How might humanists, social scientists, and natural scientists do “research that matters and matters politically” in the Anthropocene? In these two episodes, Lesley Green invites us to inhabit the diverse ecologies, violent colonial histories, neoliberal logics, and possible futurities from within South Africa. Green discusses teaching and her on-the-ground work with graduate students; theoretical engagements with post/decolonial and feminist scholars from Aimé Cesaire to Isabelle Stengers and Donna Haraway; ongoing collaborations with chemists, biologists, and geologists in Cape Town; and the urgent need for a critical paradigm shift that emphasizes the “social” rather than the calculable in scientific practices. Green focuses on the “relation,” arguing that studies of climate change cannot be disconnected from histories of capitalism and colonialism, and the interactions of living/nonliving ecologies.
Green is an interdisciplinary theorist and activist based at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. She teaches in the department of Anthropology and directs the Environmental Humanities South, an initiative that combines science and technology studies, postcolonial and feminist theory, and biogeochemical approaches to effect policy interventions in the face of urgent environmental crises in South Africa today.
Green’s book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa, is published by and available at Duke University Press and Wits University Press.
Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #7, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa.
[Green reading from her new book “Rock | Water | Life”]
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic.
I’m Lesley Green, I’m a professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, and I’m also director of Environmental Humanities South, which is a collective of social scientists and humanists and troublemakers (laughs), who like to do research that matters and that matters politically. And a lot of what we do is tackle neoliberal assumptions about climate change and urban metabolism, urban ecologies. We are people who really try to work at the interstices, the mud between solid and liquid and the mist between liquid and gas. You know, those are the spaces that we really inhabit. And those are often the kinds of spaces that are not inhabited neatly or easily by environmental management sciences. Not that they’re not part of environmental sciences, but not part of environmental management sciences. And that’s a key distinction to make in the work that we do here.
So, I was delighted recently when I was meeting with a city official and he said to me I was, “I was a little cautious of meeting with you.” I said, why is that? He said, “Well, your reputation in the city is feisty!” (laughs)
That left me roaring with laughter! But, uh, you know, I did read them seven paragraphs from the constitution the last time I met with them. All of which had to do with freedom of information. (laughs).
04:34 TEACHING THE ANTHROPOCENE
There’s two courses I teach that I absolutely love.
The first is “Researching the Anthropocene”, which I’ve taught since 2015. And that’s been a project of thinking with, and introducing students from the global South, mainly Africa to what it means to think in and of, and with this era that some call the “Anthropocene” and that’s been absolutely fascinating. And it’s been a really interesting project to be teaching the theory, which largely comes from the global North. You know, most Anthropocene writing has come from the global North. And “What does that mean in Africa?” is the question that we’ve been thinking through and, you know, having taught this class now for six years in a row it’s been just fascinating because at this point, we have students in that class from fifteen different African countries.
And that’s been just wonderful and at the same time, really sobering, which is a light word to use. I could use a much stronger word to think about the effects of this Anthropocene in Africa, and what to do about it, and the short fallings of the kinds of climate sciences as environmental management sciences formulated within a neoliberal economy, and the kinds of difficulties that they make. So, all of our students are writing as if they would like to make some kind of policy intervention. That’s evolved, that wasn’t what we started out trying to do.
The more we’ve done that, the more we began to realize that to do policy intervention work as a researcher is about paradigm shift—and what that paradigm shift is and what it might be is the core of what we do. It’s not easy-going because a lot of colleagues in the environmental management sciences are not willing to engage. I was told recently by one that my H-index was too low for him to speak to me about racism in the sciences (laughs). So, he sent back to me and said, “Your H-index is such and such, I’m not prepared to have this discussion with you.” So, the H index has become a big match in the family. We discuss everything, prior to any discussion, we interrogate our respective H-indexes! (laughs) So, yeah, you know, you’ve got to learn to laugh a lot, and paradigm shift work is not easy. But it is a whole lot of fun because we can laugh, and we don’t have to take seriously the language of neoliberal thinking in the environmental management sciences. And I think that’s what makes it a whole lot of fun.
But at the same time, it’s really sobering to hear what our graduate students are experiencing and addressing in the areas where they, for the most part have grown up, and working in the languages, that for the most part, is their first languages and realizing the extents to which climate change is affecting Africa, not just as a climate event, but as an event of capitalism. That’s the key.
08:12 TEACHING SCIENCE, NATURE, DEMOCRACY
The second is a graduate course called “Science, Nature, Democracy”, in which we work with students around case studies of policy change or situations where science is really important in governance. Now, you in the US are busy dealing with COVID and the science of COVID, in Kansas, you’re dealing with creation science. Well, you know, a couple of years ago, we dealt with a president who was not prepared to accept virus science, you know, virology, who argued that HIV was a syndrome, not a virus. And of course, we had all those struggles around HIV and AIDS treatments. So fortunately, that, through a huge political struggle, was defeated. But at the same time, there was a huge backlash because that introduction to science being questioned within parliament was really about a very poorly formulated intervention in the name of Indigenous science and Indigenous knowledge studies, which really saw and situated science as a matter of identity and while matters of identity might have a great deal to do with how you do your science and what questions you choose. Your identity doesn’t change, whether you’re dealing with a virus or a syndrome, you know, if there’s a virus you’re dealing with a virus, and it needs to be treated as such. But because indigenous knowledge got such a bad rep through that, it fomented this most extraordinary reaction from a very hardline hardcore science, what I would call a scientistic approach as opposed to a scientific approach, you know, where scientistic approaches, ironically, do precisely what they criticize the indigenous knowledge folks of doing, which is creating an identity-based politics.
So, you know, scientism, by contrast to science, is what I would situate as a very authoritarian approach to doing science. The assumption that there is only one question that can only be answered in one way—and that is it, without understanding that the context of your questions determines the answers that you’re going to get. The objects that you look for determine the numbers that you get. And the question is always, are you looking for the right things, in what you’re looking at, and, you know, what might matter to one person and be the definitive concern, would not be that of much of a concern to another person. And so, you can get very different scientific pictures of the same situation. And when that’s not in discussion, you have a real problem in democracy because you end up having people accusing one another of doing facts versus values. Before you know it, you’re in the old land of objectivity versus subjectivity, which is an unwinnable argument on those terms.
So, the course “Science, Nature, Democracy” is about teaching graduates to look at contests and conflicts over sciences in democratic spaces. And to begin to understand that the concerns shape the questions, and once you understand what the concerns are, you can understand why particular kinds of questions are being asked. And then you’ve got a hope of actually being able to mediate and understand that what matters to a fisher is not necessarily what matters to a scientist, and it can be that the most extraordinary range of things. What matters to a scientist, for example, might be a thirty- to fifty-year timeframe. What matters to the official might be spending their budget within a twelve-month cycle. The political masters might be thinking in a five-year electoral cycle. And, you know, they have these concerns, which are not tabled. And so, you often end up talking about very different things, using the same language. You might be talking about water or fish, but your concerns and your questions and your agenda is very, very different.
The work of Isabelle Stengers and the work of Bruno Latour have been particularly important in that. But also, the work of Aimé Cesaire, postcolonial thinker, who was the high school teacher of Frantz Fanon, and the kind of work that had to be done to challenge a particular version of the real, that the early postcolonial thinkers had to do, and which in many senses we’re up against right now, because we have what I would call “colonialism mark two,” which is a global neoliberal discourse and the financialization of the natural world.
“Science, Nature, Democracy” is a course where students really have to address very particular challenges of science and decision-making in relation to science and to understand how conflicts come about in the name of science and how to try to resolve them without getting into the familiar terrain of I’m speaking the truth, and you’re not, or the alternative that, which is that your identity makes your version untrue, which is where things get stuck in the Indigenous knowledge versus science dichotomy.
14:07 HISTORY OF DAMS, BODIES, LAWS
In this particular historical moment, I think we have come full circle. In the 1650s, when the Dutch settled here in Cape Town to create a refreshment station. It was in the aftermath of many decades, if not a century of battles between seafarers and local people. You know, we have a history of battles going on and their first intervention…in fact, their first plan, which was drafted in the 1630s was to create a dam—a walled dam. That would be the place at which the barrels would be filled for the passing ships. But the issue with the dam is that when water is not being cleaned by the reeds and the natural ecosystem, when the water’s not filtering, when you take water out of its filtering system, what you have to replace that with is law and policing and soldiers. And in order to get the water out of a dam, unless you’ve got a very careful infrastructure, which they did not plan for, you have to be able to roll barrels up and down, in this case some stairs and who was going to roll those barrels. But the drawing that was created by the Dutch was that of a black body rolling a barrel up and down. So, in order to get water out of this structure that they were going to build from the very beginning, they were going to rely on law and labor and policing and cement, you know, creating this hard boundary between liquid and solid to govern the water that they wanted to extract, which of course was a shocking thing to the local people, the Kwe.
South Africa is a very, very dry country. And the Western Cape, this place where I live, have got a number of rivers and a number of lakes. So, it’s a tiny corner of the country that’s very green and very wet. And so, to waste water is a shocking thing. In order to extract you needed a global company. So, the Dutch East India Company, so you had a global multinational acquiring water by building infrastructure to extract in a manner that was going to drive out local people. And indeed, what they had built was not in the end, that particular dam, what they built was a fort—and the fort was around a well.
What we have here at the moment is a struggle with global multinational companies who are supposedly assisting the municipalities to design and manage utilities like water utilities. And you have a neoliberal government, which is very, you know, sometimes I feel like the Western Cape is run by the Republicans. It’s the equivalent kind of politics. There’s a willingness to cover over realities using anything from fake advertising, social media to spin doctoring companies because you’ve got an oligarchy that is driving up costs of water hugely.
And so, since the drought, climate change—since our drought in 2018, where Cape Town was almost, the line went, the first major city in the world to run out of water. You know, there’ve been huge infrastructure bills taken up by international, multinational corporates, which means the costs of water have become prohibitive. And so, there’s this burgeoning struggle over the increasing costs of water. I know of — through the research that I’m doing — fourteen places in the city, and eleven of those, where communities have either led criminal charges against the city, or have got a court case, you know, civil suit for environmental damage. So, there’s the most extraordinary pollution of water bodies that comes from these wastewater treatment plants, where they discharge water into the rivers. So, they’re poisoning the rivers, which, at every level, is problematic, from the health to ecosystems, to ocean health, and algal blooms.
One of the places around which the struggle has really come to the fore is around the desalination plants, because desalination plants were brought in to produce water very, very quickly against the advice of the World Bank, which said, do not build small projects. So, the desalination plants were built against economic advice and against scientific advice because they were built on one side of the city, very close to a marine sewer outfall, which puts between forty and fifty megaliters of untreated sewage into the ocean every day. And on the other side of the ocean, you’ve got multiple wastewater treatment plants feeding into rivers, which then go into the ocean, causing gradual, but significant increase in algal blooms. So, you know, those projects pushed water prices up significantly. They were hugely expensive. And they didn’t actually succeed because there were so many periods where the desalination plants were not able to work, and they were closed at one point for two whole months in the summer because that was when the algal bloom was most intense. And so, if you look at the figures of the outputs, the actual figures of the output are quite low compared to what they were expected to output. So those were, um, the one that is subject to litigation, and the other two closed a month early, and a whole lot of spin doctoring went around that.
20:19 CAPITALISM AND CLIMATE CHANGE
This whole process is teaching me a huge amount about the relationship between capital, infrastructure, and climate change and the new forms of extractivism, which are very much in the ascent. And I think that, you know, much as the Dutch sent the Dutch East India company, an international company, to colonize the Cape to get its water, so we’re up against a whole lot of international companies of various descriptions that are involved in the water trade. And that water trade is now listed on the global stock exchange. And whereas for the previous couple of years, you’ve been able to invest in water funds, now as of September this year  water is now listed as a commodity on the stock exchange. So, we’re entering a very, very different era. And a great deal of that has to do with disaster capitalism in relation to the Anthropocene.
One of the major interventions that we are really trying to make in the research that we do is to put the case that climate change is not the only thing we need to be attending to. If we’re dealing with the Anthropocene, we need to be dealing with capitalism and extractivism, that is putting matter out of place of all kinds, not just carbon, but our nitrogen cycle is out of whack. You know, sewage is full of nitrogens, which are like fertilizers and they do extraordinary things to different species. I mean, the algal blooms are a case in point. Many of these algal blooms, not all of them, but many of them are fantastic little creatures that have the characteristics of both a plant and an animal, in the sense that they can both ingest microbes and make a meal of the bacteria and viruses that are around, and they can photosynthesize. So, they can do both in terms of securing nutrition. So, if you put them in a situation where there’s sewage, they go crazy because they’ve got all the microbes they could possibly want to eat, and you’re giving them the nitrogen, which comes from urine, which acts like a fertilizer. And they bloom. So, an algal bloom that should be quite small then can get completely out of hand. So, you know, in the last four or five decades, Cape Town has really been struggling with increased algal blooms.
The scientific study of the oceans that is done in the area tends not to want to look at the circulation of nitrogens. You know, they want to look at social ecological systems, which is such a problematic concept, you know, empirically, where is the system? You know, there isn’t a social ecological system that you can work with. So, what the desalination situation has taught us is that climate change closes the loop in absolutely unexpected ways, because the idea that you can have a pipe going to sea, that’s going to carry the sewage, you know, the intestinal wastes and pharmaceutical wastes and factory wastes and shop floor wastes of billions of people. And that pipe goes to a place where it just disperses is ludicrous because we live on this planet and matter circulates, I mean, Lucretius spoke about this in ancient Rome, right?
We have a science that is attending to objects, not to relations. I mean, that’s a very broad statement, but the focus has been on what you can count. And so, the paradigm shift that we need to be making, and that I think really can and should come from much closer working relationship between the social sciences, the humanities and the natural sciences has to do with saying, hold on a minute, we’ve been so focused on counting objects, um, in the kind of work that we do, in the kinds of sciences that are, that have been done, we’ve been so focused on counting objects.
What about the relationships?
25:17 WE ARE NOT EXTRATERRESTRIALS!
The idea that you can put a pipe in an ocean and disperse of sewage, and it’s not going to come back to you, or anyone is what I would call an extraterrestrial proposition. It is managing a city as if you’re an extraterrestrial. We’re not extraterrestrials. So, you know, along with Bruno Latour and others, you know, we need a paradigm shift that is about coming home onto this earth and living in this earth and part of its systems. And yet our cities for the most part have been designed as if we are extraterrestrials, that we can live and our wastes, whether they’re plastic wastes or intestinal wastes, are just going to go somewhere that won’t bother us. But, you know, the Anthropocene is about recognizing that that is not the case and recognizing that, “Oh my goodness, the plastic waste that I throw out, you know, the plastic straw that I use for three minutes to get liquid, twenty centimeters from a cup, to my mouth has got a geological lifespan of, you know, 10,000 years or more. I don’t know what it is, but you know, it’s going to be around for 10,000 years.” You know, we need to be thinking about these kinds of temporalities, these kinds of relationships.
26:44 RELATIONSHIPS, TEMPORALITIES, PROCESSES
Thinking relationally means we start to introduce time and processes, geological processes in particular, to our thinking about policy and our thinking about society. Now, you know, I’ve spoken a lot about scientists, but I think social scientists for the most part are as guilty of this, you know, writing about society as if we have no need to think about water, as if we have no need to think about nitrogen or carbon. And you know, the exciting thing about working in the Environmental Humanities is there are so many wonderful scholars who are thinking about precisely those things. Let’s look at the flows. Let’s look at the circulations, let’s look at the material relations that arise from social interactions. And that changes the game completely.
And I had a wonderful conversation with a very dear colleague who’s a chemist. And we were talking about teaching science to first years. And he said, “Well, you know, when I teach science to first years, I show them, there’s a website where you have a sliding scale from the smallest known particle of the universe, right through to the scale of the known universe, right? And there’s a sliding thing and it starts with the figure of a human and that human of course is a man. So, it starts with the figure of a man. And then you can slide down one side into the tiniest particle, and you can slide up to the biggest scale of the known universe. And he presents that to his science students and says, “That’s what we study. We study anything from that scale to that scale, but nowhere in that is relations.”
And so, you know, right from the get go, science is not thinking about relationships and relationalities. And I think that’s where it becomes very, very exciting to start to work with Environmental Humanities and bring them into dialogue with some of the postcolonial thinkers like Aimé Cesaire, whose dictum was, “colonization is thingification.” You know, colonization is the absence of the relation. Everything becomes treated as an object and as an extractable.
29:54 THINGS HAVE HISTORIES, ONTOLOGIES, AND POLITICS
I think that governance and the beautiful literature on ontologies are really important to bring together. I think that’s one of the fields of really useful intervention that I can see environmental humanities graduates taking a lead, and as they graduate, and go into worlds of consultancy or professional research, to be able to show a scholar who is set in a particular way, that your way of thinking about pipes isn’t neutral and doesn’t come from nowhere. But it has a particular history to it. The pipe has a particular history, and it has a particular way of thinking about a world, you know, and to be able to show a governing official who believes that they are operating in the name of neutrality because they use the language of neoliberalism. To be able to show that official, that there’s, the ideas that they’re thinking with are not neutral, that they have a history and that they come from somewhere. That is critical and very, very generative because at the moment, at which you can equip somebody to recognize that this idea of neutrality, this idea of universal truth, is part of the problem. And that just empirically, what you see blocks your sight. You’re not able to see past what blinds, that’s the basis of the idea of occults and astronomy. When the moon occults Venus, you can’t see. So, to occult means that what you’re seeing prevents you quite literally from seeing what’s behind it.
One of my greatest hopes is that the work of the environmental humanities, globally, will be able to shift the knowledge frames that governing officials bring, because those are political and cosmological in themselves, as Isabelle Stengers has written so beautifully about cosmopolitics. So, to be able to say to an engineer: Hold on a minute, you want to use cement, which has a 50-year lifespan to hold fracking liquids in one place and prevent them from mixing with an aquifer in perpetuity? Well, you know, that cement only is viable for 50 years before it needs to be replaced. And I know that, so what’s wrong with this picture? You know, can you see that you have an unreasonable faith in cement? And so, does an environmental regulator who’s making laws for regulating on the basis of, of thickness of cement or thickness of pipe or whatever, without thinking of, of the timeframe of permanence.
And so to be able to point out to attorneys or, you know, through a drafting law, there’s a belief system at work here. There’s a cosmological fiction in your faith in cement. There’s a cosmological fiction in your assumption that the pipe goes nowhere. You know, these are moments I think of tremendous power because that’s when people can really stop in their tracks and think, and, you know, learning to think is key. The route to that is through the imagination and laughter.
I think that the risk with some of the ontological debates is that they risk becoming culture mark two. So, Derrida’s idea of hauntologies becomes interesting for that reason. You know, what, what histories haunt ideas, what histories haunt ways of thinking. It also introduces a temporal dimension and because the moment at which ontologies become culturalism mark two, we are in deep trouble. You know, then we’re back in all the old traps.
33:54 CULTURALISM AT THE CORE OF APARTHEID
Culturalism is something that in South Africa we had to really grapple with in the 1980s when I was a graduate student and 1990s, in my defense, I was actually still a graduate student in the 1990s, not only in the 80s! But anyway, in apartheid South Africa, the worldview that was given was that apartheid is benign. That it’s for the good of people. And that it’s godly, you know, this is the sort of stuff I grew up with as a white South African kid, it’s godly, it’s what God wants. You know, Noah’s sons, you know, Shem and Ham or however that story goes with, you know, that God wants whites to be separated from Blacks, you know, so that was kind of my early years. And then, encountering Newsweek at the dentist, you begin to realize that actually there’s another way to see the world! Why are these people so opposed to us? What have we done wrong? Can’t they see that we’re right? You know, and then, you know, slowly, through reading King Lear, beginning to realize that there’s political ways of seeing the world, there’s realities, there’s madness, there’s insanity, there’s sorcery.
I spent my first year at the University of Port Elizabeth, which was one of the bastions of apartheid. It was one of apartheid’s great universities. Remember the 20-story building in the middle of a nature reserve? You know, you were not allowed to talk politics if you spoke anything about even parliamentary politics, parliamentary opposition politics. Now, remember this was in the time when the ANC was banned. African National Congress, Nelson Mandela’s party.
Anthropology per the Afrikaaner apartheid system was Volkskunde, which built on the German romantic culturalist, fascist idea of separate cultures, right? And, and so German-inspired Volkskunde anthropology was all about the study of cultures. And anthropology was central to the apartheid state. And so, it was justified scientifically, scientific racism. And the central idea of apartheid was that there were these different cultures: Casa, Zulu, Venda, Swazi, et cetera, et cetera. And that God’s mandate (laughs) to the Afrikaaner people was, and of course the English, went along for the ride was to keep the races and the cultures separate.
Culturalism was at the core of apartheid. And a huge amount of the work of critical scholarship in South Africa in the 1980s was working with postmodernism to unmake the idea of bounded culture. So, in South Africa, we’re particularly sensitive to the idea of culturalism, coming back as, you know, separated ethnic groups as if they are meaningful concepts, which of course they’re not. You know, they have some use, but only a very limited kind of a use. I think one of the risks of some of the ontological debate is to recreate, reinvent culturalism by other means, because it’s such a deeply rooted idea.
The way that ontologies get appropriated is at times risky. And so, I think one has to guard against that. And so, it’s easier for me to think ontology in relation to neoliberalism and cosmopolitics. So, Bruno Latour’s idea, for example, he talks about the three goddess sisters of reason. Why must they be goddesses? I don’t know, but I called them the three gods of reason, which was technical efficiency, scientific objectivity, and economic profitability. You know, those are the three gods of reason in what he called the knowledge economy, which of course is the neoliberal moment. I think a huge part of the work that we can do very usefully, is to draw attention to that as a sorcery of its own. And so, in that sense, the language of ontology is very useful. So, you know, and I think that far too much of the environmental management science literature is encumbered and enamored of processes of governance, bureaucratic technoscientific governance, which of course, reduces everything to data objects enmeshed in algorithms. And one has lost the relational in politics. And I think that’s part of the backlash against the left. It’s not so much the politics of the left, but the brutalization of public life under technoscientific governance. And you know, I think this swing to the right is an attempt to recreate political relationships, which have been erased by technoscientific governance.
For me as a South African, one of the fascinating things about post-apartheid South Africa is the ways in which neoliberal governance has made us all equally worthless. Post-apartheid governance does that. And the scale of corruption in South Africa is testimony to the lack of political discourse and debate and discussion and thought about what it means to have redistribution outside of modes of territory and property and the modes of capitalism that have destroyed, and which were central to racism. So, the need really, again, is for paradigm shifts everywhere. So, we’ve got a long multi-decade struggle ahead of us, all of us to build a better presence on this planet. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s really exciting to see so many graduates being able to work with these ideas productively.
40:00 DREAM TEAM OF BIOGEOSOCIOCHEMISTRY
There’s this fabulous field called Biogeochemistry. And I want to put the social into that. Could we do a biogeosociochemistry? Or how do we begin to link life and non-life and society, you know? I mean, Beth Povinelli beautifully brings together the, problematizes the life/non-life distinction in her book Geontologies. And Michel Serres brought together “Biogea” in one of his last books. You know, if I had no constraints at all, if I had a huge budget to create a research team, I would create it outside of any of the particular faculties not only for the disciplinary space, but also because universities are so stuck in financial systems that operate within the faculties. You know, these become impossible situations to try to operate outside of them. So, you know, to me, it has to operate outside of a faculty. Outside of humanities or outside of science, law, commerce, you know, it needs to stand as its own. I mean, Leeds University, for example, has got a wonderful Dean of interdisciplinary studies. You know, what a wonderful thing to do, to create a Dean of interdisciplinary studies whose brief is to imagine and think with scholars about how to address the challenges.
I think looking at matter in its, across the spectrum of life and non-life is key. To have a team that can think politically, that can think with rigorous empirical science, asking questions with activists who are struggling around particular challenges, and to be able to be critical of the extractivist moment, and not just critical of, “Oh, they shouldn’t do this, mine here, or there,” but to actually, think globally in terms of global financial flows in the manner that, David Graeber did, in the manner that, Thomas Piketty does to criticize the global flows of capital where resources ended up in shell companies, in Panama Islands and stuff, and British Virgin islands, which then has a hurricane and gets no support from the people whose back it’s providing a tax haven for, to really be able to rethink economics.
So who would a dream team be? I would put in Kate Raworth with her Doughnut Economics. Beth Povinelli, who would compel people to think outside of life and non-life binaries. I would want to bring in environmental chemists who can think with us on toxic flows to bring in ecologists who are thoughtful about the ways in which ecologies are being changed by temperatures, changed by chemicals, by traumas, as you mentioned. So that we’re thinking not just in terms of matter, but we’re thinking in terms of relations and what does it take to support and enable local habitability?
I’ve been doing some work recently with the wonderful Steve Banwart at Leeds university, who is a critical zone theorist, soil scientist by training, but a critical zone theorist who’s also worked with Bruno and Bruno’s exhibition on critical zones. And, our question together is how do we link critical zone theory, which is a beautiful interdisciplinary space, but in the sciences? So, it brings together biology and geology, to put it crudely. It’s looking at what makes habitability in a particular area from bedrock to treetop. So, it’s looking at climate change in a local way, rather than at a global way. I think that’s wonderful because you’ve got a scale that is not colonial, but you’re not part of the globalizing climate movement that, it’s not beholden to those. I mean, obviously it’s in dialogue with those, but it’s agendas and research are not beholden to them. It’s looking at local issues, but it’s also looking in very, very thoughtful ways at the state of contemporary capitalism and things like tree cover. So, you know, what’s the relationship between economics and tree cover? What’s the relationship between tree cover and flows of water? Are the streams, have the streams stopped flowing because all the trees have been cut down? And so, you’re really looking in very thoughtful ways at the relationship between climate and capital and habitability. All of those things are engaging with the biological, the geological and the societal together and making very thoughtful policy interventions at multiple levels. And we could work for example, at an African Union level. You know, that also means that it’s decades before that is at the local level. So, to try to work at the local level is also key. But at the same time, if my city politics is anything to go by, that’s also very, very difficult terrain to work in, but we have to work in it. So, I’ve kind of gotten used to the idea that I’m going to be the witch, the bad girl, the fiesty one. (laughs)
I think that a big part of this kind of a team would also include a very, very strong Paolo Freirian adult education person who can really ensure that in working with communities, whether it’s a geologist or a chemist or a social scientist that we’re learning together with the communities that are addressing the problems that they face. And there’s a very real temporal aspect to that. And that is that climate change has us all in situations that our models don’t prepare us for. The climate models don’t always work. Those yearly forecasts don’t always work because climate change is so real. So, it’s those that are really at the forefront of dealing with changes in an environment that are the people that have the most to say.
So the locus of expertise of knowledge has shifted. And I think it’s really, really important to work with that. So, I think more and more, we academics are methodological specialists who can facilitate the creation of arguments that can persuade people in policy arenas by doing really solid, rigorous sciences, but our questions need to come from elsewhere.
We need to be sure that we’re defining the questions that we’re posing, and are questions that local people understand. And, and it makes sense to them, because if it doesn’t make sense to local people, you know, it’s not necessary. It’s not going to be helpful. It’s going to be just another consultancy that ends up, lording it over people in this new feudalist situation we find ourselves in that calls itself neoliberalism.
47:05 CLOSING CREDITS
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, Angelica Calabrese, Basil Soper, Rashida Kamal, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Welcome to the podcast of Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. Thank you for joining us. In Episode #8, we are delighted to feature LESLEY GREEN in a recording made in November 2020 from Cape Town in South Africa. This is the second of two parts.
00:20 GROWING UP IN THE EASTERN CAPE
I came from a part of South Africa called the Eastern Cape, which is obviously on the other side of South Africa and come from settler stock, in the sense that on both sides, both my maternal and paternal lines, go back to the 1820s when the British settled the Eastern Cape and colonized the Eastern Cape. And somehow in the history of South Africa, there’s something about the Eastern Cape that it’s really always struggled. And I think part of the situation there is that it’s always trying to be a big city. So, it’s always trying to build itself to look like Los Angeles or, you know, it’s got a campus that at one point was the biggest campus area in the Southern hemisphere. In the middle of a nature reserve, you’ve got a 20-story block with four elevators going up and down at high speed because that’s what you do in a big city. My experience of growing up there was that we were never central to the country, we were always the parochial cousins. Coming to Cape town to study, it took me years to actually feel like I could actually understand from an inside way, what was being spoken about.
Part of that was coming from Port Elizabeth. But part of that was also because a lot of the social theory that we were speaking of and engaging in again, came from the North. My experience of it, and I have many colleagues who may disagree with me: it becomes quite dogmatic because you read, you know, the big names of scholars in the North, and you must think like they do. And my experience of the way that social science was being spoken of was often that it became quite dogmatic. It wasn’t grounded. So people would be talking of things in ways that are about using words fashionably and sounding very erudite, but I couldn’t make the connection between them.
Particularly come 2015, the year we launched Environmental Humanities, was also the year in which that was the beginning of the students’ decolonial struggles here in Cape Town. I had to rethink everything about who I am as a white South African, what it is to teach as a white academic, what it is to listen, and learning to listen to how people piece things together was really transformative. I learned slowly, I was taught in fact by my students quite slowly, how important it was to be able to tell stories. And that social theory is a way of putting the world together much as a story does.
03:23 TEACHING AND STORYTELLING FROM THE SOUTH
My teaching became more and more confident in using a classroom space or seminar space as a space in which people could ground themselves and tell their stories. And one of the practices I would have was to say, okay, remember, when you walked in here, you walked in with your feet. Can you feel your feet? You’re sitting here in this class, feel your feet. You did not walk in here as a head and leave your body at the door. You know, you’re here as a whole person, you’ve come with experiences, you’ve come with knowledge. Let’s work with that.
And one of the most astounding classroom discussions we had was with my very wonderful PhD student who is from Lesotho. We were reading Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet (2007). She was reading all about the dogs. At one point she just roared with laughter and she said, you know in Lesotho, a dog is a dog. She said, I can’t cope with this. This is not where I come from. That was the funny part of things.
But then there was also the more serious thing, which is, you know, some of the students saying, you know, as a black person living in South Africa. I have another former PhD student who’s now teaching anthropology in Namibia—he said, you know, I’ve spent my whole life as a black man trying to prove that I am human. And now you want me to speak in the language of the posthuman. I can’t do that.
So, we together had to learn to speak from our experiences and over time, teaching has become more and more a case of, of storytelling, much as we’re speaking now, telling stories about people. And it really has become a fundamental practice for me in teaching to say to students: I do not ever ask you to learn a theory for the sake of a theory. How does this connect with your world? How does it connect with what you’re studying in your dissertation? We enter into texts from the point of view of a person’s experience. What stories come up for you when you read this text, what does it connect to? Is there something, and, you know, somebody might have a vague piece of something that’s vaguely connecting, and then you work with that. And suddenly the work of theory has opened up something that they hadn’t seen before. The social theory, particularly in the environmental humanities is about learning to see differently. I mean, the arts of paying attention, as you and Anna and others have spoken about so wonderfully. Learning to tell stories, learning to speak about what you see, learning to name what you see. When you can do that, people begin to say, “Oh my goodness, I can actually speak about the world in my own way.”
Helping people find their own voice as a writer, writing a dissertation, has become fundamental to what we do. Some of my best moments have been working with students who come into the program having gone through some kind of social ecological systems training, and they’re full of economic theory, economic words, the language of neoliberalism, sustainability, development, you know, all the discourse and jargon that goes with that systems, et cetera. And I said to them, but where do you see that system empirically? Show me where you see that. So what are we talking about? So you get them to rethink the paradigm with which they’ve come in, and get them to start piecing together what they see—tack from the macro to the micro, you know, or the other way around, start with the micro and situate that. Situate, situate, you’re situating everything. And so it becomes this process of connecting. That’s incredibly empowering to see people begin to be able to do that in their own worlds and with our life experiences.
07:40 CAN’T YOU SEE THE WIDER PICTURE HERE?
These are really powerful moments where African students, graduates, can engage with theory and both speak back to it and say this fits, no that doesn’t fit, but also fundamentally experience that the way that the environmental humanities work is often written in the storytelling mode. I’m thinking of Thom van Dooren’s work, for example, or Donna Haraway’s stories, you know tell stories that take you into the big picture that enable you to speak of the macro in relation to the micro. That’s fundamental. And then also that’s politically crucial because one of the ways in which neoliberal consultancies disempower people is to send out social science research consultants who ask them to speak of their perceptions of reality. Now, I can’t say that without wiggling my head in dismay! It’s so insulting! What is your perception of reality? The assumption there is that I have the truth, you know, I have the facts and you have the perceptions. And then what that consultant is able to do for a very large fee is enable the city council or whoever has commissioned them to tick a box to say, we’ve consulted the people whose experience of the world and its brutalities in this extractivist moment and this wasteful moment — I mean, the opposite of extraction is deposition and dumping.
Many of the folks that we work with live either in one extractivist space or the other, and often the two connect. We need to say to social scientists who are involved in that kind of research: “This is deeply insulting what you’re doing and it’s disempowering,” and to teach a cohort of graduates to say, “help people to speak of their experiences.” Imagine you’re sitting at the table with the conservationist over there, the local people that you’ve worked with over there, you’re the only one who speaks a common language. Imagine that you are conveying what the one is experiencing to the other. The most extraordinary work is coming out of that. I mean, someone working in Mozambique has been working with a community that’s been the guardians of a mountain for decades and decades and decades since the Mozambican war. The mountain gets discovered by conservationists on Google Earth. And the next thing, there’s this whole huge suite of NGOs that gets created to protect this mountain from who? From local people, you know, not from the local plantations or from the GM seeds which come with the herbicides and pesticides, but from local people. And so the conversation there for an Environmental Humanities scholar, to me is to say: “Hey, conservationists, we really appreciate what you’re doing. We share your concern for this world, but can you see that the pesticides that come with these GM seeds are killing the butterflies, they’re killing the bees, they’re killing the ants. The frogs are disappearing. The fertilizers making algal blooms and the ponds and streams, you know. Can you see that there’s a wider picture here?
11:18 ROCK | WATER | LIFE
Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020) is a book that I started writing in 2012. And at the time, I was cycling a lot around the peninsula and I would cycle quite long distances around the peninsula whenever the weekend weather permitted. And the thing about a bicycle is, its wheels are going round and round. You know, every inch, the wheels are touching and there’s something very grounding about this. And I would cycle past the baboon monitors or cycle past the ocean breaking into the beach.
It was striking for me how integrated the experience was of cycling, being in place. As I cycled, I was so aware also that I was cycling through histories. You know, there would be the huts where there were forced removals, or there would be sites that I knew were archeological sites or historical sites. And that if we didn’t have a way of bringing into one conversation, those different temporalities, and we didn’t have a way of bringing into conversation, all those different experiences of place, which are typically spoken about as different disciplines. So, you know, even to think about a fence crossing a peninsula from one ocean to the other. You know, when you start to actually look, what is connected here? My question to myself was, could I write about the connections, the relations, that were not making it into contemporary political discourse or scholarly discourse or environmental management discourses?
This is an extract that I’m about to read from my book, Rock | Water | Life: Ecology and Humanities for a Decolonial South Africa (Duke/Wits 2020). And the introduction is “Different questions, Different answers,” and it begins this way:
Baboons. Porcupines. Otters. Lynx. African genet cats. Crayfish. Sharks.
Dusky dolphins. Killer whales.
Southern right whales.
Owls. Fish eagles.
Sugarbirds. Sunbirds. Oystercatchers.
African penguins. Black-shouldered
kites. Rock kestrels.
Harlequin snakes. Puff adders. Rinkhals. Cape cobras. Mole snakes.
Tortoises. Baboon spiders. Scorpions.
Stick insects. Cicadas. Praying mantis.
Copper blue butterflies.
These are some of the 351 air-breathing creatures that traverse the edges of Cape Town, South Africa, amid the suburban islands of the south peninsula around which the Indian Ocean swirls into the Atlantic. A fence crosses from one ocean to the other, marking the edge of Cape Point Nature Reserve. The fence stops the eland, the bontebok, the rooibokke, the ostriches, and the law-abiding. To pass through the gate into the reserve, I need an annual Wild Card that costs me more than a ten-year U.S. visa, plus an extra card for my bicycle, and extra if I were snorkelling or fishing or staying overnight. When I applied for my Wild Card, I was also invited to marry a staffer of South African National Parks, since the online system had no variable for a solo parent with children. The staff member on the line from Pretoria suggested that I put in the identity number of the desk attendant under “spouse.” I declined the offer of nuptials, however generous, so according to South African National Parks records, I’m married to my sister.
She [Lesley’s sister] was horrified when she learned that that was in the book! That was really my tongue-in-cheek poke at those who really believe data to be true!
17:28 ABOUT THE BOOK’S CHAPTERS AND TEMPORALITIES
So the book has six chapters, each of which is a different case study. I divided those case studies into three different timeframes. And those timeframes are really about not just past, present and future because that would be ludicrous because I want you to think about the present past and the present futures. So I called Part One “Pasts Present” to try to think ecology, the everything-ness that I was cycling through in relation to histories. The second part I called “Present Futures” where I wanted to focus on emerging approaches to thinking, to scholarship, to political discourse that seem to me to have really something very important to contribute to how we form a better future, you know, ways of getting through this Anthropocene with its terrible histories of extractivism, as they have manifested here in the Cape of Storms, which is also the Western Cape. And the third part is “Futures Imperfect” where I’m really commenting on the environmental management sciences as I see them being played out in city policy.
The first chapter was about baboon management. And the second chapter was about shifting from a management of the ocean as if it’s separate from humans and as if sewage goes nowhere into the ocean, to thinking about what does it mean to actually manage the ocean as an integrated space? What is an urban ocean when it’s receiving human waste, it’s alongside the city and you’ve got changes in ocean ecologies, algal blooms which are impacting lobsters and fish. How do we bring all of those together?
Each of the chapters is a chapter that tries to explore the work that you would find in every aspect of a university library. So for example, if I’m writing about water in Cape Town, I want not just the ecological literature or the historical literature, but I want to have known that I’ve consulted some of the engineering and infrastructure literature. There’s health there. There’s histories. There’s law. There’s contemporary commerce and business. So, you know, what would each faculty be bringing to each chapter in a way was my challenge to myself. How could I actually think about what I would call “extradisciplinary” in the sense of the knowledges that coloniality has completely passed by. So throughout, I sought to make a space in which there was a serious engagement with what might be described as Indigenous thought or African thought. So, I really tried to approach each question from multiple disciplines, multiple perspectives, but also what would not be in the university library as well.
So Cape Town’s water has a strong engagement with the Kwe. The second chapter “Fracking the Karoo,” I really wanted to go back to again, the Kwe and San, accounts of what it is to live in that semi-desert and what it might mean to frack that Karoo. Because I was unhappy with the presentation of the Karoo by environmentalists as a pristine landscape, when it was clearly a dramatically disturbed landscape, disturbed by settler colonialism and disturbed by sheep farming which has overgrazed it. And so I felt that they were setting themselves up for rebuttal in their argument. It was an argument that might sound romantic, but at the end of the day, it was not going to be an argument that had succeeded. So, you know, in each case I’m trying to withdraw from the prevailing environmentalist dogmas, try to think outside of the prevailing views and offer a different perspective.
22:30 PRESENT FUTURES
In Part Two, “Present Futures,” I thought about the struggle to think with Indigenous knowledges as a way of working towards what Bernard Stiegler would call the neg-Anthropocene, what negates the Anthropocene. Of course the problem was at the University of Cape Town, there was this huge conflagration around Indigenous knowledge as part of the decolonial student movement. And again, it was a failed argument. And so again, I wanted to try to understand what is so problematic about that argument, what is useful in it, but what was flawed in it? Where was it falling into a trap? And so how can students who are engaging with decoloniality and want to think with and about Indigenous knowledges, how can they do so without falling into the familiar traps of truth versus falsehood, Western versus Africa. That’s about shifting, changing the concern through which one addresses a particular situation.
Chapter Four is a chapter on struggles for land and farming. What puzzled me is that the ways in which land and farming is being addressed in South African political discourse, is through land as property and territory and ownership, and yet so much of that farmland that is now contested and needs restitutive responses nationally from government and individuals and corporates to resolve the fact that 90% of black South Africa was dispossessed of their land by 1913. You can’t go forward without some kind of restitution on that, and yet the restitution is being thought of territorially and those farms have got such severely damaged soil. So again, there’s a trap there. What is called in South Africa an “emerging farmer,” i.e., a Black farmer who has been able to get access to farmland on the basis of restitution, where that farmer is then going to be faced with degraded soils, emptied aquifers, and unable to farm. And then you’re left with a situation where the answer is: ah, black farmers can’t farm, which is, you know, frequently said. And so again, it was the question of, how do we turn this question? How do we turn this discussion around with, and a focus on soil working with some farm activists from the Cape Town farms and others who’ve fought court battles over soil and aquifers here in Cape Town. So, you know, learning with and from them about what it means to think as a person in and of the earth, rather than just as another potential owner of land.
26:00 FUTURES IMPERFECT
Part Three, “Futures Imperfect,” was an attempt to really take issue with the current baboon management protocols in the city of Cape Town. Baboons are troublesome animals. They always have been, they always will be, but they’re also animals that do not have to live in enmity with humans. And there’s a strong history of them living in societies from the, you know, recorded as far ago as the Egyptian pyramids, where there’s some hieroglyphic images of baboons that are serving as police to stop a thief, stealing fruit from a market or something. And San rock paintings of baboons as part of society, and many San stories, which say be careful of a baboon, a baboon is a tricky fellow. But which offer guidance in terms of ways of thinking about living with and alongside baboons in lively, neighborly relationships with a troublesome being, much as one would do with a troublesome neighbor, right? And the city’s current policy has paid hardly any attention to human behavior, and they have this most absurd ludicrous system of creating a monthly inventory of baboon crimes. So, I called this zoo-criminology! Where they have this monthly sheet, and each baboon is assessed by the monitors on a daily basis, and gets a tick or a cross or a code on their daily performance sheet. Did they enter a car? Did they enter an occupied car? Did they break and enter into a home? Did they enter into an occupied home? So you’ve got these different baboon crimes, which have never been explained to the baboons, right? And, when it comes up against this conundrum of how do you persuade a baboon not to cross the road? I mean, as you know, if you’ve ever tried to explain to a chicken, why not to cross the road? Why does the baboon cross the road? The baboon can’t be told not to cross a road! A baboon doesn’t understand that a road is something that can’t be crossed, but, you know, so you’ve got this masculinist, militarist bunch of primatologists advising baboon management without having ever read Donna Haraway, or any of the other feminist primatologists. Despite decades of feminist primatology, you know, I don’t think they’ve ever exposed any of their students to any of that because it doesn’t come up in their primatology dissertations. That they’re advising the city on how to manage these baboons with paintballs along roads, because it’s easy for them to get along those roads with their vehicles rather than working in a more difficult terrain, which is keeping the baboons up in the mountain where they would have access to mountain food.
There’s no baboon crimes for humans. If you leave your trashcan full of lovely food and not locked, you know, a baboon is going to open it and then the baboon would get ticked off as a bad animal. You know, if a baboon gets three strikes, three crimes listed in a month, it’s then sent to a committee to assess whether or not it can be culled. So that is an assessment of baboon killability. And, you know, besides the masculinist patriarchal primatology behind us, it’s just ludicrous! It’s a joke. A couple of years ago I was in Kruger Park, which is a huge nature reserve up north in South Africa, and looking at the baboon troupes, I was astonished because they were so calm and it made me realize the extent to which these baboons are permanently traumatized with paintball guns and so on. Paint balls hurt as you know, anybody’s ever played paintball knows. So, you know, that was about questioning the reigning assumptions about baboon management, fire paintball guns, and where that came from.
30:10 DOING SCIENCES DIFFERENTLY
What I tried to do in all of those chapters was think through what does this say about how we could do Environmental Management Sciences differently, how we could think of a human and humane ecological suite of relationships and practices. And so the conclusion is where I really sought to, I suppose, sketch a new book which was really sketching what I’d learned from across all of the different chapters. So the questions that I had about this paradigm of social ecological systems in which social de facto remains separate conceptually from ecological and through financialized ecologies, you get this economic logic mediating them. You know, I’ve offered a critique of that rethinking scientific authority. One of the things that struck me is the extent to which White power, White authority, White political authority in South Africa has regrouped itself around nature. So White authority, White political power is almost unassailable in the name of green for all the reasons that Bruno Latour talks about where he says, science stands outside of parliament and comes and tells parliament what is going on. And there are no questions asked. And so the absolute necessity in South Africa of democratizing how we do science, particularly environmental management, not because it’s a moral or ethical thing to do, but because science needs it, it’s good science to think through your situatedness. And it’s good science to be publicly accountable and to think with publics rather than over them.
32:25 ECOPOLITICS: REFUSING NEUTRAL ENVIRONMENTALISM
So much of environmentalism subsists in the little prefix “en-” which means what is around you. I want to say, ‘je suis terrain,’ you know, “I am earth.” From that perspective, it does not make sense to only consider environment to be that which exists behind a nature reserve fence. And “green” in South Africa overwhelmingly means nature reserves behind fences.
I guess I got to a point where I just began to feel that I could never atone for the sins of the word “environment.” It wasn’t a redeemable word in any way. I needed to find something different. And “eco” sounds interesting because we’re thinking about ecological relations, I’ll come back to that. It’s always political. There is no environmentalism that is not political. It’s always a matter of political struggle to address these things. To say ecopolitics is to refuse to be the neutral environmentalist. As someone once said to me, a PhD that someone gave up on, she found herself measuring the bites of a certain bug on leaves, when she said, “why am I measuring the bites of this bug on leaves? I can’t do this anymore!” And she walked away. This is so ridiculous! I refuse to be the neutral environmentalist and to be the good girl that plays that game. So it’s always political. And particularly in South Africa, where land has always been a space of intense contestation. Let me just dispense with this word environmentalist, it’s too loaded.
There’s so much environmental struggle, ecopolitical struggle in South Africa that’s not even recognized by mainstream environmentalists as environmental. And that is the struggle of largely Black rural people, mostly women who are at the forefront of that, given the gender politics of the rural areas. And who are struggling against mining companies who want to come and destroy some of the only Black-owned farmland that’s left in South Africa to mine coal or to mine titanium.
And when I say political struggles there, you know, there’ve been two assassinations, one of which was two weeks ago. A woman who’s just a grandma but who found herself fighting a coal mining company that wants to expand into her fields, leaving a gaping open cast pit where she has known fields and plants and cattle roaming and streams, you know, this dust pit. So she was assassinated in her home with five shots direct to the chest on a Thursday evening. Fikile Ntshangase.
I think that the inability of the South African Green Movement to recognize those as environmental struggles says everything I need to say as to why we need to dispense with the word “environmental,” you know. One more reason. And that is “eco” comes from this word oikos you know, the Greek word oikos, which many, including myself, have written about in quasi-romantic tones about how oikos means household, but I’m thinking more and more about this. I’ve finally come to realize — post-publication, darn, didn’t make it into the book! — but finally came to realize that the oikos for the Greeks was the opposite of the polis. The polis was the place of men in their togas laying on the stairs discoursing with Socrates. That was the polis. The oikos was the space of who? Of women, slaves, and animals. The excluded. And we still struggle with that, the legacy and inheritance of the distinction between oikos and polis. So we have to find a way to bring them together. And again, the word ecopolitics does that.
38:05 PARTIAL CONNECTIONS & EQUIVOCATIONS
Possibly one of the most important scholars whose work assists me and many of our students here to think that through is Marisol de la Cadeña. Because I don’t think we’re going to be able to create a new world without binaries by imposing binaries. It’s this or it’s that. What Marisol does so beautifully in her engagement with Marilyn Strathern and Donna Haraway and Isabelle Stengers and others is to offer this idea of partial connections. And that also builds on Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s idea of equivocation that we can be talking about the same thing, apparently, water, but actually be talking about very different things. The one is talking about hydrology and megalitres, and the other is talking about what it’s like to be able to sit down and have a Sunday picnic in a nice place, right? They’re very different things. And yet, you know, sometimes you’re not aware that you’re talking about different things.
39:30 FIRE, MUD, MIST
Modernity has persuaded us that we live among solid, liquid, or gas, right? Perhaps the next book would be kind of, you know, fire, mud, and mist or something like that! Because those are all the apocalyptic imageries. Why? Because they’re so alien to modernity, you know, where we think we’ve got these states of matter controlled, but we don’t.
Thank you for joining us at the Multispecies Worldbuilding Lab. For more about the lab, please find us on the web at multispeciesworldbuilding.com or please subscribe.
You can also find us on social media at #multispeciespod.
This episode was collaboratively produced by Josh Allen, Wanda Acosta, Joe Hazan, Hannah Tardie, and Elaine Gan. MWL is supported by NYU Green Grants, NYU Experimental Humanities & Social Engagement, and Newsstand Studio at Rockefeller Center in New York City.
Thank you for listening!
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.