean to caretake for them as they are inadvertently taking care of us. I don’t want that kind of move to thinking about bacteria who can successfully biodegrade plastics as a kind of excuse for the rampant production of plastics across the world. Yeah. Plastic certainly teaches us that the world is fundamentally different than what it once was.
And the technoscientific fix of being able to, you know, possibly breed bacteria, that these are false solutions.
They’re false solutions in the sense that they are not going to solve the problems of microplastics in waterways, for example. They’re not going to solve the problems of the globalized plastic worlds that we live in. And I think it really doesn’t address the real fundamental issue, which is that, you know, when you think back there was a proposition in the 60s, I think it was, called the Monsanto House. And the Monsanto House was this kind of ….it looked like a spaceship or something. Everything in it was this very kind of curved, sleek surfaces of plastic. You know, in some ways it was kind of very beautiful in that kind of 1960s futurism kind of vibe. And everything in it was made from plastic, the cushions, the wall coverings, the paints, the housewares, everything. And the interesting thing about this Monsanto House is that, you know, we might not live within that kind of aesthetic, but we certainly do live within that kind of environment now. A technofix that still is intractably seduced by oil and the ways in which oil can transform the world is certainly not going to help us because we’ve basically created these like sealed-off barriers where everything that we surround ourselves with is plastic. Even if we were to get these bacteria, it would mean that all of our infrastructure would fall apart, if we were really serious about it. We would have no more digital technologies. The planes would fall out of the sky. Most of our buildings would fall down and most of us would be walking around naked. So we actually don’t want bacteria to run rampant and eat all the plastics that already exist. Aside from all of the carbon that would then be released back into the atmosphere as a result of doing that.
Since we’re already dealing with unintended consequences for all the other things that we’ve done… Would it be possible to go back to this non-fossil fuel-based plastic production? Is that still a possibility?
That’s what people are trying to do, right? So with the development of “bioplastics”. Bioplastics for the most part are cellulose-based plastics, meaning that they are plastics that are produced not with any kind of fossil fuel as their source or their base. They’re produced from a cellulose structure from plants. But the problem for me with that is that it doesn’t address the kind of subjectivity that you were talking about earlier. So it doesn’t address the production of a subject or our relations to materiality where we really think about things as ultimately disposable or a subject that really interacts with the world and with matter as something that’s inherently ephemeral. And that is just a matter of taking something and throwing it away. It doesn’t address any of those problems. So I mean, I’m sympathetic to trying to come up with solutions in the kind of short term for the replacement of particular kinds of goods. But I think that certain other things are potentially much more doable. I was at the Healthy Materials Labs at Parsons [School of Design] yesterday and they’ve come up with a hemp-based building material, which is really fascinating because you actually don’t need anything except for the hemp to create the qualities of flame retardancy. You don’t need material on the outside. It’s an insulating material. It’s already hydrophobic, so it’s water-resistant. It already does everything that you would want in a building material and something like that to me seems like a good use of a kind of… you wouldn’t necessarily normally talk about that as a kind of biopolymer, but essentially it’s not so dissimilar from a biopolymer. So we could think about that as a kind of alternative to plastic that might be really useful.
Yeah, I was trying to think about the temporalities of plastic, you know, because it does force us to think about time in a different way, because its timescales are so different from this human scale.
Yeah, I think in that regard, I often think of it as more akin to the geologic rather than to biologic timescales because it really does exist more on the timescales of something like fossil fuels or exists more on the timescales of various kinds of rocks. We don’t really have any real sense of how long most plastics will persist in the world. Most of the hypotheses say that it’s highly variable depending upon where the plastics are. And of course, you know, the fact that there are all these new organisms that can eat plastics and those were enhanced by scientists, but they weren’t created by us. They were created out of evolution itself. To me, it really is a matter of this kind of conjunction between evolutionary time and geologic time. So evolutionary time is bumping up against geologic time when you think about plastics, because it’s really a matter of how much time is necessary for various kinds of organisms to take advantage of the fact that plastic is everywhere. And clearly we’re going to need different types of organisms for different types of environments. It’s not going to be the same organism and it’s not going to be the same for everything. So the bottom of the sea is a very different environment than in your kitchen cupboard where mealworms like to live, right? So it’s a very different kind of environment to think with. Clearly one of the kind of fundamental issues with plastic is how to think about time differently. And Michelle Murphy has this really beautiful concept of latency and she talks about the ways in which petrochemicals, plastics included in them because of these plasticizers primarily is that the effects on the human body, the toxic effects on the human body might not be seen within your lifetime. They might not even be seen within your children’s lifetime. They might be seen within your grandchildren’s lifetime. There’s a latency between when you’re exposed to something and when you might feel the effects.
There’s all kinds of ways in which we have to think about time differently. Another, another source of inspiration for thinking about the relationships of time is to think about Christina Sharpe’s residency time and she thinks about that as the amount of time that it takes for a body –and she’s specifically thinking about the people who were captured and enslaved in the transatlantic slave trade and the people who either fell or jumped or were pushed overboard, and how long their bodies took to enter and exit the oceanic system. So what is the residency time of plastic?
I’d love to talk a little bit more about the Synthetic Collective. It seems like a dream interdisciplinary project. You know, there’s a growing call for interdisciplinary approaches or multidisciplinary approaches, so this mix of scientific-artistic methods that might help us look at issues as large as plastic differently.
Yeah, it’s been an amazing experience. They’re just the kind of dream team of really wonderful, incredibly smart people and very easy to work with. Which is also really important in terms of collective work. Yeah, I’ve been really privileged to work with this group of people. I think one of the examples that we have drawn on in the past, that I personally wasn’t involved with, but two of the key core members were involved with: Patricia Corcoran who’s the geologist who’s a part of our team, and Kelly Jazvac who is an artist. Together, they were the people who named the new rock plastic formation, the plastiglomerate. And what is interesting about that collaboration is that Patricia really wanted to go to Kamilo beach in Hawaii to go look at these new forms of rocks because she has long been interested in the kind of relationship between fossil fuels and particularly plastics and rocks as a geologist. And Kelly was really interested in the aesthetics, how these rocks looked. And so they went there and one of the things that happened when they got there was that they discovered, they originally had thought that the rocks were being formed through volcanic activity, but they’re not. Those rocks are formed through campfires. And it’s because there’s so much plastic on the beach that if you just have a kind of innocent campfire, then that is how these rocks are formed. Patricia was originally kind of very like, Oh, that sucks, what am I going to say about geology in relationship to this? And Kelly was like, no, this is a more interesting story because of this relationship. And I think that it really shows the ways in which that object came to light through two different sets of knowledges that really came together. But also the ways in which that object has since circulated. You know, it’s been written about in Nature, it’s been written about in the Geological Society. It also got picked up in the New York Times. It also has circulated to the Smithsonian Museum and the Yale Peabody museum. So I think that one of the really strong characteristics of these kinds of art-science collaborations is that you can disseminate similar information to different sets of audiences and it can be seen in different ways in different places. So it doesn’t have to always be carrying the exact same message with it. It can be kind of transportable or transposable as a kind of object. Also in terms of our work with the Synthetic Collective, primarily we’re interested in plastic pollution in the Great Lakes, because not a lot of people have done a lot of work on plastic pollution in the Great Lakes. And one of the things that has been a strength and a real interest in that is also the questions of both where scientific knowledge can lead us, but then also where it might end and where we might need other kinds of ways of transmitting information. So one of the first things that the collective did was to go around and do a study of preproduction plastic pellets that were being released directly into the Great Lakes.
What is a preproduction pellet?
So it’s called a nurdle or sometimes it’s called mermaid’s tears. So basically when you produce plastic, it goes through this whole kind of procedure. It’s sort of this long procedure where you get a bunch of chemicals. You kind of swish them around a container under extremely high pressures, often with certain degrees of heat. And then what you end up with is some kind of gooey substance mostly. And then that goes through usually an extractor of some kind and then that gets flattened out into like a long sheet. And then that long sheet then often gets broken down, sort of recomposed and broken down. And then the industry standard for any kind of plastic that’s going to be made into a consumer object is these little preproduction plastic pellets or nurdles or mermaid’s tears. And they’re literally like maybe about two millimeters or like maybe five millimeters long by about two millimeters wide. They’re kind of cylindrical. They can come in all colors. They’re very identifiable. If you know what they look like, they’re really easy to spot because they’re so perfect in their composition. They don’t look at all like what happens after, say a water bottle or a plastic bag or a lighter or whatever else starts to corrode and photo degrade or break apart under other processes. They really have this standardization to them, but they make them into these small things so that then they can be shipped. Because the plastic has to be made next to oil or a natural gas refineries, there has to be a mechanism for being able to get the plastic once it’s made to places where they’re going to make it into an object. And so the way to be able to do that is to turn it into these preproduction plastic pellets and then those get shipped all over the world. So sometimes they get shipped in container ships, sometimes they’re put on railway lines. Sometimes it’s just in transport trucks or whatever, all the ways in which we normally ship things, they go out and then they go to other factories where they make them into something. Sometimes factories will make them into something where they are, but mostly those two processes are not the same.
And how do they end up in the Great Lakes?
So they up in the Great Lakes because there are a bunch of these factories that surround the Great Lakes because there’s actually a lot of oil refineries around the Great Lakes or particularly around Detroit and Sarnia. In those areas, there’s a lot of oil refinery and because there’s so much oil refinery there, it also means there’s so many plastics production facilities there. And then what happens is, so two primary mechanisms: Sometimes there’s a spill, so sometimes they’re trying to ship these preproduction plastics somewhere and it spills and then it ends up in the Great Lakes. Or the other way is, at least this is what we hypothesize and that we’ve heard from anonymous sources, is that sometimes the factories, if they produce a batch of bad plastics, they’ll just pour them down the drain and then the drain literally leads to the Lake. Sometimes it’s not quite as insidious as that. It’s more just like, you know, you’re making a bunch of stuff on a factory floor and there’s still that drain that goes into the Lake. That’s primarily how it happens, at least as far as we understand up until this moment.
Since nobody had really studied this before from any perspective really, and also because we thought it would be an easier policy demand in terms of really thinking about pollution in relationship to plastic, we decided to first go out and map where all these plastic pellets are ending up. So we went and did mapping on the shorelines of the Great Lakes to try to figure out how much plastic was in the Great Lakes. And then also what percentage of that was pre-production plastic pellets. That’s the kind of thing that we can do with the kind of geologic surveys that Patricia taught us how to do. That’s the kind of mapping that we can do through that kind of scientific knowledge.
But then the collective wanted to bring this to a wider public. And so we’re having an exhibition that’s going to open at the University of Toronto and that is going to also include these maps that are getting drawn that show the kind of possible paths that these pellets have taken. So what are the hydrological cycles in the lakes that would maybe make it so that certain plastics end up in certain areas and none end up in other places. And is this a way to try to be able to map to see where the plastics are originating from, which companies are most responsible, etc. At least it’s also, I think another way of just visualizing things. I think one of the other things that’s important in terms of scientific and artistic collaborations is that from an artistic point of view, I think you don’t want to be saying things that are not accurate. And from a scientific point of view, I think one of the problems is that people are often quite alienated by scientific language and scientific discourse, and the ways in which science disseminates information. And so I think that trying to bring these two pieces together to both create something that really affects you and that is visual and that can be understood from multiple perspectives, I think that that is a much more effective means of using all of our knowledge and our sets of skills and also to really get the public much more interested and animated over these questions.
One of the goals of the exhibition that we’re doing at the University of Toronto is to put together a User Manual for how to reduce your carbon footprint in relationship to exhibition production. And so we’re doing everything from not repainting the walls, not filling in the holes from the previous exhibition that will be up, to not having any video works because they take up too much energy in terms of the projectors. So instead, all of our video and media works are going to be on iPads that are going to be powered with solar panel backpacks that people have to go out with docents outside to power up. And the manual itself is going to be hosted on a website that also uses solar energy. And so sometimes the website will exist and sometimes the website won’t exist depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy. And so it’s been really amazing to sort of see this come together because there’s like so many things that I never thought of before and so many things that the other folks have been so incredibly thoughtful about how to think about this. Teagan Moore has been doing incredible amounts of research to put all of this together.
Well, I like your project with the Synthetic Collective because you’re clearly trying to make policy interventions and it seems that the scale of the plastic issue actually has to be tackled at a structural… You know, it’s a structural issue. It can’t depend on individual choices. I mean in a way governments have to…
Governments have to make these decisions. Yeah, exactly. It’s like lead in the gasoline.
Because so many of the solutions are posed as individual responsibility.
You know, really if you’re just thinking about it in terms of time, translation into time. It is much better for you to not go to the no-waste grocery store and to use that time instead to call your representative, you know, or to do some kind of political lobbying. That is a much better use of your time if you actually care about plastic packaging. It doesn’t matter if we all go to the no-waste grocery store in Williamsburg, that is not, it’s just so far outside of the kind of scales at which these things have to be changed.
You know, I always close this with some hope. In your capacity as a professor, a writer, curator, collaborator, what do you tell your students or your kin or your toxic progeny about what you do in relation to climate change? So how do you have conversations with people that might be less focused on disaster and end of the world scenarios and more focused on how to live now?
For me, a couple of things that I’ve really learned from plastic is that our desire for containment isn’t helping us. Our desire for really sealing ourselves off from the world and from each other has not been especially helpful in the long run because we never will be able to do that. And so embracing, I think the kind of porousness of our bodies, the necessity for entanglements I think is incredibly generative as a starting point. One of my colleagues said to me the other day that he was reading a news article and it was saying that the things that we’re really going to need if there is a kind of climate breakdown or maybe more like when there is a climate breakdown or if there’s a kind of radical shift in the ways in which our societies are composed, that one of the skills that’s going to be, you know, often people think about like, Oh, we need to like stash and hoard water. We need to stash and hoard food. We need to stash and hoard guns. And he was saying that the skills that are going to be some of the most useful in addition to being able to grow food and those kinds of practical things is also really thinking about community building. And so I think that one of the things that climate change really affords us an opportunity to do is to really radically rethink our relationships to things. I think that there’s so much on offer there. There’s so much to be learned in really re-paying attention to the world around us. You know, it might be a diminished world, it might be a damaged world, but it’s still a world that’s full of so many surprises and so much beauty and so much joy and so much love. And if we can really tap into those things, then we might live in a much more livable world actually. Even if some of our material conditions have to really be rethought or maybe because some of our material conditions have to be rethought it allows us the opportunity to then rethink relations in a way that I think is much more deeply engaging. What would that mean if we really held ourselves to be accountable in terms of relation? What would that mean if we really privileged relations with each other and with other beings in the world as our primary form of nourishment? And I think that that world is a very hopeful world, right? That’s, that sounds like a really lovely world. It’s not like we wouldn’t have conflicts or everything would be rosy all the time, but I think that there would be a way of being with each other that would give us a lot of nourishment that we might not know that we’re lacking.
That’s like the perfect way to end. Thank you so much.
Thank you for listening to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. This episode is produced by Ben Montoya, Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Alex Guillen, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. The lab is made possible by the Green Grants program of New York University’s Office of Sustainability and NYU Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement.
JAMES HIGHAM talks about primates and primatology; long-term fieldwork in Cayo Santiago, Puerto Rico and Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria; and the ethics and politics of conservation. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria, now considered the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean islands in recorded history, hit Cayo Santiago and its resident rhesus macaques. This conversation begins with the devastating hurricane and opens up to questions about value, human agency, scientific expertise, and the urgent need for interdisciplinary collaboration.
Higham works across the fields of zoology and anthropology. He teaches at New York University Department of Anthropology, where he also leads the Primate Reproductive Ecology and Evolution Group.
To learn more about the coloniality of disaster and the aftershocks of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, read the brilliant Yarimar Bonilla in conversation with Ryan Cecil Jobson in Public Books in May 2020. See also an important collection of texts, Aftershocks of Disaster: Puerto Rico Before and After the Storm, co-edited by Yarimar Bonilla and Marisol LeBrón (Haymarket Books, 2019).
Welcome to the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. We are recording in New York City on July 15, 2019. James Higham is an evolutionary biologist and primatologist. He is Associate Professor in Anthropology at New York University. He works with collaborators and students at three field sites:
(1) the Caribbean Primate Research Center at Cayo Santiago in Puerto Rico, (2) the Macaca Nigra Project at the Tangkoko Reserve in Northern Sulawesi in Indonesia, and (3) the Gashaka Gumti National Park in Nigeria.
Thank you for joining us, James. Might we start with an introduction to your research and your work as a scientist who studies primates?
My research sits at the intersection of social biology and social behavior, sensory ecology, perception and communication, and cognition and the brain—and how these interacting aspects of animal biology and evolutionary selection work over time. I’m especially interested in sexual selection as a set of evolutionarily selected mechanisms, and how sexual selection (acting on those interacting aspects of animal biology) produce and maintain diversity and variation over time, both within species and between species.
I’m very interested in why we have the species that we do, why we have so many species, why they look, sound and smell different, what factors have led to that variation and then also why we have so much variation within species. We might expect evolution to act towards selecting for a few types of successful phenotypes within species, but actually lots and lots of variations are produced and maintained over time. One question that I’ve always been interested in is why and how this happens. How so much diversity and so much variation has been produced on our planet. I think one thing that is perhaps underestimated about our own order, the primates, is that it’s fantastically diverse and a lot of diversity has been created in pretty short periods of evolutionary time. That’s interesting because primates are thought to have quite slow life history in the sense that we have very long lives, we have long developmental periods, we don’t tend to have very many offspring relative to, for example, insects or even say birds or fish. Those kinds of life histories are thought to have relatively slow rates of evolutionary change over time, and yet actually primate evolution has been punctuated by lots of rapid radiations in which lots of species have been produced in short periods of time. And that’s something that’s also relevant to our own evolution. So twenty years ago, you might have had people saying that perhaps if we went back 100-200,000 years, there would only have been perhaps two species of Human, namely Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, whereas now we think if we went back 100-200,000 years, maybe there were seven, eight species of Homo within our genus. Even relatively recently, we were probably living alongside lots of other species of Human depending on how you define “human,” whether you mean just members of our genus or whether you mean members of our species specifically. But if we’re using it to mean members of our genus, we were a pretty diverse genus actually until pretty recently. We already have a huge amount of variation and diversity among human populations. Imagine living in a world with many species of human, many different species of human. It’s a remarkable thing to think about!
As a primatologist, as a zoologist, what are your thoughts on the role of humans in relation to other species in this current age of widespread mass extinctions, environmental transformations, overall climate change.
We’re certainly having very transformative effects on the environment in a relatively short period of time. But plenty of radiations of life have completely transformed the environment as well. I mean the vascular plants completely changed the atmospheric composition. The changes that we’ve made to the atmosphere are nothing compared to some groups which have had much bigger effects. And I’m not playing down issues of climate change, which I think are extremely serious and very worrying.
Stephen Jay Gould wrote an article a number of years ago in his book, Eight Little Piggies, in which he talks about perspectives on extinction. And I think it sort of depends on what your perspective is. If your perspective is, this a huge mass extinction and climate change event that’s serious and very threatening to human life on earth. Absolutely. I think it’s very likely that if the earth is still around in say a hundred million years’ time, there will be more species on earth than there are now. There won’t be any humans, but there will be more species on earth than there are now. This is what has always happened. The earth has these big mass extinctions, but overall the trajectory is towards more and more species, and more and more diversification followed by these periodic mass extinctions.
Now, is that any consolation to those species that are trapped in that mass extinction? No. But I think it depends what people are worried about. If they’re worried about life on earth, I would say don’t worry about it. What will happen is we’ll drive ourselves to extinction. The earth, you know, may take a million years to recover, or it may take 10 million years to recover. But ultimately, recover it will. And life will go on. That’s of no consolation to us.
I think it’s a strange situation actually because I think there are a lot of people out there who think, “climate change and pollution and extinctions, who cares about that sort of thing. I don’t care about biodiversity and I don’t care about this. I just care about humans.” Well, actually humans are the only ones that need to worry about this. If you don’t care about life on earth, that’s fine, because life on earth is going to be fine. You should only be concerned about this, in my opinion, if you care about humans and our relatively short-term fate, because this is potentially a huge disaster for us, and we need to try and get ahead of it as quickly as possible.
I’m also very concerned about the species that we are losing, of course, because they’re beautiful and precious and important. One can make all kinds of arguments about their utilitarian value to us as seed dispersers and that’s important because we need the forest. They’re the world’s lungs and we need them to protect watersheds and to prevent flooding and to maintain fertile land. They recycle carbon for us. They do all kinds of utilitarian ecosystem services and we don’t value them properly. We use them for timber and for fishing, for game, and for all kinds of things. But I think at some fundamental level they’re also beautiful and interesting and precious. Humans value all kinds of things like that very expensively. You know, if you go to Sotheby’s, you’ll see all kinds of things that are of very little utilitarian value. What is the usefulness of a Monet that is literally just oil on canvas? But we decide that it’s worth $30 million because people like it and they think it’s beautiful and it’s rare. Well, there are all kinds of beautiful, rare species on the earth that are completely irreplaceable. They will never be replaced even when they’re lost. You know, a real question for all of us, which I don’t think we’ve yet really resolved, is whether we are happy to pay for and allow some component of nature to exist for its own sake. Not because we can go to the Great Barrier Reef and think, “wow, this is amazing.” Or we can go and see gorillas at Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. Are we happy for them to be there just for their own sake and just to leave them alone?
You know, the mountain gorillas—which have a very small global population, perhaps 750, that’s it—they’re not kept in captivity and they’re only found in a small corner of DRC, Uganda, and Rwanda. Something like probably half of that remaining population has habituated to human observers, either for research or for tourism. Do we need to habituate more groups? Will the groups that are not habituated go extinct because nobody’s going to care about them? Or are we going to allow any of these species to exist without being useful or interesting to us, or for our entertainment? Are we happy to pay and protect them and just leave them alone? It’s not clear to me whether we are actually. We only seem interested in those that we can go and see for tourism or that we can study. Everything else that has been kind of left alone has typically just been allowed to either wither on the vine or has been been deliberately destroyed. I think that’s a fundamental ethical question that humans have to ask ourselves.
I’d love to talk about Cayo Santiago, also known as Monkey Island in Puerto Rico, which is one of your field research stations that was hit very hard by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Can you share with us some of its history and why this Island is particularly significant?
Clarence Ray Carpenter was a forerunner of Primatology within the United States in the 1930s. He studied Howler monkeys in Panama and then he went over to Southeast Asia where he studied Gibbons. Then I think he paid people to trap around 500 rhesus macaques in India and then these were shipped to New York and ended up in Puerto Rico. Some of them were sold. Almost certainly some died on the journey, I would think. In 1938, 409 of these monkeys were released on Cayo Santiago. The descendants of those original 409 rhesus macaques still live on Cayo Santiago today, around eight years later.
Cayo Santiago is a 15-hectare island. It’s actually two islands connected by a narrow isthmus off the East coast of Puerto Rico, about a kilometer off the coast of the town of Punta Santiago. They live there and there are currently about 1,500 to 1,800 animals that are living in about seven naturally formed social groups.
They free range on these two islands. They historically at times have not been studied and have not been provisioned or anything, but today they’re provisioned with commercial monkey chow and when they’re the age of one, they’re trapped. Blood is taken for genotyping, for the genetic pedigree of the population. Also increasingly, to be genomically sequenced, to be studied for functional genetic variation. They are ear-notched and tattooed on the inner thigh and on the chest for identification. And they’re given a tetanus jab at that age. Tetanus wasn’t originally in the population and it was introduced later. Lots of monkeys were dying in a bad way and so they started introducing tetanus inoculation. But otherwise, there’s no medical intervention on the Island and they live freely unless investigators request them to be trapped. Aside from that one trapping when they’re one-year old, they will never be trapped. They’ll just live free-ranging their entire life on the island, until they die.
Carpenter studied them on Cayo Santiago in 1938 and 1939 then left. Of course, war was breaking out in Europe and the monkeys were largely left alone. There were some visits to the island, I believe by the military and by researchers who took some monkeys off the island. But they were largely left alone until the mid-1950s when Stuart Altman heard about them from E.O. Wilson and Ernst Mayer. He went and found Carpenter, spoke to him about where to find this island and how to get there. It was a different era of course in the 1950s than it is now. So he went, camped on Cayo Santiago, and re-introduced tattooing, daily census of everyone on the island, noting the social groups, births, deaths, immigrations, emigrations. He started introducing that in 1956 and then we take the kind of census of the demography and the life history database continuously from about 1958. There were a couple of years when data is quite patchy, when it’s being set up and initialized, and then all of the different procedures are being put into place. So, we tend to go back to about 1958 in terms of the continuous demographic, the life history database.
In the early 1970s, a skeletal collection was started in which individuals that died on the island were macerated—so skeletonized— and then put into a skeletal collection, which currently resides at the University of Puerto Rico Medical Science Campus in Rio Piedras. That skeletal collection continues to the current day. They’ve run out of room actually on that campus to store skeletons. So newer skeletons from animals that have been dying since 2010 are actually coming here [NYU] and are now under long-term loan from the University of Puerto Rico to NYU. Since the 1980s when genotyping became available, there were various small functional genetic studies that were started, and then it was really taken up in earnest in the early 1990s, starting with adult individuals.
1992 was when it officially started, and the adult animals were six or seven years old at the time, so we know that the animals were born from 1985 onwards. Then of course there’s been a lot of behavioral studies, because they trapped animals, collected blood samples, and took physiological measures, morphometric measures of the somatic tissues, muscle, body fat, teeth, dental casts. Of course, from the late 1990s onwards, when we acquired the technology, you can also now non-invasively measure lots of physiological components of animal biology via collection of urine and feces, which the animals are just depositing naturally on the island. You can collect those samples and you can measure things like female steroid hormones and track ovulatory cycles, for example. Or you can measure androgens or glucocorticoids. You can measure energy balance. You can measure immune activation and inflammation. Oh, I should also say that the rhesus macaques of Cayo Santiago were very amenable to direct cognitive testing in which you can—without trapping them, without capturing them—go up with clever operators that you set up, put stimuli in front of them, and they’ll engage with the stimulator. We use paradigms that were developed in developmental psychology. So one example is called the “looking time paradigm” in which pre-verbal infants are shown stimuli to test their gaze duration, how long they look at different things when they’re paired together, as measures of their relative interest in particular stimuli. We can at least say—in a counterbalanced experiment with careful controls in which one type of stimulus is consistently being preferred and looked at more over another—we can at least say that pre-verbal infants and monkeys and apes and things that we test discriminate between those two things.
So the value of Cayo Santiago is that we have this incredible scope of data. We can measure them cognitively, we can observe them and look at them behaviorally, we can look at their physiology, we can look at their genomes, we can look at their morphology, we have their skeletons, we have their genetics, and then we know everything about their ancestry going back for decades and decades. And because we have this genetic pedigree database, we can ask questions about the heritability of traits and we can also ask questions about selection on traits. So it’s a fantastic model for evolutionary biology really. I think it’s fair to say that there is no other primate study that has the breadth and also the depth and the longevity of data that Cayo Santiago has to offer.
So what are some features, for example physical, behavioral, social features? What are some features that make this particular group of rhesus macaques very unique and very special for you as a scientist?
The way in which rhesus macaques live is that they live in matriarchal societies, so they’re female-bonded. Females will, on the whole, live their entire lives in the group that they’re born in. Whereas the males will disperse and they will go and live in another group. These are very female-bonded groups. In each group, there’s usually a number of different matrilines, so a mother and her descendant daughters and their descendant offspring and then whole other kind of matrilines. The rhesus on Cayo Santiago, which are similar to populations of Japanese macaques, exhibit something called “youngest ascendancy” in which the youngest daughter always ends up being the highest-ranked female, not the lowest-ranked female. She, each new daughter, assumes a position above all of her older sisters. It could be that rhesus and their closest living relatives—that’s Taiwanese macaques and Japanese macaques and the Mulatta radiation of macaques—they have very despotic, very nepotistic, and hierarchical societies, very steep linear dominance hierarchies in which everyone one punches down. And it could be that in order to protect these infants and these young individuals, mothers have to protect them and come in on their side constantly against their older sisters and things. And so these infants are in a good position in which they can behave pretty boisterously and they’re always going to be strongly protected by their mom. And so they end up being able to push around their older sisters and they end up becoming dominant over them. Some people have suggested it’s artificial actually, and that it’s an artificial effects of food provisioning, in which food provisioning is making some of these populations more aggressive by condensing food spatio-temporally. But I have to say that I personally don’t buy it. I think that there’s plenty of other macaque species that don’t show youngest ascendancy that also live in captivity and are provisioned and they don’t under that circumstances. So at the very least we could say that it’s something that the Mulatta macaques show in response to provisioning and that itself makes them different. So then the males will disperse and they will live most of their lives in groups in which they may not have many relatives. So, some smart people, for example Anja Widdig, who is professor at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig does a lot of work on kin recognition. She has some evidence that males dispersing into new groups may be able to preferentially associate with relatives even in those groups. So the males have dispersed into those groups and of course they will share sisters in those groups from males who moved between groups and have fathered in multiple groups. They may have half siblings but I think the jury is still a little bit out on that, like how much kin recognition is really going on. And it certainly would then have to be coming through other mechanisms such as phenotypic matching and things where you preferentially associate with individuals that sound a bit like you, smell a bit like you, or something like that. Whereas it’s easy for these females, because they grow up with their sisters and their mom and their aunts surrounded by them all the time since the day they were born. They’ll probably never disperse. That won’t change. At some point, their mom will die, at some point their aunt will die, some of their sisters may die but then they’ll end up having their own daughters and things. And they’re all surrounded by their close female kin. So it’s easy for them to bias behavior towards their kin. Their sisters, of course, may only perhaps be half sisters. They may well have a different father and then they have an interesting mechanism of male dominance acquisition which again, some people have argued is artificial but I don’t think it is, which is that individuals rise in dominance over time. They have a queuing system, males join the new social hierarchy at the bottom and tend to rise over time. Individuals at the top of the hierarchy tend to have been in the group for a long time and individuals at the bottom tend to have just joined. They join peripherally and they queue, and when individuals die or disperse and move to another group, they rise in social status. And what social status really means to a rhesus macaque is, for both males and females, is preferential access to food. And for males, it’s also preferential access to females, but rhesus macaques have relatively low body and canine dimorphism relative to other species of macaque, and relatively large testes volume. And that’s thought to indicate that they’re under reduced direct male-male competition as a selective mechanism. So in a number of other species of macaque for example, that are much more sexually dimorphic, males tend to turn up from outside of the group, they attack the alpha male and if they beat him and depose him, they become the alpha male. They have very strong body and canine size dimorphism. They’re clearly under strong direct male-male competition with lots of fights and associated selection for weaponry, upper body mass, large canines that can be used to fight, large body size. And they tend to hae relatively small testes volume because there’s not a lot of indirect competition in which males are just mating with lots of females and competing indirectly.
And then rhesus are very different in which the body size and canine size dimorphism has been reduced, and the relative testes volume has increased. So relative reduction in direct male-male competition and increase in indirect male-male competition. And concurrently with that, there seems to be an increase in direct female mate choice, in which females are just going and rather than being in a more coercive society, I mean there’s still coercion, but rather than it being a more coercive society like some of the other macaque species are in, because of that reduced body size dimorphism, because dominance is a queuing system rather than being a competitive fighting system, females then will go and choose the males that they prefer and mate—even with low-ranking males—and show stronger direct female mate choice.
It’s an interesting mating system and this is variation above and beyond the kind of variation people usually talk about in mating systems. So when people usually talk about mating system variation, they use it to describe the distribution of matings among males and females. And so if one male is mating with multiple females, you would say that’s a polygynous mating system. If one male and one female are predominantly mating together, you would say that was a monogamous mating system. A polyandrous mating system would be one female mating with multiple males. And all macaques live in a polygynandrous mating system in which multiple males and multiple females mate, and yet above and beyond that mating system variation, there’s all this variation in the strength of relative mechanisms of sexual selection, how males and females are competing with each other and how they’re choosing. So that’s the kind of social and mating system of rhesus macaques.
So Hurricane Maria is considered the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century. What happened when the hurricane swept through Cayo Santiago in September of 2017? Can you tell us about some of the immediate effects as well as maybe some of the long-term effects on the monkeys and their island, from you and your team’s point of view on the ground? You’ve worked with them for a very long time.
So hurricane Maria came through in September of 2017. It came in from the East/Southeast, absolutely huge hurricane and of course hit Cayo Santiago before it hit mainland Puerto Rico because it’s just a kilometer off the coast. Completely trashed the island. Massive deforestation, destroyed every structure on the island completely. There were trucks on the island, there was a backhoe—all of that trashed. The monkeys were pretty much fine as far as we can tell, in that we don’t have much evidence of any immediate direct hurricane mortality. There’s an increase in mortality in the couple of months afterwards in October and November of 2017 especially a spike in October of 2017. In some ways that mirrors what happened in the human population too. We all know that Donald Trump has famously said, not many people that died in the hurricane, quoting only very immediate deaths from things like damage to the ceilings collapsing and vehicles being swept away and things like this. And then ignoring, of course, the huge spike that was seen in the twelve months afterwards in mortality in Puerto Rico, among the human population, in which that spike was several thousand additional deaths. And that can happen with a lot of natural disasters in which individuals dying in the immediate natural disaster itself may or may not be relatively large, but that is not the same as all deaths that can be attributable to the natural disaster itself. So the rhesus is a bit like the human population in that extent. We don’t know of many. Perhaps there were a few. It’s hard to know because in a large population where you have census takers trying to monitor the population, they hadn’t been working for a little while because Hurricane Irma came through right before Hurricane Maria. And when the waves are very choppy, it’s very hard to get out to Cayo Santiago. So the boats had been taken out of the water. Individuals die all the time in a colony of that size. So we don’t have much direct evidence of direct mortality during the storm, but there’s nonetheless spikes afterwards indicating the mortality effects of the storm. And I think as I said, that’s interesting because it kind of, in many ways, mirrors what happened in the human population too.
So there’d been other major hurricanes too over the last 80 years, but Maria was the biggest. Major effects to the island included heavy deforestation, the fact that the dock in Punta Santiago, where we take the boat from, was very heavily destroyed. The concrete dock on Cayo Santiago itself became detached from the island, not because the concrete dock moved, but because there was so much land change on the land side that it no longer connected to the island. It just stuck into the water. The isthmus that connects the two islands is completely submerged. It was several feet under the water, isolating the two islands from each other. All structures were destroyed. Most vegetation was destroyed. There were 40 coco palms on Cayo, now I think there are five, six, something like that. All the mangroves seem to be dead. None of them have come back yet. The West-facing side on both the large island and on the smaller island still has trees. Grass and small shrubs have regrown. We’re seeing succession on the island actually. Because you’ve removed this shade from all these kinds of trees, now you’re getting grasses and shrubs and low-level vegetation, but it has dramatically changed the amount of shade on the island. And of course without all of these trees, the island is eroding and the soil is getting very heavily eroded and washing off very easily without trees to protect it.
It’s changed where the animals are on the island because some of these large exposed areas are now very hot without any tree cover and shade, and so there tends to be fewer animals in those areas. In terms of longer term stuff—what brain development looks like, what life history development looks like, whether individuals are maturing faster or slower, whether they’re going to have shorter life aspects and suits, things like this—the most honest answer is that we don’t know. And it may be many years before we truly see some of these effects. I think that that’s true for the human population of Puerto Rico too. We see the immediate aftermath, what does it look like for five- or six-year olds who had to be evacuated in the middle of the night to a hurricane shelter, who thought they were going to drown because they were floating in their living room higher and higher up towards the ceiling, with the amount of air that was diminishing. I mean that happened to people. People have told me those accounts directly, accounts of being in their homes as they filled with water and trying to get out of the house during the hurricane. I don’t know what the long-term effects of that are on people and maybe we won’t know for many years if we ever do fully know. And similarly, with the rhesus macaques, I think it could be a long time before we really know what the effects look like. And there are two different sort of things: there’s trauma or traumatic effects of the lived experience, and then there’s the aftermath. What’s it like to live in a newly deforested, hotter environment after that? Well, you can say the same for the human population. What was it like to live for six months, nine months with no power, with no clean water for months. In places like Punta Santiago, it was months before they even had clean running water again. I think Punta Santiago got electricity in May of 2018, having lost it in September of 2017…it’s a long time.
Yeah. I think some of these kinds of effects that we’re thinking about with environmental disasters like this, we’re seeing more and more of these huge national disasters. And I mean some of it is not related to climate change. Part of it may be related to climate change, things like frequencies of major hurricanes. One thing that I would say it is all related to is that we have a much bigger human population than we’ve historically had. We have much higher population densities. And so there are people everywhere. And so natural disasters that a hundred years ago may have not impacted anyone or impacted only small populations, they’re always having big impacts now because there are people everywhere. So, you know, if you get a tsunami, some of the large tragic tsunamis that there have been over the last 20 years, including in Japan, for example, there has been a lot of mortality in towns that up until relatively recently had much smaller human populations. And so, they would have been less catastrophic for human life, even relatively recently. So I think one thing we should get our heads into is that even if natural disasters of certain types don’t become more frequent, they’re obviously going to be much more catastrophic for human populations because human populations are so much larger now. The population density is so much higher and human distributions are so much wider than they used to.
I would love to know more about the range, the kinds of tools that you use to study and get to know the rhesus macaques. You mentioned your research and your interest in sensory ecologies. Would you describe your tool kit, the interdisciplinary tools and methods that you borrow from other fields, other disciplines, and then combine to study how different organisms sense their environments in order to survive, in order to socialize and reproduce?
I have an enzyme immunoassay lab here at NYU, which uses immunoassays to measure physiological aspects of the animals. We also look at their skeletons. We look at their soft tissues, which we measure. We study them observationally, behaviorally. We study them experimentally, behaviorally, with techniques that we pilfered from comparative and developmental psychology. We use methods from genomics, functional genomics to look at the underlying genetic architecture of traits. We also use genetics to build the pedigree so that we can look at heritability of traits and selection of traits. Yes, we use computational techniques sometimes to model the evolution of particular traits, sometimes to model perception. So, for example, I spoke earlier about the coloration of rhesus macaques—the dark red coloration in their face and on their hind quarters and genitals—we can take digital images of those and because we’ve characterized our camera (so I know the wavelength sensitivities of the short-, medium- and long-wave sensors with an eye camera. And because I know the spectral sensitivities of the short-, medium- and long-wave cones in rhesus macaque eyes, I can computationally map directly from what the camera sees to what rhesus macaque would see in response to the same image and look at what that color variation looks like in a perceptual space that’s defined not by the perceptual space of the camera but by the visual space of the species that I’m interested in. So you would build like a visual space in which you can plot colors within a space that’s defined by the retinal receptor catches that they would have in response to the color based on our understanding of the neurophysiology of rhesus macaque color vision.
That sounds really fascinating. Is that what the term sensory ecology means? Can you define what you mean by this phrase, sensory ecology?
I guess sensory ecology is an understanding of the different kinds of sensory inputs that are available in the environment: the smells and the sounds and the colors and the patterns and for other taxa, the electromagnetic signals, you know, chemical things in the environment. There’s a lot of variation in the types of sensory systems that animals have and the way they’re able to detect things around them and the environment. And then how they detect that, how they integrate it, how they make decisions on where to go, what to eat, how fast to fly, which direction to swim based on those sensory inputs. And I would say that’s really what brains are for. You know, there’s a lot of chat in the primate and broader literature about: is the human brain a social brain or is it an ecological brain? Is it selected for spatial cognition within the environment? Is it selected for social cognition and the ability to outwit other individuals? Is it a Machiavellian brain? And I would say it’s a sensory motor brain. It receives inputs from the environment and then coordinates motor responses.
Brain size in primates, but brain size broadly across vertebrates, is strongly positive-predicted by body size. That should be no surprise. An elephant has a massive brain and a mouse is a tiny brain. But let’s just say that the whole function of a brain was to coordinate something in the social environment. You know, I mean mice are social, so are elephants. It doesn’t seem to me to be that different a task. Thinking four or five minutes ahead of an opponent is actually not that complicated. Computers have been able to beat chess grandmasters for decades, but the computational power that it needs to do that, it’s not that great actually, but it turns out that sensory motor control is extremely computationally demanding. So if you look at the latest Boston Dynamics robot trying to water a plant on a table and it realizes it’s gone too far and it started to pour water on the table and it has to pull it back a little bit, it’s a mess. There’s water all over the table. There’s water on the plant, but there’s water all over the table. That kind of sensory motor control that adjusts to sensory input and changes your motor control actually turns out to be really hard to program and computationally very expensive. So sensory ecology, yeah it’s really about understanding these different kinds of sensory inputs and then, decision-making and the motor control that goes into decision-making.
The interesting thing about primates actually is that we do have this great sensory transition. Taxonomically, the largest distinction we make in the primates is between the strepsirhines and the haplorhines. The strepsirhines all have a wet nose and a rhinarium, and less developed color vision—either at the polymorphic color vision among the diurnal lemurs or they’re monochromatic or they’re dichromatic—versus the haplorhines that have a dry nose and forward-facing eyes. And then among catarrhines—that’s the Afro Eurasian monkeys and apes—uniform trichromatic color vision and good stereoscopic vision and stuff. So we have this huge sensory transition and this big sensory distinction between what the strepsirhines are doing and what the haplorhines are doing is at the heart of primate taxonomy and phylogeny. We make this big split in primate taxonomy between essentially the olfactory-guided rhinarium-possessing species and the dry-nosed. And that’s literally what they mean, right? Haplorine means simple-nosed.
I’d love a quick clarification please. What do you mean by sensory transition?
I guess that would mean that we’ve moved away from the ancestral condition of olfaction into a more derived condition of being more visually oriented. Most mammals are not like that, right? If you think about your dog or a horse or a cat or buffalo or whatever, they still are very olfactorily focused. It’s a derived condition in the monkeys and the apes and including humans to be more visually oriented.
Thank you for explaining! How about we turn to your work, your long-term field studies with primates at your other research site, the Gashaka Gumti National Park in Eastern Nigeria. It’s been really fascinating to learn about sensory ecologies, but we also know that you have a very great deal to say about political ecology and conservation projects that have to deal with very complicated sociopolitical conditions because they come out of very difficult histories. So what’s it like to work as a biologist in Nigeria over many years and over many sociopolitical turnovers.
Nigeria is a country that I’ve worked in since 2003 when I did my PhD fieldwork there, a country that has had a lot of instability over the last 60-70 years since Independence. I work at a few different places in Nigeria, but the field site that I mainly work at is called Gashaka Gumti National Park, which is in the East of Nigeria on the Cameroon border. It’s a real biodiversity hotspot, lots of species and primates, including the largest remaining populations, we think, of one of the four chimpanzee subspecies, Pan troglodytes ellioti. There are four chimpanzee subspecies: the central African subspecies, Pan troglodytes troglodytes, which is the common chimpanzee. Then there’s the Eastern chimpanzee, the one that Jane Goodall has studied, Pan troglodytes schweinfurthii. Then West Africa, Pan troglodytes verus which is the West African chimp. And then there’s a chimpanzee subspecies that we think is distinct to basically Southwest Cameroon and Southeast Nigeria around the Gulf of Guinea. And there’s a lot of endemism actually within that region, both in primate species but also in biodiversity generally. There’s two large rivers—the Sanaga river in Cameroon and the Niger Benue Complex in Nigeria—that seem to provide strong geographic boundaries and therefore produce a kind of reproductive isolation. Combined with very high rainfall and interesting typography, lots of mountain ranges on that ridge where the border of Cameroon and Nigeria is. And so there’s a lot of diversity there. There was a project set up in 1999 called the Gashaka Primate Project which ran for many years. But at the moment that has been suspended. There are some issues of instability within Nigeria, because of the actions of Boko Haram in the Northeast of Nigeria that’s caused displacement of people further South, including into the park.
There’s always been a very interesting political ecology there, in which you have people living with subsistence farms and with cattle—both on the edge of the park and within the park, in so-called enclaves of the park, which were set up when it was founded in the 1990s. And then there’s some kind of semi-nomadic movement within some of those populations. So there are people that have cows that live up on the plateau within the park that keep them up there during the wet season because there are no tsetse flies, so there’s no sleeping sickness being transmitted to the cattle. And then when the wet season ends and the tsetse fly numbers reduce, they bring the cattle down to graze on these long grasses that have grown during the wet season.
And then there’s also an annual migration of fully nomadic Fulani who move around with their cattle in Niger. They’re in Niger and Chad, when Nigeria and Cameroon are going through their wet seasons, where it’s much drier further North and there’s no tsetse flies for the cattle. And then as those wet seasons fade, they bring them down into Cameroon and then sweep through Nigeria across the border and then back up to Niger—to graze on those long grasses that have grown during the wet season—during the dry season when there are far fewer tsetse flies that are a risk to their cattle.
You’ve got a very interesting scenario where literally all of these nomadic Fulani are coming through the national park, just moving through the national park with thousands, tens of thousands of cattle. And that always causes trouble, not just for the national park. It causes a lot of local political and cultural instability because people turn up with a thousand cows and they get into people’s farms. And this has a complicated history, in that region in which local traditional rulers, such as the Lambda of Gashaka is of Fulani heritage. And then you’ve got that layered over a number of other historical ethnic groups that live in the area, combined with the fact that you also have a lot of Hausa traders moving through Central West and West Africa.
So it’s a very complicated sociopolitical environment in which to try and be a stakeholder who’s interested in environmental preservation. So at the moment, I’m hoping to get back out there soon actually to try and reestablish some of those primate projects that we had running in the national park. So we’ll see how that goes. There are a number of other interested stakeholders who are trying to show renewed interest and get renewed focus back on Gashaka.
Central West and Central Africa have always been more difficult to work in than some parts of East Africa and Southern Africa. There’s been a lot of political instability in some countries. So projects that were run by John Oates, who’s now a retired professor of primate conservation at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. He had projects in countries like Sierra Leone and Liberia. And of course these were successful for more than a decade and then civil war broke out. And it’s very hard to maintain these kinds of environmentally focused long-term committed conservation projects, in the face of quite overwhelming factors such as civil war in the country that you’re trying to operate in. And those kinds of human, you know, we were talking earlier about humans and our overwhelming ability to change the environment and things. Sometimes these long-term projects can get very overwhelmed by relatively short-term changes within the anthropogenic environment and sociocultural factors. It’s clearly not really safe to operate these kinds of projects under some circumstances where you have rival militia active in your field site and that’s happened a number of primatologists. But it’s a very real thing that a lot of primatologists have to deal with. And some countries have much more stability and are much more positive towards the environment than others. You know, Costa Rica is a fantastic example of a country that’s had a lot of stability and a lot of environmental proactive policies that has been increased in the forestry and the degree of forest cover in the country over the last 34 years. So things like that matter, you know, human socioeconomic factors often overwhelm the biology in conservation. It’s a real question, I think. When I lecture about this, I say to the undergrads, you know, it’s a real question. If you’re interested in this stuff, if you’re interested in conservation, it’s a question of what kind of training your best getting—because it’s probably not biology. You know what we need within the conservation movement is land rights lawyers and people who understand development economics, people who understand political ecology, a very diverse set of people need to be engaged with conservation for it to succeed because the biology is something. But actually it often can be overwhelmed by some of these other kinds of factors. And the only people there might be a conservation biologist, a zoologist, a primatologist. And so they often end up trying to get involved in scenarios where that’s not really their training or their background. The same with community development and outreach and conservation education and all the kinds of things that you hope an integrated conservation program within a so-called developing country, a lower income country might hope to offer. Everything from kind of associated conservation and protection and research of the animals to educational outreach in schools to some community development and working with communities and stuff. You might hope for all of those things, and usually the people doing it are biologists who may not be very well trained in those things, and may make missteps and may make things worse in community development where they have no training. You know, it’s not their area of expertise.
So when we work ecologically, we start to engage with, or we have to very often pay really close attention to many kinds of spatial and temporal relationships that form between species or between species and their environments. Ecologies don’t always work within, you know, our very human scales of place and time. Can you talk a bit about how different scales of place and time might become visible or significant as you’ve worked with many different species at your research sites in Nigeria?
In terms of things like conservation and protection, I think there are issues in which the best protected areas in some national parks are research stations and the areas around them because there’s people in the forest every day, and so they may be avoided by hunters and things. And that’s definitely true at Gashaka, at my field site in Nigeria where the Kwano area where we have our field station, the animals are by far the most abundant of anywhere in the national park because people have been there all the time, providing a kind of on-the-ground presence.
There are questions of course, of what kind of scale those kinds of projects can provide protection on. Are we just going to end up with a little island around our research station with forests full of animals, and then if you walk five kilometers in any direction, it’s a depauperate wasteland in which the trees have been logged and the animals have all been hunted out.
The temporal dimension to that is, you know, again to come back to John Oates’ projects, he felt they were going really well and they were going really well for 10 years, 15 years, something like that. And it’s just a blink of an eye, and you can lose it all within weeks, in the face of civil war or something like that in which militia move into the park and need to eat. And they have machine guns and automatic weapons and they can just shoot everything out of the trees. You can think for a long period of time, things are going quite well and still lose it all very quickly.
It’s not clear what sustainable hunting rates might look like for some of these primates because the life histories are so slow, the replacement rate is so low that any kind of population reduction will take hundreds, thousands of years before the populations are back up. These kinds of issues of spatial, temporal dimension outside of conservation also matter a lot in terms of shaping species biology. The distribution of food in space matters a lot and the kinds of things that individual species eat. So folivores, for example, eat leaves and they tend to have relatively small home ranges. They wake up in the morning in small groups, there’s leaves in their tree, there’s leaves on the tree next to them. They don’t have to go very far. They eat then they don’t get much energy from that. They tend to be quite lethargic, so they have large stomachs, small brains, they don’t need to go very far. They don’t tend to be very social. In contrast, frugivores, fruit-eating specialists, tend to have much larger home range sizes because you need to encompass multiple different fruit stands, which tends to be patchy in forests in their spatial distribution. They wake up, they have to range-travel to some fruit trees. When you get there, what tends to determine whether you can stay in that tree or whether you get pushed out by another group is group size. So you get selection for larger group sizes. Of course, fruit as we know is extremely easy to digest and you get lots of energy, lots more energy from it. So they tend to have much smaller guts, larger brains, complex environments, larger group sizes. They tend to be then much more active because they’re getting a lot of energy from their diets. And so there’s whole different kinds of species biology and variation that’s linked to things like spatiotemporal factors in the environment at its base. Like what are you eating? Where is that found? How is it found? How seasonal is the rainfall? So then how seasonal is biomass production and plant production? How patchy is your food in the environment? What are you eating? Lots of primates also eat insects. Well they can be randomly dispersed in the environment. They can be clumped. If they’re eating termites and ants in these giant nests, they can be clumped spatially, things like these huge cicada emergencies in which you get hundreds of thousands, millions of cicadas emerging at once and then it’s a free-for-all in the forest and there’s cicada everywhere. So there’s all these kinds of issues of spatiotemporal variation in the environment that structure species biology and then all kinds of spatiotemporal issues that determine your ability to study them. Stability at field sites, your conservation issues, what they look like. So I think there’s multiple different ways in which we can talk about spatiotemporal effects on what we do, what we study, and how we do it.
As our conversation comes to a close, I’d love to talk about possible futures for protecting biodiversity, for conservation movements, for teaching students, at undergraduate or graduate levels, or even perhaps mobilizing various groups. So what kinds of actions would you like to see? What kinds of actions do you engage in or advocate for, as a biologist and researcher of course, but also as a professor, as a colleague, and maybe just as a regular human being—what would you like to see?
Well, I think that the single most important thing is that we get good multinational agreements in place with proper frameworks for their evaluation and implementation. There’s obviously debates within the United States and elsewhere about what roles of government should be in things. I would say the central roles of government are to understand what broad public issues are that can’t very easily be addressed by individuals and to implement policies that incentivize certain kinds of behaviors, discourage other kinds of behaviors towards better kinds of collective outcomes. Obviously there’s many people in the United States at least that don’t agree that that’s the job of government is. I think that the kinds of issues that we’re dealing with and the scale that we’re dealing with require very, very large strong solutions that have to be governmentally led. Business will be business. It will try and maximize profits. You know, regulation is much derided by certain components of certain societies, but all regulation is important. Things are regulated all the time. I don’t want to get too political but it seems that there’s a certain kind of disingenuous framing of this, in which we cannot apparently have government intervention or international frameworks for things like climate change or healthcare or something like that. But we can have them for subsidizing oil or for subsidizing the corn industry or large agriculture. That’s fine. That’s not a government handout, right? It doesn’t matter how much the corn industry gets every year. That’s definitely, definitely, definitely not a government handout. But the idea that we could spend that amount of money on some collective public policy issues such as trying to cover healthcare because it’s way more efficient to have healthcare collectively covered than it is to have individuals seeking their own mandates is apparently a government handout. What we need is strong intergovernmental, multinational frameworks to solve these problems because they’re not restricted to a specific country.
And I think it’s why a lot of people within the environmental movement are so dismayed at the United States’ decision to pull out of the Paris Accords. We’ve been here before. There’s been many big multinational agreements that have either never been ratified, never been implemented. Those kinds of agreements are necessary to incentivize business and to incentivize people into more sensible decision making that takes more medium- and longer-term perspectives into account. It’s especially difficult when we get to the point where scientific knowledge and expertise are under attack. There seems to be an attack on our expertise at the moment. For example, I come from the U.K. where we’ve recently, obviously, been in a complete mess after the Brexit referendum. Michael Gove, who is one of the leading politicians behind the Leave Campaign, when he was asked multiple times by journalists, “British business is saying this would be terrible for our economy, so why do you think people should vote for it?” And he said multiple times, “I think the British people are tired of experts and their expert opinions.” And so, we have this very direct attack on expertise and expertise is extremely important. We rely on expertise all the time. We rely on the science of doctors and surgeons to help us make healthcare decisions and to ensure that we’re in good health. We need to rely on climate scientists. We need to rely on conservation biologists, when they come and say, there’s an environmental catastrophe and actually this is going to impact your economies and your societies. It already is impacting us very heavily globally. The five-year drought that preceded the Syrian civil war was a major factor in the emergence of the Syrian Civil War, which has been an absolutely horrific war. There was a huge amount of pressure on arable land in Syria leading up to that outbreak that was being caused by, you know, the worst drought that the country has seen in recorded memory. So, you know, we are seeing the facts all over, and it’s all very well and good saying, Oh well it might be expensive to deal with. Well, how expensive has the Syrian Civil War been for everybody, including the United States? And even the experts, you know, like the Department of Defense that comes out and says, climate change is a serious military and serious threat to the United States. You know, they’re happy to come out and say that. But again, that kind of expertise is just not currently being valued. You know, when even the military, the Department of Defense is coming out and saying, actually, climate change is a real problem for us, and it’s causing all kinds of military issues globally and instability that’s costing us huge amounts of money to have to deal with.
So, what I would say is that people need to listen to experts across different components of their life, not only in the ones where they’re used to listening to experts, or they’re more comfortable listening to experts. Nobody would get on a plane and start challenging the pilot. We need to put our faith in expertise. We need to try and strengthen our political and civil structures that are under attack and that people are trying to undermine. We need to vote and try and support policies that can deal with these issues.
Now that all said, individuals can still make a difference in the conservation movement and the environmental movement. Individuals have made a lot of difference. The scale of that and the scale of the problems that people have to tackle, these are individual questions for people. Like what is your commitment? What are you able to do? What is your area of expertise? What do you have to offer? And there are other, I think, complicated issues for say someone like me going to a country like Nigeria and I don’t particularly feel it’s my right to go to a country like that and say, Hey guys, you have to stop doing this, and we have to focus on this, and stuff. It’s a kind of environmental neocolonialism. I’m not Nigerian, so my own focus has more been, I have trained a number of Nigerians. One of my former students is now the dean of students at a university in Jalinga, the capital of Taraba state. And another one of my former students just finished his PhD in botany at the University of Lagos. My own strategy is to invest in capacity, in people. You know, what happens in a country like Nigeria with its environment is a decision for Nigerians. I try and help with training and advice and support, financial support, because that is something that we can offer. For example, I was just describing a former student of mine, Mar, who’s now a dean in Jalingo. When he was an undergrad, he had to sell fuel on the side of the road to fund his studies and stuff. And I was getting grants and money and helping support him and provided him with a monthly stipend throughout his masters, which he did alongside me. And then our projects funded him through his PhD. Nigeria is a country that doesn’t have a lot of capacity in things like wildlife biology and environmental biology conservation. We can make those individual investments and then hope and trust that the Nigerians will take on the baton and have to pick this stuff up. But it is complicated and it’s very layered and it’s part of the reason that I don’t have more of an active kind of low income country conservation program. I do what I can.
I would like to restart my research program in Nigeria, involve a lot of Nigerian students, and try and get that area secure, operating, working nicely on a research front. I think that has its own conservation benefits regardless of whether the research projects themselves are specifically conservation-oriented. Just having people in there everyday working, having an active station in the forest—and I think that the data bear this out—is actually one of the best predictors of whether habitat and wildlife get protected in these kinds of environments. They are very complicated scenarios. A number of grave missteps have been made even by conservation NGOs in which, you know, deforestation and wildlife loss has been accelerated by the action of conservation projects, not decelerated. Some of the community development projects that have happened in Nigeria for example, have created net migration into the park because they’re the only village around that has a health center and that has a school and stuff. People have moved there and that has massively increased the human population within the national park. That’s happened in Cross River, for example. And I’m not saying that it was wrong for people to do that, but it was complicated. Often there’s a lot of unforeseen consequences. And so I’ve personally restricted a lot of my own investment into things where I can’t see many downsides, such as I can’t see many downsides to training young Nigerian wildlife biologists, like, what’s the worst that I’m going to do? So things like that I’ve tried to focus on, where I can see possible tangible benefits and increasingly a kind of capacity and awareness—without me being able to foresee that there are too many potential ways in which this could go disastrously wrong. And my own involvement isn’t just gonna make things worse!
James, thank you so much for your time.
And thanks to you, listeners of our Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab.
This episode was produced by Josh Allen, Ben Montoya, Hannah Tardie, Felicity Cain, Aleah Papes, Alex Guillen, Dan Hodnett, Wanda Acosta, and Elaine Gan. Special thanks to the Green Grants program of New York University’s Office of Sustainability and NYU’s Center for Experimental Humanities and Social Engagement.
JULIE GUTHMAN talks about strawberries, soil fumigants, pathogenic fungi, farmers, and scientists — a dynamic more-than-human assemblage that has remade California agriculture. Her rigorous and expansive study warns against the technoscientific fix, as well as the challenges of acknowledging that there is no easy way out.
Guthman is a geographer and social scientist who has written extensively about California farms. She is professor of Social Sciences at University of California Santa Cruz and a Guggenheim fellow.
Wilted: Pathogens, Chemicals, and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry (UC Press, 2019)
Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, 2nd Edition (UC Press, 2014)
Weighing In: Obesity, Food Justice, and the Limits of Capitalism (UC Press, 2011)
Julie: Thank you so much for having me on your podcast. I’ve been researching and writing on food and agriculture for over two decades now. And I would say most of my work is about examining the conditions of possibility for food and agricultural transformation. This book and my first book on organics [Agrarian Dreams: The Paradox of Organic Farming in California, UC Press 2014], are very much grounded in California’s agrarian histories. So I’m also kind of very California-focused geographer.
Elaine: What brought you to California? The way you write about California, it’s a very passionate but also deep and substantive analysis of what happens in California landscapes. How did you get to do this work?
Julie: I’m a Californian! I’ve lived in California my entire life. I can’t say I’ve traveled to every corner of California, but I know the state extremely well. It’s interesting because after I completed my undergraduate degree at UC Santa Cruz, I went on to be an organizer in California and I was doing a lot of organizing in California, Central Valley. So I really got to know that area and did some fundraising more around the Bay Area. But we also did campaigns in Santa Barbara County. And that was a new way of kind of knowing the state I had grown up in. And then when I went back to go to graduate school for a Ph.D. in Geography, I really did not imagine I would be working in California. I had an idea that I was going to be working in Nepal and I had a very different idea of a project before I arrived at UC Berkeley to get my Ph.D. But a lot of things happened including having a young baby and I had to refocus. And I took a seminar with my advisor on agrifood transformation. This was in the mid-90s and there was a whole slew of work coming out on the political economy of food and agriculture, kind of revisiting Kautskey’s classic agrarian question on how agriculture is not necessarily amenable to being capitalized, how capital moves in and around the farm. So this stuff was very formative for me. I ended up doing a dissertation on the organic sector in California, really based in agrarian political economy. And it was so interesting going back to some of the same areas in which I had organized. So I interviewed organic growers throughout the state and I divided it into something like nine different regions. And so I had a new way of knowing this. I do a lot of recreational travel in California and I feel like I know the state very well. And one of my, one of my committee members as a PhD student is also very much a California geographer. I was also very influenced by him.
It turns out there was a lot of different histories of those different regions. I mean they all, all these regions came into production at different times under different circumstances. They had different sorts of kind of land-holding structures, sometimes different labor relationships, certainly different crop specializations, which has been true of California agriculture. The different regions are very much divided by crop specializations. And so that was really significant for the way my dissertation and book on organics turned out because one of the things I found was that California’s agrarian histories have very much influenced the way that organic was playing out. And so organics in California had very different regional styles that reflected those longer histories.
Elaine: Let’s turn to your latest book. Your latest book is Wilted Pathogens, Chemicals and the Fragile Future of the Strawberry Industry from UC Press just out in 2019. It begins with wilted strawberries in California farms, repair through fumigation with synthetic agrochemicals, particularly methyl bromide, the degraded soils, the broken bodies and the novel ecologies that emerge. It’s an expansive, impressive and extraordinary book. One of my favorite books. How did you come to write this book?
Julie: First of all, thank you for that, that was really kind and I appreciate it. Right now, I love the book too! The book started out with a very different set of questions. Really, since I arrived at UC Santa Cruz as a professor, what I’ve mainly been following is alternative food movements, the ways in which folks are organizing and trying to change food systems. So I follow the foodies and their imaginations of new ways of producing and consuming and distributing food. And one of my critiques has been that the food movement has been too focused on building alternatives and not focused on undermining some of the worst practices of industrial agriculture.
Starting around 2010ish, there was a major regulatory battle over a chemical called methyl iodide. Methyl iodide was developed and licensed to replace methyl bromide in strawberry production and methyl bromide along with a third chemical called chloropicrin has long been used in strawberry production in California and other crops. These were really central to strawberries as a way to control weeds and nematodes and most importantly, soil-borne disease. The combination of chloropicrin and methyl bromide together allowed the strawberry industry to become so productive and grow and thrive and become the behemoth it is today. Methyl bromide is an ozone-depleting chemical. And a couple of years after the Montreal Protocol of ozone-depleting substances was agreed on as an international treaty in the late 1990s, methyl bromide was designated as something that was going to be banned or phased out. The U.S. government fought hard against that phaseout really on behalf of the strawberry industry because methyl bromide has been so crucial for the strawberry industry to control the pathogens and weeds and nematodes. But after a lot of stalling, the industry started to take seriously that methyl bromide was going to be taken away. Enter methyl iodide as this replacement chemical that has some of the same qualities of methyl bromide, but would not dissipate into the upper atmosphere like methyl bromide so it wouldn’t deplete the ozone. So it was introduced to replace methyl bromide, but there was a huge regulatory battle. And one of the reasons is because it doesn’t dissipate into the atmosphere. Any drift from the chemical would stay around and therefore affect farm workers and neighboring communities. So it was a big battle over the chemical. It’s a pretty toxic chemical. It’s even used to induce cancer in laboratory rats and it’s associated with thyroid disorders and miscarriages and all sorts of things. So I was really intrigued by this regulatory battle because for the first time I could remember that foodies, were aligning with environmental organizations and anti-pesticide regulations and public health people and farm workers to combat the chemical.
I first wrote a grant to research, conduct research on what the regulatory debate was around methyl iodide. Around the time I was keeping my eye on methyl iodide, I was also writing, doing some work with Becky Mansfield on epigenetics and the questions of intergenerational harm from environmental toxicants. So I was really curious to know if concern with the future of farm workers, their progeny, the possibility that their progeny might be affected by methyl iodide, I was curious to see if that had entered the regulatory debates. That was kind of one of the original research questions. It turns out that it wasn’t. I went on to do a research project about how growers were contending with the phase out of methyl bromide and about the regulatory debates after methyl iodide. And what happened is right after I had submitted a proposal to look at methyl iodide battles, it was actually taken off the market because of all the activism around it. So I had, I got partial funding, and then I had to kind of rejig my research question. So the project became about both the regulatory debate and what growers were going to do without methyl bromide.
So it was a very different project. It was a project about regulatory politics. It was about growers’ concerns about how they were going to function. In conducting that research, I just saw all these connectivities among different kind of elements of the strawberry production system. One of my peripheral research questions at the time of conducting this was, I wanted to pay attention to the qualities of the chemicals and if they were different and what that meant. But it really wasn’t only about the chemicals. It was about the plants. And the soil and the climate and so much else. And I started to see these strong connectivities among different pieces of the strawberry production system.
Elaine: In your book you talk about repair. Agricultural scientists were trying to repair the soil. Growers were trying to find solutions and fumigation was the answer. But in a way that cure became the problem and you call it, is it “iatrogenic”?
Julie: Iatrogenic harm, right. I think it’s important to think about fumigation in terms of the history of the strawberry industry. The strawberry industry was just kind of a—it wasn’t an industry, you know, strawberries were a specialty crop in California. There was some experimentation in strawberry farms in the late part of the 19th century, but by the early part of the 20th century, there starts to be more land devoted to strawberry production. Not a whole lot. It was hard to develop markets. The strawberries weren’t bred to last forever and ship far. But starting in the 1920s and 30s, strawberry growers started to see a lot of problems with blight and all sorts of diseases. They called them things like yellows and browns to describe the kind of symptoms but many of the plants were wilting and dying. And so they called on the University of California to help out, to figure out what was afflicting the strawberry fields and to help out with fixing them.
University of California jumped in. The Department of Plant Pathology at UC Berkeley became very active. First, they identified some of the diseases and one of the main ones was from the Verticillium family. Verticillium has many different subspecies and it’s widespread throughout the world. So they identified what it was and then they started giving farmers all sorts of advice about what to do, but none of it really worked. And then they started experimenting in the 1950s with using chemicals for below-ground fumigation and that’s how they hit upon chloropicrin. They actually hit upon chloropicrin first before methyl bromide as a way to control the diseases. Chloropicrin was expensive to produce at the time and then they found that methyl bromide really works by pushing –it’s highly gaseous, so it pushes the material through the soil. So together these things really worked.
So that was repair for the industry. The reason I focused on repair—and I’m drawing on the work of Christopher Henke—he makes this really important point that seems to be really true for the strawberry industry, is that university scientists really need to please their clientele. But the tools they can offer tend to be those that produce more productivity. And some of the problems that growers face are not problems with productivity. They’re problems with marketing because they have too much productivity. But university scientists aren’t particularly good at fixing those. I mean, growers still want productivity. I say, why do you want productivity when you’re always complaining about low prices? And it’s basically because if they don’t plant the highest producing strawberry, the guy down the road will.
Just to wrap up, the reason I’m using repair is to bring focus to the work of university scientists trying to aid the industry. That’s their job. And they want to please their clientele, but they could only work in certain areas. And then there’s the separate issue that university scientists are very, very narrowly disciplined. And sometimes these are really complex problems.
Elaine: Most analyses will leave it at that and say these are unintended consequences in the shift to agrochemicals. Strawberries being, you write the most agrochemical intensive industry, which was shocking…
Julie: Yeah, they are. Although what’s interesting is there’s an environmental working group that tracks the dirty dozen and strawberries are always at the top of the top of their dirty dozen. The dirty dozen measures pesticide residues and fumigants don’t cause residues cause fumigants are used pre-plant [so they don’t show up.] So they don’t even show up on that list. And they’re still at the top.
But I wanted to come back to the iatrogenic harm because I think that’s a really important point. To return to this issue of self-harm, fumigation became an easy fix for the strawberry industry. One important thing that fumigation allowed is for growers to plant strawberries on the same block year after year without having to rotate with other crops. So that itself made it highly productive. What I neglected to say is one of the things that the University of California started doing was breeding for disease resistance and that started happening in the 1940s with mild success. But once you started fumigating they couldn’t, they no longer had to worry about breeding for disease resistance. So they started breeding for all sorts of other qualities including shippability, firmness —at the time, frozen strawberries were really important because in the 50s and 60s, people were eating a lot of processed canned and frozen food and so they wanted strawberries that would freeze well and they were really breeding for productivity.
The point is that once you have fumigation, you can neglect the ecology of what was causing soil disease. One really important thing they bred for is longevity on the season. They had day-neutral varieties that would last throughout the summer. And then they have what are called short-day varieties that you can grow them in winter when the days are shorter. And so that really extended the strawberry season. So there’s somewhere in California, 10 or 11 months a year, there are strawberries growing because of breeding for this kind of way to extend seasons. So all these practices followed on fumigation, allowing neglect of the ecology of soil disease. And then what happens is methyl bromide is taken away, it’s phased out. Methyl iodide never gets allowed to be used. It was like okay to use for one year and hardly anybody adopted it. And so growers started using chloropicrin—sometimes only chloropicrin, sometimes chloropicrin with another chemical or other chemicals—and found it not to be as effective. And new pathogens started appearing in the field, particularly two. One is Fusarium oxysporum with a strawberry variant, which is the same genus as Panama disease. And then the other was Macrophomina phaseolina, which apparently is much harder to deal with than Fusarium. So these are new pathogens. They started appearing right when growers started phasing out their use of methyl bromide. And the industry has been ill-equipped to address these pathogens because they’ve relied so heavily on a very simple solution.
Elaine: You write about something you call a “strawberry assemblage” and “more-than-human assemblage,” and the book really introduces a whole cast of characters. You methodically go through this list. So there’s the fungus Verticillium dahliae. You have the strawberry plants and hybrid plant breeders, land and soil. You have cheap labor and bodies without rights. Then you have the growers, the shippers, the agricultural scientists, and you also have the public universities and particularly University of California. So you don’t just say: there are the multispecies relationships and there are the humans. You, in a very nuanced way, disentangle a whole web of relationships.
Can you tell us about some of these methods, how you went about unpacking this assemblage? It’s what I love about the book and I also read that whole list almost in the order that you write about them in the book. They’re all given particular kind of agency and a certain capacity that they gain because they encounter the others in that web. Everything is emerging; everything is dynamic. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at a really complex situation.
Julie: Thank you.
Elaine: How did you unpack this assemblage?
Julie: Yeah, I think my fantasies about what this book could do, were aspirational. I was taking very seriously work that you’ve been involved in and others, in symbiosis and relationality, in the work of Karen Barad, and not taking elements but looking at relationships. And I really wanted to look at relationships and I found that extremely difficult to actually write and talk about. And I had a hard time even getting beyond the language of elements or factors. So what I did do is I identified what I thought were some of the really important human and nonhuman actors and developed their histories and our knowledge of their histories and then showed how they’re related to each other. But I couldn’t find language to just talk about relationships. I had to talk about them as factors. So the book, the narrative arc is really around five threats to the strawberry industry, which are the pathogens; the nature of the breeding apparatus; the increased regulatory restrictions; land scarcity and cost, and disease in the soil; and then labor shortages. Those are the ones that growers complain about and those are the main threats, but then I try to weave in all these, the other kind of elements or factors that are intertwined with those and the book does try to build to show step-by-step how these things are really, really aggregated and entrenched as assemblage.
Elaine: You say a topographic approach isn’t enough and call for a topological approach. Do you find that—thinking about topologies—does that approach allow you to intervene on the one hand in current scientific and agricultural practices and on the other, make an intervention into the field of STS?
Julie: I draw on the work of Steve Hinchliffe and other geographers to make a fairly straightforward point. What they do is they argue against topographical approaches and they’re really talking about livestock practices. Their concern is that when we think of livestock diseases, we tend to think of an invader getting into a space. So that’s what they refer to as a topographical approach. And they call for the topological approach to suggest that the problem is not an invasive species, that the problem has been underneath the surface all along. But when you bring together all these elements and bring the intensities that go with industrial agriculture, the problem emerges from the intensity. And so I liked that a lot to think about the pathogens.
Now I did do some work trying to understand the origins of the three soil pathogens that are the main fungal characters in the book. And I was surprised by how little I found on their origins. And I looked pretty hard and I asked a lot of scientists, do you have much sense of the origins or do you have sense how they got here? And we know the Verticillium is widespread and I’m not in Santa Cruz right now, so I can’t point out the window and say that over there in those fields of hay, there’s probably lots of Verticillium. And Verticillium, you know, a lot of these pathogens only become a pathogen when they become a problem for agriculture. They’re fungi that exist everywhere and they only are a problem when you’re planting in a monoculture and, and they’re competing. So some of these fungi are pretty widespread anyway, and they’re around. So when do they become pathogenic? That’s a question I had. And I didn’t get very good answers. And that was significant to me because it suggests that we don’t even study these sorts of biota until they become a problem. And I did ask, I mean, how would you ever find out how old these pathogens are? And they said, well, you can do, you know, you can do genetic tracing, but no one’s even invested in that. But that becomes one of the arguments I make — we only care about them as material objects when they become a problem for plants that we’re growing for food and they only become an epistemic object when they become knowable that way.
Elaine: When they become some sort of threat is when we start to throw lots of resources into studying them. That’s one of the really generative things about thinking through assemblage: it allows you to see different species, different things not as essential beings having an essentialized characteristic but rather what happens once they encounter each other. And I love what you were talking about with intensities. So some sort of critical mass happens or there’s some tipping point. And then something becomes pathogenic.
Julie: Right. The assemblage is a way of characterizing all these elements together in these intense relationships.
Elaine: So you write also, as well as Marxist geographer David Harvey, that agriculture is different from other industries because it depends on bodies, depends on landscapes, cannot be theorized, cannot be understood, cannot be studied, cannot be undertaken without understanding this human/non-human, nature/culture together.
: It also makes thinking our way out of this agrochemical regime incredibly difficult. And you say, there’s no easy way out. You write: these landscapes are not all dead and we can’t only focus on either the ruination or the lively multi-species assemblages that come after ruination. There’s a lot at stake in figuring out what to do. There’s no off switch. So one question is, how to balance ecological damage and human livelihoods. But there’s another, I think maybe more critical question, which is, how can assemblage help us think beyond that binary?
Julie: To understand the strawberry industry’s predicament, we need to understand that there’s a lot of human and nonhuman actors at play and they’re tightly, they’re tightly related. It’s interesting because assemblage thinking has also been used to talk about the kind of contingency of groupings. That they’re so easily fallen apart. But while this particular strawberry assemblage is fragile, it’s not fleeting. Things are pretty locked into each other.
I would say that climate change is a minor actor in my book and it’s certainly not one that the strawberry industry has given a lot of focus on, but it became apparent that that was a part of this story in a couple of ways. One of the pathogens that has been strongly affecting the strawberry industry in the last two decades or decade and a half is Macrophomina phaseolina, which seems to do really well in conditions where the plant is stressed, including heat. And growers are, have been really struggling with Macrophomina infestation over the last few years. Now they attribute it to not being able to fumigate the way they want to, but it’s also because the last few years have been the hottest summers on record in California where they grow. Oh, another source of stress in the soil is salinization because strawberries are grown very close to the Pacific Coast. That’s a huge advantage of the industry. That’s the eternal spring of the Central Coast region or the South Central and Northern Central coast region where strawberries are grown, is brought by the Pacific Ocean. Any of you who have ever been to coastal California in the summer, recognize that fog rolls in every morning and it can be quite cool. We’re sitting in New Orleans right now and I’m kind of missing the natural air-conditioning of California! So I, I digress… These strawberry growing regions are also very close to the beaches and so there’s a lot of kind of saltwater intrusion and just overall salinization from aridity, particularly more in southern California. So that stresses the strawberries. So that’s a way in which global climate change may be impeding the industry. And that was significant to me because it’s not one of the things that the strawberry industry was talking about at as a threat.
I also turned to think about the Plantationocene because of work by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway and Eben Kirksey—who have different perspectives, so I don’t want to lump them together. They talk about the damage of monocultures in terms of ecologies and humans. I think there’s not a celebration of ruination, but a kind of sense of hope in ruination. A sense that the ruins—and I think you see this most in Eben Kirksey’s work— that after ruins, there’s possibilities of multi-species flourishing. And I felt that I had a somewhat different perspective in terms of the humans because when we think about plantations, sometimes it’s easy to think of it as not populated, but strawberries are extremely labor-intensive. So they’re very populated. And it’s work. There are a lot of livelihoods there. And that’s also how the strawberry industry defends its use of fumigants. There are a lot of livelihoods at stake there. And my sense of strawberry production is, if this industry goes to ruination and it’s fragile — that’s why that’s in the book title — what’s going to emerge in the strawberry fields is not multi-species flourishing. It’s going to be suburbs. I said that in a talk at UCLA and a friend of mine who’s a planner says you shouldn’t be disparaging housing! We need low-cost housing in California! And I don’t disparage it. But it’s just not this kind of post-dystopian quasi-utopian thing. This land is very, very valuable in terms of the world we live in now. And that’s one of several threats that the strawberry industry is facing: high land values because they’re competing with suburbs for real estate.
Elaine: There’s also this worry that the kind of life that emerges are maybe the kinds of life we don’t want. We don’t really want fungal pathogens. Or you know insects in the case of rice it’s brown planthopper and southeast Asian rice fields.
Julie: Or mosquitoes.
Elaine: Yes, exactly.
Elaine: Can you take us through the process of growing strawberries? What does it look like? What does sound like? What does it smell like?
Julie: Before any strawberries are planted, growers fumigate and that’s really one of the main objects of my study is, is fumigation. There’s several different ways in which they fumigate. They don’t do it themselves. A fumigation company does it. I’ve never witnessed a fumigation. I think it’s done at night and I think it’s done under very secretive conditions. So I can’t tell you what it looks and smells like. There’s this one wonderful photographer, Sam Hodgson, who’s done some great photos of fumigation. One of them is in my book. They basically cover the fumigation workers in all sorts of protective equipment and then drive a rig through the field that injects the chemical mix into the soil. Then they cover it with plastic. And then other workers often without protective gear go and shovel dirt on the plastic to hold it down. There’s another way of fumigation called bed fumigation where they first bed up the strawberries, so they make the beds or maybe four or five feet wide and, and there’s rows in between and then there’s maybe a foot off the ground so they bed it up, cover the beds in plastic and then inject the fumigant through the drip lines of the irrigation. I would say that that bed fumigation, which uses less of the chemical is also what’s been associated with novel pathogens appearing. So workers come and puncture those plastic things and insert the strawberry plant into the ground.
There’s this whole other very complex process of propagating the plants before they’re planted. That takes place in other regions in the state. It’s a four-year process just to propagate the plants and that’s it’s own crazy world.
Elaine: Do you mean it’s a four-year process of propagating the plant? That’s not the research leading up to —
Julie: No, it’s for propagating the plant because here’s the thing, strawberries are hybrid. All strawberries are hybrids of the original hybrid that made the modern strawberry. Those little seeds on the outside of a strawberry fruit are actually little pieces of fruit. Those seeds, if you planted them, the seeds are in that fruit. But if you planted them, they would, you don’t know what you would get. So you have to clone strawberry plants from existing plant material that’s already a certain cultivar and they have to do it through this process called a meristem process, which is taking a little teeny weeny bit of the plant in sterile conditions cause it has to be clean. Strawberry plants from California are shipped all over the world and they’re still using methyl bromide in the nurseries because it has to be clean. They take a little snippet of that plant and they grow it in a little planter that never touches the ground. And then they have to propagate the plant. After they grow out the meristem, they plant it and allow the plant to produce runners and they do that over three or four years in different regions of California. They do some of that in the Central Valley where it’s very hot in the summer. Or they do it up in the far north of California where it gets very cold in October. It gets very cold, like about 22 degrees at night. And then they freeze that plant and then they ship it to the southern part of the state and the plant wakes up and says, oh it’s spring, I’ll start going crazy. So it’s a very long complicated propagation process. Three or four years. That’s before fruit growers even get a hold of it and the nursery business is actually quite separate from the fruit-growing business.
Julie: And then I guess the other part of the strawberry production process that I would draw your attention to is the harvest. The harvest I visualize best because when you drive through strawberry region, it’s just so extraordinary. There’s not a lot of acres devoted to strawberries in California, but those great areas for strawberry production are just covered in strawberries. They are low-lying plants. They are very labor-intensive. And they don’t all ripen at the same time. So the workers are going back to the field several times over. But during harvest season, which is most of the year but not everywhere at the same time, there will be long lines of cars, workers’ cars, there’ll be a couple of trucks, and the strawberry harvesters are running through the fields. You see a lot of movement. They’re running through. They’re picking. If you get up close, they’re picking like this. I’m not, can’t do it on the microphone. They’re picking very quickly using both hands. A so-called “good worker” can pick one of those crates that we see, which has 12 baskets. They pick about, I believe nine in an hour, which is extraordinary. They run and then they get it checked off at a checking station and they run back and pick some more. They’re running because they’re paid on piece rates to ensure high productivity. Now not all of them are running anymore. Some growers, because they complain of labor shortages are using some innovation to try to make workers a little bit happier rather than paying a lot more. They pay them a little bit more, but they’re using trolleys. So they’re putting the crates on a trolley, but they’re moving extremely fast. And in terms of the sounds, you often hear Norteño music playing and I do have one little clip video where you can kinda hear that.
Elaine: So it’s not mechanized at all? So with rice it’s highly mechanized, big combine harvesters. It’s impossible to do that with the strawberries because of the fruit and it’s also very time sensitive or highly perishable? What’s their window?
Julie: Well, I think in the southern regions, they’ve got to pick them within a few days of ripeness. Some growers say we need as much productivity as we can. Some growers are like, this is insane and we’re complaining about labor shortages. Why would we want more productivity when we can’t find people to pick them? And then they rot.
Oh, I should also say another image of the strawberry field is that there’s a lot of strawberries in the rows. They’re squished. And the smell is intense. We might like the smell of strawberries, but it’s kind of like the sickly sweet smell because there’s just a lot. And there are a lot of them rotting in the fields. Because different shippers have different cull rates, they have to look good. if there’s rot on them. Some want particular sizes or particular shapes. So a lot of them are culled. Some shippers, I think, cull about 30% of their berries. So there’s all this sticky stuff in between the rows.
The only real mechanization is maybe the little trolleys that aren’t really mechanized but that you can pull them through rather than run. But one of the threats to the industry that growers complain about more than anything right now is labor shortages and labor costs. Labor shortages are always a social construction. But nonetheless, I believe that there’s no question that at the rates they’re willing to pay, they’re having problems with recruiting labor and the costs are higher because California’s minimum wage is going up to $15 per hour soon. Also, agriculture’s exemption from overtime laws has just been erased. So costs are real for growers. The labor costs. There’s a lot of talk and action on robotics. Driscoll’s is putting a lot of money into it. I mean a lot of people are putting research into robotics now. I was just interviewing strawberry growers this summer. Some are claiming they’re already using robotics. I’ve not seen any in the field, and some are saying it’s 15 years off before a robot will be able to replace a worker because a robot does have to be able to detect when it’s ripe, if it’s the right shape, which maybe robot can do. Yet the robot has to detect a lot of things.
Elaine: Are there racial divisions between the grower, the picker, the shipper?
Julie: Most harvest workers are from Latin America. They’re not all Latino. There are a lot of indigenous groups that pick strawberries. Who knows the real percentages, but we can imagine that most are undocumented or unauthorized — new term. The growers, it’s interesting. The growers were traditionally at the beginning of the industry, they were white and Japanese. In the early part of the 20th century, Japanese immigrants came. They were very good truck farmers. They competed with white farmers and that was one of the impeti for the Alien Land Laws that Japanese growers weren’t able to own land. Sometimes, white growers would use Japanese families as sharecroppers at that time. Sometimes, they would lend them money, have them run their own farms or sometimes Japanese families when their children were born in the United States, they would somehow get to own farms. Of course during the internment, that all went away. But after the internment, Japanese growers, some came back into agriculture. So there’s still quite a few Japanese American growers, but most of the ones I’ve met are getting out of strawberries. They don’t have children that want to take on the business. I would guess based on extrapolating from my statistics, about 75% of growers are Latinx, which is different than it was before. And some are second or third generation Mexican-Americans and some just arrived and were former farm workers and there are really different rates of capitalization. One of the largest strawberry growers I know is Latinx, but there’s also some super low resource Latino growers as well.
Elaine: What do you mean by “low resource”?
Julie: I mean that they don’t have hardly any capital and the way they’re in business is the shippers are lending them money. Some number of them would go deeply in debt. Different shippers operate differently. There’s been quite a bit of consolidation in the shipping industry and there’s been a lot of growers that have gone out of business in the past few years. There’s about five main shippers. Driscoll’s is what your listeners will have heard of, and they’re the biggest. There’s also a Giant. Dole left the strawberry industry. There’s WellPickt, Naturipe Farms, and then some other ones that are more, more moderate or they don’t have brand names. They sell in, like in Costco or something like that. They have different arrangements, but Driscoll’s, as is most well known, does not grow any of their own strawberries. All Driscoll’s strawberries are grown on contract and are varying kinds of contracts. Like there are some that are called independent growers where they have a marketing contract with Driscoll, so they have to use Driscoll’s varieties or cultivars for which they pay a lot and they have to pay commission fees to Driscoll’s on sales and they have to buy all the Driscoll shipping material and some think this is great because they think that that gets them, it gets them more money because Driscoll’s has a reputation in the market for being better. And some find that they’re really squeezed by Driscoll’s practices. Driscoll’s is in a partnership with Reiter Affiliates. The Reiter and Driscoll family were original partners in the strawberry industry in California. So Reiter has operations where they have farm managers and so they work a lot of lands. So there’s different sorts of arrangements.
Elaine: At the end of your book you warn against chemicals and then you speak for organic union farms, one of them being Swanton in Santa Cruz. And then you say, and I laughed you, you say “go eat broccoli” as your last line. What I read from this is, chemical ecologies have to be addressed at multiple scales. There’s the global, the local and intimate personal levels. Can you talk about how following strawberries or fumigation, can you talk about how following that research object might have opened up other ways of thinking across scales?
Julie: Oh, I do want to say that I don’t really, I mean the Swanton Berry Farm is like the exception that proves the rule. I don’t think it’s a model for the strawberry industry. I like what they do. I like their strawberries, but I don’t think it’s, I think it’s the exception that proves the rule. I just want to be careful about that.
Julie: Well, I think one thing that’s important to think about, and I addressed this a little bit in my first book Agrarian Dreams on organics. I think there’s a way of seeing scale as a problem. I mean, there’s no question that the strawberry industry we have today and the supply of strawberries that we have in any grocery store year-round could not exist without the kind of scaling up of strawberry production that chemicals like the fumigants allowed. But I don’t particularly see small-scale as the antidote to that. For me, we should always be focusing on the processes that create the problem. And so if we could have farming that’s more integrative and less socially exploitive on medium or large scales, I’m all for it. I’ve never kind of valorized small-scale as a solution, but I mean the question is how you have integrative farms on medium or large scales. And I know actually there’s some agriculture investors that think they can do that and I’m curious to see how it goes. You know, I’m just not this kind of agroecological idealist. I would like to see a better way of producing food. There’s a lot of food production practices that I find repulsive and I don’t like them, but I want to see improvement rather than ideals, utopian ideals that may not pan out. So anything we can do to move growers in a better direction, I’m good, I like.
Elaine: I’m interested also in how strawberries, which are in a way a specialty crop and not a staple like rice or wheat… How strawberries actually come to rearrange, reconfigure all of these relationships starting in the 1920s. Is that right? Why strawberries? How did it come to dominate?
Julie: You know, there’s really been kind of three phases of strawberry production. At first it was a specialty crop. They had a hard time finding markets and then they kind of happened upon the fumigation and the breeding that really allowed them to expand. And they had this problem with constant gluts and that, but a lot of it was going into the freezers and then there was another kind of crash. And then starting in the 1980s, the strawberry industry picks up again and it really becomes what it is today. Again, strawberries, were a specialty crop. People would never expect to see them more than a few weeks in the market unless they’re buying them frozen in 1969 or whatever. But the strawberry industry, once it became so productive because of all the innovation, had to figure out how to market it. And so they worked hard on marketing those strawberries and worked hard on convincing the public that strawberries were really good for you, had phytooxidants, became every kid’s favorite. Now, when you walk into the grocery store and you walk into the produce section, strawberries are up front and central. I don’t know how many times I’ve talked to people when talking about this book, and they say, “Oh my kids love strawberries, I’m in New York and I know I shouldn’t, but I gotta buy strawberries cause that’s the only thing my kid will eat.” I hear that all the time. I mean, one thing some people asked me is why should we care about strawberries? Why do we even need strawberries? Is it important? And it kind of, it’s kind of not, you know. I mean on the one hand, nutritionists are telling us to eat more fruit and some vegetables and I think we ought to eat fresh fruits and vegetables. I like fresh fruits and vegetables. And so for me, it’s not a matter of this crop is too nasty and we have to get rid of it. Because then, we’ll find others. I mean it’s very hard to find any crop produced on a mass basis that doesn’t have significant problems with the way it’s produced. This one just happens to be the tip of the iceberg. But anyways, the strawberry industry did do a lot of work to make it an everyday fruit.
Can I talk about the broccoli? The reason I end with “go eat your broccoli” is because one of the ways to grow strawberries without fumigation (and there are several on the table), is a more integrative method where you’re growing strawberries and then rotating with compost or other crops. And the Brassicas like cauliflower and broccoli and kale happened to work. And so those growers who are growing strawberries organically over the long run tend to grow a lot of broccoli. People don’t want to buy the broccoli. They want to buy the strawberries. Now that method, while it works ecologically is very, very difficult financially. I mean the growers that are doing it successfully grow in regional markets or they sell the farmers’ markets where consumers are willing to pay more, but on a mass basis, it’s not clear that people eat that much broccoli.
Elaine: I have a clarification question. How long is the growing time for strawberries?
Julie: Well, that’s one of the things that’s so interesting. I mean, it depends on the region because in the southern part of the state where they’re growing those short-day varieties, it’s maybe only a few months, but up in Pajaro Valley or Salinas, which are in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, they have the longest season and those strawberries will be in the ground and be producing for up to nine months. They have certain spikes over the season. But that’s one of the interesting things because growers in that region need the ground for longer than a year to produce like that. They need to get the last crop out, they need to till the soil, and then they need to fumigate and plant again. And so one of the things they do is they rotate with vegetable growers who can get a couple crops in a short season, like a 9-month season. Then the strawberry growers have it for the other 15 months.
Elaine: Is there competition from other countries to grow strawberries?
Julie: Well, Mexico is a big deal. When they were first learning of the plans to phase out methyl bromide, there was huge concern that Mexico would compete because Mexico had a later phase out date because developing countries didn’t have to phase out as quickly as so-called industrial developed countries. And that turned out not to pass. Mexico is producing, I mean there’s quite a bit of strawberry production in Mexico right now and a lot of it is run by California companies. And the season, most of the production doesn’t really compete with the California season because they do it in the dead of winter. But I do understand that they’re finding higher elevation areas where they can grow strawberries for a longer season in Mexico, which would compete. Spain is a major strawberry producer in Europe as is the Netherlands. I think they do it all in greenhouses. It’s very different. And strawberries just don’t ship that well that you’re going to send them across the seas. So Mexico is the biggest competition. Some growers complained bitterly and some say not a big deal. I think it depends where they’re growing.
Elaine: My last question is about possible futures, or “living-with.” So these are multilayered, very complex, very highly charged conversations. How do you engage your students, your kin, people around you? How do we remain hopeful, at the same time, how do we consider seriously that we live in an agrochemical and highly toxic system?
Julie: Yeah, I don’t know. I mean, it’s very hard. I just don’t like to come up with happy endings when the endings aren’t happy and right in this moment in history, where we are right now, I think that’s just a mega-message. I mean, we are not in a happy space right now, in a bunch of different ways. And to pretend otherwise is absurd. And strawberries, really in some ways, are the least of my worries with the impending fascism or the existing fascism. I mean, the damage we’re doing to humans and environments right now is beyond, it’s beyond belief. So, is this book a cautionary tale? For sure, it’s a cautionary tale, but those roads have already been traveled. Maybe what we can do is just try to do a little bit better, but I just don’t see any kind of utopian way out of here.
Living-with is one possibility and one that I think some growers themselves entertain. And obviously they’re able to do that better when they’re growing integrated systems or when they have economic cushion to do so, when they don’t worry about losing part of a crop or all of a crop, which some often do.
I play with living-with at one part of the book, in part because of my dog who I got as a puppy when doing this research and who became afflicted with Giardia and it was a total pain to try to, I’m going to spare your listeners the scatological details, but one could only imagine, but we tried a whole lot of different treatments for her, some as severe as a fumigant. We used the highly intense metronidazole, which is brand name Flagyl used to cure some infections and it didn’t really work with her and we tried several different treatments and the vet kept saying increase it and we tried this other one that was a little less toxic. And then we tried this weird natural herb remedy. We got it at the herb store and we tried a bunch of different things and finally we went to a holistic vet and said, why don’t you just change her diet and see what happens? And we did. And she’s a healthy, robust, energetic dog, but I’m pretty sure she still has Giardia and we probably feed her twice as much as other dogs just to keep her because the Giardia kind of plays on the intestines. So, living-with turned out to be a solution for this one particular organism on this planet. It still just kind of blows my mind that we’re spending all this money and attention on this one particular organism on this planet who happens to live with us, who we adore. So it was an experiment, but is this a replicable one? Maybe, but I think we would need a kind of real change in economics, obviously to imagine growing food that way. Having said that, there’s a lot of overproduction of food, particularly the United States and so living-with could work in terms of getting growers prices back up. Consumers want to have their strawberries at a dollar basket in February. But there are other ways of thinking about it. I don’t think there’s just, there’s not an easy way out.
Elaine: Something that I love about your book is that it’s so methodical.
Julie: That’s my way of thinking. I’m pleased with the book because I was able to show the connections that I thought were going to be a real challenge to do, and show how they connect with each other although I couldn’t show it every single instance. You know, you have to have a narrative thread.
Elaine: It’s extraordinary. Well, thank you. Thank you so much for the conversation.
ASHLEY DAWSON talks about extreme cities, or urban densities like New York City, where social inequalities and uneven effects of colonial violence and capitalist development are increasingly exacerbated by extreme weather and environmental degradation. He calls on the power of storytelling and the need to collectively imagine different futures.
Dawson works across the fields of postcolonial studies, environmental humanities, and climate justice. He is professor of English at CUNY Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, and leads a Climate Action Lab.
Elaine: Your work brings together two fields: environmental humanities and postcolonial studies. So, conventionally one begins with nature or the environment. And the second begins with culture or the human. Could you tell us a little bit about how you’re thinking about those two fields? What’s the relation between the two?
Ashley: I can tell a specific story about traveling to Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy hit, and finding that power was out on the campus of CUNY, and that many of my students were devastated. Some of them had lost their homes and some of the students at the College of Staten Island had actually lost their lives. So, seeing the ways in which the natural disaster played out in an uneven manner across the different geographies of New York City. I was traveling from a neighborhood in Queens that was hardly impacted at all and knew people who were activists who are going into parts of Brooklyn that were really terribly affected. And then seeing what was happening on Staten Island, it was very apparent that cities are uneven and unequal geographies, and that they are dramatically impacted by hurricanes and other natural disasters in a way that magnifies those inequalities. And so that point about the unevenness of urban terrain and the inequalities that play out in the face of disasters is true not just on an urban scale, but of course on a global scale. Right? So the horrible irony that formerly colonized countries are the least responsible for carbon emissions in aggregate, and yet are the places that are being most severely impacted right now by climate change, is something that I think has to be thought about in terms of the kind of confluence of these two fields. Postcolonial studies and environmental humanities. We really can’t understand the way in which the climate catastrophe is playing out without understanding the historical residues and contemporary instantiations of colonial power and imperialism.
Elaine: So what the postcolonial, and I think what the environmental, does is it invites us to think across multiple scales. Climate change somehow demands a planetary scale, but we live in more intimate and human scales, as you said, but also global connections make cities extremely vulnerable. The term you use is, we have “cascading climate disruptions.” Can you say more about cascades, which I think is a really useful way of thinking across scales, right? So while you focus on cities like New York, Jakarta, Miami, Rotterdam, New Orleans, it’s clear that it’s somehow impossible to think of a city or any one group on its own. So there’s no single island basically, and you write, that catastrophe is not unfolding in the Global South only. Or in Queens only, right? Everything is connected. So could you talk about these, you know, this term “cascading climate disruptions”?
Ashley: Sure. Absolutely. Perhaps one good place to start is with the city of New Orleans, which of course we know is a site of disaster from Hurricane Katrina. But what people might not be so familiar with is that after the Army Corps of Engineers fixed the levees, the city still remains extremely imperiled by climate change. And there are variety of different reasons for that and they show the ways in which we can’t think of any particular geographical site in isolation. You know, we need, as you said, to sort of be able to toggle up and down scales and to think about ecosystems in their holistic relation to one another, and to think across geographical spaces. So the city of New Orleans is highly exposed to hurricanes coming in off the Gulf because of the fact that the marshland south of the city is subsiding.
Ashley: Why is it subsiding? Well, there are a variety of different reasons. One of the primary reasons is that the mighty Mississippi River has been enclosed by levees and other forms of flood control, principally since 1927 when there was a disastrous breach in the existing levees, which was connected to the great migration north of African Americans, but going back much longer to the beginning of the history of colonialism with the French in Louisiana, right? So taking a terrain which was constantly changing, you know, with the Mississippi River shifting around. And as it shifted, it would deposit sediment in different areas and build up the Lobes, which are now that kind of boot-like structure, which is Louisiana, including New Orleans and the areas south of it. As the kind of colonial enterprise of taking the river and nature more broadly, and kind of controlling it and putting it within this tourniquet structure of the levees ramped up. So the land surrounding the Mississippi River was denied sediment, and it began to subside. So you had a phenomenon of the rivers kind of gradually raising up and the surrounding land sinking down. Now those conditions were dramatically exacerbated by the oil companies, which were drilling canals to gain access to oil in the area south of New Orleans over the last half century or so. And as soon as they would draw one of those canals, they would let in salty water from the Gulf, which would eat away at the surrounding land, like a kind of acid. So if you fly over what’s left of the Mississippi Delta, south of New Orleans, you can kind of see these long lines of the canals that have been, that have been eaten away at all around them by the saltwater, creating what looks like a kind of Swiss cheese structure. And as that’s happened, the ability of land to absorb the power of a storm coming in off the Gulf has been diminished, right? And so, not withstanding all of these powerful defenses, which the city of New Orleans has built, it’s increasingly vulnerable and is only going to get more and more vulnerable. Now what Louisiana is talking about doing is creating kind of planned breaches of the levees so that more soil would be deposited in the delta and there would be these kinds of natural processes of building it back up again. The problem, however, is that not nearly as much sediment is coming down the Mississippi, as used to come down, because so much topsoil has been washed off lands because of intensive capitalist agricultural patterns, you know, north of Louisiana. And the amount of planned diversions of the river that you’d have to have to equal natural sediment deposition would be so massive that you would essentially have to move everyone out of what’s left of the delta.
Ashley: So there are lots of impediments given the way that we’ve built up the delta, and people are really beginning to move away from it. And you know, the kind of retreat is the ultimate solution, unfortunately at this point. This history really is a testament to exactly what you’re asking me about, you know, the way we need to be able to think about ecosystems in their full complexity and across geographical scales that are very different from the kinds of scales that we’ve constructed. Whether they’re metropolitan or the scale of the nation-state. Nature just doesn’t abide by those kinds of hard and fixed lines.
Elaine: Why the city? Why coastal cities like New Orleans, New York as sites of what you call “peril and promise.”
Ashley: I was thinking about the fact, and this goes back to your initial question about postcolonial studies, I was thinking about the fact that the majority of humanity is now urban, that the vast majority of the urbanization that’s going to happen in this century is going to take place in cities of the global south. And there’s a lot of colonial framing of urbanization that still shapes how we perceive that urbanization. You know, places like Lagos and Jakarta are often perceived through a kind of Western lens as a bearance or failed examples of urbanization. And so critics like Mike Davis have alerted us to the fact that this planet, “planet of slums” as he describes it, you know, is something that is one of the key and defining characteristics of, for human experience essentially, in this century. Yet, I don’t think it gets dealt with enough. And thinking about that fact of planetary urbanization, for me necessarily entailed thinking about the impact of climate change on the city and the ways in which cities are themselves drivers of climate change. So, you know, as people move out of rural areas to cities, they tend to consume more. They tend to be connected to the grid and other forms of energy infrastructure that leads to carbon production. And so planetary urbanization is a big driver of climate change. And yet in addition, cities are very much on the frontlines of the impacts of climate change because cities have these highly developed and vulnerable infrastructures. Even global south cities, you know, people as I said, want to have access to the grid and live in close propinquity to one another. And that can mean that something like the urban heat island effect, which is — although we tend to think about sea level rise and fast onset natural disasters like hurricanes or tsunamis as the biggest threat to coastal cities — in fact, the urban heat island effect tends to be the most destructive form of climate change, at least in terms of raw numbers of people who suffer from forms of anthropogenic climate change in an urban setting.
Ashley: So, yeah, thinking about the extreme vulnerability of cities is really important. I wanted to get at that dynamic and also link what’s been happening in instances which might be quite prominent in readers in the global north and you know, in a North American setting after Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, to what’s happening in many other parts of the world. Because I think that neoliberal globalization has meant that a lot of urban development has taken place in coastal zones. You know, just think for instance, about the way that one of the key strategies of neoliberal globalization has been to offshore production, much manufacturing production to other countries like China where labor is cheaper. What parts of China have developed? Well it’s been cities like Guangzhou and Shenzen that are all based in the coastal areas and are highly vulnerable to climate change. So, you know, thinking about how some of the primary dynamics of the present moment connected to the growth, the global growth of capitalism, are very much shaping an urban future that we need to be thinking about and adapting ourselves for, I think is really kind of key.
Elaine: The powerful term you use is the title of your book, which is “extreme city.” And you say global capitalism has run amok. Can you define an extreme city? Because you don’t mean megacity, right? You’re not talking about population.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly. So there’s been a kind of tendency to try and come up with categories for cities and it tends to be a demographic one, right? So a city that has over 20 million people is a megacity, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And so I wanted to be clear that I’m not trying to come up with another designation, although it needs to be recognized that the kind of question of scale is important, in relation to cities. And many contemporary cities are these kind of sprawling conurbations that don’t actually stop at their political boundaries, but sprawl much more widely. So, you know, think about New York City. Nominally it’s the five boroughs, but of course we have to include New Jersey, right? Probably everything from Boston to Washington DC could actually be said to be one massive conurbation. And there’s a similar kind of phenomenon in other parts of the world. I’ve already talked about China, but one could also talk about the whole area of West Africa, you know, that stretches up and down around the Gulf of Guinea. So, those are important questions. But what I’m trying to get at when I talk about the extreme cities, the kind of confluence of cities that are highly unequal as a result of the way that capitalism is playing out at the moment, particularly in terms of its financialization, and the way that that then connects to real estate development, and the pushing out of people who are not part of the 1%. So you get cities that are incredibly economically stratified. And you know, another element of this of course is kind of the sucking in of populations from other parts of the world to the peripheries of cities to serve the most well-heeled and elite. So you get a kind of doughnut shape of cities that kind of reproduces class and race inequalities. And then the ways in which that kind of economic and social inequality is impacted by extreme forms of weather that are generated by climate change.
Ashley: So those are the two kinds of extremes I want to get at: extreme economic forms of urban inequality, and then extreme weather. And I want to think about the way those two things interact with one another, right? Because the more economically unequal a city or any other social group is, studies have shown, the less capable that social group is to deal with forms of disaster, whether it’s fast onset or more slow onset, you know, like increasing heat during the summer. So, it’s really important to think those two things in relation to one another.
Elaine: Can you talk about New York more specifically? So I think what we get from your book is the precarity of extreme cities, so the historical, relentless development of real estate projects on waterfront stretching back to colonialism or British imperialism. I’m wondering about New York specifically. So what is happening to waters around New York? What exactly is going on in New York?
Ashley: The waters around New York… the waters have not done particularly well in the history of New York. I mean, of course, New York grew up as a maritime city. Prior to colonization, it was a very important site for Native American peoples, a kind of gathering place. It had some of the richest oyster beds in the entire Eastern seaboard. That’s one of the things that defined it as an important site for native Americans. And it also had immensely rich wetlands. You know, it’s an estuary and estuaries tend to be some of the richest terrestrial ecosystems. So both in terms of the flora and fauna, it’s an immensely rich and productive space where the sea meets the mighty Hudson and other rivers, you know. And so that wealth was incredibly important and explains why the city developed here. But over the last few centuries, a lot of the wetlands have been paved over and destroyed. The oyster beds have been mined essentially to extinction. And what was left of them was polluted to the point where they couldn’t survive. That’s not to say that there isn’t a lot of natural abundance in the waters around New York City. You know, we still have whales coming to the New York harbor, many different varieties of whales. And you know, New York is also an incredibly important site for wetlands that are part of the flightways of many migrant bird species. Just to name a couple of examples of the great kind of natural riches and different species that live in New York, in and around New York’s waters. It’s important to recognize that richness historically to see how wrong-headed the destruction of all of that wealth has been. And of course, to fight, to restore it and bring it back to life as, you know, many people have been doing.
Elaine: So a year before your book “Extreme Cities” came out, you wrote a little book called “Extinction.” And in “Extinction,” you argued that we can’t just think about species, environments and capitalism separately. So the city metabolizes natural worlds, and at the same time, ecologies metabolized cities. Can you talk about the relationship between the two books?
Ashley: Yeah, of course. The importance of understanding that the crash of species around the planet is driven by a capitalist economic system, which is bent on assessing growth underlined that first book on extinction. I didn’t write specifically about the city in the book. I wrote about particular examples such as the whale industry, the whaling industry, which in the 19th century was industrialized. You had ever bigger ships that were ever faster driven by fossil fuels, which ranged widely all through the different oceans on the planet and which hunted dominant species of whales to, if not to the point of extinction, to the brink of extinction, to the point where the industry became unsustainable. You know, they just couldn’t make enough money to keep going. And so much of the European and North American whaling industry essentially crashed because of this very short-sighted attitude towards the natural world, which I argue is driven by capitalism. And by the inherent growth dynamic of capitalism.
Ashley: How is all of that connected to extreme cities? Well, you know, urbanization is one of the dominant ways in which financialized capital is making itself manifest. Um, how does that play out? Well, basically, you know, as you have an increasingly wealthy 1% making money through the stock market and other forms of financialization, they need to find places to put that surplus accumulation and one of the best places to park it is in real estate, right? So cities become these sites of accumulation and the buildup of the built environment in cities transpires, hand in hand, with the financialization of capital. Now that’s really important and you can see it in a place like New York City over the last few decades because as it becomes more and more apparent that the destruction of the natural world in and around cities is untenable. And just to go back for a second to your previous question about sort of multispecies existence in the city and why it’s necessary, the destruction of wetlands around the city, for example, makes the city more vulnerable. I already talked about that in relation to New Orleans, but exactly the same thing is true in New York City. So in New York, we don’t really remember that we used to have a lot of wetlands. In fact, we do still have quite some important wetlands and they act as buffers. So when hurricane Sandy pushed a wall of water into not just the New York City harbor affecting downtown Manhattan, but also into Jamaica Bay, it was the wetlands around Jamaica Bay that absorbed some of that storm surge. And where the wetlands had been destroyed, the water was just able to come into people’s houses and into the streets. So it was extremely destructive because of the annihilation of the kind of multispecies communities that exist in wetlands.
Ashley: What we see over the last few decades is this increasing awareness that we need to conserve and restore nature in cities in order to make cities livable places for the long term. But then hand in hand with that, a dynamic that’s driven by capitalism and real estate to pave over a lot of cities and to put development in places that make absolutely no sense. And in the book I talk about Michael Bloomberg’s PlaNYC, which was the first sort of important sustainability document or plan for New York, which had a lot of great ideas in it. Important policy innovations like planting a million trees and putting down hundreds of miles of bike paths that were really, really great. And you know, we need to do more of that sort of thing clearly. But then it also called for essentially building up parts of the city that were kind of exindustrial in areas that could have had wetland restoration take place, but instead are now lined with very expensive high-rise condos like Williamsburg and Long Island City. And those areas are all extremely vulnerable to storm surge. So we’ve really put people into places they don’t belong and raised levels of vulnerability in a way that makes no sense. If one thinks about what we could have done and what other cities are doing.
Ashley: I don’t know if I’m being angry enough! I feel like I should get more angry. I fear being too like trying to figure out how to make it all sound rational. We should be talking about dead bodies.
Elaine: How would you want people to think about New York? So New York isn’t just a city. It’s a huge state with farms, waterways, lots of different species. You mentioned the oysters, wetlands, marshes. How can we think about ecologies as relationships between city and country, relationships between urban, suburban, rural, local, global, planetary. How would you guide people through that?
Ashley: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it goes back to questions of scale. I would say first of all, so I’ve already talked a little bit about how we need to think about sort of the demographics and political questions in terms of how we really map a city and its boundaries. Another element of that has to do with Wall Street, which we haven’t talked about. I mean, we’ve alluded to capitalism, but of course Wall Street is one of the epicenters of global capitalism. And so we really can’t think about New York City and its carbon footprint and its political and economic significance without thinking about Wall Street and global financialization. So it’s not just in terms of the kind of frenetic pace of building skyscrapers in New York City itself, in places that don’t make any sense like the Hudson Yards or Long Island City. It’s in terms of the entire global arrangement of free trade, open borders and capital flows, and investments into unsustainable forms of development. You know, with capital seeking quick returns in fossil fuel and extraction of minerals and many other things that, we really need to step away from, as the IPCC has told us.
Ashley: So the city, New York City, needs to be thought of in terms of much larger dynamics, I would argue. Yet while we do all of that, we also want to be thinking about much more kind of local issues. And again, the kind of unevenness in the actual terrain of New York City. So there’s a tendency to see cities in homogenized terms. As I said at the outset that, you know, my experience showed that that was not true. And if you just look at the history a little bit, you can see that that’s not true. So one of the main reasons that New York City is such an important site for environmental justice organizations — and has so many environmental justice organizations — is because populations of color in the city were targeted for particularly polluting industries, whether it is waste transfer stations or bus terminals or you know other kinds of polluting industries that mean that working class populations and communities of color in the city have some of the highest rates of asthma, as well as being, you know, some of the most heavily policed and incarcerated. So we need to think about those kinds of intersecting crises in order to understand how the climate crisis is playing out on a kind of local level and then how people are trying to think about solutions, right.
Ashley: One of the things that I just wrote about recently after the book, was the proposal by New York City’s current mayor de Blasio to draw a lot of municipal power — in fact, 100% of the city’s power — from HydroQuebec. So this would mean putting a cable down the Hudson to get supposedly clean energy from dams in Quebec. Sounds like a good proposal. Sounds like part of, you know, his continuation of PlaNYC’s effort to green the city. The problem is that dams are not sustainable. In order to make a dam, you have to flood a hell of a lot of land, usually with trees in it. Those trees then decay and release a lot of carbon. So hydro is not really a sustainable solution. Whose land is it that gets flooded, tends to be indigenous people, particularly in Quebec, but in many other parts of the world too. So it’s politically oppressive and part of a contemporary extension of settler colonialism. So those kinds of issues of decolonization come up. And then in addition, it means that New York City is going to be getting a major source of power from somewhere else, right? So we’re not going to be creating the local forms of industry and employment that we would want to be creating. And that’s particularly important because environmental justice organizations like UPROSE, which is based in Sunset Park, have been arguing that we need to have renewable energy being produced locally. So they recently formed New York State’s first solar coop — not just New York City’s first solar coop but New York state’s first solar coop, which is quite amazing you know, that we’re so late in the game. So close to the kind of limits of, according to the IPCC, of when we need to be 100% renewable, that we’re just getting the first solar coop. It’s a big victory nonetheless. But the other thing they’ve been arguing for is using the Brooklyn Navy Yards to produce wind turbines, which at the moment, there’s a big procurement in for New York State to build 9,000 megawatts of solar farm off the coast of Long Island City. It’s a really massive procurement, enough to run 6 million homes. So it’s a really, really good thing. But where are those wind turbines going to come from? As far as we know at the moment, a lot of them are likely to be shipped from Denmark, across the Atlantic on big barges that will be run by, you know, diesel or some other form of fossil fuels. So, you know, instead of giving employment to local folks in communities that have historically been disadvantaged and producing these things locally, we’ve got this incredibly unsustainable setup playing out. So, you know, thinking about the city both in terms of its kind of global impact, in a moment of enduring fossil capitalism, as well as thinking about how we need to address disparities in the city as we fight for a post-fossil capitalist, a kind of, you know, solar and wind and other modern renewable based economy I think is really, really important to do.
Elaine: Could you say a little bit more about this solar coop, as well as some of the things you are doing at the Climate Action Lab to engage people? What are key messages that you want people to hear? How do you want people to mobilize? How do you think people should get involved, things are so connected, right? And because there are what you call environmental blowbacks to what we do. How should we think about everyday climate actions or climate actions at multiple scales?
Ashley: Well, I think the most important message to send out to people is that a kind of market-oriented transition to renewables is not happening fast enough, right. And the reason it’s important to emphasize that is that for, well at least the last decade, there’s been an idea that the market is going to save us. That’s, you know, in the Stern Report, which, you know, Nicholas Stern said we had to have this transition, but we could do it through market means. And that kind of overarching attitude has played itself out in some of the solutions proposed at the United Nations for dealing with climate change. And it continues to play out in terms of the transition to renewable energy. And just to be clear about why this is such an important issue: of course we need to be thinking about a whole variety of other issues and thinking about how they interrelate. So, you know, when one talks about New York City, one also has to think about the fact that 70% of the carbon emissions from the city come from its buildings. And so the recent big victory for the Climate Mobilization Act where the New York City Council voted to basically impel big realtors, owners of buildings over 25,000 square feet, to retrofit their buildings, cut their carbon emissions by 80%, is a huge victory. And we should be thinking about how to do more of that on other kinds of scales, you know, for buildings smaller than 25,000 square feet.
Ashley: But for me, the issue of energy is absolutely essential, right? Because we need to transition away from burning fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can and that is not happening. Even though solar power has gotten cheaper, even though there are these projects such as the one that I mentioned of putting in place wind turbines, we are also in the middle of a massive boom of fossil gas and oil. You know, the fracking revolution has turned the United States into Saudi America. And as a result of that, we’re fighting pipelines all over the country and efforts to export not just from the Marcellus Shale in Western Pennsylvania to places like New York City, but you know, a lot of that stuff abroad to markets in other parts of the world. So we really need to be clear that we need to be fighting those kinds of projects through nonviolent direct action, through legal means and through public education and, in tandem with that, building out the renewable sector in ways that think about social and environmental justice as clearly as possible. Thinking about those different connections is really important.
Ashley: Now in terms of the question of climate action, I set up the Climate Action Lab because I was interested in exploring what could be done on a kind of grassroots urban scale to deal with the climate crisis. New York City has produced what had been some quite path-breaking plans for the city. But that’s coming out of the municipal government and there have often been shortcomings, right. It’s often been some strange blend of good initiatives to green the city with real estate driven things that don’t make any sense. So I was very much inspired by a plan for northern Manhattan, which Aurash Kharwazad, the urban planner did working with the environmental justice group, We Act which is based in Harlem. And that plan came up with a whole lot of really vibrant proposals that emphasized things like solar power, but not just to have renewable energy, but to provide jobs and income for people in the community, which had been so hard hit by histories of racism and economic marginalization. Other examples that were put forward in that Harlem plan include building social centers for people so that people would have a place to find refuge in the event of some kind of natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy. These would be places that would be elevated, that would be reinforced, that would have lots of social media so that people communicate with one another and with the outside world. But in times that were not as heightened disastrous, um, in under normal conditions, they could also function as a kind of space where people could meet one another to create a kind of social glue, to kind of thicken the social networks which connect people. And what we’ve seen in looking at, again, kind of both fast moving disasters like hurricanes and kind of more slow onset ones such as the urban heat island effect, is that natural disasters have highly grievous impact when the social fabric has been shredded. Right. So the means of redressing historical forms of racism, gender inequality, and the many other, you know horrendous forms of injustice that are circulating in cities today, are also ways of dealing with climate change. And unfortunately, politicians, even on the municipal level, are often not the best at thinking and responding to the demands of communities for these kinds of innovative solutions. These kinds of solutions which redress historical inequalities. I mean, unfortunately, even under a nominally progressive politician like de Blasio, you know, whose version of PlaNYC is called OneNYC, right? So it’s explicitly saying we need to move away from two cities from urban inequality. Nonetheless, he continues to rezone communities in New York City. And doing that is a way of bringing in big developments and amplifying gentrification and the marginalization of communities that are already struggling. So yeah, there needs to be some kind of popular planning as a means of articulating visions of alternative futures and possibilities and as a way of actually putting concrete pressure on politicians to change their tactics.
Elaine: So the hopeful side of “Extreme Cities” is there’s promise, right? And that promise is, for you, lies not in fortified seawalls but in urban movements. So the social glue that you just talked about. So what, who should we be listening to? What kinds of social glues are worth our attentions at the moment?
Ashley: We do want to listen to people who have some expertise. I think the most exciting kinds of situations that I’ve come across are in collaborations between institutions that have a lot of specialized knowledge, often knowledge that’s trying to shift its mode of relating to the world, both, you know, the human social world and to the natural world. And then, you know, broader publics. So, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. The Rebuild By Design contest was sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation after Hurricane Sandy, and it was designed to basically come up with design solutions to areas that had been particularly hard hit by Hurricane Sandy. I think it was quite path-breaking in that it wasn’t just a bunch of engineers or architects who would say, okay, here’s a problem, we’re going to come up, you know, in our ivory towers with wonderful solutions and then trot them out for the community and have a short kind of community time of speak back, which is usually the way these things are done in urban governance. Instead, the model was to put together teams of anthropologists, sociologists, engineers, architects, and to send them out into communities, and have an extended process of research, and feedback, and exchange with communities. So the communities could really articulate what their needs were, what kinds of transformations of the landscape and the urban fabric they wanted to see. So the design solutions proposed would be not simply responding to the immediate damage that Hurricane Sandy caused, but to much more longstanding challenges and problems of the kind that I’ve been trying to address, which make it much harder for communities to be resilient in the face of climate change.
Ashley: And I think there were a lot of great proposals that came out of that contest. For me, the most creative one was the one proposed by the Scape Studio. Kate Orff and her colleagues proposed this model of living breakwaters which I think is such a fascinating example of kind of multispecies community, right? So the idea was to deal with the flooding of parts of Southeast Staten Island during Hurricane Sandy, by building breakwaters off the coast, which are different from some kind of levee structure because they don’t give you the illusion of being totally cut off from the natural world and from storm surges, but they do kind of mitigate the storm surge. They cut the size of the waves as they come in off the ocean. And that means that you can build up natural defense systems on land, like dunes with various different natural grasses on top of them that can do the rest of the job of absorbing the storm surge hopefully. And you don’t have this false illusion of absolute security that a wall tends to create. But then on top of the manmade breakwaters, the proposal was to have oyster reefs, which would themselves grow as the waters in the New York Bay rise which inevitably they’re going to do. And what this would do of course is to help with the storm surge mitigation. But, it would also be a natural way of cleaning the waters of the harbor and helping to resuscitate natural ecosystems. And it could also be part of engaging people in coastal communities with a deeper understanding of the world around them, the natural world around them, which could include harvesting the oysters so they would have some source of economic benefit by supporting these kinds of mechanisms. So I think that’s one of the most creative examples of what could be done and the ways that people are shifting ideas about living with the natural world. You know, so that we no longer sort of see the natural world as something out there that we need to build barricades against, but rather something that we can interact with and try and find our place within, in ways that are beneficial all around.
Ashley: But I, I don’t want to say that Rebuild By Design was all roses. You know, there are lots of problems with it. The proposal, which got funded the most was to essentially build a big levee around Wall Street around downtown. And in fact, that’s the proposal which de Blasio’s now talking about implementing it, it’s where most of the money is going. And while the city sort of says, quite thoughtfully, that downtown area is a place where a lot of the city’s infrastructure converges. It’s a place where many subway lines come and it’s very important to employment in the city, including working class employment in the city. Nonetheless, you know, the symbolism and the material fact of supporting Wall Street and really putting the lion’s share of infrastructural support into Wall Street rather than into other parts of the city is obviously a quite symbolic problem. And again speaks volumes about where the economic power and political power really resides in this city, despite the vibrant social movements and environmental justice movements that I’ve been talking about.
Elaine: I think I remember seeing a photo of post-Sandy the only building downtown that was completely illuminated was Goldman Sachs.
Ashley: Yes, that’s right. Because they had their own private generator, right. So their ability to have this, I mean, the kind of the neoliberal calculus of people being able to kind of think of themselves alone, to escape into a kind of lifeboat was so evident from that. You know, they had their own generators, so when the rest of the grid crashed, they were fine. They had their power and they could keep trading while everyone else in the, in that area suffered. And it’s also important to know that there’s a kind of pre-history to all of this, and that has to do with the 9/11 attacks and the way that the decimation of downtown was dealt with through forms of financial aid, which went to very well-heeled communities in the downtown area and bypassed communities of color, particularly people living in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. So, you know, Asian Americans and Latinx populations who lived in that area, but really didn’t get any significant portion of the aid, so that it’s not just the kind of, the symbolism of putting a barrier that’s going to save Wall Street in place. It’s also the way in which disasters, disaster relief, can often groove inequalities even deeper, right? So it’s not just the disaster that impacts people and exacerbates forms of longstanding inequality. It’s the way that in the United States, the existing kind of uneven development of capitalism along racial, particularly racial fault lines gets amplified by efforts to rebuild after disaster. That’s a big, big issue in New York City and all around the rest of the country.
Elaine: How might we think about urgency? So what are the temporalities, different timelines that are coming together? It seems to me with an extreme city, that the timelines of neoliberalism or relentless urban development, alongside the temporality of rising waters, alongside the temporality of environmental movements, species extinctions. How do we map out different timelines, different urgencies, different crises? It’s long for some, slow for some, but very rapid for others. Um, and you know, you’ve been talking a lot about history, pre-history, which is actually really, really useful in thinking about crises. How do we think about temporalities?
Ashley: Hmm, that’s a great question. I think it’s really important to be aware of the ways in which the contemporary media tends to focus almost exclusively on mediagenic disasters, which tend to be fast moving like hurricanes and to play down the other forms of what Rob Nixon calls slow violence, which play out. Whether that’s toxicity affecting bodies, like, you know, high rates of asthma in places that are cited for polluting industries in cities and in rural areas as well, of course. Or things like the urban heat island effect, which I have referred to a number of times. Just to be clear about what that is, you know, obviously cities that have a lot of concrete tend to be much hotter than the areas around them. And that means that people who don’t have the economic means to access air conditioning or other forms of cooling tend to be placed in harm’s way during hot snaps. And of course, if that means not just on a personal level, but when cuts to public services like libraries mean that they can’t go to a place where they can access cooler environments. And this is more and more of a kind of crisis all over world. And of course in some parts of the global south, cities are literally becoming too hot to be alive in. And this is in places where the vast majority of the population is living in informal settlements, you know, sort of in shanty towns. We’re really talking about a crisis, which is really, really dramatic for a lot of people, but is also kind of playing out more slowly and often isn’t emphasized in media depictions of climate change.
Ashley: So I feel like I run around with my hair on fire because I feel like we should all be in the streets, and we should all be protesting the fact that our governments are not taking this stuff seriously enough. In fact, you know, my sense is that we’re in a very dangerous trajectory as the situation deteriorates. Both in terms of the climate and in terms of the economy. You know, as neoliberalism continues to fail the vast majority of populations, there’s a tendency to engage in forms of authoritarian populism, and particularly to turn towards what I call extractivist populism. We see that with Trump and his kind of America First energy plan. So he’s not just denying climate change, but he’s saying, you know, we need to bring back coal. We need to open up the Arctic to more oil drilling. And he’s captured a segment of the American working class by doing that, you know. In addition to his kind of explicit racism and all these anti-immigrant stuff, you know, there’s this kind of idea that we need to make America great by going back to the heyday of fossil capitalism. And he’s not the only person doing this, you know, we see just recently, an Australian politician who brought a lump of coal into Parliament and said that we need to respect this coal, was re-elected as prime minister. And of course in Brazil, the current president Jair Bolsonaro explicitly campaigned on opening the Amazon up for exploitation. So there’s this kind of sense that, as the climate crisis grows more grave and as it becomes a crisis that’s compounded by the failure of neoliberal capitalism, there’s a turn to more and more extractivism. Which is justified on populous grounds and you get an increasing vilification, you know, not just of women and queer people, and you know immigrants, but also of anyone who wants to think about the ways in which those targeted populations interact with the environment and the survival of communities, in environmental terms.
Ashley: I think this is a really, really kind of grave crisis and we need to be fighting as much as we can for really very, very radical solutions, right? So the, we know that the big fossil fuel companies are quite happy funding climate denialism and quite happy with Trump in power, but that they’re already beginning to talk about carbon taxes as the solution because they know that eventually he will be gone or that they need to, you know, when the terrain and the argument in places that are not quite so reactionary like the European Union. But that carbon taxes are going to continue the system of fossil capitalism. So I think we need to be putting much more radical proposals on the table. I think the Green New Deal is a really important argument because it both sets forth the plan for a really massive transition that is on the scale of the nation-state. And I would argue it needs to be on the scale of the globe, right? Because as planetary urbanization happens, as I said, more and more people get on the grid. And so we need to be sending renewable technology as it’s developed to those folks and helping them come up with their own technologies, you know, forms of sort of local flexible technologies, as much as possible, in order to fight this extractivist populism. And we also need to talk about very radical proposals like nationalizing the fossil fuel companies and shutting them down as quickly as possible, while transitioning workers in those areas to renewable industries or to other industries. And I think the Green New Deal does a great job of doing that, right? Trying to make social justice arguments and arguments about just transition in order to provide an alternative to the kind of racist, extractivist populism that Trump and you know, the many similar figures around the planet are articulating today. So I think it’s a kind of key terrain of struggle, which we all need to be thinking about fighting for and pushing forward in a whole variety of different ways and scales because cities can be labs for experimenting with Green New Deal solutions before they get proposed on a national scale. And, as I’ve, as we’ve been talking about in the course of our conversation, I think New York has done that, but many other cities are also doing that.
Elaine: Can you map out the difference between carbon taxes or maybe define for us, carbon taxes, what the implications are? Why are people for that and some people against the Green New Deal?
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I think the reason that a lot of people like the idea of a carbon tax is because it’s a kind of free market solution. So it doesn’t challenge the dominant ideology of today too much. So the idea would be that you would put a tax on any consumption of carbon. There are different ways of doing it. Obviously, the tax could be more or less steep and the IPCC has argued that essentially it needs to be so steep that it would be similar to outlawing fossil fuel exploitation. And so, you know, my argument against the carbon tax partially comes from the fact that it’s not really a democratic way of shutting down the life of Exxon and BP and all these other climate criminals. You know, we can come up with much more democratic ways that are likely to help workers much better than some kind of market-oriented solution.
Ashley: The other problem with them, you know, is that in fact, they tend not to be as steep as the IPCC is proposing. So, the big fossil fuel corporations are quite happy with them because they know that, yeah, it’s gonna get more expensive to buy gasoline and yet people are going to still be buying gasoline, and you know, then they’re going to get to keep exploring for more and producing more for the foreseeable future. So, it’s not something that helps us make the really fast transition away from fossil capitalism that we need to make.
Elaine: So is the main argument that it’s non-democratic and it’s free market solution. Basically, so corporations can just pay more.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. And it relies on a kind of smoke and mirrors strategy to deal with the climate catastrophe. Not many people know about this, but in the United Nations negotiations around climate change, there’s been a big push to accept the premise of geoengineering. So, even though geoengineering does not work economically to scale, so it shouldn’t be a neoliberal kind of economic solution because it’s a policy that is dysfunctional now and in the foreseeable future because it would not only potentially cause absolute mayhem to the environment, you know, if you spread a bunch of sulphur up into the atmosphere, you can’t tell exactly what it’s going to do. It could interrupt the monsoon cycle in South Asia and you know, starve billions of people, for example. You can’t be absolutely sure and you could have kind of interim puerile warfare in the atmosphere taking place with one nation saying, “Oh right, I’m going to spread some sulfur to cool down the environment over my country.” And then another nation being like, “Oh, right, well I’m going to do the same with mine.” And then, you know, who knows where it’s all going to end up. So there, there are lots of very scary, kind of political potential ramifications for all of this.
Ashley: But it doesn’t work economically either. And yet it has been now hardwired into the scenarios which the United Nations predicts for how to cope with climate change and what the possible trajectories of warming are. So the reason that these big fossil fuel companies can say, oh, we need to have carbon taxes is, you know, they basically say, you know, we can’t have an abrupt transition away from fossil fuels because it would be too economically damaging. We need to ask, well, to who exactly. And we don’t need to worry about it so much because you know, we can keep polluting for a long time and then after 2050, we can just do geoengineering and absorb all the carbon back out of the atmosphere. Which is completely stupid, if you think about it even for just a second, right? Because oceans are kind of like the Titanic. Once it gets going in a certain direction, it’s very hard to change course. Once you put a lot of energy into an ocean, and the oceans have been absorbing most of the energy and carbon that we’ve emitted over the last 200 years. Even if you suddenly stop emitting carbon, the oceans are still going to keep warming, right? They have that trajectory. You’ve passed certain kind of tipping points and you’re going to melt a hell of a lot of glacier in Greenland and Antarctica. And so, you know, you have kind of baked into the system– even if geoengineering were feasible economically or politically, the flooding of most major coastal areas, which means literally hundreds and hundreds of millions of people in all the world’s coastal cities being displaced. Right? So, that’s the kind of future that these corporations are talking about. And I think we need to be clear. It’s really genocide that they’re talking about, you know. They are climate criminals who’ve been actively denying and propagandizing against being aware of climate change for the last few decades, and they’re prognosticating genocide against hundreds of millions of people around the world. And we need to be clear about that and to really fight for some other future.
Elaine: So speaking of futures in a video online, Kristen and I actually watched you start a talk with Dr Seuss, with the Lorax.
Ashley: I do?
Elaine: We loved it! So it seems the Lorax was a library book that you and your daughter had read that morning. So I like it a lot because you’re doing three things. One is you’re describing the problem in really accessible terms. The second is you’re talking about sort of the art of storytelling, the power of storytelling. And the third is actually, you’re talking about libraries. You’re talking about public libraries. So I wonder if you can tell us about those three things. That’s a huge question, but they seem like things we really, really need today to think about the future. So one is the imagination, the Lorax, second is the art and science of storytelling, and the third is public libraries or institutions.
Ashley: The Lorax is such a great story. Doctor Seuss was quite the radical and quite ahead of his time, at least in The Lorax. For those of you who don’t know, The Lorax is a story about someone who is a kind of protector of the trees and who comes to tell the story of how this desire to produce completely useless things, I think they’re called Thneeds. It’s some sort of, looks like a pair of, what are they called? Long Johns looks like a pair of long Johns that are produced from these trees that get chopped down. You know, how this manufacturing of useless materials and the manufacturing of desire for those materials leads to the destruction of habitat. And the Lorax kind of is the lonely guardian and the person who bears testimony to the world that once was before all of the trees were chopped down. So yeah, I think you’re right that it gets at all these different– this conjunction of important factors. We need imagination, I think, because we need to be as creative as possible to think our way out of the present situation. I come from a background of cultural studies and literary studies. And so I’m very much aware of the way in which our sense of the future has been written already. It tends to be written by Hollywood. right? That’s the dominant form of media, the dominant form of public narrative and storytelling. And it tends to be apocalyptic, you know, it tends to center on a violent white male who is able to assert himself under very difficult circumstances and gain a band of followers around him and lead them to some kind of salvation in a landscape that’s imagined as completely barren and free for the taking. And so a lot of this imaginary of climate apocalypse, I think just rehearses many of the tropes of settler colonialism and we need to really question it. Both for, you know, some of the things that are implicit in that history that I’ve just recounted, and in terms of the way that it forecloses community mobilization and the possibility for collectively imagining other really creative solutions to climate crisis.
Ashley: Let me just give you one kind of very concrete example. We have the possibility of shifting everything to electricity. We need to electrify everything, right? As part of this transition. Increasingly the idea is that we need to shift to electric vehicles. In fact, Fiat and Chrysler just announced that they wanted to merge with the French major French auto company in order to kind of scale up, to cope with this transition. But why couldn’t we, instead of imagining shifting or switching from combustion engine private automobiles to electric vehicles, imagine forms of collective transportation, or imagine even cities that didn’t have any cars within them whatsoever, right? So, you know, we could be thinking about much more Utopian and collective possibilities than the ones that are furnished to us by capitalism. And that’s about really thinking broadly about possible alternatives and shifting the kinds of stories we tell. I particularly liked George Monbiot’s analysis of the importance of stories and narratives and the way in which. And what Monbiot says is that the kind of ur-narrative for social movements is that, some evil force has taken over the kingdom, or the land, or whatever you want to call it and is oppressing the people. And we need to come up with some hero or some alternative that overthrows that oppressive power. And he sort of talks about how that played out in the World War Two era with the New Deal and Keynesianism and you know, the kind of rise of social democracy, with the story being that fascism had been the oppressive force. And then neoliberalism came along and said, oh, well, you know, the state has got its boot on our necks and we need to liberate ourselves from this, you know, nanny state, which is not functioning and not bringing us the things we need. And we need to set free the dynamic entrepreneurial capacity of the individual subject. And, you know, we know how that’s worked out, not so well! And of course, it’s producing fascism around the world. So we really need to come up with some other stories about collective possibility and potential. I think the Green New Deal is a perfect example of that kind of a story, that kind of an idea that through collective mobilization we can build solidarity with one another and transform our world. And doing that relies on institutions, right? It means that we need to challenge the idea that the state doesn’t work, that public power doesn’t make any sense. And I mean that in both senses of power, public power in the sense of energy, but also public power in the sense of the collective capacity of us to join together.
Ashley: And I, I don’t want to be too utopian, you know, I mean, of course there are massive fragments in the social body, huge inequalities that we shouldn’t blithely dismiss or skate over in our efforts to build solidarity. But I think the idea of fighting for a functioning public sector and for collective solidarity and transformation is a really, really important narrative which we need to work to recirculate both as a story and through political mobilization and through the creation of institutions that do that. You know, we need public banks, we need to municipalize our utilities and control them democratically, fund them democratically. I could go on and on with specific examples, but yeah, you get the point that we really need to change how we think and also how we act.
Elaine: You write about C.S. Holling’s theory of resilience. You, in a way, invite us to move away from centralized control towards cultivating optimal conditions. Can we spell out for whom? Optimal conditions for whom?
Ashley: So in “Extreme Cities,” I’m critical of the idea of resilience, which comes out of the biological sciences as an alternative to sustainability, right? So sustainability assumes a system which doesn’t really change. Anytime there’s some perturbation, you want it to return to the state it was in and it presumes a system, which is relatively homogeneous. So what’s interesting about what Holling is doing is that he is aware that systems are made up of units that connect to one another. And that in order to make systems function so they don’t collapse as a whole, the best way to do it is to link up different pieces, so that maybe one area of a complex system can deal with breakdown or perturbation, but it doesn’t crash the entire system. So this way of thinking about ecosystems as complex wholes that are interconnected or that have interconnecting parts has proliferated way beyond the biological sciences to the point where resilience has become a kind of fetish term or a dogma, right, in many different disciplines. So everyone wants to be resilient these days. You know, it’s something that the military industrial complex is striving for in, you know, the face of quote-unquote terror. It’s something that is very much part of disaster planning, and has been taken on board by disaster planning, but it’s also a very dominant term in areas like high finance, right, which itself, is prone to massive collapses every now and then. So, you know, stockbrokers want to know how they can hive themselves off the next time that something like the bank crisis of 2008 comes around.
Ashley: The problem I have with the term is that it tends to dovetail very easily with a kind of neoliberal way of thinking about the world. So instead of thinking about, how we need to build up the public sector and re-engage with collective forms of survival, it places the onus on individuals. You know, you should build up your own resiliency, whether it’s through, you know, getting your disaster survival kit ready in your apartment, or being the appropriate entrepreneurial subject, you know, and making enough money to buy flood insurance or to have a second home in the Rockies or wherever it is, you know. So I think it very easily plays into a kind of neoliberal way of thinking about things. And the way that I substantiate that claim is by looking at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Rebuild By Design contest and showing how a lot of their ideas of resiliency, which are absolutely central to that contest until a lot of the Rockefeller Foundation’s rhetoric are very much connected to big corporations that are engaged in financialization, you know, privatizing water supplies around the world, for example, as well as data mining for security purposes so that they’re bleeding over from kind of privatized security and surveillance into state-led surveillance efforts. And so I think that term is quite suspect and while we might want to acknowledge its potency originally in the biological sciences and how it might be useful to think with in terms of how we analyze ecosystems, we shouldn’t too quickly be willing to accept it in relation to the human social world and the ways in which politics and economy play out in the contemporary moment.
Elaine: When you think about extinction, what comes to mind for you? Is there, is there a particular species in New York, particular ecology, that you’re, you know more or less attached to, more committed to? You write about whales being in a way the, you know, the species that’s kind of borne the brunt of human extraction. Is there a particular species that comes to mind?
Ashley: Well, maybe not one particular species, but one kind of ecosystem. As I said, close to the outset, New York City is in an estuary. It has had immensely rich wetlands and wetlands absorb seven times as much carbon as rainforests. So they’re both immensely rich ecosystems and really important ecosystems to bring back in cities and in kind of peri-metropolitan areas. I mean, we really need to rewild cities essentially. And I think for the vast majority of coastal cities, the way to do that is to rebuild wetlands in every possible part of the city. That can play a very important role in coping with storm surge. You know, we should be looking to visionary forms of design and landscape architecture of like the Scape Studio that I mentioned to think about how we could kind of green the edges of cities through building out wetlands. And that can also play a really important role in waste remediation of various different kinds. You know, I mean, in New York City, every time that it rains hard raw sewage gets distributed into all of our bodies of water and that creates algae and kills fish and other populations including oysters. So coping with that through rebuilding wetlands is really important. And wetlands can also absorb a tremendous amount of carbon. So if I had to pick like one kind of ecosystem that I think is particularly important, it would be rebuilding wetlands, with all of the species that come with them.
Elaine: I remember you said you teach at the College of Staten Island and you take the ferry.
Ashley: Yes, I do.
Elaine: So I’m wondering, since we’re talking about waterways, New York as an archipelago. Are there things you’ve observed firsthand that have influenced how you think about waterways? Are there changes over the past few years on that ferry?
Ashley: Well, one of the main things that one notices on the ferry is the fact that the New York City harbor is in Bayonne, which means that all of the massive ocean-going containerships that bring cars and underwear and all the other commodities that we consume here from the places where they’re produced, they all go through the Kill Van Kull, which separates Staten Island from New Jersey, and round to the New York City Harbor in Bayonne. And of course that’s had a major impact on New York City, which most people don’t know about, but you know, the economic crash in the 1970s which demolished CUNY, and we’re still feeling the reverberations of that, which led to the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs, and to the kind of ascendancy, a kind of push by real estate elites, including David Rockefeller, which became the paradigm for implementing neoliberalism around most of the rest of the world. A lot of that had to do with the shift of the harbor to Bayonne away from downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn. So, that’s the most clear thing that one notices.
Ashley: And there’ve been big struggles about that, which most New Yorkers don’t know about. Ships are getting bigger and bigger, container ships, some of them are too wide to go through the Panama Canal. And so to go through the Kill Van Kull, the bridge that links Staten Island to Bayonne had to be raised because the ships are so high and they had to blast the stone underneath the Kill Van Kull, this waterway. And so, you know, there was massive disruption. The people who live along that area, which is one of New York’s so-called significant maritime industrial areas, which are the most polluted places. And also the places that have the strongest environmental justice organizations. They had to fight very hard against this, this change, and they lost that struggle. So most New Yorkers don’t know anything about this. And I think they don’t really know anything about the harbor and the life of the harbor. Just in general, if you take the Staten Island Ferry, it’s very important because of the way that it reorients you and shifts the lens on New York City so that you realize that New York is actually a city built around a massive living, important body of water rather than a city built around Central Park, you know, or around Prospect Park or something like that.
Ashley: The history of New York City’s harbor is fascinating and the impact of containerization and how that shaped all the politics and yeah, it’s a huge topic.
Elaine: Your book opens with Superstorm Sandy. I wonder if you can take us through that creative decision as a writer, your writing process. Yeah. Thinking about, you know, the complexities that you’ve just talked about, being able to map them. Can you talk a little bit about your writing process and your research process?
Ashley: Yeah, sure. Thank you. That’s a great question. I wanted to start where I was and who I was, who I am, because I wanted to make clear the ways in which the city is not homogenous, the way it is unequal. So, I start by narrating what for me was a very distressing experience. You know, Sandy was blowing rain into the brick walls and the mortar of our apartment building, and the water was soaking through the wall and creating this giant blister in the paint. I mean, literally it was sort of 10 foot by 20 foot. And so I was up all night, mopping up the water as it seeped out onto our wood floors. And it wasn’t quite clear what was going to happen next, whether our power was going to short out, whether the entire wall was going to fall in or you know, whatever it was. It wasn’t just a lost night of sleep. It really seemed as if the building was on the edge of collapse. And so it was quite terrifying. And yet the same time, it was also a bit surreal. It seemed like something out of a Kafka episode, you know, because the walls seemed to be breathing and coming alive. I wanted to tell that story for all its kind of surreal power. But then I also wanted to talk about what happened when I left Jackson Heights, which the day after Sandy had passed, was back to functioning just as normal and we had power and you know, people were unloading food and the local supermarkets, and everything seemed completely fine. I then wanted to talk about traveling to Staten Island. I was chair at the time and so after a couple of days, even though the power was just getting back up at College of Staten Island, the dean called us back in to try and get the department running again. And you know, because of the nature of precarious labor in the CUNY system, we had adjuncts from far and wide. We had students from all over the city. But particularly, as I’ve said at the outset, many students who live on Staten Island, who’d been really damaged by the hurricane personally. And then I wanted to tell some other stories as well. I wanted to tell the story of a colleague who lived in downtown and who had survived 9/11, and then been displaced by Hurricane Sandy and watched the stormwaters rising and been without power for a week or so after Hurricane Sandy. And then tell the story of someone whom I interviewed who lived in Red Hook and was in this community that was flooded out. She’s African American, her son’s car was completely destroyed and the community really had to band together around this place where she worked, which was a kind of community organization called Red Hook Initiative that began serving food to people in the public housing projects in Red Hook, which is the biggest public housing project in all of Brooklyn. And people lost their power, which meant they couldn’t travel out of their apartments. They couldn’t get medicine. They were without heat because the boilers which are in the basement, you know, got flooded and destroyed. So you often had, you know, elderly people freezing in the cold, unable to access diabetes medicine or something like that. So people really, were at peril for their lives. So being able to tell these different kinds of stories, I think, it was a way I wanted to draw people into the narrative, and connect with them by telling stories that were engaging and upsetting, but at the same time, to illustrate the broader points I wanted to make throughout the book, which had to do with these ways in which climate extremes are impacting very extremely unequal cities and how those two things interact with one another. So yeah, telling that story was a way of getting at those things in a very visceral way that I hoped would make people understand and make them care.
Ashley: Yeah, it took me about two years to research and about two years to write, although I didn’t stop the researching while I was writing. So yeah, it was about a four-year project total. But it was a big departure for me. I’m an English professor, postcolonial studies scholar by training, so I’m used to reading literary text and what other scholars say about them and then writing my own opinion about it, you know, not interviewing people. So that was both challenging and really, really exciting. And yeah, I had fun, for instance, going to meet the mayor of South Miami and having him show me the water coming up in his backyard and, you know, explain to me why this was significant. And then being able to tell those stories. It was great fun to do that. You know, putting narratives together is actually quite fun, even while it can be quite challenging to create a weave of personal narrative of interviews, of research, of like putting a lot of scientific research in lay person’s terms and sort of shuffling backwards and forwards between all those different registers. So yeah, it was definitely a challenging experience for me to write the book, but it was also extremely pleasing. And, you know, always in the background, I had the idea of writing in a way that would engage people. I was immensely lucky to be trained by, or to be around, great scholars of postcolonial studies like Edward Said, and Rob Nixon, and Anne McClintock for whom the importance of writing in a kind of vernacular voice that could connect with people was always primary and very clear. So while I’ve tried to do that in my previous books, I think in this one I took that to the furthest extreme. And so it was both the most challenging but also the most fun to write, even though it’s clearly about a very upsetting topic. Yeah, nonetheless, kind of making the urgency of the issue and the way that people are trying to think about it on the ground clear to people, was something that was you know, engaging to do.
Elaine: How do you tell your students, how do you tell your, you know, people who are dearest to you, your children, your child, about climate change, which is in a way really terrifying, almost paralyzing subject. So how do you in a way scale down this fairly abstract, also dehumanizing, demoralizing scale of climate change for younger generations.
Ashley: Well, I often get asked whether I’m hopeful or how I keep hope alive. One has to, given the climate denialism, one has to be frank. And it’s not just figures like Trump, you know, even the science is always behind, in terms of its projections, you know, for a whole variety of reasons, right. So, you know, projections about sea level melt in Antarctica weren’t even included in IPCC documents because the scientists weren’t sure about the rate of the melt. So they basically just said, okay, so we just won’t factor the Antarctic ice sheets into our calculations for sea level rise, because of the kind of institutional nature of the IPCC, and the fact that it’s intergovernmental and they could be attacked if their science wasn’t exactly right. And so even the science is very conservative. So you have to constantly be saying, yes, it’s more apocalyptic than you think. While at the same time saying, well, you know, don’t despair, don’t go home and just watch TV or whatever you do when you feel as if there’s no hope. So I guess, you know, I sometimes have recourse to tell personal stories and that has to do with the fact that I’m from South Africa, and my family’s response to apartheid when I was young was to put blinkers on and pretend that it wasn’t happening. And then we left South Africa in order to kind of escape the trauma of apartheid essentially. And the fact that there was universal white male conscription and all these wars going on in the border. And because of that, I didn’t get to be part of the struggle against apartheid. And so for me, on a personal level, the struggle against the climate crisis feels like a kind of, a kind of moment of reckoning that is of even greater amplitude than the struggle against apartheid. You know, the protagonists and the evil doers are just as clear, if not more clear, than in the era of apartheid. the stakes are so much greater. I mean, I really think we are talking about the feasibility for much life on the planet in the medium term being at stake. And in the short term, you know, populations being targeted for genocide who have historically been targeted for precisely that.
Ashley: And we get to be part of that titanic struggle and think about radically new and different futures. We have to think about them. Because we can’t just keep going the way we’ve been going. You know, capitalism is not working, not just politically and economically for the vast majority of people, but it’s chewing up the planet that it depends on. And so we absolutely have to think about completely different ways of living. And I want to emphasize that that is an incredibly exciting struggle to be part of because we get to connect with other people and fight that struggle. Not that it’s easy or not discouraging sometimes, but it’s also a struggle for emancipation, which is incredibly moving to be part of, and a struggle for different futures that is very exciting to contemplate and help to forge. So that’s how I respond to this kind of question of how to keep going and how to make sense of things and not be despairing.
Ashley: I think the message is that there’s so many different scales of political struggle that one can engage in. What we tend to get told by the dominant media, by the dominant kind of system and its ideologies is the way to go is to recycle more, right? Like, you know, engage in some individual form of consumerist politics or you know, greener consumerist politics. And I don’t want to poopoo recycling, although of course there’s a global political economy of recycling and you know that’s highly problematic. But, do I think it would be a good thing if everyone in New York City composted and went vegan? Yes, I do! However, there has to be a bigger kind of shift. And I think that there’s a lot of exciting political ferment right now and all sorts of different scales, you know. So whether it’s figuring out how to set up a solo cooperative in the building or the neighborhood that you live in, or you know joining DSA in your city, and fighting for a green new deal in your city with your city council, or fighting for a national green new deal, you know, joining your local labor union, if you’re not in a union, you know, and trying to shift labor unions and their mentality because that’s one of still the most important kind of forms of popular power is through labor unions. And we keep losing there, and the labor union leadership is on the side of fossil capitalism at the moment. There are amazing unions like the nurses’ union that have been really trailblazing and shifting away from fossil capitalism, but the sector as a whole could do much better. Yeah there are so many different kinds of struggles that one can engage in. And so I think figuring out where to plug in and being aware that there are a lot of movements right now that are bubbling up, and that you just need to find a way to connect and get in motion and that the feeling of hope and of capacity as an individual and as you know, a popular force against climate destruction and fossil capitalism comes from that engaging in movement and solidarity. I think that’s important to keep in mind and to engage in. So that’s, that’s what I have to say, just to you know, make those kinds of connections and figure out how to get involved, is really key. [END]